Don’t Mention the War

Part of my role as International Relations Officer at Aberdeen City Council was to help organise hospitality for foreign groups and individuals. This ranged from school groups to people like Mikhail Gorbachev. There were many levels of hospitality ranging from tea, and an Aberdeen rowie during the day, to the full shebang – met at the airport by a piper and an evening “do” with dinner, entertainment, and general expensive jollification. There was also a very nice dining room in the Old Town House where foreign delegations would be treated to silver service lunches.

There was bureaucratic rigmarole involved of course. I will try to unravel the lump of cold spaghetti that represents the relatively simple (one might think) process of issuing invitations. I will try to be succinct. Here was the process.

  1. I shared admin staff with the Lord Provost from whom the invitations ostensibly came.
  2. Admin Officer would don her “Lord Provost’s Secretary” hat and start handwriting the invites often to receptions I had organised myself, so I did not require an invite as to my mind it was part of my job to be there.
  3. I would occasionally catch her handwriting an invite to myself. I would try to wrestle it from her but no, there was a process to be gone through.
  4. My invite would be put in an envelope, addressed to me, and put in the internal mail which was then sent across the road to St Nicholas House where the proletariat worked. It would then be franked and sent back across the road to me to the same office and land on the very same desk, where it had started its journey.
  5. The very same admin person would then don her “Alison’s PA” hat and would personally open the same envelope she herself had sealed. It would be logged in my mail book and then at that stage it would finally arrive in my in tray.

I could not believe no-one questioned any of this. It was like something out of Gogol.

Now to the receptions themselves. Funnily, there was never any problem getting Councillors to attend the evening shindigs. All the liquid spirits being doled out on trays by waitresses were automatically double measures and many a Councillor would pour three of those into the one glass.

The problem I had was getting anyone at all to come along and greet groups of students for example, being received during the day where all that was on offer was tea and the ubiquitous Rowie.

Visual aid

rowie

I used to have to leg it along the corridor to the Councillors’ Lounge where what I called the “Politburo” would spend all day dribbling and enjoying all the free food. I would be carrying the solid gold civic chain, determined to find at least one of them compos mentis enough to represent the Lord Provost to welcome the group. This was never ever easy.

One day I got it badly wrong. We were welcoming a group of students from Dresden and there was no-one around at all to do the official bit. Then I spotted an ‘elder statesman’ whom I will call Jimmy. He was a Tory Councillor who for some weird reason always addressed me in Arabic. He was incontinent so you had to be mindful of where you sat in the lounge. He also smelled like the Aberdeen fishmarket but needs must. I shoved the gold chain around his neck, unstuck him from his seat and virtually dragged him through to the formal reception rooms.

They were very earnest East Germans. Their translator tried to make conversation with Jimmy.

Has Herr Burgermeister ever been to Dresden?.

It was at this point a shiver went down my spine as I suddenly remembered Jimmy’s role in the RAF during the war. Too late….

No, but I HAVE seen it.

My life started flashing before me along with an image of John Cleese.

It looked very nice just before we bombed the smithereens out of it….

Fail on my part. Definite fail.

Sometimes it was not my fault however. My Chairman at this time was known locally as Marco Polo such was his fondness for “fact-finding missions” overseas. He travelled so often and was of a “certain age”, that he would sometimes forget which country we were in. For that reason, I will call him that throughout this tale.

On this occasion he was leading our delegation on an official visit to our Twin City of Regensburg in Bavaria. The whole of Scotland had been linked with Bavaria in 1948. Our Councillors LOVED it there. No work at all, lots of free beer and general carousing in the guise of forging international friendship and understanding.

Regensburg

There was a clue at breakfast that all was not at all well with our Marco Polo. He announced

I am awa oot for some Francs.

I was sitting with a lovely Councillor who was a fire fighter and so actually attached to reality unlike some of them. I clocked it immediately

Did you hear that?

The Councillor was not unduly worried.

It’ll be a slip of the tongue.

I thought to myself:

I think we’re in trouble.

It was our final day, so the local Oberburgermeister and Burgermeisters were gathered to give us a final reception at which Marco Polo was due to give a speech. A number of those were rather elderly distinguished gentleman who would have seen active service of various sorts with the Wehrmacht at the very least. I downed a few Franconian wines as I just knew it was all going to go badly wrong.

Marco Polo got up to make his farewell speech on our behalf.

I downed another glass.

He commenced thus, in particularly poor French

I would just like to say, Mercy Boocoop pour le Hospitalitay.

Stunned silence. He was however on a roll.

And it all reminds me of the day I led the victory parade through the streets of Bordeaux having notched up more than a few dead Nazis on my rifle.

A chill descended. I had been doing the Nancy Reagan thing of standing behind him hissing

It’s Germany. We’re in Germany but to no avail.

We were ushered to Munich airport pretty sharpish after that.

There were very many more incidents of cringingly embarrassing behaviour by our City Fathers eg Councillor B asking via a PA system at an international conference in Belarus  for a penknife as

I want to scrape ma feet.

Cue Japanese delegation leaving to commit Hare Kiri in the car park.

