In Vino Veritas 19

The crowd surrounding Esmeralda was impressive. The main attraction was the car with an engine in the boot. Not a lot of those around. The interest in the mechanic was rather more desultory, perhaps fueled by a sense that he was pretty clueless. Unfair. The VW engine was and is a very clever bit of Teutonic engineering. A flat four boxer engine, air cooled, it neither freezes nor boils.


So far so good. As a kid, this mechanic had a bit of experience with car engines, at least enough to know the basics. The culprit was usually fuel or electrics. Petrol no problem, now, where was the distributor? Take that to bits and where the hell would I get a set of points, let alone install them? What I could try, following the advice of the previous owner, was to see if the plugs were oiling up. The only item in the ‘tool kit’ was a socket spanner for exactly that purpose. A search began for the plugs. My exploration was not helped by a load of interested heads peering into he engine bay and following every move.
My air of quiet confidence did not fool anybody.
Heavy snow was falling, the air temperature well below zero. Freezing.

EUREKA! I found the plugs and a couple of skinned knuckles later I got them out. They looked as though they had been dipped in oil. As I had no emery paper or feeler gauges, all they got was a basic drying off.
She started at first crank. The audience was most impressed, more importantly, my sense of relief was palpable. What if this had happened on a lonely road, in the dark, about 100 kilometres from anywhere, with heavy snow drifts and the wind chill temperature around minus 20C. No heating whatsoever. Hmmmm…

Off to Moscow. This is a journey of about 710 km, driving time about 9 hours. By Russian standards this is rather like popping down to see Aunt Anastasia, a mere scratch on the map. Progress was good, and in due course, we decided to stop for lunch. Before that, I nipped off the roadside for a slash, and stepped softly into space. Well, snow space. It was rather like going down in a faulty lift, there was no resistance whatsoever. Eventually I got to the ground floor, with the top of my head just showing above the snow line. Panic receded, climbing commenced.


Ah, lunch. Our cooker was a little Gaz burner with a single flame and bottle. Pretty basic. The unit was placed in the footwell and coaxed into life, hoping all the while that a waft of petrol fumes had not insinuated themselves into the car. That would have livened things up no end. To have attempted this exercise outside would involve heating the whole of Russian air space. The food was edible, pre-packed anodyne anything. A food writer would have placed it somewhere between early and middle nothing. However, it was better than the alternative. Veg and Vegan hadn’t been invented. [This blog editor would surely have perished]


Our route to Moscow took us quite close to the town of Zagorsk, north of the city. Some years later, I revisited this town as part of a Russian package holiday. Our guide was an epitome of Komsomol, a Soviet youth whose brief was to show a load of capitalist tourists the neutered dinosaur of Russian Orthodoxy. His indifference to this task matched that of his tailor… couldn’t care less. He showed us to a splendid church where a service was in progress. He stayed put and relaxed into the arms of an evil cigar.

Another Matisse moment. As the door closed behind us, the darkened scene slowly materialised. Bathed in the heady aroma of incense the glorious iconostasis glowed, the little babushkas sang like angels and the service proceeded. Glory again. How far back in time would this have been played out? Deep involvement was immediate in this other sublime magical world. One did not have to be a born again anything, or even not born at all to be transported to this kitsch free place of deep devotion. Like Bach’s B minor mass, an indelible memory.

Another ‘cordon zero’ meal was prepared and soon after that Moscow hoved into view. I hoped there were more people here than greeted Napoleon and there might be the odd PECTOPAH making an appearance. Esmeralda purred. Deo gratias…

Previous Chapter

In Vino Veritas 18

Suitably attired, we wnt off to the restaurant. And what a restaurant! Loads of chandeliers, plenty of rich brocade… the whole was redolent of a glorious imperial past.

Episode 18

As part of the ‘post Matisse’ calming down, the prospect of a good dinner was a fine distraction. Esmeralda WAS sulking, she needed the help of some very willing and good natured Russians to give her a push start. We eventually got our petrol but the notion of sauntering down to Moscow the following day was cause for anxiety.

Anyway, suitably attired, (including my old friend, the linen suit) we went off to the restaurant. AND what a restaurant!

Here was our ageing dowager incarnate. Loads of chandeliers, plenty of rich brocade, furniture not quite right, but pretty ornate as were the table settings. The whole was redolent of a glorious imperial past. As we sat down, we would not be surprised if Prince Bolkonsky and Natasha Rostova stepped out of the pages of War and Peace and wondered if they could join us for a couple of aperitifs. Our company was more mundane but agreeable enough and slightly bemused by their antipodean table sharers. A combination of fractured words and descriptive gestures sort of communicated. Somewhere between the main course and the sturdy Russian pudding the world changed.

