So here are the murals, executed by a combined force of Dutch and Russian graffiti artists, which grace the area where you were staying in Moscow this summer.
The weather has been mild and springlike lately so you went to Brighton on Friday.
It rained. It also fogged and drizzled.
The gray sky hangs low, pressing you into the ground, opening out the horizon and forcing everything else to admit its insignificance.
Yet on this unpreposing canvas the reds and yellows of the trees glow. Green grass seems brighter. Buildings are whiter, and every little scrap of litter on the ground shines out in lurid advertisement of its former contents. There is no wind, and no chill in the air. Instead you are wrapped in a gentle soothing clagginess, fine drizzle misting your hair, which is soon warmed away as the fires are lit and bottles of beer are broached.
It is a distinctly autumnal kind of day.
Which is something to be savoured in Russia, a country where your favourite season lasts five minutes between the scorching heat of summer and the first snowfall.
This is also a distinctly Russian works day out.
First, of course, is the enforced dash through culture. A trip around the New Jerusalem Monastery, undergoing, in common with every other Russian Orthodox building at this time, extensive renovations. The money that is being spent on the hand-painted frescoes, re-plastered walls, gold-leafed cupolas and heavily-carved stonemasonry is a testament to just how popular religion becomes if it’s banned for 70-odd years.
Much like any other drug.
The highlight of the visit is a stone heralded as an exact 1:3 scale copy of the boulder which once covered the enterance of the tomb of Christ. A solemn precession of irritable foriegners, resentlful that this is taking up valuable drinking time, shuffle past, intoning “But how do they know?”
But then comes release. Into the park. Head for the windmill. Ignore the replica wooden peasents hut and chapel, ignore Patriach Nikon’s home-in-exile, ignore the riverside baptismal platform, ignore the colourful wishing trees with their penants of hankerchiefs, scarfs and plastic bags. Head straight for the beer.
But there is little time to relax, for the entertainment the Boss has laid on is spectacular. In the middle of a field, in the middle of the sodden Russian countryside, you are seranaded by a full brass band, complete with baton-twirling, bright-smiling majorettes in shocking blue and red uniforms. And then, still reeling from the incongruity of it all, the folk singers come on, persuade a gaggle of capering lads to take bread and salt, chivy the company into the spoon game, and start up the ever popular tunnel procession run, last seen played by teenagers on Red Square before a pop-concert.
And so to bed. Drunken staggering in the half-light, singing, whispering, collapsing.
Have twisted ankle.
Being without the Internet for twenty odd days as a result of the move to the new flat was bad, but being without a washing machine was far far worse.
This is because the washing machine is the single most useful invention ever.
It’s taken a while for you to realise this, of course.
When you were at university, trundling off to the local laundrette on a regular basis didn’t seem that awful. Oh, how foolishly carefree and young you were.
Then you spent a year in Russia in the late 1990s where most households survived without a washing machine, a laundrette or even a mangle.
You found this odd.
Considering that the classic dilemma of the Soviet woman was the need to participate fully in the workplace whilst simaultaneously doing all the housework, shopping and child rearing, you’d have though they would need all the help they could get.
In fact, the suspicion has occasionally crossed your mind that having bred the sort of titanically energetic woman that laughs in the face of domestic labour saving devices, this situation has given rise to a sort of onedownmanship where instead of keeping up with the Ivanovs, it’s the woman who blinks first and admits she can’t manage without assistance who loses the game.
Usually such uncharitable thoughts hit you when you had developed back ache from bending over the bath kneading your clothes or were covered in water after attempting to wring some of it out. The truth of it is probably more of a comment on the thickness of the glass ceiling in the USSR, which might put the woman to work, but wouldn’t have her in charge of something as important as import/ export criteria or manufacturing quotas. And clearly no non laundry cleaning man is going to admit the strategic importance of the washing machine.
You are still impressed by the number of female mathematicians and engineers in your mother’s, hell, your grandmother’s generation though.
Incidently, the moment you realised that Russia had become altogether too tame a place was when, while interviewing people for positions, the mention of the fact that prospective teachers’ flats wouldn’t contain such a contraption started to produce stunned horrified little silences rather than enthusiastic assurances that it was this sort of exotic experience that was the whole reason for applying to work in the Wild East.
However, you did at least recognise that you were operating from a position of smugness at this point as when you had moved in with B, he did have a washing machine. You suspect that your mother in law had, at some point, used her knowledge of her menfolk’s chronic technology fetish to good effect, in much the same way that the thrift instinct that kept your Dad wedded to a small black and white TV long long after everyone else on the street had a colour set could sometimes be overcome if you dangled the opportunity to play with new gadgetry in front of him.
Although since your Father likes his stuff prototypnic, this was hardly ever much of an improvement. Yes, your family had a ZX81 as its personal computer for much of the 80s.
