Faith in Vera – a tribute to a friend.

Who was Vera Rich?

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Poet, translator, activist, eccentric, Learned Kissagram, or in the words of a senior member of the Moscow Patriarchate “that EVIL woman”?

My Granny called her “the One who Sings”. Vera had taken to calling her at random and singing her translation of the Bahdanovic Romance down the phone at her. She knew my Granda had died and wanted to help. THIS I suggest was Vera.

Venus new-risen above us appearing
Brings with her bright-shining memories of love;
Do you recall when I first met, my dear one,
Venus new-risen above?

From that time forth evermore, skyward gazing
Seeking that planet I’d scan heaven o’er,
Within me a deep silent love for you blazing,
From that time forth, evermore.

But the time of our parting draws near, ever nearer,
Thus does our fate, does our fortune appear.
Deeply, profoundly I love you, my dearest,
But the time of our parting draws near.

In that far country, my love buried deeply,
I shall live drearily, yet, high above
I shall gaze on that planet each night, vigil keeping,                                                                     In that far country, my love!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Gaze upon Venus once more, when far distant                                                                               One from another, there mingling we’ll pour                                                                                   Our glances, let love flower again for an instant…

Gaze upon Venus once more!

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There is a lot of material online about Vera’s achievements as a poet and literary translator, but very little so far that captures what it was like to know her and be her friend. This blog is being written far later than it should have been but at last I have decided to describe impact on my life.

Snapshot from over ten years ago.

Vera had been ill for some time with breast cancer…..What was on my mind at that moment in my roller-coaster friendship with Vera, was not WHO she was, it was rather HOW she was, and then WHERE she was. Was she still alive? Had she survived the operation? If she hadn’t, I was going to have to start putting into place the wishes she had expressed to me regarding what she wanted to happen in such an instance. To summarise:

“If I am still alive but a vegetable, do switch me off before Elspeth and her Pro-lifers get near me. First, you must get a knife, not a fancy one, kitchen canteen will do, and put it in my hand. If not, I will not get to Valhalla”.

“Yes Vera”

“I want to be cremated as I don’t want the fuss. Give half to Ukraine and half to Belarus”.

“Yes, Vera”

I did not expect ever to have to put these plans into action. The day I found out she had died in her home with a copy of Under Milk Wood open beside her, my Dad had remarked “How’s Vera? I bet she’ll go on forever”. Sadly this was not to be.

However, though she had survived that operation only to die a year or so later, she was still giving me problems. I tried Barnet General furnishing them with the name Vera Rich, and giving her date of birth. After that produced no results, I tried other hospitals in London. No luck.

No-one had any trace of Vera Rich.

Where was she?

I sat for a while trying to think of a sensible course of action and in the end decided to go for something that should not in any rational universe, work. I randomly called the Belarus Embassy. She had had a chequered history there as did I, but generally, I felt they might have an eye on where Vera was and what she was up to.

“Hello. I know you probably can’t help but I am very worried about the poet/translator Vera Rich who is very ill, is meant to be in hospital and seems to have disappeared.”

“Ah yes, I don’t know personally but I know someone who does”.

At that I was put through to their First Secretary who said not only did he know where she was, he had seen her a couple of days earlier.

She was being looked after by the Belarusian community at the Church in Finchley.

I called, got her on the phone and after hearing about my adventures in tracing her she said:

I thought you KNEW. My name is NOT Vera, you Bumbaclot, it is FAITH but Slavs don’t have the “th” sound so I translated it into “faith” which of course, is Vera. And besides, you KNOW I don’t like to be found too easily. You never know who might be after me.”

How convenient that she also happened to live in Vera Avenue in Enfield. How very Vera for this to be so.

I was then regaled with tales of how she had fared in hospital. She had had a mastectomy as part of her cancer treatment. She was wearing the wig my mother had given her after her own cancer treatment had come to an end. It was remarked upon that Vera had not looked as well-kempt in years.

I have even managed to find online a photo of her wearing the wig in question.

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She had sailed through the op, and while recovering on the ward, had a feeling that she was meant to BE somewhere. That somewhere was Bush House doing a BBC interview. She sneaked out of her hospital bed, put her coat on over her nightie and headed off in a mini-cab. She told the driver to circle Bush House while she did her interview. At this point he was stopped by the police as his behaviour and middle Eastern appearance had alerted people to suspicious goings on near the BBC. She sorted that out, got back in the cab and was driven back. She installed herself back in her hospital bed and I am not sure anyone even noticed.