And we nearly lost one in the Zambezi. I think we took a hippo back by mistake as they were similar in shape and the level of debate from him improved dramatically on our return.

But the most shameful incident of all is what led to the death of my colleagues in Belarus and the conduct of the Councillors but particularly the then Leader. I believe I will soon be ready to talk about this in full, but that is for another time.

 

The Name of the Star is Chernobyl

I went into the Zone from the very beginning. I remember stopping in a village and being struck by the silence. No birds, nothing. You walk down a street…silence. Well, of course, I knew all the cottages were lifeless, that there were no people because they had all left, but everything around had fallen silent. Not a single bird. It was the first time I had ever seen a land without birds. (Irina Kisilyova, journalist.  From Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich, 1997)

I know that silence. I first went to the Zone in 1990 four years after Reactor No.4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant went down after a series of blasts. Fifty million Curies of radioactivity were released into the atmosphere. 70% of that figure fell in Belarus and 70% of that came down in Homiel Region. Homiel was the City Aberdeen City Council assumed was in Russia and agreed to “twin” with. I am glad they did as it started an enduring relationship for me with Belarus and its people. It is a passionate but volatile relationship. We have laughed, cried, fought, made up, and misunderstood, but we have also loved, both despite it all, and because of it all.

My first incursion into the Zone, the area marked presumably on a map in red pen by a bureaucrat, was unencumbered by anyone else from Aberdeen. I was with one Belarusian woman who ran a charity trying to increase awareness of what had happened there. The memories are jumbled as I made so many visits. I will be writing more blogs about Chernobyl and Belarus in general, so I will begin with my personal reflections. I was to make many further visits with delegations including our infamous local politicians and wonderful medics, scientists and community groups from Aberdeen. The reason Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and our university decided to involve themselves in fact was due to what I reported after my solo visits. As an aside, when I reported back, I was “strongly advised” to play down my experiences by a scientist who was a consultant to  British Nuclear Fuels. These are NOT scientific findings. This is what I experienced, how it felt and the permanent trace the people whom I met left on my Soul.

There was little in the City itself to indicate that we were in the middle of the zone marked in red on the soon-to-be-familiar radiation map. The map was published in the daily newspaper so people would know where to pick mushrooms and where not to. I looked out of my hotel window and saw someone in a uniform with what looked like a Geiger counter. Other than that, people were out and about living their lives.

They had been out and about in the afternoon of the day the reactor exploded at 01.23. It was April 26th, 1986 and as dutiful Soviet citizens, they were out on the streets marching in practice for the forthcoming May Day parade. They marched with sticks, saving the flags for the day itself. It seemed even the Soviet flags had deserted them.

They were not told. The Apparatchiks, the high ups, the party officials had been noticed leaving hurriedly by bus and rumours abounded about “an incident” but they were not told. An old man told me the sheep were evacuated before the ordinary people. People should have been told to stay inside and given iodine to protect their thyroid against the blast. However, it was still the USSR and clearly Gorbachev’s much vaunted policy of Glasnost’ (openness) was yet to exist beyond words. And an important Soviet holiday was coming up.

Mayday. M’aidez. Save our Souls.

To get into the deadly Zone you had to get past a cordon of guards. I was already adept at bribery so it was not a problem. I noticed that on one side of the fence marking the start of the Zone, cattle were grazing. The other side of the fence had been deemed deadly. Over the fence, the livestock meant contaminated milk and meat was being sent off out into the food chain. Talking of contaminated meat, I still think about the guards standing at the entrance to the Zone all day. They were young. They were National Service conscripts whose parents presumably lacked the means to bribe their way to giving their sons a safe posting. I wonder where they are now. I suspect I know.

And the silence. The silence. If I keep repeating it over and over in my mind it might accurately reflect what that was like. 

We advanced further into the Zone. We got out at a deserted village consisting of traditional wooden cottages. It looked rather idyllic until you looked more closely. Each door had a skull and crossbones crudely daubed on it usually along with a sign saying “Attention, there is radiation here”.

My guide Natasha knew where she wanted to take me. Unbelievably, in another village, we found a group of people mainly older women with traditional Belarusian headscarves sitting on benches next to trucks clearly loaded up with their possessions. They had a quiet resignation about them which reminded me of the departure of the Jewish families in Fiddler on the Roof.

Sunrise, sunset, swiftly fly the years. One season following another, laden with happiness and tears. 

But who were these people? Natasha explained that they were “officially” evacuated. Some Chinovnik (bureaucrat) had clearly stamped a bit of paper to say they had been evacuated, so in that case they had been. As they had been officially declared gone, they had closed all the services, the shops etc. And the people sat there waiting. Still they waited. They waited some more, but no-one came. I talked to one old lady and she said this:

I am digging potatoes out of the ground so I can live. I did the same during the war, but then I knew what we were fighting. I could see the enemy.

The streets in the Zone were overgrown with a black weed that thrives on radioactive soil. In English we know it as Wormwood. I never usually quote the Bible but here I will make an exception.

The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter. (Revelation 8:11)

In another twist of fate, Wormwood translated into Russian is “Chernobyl” so the passage in the Russian version of the bible would read as follows

The name of the star is Chernobyl.