Si Ye Pambili. We MUST go forward together

Colonialism

Councillors did not restrict themselves to embarrassing the citizens of Aberdeen at home and in Europe. We did long distance humiliation too. Another of our Twin Towns (we had five) was Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. In fact a visit there was one of my earliest foreign trips in my role as International Relations Officer.

I had already felt a great deal of unease at the unequal nature of our relationship with Bulawayo. It seemed entirely based on us sending them stuff through our Bulawayo Trust which was run by a lovely colleague who was an ex para and would at least ensure the stuff we were sending was in good shape. The fact that the people of Bulawayo had no say in what we sent was not on the agenda. There was an expectation that they would be good and grateful for our largesse. I used to call it our “rusty lawnmowers for Africa Programme”,

We had been invited to send TWO delegates to an Oxfam conference being held in the City. My Councillors in their infinite lack of wisdom decided they needed to send twelve. Ten Councillors to reflect the political composition of the Council and two handbag carriers/nursemaids i.e. myself and my colleague who ran the Trust. Oxfam were horrified. It meant our hosts according to protocol would have to cover our costs and provide a programme to keep us entertained which was a huge expense and hardly fitting given the theme of the Oxfam conference was tackling poverty. The sheer arrogance of our Councillors meant that of course they basically said “Awa an’ bile yer heid” (Translation: One finger salute to Oxfam).

I realised very quickly that the Town Clerk of Bulawayo was a very astute man with a wicked sense of humour. He was to find ways to let our huge delegation know what he thought of us. After an all night flight we were treated immediately to tea with the Governor of Matabeleland North and a lengthy detailed lecture on their economic forecasts for the next year. I watched the Councillor for Torry nodding off into her plate of Madeira cake chortling to myself. Then the fun really started. We were taken from there to visit a sewage farm. There a very enthusiastic sewage farmer showed us how they were purifying human waste into water and irrigating fields with it. The stench was something to behold. This lovely farmer LOVED his work. He had a way of saying “sludge” that I still remember to this day. I thought it was hilarious. Our lot were expecting the VIP treatment and here we were, straight off the plane after a ten hour flight and now knee deep in excrement.

Then we had our first meeting at the “Mayor’s Parlour” (they retained a lot of colonial throwbacks in language and behaviour). They were very hierarchy-minded so we were seated around the table according to rank so I was right at the far end along with my colleague Doug. The head of our delegation whom I shall call Ray was not very bright and permanently attached to a hip flask of whisky. He was later to fall in the Zambesi due to drinking a flask full of Bells and I was expected to fish him out. Not. Back to this first meeting,  I remember cringing inwardly when I could tell the Town Clerk was trying to tell him that we need to redress the power imbalance. This was way beyond our Ray who said exactly the following

I know. If we give you some of our rain, you can give us some of your sun.

I am quite sure my expression of utter horror at the patronising crap emanating from our elected representatives will not have gone unnoticed by Mike Ndubiwa the Town Clerk. I had said not one word throughout. I was still very new and utterly overwhelmed. Suddenly Mike Ndubiwa turned his attention to me and said “I want to hear what YOU think”. I stammered a lot but managed to get over my view that any relationship based on one side giving and the other receiving could hardly be called a partnership in international cooperation. I then burst into tears as I was utterly terrified as I thought I had said the wrong thing.

Bulawayo TOwn Hall

Shortly after the meeting Mike Ndubiwa took me aside and said he had been very impressed by what I had said. He said

You are the only thinker in your group. I am sending them to the football as it is their level. You will be going to the races at Ascot. Make sure you are smartly dressed and then I want you to come back to me and give me your impressions

So I found myself in the owners’ enclosure at Bulawayo Ascot with the gin and tonic set, an entirely white crowd apart from one Asian. These were the remnants of the Rhodesians and they were clinging to the old ways with what I felt was a real sense of desperation. I met only one woman who appeared to have a social conscience. She was a Scot running a community shop in a poor area and actually had some friends who were black. The others seemed to interact with the black population solely through their maids. It was fascinating. They were in a bubble. They clearly knew this bubble was very close to bursting.  I feel there was an aura of enforced jollity around. The were dancing on the edge of an abyss and knew it.

This is what I reported back to Mike Ndubiwa. He was satisfied and again reiterated that I was the only thinker in our group. He liked Doug well enough but said he was a “doer” and not a “thinker”.