Anyway, clearly, you thought, your days of subsisting without a washing machine were over. This was before you spent a year in a one room basement (sorry, ‘garden’) flat (with shower room) in Kensington on your return to the UK, where the washing machines were over the other side of a busy road and coin operated. There are many things wrong with living in a one room basement (sorry, ‘garden’) flat (with shower room) on a busy road in Kensington, but this was one of the more irksome ones. The day you moved into your new place, you spent a happy couple of hours sitting on the floor of the kitchen, watching your clothes slosh around in your very own machine with a beatific smile.
However, you had not realised the depths of desperation to which you could sink until the day after you had moved into the flat next door.
At first glance, moving next door seemed like a good idea. It has an extra bedroom for the Star, a balcony for your herbs and space in the kitchen for an actual table. And obviously, going next door meant not having to pack up in quite the same way that going to the other end of the country would do. Especially when B realised that if you took the window out of its frame in one flat, you could easily pass everything except the furniture across to a tall person (your Brother) standing in the new flat.
Unfortunately, this, combined with the fact that while B had made energetic use of the loft in the old flat, the new flat’s loft wasn’t yet fit for purpose, meant that when you and the Star finally entered your new home, you found much of it looking as though it was auditioning for one of the more frighteningly cluttered episodes of How Clean is Your House. It was standing room only, dwarfed by bin bags of clothes, HiFi separates and furniture from both the old and the new flat.
You spent the first week holed up in the bedroom hiding from the mess.
But this was nothing to the despair you nearly had when, investigatingan unpleasant smell in the kitchen, you opened the washing machine and found not only actual stagnant water standing in the bottom, but that the rubber surround to the door was nearly black in places, and what you found when you opened the soap drawer is best left to the imagination.
An entire bottle of bleach later and the smell was still there and you were officially over hysterical hill and rapidly acellerating down the other side.
Because you had finally realised that whatever inconveniences you had suffered when lacking a washing machine before, this is as nothing when faced with the prospect of trying to keep the Star’s vast wardrobe free from piss and puke on three consecutive hours of sleep at a time with only the aid of a bath full of water and soap flakes for company when you are also trying to feed him every two hours to counteract the problem that he seems to absolutely resist turning into one of the big fat monster babies you are forced to sit next to in the baby clinic week after week.
Luckily, at this point, B stuck his head inside the machine and decided that while it did have a powerful smell, that smell was the reek of heavy duty cleaning products, so the odour must be coming from somewhere else.
And lo, it turned out that when plumbing in the kitchen appliances, the former owners had simply made a hole in the waste pipe and shoved the connectors in, thus accounting for the distinctly sewagelike quality of the smell which was one of its more freaky features, although this was overshadowed by what B assured you was the distinct possibility that the contents of the pipe could end up inside the washing machine and the dishwasher should enough people decide to flush their toilets at the same time.
The fact that the floor under the washing machine shows distinct signs of having been saturated at some point was therefore not reassuring.
Luckily, a short trip to the hardware store and much banging and swearing from B later and the washing machine was restored, along with your piece of mind.
And your conviction, now even more firmly held, that the washing machine is the basic measure of civilisation.
You haven’t the energy for much description right now – in the last two weeks you have spent five days locked in a room with thirty three 8 year olds who have been fed a bowl of sugar for breakfast each and 30 minutes writing down the story of Britain from 1000 (AD) to 2000 (AD). This covered four pages, you are pleased to say, even if you didn’t mention any names or dates between 1066 and Henry VIII.
You have realised that as a practsing teacher you really did spend a lot of time on your feet, pacing about, but discovered that as a student teacher you are required to sit in one place for hours at a time.
This is surprisingly difficult.
You have also spent more time than you really feel comfortable with smiling politely and getting to know new people, and you have established that you are seemingly the only one on your course who graduated more than ten years ago.
Hell, you are the only one on your course who graduated more than six years ago, and until you spoke up that person had been feeling quite uncomfortable.
Luckily there are at least a few people over thirty, which is one reason for not having strong hysterics. The other is that you haven’t finished later than 3.30pm for two weeks, although the stack of books on the to be read pile is now reading alarming proportions.
For this reason, no one should be too surprised if this is your last post for a while.
And this one will consist of mostly pictures.
You were thrilled that a trip round Aunts and Grandfathers on the Welsh borders meant you could look at some castles.
The Ludlow one is most impressive:
In contrast, this is about it for Bridgenorth:
This is more of a fortified mannor house:
And here is Aberystwyth’s:
Note the war memorial in the background. No, really, do. Round the other side there’s an even bigger sculpture than the angel you can see on the top there. Of an exceptionally scantily clad woman. And you can really only describe the pose as ‘writhing’. Shame the picture didn’t come out, but you are sure everyone can usefully put their imaginations to work.
