A Half Dead Mouse. I try my hand at Highland witchcraft.

I am walking slowly up a spiral staircase in the pseudo baronial Old Town House Aberdeen which has on the walls, portraits of Lord Provosts past. Their eyes seem to swivel disapprovingly in my direction as I go by. They are not a particularly attractive bunch…

I was to discover many of the living ones were none too pleasant either. But I wasn’t even there yet. I was 23. It was my first “real” job. I was their first ever “Twinning Officer” which was forever being mistaken by locals for a brand of herbal tea.  I was going to be in charge of Aberdeen’s town twinning activities which were many as our local elected members loved their “fact-finding missions”. I have yet to find out what facts they were looking for given some of the things they used to get up to on these overseas trips.

This was all to come however. I was still only half way up the stairs a crisp suit, my first one, that Mum had bought for me in John Lewis sale.

I felt inadequate and scared as I spiralled upwards round the statue of Queen Victoria. I was to imagine many times over the next few years that if I threw myself off the staircase I would end up impaled on her crown and bleed all over the geraniums at her feet.

Turned out they had forgotten I was coming so there was no place for me to sit. I said “I don’t mind, as long as I have a desk”. The response was “Desk? Who said anything about a desk?”. That should have been a hint that things were not as they ought to be.  I was given a space in an office later deemed too good for me. They later made up for the splendour by ensuring I had rubbish furniture. There were depressing oil paintings in there of sad orphans on loan from the Aberdeen Art Gallery Reserve Collection. It was very clear to me why they were on reserve….

On my first meeting with my new manager, a Scottish version of Sir Humphrey Appleby,  I was told two important facts – one that the Lord Provost (our equivalent of Mayor) was “a bastard on a good day”, and two, that Aberdeen had agreed to Twin with a “Russian” City. I summoned the courage to make two points.

1. This City, Homiel, was NOT in Russia. It was in the then Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic

2. I followed up this shock news with, “have you looked on a map?”.

Homiel was the centre of a region heavily contaminated by fallout from Chernobyl four years before. As was their wont, a bunch of our whisky-laden Councillors had met their vodka-laden counterparts while seeking facts together aka some jolly in France. They had been seen coming, as they had undoubtedly been bragging about oil revenue and the £28 million Common Good Fund otherwise known as Robert the Bruce’s Sporran. The historic and binding deal was sealed, making our Cities friends for life, through thick and thin, dictatorship and plutonium.

Regarding my manager’s first point about the “Leadership Style” of the Lord Provost,  I quickly realised that he lived up to his reputation. He could be ignorant, mean-spirited, gruff, and downright nasty. On day one with no warning, he summoned me to lunch in the restaurant where our elected Members got their daily free meals. They were all ears awaiting the initiation ceremony – a young lassie about to be served up on a plate. More palatable than the lukewarm mince and tatties nae doot. I had not been told a thing about an upcoming visit by a Japanese delegation and when the summons came, I had appealed to my boss for help. His response was to run in the opposite direction like a daddy long legs possessed.  Feeling extremely unsure of myself I joined the Lord Provost. He didn’t say much but got to his feet and shouted “fa’s ‘at” (translation “who’s that?”) at one of his political opponents. The guest in question was a well-known business leader and so was “ahead of himself” right away, which was a clear fail in the Lord Provost’s eyes.

Then his attention turned to me. I sat there clearly being played with, dismissed as an idiot as I could not answer any of his questions, which he had clearly anticipated. When I watch my cat play with a half dead mouse am reminded of many such experiences at the hands of our elected members. I wasn’t to know at that stage that their issue was usually rooted in a firm sense of their own inadequacy made up for as far as they could, in power games, pomposity and a fondness for ceremonial robes. Early on, the Lord Provost had decided I was not up to the job. It helped this semi-literate ex railway shunter to reduce those he feared to zero.