We were shown some fascinating initiatives in Bulawayo. I loved what they were doing in former Townships now renamed “High Density Suburbs”. They were providing people with a basic “shell” house at low cost with enough space so they could extend when their circumstances allowed. The services such as electricity were installed by cooperatives of formerly unemployed young people who had been trained to be electricians or plumbers etc in their own community again at very low cost. Now I know this stuff was Assets Based Community Development in action. I didn’t know what the way I thought and felt was called, I just knew it was right.

Culturally, I could see how much Bulawayo had to offer us in Aberdeen. Any non-white person in Aberdeen at that time would be stared at mainly because it was such an unusual sight. I met up with the fantastic Amakhosi Theatre Company, Black Umfolosi the musical group and the artists who made sculptures out of welded metal from the Mzilikazi art centre. I could see such potential for a genuine exchange rather than a patrician donor/recipient arrangement that replicated colonialism in spades.

weld art

Once back in Aberdeen I presented a seventeen page report to my Committee with my proposals for ways in which we could create a more reciprocal relationship with Bulawayo. I was sick with nerves before the meeting as I thought my report was not good enough. Now I know that most of them will not have read it. However, they had to justify the spending on their junkets to Zimbabwe so my proposals were agreed.

Alongside my projects, the junketing continued. We went back again to the celebration of the foundation of Bulawayo as a City. This is where I must thank Joshua Nkomo. I as a very pale Scot was sitting in the VIP area with no cover over  us. Now I had met Joshua Nkomo in the morning. I told Mike the Town Clerk that I had seen him that morning I was told he was still Harare. So just about to die of sunstroke I was very grateful for the arrival in a Daimler of Mr Nkomo.  He sat in his seat in front of me. He was so huge, the shadow  was big enough to save me. Thanks Joshua.

Recently I attended a celebration outside Zimbabwe House in the Strand. Though it was raining throughout there was pure joy, and a true sense of optimism.

At Zim High comission

I am grateful to the people of Bulawayo. I learned a lot from them about Colonialism. I see so much of it in Healthcare regarding Patient Engagement.

We will give you a Tesco voucher or a biscuit and a pat on the head for yet again bleeding your pain against the walls in the hope that something changes. Do they change or are the old ways so entrenched it can be surface-level only? Those with power are mightily loathe to give it up but can put up a great façade. Those who shout most loudly about being Agents of Change in my experience tend to be the most resistant to change as soon as it affects them….and that goes for politicians of any race, and public servants in healthcare or any other field.

I hope for the sake of Zimbabwe and come to that, for the sake of our NHS, that change it is finally coming.

 

 

 

 

Crime and Punishment

In times of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act. (Orwell).

In the eyes of some it is a criminal act requiring punishment even by those who know it is the truth. The act itself of putting one’s head above the parapet and going against those preferring to hide behind the wall, appears threatening, not playing the game and requires to be stamped out.

The immediate aftermath of the death of my colleagues was a whirlwind of funerals, memorials, press attention and for me, the pressure of dealing with bereaved relatives from whom the truth had been concealed.

I had started to use alcohol to try to blot out what I now know were the increasing symptoms of PTSD. I found I could drink to knock myself out to sleep and to knock into oblivion the onrush of flashbacks. It also helped me cease to care. The down side was that I had even less of a filter between my head and my mouth. The truth started leaking out in an uncontrolled manner. I became very dangerous indeed for that reason. That is when the punishment began.

I managed to keep a lid on it for a considerable time before it became patently obvious that I was out of control. I carried on working. I won major awards for my work but the toughest thing was finding myself caught between the Belarus Embassy, who were desperate to avoid legal action by the truth coming out, and my own organisation who were equally keen to avoid the truth coming out.

I have a lot for which to thank the Belarus Embassy. They offered me sanctuary – an escape from the relentless pressure in Aberdeen. I took to going down there and taking up residence at their invitation in their guest flat. It was an escape as I started to attend events with the Ambassador, have long conversations about art particularly Chagall, theatre, music, and the respective pressures we were both under in our work. He came a valued friend. We did normal things like eat pizza and his extraordinarily bad attempts at cooking in the flat “above the shop”. He believed I was the reincarnation of the Grand Duchess of Lithuania and Queen of Poland Barbara Radziwill and had beautiful boxes commissioned as a gift for me featuring her on her own and with her husband August Sigismund the Second. He bought me long stemmed roses. He took me away from the darkness for short periods. It was to no avail ultimately as I was on a downward spiral and it was to damage both of us. The clouds were gathering. The vultures were hovering.

