Tag Archives: Putin

Apostrophising a Turd

Have you noticed how real things eventually turn into musicals? Billy Elliot started life as an indictment of the cruelty and small-mindedness of Mrs Thatcher’s Britain and is now a musical. The last musical that I actually attended was also a Billy, decades ago. It had started life as Billy Liar, a lovely sad film about dashed hopes and chances not grasped. The young Michael Crawford was mugging for all he was worth, which was less in those days. I remember his apostrophising a turd, (‘Sink, you bugger!’), which my Aunty Sheila, with whom I saw the performance, thought de trop. (Actually the last musical I saw, I now remember, was Salad Days, because my godson was performing in it. Thankfully, Salad Days has absolutely no dark antecedents at all – and no turds.) Now we have Made in Dagenham, the struggle for sexual equality in the workplace rendered in song, dance and nostalgic frocks.

Not to mention Carmen on Ice.

It leads you to wonder, as you make your way through life, how your immediate experience might in twenty years’ time be rendered on the Shaftesbury Avenue stage. (I say ‘make your way through life’, although most of the time in my experience life happens to you whether you are making your way through it or not. In principle I like the positive approach taken by the weather-casters who are always ‘heading into Tuesday’ – though when Tuesday arrives one often wishes it hadn’t.)

This thought occurred to me the other day. I had been invited to a preview of a sale to be held by one of the great auction houses. It was of Russian art. Most of my fellow invitees seemed to come either from Russia or the countries formerly nestling contentedly in the Soviet bosom which Mr Putin now WANTS BACK. Most of them were women and they were beautifully made up and dressed – if possibly intimidatingly so, given that it was quite early in the morning. One of them – she was most attractive, in perhaps her early thirties and with extremely large earrings – kept giving me a meaningful look. I was intrigued. Then I noticed that she was giving the same meaningful look to everyone else and indeed to the exhibits. It must have been the first time that some of the dour representations in oils of endless birch forests had been subjected to such a look. But there it was: her face was immutable. The placidity with which she and her fellows drifted around the rooms (or ‘the Rooms’, as they are called in the great auction houses), their extreme elegance and the mask-like beauty of their features suggested a dance – a masque in fact. I thought back to the way Cecil Beaton had dressed My Fair Lady, even more decades ago than Billy, when I was a child and taken for a treat. It was towards the end of that musical’s very long run and it looked, frankly, tatty. But when Beaton’s frocks were new they might have merited comparison with these glorious creatures.

I thought about their husbands. They were much too busy to attend the preview but would no doubt, on the recommendation of their wives and with suggestions from their consultants as to desirable lots and cunning bargains, be at the sale itself. They would be less elegant. Their uniform was newly laundered Levis, open-necked white shirts and blazers. They would hold paddles and thrust them into the air with their stocky little arms. They did not recall Cecil Beaton. They did however suggest a dance. I imagined them stomping round the stage in Indian file. They are chanting sotto voce:

Russian Art and
Works of Art
Fabergé and
ICONS!

The last word is shouted and they all wave their paddles in the air; then sotto voce again for the reprise.

There are the makings of something really positive here. I’ll ask Christies to provide some seed money. Maybe Michael Crawford could be tempted out of his gilded retirement to shout ‘Sink, you bugger!’ at a piece by Chris Ofili.

But to go back to my original point, what on earth do Fabergé and icons have in common, except their lowest common denominator as trophies?

Anyway, I was taking the dog for her walk in West Ham Park the other day and thinking of this. I may even have been muttering under my breath:

Russian Art and
Works of Art
Fabergé and
ICONS!

People do mutter there. It’s all right. Though I should probably have avoided shouting out the ‘ICONS!’ bit at the end. That did raise eyebrows. However, something more noteworthy was taking place and it involved the tai chi man – and music too. For most of last week when sunset came there have been the most ominous sounds and lurid flashes coming from over the Park. Then suddenly they stopped. The next day I inspected the landing strip. It had been erased. All that remained were some scorch marks. The tai chi man had seen off the hordes of Hell.

