Moscow in the Dark

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 with 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. dirty mags and videos) Shop in Cowley Road. It had real ale, 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 fantastically beautiful brunette presenter called Tanya Feifer and a fantastically 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. 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 next 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.

Cold War: best film of 2018?

In 1983, as previously confessed, I was living in east Oxford grinding away slowly at my thesis. One of the other post-grads I got to know was Paul (a Pole with a German passport), who was studying at Wolfson and rumoured to be writing a thesis on Hölderlin. We became good friends. He had a finely-tuned sense of irony (something I’d previously seen at work in Russia) and saw that in every tragedy there is usually an element of farce and vice versa. I tickled him with my one-liner, “Life is like a school dinner: it’s vile, it’s disgusting and there isn’t enough of it”.

We both appreciated black humour. He joked that going to Tesco’s at 6pm on a Saturday (back in those days supermarkets shut on Sundays) reminded him of home: all those empty shelves. He observed that the expression “to sweep something under the carpet” could never have caught on in Poland, because not only did few Polish people have carpets, but if they had, they’d think that their primary purpose was for covering up dirt. He was keen, too, on the corniest of puns. Once we “Polished off” a bottle of bison grass vodka. On another occasion it was Finlandia: “It said Finnish on the label, so we did.” That sort of thing.

I had too many girlfriends whereas Paul didn’t seem to have one – not that he wasn’t interested in girls (quite the reverse), but none seemed to have really taken his fancy. It was odd, because he was tall, slim and handsome, as well as multi-lingual and multi-talented. His principal love was the cinema, and he spent a lot of time with like-minded people. Eventually he packed in his thesis, like so many before and since, and ran off to Italy to teach English. It amused him that none of his students seemed to notice, or perhaps care, that he had a Polish name. His letters suggested that he found Italian women, and the way Italian society just about held together, interesting.

Italy is a country of experts…

In June 1984 the peripatetic Pole returned to Oxford from Turin. We drank vodka into the wee hours. A little later his mother, almost crippled by her early career as a ballerina, came for a brief visit. She seemed a lovely and dignified lady.

A few weeks later I got my first job in London and I went on my way full of misplaced hope and excitement. Paul was also heading for The Smoke. He found a house in “Befnall” Green belonging to a film director called Tomasz Pobóg Malinowski; we could lodge there while Tomasz was away for six months in Poland (or somewhere). That September we duly moved into Beck Road, London E8, which was to set us back all of £100 a month.

Most of the street had been annexed by an artists’ housing association. (It was “Bohemian”, not to say pretentious. The Miners’ Strike was in full swing and everyone seemed to support working-class hero Arthur Scargill.) I’m grateful that I met some interesting and talented people, like Rachel Portman and Mikey Cuddihy and Helen Chadwick, but I never really fitted in. Mikey sent me this lovely Christmas card: Paul’s on the right.

Autumn 1984 had been fine and warm but the following winter was the coldest in London since 1963; we were frozen stiff and reliant upon a single portable gas heater. Disconcertingly, Paul turned up at 3am on 3 January from Wuppertal, where he’d been visiting his mother in hospital. I thought we were being burgled. I found living with Paul a mixed blessing. He was a lovely bloke: funny, warm and generous, but untidy and forgetful. (Mind you, I was not without fault. On one occasion I came home late and grabbed a glass of water that happened to be sitting invitingly on the kitchen table; in the morning I discovered I had drunk Paul’s contact lenses). To be fair, he had a lot on his mind and he was highly creative; whereas I got bogged down in menial tasks like putting out the bins and remembering to buy food and gas for the heater. (I become obsessed with physical neatness whenever my emotional life is a shambles, which it certainly was.) We were both quite intense and worked long hours but, intellectuals or not, we used to relax by giggling at Minder and Only Fools and Horses. We fantasised about casting Nicholas Lyndhurst in a film – surely he could not have commanded a huge fee. When funds allowed, we would go to Daquise in South Kensington and splurge for not much money, or head to the Cat and Mutton round the corner and enjoyed a traditional East End lock-in. Today it is a noted gastropub in super-trendy London Fields.

While we were shivering in Beck Road, Paul was writing for an excellent (and now defunct) cinema magazine called Stills, edited by Nicolas Kent who, like me, had been at Queen’s. I contributed the occasional short film review, whilst Paul was despatched overseas to interview Miloš Forman or Federico Fellini or Krzysztof Zanussi. His breakthrough came in February 1985 when he landed a General Traineeship with the BBC. By one of “those coincidences” he was soon working with Paul Campbell, virtuoso drummer in an Oxford band I’d played in a few years before, called One For The Wall. In due course the BBC (somehow) let him make documentaries and he began to get noticed.