My drinking back in Aberdeen was getting worse and worse. Every day the list of things I could not do increased. One day I could make a phone call, the next day I could not without a slug of anything alcoholic. The day I realised the effect all of this had on me was when I was at a meeting of section heads. They were discussing some project that I knew somewhere inside me I cared deeply about. However, when asked about it, I felt nothing. I said “I have no opinion”. At that stage I knew that something profoundly wrong had happened to my personality. I left the room, packed up my desk and walked out. That was the start of a whole year on sick pay.

Woman falling

I thought I WAS my work. When I realised I could no longer do it, I felt as though it was me who had died. That feeling was increased when my colleagues immediately demanded that I come in and collect my remaining belongings or they would end up on a skip. I dragged myself round there in a very vulnerable state to find my things, including gifts from children in Chernobyl like two small glass birds, had been thrown into boxes with no care or compassion, just contempt.

My GP who was also the Council’s Occupational Health Doctor had been trying to persuade me for some time to leave as the place was too toxic. He could not of course go into details but he said I was one of many colleagues being treated for stress, that it was a sick place and I would only get more ill if I remained there. However, I was devoted to the work, to the communities overseas I was helping and from whom I was learning. I had stayed on way too long and indeed I was very ill by this time. When I told him about the demand that I come in and collect my things before they threw them out, he said “they want to remove any trace of you”. By this time I wanted to remove any trace of myself. I did this by drinking myself to oblivion all day and every day. If I was my work, and I now could not work, I no longer existed. This was what it was it felt like.

My health worsened and I spiralled into debt. The Belarus Embassy continued to try to be helpful but I was being dragged into quicksand. I was in freefall. I remember overhearing Embassy staff saying “she is killing herself”. I was already dead as far as I was concerned.

thZE9PIRSA

I had been formally diagnosed with “work-related PTSD”. The doctors deliberately added “work-related” as they were urging me to take legal action. They were prepared to act as witnesses. I agreed. I had some odd idea that decency would prevail. It of course did not. I found people whom I thought were friends avoided me in the streets, whereas others whom I had not considered friends turned out to be angels in disguise.

Of course, the Council went into full defensive mode when the legal action was commenced by my trade union. Every effort was made to find other stressors for which to blame my decline into mental despair and alcohol misuse. I was summoned before a psychiatrist in Edinburgh. I went with Mum and Dad as they wanted to show him I had a decent and supportive family. I answered his questions as honestly as I could. Somehow he twisted the most innocent statement into something negative. He asked me if my sister had ever taken drugs. I replied “She’s a teenager. I have no idea”. That came out in my statement as “her sister is a known drug addict”. I can say quite categorically that this was not the case. This psychiatrist had clearly been chosen for a reason. Impartiality was not on his radar. It was distressing for my entire family.

And they decided to blame my “inappropriate” relationship with the Ambassador of Belarus and reported him to his Ministry.

Then the threats started. The female “friend” of our then Lord Provost who was the Leader of the Council involved in the incident in Homiel Margaret Smith, threatened me in the street. I recall her words exactly “you’d better watch what you are about”.

I got offered a voluntary job working for a European-funded youth project. They welcomed me with open arms given my experience of getting European funding. However when I arrived all keen to be useful again on day one I noticed something odd. I was early and spotted an erstwhile colleague from my old department scuttling hurriedly out of the building. When I got in, there was a very odd atmosphere. The warmth had gone. I was told to sit in an office and then a highly apologetic member of the charity staff asked me to leave the building immediately. They had had threats that their Council funding would be removed if I was allowed to do this unpaid voluntary job. I left the building. I had to. I could not allow this excellent charity to be damaged because of my presence.

So the punishment was to make me a pariah in the City in which I was born. And what did I do to dampen the pain? I drank. I drank to reach the stage where I felt nothing and it was taking more and more alcohol to reach the desired stage.

This was the beginning of the downward spiral. I had committed the crime of telling the truth and the punishment was to be meted out in full. But it was only the start. Things were to get so much worse.

Downward Spiral

I loved my job and I was good at it. I remain heartbroken at its loss. I do not miss the City, and I certainly do not miss the City Council. I miss being able to make a difference to people like the wonderful citizens of Homiel who gave me more than I gave them. I will never fully recover from this grief.