I now understand with hindsight, that I had been propelled into a toxic working environment where to be declared “ahead of yourself” or worse, “clever”, was not a compliment. I was considerably younger than anyone else in my position. I was very raw material and raw material needs to be coaxed lovingly into the finished article rather than trampled on.  I translated the messages I was getting re my lack of suitability for the job, my being “above myself”, into “must try harder”. I now know this was the last thing the powers that be wanted. It was to be an early lesson that if one values self-preservation above all else, the key is to achieve a kind of nameless, faceless mediocrity that attracts no attention, either positive or negative.  This has been true throughout what passes for my working life. The mediocre are able to climb unnoticed up the ranks. The result is those at the top of the ladder are often subconsciously acutely aware of their own inadequacy, and seek to make up for it by protecting themselves with a brittle narcissism.

The other “not good enough” message I absorbed came from the stitch-up that had happened around my recruitment. I was offered the role but was deemed too young and green to be given the advertised salary for my post. I was offered the position on a lower rate and advised I would have training and support to enable me to grow into the role. This was speaking my language. I had never wanted position as an end in itself and would far rather have worked my way up the ladder on merit. I was also not at all confident in my own abilities and so I fell for it hook, line and sinker.

The first seeds of suspicion were planted when I came across a “Confidential” letter in which senior officials were congratulating one another at their success in getting me to accept a low salary and for the savings they had made as a result. There was no mention of the training and support that I had been offered, and indeed, my then boss was to deny emphatically that these promises were ever made.

I also found out that the elected members had not been informed of this deal so they expected me to put up with the abuse that they believed the higher grades merited. I was handed on a plate to the Lord Provost who commenced a campaign to bully me out of existence.

We went early on to Belarus via Moscow. He was so delighted to be making his first visit to the Socialist Paradise that was just about still the USSR. I can imagine his shock when he was to find at Sheremetyevo airport that he was treated with equal disdain to the rest of humanity shuffling through customs being quizzed about possible weapons-grade plutonium or birdseed in our luggage. It was of course MY fault. He dragged me by the arm across the concourse in search of this anticipated but non-existent VIP treatment. He was a long-standing Communist and discovering the reality of the dying embers of the USSR was too much for him.

On my return, he used every possible opportunity to denigrate me, belittle my work and even my language skills despite his own abilities in English being rather limited.
I was to discover that I may be plagued with anxiety, even terror at times and a crippling lack of self-belief but when against a wall, something in me seems to kick in. I turn and I face head on whatever it is and whoever it is.

I had an ally in the form of the Council’s Public Relations Officer. She was profoundly disliked as not only was she a well-known figure in Aberdeen from her previous TV career, she had also married into a high-profile local family who owned a number of important businesses and amenities in the City. Margaret was being put through the same mincer as I was. She was older than me and became a friend and mentor. We resorted to black humour for survival. We even tried witchcraft. We would sit in the Press Gallery during Council meetings willing the Lord Provost to keel over, in the way he would have wanted, in full throttle rant in the Council chamber. Our plan was to sprint down the spiral staircase and over the road to Oddbins for a bottle of Dom Perignon so that we could toast his departure.

I soon unleashed my talent for creative disruption.  One day I came in early and stuck a big Room 101 poster on the grand wood-paneled door to the Lord Provost’s suite of offices. The trouble was, the inhabitants of our baronial building had not read Orwell and the TV programme was yet to exist so it was lost on them. It made me feel considerably better however.

I then sought a practical plan of action. I sensed that it needed some public acclaim for HIM, to make him understand my worth. I spotted an International Relations’ award and KNEW this largely meaningless gong would impress Comrade R in the style of winning a Stakhanovite medal, or the Order of Lenin. I entered and won an award for my work in Belarus and Zimbabwe “Best Contribution to World Harmony” at a ceremony at the Savoy and he had to go with me to London to accept it on behalf of the City. He had broken his leg so I was in effect his carer, which was a profound change in the dynamics between us.

There was what I now know is a power shift happening and this was to become a theme throughout the fragments of my life.