Andway, statues of near nacked suggestively posed women? In Aberystwyth? In the heartlands of Methodist protestantism? What were they thinking?
Still, they also have a stone circle, so perhaps years of repression were really a cover for wild pagan roots. Here’s a bit of it:
And some more photos of scenes ffrom Aber:
As is your wont while sightseeing, you had an exciting time viewing churches. B was particularly thrilled by this one in Ludlow, until you realised that it was merely Catholic, rather than evidence of Orthodoxy:
You prefered this Anglo Saxon one, although you seem to have taken a picture of the Norman tower rather than the walls you were particularly excited by:
And then there was Hereford Cathedral, which you are not sure the nine hour detour really justified, especially as when you got there, you didn’t go in as they were having some kind of flower festival.
You did a bit of disaster tourism too. The floods have effectively closed down the Severn Valley Railway, which has had an unfortunate effect on Bridgenorth in particular, but did mean you go to see plenty of steam trains sitting about:
And you are undecided if sophisticated London could come up with an installation more poinant than this, caused by the collapse of the bridge in Ludlow:
You are also undecided if it was the Shropshire towns or the copurtyside which provided the biggest contrast to life in the city though.
Although you had rather had your fill after spending the afternoon lost in the Welsh borderlands:
And then there was the car you hired for the trip:
Well, ‘hired’ is the wrong word. You actually booked the far more sensible Ford Focus. When you turned up, however, they offered you the Beetle and….
People kept looking at you as you drove along. It was most disconcerting. You and B are quietly in agreement that you are both far to untrendy to really carry such a machine off for any length of time.
So there you and B are, sitting on a bench eating grapes and a pork pie, admiring the view of large tombstones which populate the square you are in, and basking in the unexpected sunshine.
Suddenly you become aware that the young lady next to you has not only come prepared with cutlery and a china plate to help her consume her Philadelphia spread crackers, but is in the process of squeezing a wedge of lemon over them and has got out the small travelling salt and pepper set and is about to carefully grind fresh pepper and what one can only assume is not just salt, but hand gathered, snow white, raw, unprocessed Maldon sea-salt over the food.
While you are watching this in a state of mildly horrified fascination, at that moment somebody’s chinchilla dashes, squeaking, into view and, really, it’s at time like this that you really appreciate you are in Chelsea. King’s Road to be precise.
Anyway, at the end of the street there’s a big department store, and at the top of the department store there is, as there usually is, a cafe. And the thing about this cafe is that it has a stonking view over the rooftops of London, which you heartily recommend if anyone is ever in the area and doesn’t mind fighting for a table next to the window.
You sat and gazed at the Royal Albert Hall. There is it. The flatish dome behind the pointy dome in the background.
Because, of course, you weren’t actually supposed to be in Chelsea at all. You were supposed to be at the Proms.
And you set off in good time, but the combination of getting distracted by an icon in a charity shop, missing two busses and the traffic jam that attends trying to hurl yourself desperately across a narrow bridge from darkest South London into the bright lights of North London meant that you were impressively late so you decided to go for a mooch instead.
Going for a ramble round Kew Botanical Gardens last weekend brought your maternal Grandma powerfully to mind.
Now everybody in your family likes gardening and gardens and so she was by no means the only family member you have done gardens with. Although your paternal Granny’s agoraphobia tended to make this a trip to the local garden centre rather than a trek to somewhere more impressive.
Of course, your being considerably more interested in history than plants meant that on such visits you were concentrating on the inevitable stately home attached to the garden rather than the maze, the formal French layout, the ha-ha and the cunning use of Confusingum Latinus Nameus along with Moreum Unintelligibleus Latinium in the walled English garden .
But Grandma was blind and so this turned trips round gardens from a sort of vaugue saunter punctuated by the occassional appreciative Ah into a family competition to see who could do the best descriptions, find the most interestingly furry plants or catch the waft of the best and smelliest perfume.
You discovered on Saturday that you miss this, and her, quite a lot.
You also reminded yourself that, entirely surprisingly, you like Kew Gardens.
It’s surprising because Kew isn’t about gardens as such. And in an absence of much interest in and knowledge about plants, it’s the layouts, the colour combinations and the statues of naked men and women that really make garden experiences work for you normally.
Kew, on the other hand, is a collection. And many many (many many many) trips to museums over the years has taught you if there’s one thing that bores you absolutely rigid it’s row upon row of pots, Spitfires, faded documents, firearms, poppets or flint heads, neatly labeled and gathering dust.