No one had actually said anything about this. No one was admitting anything. But there as I went past was the tai chi man, surrounded by children. He was not en pointe but standing naturally, with a demeanour of quiet pride. As before, he had one trouser leg rolled up and from time to time a toddler, with its mother’s encouragement, would totter forward to touch his wounded shin, to partake of the virtue that was in him. Someone started to sing and the children took up the refrain. It was Jonathan Richman’s immortal anthem Ice Cream Man, but with new words.

Tai chi man (Tai chi man)
We know so well
Tai chi man (Tai chi man)
Beating down the Gates of Hell
Tai chi man (Tai chi man)
Hear my plea
Going to do the same for me!

The men don’t know, I reflected, but the little girls [and of course boys] understand.

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An Unusual Use for Vaseline

“’Really Quite a Bit’?” said Mr Singh, a representative of Newham Council.

“Yes.”

“Yulification-max?”

“Yes,” I said.

Mr Singh sighed.

“If I had a pound for every time I have to see to the consequences of some idiot who turns the yulification dial to ‘Really Quite a Bit’ without considering the consequences, I wouldn’t be considering strike action having regard to my pension rights,” said Mr Singh. “Which I am.”

“I’m sorry. It was the night terrors.”

I had thought it best not to identify Mr Putin as the subject of my night terrors and the possible occupant of my chimney, in case questions of diplomatic immunity arose.

Mr Singh sniffed.

“We’ve tried pulling,” I said. “Quite hard. And I’m afraid that he’s becoming a health and safety issue. He leaks.”

I thought that this was a cunning touch.

“Well, some years ago when I joined the service, I could have dispatched a task force. But the cuts, you see, the Tory cuts!”

He spat meaningfully into a sponsored cuspidor.

“Regretfully,” he said, “I have no longer a task force at my disposition. Have you tried the Fire Brigade?”

“No, I thought it best to consult yourself.”

I know that ‘yourself’ is ungrammatical, but by emphasising his personal role I was trying to flatter him.

“Actually, there’s probably not a lot that the Fire Brigade could do that you couldn’t do yourself with the liberal application of Vaseline.”

“Vaseline! But – can you supply me with such?”

“Fortunately,” said Mr Singh, “I still can. Please fill in this form.”

As we left he said, “Just be careful of the sack.”

I smiled grimly.

A barrel of Vaseline takes some shifting, and it was some hours later that I was rolling it up my street, with Bella at my heels, getting in the way. Aubergine Small had generously agreed to meet me there. It was immediately clear that he had addressed a problem that had been worrying me: how to get the Vaseline up the chimney and surrounding the little dictator. He produced shyly but proudly from about his person something resembling a giant bicycle pump.

Donning rubber gloves, I gave the protruding leg an initial tug. As expected there was a distant groan of ‘Horse Potty!’. Was there a hint of movement? Mr Putin was getting smaller with each succeeding day of no food and drink, after all, although his notoriously pumped-up torso was likely to be a problem given the domestic scale of my fireplace.

“We must be careful not to suffocate him with the Vaseline,” I said to Aubergine Small.

He gave me a look that was pregnant with meaning. It was as if he could speak. ‘Dictators come and dictators go. What matters most is that your chimney is clear and free for Santa this Christmas.’

He searched through his bag and produced a card:

TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE

“Yes?”

He tore off a scrap of paper.

RUSSIA IS ALREADY BECOMING A BIT BALKANISED, IF THIS MORNING’S FT IS ANYTHING TO GO BY

He went at it with a vengeance. Quantities of Vaseline disappeared under pressure up my chimney. Unfortunately some of it came back down mixed with Mr Putin’s leakages. Bella sniffed a couple of dollops in the grate, gave me a pained look and went to lie down in the spare bedroom.

ANOTHER TUG

“Mind the kelim.”

You can tell that my mood had changed to one of optimism. I really believed that we might get him out.

And eventually we did. The biggest problem was the second leg, which had got itself caught behind the one that was already protruding. After that the rest followed relatively easily, although Aubergine Small indicated that we should take special care with the head. The torso had not turned out to be the blockage that we had feared. Suddenly, my night terrors flooded back to me. I attracted Aubergine Small’s attention.