When we got back from London, I was called into the newly-arrived Chief Executive Donald McDonald, the Stalin of Stornoway, of whom very much more anon. McDonald was blithering that “something has happened to the Lord Provost”. He had apparently been to see him and demanded that I be given an assistant and a serious pay rise. I left McDonald’s office to a hearty “your days as a trainee are over”. Later that day, the Lord Provost publicly apologised to me. He said he had been unfair and that he hadn’t been aware of my status as “trainee”.

Shortly after that, my nemesis retired from office. The last time I saw him was on the street. I was in formerly “his” car, the chauffeur-driven Civic Daimler, having been at the airport seeing off a VIP. He was at the bus stop in the Aberdeen rain.

I waved at him. He waved back. A week later he was dead.


My Life as a Spy (Part 2). I sell my soul for a Bounty to Tony from Estonia.

My room mate Saima and I had all but exhausted our repertoire of imaginary spying exploits when Tony from the US Embassy came along. We were also very hungry having got to the end of Saima’s stash of Bombay Mix. The food in our hostel was largely cabbage-based and we existed more on vodka and flights of imagination than anything else. When Tony flashed his diplomatic pass at us and said he needed our Russian skills urgently we were ready…even if it meant being somewhat over-optimistic about our respective Russian skills. Saima was hovering on the wrong side of A Level whereas I was over the other side but only just.

We were not going to miss out on the chance of real adventure however, so the next thing we knew we were en route to what was then the new US Embassy. We were shown around the place which was still more or less empty as they had not yet moved from the old premises. There was only one place in the Embassy that they knew was free from bugs – a sound proofed bubble big enough for only two people where the seriously confidential conversations would happen. By the time Tony cooked us a steak and brought out the Bounty Bars we were ready to agree to anything….

The “anything” in this case, was an agreement to accompany him on visits to religious dissidents of various kinds with some visiting Christian publishers. Tony, it turned out, was a fundamentalist born-again Christian and saw his mission at the US embassy as “casting out demons” from the USSR. “Fine” we thought, as long as the chocolate kept on coming. That is what our Souls were worth.

We didn’t question when Tony it transpired, was not in fact a high-up at the US Embassy. He was in charge of the new sports’ centre at the new Embassy complex and as such, was hardly the material for a John le Carre plot but you never knew…. He had been a backing musician for Dan Fogelberg, and knew Cliff Richard. Neither fact impressed us much.

Then the madness commenced. We went with Tony fuelled on our over-active imaginations and his somewhat histrionic Born Againedness, to meet up with an array of colourful characters “translating” for the American publishers who were in town for the first Moscow Religious Book Fair. This has been allowed as part of Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost and Perestroika.

Tony, however, was stuck in the past in his own head and had not quite cottoned onto the changes in the air. He assumed we were being tailed by the KGB at all times which meant going through elaborate rituals to get them off our tail. We were off to meet a persecuted Parapsychologist and this was, said Tony, a truly Top Secret mission. That meant hiding in a bush outside a typically Soviet block of flats and practicing our “cover” which was that we were from Estonia. I had said that British people speaking Russian tended to get taken for people from the Baltic States.  I did not mean that Tony who had a Texan drawl in any language, particularly in his very limited Russian, or Saima, who was from India via Croydon could pass as Estonian, but too late….I am certain we were NOT being followed and that the only reason we might have been, was that we looked so ridiculous.

Life started to get to me hiding in that bush. I bust into tears and declared I couldn’t take it any more but realised I had more Russian than the other two put together so it was all down to me. I gathered myself, existential angst and all, and we approached the building. Tony managed to forget the address of Varvara the Parapsychologist but an old lady in the lift took one look at us and asked “You are looking for Varvara Ivanovna?”. I said “nyet”, Saima said “da” and Tony said “my iz Estonii” (we are from Estonia) like the native of small-town Texas which he clearly was. The old lady just surveyed us with the resignation of someone well used to visits from foreign mad people. From then on, Tony became Tony Iz Estonii (Tony from Estonia) in true porn star fashion.

