October 1979: I was still, or again, (depending on which way you looked at it) studying at The Queen’s College Oxford. The college offered me the exalted and ridiculous-sounding position of Vir Probatus (Junior Dean) if I abandoned the slum that was 41 Bullingdon Road and moved into James Stirling’s (in)famous Florey Building on St Clement’s. As I’d have the biggest room in the building, rent-free, and a free phone line to boot, it was a no-brainer. And the underfloor heating and huge windows offered an excellent environment for cultivating aromatic, jagged-leafed plants. I’d lived there as an undergraduate, so the building itself did not come as a shock. Much has been written about its shortcomings so I’ll move on…
One of the mature students at the Florey was Denis, who was writing a DPhil on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina manuscripts. He was amusing, kind and very urbane, and became like an uncle to me. There wasn’t much he did not know, in particular about human nature. He had two teenage children by his first wife and a little boy by his second wife, who taught History of Art at the University of Essex. (Later they created an author called Natalya Lowndes and wrote a series of novels together.) Denis and I spent many an hour in the poky-cosy Half Moon in St Clement’s, at that time managed, if that is the right word, by the Leaves brothers.
Regular patrons included Steve, owner of Winston’s, the night club next door, and Pat, manager of the Private (i.e. sex mags and videos) Shop in Cowley Road. It offered real ale, had no fruit machine or jukebox, and hosted live music on Sunday afternoons.
October 1982: I’d moved on to a flat in Temple Cowley but Denis, my regular drinking partner, was still at the Florey. He needed to do a week’s research in Moscow libraries, and the cheapest and easiest way of doing it was to book an Intourist package, which meant sharing a room. Never having been to Russia, I was happy to tag along. A couple of years earlier the BBC had launched a series called Russian Language and People. It boasted a beautiful brunette presenter called Tanya Feifer and a beautiful blonde interviewer called Tatyana Vedeneyeva. (By one of life’s strange coincidences, another presenter, Edward Ochagavia, is a near neighbour of mine in Herne Hill.) Into each episode was inserted a snippet of the tacky love story До свидания, лето with Victor the ordinary-looking taxi driver and a fantastically beautiful student, Olga.
It was early November, and snowing in a picturesque way, when we cleared passport control at Шереметьево. My visa was numbered 007, but I didn’t think it was a good idea to make a joke of it. Just grimly stare ahead. At last we arrived at our shabby hotel, a few minutes’ walk from Red Square. The following evening I went on my own to the Bolshoi Ballet: something most Muscovites could never afford to do. The plan was to meet Denis afterwards at his friends’ flat. I hailed a taxi at the Palace of Congresses, indicating the address Denis had written out neatly in Russian. Victor grunted and I got in, trying to make small talk in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish … to no avail. There didn’t seem much point trying Portuguese, Latin or Greek. I stuck with the few words of Russian I’d learned. He didn’t want my roubles and I had no dollars, so I paid with a BiC pen.
Хорошо, спасибо, До свидания!
I found myself in an ill-lit street of run-down tenements, like the half-remembered Glasgow of my childhood. I climbed the staircase in trepidation; what would happen when someone opened the door? What if Denis wasn’t there or I’d come to the wrong place? But Denis did come to the door. In the little flat were a middle-aged couple and a girl of about 20. She was slim with long dark hair like Tanya and, I couldn’t help but notice, very pretty. Everyone was smoking black Georgian cigarettes. I took a chair, and a large Столи́чная was poured for me. So began an interminable evening of music, “conversation” and toasting. Their favourite record was “The Sideboard Song” by Chas and Dave, which Denis had brought with him on his last trip. Perhaps the A-side, “Rabbit”, was played out. I contributed “Things We Said Today” by The Beatles, on a very bad, untunable guitar. More beer and vodka and picked cucumbers. More songs.
Luckily for me the pretty girl, Katya, was fluent in Spanish. Uncle Yuri would tell a joke and everyone would laugh; so did I, out of politeness. Denis would explain it to me in English and I’d laugh again. Katya would then ask me in Spanish what he’d said. I would explain it to her and she’d translate for her mother. She’d tell Denis, in Russian, who would then tell me, in English, that he’d said something quite different. One joke could keep us going for 20 minutes. When they did get through, the Russian jokes were good: they exhibited a bitter sarcasm that we Britons found familiar.
What we didn’t know was that more or less as we’d touched down at Sheremetyovo airport, Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev was giving up the ghost. Soon the city-centre was in lock-down. It was snowing hard; the Kremlin was shut, the national museums were shut, and taxis could not get across town. The USSR was in mourning and all you got on the radio and TV was Chopin and Beethoven. We were moved out of our characterful old hotel with its tea-ladies and into a soulless one near the VDNH exhibition centre. Every available room in central Moscow would be needed for the dignitaries coming to pay their respects. We were on a full board deal, but most evenings Denis and I took the metro to the flat, bringing food we’d bought for hard currency at the Beriozka. The two grateful women cooked for us. In the afternoons Katya showed me the sights, and we trudged through the snow, rain and gloom for hours on end. She really was very attractive, if a bit skinny — probably because she wasn’t getting much to eat. I kissed her once, in Spanish.
Obviously Katya and I would never meet again
Except that a couple of years later Katya managed to get a job in Riga as a translator, then met and married a solid Englishman called Smith, and made her escape to London. News of her arrival filtered through to me. One evening they joined us for dinner round the kitchen table in Brixton. Then she lost her aura of mystery and I lost her address.