“Aubergine Small, I just can’t stand to see the parting: his horrible neat parting. It’s probably got ruffled in my chimney, but I can’t take the chance.”

He smiled affectionately and indicated that I should look the other way; he could manage the last bit. There was a sucking noise and then a thump. He invited me to turn round. Mr Putin, or at any rate someone who looked like him, was collapsed on my kelim with a pair of my underpants on his head hiding his tonsorial arrangements.

“Good work,” I said to Aubergine Small and then turned to the other man. I thought it best to get my retaliation in first.

“What exactly were you doing in my chimney?”

I spoke in German. I believe that he is at his best in that language because of spending his formative years in Dresden clerking for the KGB. However, he didn’t answer.

Aubergine Small put a sign in front of me, where the other man couldn’t see it.

ANY DEMANDS RE UKRAINE?

“No point,” I said. “If it’s really Putin, he’s a liar. He’d say anything. I’ll take a photo though, just in case of future trouble.”

And I have it. The man is smeared with Newham Council’s Vaseline and his own faeces and he has my underpants on his head.

He squelched towards the door, with, I have to admit, surprising dignity.

“Leave my underpants at the door,” I called. “Carpet bagger.”

“Do you think that that was really him?” I said to Aubergine Small when he had gone.

GOODNESS KNOWS. BUT YOUR CHIMNEY IS YOUR OWN AGAIN

“Did you see his parting?”

Aubergine Small indicated yes with a nod. But his face went white at the memory.

“You’re a braver man than I am,” I said.

Then the same thought struck us at the same time.

“The sack!”

If the parting was a horror, the contents of the sack were ‘Really Quite a Bit’ horror. Since this is a blog occasionally consulted by the impressionable I will describe them only on the restricted-access section.

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He’s Only Half Way There

“I think,” I said to Amy, “that I have got that Mr Putin half way up my chimney. Or as he would regard it, half way down.”

I couldn’t help regretting that there was no way to share my predicament instead with Augustus Sly, but he is in Vienna following up my neighbour Maria’s bottom. He would probably have had something sensible to offer whereas Amy was always more likely to shout.

“You got in your chimney how? I saw him at G20, on television.”

I started to tell her about my night terror and my fateful and clumsy use of the yulification ‘app’, which had had the effect of making a bad situation much worse.

“I know. I read this. But how you know it’s Putin?”

“I don’t, of course, and of course I saw him at the G20 too. That may have been a double. He wouldn’t have wanted to have a full and frank exchange of views with Angela Merkel himself – who would? – or with our own Mr Cameron, bless him, so he may have sent a stooge. Lenin would do that, expose someone else instead when there was any risk to his personal safety. It’s certainly someone Russian. I twisted the Cossack foot. From the depths of the chimney breast I heard a faint cry. They said, ‘Horse potty!’.”

“’Horse potty’?”

“It’s a mild but characteristic Russian ejaculation. Like ‘Goodness!’.”

“Did it sound like a little dictator, to judge by the vocal quality?”

“It was too faint to tell.”

“What say the better half? Her bedroom too.”

“She’s keen to put it to political advantage. She shouted up the chimney – and she has a penetrating voice. She said, ‘Withdraw your troops from Ukraine and we’ll let you out!’.”

“What he say?”

“He said ‘Chto?’.”

“’Chto?’?”

“What? It means ‘What?’. He was indicating that he couldn’t hear.”

“Cunning bastard.”

“Being a cunning bastard is one cornerstone of his successful career.”

Amy thought about this.

“I wouldn’t just say leave Ukraine. I’d say: free press, free elections, no more murders, no more lies and a substantial contribution to your extraction expenses taken from the budget for his enormous new dacha near Sochi.”

“It’s hard to ask for anything complicated if all he says is ‘Chto?’. The better half thought that if we did something unpleasant to a toe it might make him hear better.”