We made it finally to Varvara Ivanovna’s flat. I found her very wise. She was a Spiritual Healer who had had more than a brush with the Soviet authorities in her past. I found myself really opening up to her. I remember telling her how lost I felt. I remember that I felt she saw right through me. Already at that stage I felt like an imposter in my own life. I had been plagued by extreme anxiety for most of that year leading me to have to pull out of a study visit to Leningrad in the Spring. I had become agoraphobic after becoming convinced that my dizzy spells were due to some sinister brain condition. All tests had come up negative and my doctor was trying to convince me that it was all anxiety. Looking back, I think Saima and myself were both in full flight from reality, from ourselves, and from extreme pressure to succeed, and to fit into boxes created by others. Those crazy times at the end of the USSR with its whiff of 1930s Chicago was such an ideal escape route and I was learning fast the ability of vodka to speed up the escape.

I was to spin off out of control into a very dark place and Saima was to become a huge success in a profession where I am sure her ability to create alternative realities has been a real advantage.

In the meantime though, we had a job to do – keeping a bunch of Fundamentalist Christians satisfied that their mission to rid the Evil Empire of its Demons was on course for success. We met all kinds of weird and wonderful people. We sat in a kitchen with a Baptist Pastor who knew the astronaut John Glenn. He had been in a Gulag during the Stalin Purges. I am truly ashamed to say our Russian was not up to translating this lovely gentleman’s beautifully allegoric turns of phrase so we made it all up. We made up what we thought the Americans wanted to hear laced with some stuff borrowed from our limited acquaintance with Solzhenitsyn. I remember saying that he had scraped poems on bits of bark from trees in the Gulag. I have NO idea whether that was true. It might have been. That was how we justified ourselves.

Eventually we ended up at the Religious Book Fair itself. I remember nothing about that apart from the fact that we met two Amish there, proper Amish, in Amish outifts sans  pony and trap but otherwise straight of the cast of that Harrison Ford movie. By that time, we were so accustomed to being in a surreal world that we questioned it not one iota.

The publishers returned to the US happy they had cast out some demons. Our demons remained intact however. Our last night in Moscow was not our finest hour. We had a farewell dinner with the other students whom we barely knew, at the Aragvi a famous Georgian restaurant in Gorky Street. We polished off vodka, Soviet Shampanskoe, red and white wine, and Georgian cognac. I ate a whole pot of caviar which I can still taste now as I write this and not in a good way. All I remember about the rest of the meal was standing on a chair and singing “Flower of Scotland”.

The other students staggered off back to the hostel but not the intrepid pair. We decided to hit our favourite bar at the Intourist and got there by ballroom dancing across Gorky Street and through the Revolution Square underpass. We were then invited to the nightclub by a very creepy Egyptian businessman who was connected to the Al Fayeds in London. He plied us with more Shampanskoe and we descended further into mayhem.  A drunken Finn arrived on the scene and asked Saima to dance, and the Egyptian propelled me onto the dancefloor. At this point my memory is hazy except I can still see Saima’s face looming out of the mist every so often and her voice echoing “careful, he wants a WHITE woman” as she whirled past. Thankfully however, the inevitable happened and Saima and I discovered there WAS after all, a point at which our bodies could take no more alcohol. We simultaneously started to recreate the Exorcist copiously and spectacularly,  I threw up right down the front of the Egyptian. This reduced my attractiveness somewhat and we were poured into a taxi.

The hangover last some three days and was still raging when I got back to Aberdeen. My Mum had been so worried by my state on return from Moscow that I had been packed off to the doctor and tested for glandular fever.

Was any of this to put me off alcohol for life? Sadly no. It was to get worse, very much worse. But at that time, I packed up my colourful Moscow life and returned to my box – well behaved, controlled and only half myself. I left the other half, the liberated half, the spontaneous half, the ALIVE half scattered on the streets of Moscow….








My life as a spy in Moscow (Part One). With apologies to Spike and Marjory.

My final “study” trip to the USSR was more surreal than the other two put together.