Grief.jpg

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The Truth Will Out

My return to Aberdeen along with the coffins containing the remains of my colleagues was the start of a spiral downwards for me. I was still under the illusion that this had all been a tragic accident.

In my office, a bunker had been created of those in the know who were desperately trying to keep a lid on the whole thing. I was admitted into the bunker. I was told I was to visit the widow of my colleague Iain who drowned as and when she needed me. I agreed as I felt that I had been in her place, the last one to see her husband should have been her. She had a four week old child and a four year old child who did not understand what happened to her Daddy.

I attended funerals reluctantly and an official memorial went out live on radio. I translated for Mikhail Gaponenko from Homiel. We will retain happy memories of them, is how he concluded his speech.

Then I found out. The Leader of the Council and I will name her, Margaret Smith was there that day. As soon as it became clear that Iain and Ann were missing she took the film out of Ann’s camera. I still wonder to this day what kind of mind would immediately go into “hide the evidence” mode. She had the photographs printed privately and in a drunken state, arrived at my flat late one night to show me them. They were disgusting. They showed what was beyond a drunken party featuring Belarusian and Scottish politicians. I mean, how dare they have an orgy without me invited? The Chief Executive Anne Mearns put it to me in true Jean Brodie style “I understand there was something of a libidinous gathering”. I am not averse to the odd Belarusian piss up but this was something else. It looked vile, degrading and devoid of any standards whatsoever given that this was an official visit paid for ultimately by taxpayers.

And the horrible truth was that Ann and Iain met their deaths as they were having sex behind the boat. They were at a blind spot where they could not be seen by the captain. So when the boat became loose of its moorings the Captain could not have seen they were there, he turned on the engine and the result was their deaths. I met the young man in charge of the boat that day. He went to prison. He did not deserve to.

How this impacted on me was immense. I knew that Iain was not the saintly father figure that his widow thought he was. I was still visiting her always accompanied by an HR officer and listening to her “he was such a lovely man” stories. The truth started rising in me. I could feel it growing up and taking hold of my throat. I begged to be released from my “dealing with the widow” duties as I might just tell her the truth.

The Belarus Embassy were very supportive at this time. A group of them went to Selfridges to buy toys for the two children who lost their father. They handled it all with such humanity and genuine caring that I will never forget. However they wanted assurance that there would be no legal action against Belarus. I was assured and believed, that there would be no such action.

With that in mind, we arranged a visit to Homiel for the widow and her family. We had lunch on the boat that was involved that day and in Belarusian style, they set out a place at the table including glass of vodka, for the departed. On reflection I recall the representative from the Ministry of Transport trying to tell us the truth. But we were all so engaged with ensuring the widow would not find out what really happened.

I recall with absolute clarity when the world turned upside down for me. On the last day, the widow and her brother produced a legal document. They were going to sue the Republic of Belarus. They had assured me that the visit was entirely to help them cope with the death of Iain. I had no idea at all that there was another agenda. We had played into this by not being honest as to how they died. The Belarusian Government agreed to pay compensation covering all educational fees for the two children. The widow swiftly remarried and relocated to South Africa.

The effect on me was immense. Even my parents had a visit from the Lord Provost telling them not to talk to me about any of it. There was panic in the air and I, as acknowledged truth teller was a danger to them.

The pressure on me to lie is what caused my PTSD.

Time is a River Without Banks.

I sensed already that no good would come of Ann, my boss, visiting Belarus. We were together in Belgium the week before at a conference. We were in Place des Martyrs before going to visit the chapel where the statue known as Our Lady of Aberdeen is situated, Ann would not take a card featuring the statue of Mary with an anchor presented to Brussels by Catholics of Aberdeen . At that point I just knew.

I was having counselling at the time with a wonderful nurse as the stress of my work was still affecting me. I remember telling her that felt in my guts that Ann should not go to Belarus.

The day it happened, I was called to the office of my CEO who said she and Iain another colleague were missing presumed drowned. They decided to send me over to Belarus immediately. It is a good job I had my passport in my desk. I headed for London to get a visa. I was contacted at this point by a wonderful detective from Grampian Police. He offered to come with me as he knew about repatriation of human remains. He was a friend of my Dad’s. We met at Gatwick and the whole adventure started.

The British Embassy in Minsk failed to meet us on arrival. Just to add to the general madness, France were playing Belarus in a World Cup qualifier. This meant there were no hotel rooms to be had. I bribed our way into a suite. Then I bribed a random driver to take us the next day to Homiel.