“Or,” said Amy with the subtlety for which the Chinese are famous, “you could tickle his sole.”

“I thought of that – but I don’t think I could bear to touch him. Also, I’m not sure that I want to descend to his level, even to help the people of Ukraine.”

There’s an issue,” said Amy. “Ends and means. We can debate this.”

“My friend Theo says,” I said, “that he is a strong leader holding his country together and that without him Russia would become dangerously balkanised.”

“Bollocks,” said Amy. “They said that about Chairman Mao and the Gang of Four. Anyway, he is not holding anything together now. He’s in your chimney. Maybe we leave him there and see if Russia balkanised.”

“I wish it was that simple, Amy. Unfortunately he’s started to leak. He’s dribbling into the grate. It smells bad. The better half doesn’t like it. Even Bella turns her nose up, after some initial interest. We could go to the spare bedroom until either he empties or Russia balkanises itself, but that’s only a temporary solution.”

What would you have done? We decided to think it over.

Half an hour later Amy sent me a text:

PUTIN/SANTA HE GOT SACK AND PRESENTS IN CHIMNEY?

It was a pertinent question but one for which I had no answer. I couldn’t see and I couldn’t ask.

A few days went by. Russia didn’t get noticeably balkanised. Someone who looked like Putin continued to appear on state television and point out the hypocrisy of the West. They accuse Russia of political murder, he said, but what about the Northern Line? Who are you to point the finger? The leakage eventually fell away but the smell became appalling. The better half said, “You’ve got to do something.”

“What about independent Ukraine?” I said.

“Geopolitics is immensely complex,” she said, “and I want my bedroom back.”

I put a handkerchief round my hands and tugged at the leg. Nothing moved. There was another cry of ‘Horse Potty!’, but far weaker this time. Whoever was up there, Putin or not, ensacked or not, they were alive: but this was a condition whose continuation indefinitely could not be relied on.

I called round to see Aubergine Small. Strength and resourcefulness seemed to be called for. It crossed my mind to find out if The Jibjab Woman would help, but I didn’t know where she stood on a resurgent Russia and I didn’t want to offend her. Aubergine Small assessed the situation. He also twisted the leg, but could get no purchase. All he got was another weak cry of ‘Horse potty!’. Muttering to himself (or what would be muttering if he had the wherewithal; Aubergine Small is dumb and converses by the use of pre-printed cards), he took himself off and the next thing was that I heard him on the roof. He was prodding a bit of wire into the chimney from above. This time there was silence. He returned to the bedroom.

He produced a card:

SILENCE!

“What does that tell you?”

He demanded paper. This was a circumstance without a well-known phrase or saying.

IT IS THE DICTATOR WHO DIDN’T CRY ‘HORSE POTTY’ IN THE NIGHT.

Without his cards he can be quite prolix.

“You mean…”

YES. HE HAS A SACK AND IT’S ABOVE HIM. THIS IS MORE SERIOUS THAN I FEARED.

Aubergine Small threw himself at Mr Putin’s leg with a passion. For thirty minutes he tugged, but to no avail. Sweat on his brow, he faced me.

A. SMALL FAILS!

THERE’S ONLY ONE OPTION

“?”

He seized the pad.

NEWHAM COUNCIL!

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Really Got Those No Sleep Blues

Bella has her own bed in the corner of our room. She is not encouraged to come onto ours although she likes to very much. This is because when she is relaxed she tends to leak; she has what Dale, her vet, has identified as an unexpectedly short urethra (I hope that she won’t mind my sharing that with you): USU for short. She sleeps on her grey blanket and under her white blanket. The rule is that when she wakes up I get out of bed and cover her all over with her white blanket. By this stage it is usually a little damp: not because of her USU, because the lower one is dry; I try not to think about this.

She likes being covered. It reminds her of one of her favourite snatches of poetry:

They tuck you up your mum and dad
They may not want to but they do

My understanding of the rule is that I will continue to cover her up when she wakes but that she will be allowed onto our bed only when it is light outside. Her understanding is that after two coverings she is allowed onto our bed: a sort of ‘Three Strikes and You’re In’.