Although the pots at least did become mildly more entertaining after you did the Appreciation of Pots module at Uni (otherwise known as Studying Ancient History). Until you forgot what the precise significance of a pale orange colour over a deep orange colour was, or why someone facing left rather than right marked the change over from Historically Important Factor One to Historically Important Factor Two.
Kew is mostly about row upon row of trees, plunked down with no attempt to group them interestingly by colour or even spell out the Lord of the Manner’s name in maple. Instead they are grouped by type. An oak tree. An oak tree with slightly darker leaves. An oak tree with spikier leaves. An oak tree with slightly darker and spikier leaves. An oak tree with slightly darker leaves and slightly lighter bark. A purple flowering oak tree, with oval waxy leaves and triangular acorns. Sort of thing.
Somehow, this is not boring. You even voluntarily looked at some of the labels. And took pictures.
Of course, there were also some crowd pleasing showy flowers at this time of year. Although given the blazing heat, it felt entirely wrong for there to be bluebells. So no pictures of them.
There was wildlife.
And then there are the glass houses, with actual exotic plants.
Anyway. You are rather irritated by your seeming inability to get things in focus, straight or simply in the picture without having ends or tops cut off.
But you will claim that you were having far too good a time and the company was far too entertaining to pay much attention to composition, if anybody asks.
Having discovered that you had slightly misinterpreted the setting of the book by a Spanish author – with large chunks of it set in Spain simply because Spain is the centre of the universe, as opposed to somewhere suitably Continentally decedent for odd Art to take place – it got you thinking about the other series you are reading at the moment, where the action mostly takes place in Moscow.
Good books. The whole premise, that supernatural forces are among us and in constant battle, is made interesting by the fact that this fight is now extremely hedged about by bureaucratic bylaws and policed rigidly for any overstepping of the agreed boundaries. Which is amusing and quite inventive.
The books are structured as three almost separate stories, but which nevertheless link together and resolve themselves into a whole in the end. There are multiple points of view too, as each story is mainly told by a different character. Both Light and Dark characters get a look in, which adds dimension to the world the author has created.
It’s not without it’s flaws though. You found yourself wondering if it wasn’t cheating a bit to have a first person narrative when you are also dropping in on the thoughts of other characters occationally, for example. And the author can be a bit heavy handed with his explanations. But overall it’s clever, if not very profound, and you’ve ever been a sucker for that.
However, somewhere in the middle of the first book, you realised that had the author been British (or Spanish, or from anywhere else), Moscow wouldn’t have been the first choice of location.
Modern British authors only send their heroes to the Russian capital if they are writing some kind of thriller. That’s it.
It’s important that while they are there they stay in a cockroach infested Soviet style hotel – in the Jasper Fforde universe Muscovites must keep a few rooms intact just for such visitors – where the mod cons are hot and cold running prostitutes and little else. The hero will take up with a sad eyed, chain smoking member of the world’s oldest profession, partly because there are, apparently, no other women in the city other than prostitutes, partly so that she can glower and look miserable and save the author time on further description by standing for all the other Russians around who we are to presume are constantly glowering and looking miserable, and partly because her father will turn out to be a former colonel in the KGB.
Just so that we can have a nod to modernity, they also have to ritually go to the nightclub where the mafia runs its extensive business empire from. There will be pumping techno music and every man will be wearing bad shirts. Which is a good fifteen years out of date as an image, but then that’s probably the least of our problems at this stage. Everyone will be drinking vodka. Without any food in sight.
And to get there, there will be a drive through a forest of ugly concrete tower blocks, more tower blocks and nothing but tower blocks (with more prostitutes signalling wildly from the side of the road all the way). The hero may remark on the lack of vegetation in the way of trees, grass or flowerbeds. Although it’s more likely to be winter and therefore the city will be covered with (grimy) snow and temperatures will be at least minus 25.
Once you’d pinpointed that, you realised that one of the reasons you are enjoying this book is that Moscow just happens to be the place where they are, where the author lives and where most of his audience will recognise. So his characters trot round the place interacting with the scenery doing things like opening fridges (to get out a bottle of human blood), riding up escalators on the metro (in a vampire induced trance) or going on a jaunt up the distinctive Ostankino TV tower (to attack the temporary HQ of the Dark Forces). You, of course, are sitting there happily exclaiming “I had a fridge like that” or “I know those escalators” or “So that’s what the restaurant up there looks like”
But while the events are (melo) dramatic, the scenery isn’t part of that, really. And that’s got to be the first novel set in modern Russia you’ve read that you can say that about. Which tells you just how many novels set in modern Russia you’ve read which were written by Russian authors.
You also wonder what will create the most sense of dislocation in a foreign reader who isn’t familiar with Russia. You suspect it would be the frequent references to legendary rock musicians and their works, whose music and lyrics the author has, quite neatly, worked into the plot and none of whom anyone in the West will ever have heard of.