Her creative input did not end in hospital. Here is one of the poems she wrote at that time:

Dear Friends…
Accept my gratitude
(Not to send thanks would be most rude!)
For flowers, sweets, get-well cards, cake, fruit,
(My locker-top’s awash with loot!)
But one gift, though most kindly meant,
Rather frustrates your good intent;
Though you were right; if I could choose,
There’s no gift I’d prefer to booze!
But having just lost my left breast
I’m told “Sobriety is best” –
Or rather (not to tell a “story”!)
The Doctor says it’s mandatory!
At least till they remove the “drain”,
I have to keep both gut and brain
Free of all fluids that can cheer!
Yet (Woe is me! Alas! Oh dear!)
So many gifts have come in bottle
To tempt the palate and the throttle
(If you’ll forgive that archaism
For ‘throat’)! If only through the prism
Of vodka, “single malt”, liqueur,
I could perceive the world, my cure
Would, I am sure, progress much faster…
But here the Doctor must be master –
And he proclaims they are taboo!
Well, what he says, I have to do!
But oh, the misery implied!
Consider this, I might have died
Under the knife, so surely he
Could allow one wee dram for me?
No, he will not! And furthermore,
There is no guarantee my store
Of booze will last till I can leave
And take it home! For (please believe!)
All the “kind souls” who visit me
Are so weighed down by sympathy
That (seeing me denied one sip)
THEY all take a substantial “nip”!

And another snapshot:

I had been at her 60th birthday celebration at the Bahdanovic museum in Minsk. It had been an odd visit. I was already very ill without knowing it with PTSD. I had ended up staying with the family of one of the Belarusian diplomats in London. This had not been a good move on my part given that I was expected to be driven around and escorted at all times, and a programme of approved meetings had been arranged to which I was expected to adhere. I don’t think they quite got the British thing of just ambling around people watching and they certainly did not think I would be IDLY ambling. They seemed convinced that I would be ambling with intent.

I did however manage to escape their grip and get to Vera’s “do”. I knew she was well-respected in Belarus for her translations of Belarusian poetry particularly the “three greats” Bahdanovic, Kolas, and Kupala. What I did not expect was the extent to which she  was revered. I arrived early at the museum but already several hundred had gathered arms full of flowers. I managed to squeeze in at the back. She was up at the front in one of her “good” frocks – ie it was just about holding together –  being serenaded by a young Belarusian “bard” with a guitar. He struck up the opening chord of “Romance”. Vera was off. She sang it in English in her slightly wavery but more or less in tune soprano.

Then absolutely spontaneously, the crowd sang it back to her in Belarusian. It is the ultimate in compliments that they considered her translation into English to be almost, if not entirely, equal to the quality of the original. This is where her genius lay. She was first and foremost a beautiful lyrical poet who had the ability to grasp all the mechanics of the languages in which she worked. Her translations were more than literal interpretations of words, they were poetic works in their own right, retaining not just the meaning of the original, but the feelings, the imagery and the music.

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How it began:

How did this whirlwind of creativity and quirkiness end up in my life?

It was not long after the death of my colleagues in Belarus. I was still swept up in the swirling toxicity of the aftermath. I was trapped between the expectations of my employer that I would agree to promulgate a version of the truth that I could not stomach, aka lie, and my loyalties to the Belarusian “side” who were shouldering the blame but who were not to blame. I was trapped fighting daily the growing urge to tell the truth which would grow up with an acid-like intensity in my stomach, grow up my chest and get clogged burning a hole in my throat. To handle this, I was obliterating my feelings with alcohol and other forms of escapism such as disappearing from my office and spending more time than I should at the Embassy of Belarus.

It was the night of the Old New Year Party on 13th January. It proved to be a life-changing event for me in many ways. I met for the first time the stalwarts of the Anglo-Belarusian Society – people like myself who had been entranced in some way by Belarus without being able to understand why. It was the night I danced the polka with the Ambassador who later chased me down the corridor when I tried to leave at a “respectable” hour insisting “real Belarusians stay until the end”.

Earlier he had approached me and said “there is someone you MUST meet”.  I remember exactly where I was standing at this point in the corner by the window, my usual position at parties. Suddenly the crowd seemed to party & skipping towards me in black dancing pumps was this sparkly-eyed lady of a certain age in a black flouncy frock. I don’t remember much about what we talked about. I do know I was nearly flattened against the wall by the sheer force of her intellect, her personality, her sense of fun. at somewhere around midnight when the CDs had been brought out and Engelbert Humperdinck was crooning “Please Release me Let me Go”, appropriately as it turned out on numerous levels, that she had an asthma attack and took her leave.

However half an hour later, the door flung open and she pranced back in again having had a “second wind” of some kind in the taxi. She formed part of a hardcore group of survivors of Olympic-standard Belarusian hospitality sitting round a typical Belarusian table solving the worlds’ problems over yet more vodka and pickles until the early hours.

Daily life with Vera:

From then, she adopted me. I became a handbag carrier, the regular sounding board for her new poems and songs, and one of her Manifold Poets. I became the recipient of Vera’s legendary very early morning phone calls. I recall one at around 6 am when she asked:

“Have I GIVEN you my poem about Queen Victoria’s pain relief?” And without waiting to be asked she launched into it. Only Vera could rhyme Lithuania with “pain her”.

Victoria took marijuana
To dull arthritic pain
(So say the medical arcana
Of her imperial reign!)
And when the hair thinned on her pate
(Although this did not pain her)
She drank (to keep her crown on straight)
Birch-wine from Lithuania!