It all started at Gatwick where we were to meet the other students and our group leader. I was approached by a very worried looking Indian lady in a sari who begged me “please please look after my daughter. She is only 17 and I am worried that she might be led astray by the older students. You look very sensible”. How wrong she was…

This led to another unbeatable partnership with Saima which was ideal from the outset for the following reasons:

  1. She was even more rebellious than I was
  2. She had NO intention of attending classes
  3. She was as obsessed with Les Miserables and a really bad mini series at the time about Peter the Great as I was
  4. Her mother had supplied her with a seemingly endless stash of Bombay Mix
  5. She was on the run from a lot of pain as I was, which fuelled our flights from reality

We were lodged in on the 19th Floor of the Hotel Sputnik, which dated from the 1980 Moscow Olympics and it became the base for our misadventures.

These were the Perestroika days and change was in the air. However the old culture, the Cold War paranoia, was very much still in evidence.

We would go to Red Square daily and laugh at the name-badged American tourists being herded towards the Lenin Mausoleum listening in on their conversations which were more often than not assumptions of what awaited them in the USSR acquired from Bond films and spy novels. We decided that it would be an act of sheer humanity to provide these tourists with the very thing they expected to happen but otherwise was highly unlikely to in their very controlled, chaperoned tour groups.

First we tried to get into the minds of these tourists by co-designing between the two of us, suitable spy outfits. We found a shop selling Gorbachev-style trilbies. We both had trench coats and dark glasses.

Next, timing was everything. We learned to time the arrival of our targets at the Mausoleum. One of us would start walking purposefully from one end of Red Square by St Basil’s, and the other from the Revolution Square end. Just as the group were gawping wide-eyed at the changing of the Kremlin guard. We would meet close to one of these groups and a brown envelope would be passed from one of us to the other and we would pause to hear the reaction then hurry off.

I recall a rotund Texan with a “Hi I’m Spike” name badge, shouting “did you SEE that, Marjory?” having witnessed our exchange. It concerns me deeply that these two are probably back in Buchanan Dam, Texas still dining out on this story so I apologise deeply. It was all a Scottish/Indian stitch up.

We expanded our creativity after that. One of us would sit on the benches outside the Bolshoi Theatre, dark glasses and trench coat on, reading a copy of Pravda upside down. The other would approach, collar up, trilby pulled down, and take a seat next to the other. Again our trusty brown envelope would be passed from one to the other again to the maximum horror/delight of visiting tourists. Russians probably thought we were extremely silly.

The other thing we did to pass time when supposed to be at Russian language classes, was set up a competition amongst our fellow students, who probably didn’t know who we were, to see which pair could get round the whole Moscow Metro system in one go. We planned our route to end up in a place that was symbolic at least to the mini series about Peter the Great. We went to the end of the each line and back again. We did do a full circle of the Circle Line which is where the alcoholics used to travel all day as, they used to say, the further they went, the closer they were to home.  Little did I know I was to become a homeless, rootless alcoholic myself and I would have appreciated the chance to stay underground all day for 5 Kopeks, which is what the fare was in those days.

We won the competition by getting round the whole system in exactly nine hours. For sustenance we had only Saima’s Ribena and Bombay Mix.  We did not require a comfort break. That is how hard British students were, or so we thought.

And the dedication paid off. We were featured in an article in Soviet Weekly on the same page as an offer for Lenin’s speeches on CD. We had arrived. 

In a key development, we discovered the infamous Travellers’ Bar of the Hotel Intourist on Gorky Street right by Red Square. There was a long corridor of seating leading to the bar itself, so it was great for observing people coming and going. We learned that the winner of the World Dipsomania League (retired unbeaten) were the Finns. We knew how to identify the Kent Gas Board men easily, and we knew who the women were selling themselves for a passport to somewhere or something “better”.

And we discovered vodka. Actually it was a re-discovery after my misdemeanours on my previous trip and Saima’s clandestine parties at her posh private school. Either way, it opened doors to a world even more colourful than the one we were already creating around us.

One day a skinny young man approached us, flashed diplomatic ID and announced in a New York drawl “I’m from the US embassy. You two speak Russian?”

This was where our spy fantasies were about to become rather more real….

(To be continued in Part 2)