The following incident gives an insight into an aspect of Paul’s character. One fine evening in May 1985 we were at my new flat in Clapham in front of the TV to watch Liverpool vs Juventus in the Final of the European Cup. The match was being played, for some reason, at the run-down Heysel Stadium in Brussels. However, kick-off was delayed, and it soon became clear why… The death toll eventually reached 39. Everyone watching was shocked but it affected Paul to the extent that he had to rush off to the toilet to be sick. He could see that real people, albeit people that he didn’t know, were dying.

Paul is fiercely intelligent and articulate, but also a kind and gentle person

Some years later, after marrying Irina, Paul and his family moved from north London to Boars Hill, Oxford (an opportunity for more punning) so we saw very little of each other, although I followed his career with great interest. His BBC documentaries continued to get screened on TV. Then he won a BAFTA in 2000 for his first feature, Last Resort.

In 2004 I went to a pre-release screening of My Summer of Love (the film that launched the career of Emily Blunt), and finally had the chance to see Paul and congratulate him on his huge achievement. Another BAFTA followed. Then he moved to France.

In 2013 he moved back to Poland and made Ida, which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

With Cold War (2018) – inspired by his parents’ passionate and self-destructive relationship – his reputation is established as one of the most talented auteur directors (along with Alfonso Cuarón) at work today. The awards are piling up and he has another Oscar nomination. I had the pleasure of seeing him again this week (for the first time in 15 years) at a Q&A session at the Curzon Bloomsbury. I had to remember that he’s no longer the German/English/French “Paul” we used to know him by, but Paweł Pawlikowski, as his parents intended. It suits him and it sounds better too.

The Lost Thesis

A couple of months ago I was introduced to the new Chair of the Camberwell Society, who also teaches Modern Languages at a local school. It turned out he had studied Spanish at Exeter University; we talked about the former professor, Maurice Hemingway, who had examined my MLitt thesis many years ago. A few days later I found myself reading an email in which I was described as “Colin Wight, who has done much work on Pardo Bazán”. Had I really?

Last week I found my thesis on Emilia Pardo Bazán. It wasn’t actually lost; I knew it was knocking around the house somewhere. For the first time in three decades I read the whole thing, expecting it to be deadly boring. In fact it was about as lively as the subject-matter could allow. As for the scholarship, it sounded convincing but I can’t say for sure.

It was another life in another world

I had been living and working in Essex, and not really enjoying it. I had no burning desire to do postgraduate research, but for personal reasons I wanted to return to Oxford. My former Spanish tutor at Queen’s suggested a research subject and I said OK, as long as I can get a grant. In October 1978 I left my job in Upminster and moved back to Oxford.

***

I felt a bit of a charlatan since I was surrounded by extremely intelligent people who were (or appeared to be) more motivated and productive than I was. The years rolled on and the finishing line was still not in sight. The more I found out the harder it got. It may well be different for science post-grads but I saw a lot of humanities students pack it in. They had lost interest in their subject and faith in academia, with its cliques and bitchiness; their grants ran out and they needed a job; they became neurotic, depressed or plain bored. It wasn’t just me who’d lost his way… but I was never totally committed in the first place. But I refuse to give up on something once I’ve started on it so I carried on, like an actor in a play he already knows is a turkey. I was now 28 years old.

By hook or by crook I had to finish the damned thing and get away

By early 1983 I was, at long last, working flat out. At night I wrote; at noon I delivered a sheaf to my typist, Stephanie, and she handed a sheaf back to me; in the afternoon I corrected it; at night I wrote some more. I hardly had time to eat and I was running hither and thither like a lunatic. By the time I’d handed in my thesis and managed to get a couple of job interviews I was pushing 30 and pretty well skint. Then came my viva: a gruesome meeting of minds with my two distinguished examiners, conducted in academic dress: one of them had never examined a thesis while the other had never passed one. The inquisitors decided to “refer” mine over a few minor infractions. My supervisor was furious and made a complaint. But I had to rewrite two paragraphs (I can’t remember what they were about) and have it retyped, photocopied and rebound, and then resubmitted. I could ill afford the expense at the time, and it took me six months to get round to it. I felt very sorry for myself. But whatever.

Post-graduate study may be the hardest thing I have ever done, although that is not saying a lot. It’s not the thousands of hours of research and the laborious writing process; it’s the fact that you have to do it on your own. The people who are doing what you’re doing aren’t part of your team. If anything, they are in competition with you. Some people may love it, but I wasn’t one of them.