Sadly I don’t have my own photograph, but this shows the Palkin, one of the oldest restaurants in St Petersburg.

Some ten years earlier, at the dreaded secondary school, we were lucky enough to have dancing lessons. One would keep this fact Sub Rosa, in that, if you bumped into a bunch of your well built rustic contemporaries, you would not announce how well your Scottish Country Dancing was coming along. Added to that, for some reason, I was quite stoked on the big band American music of the twenties and thirties. That fascination is no longer with me but it did crop up with our dancing teacher.
One day she happened to be playing this stuff at full tilt and I said how much I loved it. ‘Why don’t we dance to this stuff?’ I asked. ‘People do,’ came the reply, ‘let me show you the Charleston.’  Five minutes later, I was hooked. Her comment was ‘whether you like it or not, you are a natural with this dance. Be a devil, you clearly love it’. I did and I was good. Amazing turn of events.

Back to our restaurant…

Out of nowhere, a splendid big band roared into life. They had it all, classy trumpet, tenor and alto sax and clarinet soloists, a rhythm section that drove things along at a pace which would have given any American band a run for their money.
I got on the dance floor and re- entered this magic world, oblivious of time or space.


This was my own Russian Sputnik, a self-contained satellite that had its bum on fire and put on such a show. Poor Ronda was a bit upstaged by all this, the dining audience couldn’t get enough of it. Eat your hearts out, Fred and Ginger. I was in the grip of something else, transposed and transported. Talk about dancing all night…but after the third set, the band took a breather, and so did I. Magic, will live forever. My linen suit creaked at the seams but held together.

Later, normal life abruptly returned with my new best Russian friends. This took the form of a little chat between a Ukrainian and Georgian, conducted along pugilistic lines. It seems one of our heavily henna’d darlings had been playing both ends against the middle and the boys would settle the matter as to who would prevail. The bouncers determined the resolution would be decided somewhere along the Nevsky Prospect.

Next day, the drain of ballroom euphoria was accelerated by Esmeralda and her mega-sulk. No amount of cajoling or push starting or even the threat of Siberian exile had the slightest effect. Suddenly Moscow seemed a hell of a long way away. There would be more chance in Leningrad of finding a capitalist advice centre than there would be of coming across a VW garage.
We needed the services of a highly skilled mechanic, or there was me.

Dropped in mid-story? Read the beginning of our road trip here, or start from the beginning of my memoirs, way back in Tasmania…

In Vino Veritas 17

Episode 17

So, onwards to the town of Vyborg. After our adventures it was quite late before we fetched up at our ‘restaurant’. With a bit of transliteration it comes out in Russian as PECTOPAH, pretty easy to recognise. Good old St. Cyril, his alphabet (particularly when almost hand written on road signs) is pretty tricky, it became even trickier in the dead of night.

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The menu, at first glance, seemed impressive. In our subsequent meetings with stray westerners, (mostly stringers for western media), they pointed out that the menu was the same whether one was eating in Vyborg or Vladivostok, or any point in between.
The correlation of what was writ and what was in fact available, was very slight, if it existed at all.
In the event, food was provided and then we set off for Leningrad, as it then was. The journey was only 140 kilometres, a mere crossing the road by Russian standards, but the driving conditions were treacherous…AND….was Esmeralda sulking the teensiest bit?

In 1949, ‘The Third Man’ movie was produced. It was set in post war Vienna, an exhausted, cynical and wholly joyless city. This was compounded by the stunning cinematography and the musical score. Anton Karas’s ‘Harry Lime’ theme was a perfect fit. It all came flooding back. Did it ever.

I could hear the zither playing as we descended the hill into Leningrad. Darkened streets, everything either black or in shadow, or somewhere on the grey scale. Lifeless, eerie and almost menacing. We were the only thing that moved. Freezing. Dead.

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Leningrad USSR 1979 Photo Credit: Masha Ivashintsova / Masha Galleries

 

Things brightened up at the hotel. A good welcome and a good room. The whole building was a relic of an imperial and extravagant past. Like the city itself it exuded a faded grandeur, rather like an ageing dowager who had seen much better days.
As we checked in, our receptionist turned away from us and opened two huge cupboard doors in order to find something. Over his shoulder one could see an enormous stack of banded US dollars, these were juxtaposed with cases of top class Bordeaux reds and more bottles of single malt than you could shake a stick at.
Finally, the piles of western cigarettes would not disgrace a large tobacconists.
Somebody was doing alright.
The history of the city, from its decimated construction peasant workforce in 1703 to the unimaginable siege from 1941 to 1944 ( both involving the death of at least a million people ) is awesome. Not forgetting 1917 of course.

