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.

In Vino Veritas 12

Episode 12

Our penultimate stop was the very pleasant Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao. The visit was modestly interesting, mildly dignified by a good look at a huge oil refinery. Seen one you have seen them all. But lo!, said oil refinery is still in the news up to this very day if the splendid ‘Curacao Chronicle’ is to be believed. It seems that an American oil outfit has lifted the sanctions it placed on the refinery which has been operated by a Venezuelan state owned company. The Venezuelans have agreed to pay compensation to the tune of 2 billion dollars. One’s mind boggles at how much that would be in Venezuelan Bolivars, what with the current rate of inflation! If it was paid in cash, it could be conveyed in an oil tanker. Quite appropriate.

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After an eternity, Southampton vaguely emerged into view. Well, a thin, grey silhouette of it did.
Low cloud, drizzle, murk. A green and pleasant land lurked somewhere behind the shower curtain. Next stop London, and of course, more precisely, Earls Court. This was a well established Australian ghetto.
I wonder if the sobriquet ‘swinging London’ was, like the ‘ploughman’s lunch’, invented by an advertising agency. A ‘youth driven cultural revolution’ no less. One was attracted by the female look, ‘a mini-skirt, long straight hair and wide-eyed lovelyness’
Gosh. I certainly missed that wide-eyed bus alright. AND…a ticket to this fun- loving hedonism in a ‘shiny epicentre of style’ needed loads of crinklies. My financial epicentre lacked both shine and style.

Getting gainfully employed started on a rather low rung. Not to be confused with Dirk Bogarde, I did a spot of night portering. My movie was rather prosaic and very tiring. At 3 in the morning subservience did not sit well, never more so than with a battalion of South African guests.
Those, of the aristo variety, were cavalier, previously servant supplied and arrogant to the point of loathing. Their baggage seemed to consist of huge bags of recently minted krugerrands which had to be lugged up 5 flights of stairs. They never tipped.

Yet, moments of delight and great fun occasionally appeared.
Again, very late one night, a couple of postbellum Americans lobbed in. I dubbed them Rhett and Scarlett. Rhett glowed with a Jack Daniels tan and desperately wanted some ice for his bourbon. I explained that we had grief in our chilling department and no could do. He pressed on and on. Meanwhile Scarlett emerged from the bathroom crowned by a clutch of hair rollers whose wiring would break German radio codes. Rhett banged on AGAIN.
‘Right’ I said to him, ‘let me give you a simple questionnaire.’ ‘OK,’ he replied.
I went on , ‘If you take the **** out of ‘ice’, what do you get?’ ‘That’s easy,’ he said, ‘there is no ****in ice’. ‘That’s what I have been trying to tell you!’
He roared with laughter.
‘OK’, I said, ‘stay loose and, like general McArthur, I shall return.’ Which I did, clutching a bucket of ice which I nicked from a neighbouring hotel.
His gratitude was far more than a weeks wages, but beyond that a kind of friendship developed during their stay. As he was about to leave, with the oven -ready Scarlett, I presented him with a bottle of Haig’s Dimple. Quite right too.

In Vino Veritas 11

Episode 11

 

100 shades of nothing much.

Never mind the sun being over the yard arm (as I ordered the first rinse of the day) the sun was scarcely over the gunwales when Spiro produced one of several cold beers. Not to forget the wine. The consumption of alcohol as an antidote was not terribly clever. Where have I heard that before?

As for the good reader contemplating a tasty bookstore bodice-ripping romance, disappointment awaits. The blanket of boredom was ubiquitous, even enveloping the morose Latin lovers. My new best friend (aka Ronda, she the Kiwi of table tennis fame) was also a pretty savvy poker player. These were unexpected skills from an infant teacher.
It was 50 years, almost to the day, that I savoured the deep joy of victory in the table tennis endeavour. Meanwhile, other on-board friendships, not quite so predicated on an increasing friendly rivalry, also developed.

The boredom cavalry, cleverly disguised as Tahiti, at last made an appearance.

The island will forever be associated with Gauguin, the French painter. He is, or was, the very embodiment of the truism ‘Death is a great career move’. A concept that his part-time mate Vincent would have also understood. Of course, there was the unfortunate ‘lend an ear’ incident. Oh dear.
I can still imagine Gauguin, in his youth, trying to sell tarpaulins in Copenhagen. He was not aided much in this endeavour by his inability to speak Danish or the Danes did not want to know about his wretched tarpaulins.
His biography has been constructed along the lines of the Russian landscape…
Interminable. Suffice to say, one of his final paintings seemed to encapsulate our sailing predicament. The title is : ‘WHERE DO WE COME FROM? WHAT ARE WE? WHERE ARE WE GOING?’ Amen to that. Somebody less charitable than me has suggested that his work as a painter would have been just as good, if not better, had he stayed in Brittany. Shame on them.
The stopover consisted of a few drinks with the locals in a sort of ethnic watering hole.
The natives were friendly, but they had that sort of posing and world-weariness together with the unspoken assessment of ‘just another sad load of tourists’.

Next stop Panamá, or more precisely, Colon, the city at the other end of the canal, so to speak.
The canal (first considered as a possible goer in the 1500’s) was finally completed in 1916 by the Americans.
A momentous piece of engineering, it’s cost in lives was around 6,000
I imagine some TV gardening guru, with his wheelbarrow and spade, chatting to his allotment audience. With a confident wave of the arm, he announced he was about to shift 150 million cubic metres of soil so as he could start planting next week.
Colon was founded in 1850 as a rail head and faster route for those going to California in the gold rush days. In those days, writing copy for tourist brochures for Colon would have been a nightmare. How would you avoid words like ooze, booze, swamps, alligators, poisonous insects, floating corpses, pimps, prostitutes, hoodlums and dictionaries crammed with notes on tropical diseases. I can just see a gaggle of excited SAGA tourists lining up at the tourist info. office, itching to make a start.

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When we lobbed in, the first thing spotted was lots of pock- marked holes on the Spanish Mission walls. Was this some kind of indigenous insect nesting site? The natives were friendly, if not effusive. We certainly presented no problem, underscored by the fact that they were armed to the teeth. The insects were obviously made of lead.
It seems there had been recent disputes with the Americans over the sovereignty of the canal. At the other end of the canal lies Panamá City, acres of steel and glass, a sort of Central American Dubai. I wonder if there are any air b and b’s in Colon…

Back to the good ship Ellenis. Let’s go! Not l o n g n o w…. . .