By this time. they had found what remained of Ann. She had been dragged into the propellers of a boat and was dismembered. Iain was dragged down after her so he drowned and was found further down the river. They had dredged the river and found some ten other corpses. We have no idea to this day who they were.

Before going into the mortuary, I asked them to tell me what I was going to see. I wanted to minimise any shock. In true Belarusian fashion they thought I meant I did not want to see their private parts. They placed embroidered doylies strategically on each corpse like Belarusian folk art fig leaves. Somehow their doing so helped me get through it. I was kicked in the back by a leg of one of the corpses on stone slabs. But most of all,it was the smell I can’t forget. There was a forest of bodies and no refrigeration.

We identified what remained of Ann by fragments of her hair and one eye. There was so little of her left. Iain was on a slab, bloated through having been in the river for so long. They waved his right hand in my face. They were trying to get my confirmation that I recognised his wedding ring. Belarusians wear their wedding rings on the right hand. The Detective stood behind me in case I passed out.

He was no wimp. He had worked on the Piper Alpha Disaster but he cried. I didn’t. All I could think of was the families waiting at home for the return of their loved ones. I wish I had cried. I was sowing the seeds of PTSD without knowing it.

We had a meeting with the Homiel Council and I sensed who was involved  that day. Detective Inspector Neil said he could see in my body language who I knew was partly responsible. Apparently I leaned slightly across the table towards this man. According to Neil I scared the living daylights out of him by that one simple movement. It goes to show how precarious the balance of power can be.

Neil was all for getting in the international undertakers Kenyons to take over. I started kicking him under the table as I could sense how important it was for the Belarusians to be involved as they felt deeply responsible. I whispered “let them do this”. I dismissed the largely useless representatives from the British Embassy and went with my gut feeling that we could do this ourselves in partnership with our trusted Belarusian friends.

We needed to find aluminium to line the crates that the coffins would be transported in. They took us to a watch factory who donated not only enough aluminium but also plaques for the coffins. The coffins were provided by Belarusian carpenters.

Neil got to know the Belarusian Militia over a very drunken lunch. They were worried that he was investigating them which he was not. He had small key rings of handcuffs which he handed to each Belarusian policeman. He asked me to translate “this is for your wife”. It was a clever way of using police humour to build trust. He then decided to phone my Dad back in Scotland. He said “your daughter is a gem”.

The only time I cried was I was translating the death certificates on an ancient Soviet computer which kept crashing. I wanted to find a better word for “raschlenenye” than “Dismemberment” to make it easier for Ann’s family. There is no other word.

Given I had chartered a planeload of Aberdonians to visit their project partners in Belarus, there were a lot of us in the City at the time.  I arranged a memorial service at the Orthodox Cathedral so we could all mark this shocking event. My one major memory of this was the arrival on the scene of the man from the watch factory. He was rather drunk but he lurched his way to the front of the cathedral and crossed himself. It was his day off, but he wanted to pay his respects. This is the spirit of Belarus. They cared and felt personally responsible for what happened. It was not their fault.

FA5FFF90-9F60-4A4E-B60A-42E73B502A57

Homiel Cathedral

Neil and I drove behind the refrigerated lorry. It was a hot summer. We had to make sure the lorry was cold enough. It meant stopping off every ten minutes or to check the temperature.

The Belavia plane was not big enough to cope with the crates so we sent them via Frankfurt on Lufthansa. I met before that with our Ambassador Sir John Everard in a car park. I just said “give me blank letter headed paper with your signature on them so I can fill in any details they require”. At the airport I felt my handbag was heavier than it should be and realised that a kitten had attached herself to it.

I was still under the illusion that this was all a tragic accident. It was only when I got back to Aberdeen that, after a visit to my home late at night by the very drunk Leader of the Council who was there that day, I was made aware of what really happened that day.

What traumatised me was not the horrific scenes but the hypocrisy and the cowardice of those who sought to hide the truth. It instilled in me a lifelong loathing of people who live according to these warped ‘values’. These are themes that will recur in future blogs, from talking about the aftermath of the accident up until more recent times and my experiences with certain parts of the NHS.

Certainly, my life was changed forever by the experiences around the events of that day. I bear the scars even now and the fact I am writing this as an inpatient in hospital on my mobile is testament to this. Time, as Chagall described in his work, is indeed a river without banks and I may never reach the shore.