Was it worth it? Financially… no, not at all. It did little to help my subsequent career, but I suppose it all worked out OK in the end. And, to be honest, it wasn’t all bad at the time either. I spent a lot of time in Spain and I was able to indulge my passion for film, books, music and girls. But the worry about how and when I was finally going to earn a living cast a shadow over everything.

When I finally moved to London to begin work on the bottom rung of the publishing ladder (starting salary: £6,000 per annum), it was with an enormous sense of relief. My colleagues were sociable, normal human beings; I was learning new things, and I even got paid at the end of every month. I never stopped being grateful for that.

So there it sits, back on its shelf: unloved and unread… but maybe of some use to someone, somewhere!

Rena Marshall and Rita Fraser

Once upon a time there were two little girls, Rena and Rita, born in Glasgow just a few months apart. They lived in Govan, within 100 yards of each other, started school on the same day and instantly became best friends. Every day they went to school arm in arm and came home arm in arm – except for once when they had a fight. But that was just for one day, and afterwards neither of them could even remember what it was about. They stayed best friends all the way through primary and secondary school until they left to start work at 15.

They made new friends at work and then drifted apart. One day, nearly 10 years after they’d hugged goodbye at school, they ran into each other in Saint Enoch’s Square. Both of them had got married and had a baby boy. They agreed to meet the following Wednesday. But that afternoon Rena decided to wash a woollen blanket, and afterwards she ran it through the mangle. Of course it got jammed and she spent a frantic hour trying to free it. Eventually she hurried off to meet her old friend, arriving late. But Rita never turned up. Or maybe she had arrived on time and got fed up waiting. Rena wrote to Rita to explain but she never received an answer, and the two never saw each other again.

Rena Marshall is my mother. Now 88, she told me about it last week and it made me ponder the fragility of friendships. I find it sad because it is the story of an (entirely avoidably) wrecked relationship.

I am still in touch with some of my old school pals, three of whom I see very regularly. But there are two in particular whom at various times I called my best friend. I have not seen either for over 30 years and there is no obvious reason for that. We drifted apart, as the saying goes, and I am not sure it is 100% my “fault”. I wish them both good health and happiness; I’d be surprised if they think about me at all. That seems to me to be normal and not necessarily a case for deep regret. All things come to an end. But to lose a good friend because of a silly misunderstanding or a bit of bad luck really is a shame. It is worth giving people the benefit of the doubt rather than looking for an opportunity to be aggrieved.

Ageing Rocker

I’d had enough of working for a living so I moved back to Oxford to be with my girlfriend. I joined Bernard’s band, together with my old schoolmate Andrew and our fellow housemate Wiff and a young drummer from New College called Paul. Then we added a female singer, a posh-sounding blonde called Jo, with a wonderful soprano voice. One For The Wall practised three of Bern’s songs and entered the Melody Maker Folk/Rock Contest in Oxford. Every other act was a parody of the Sex Pistols. We did not excel. The sound system was so basic, with no monitors, that I wrote to complain and we got a re-run at London’s City Polytechnic. (Jo later told me that one of the judges was Howard Goodall.) And we won! I remember driving back that night in Andy’s Mini up the M40 in the fog. It’s always a great feeling to win something.

Those silly love song lines have filled my head and turned my mind

One For The Wall progressed to the Melody Maker final in July at the Marquee Club. It was a filthy, sweaty dive in Wardour Street… but a legendary and iconic dive. The competition was won by Splodgenessabounds, who presently had a Top Ten hit with the epoch-defining “Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps Please”. Bern’s finely crafted, dramatic songs never stood much chance. But then again, maybe we just weren’t much good. Nevertheless, for the first and only time in my life, I briefly considered a career as a professional musician. Why not? It wasn’t that I had anything else to do, apart from chugging away at my thesis. And though I couldn’t read music or even play an instrument very well, the required standard didn’t seem to be very high. But I didn’t take that route after all. I went back to my boring thesis.

I have been rambling on about 1979. It’s now 40 years since we first got together and the band is still going (though we did take a 33-year break). Three members are now grandparents. Andy lives in Exeter, Jo and I are (by chance) near each other in south London and Bern’s still in Oxford. Life has certainly changed. So why bother driving hundreds of miles every month or so to spend two days cooped up in a studio?

The music is the obvious reason – Bernard has not lost his touch as a composer – and even though I am never going to find fame or fortune as a musician it is still a lot of fun. But for me, at any rate, it is as much about being part of a team. There is something special about that, and now I’ve “retired” it is something I would very much miss. Maybe other people are happy to be always working on their own. I can do that too, but the team ethos is something different. Here’s a studio rehearsal of “Planet of Our Dreams”. Jo: vocal; Bernard: piano and vocal; Andrew: bass; Colin: guitar.