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RIA Novosti archive, image #324 / Boris Kudoyarov / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Architecturally, a baroque Italianate style abounds, the river Neva winding its way through this faded grandeur. For my part Leningrad meant, most of all, the Hermitage museum and its art collection. At college I came across an article about the Russian collector Schukin, whose collection ranged from Monet to Picasso. How was his judgement? Not bad it would seem. I wondered.

What happened next could have happened yesterday, the memory burns so bright.

The jewels in Schukin’s crown were as magnificent as they were unexpected. Two huge galleries of the great painter and colourist Henri Matisse reduced me to a quivering mass as I contemplated the scale of his achievement. God help us. These were all great works, no bad days, glory upon glory. Deepest joy.

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Images from the Hermitage Museum

But Leningrad had two more tricks up her sleeve, one even more unexpected than the last…

In Vino Veritas 16

 

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At primary school I used to gaze at the big world map in the classroom. For some reason, perhaps sheer scale, the image of Russia never failed to impress. Later this was reinforced by reading the great Russian writers, researching the history and climate, and, of course, the rich musical tradition.
As there was some speculation in the air about when we might return to the antipodes to meet respective families, it seemed like a good idea to pop over to Russia, then have a jolly little scenic journey down to Athens in order to get a ride home on a Boeing 707.
No problem. I had a little chat to our newly acquired Esmeralda of the advertisement about all this and I found her re-assurances comforting. BUT… Her clutch WAS fading.

Bookings were made with the Russian ‘Intourist’, and other more rudimentary preparations put in hand.
At this stage Brezhnev was in charge of that vast country and the Cold War was colder than ever. Speaking of which, the start of our journey was January/February, coinciding neatly with the Russian winter. I know why the French and the Germans failed.

First off to the Hook of Holland, then north to Hamburg, thence to Copenhagen, a ferry to Gothenburg in Sweden. Then a goodly drive through a rather bleak countryside to Stockholm. ‘Headlights’ was a misnomer for Esmeralda’s night driving kit, a warm glow would have covered it. Some of the villages seemed terribly isolated, and being shrouded in freezing fog didn’t help. A winter spent here would not appear in one of those ‘Best winter breaks’ that regularly appear in the Sunday comics.
From Stockholm we got the ice- breaker ferry (hmm …a warning) to Helsinki.
Finland’s relationship with its huge neighbour has always been uneasy, war between them breaking out in the 1940’s. By the time we got there Finland was independent but had to cede territory to the Russians in the process. A warm welcome was not part of the Helsinki Hotel package. It sort of had a police state feel to it, the booking procedure seemed almost clandestine, as though big brother was not far away. Bloody cold all round.
But not for the first, or the last time, a clue for the metaphorical chill could have been to do with the car. She had German transit number plates, this was not good.

Off to Russia! A quick spin along the Gulf of Finland coast road, (Sibelian memory music playing in my head) and, at last, the Russian border blocked our path.
We stopped abruptly. We had to. In a trice, the car was surrounded. We were ordered out.
With a flurry of strobe-like activity, door panels were removed, the petrol tank plumbed, under car mirrors produced, and ‘open the boot and the bonnet!’
The latter occasioned some mirth…’where was the bloody engine?’ (my translation).
The guards were obviously not familiar with Beetle engineering.
We were bundled into the reception area… a sort of college educated cow shed.
Documents were produced and given a thorough going over by the minions. Their grasp of English was slender, Ronda had thoughtfully brought a stack of her mothers letters, which were being read upside down. I kept my humour well concealed.
THEN! BINGO! Rather in the manner of the massive peroration that closes Sibelius 2, our rummage squad hit the jackpot. A COPY OF DR. ZHIVAGO! no less. OH JOY.
The commandant was summoned. After an eternity, a sworn document was produced that would make sure we would take the book home with us. Off we we went to Vyborg.

By now the encircling gloom had given way to a freezing fog which obscured the craters lurking in the Russian road. It was as though the Luftwaffe had just left.

Pitch black. We drove into a claustrophobic menacing forest. Then…

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The distress flare blaze of an intense light screamed into the car. We stopped. More lights appeared, bobbing about, rather like torches. A crash of gears. An army truck pulled in front of us. WHAT WAS THIS?
A load of squaddies spilled out of the truck and opened the car doors. Were they clutching fully loaded AK47’s? NO? They had handfuls of crisp rouble notes and they wanted to do a bit of late night shopping. Would one believe it?
The list was the usual….pens, chewing gum, cigarettes, booze, chocolates. American dollars. Even my jeans! We traded as best we could. It was all good natured and they left.