F2EBD9E2-6FD1-4C37-9578-48B323E0B525The River Sozh, Homiel Region, scene of the accident

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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.

 

Spaced out. A Highland Fling & my first Full Rasputin.

Though the bulk of my work in Aberdeen was running projects in Belarus and Zimbabwe and also looking after foreign delegations such as the belching Chinese of Kunming, I ended up in some rather unexpected places too.

One of these places was the then semi Secret City of Zhukovsky, centre of aviation and space research. It is in Moscow Region and now just part of the City but then it was only starting to emerging from official non-existence.

Zhukovsky was deeply involved in space programmes. Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut, trained there at the Gromov Flight Research Institute in the City.  It was also where they test flew the MiG fighter aircraft.

How I ended up there had nothing whatsoever to do with any of that stuff. The Scottish Fiddle Orchestra had approached my office to try to find an amateur orchestra with which they could link in the USSR. The best orchestra in this category, which is still very much alive, was the Zhukovsky Symphony Orchestra. Zhukovsky was a City of Scientists and so it was considered important to give attention to the cultural side of life to keep these top brains from losing the plot perhaps. We were put in touch with the orchestra through the Soviet Embassy and off we went to meet them.

The first visit I don’t remember very much. I was billeted with a family as there were no hotels for foreigners what with the then “Secret” status. I was right at the top of a tower block with a lovely teacher and her mother. What I do remember is the MiGs flying lower than our floor almost deliberately weaving through the tower blocks.  You could see the whites of the pilots’ eyes. I was to realise that Test Pilots are a breed apart. Their job is to take a plane to extremes to check whether it is going to crash. It gets to their heads after a time, I can assure you.

We then invited people from the Zhukovsky City authorities and the orchestra to the UK to attend the annual shindig concert by the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall. The orchestra would travel down through Scotland collecting musicians and Caledonian Society types otherwise known as “teuchters”  in what was described as a ceilidh in a distillery on a train. The Royal Albert Hall concert replicated that. It was normal to see kilt-clad madmen doing the Highland Fling in the Albert Hall boxes. I remember I ended up dancing a Gay Gordons in the corridor of the RAH with the First Secretary of the Soviet Embassy. It wasn’t the kind of concert to which the Russian orchestra were accustomed but I think they loved the anarchy of it all.

From that, it was decided a Cultural Agreement would be signed between Aberdeen and Zhukovsky which of course required an official visit by a delegation led by our Lord Provost, of whom I have written previously, the Director of our Art Gallery Ian McKenzie-Smith, and myself.

This time, it was way more formal than the first visit. We had constant KGB presence and were filmed at all times. In terms of accommodating us, they clearly had a problem due to aforementioned lack of hotels for foreigners. That was why, in the depths of winter, we found ourselves in the middle of a snowy forest, in a sanatorium for former military and KGB Officers. I have stayed in some strange places in my time, but this really was something. All I could hear was the wind howling through the trees. There were lots of people in white coats floating down corridors like the ghosts of KGB past. One night Ian came knocking at my door. He’d had a note shoved under his door in Russian and asked me to translate it. I remember exactly what it said

Comrade, your appointment with the Gynaecologist is at 8am tomorrow morning.

Colour drained from Ian’s face

I don’t have to go, do I?

One evening, we were invited to join the inmates at their “social evening”. They all seemed to operate in slow motion so I am pretty sure they were all heavily drugged probably to prevent them from regressing to the old days interrogating people in the Lubyanka which might not help the therapeutic process what with pulling one another’s teeth out and connecting their bits to the electrics. This evening took the form of a visit by two well-past-their-prime “ballroom dancing professionals”. When I try to visualise them, I can only think of the two ballroom dancers on Hi-de-Hi. They were more barnacled than sequinned.

Hi de Hi dancers

I however decided this was so bizarre I might as well join in. I was up on the floor doing the tango, the cha-cha, the quickstep (the not-very-quickstep in the case of my dance partners). I had done ballroom dancing as a teenager and hated it but was very good at it so these KGB retirees got treated to my full repertoire including a bit of Saturday Night Fever which seemed oddly apt. The upshot of it was, I was declared best dancer and was given a collection of Marina Tsvetaeva poetry as a prize. I treasure that book still.