The Microclimate of Staffordshire

Thursday afternoons at Birkenhead School were for playing at soldiers. Everyone was more or less obliged to join the Combined Cadet Force. We were fortunate, or perhaps unfortunate, to have a genuine, high-ranking ex-soldier as our CO: Lt. Col. Arthur N. Green (AKA The Ang).

Dad’s Army was one of the most popular programmes at the time. Walking to and from school dressed like a squaddie, when you clearly weren’t one, was almost as embarrassing as wearing a school cap the rest of the week. There were compensations: we got the opportunity to handle and fire weapons. There was an indoor rifle range across the road at the Chetwynd TA Centre, where we were taught one end of a Lee-Enfield from the other by Sergeant Major McLaughlin, known to all as “Fang” for his distinctive dentition. “Strip a rifle? You lot couldn’t strip a woman!” A little harsh on 16-year-olds… while demonstrating a rather old-fashioned attitude to the fair sex.

Every year there was a CCF summer camp. You had to give up a week of your holidays. I was under no illusions that it would be enjoyable. But if you got certain activities out of the way, you wouldn’t have to do them in term-time; plus, you got privileges in the Cadre – most obviously, a red beret and a uniform that almost fitted. If you had a girlfriend, real or imaginary, who might see you on your way home, such things had a value.

So it was off by coach to Blackshaw Moor (near Leek). It was late June, but you could have fooled me. It seemed like a godforsaken place at any season of the year. There were 30 of us, enough to make up two platoons and occupy two huts. There was no-one in my hut in whose company I would have chosen to spend longer than five minutes. There was blanket-boxing, Blanco and Brasso, square-bashing and PT, rifle-stripping and machine-gun practice, and field-craft and orienteering. 

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

One of the more demanding tasks we were set was a “night op”. This necessitated crawling across a field by moonlight, and labouring uphill through a wood to a hurricane lamp where two “NCOs” would be waiting. They were to give each of us upon our arrival (theoretically in pairs) a scrap of paper. These fragments, when assembled, were supposed to form a map or password… or something like that, I forget the details. We were taken to recce the site in the afternoon; the field was generously carpeted with cowpats, which I looked forward to leopard-crawling through in the dark. 

As night fell we returned to the field of action in two Bedford three-tonners. I began crawling through the cowpats, then ghost-walked successfully to the hurricane lamp in the wood. Not too bad; now for the return leg. Having lost my other half, I worked out a laborious way of returning via the dry-stone walls and fences of the field boundaries. It would take ages, but at least I’d eventually be heading in the right direction. I was cold, despite my long-johns, and it was starting to rain. I gave up trying to move stealthily; it took far too long. The “officers” tossed thunder-flashes at us to simulate artillery bombardment; it was genuinely scary.

Predictable, the exercise soon degenerated into a shambles. Some lads lost their sense of direction and headed away from the target, rather than towards it. When I eventually made it back to the Bedford I was surprised to see that I was only the fifth or sixth from our platoon to complete the task. Come midnight, whistles and flares signalled the end of the farce. Boys emerged from the gloom, limping. One had a broken arm, another a sprained ankle, others cuts to their heads, like extras from The Longest Day. Those of us who didn’t have to make a visit to North Staffs Royal Infirmary got a mug of cocoa and a lie-in. 

* * *

Two years passed… My mate Paul and I had read in the NME about the inaugural Buxton Rock Festival, which had hosted Steppenwolf, Wishbone Ash, Vinegar Joe and Family. Curved Air were also on the bill – but Sonja Kristina didn’t fancy singing in the freezing cold at 3am. Buxton was the North’s premier festival (in fact, it was the only one north of Reading). We decided to go to the second festival, so one Saturday morning in July 1973, together with Ray who worked at NatWest and owned an MG 1300, we set off full of enthusiasm.

What genius had decided to hold an open-air event in the area with the highest rainfall in England? We should have known what to expect from that CCF summer camp (as the two sites were only about 15 miles apart). The moorland site was exposed and cold, and it began to rain as soon as we got there. I remember seeing Canned Heat (we should have brought some), Edgar Broughton, Medicine Head and Alex Harvey, who gave a stirring rendition of “Saint Anthony”. 

Oh the temptations, oh the sensations

One band I was looking forward to seeing was the Groundhogs – but they refused to perform, as did Roy Wood. The entire audience, and some of the acts, were intimidated by a gang of Hell’s Angels who wandered about demanding money with menaces. Chuck Berry was headlining; we caught glimpses of him through the polythene sheet under which we were all huddling.

We spent almost as long trying to free the car from the mud as we did watching the bands. John Peel, MC on the day, wrote later that campaign medals should have been struck. We wouldn’t have missed it for the world.