They could have just as easily dumped the car in a ravine in the forest, throttled the life out of the occupants and taken anything they wanted. Who would know?

A salutary thought.

In Vino Veritas 15

Episode 15 – Wedding plans and executions

The vicar’s eyes raked over me as though I was some reject from a sad car boot sale. He then noted, somewhat frostily, that he did not recall seeing me, or my intended, in the congregation. Had we recently moved into the area.? Of course.
However, I did sense a hint of uncertainty in all this. I guessed that he heard about these Croc. Dundee Oz types who owned Belgium -sized cattle ranches in Western Queensland. Such hints alluding to this might have crept into our conversation.
In any event, he adopted a more conciliatory tone AND did he pick up a whiff of a cash crop not a million miles away?
‘Right’, he said briskly, ‘I think we can help here’.
Before we got to dates and suchlike, he rattled through the assorted expenses involved in all of this. This included his fees,flowers, organist, ushers, documentation and a few other frills. A previous experience came to me mind as the cost of this caper spiralled into some kind of absurdity. I once approached a bookseller regarding the price of a Jane Austen first edition which would have been a lovely birthday present for my avid- reader wife to be. He mentioned a figure approaching the speed of light. My reaction was impressive.I managed ‘studied’, ‘reflective’, ‘will I or won’t I’, ‘Oh, why not?’,all in one bundle. This kept the lid on my side-splitting laughter which would have ripped a gaping hole in this bookish inner-sanctum.
Back to the good vicar. Once again, as we tripped merrily across the £1,000 entry level tag, I played my well thumbed studied response card. Money was no object of course, but I would consult with little flower and get her response. She was not all that stoked on formal procedures, preferring rather the smaller scale ceremonies.

Next day I put in a call to the Wandsworth Registry Office.

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They were very helpful. From a somewhat blurred memory I recall 3 options on offer.
Offer 1: This included flowers, music and a fairly sophisticated ceremony. Offer 2:
flowers and more basic service and Offer 3: No music, no flowers and a bog standard ‘blink or you will miss it’ service. That was about ten quid. Done.
The big day dawned bright and clear. It was a Saturday so I was going to miss out on a double time work day. Not good. Worse, my friend and witness had been on the sauce the night before and was physically and mentally incapable of any kind of participation.
So , Ronda, her friend and witness Jan and I set off to catch the bus. Ronda, by far the most agile of the 3 of us sprinted ahead and got on the bus as it pulled out. She indicated to the driver that she was getting married and would he wait? He indicated something unprintable, dropped the clutch and booted it. We all got there in time.
The area around the office resembled Wembley on cup final day.
I appraised the marshal of my best -man problem and with the practised hand of years of experience, a loud -hailer was produced and the call put out for a witness. An ill fitting suit emerged from the throng. This was Pete, a plasterers mate from Peckham who could ‘dodejob’. His presence was accompanied by an aromatic halo of Watney’s bitter and Capstan Full Strength. A nice guy.

The service was indeed a model of brevity. About midway through this the full impact of these proceedings shot home, rather like slamming home the bolt on an old 303 rifle. This manifested itself in a facial tic which Ronda and Jan spotted at once. They giggled. This got a sharp rebuke from our leader. Silence. The deal was done.

Ronda and Jan set off for a ‘nice cup of tea’. Sod that. I popped into the King’s Head and set about 5 fingers of single malt. I lost the first bit with a final big twitch, then calmed down.

I wonder what happened to Pete.

In Vino Veritas 14

I splashed my way to the welcoming sanctuary of the dimly lit telephone box in Putney High Street…

Episode 14

Gainful employment, as was so often the case in one’s early years, (and still is) becomes a sort of ‘needs must’ shopping. In this instance, ‘shopping’ being le mot juste, as I rejoiced in a period of parcel wrapping in a large department store. The contents of these items were upmarket trinkets for the landed gentry in the Home Counties. At one point I was approached to see if I could double as Father Christmas for the upcoming Yuletide. It seems I must have been the choice of somebody totally unfamiliar with the physique of F.C. My profile was the same as 2 metres of pump water and I had to run round under the shower to get wet.
‘Never mind’, said the line manager, ‘soft furnishings will soon put that right’.

Ronda had started supply teaching in the Peckham /Camberwell area. This experience stood at a bit of an angle, to say the least, to her previous life which involved teaching in a 2 teacher country school in New Zealand.