We were given the privilege, so I was told, of being shown their aviation and space facilities which to be honest I found rather deadly dull. Who cares if it’s the biggest wind tunnel in the world? I hate flying anyway. However, the former test pilot accompanying us, Sergei (name changed for obvious reasons) was of a great deal more interest. Actually he was also our KGB minder as I later found out. My late Mum always said I was never going to settle for a fisherman from Buckie and she was right. A KGB Officer, half bonkers due to being a test pilot whose plane had spectacularly failed the test, with a wife in tow somewhere was IDEAL! This started a long distance romance of sorts which was great in that I didn’t really do intimacy so having a few countries between us most of the time was rather helpful. I could then go over there when I felt like it and more importantly, leave when I felt like it.

I spent a week with him at the St Petersburg Air Show with a bunch of fellow truly off-their-trollies pilots. They had made their own aircraft out of God knows what – bits of string and sticky back plastic one imagines. They had flown from Moscow to Canberra on these things. They told me the only medical supplies they had on board were vodka and pure alcohol. One was for stomach complaints the other for colds. I can’t remember which way round.

I was introduced to the famous Cosmonaut Igor Volk. He was leader of a group of Cosmonauts named the Wolf Pack (Volk is Wolf in Russian) and had made many successful missions into space. He was to be the pilot of their equivalent of the shuttle – the Buran. It had been test-flown already to the edge of space and I got to sit inside it. I have a burnt tile from it in my flat somewhere. I didn’t think much of this encounter but on return to Aberdeen started to get letters from space enthusiasts telling me how lucky I was. My impression of Igor was that he had been a bit scrambled by going into space or it might just have been the vodka/pure alcohol combo.

Igor V

At this time in my work I was getting increasingly stressed due to the bullying culture in Aberdeen City Council. After a particularly stressful visit to the Soviet Embassy when they locked me in, I started getting migraines where I would be unable to see properly for several hours. On another visit to Sergei, I arrived off the overnight train from Belarus to Moscow, looked in the mirror and said out loud “God you look like shit”. The migraines were every day by now. Sergei noted this and decided without telling me, to do something about it. That something was unforgettable.

He said we were going to the home of a TV producer. Sergei ran a TV station as a sideline. We sat having tea and nice normal chat in this Moscow flat and then it changed…

They started telling me about this famous “Healer” who was a medical doctor but used his apparent “special powers” in his work at a major Moscow hospital.

Sounds really interesting I said, trying to be polite.

Maybe you would like to meet him?

I thought to myself,

Yes in the fullness of time, roughly on the day of the freezing over of Hell.

He’s in the next room. We’ll bring him in to help you.

At this point I remember thinking I am not ready for the Full Rasputin, I am happy with my Migraine tablets from Boots thanks very much etc.

When he appeared, he wasn’t at all Rasputin-like which was slightly disappointing. He was an ordinary looking Russian in a bad jumper. I did not want him sitting opposite me as I didn’t want him delving into the dark alcoves of my mind. Sergei beckoned for him to sit opposite me. He said

She doesn’t want me to sit there, I will sit here

Oh Fuck.

I was still holding my cup of tea – a nice Lomonosov china number with saucer – and the teacup was rattling as I was shaking so much by this time. He sat next to me and said precisely this

Do you want to know why you looked like SHIT this morning? (repeating my exact words to myself on the train).

I had given in by this time as I knew he was for real. He stood behind me. I heard him crack his knuckles. He put his hands on my head. There was immense heat. He took his hands away and I felt what I can only describe as an emission of a vast rush of energy escaping right out of the top of my head.

He then sat and told me a few things about myself. He said

Your problem is, you are ready to give people 100% and when you only get 30% back your Soul gets weaker.

This was true then and still is.

The migraines were really because my working environment had become so toxic. The Chief Executive was the Stalin of the Western Isles. He would physically and verbally assault colleagues at all levels so there was an ingrained atmosphere of terror throughout the building. This Healer started to talk about this which again was rather freaky. He said not to worry as something was about to happen.  I was not convinced. It was all very well to be doing flashy Healer stuff in a room but to sort out a maniac from Stornoway working in an office in Aberdeen remotely from Moscow would have tested even Rasputin himself.

I got back into my flat after this extraordinary trip, dumped my bags and without even taking my coat off, turned on the TV. There was my Trade Union rep being interviewed on the news, for the first time going public about the bullying culture perpetrated by the Chief Executive. The first words I heard her say were

Fear stalks the corridors of the Town House.

Things were about to change drastically, just as the Healer predicted….

But that’s for another blog.

 

 

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.

 

 

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)