Sometimes she required more from me than listening to her latest opus. If the call opened with a harassed-sounding Vera demanding “what are you DOING today?” I knew I was in for something unexpected and more than likely bizarre. I ended up pretending to be a journalist writing a review for her of an exhibition about diamonds and heading for Kew to review an exhibition of glass sculptures. I accompanied her on multiple visits to Wetherspoon’s to which she was inexplicably devoted. She knew exactly when the Curry Nights and Pensioner Deals were on in every single branch in Greater London. One was doing a promotion of Ukrainian beer so she got me to ring them to arrange a photo shoot of herself sitting with a few pints. I had to pretend to be her PA. On one occasion, I was summoned to her chaotic house in Enfield. Vera was a hoarder and it was incredibly difficult to get her to part with anything despite many of us trying over the years. I was not given the nature of my mission. It turned out to be cutting down a bush in her garden. I was worried about my clothes but she had a solution. I was presented with a flouncy cocktail dress which had belonged to her mother.  I got stuck in with my secateurs dressed as though I was at a 1950s garden party. A Belarusian arrived with an axe. He started on the trees. He made us flower crowns. Vera drank wine and serenaded us throughout and then we finished with a bonfire and an Indian takeaway. Just an average day with Vera.

What she meant to me:

Only now she has gone do I fully realise the importance of Vera’s friendship. Those years were chaotic for me as I descended into the Hell of PTSD and addiction. Vera was one of the few constants. She did not judge. She was just there and accepted me no matter what state I might have been in. A few years after she died, a mutual friend said she had talked to her about me she had said “Alison will get well but it will take a long time. We all just need to be there for her until she does”.

I miss her.

I wish she could see what I have been able to achieve despite illness. She would have loved to have gatecrashed my presentations, and would have I am sure, convinced me to allow her some airtime to entertain with songs about the NHS. I can see her with the NHS Graduate Scheme whirling like a dervish round the ballroom in Leeds where we hold the Welcome Event every year.

She would have critiqued my writing and adopted any of my friends who showed a poetic bent.

She would have had things to say about our plans to publish a book of her translations of Belarusian poetry to coincide with the 10th anniversary of her death.

Verafinchley

I feel her presence a lot and it seems at times I get messages from her. Not long after her death, I was browsing in a charity shop in Notting Hill when a bookshelf collapsed above me. I was hit on the head by a book which I picked up. It was Vera’s collection of Belarusian poetry in translation “Like Water Like Fire” .

Likewater

Eternal Memory:

Some of her ashes are in accordance with her wishes near the grave of Shevchenko in Kaniv, Ukraine. The rest are interred in the wall of the beautiful wooden church in Finchley built for the Belarusian Greek Catholic congregation of which she was a devoted member. The spot is marked by a beautiful carving created in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, in her memory. She is portrayed as a Princess in a tower watching as St George dispatches the dragon. (She was born on St George’s Day). In fact, she would have taken on the dragon herself. She would have assaulted him with the full power of words, her poetry, her songs, her thoughts on all and sundry.  Mesmerised, the dragon would have slunk off defeated. She would have loved her place in the wall of the Church in Finchley.

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She would have loved that some of her ashes brought her back to Ukraine to rest near the grave of their national poet Taras Shevchenko. This is truly a testament to the deep respect and love for her in Ukraine.

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Most of all, however, she would love the affection, and often humorous memories, her friends hold of her in our hearts. There were many obituaries and given how hard it is to sum up Vera, her life and work succinctly, this from Judith Vidal Hall from Index on Censorship is, I think, came closest to capturing her essence.

“But there was courage too; loyalty as well as determination. In many ways she had, more than many, outlived her Cold War era: she spent her youth battling the tyranny of the Soviet system; her maturity was spent caring for the victims of its residual legatees in Belarus. They will miss her, increasingly, for there will not be another like her. I shall miss her very particular brand of extreme eccentricity combined with humour and the touch of genius.”

And this genius in clear in this translation of the moving poem “Testament” by Shevchenko.

When I die, then make my grave 
High on an ancient mound,
In my own beloved Ukraine,
In steppeland without bound :
Whence one may see wide-skirted wheatland, 
Dnipro’s steep-cliffed shore,
There whence one may hear the blustering 
River wildly roar.

Till from Ukraine to the blue sea  
It bears in fierce endeavour
The blood of foemen — then I’ll leave 
Wheatland and hills forever:
Leave all behind, soar up until 
Before the throne of God 
I’ll make my prayer. 
For till that hour 
I shall know naught of God.

Make my grave there — and arise,
Sundering your chains,
Bless your freedom with the blood 
Of foemen’s evil veins!
Then in that great family,
A family new and free,
Do not forget, with good intent 
Speak quietly of me.

I will not forget, we will not forget, and we will never cease to talk quietly of her (and celebrate as loudly as we can) all that she was and did. 

 

Read more:

Obituaries

https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2010/01/obituary-vera-rich/

https://www.augb.co.uk/news-page.php?id=190

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/european/2016/04/vera-rich-in-memoriam-1936-2009-.html

Works

Translations and own poetry

https://allpoetry.com/Vera_Rich

Comprehensive bibliography including articles on Human Rights for various publications.

https://wikivividly.com/wiki/Vera_Rich

 

 

 

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.

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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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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.