Domestic arrangements, including the bath/ culinary experience, proceeded in an orderly fashion, until, at one point, the establishment of a long term relationship cropped up. Marriage, in other words. Hmmmm. It fell to me to get this show on the road. What better place to start than the local church? BUT, before that, antipodean parents had to be told of this turn of events.

Stair-rod rain, of almost painful ferocity , greeted me as I splashed my way to the welcoming sanctuary of the dimly lit telephone box in Putney High Street. My pockets bulged with change of varying denominations. The overseas call got underway and a chronological miscalculation immediately became apparent. Tasmanian time was around 3 a.m. Worse, the rain had re- doubled it’s efforts and, as I gazed out of the misted up window, I could see a queue had gathered around the phone box.
OH GOD! Even worse, my father was pretty deaf and my mother had to relay all the info, or if I spoke to him, I had to scream down the line. This information was immediately picked up and transmitted down the ever lengthening queue.
‘He’s getting married’, ‘Really? How lovely!’, ‘She’s called Ronda’. ‘Is that Welsh?’ ‘No, she’s a kiwi.’ ‘His dad wants to know if he has enough money…ahhh, isn’t that nice…No, She’s not pregnant…where do they live?…Tasmania, I think…So he’s Australian….when are they going home? Missed that bit…..She’s a teacher, he’s an…’

BOOM! A mighty thunderclap.

The conversation became a broadcast. A sort of grotesque game of Chinese whispers – or Chinese screams. The rain hurled down.

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The drenched women were really OK in a sort of sentimental way and gave us best wishes for the wedding. The lantern jawed, cloth- capped men who were frantically trying to call about future employment, rather less charitable. And worse, the pubs were about to shut.

Later, I set off to have a chat with the vicar…

In Vino Veritas 13

Episode 13

Life in swinging London was in non-swing mode, not helped by my sad ‘digs’ in downtown Putney. An upstairs room in fact. In real estate parlance it would be described as a ‘builders dream’ or, depending on your situation, a dreary dump. I can still see the only form of ventilation. It consisted of one of those 15cm acrylic fans that are let into windows. Wow. What with that , the Pompeii walls and threadbare carpet, this boudoir was not quite the ticket if I could get my hands on a bit of that mini skirted, wide-eyed womankind as seen on TV. Not only that, every move I/we made would be tracked on the owners domestic grapevine. No doubt of that. This would not do. Will fix. In the meantime a trip to Wales seemed in order.

My companion was another Kiwi, male this time , and unemployed.
Two of the images from this sojourn in the mining valleys still remain. Although there is, or was, plenty of mining on the West coast of Tasmania, (including the hazards associated with this industry), they did not approach the scale of Aberfan. It must have been in late October that, by chance, we saw the massed grave of 144 people, 116 of them children, who were crushed under this collapsed colliery spoil tip. The lowering skies were a backcloth for a scene of utter devastation.

 

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The second indelible memory of this trip occurred when we fetched up at a village pub to have a couple of beers. The natives, exclusively male, were friendly, and, of course, as soon as we opened our mouths, questions of nationality cropped up.
Once the words ‘New Zealand’ were uttered, the translation was immediate.
ALL BLACKS! Then….by some strange alchemy, a good chunk of the bar was cleared, various condiment bottles and napkin holders were placed in strategic points
and a goodly group of the locals gathered and, all very silent, watched proceedings.
THEN, a spokesman intoned, in a wonderful cantabile D Thomas sort of way exactly what happened at Cardiff Arms Park when there was a DISPUTED try in an earlier Welsh/ All Black game, which the All Blacks won. The pieces were expertly moved here and there around the park as the game progressed. The date? Wait for it…1905.

Back to London. After a while, but not with unseemly haste, domestic arrangements took a turn for the better. It must have been that linen suit that did the trick.
It seems that my other New Zealand friend, female this time, she of the table tennis fame, found heavy communal living not to her liking. Thus it was decided, (not discounting my iridescent wit and charm, nor her attractiveness) to put together an alternative arrangement. So, we agreed to implement a ‘cut the numbers’ living proposal.

Our accommodation, near Wimbledon Common, was a first floor flat. Downstairs, our Welsh landlady lurked. Her countenance resembled a map of the Brecon Beacons.
She was also armed with a 3 metre (or so it seemed) broom handle, which was whacked on the ceiling if she heard the slightest noise.
But, the real architectural gem in this place was having the bath conveniently located in the kitchen. If one was wondering what was for the next meal, this could be ascertained by seeing what detritus in the shape of fruit or vegetable offcuts that were bobbing about in the bath. It also facilitated a very convenient way of catching up on the days events whilst keeping a close eye on any boiling water involved in meal preparation.

Earning an income now moved centre stage….very quickly.