Last night the difference between the two interpretations was exposed. By three in the morning she had had five coverings and was whimpering loudly. This is her trump card: let me in or I wake the better half: then we’re both in trouble. I took her downstairs to anticipate her morning offices in the back garden, turning off the alarm, and then on again. I covered her a sixth time, making soothing remarks between my teeth. Ten minutes later she was at my side whimpering, so I let her onto the bed.

She immediately embraced REM sleep, assuming the character of her alter ego, Swims Like Seals, surfing the Atlantic breakers: below the waterline her legs furiously pumping. Below the waterline, of course, approximated to my ribs.

All the excitement: I couldn’t sleep. I lay listening to the sounds of the Plaistow night. To my astonishment I heard sleigh bells in the sky; distant cries of jollity. In a moment I realised what it was. I have an iPhone, and I have downloaded an ‘app’ which yulifies your mise-en-scène. I thought it might be fun for Christmas and I hadn’t realised that, like Westfield, it would be operating gamely and festively in early November. There are five settings for degrees of yulification:

1 Not a bit
2 A bit
3 A bit more
4 Quite a bit
5 Really quite a bit

Some idiot, no doubt me, had left it on 5. I turned it off. The sounds of Santa and his merry elves faded and were replaced by sullen and heavy rain.

Ever since I was a child, terrors have come to haunt me when I can’t sleep. Then it was Jack the Ripper and the notional pike in The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher. Now it is Jack the Ripper and Mr Putin. Unbidden, images of both floated before me.

Sometimes an internal trade is possible. You offer the horrible to evade the truly dreadful. I deliberately called to mind Mary Kelly’s eviscerated belly, in that appalling photograph taken in Miller’s Court of the final Ripper victim; but even as it revealed itself the little dictator’s smug and botoxed features superimposed themselves on her butchered loins.

I tried another tactic: reflecting on books that I’ve read. I thought of In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile, by Dan Davies. This excellent account (originally intended to be titled Apocalypse Now Then) has many fascinating stories and insights, not least the unerring capacity of our police forces to get everything diametrically wrong, but in the last resort it seemed to me that Savile was not so unusual; he was a routine psychopath, and what was interesting was the determination of people to be taken in by him. I enumerated, like sheep, his psychopathic characteristics:

1 Lack of empathy for his victims, or indeed anyone else;
2 Lack of humour: boisterousness doesn’t count;
3 Steely determination to get what he wanted;
4 Brutal arrogance;
5 Charm. We may have been immune but others weren’t, even if, like Mrs Thatcher and Diana, Princess of Wales, they tended towards the swivel-eyed end of the human spectrum.

I was congratulating myself on successfully changing the subject when Mr Putin swam into my mind again – how he shaped up against Savile’s five criteria. I remembered the incident of the Kursk. A Russian submarine failed with a crew of sailors, thereupon faced with the prospect of a slow and agonising death. Various navies offered to rescue them, including ours, but until it was too late Mr Putin declined, on the grounds, presumably, that foreigners might discover some of his nasty secrets. The men died. Mr Putin was asked by a journalist for his thoughts on the Kursk.

‘It sank,’ he said.

Of course there is no suggestion that he has been forcing his member into the virgin orifices of twelve-year-old Komsomol girls, but his pronouncements on the subject of human relations have been chilling, and he is a close friend of Mr Berlusconi.

So there it is: Putin – Savile without the charm.

This wasn’t getting me anywhere as regards sleep. Then an even greater horror nudged at the edge of my mind: Mr Putin’s parting; I was going to visualise his parting, that brutally neat and un-Savile-like division of his hair, sparse and thin to the left, sparse and thinning to the right.

That couldn’t be tolerated. There was only one thing to be done. I seized my iPhone and turned it to 5, yulification-max. Mr Putin’s parting faded from my mind’s eye. Sleigh bells crashed in a Phil Spector-like wall of sound. Dirt from the chimney fell into the fireplace. Someone was up there – coming down. A foot emerged.

A foot in Cossack boots…

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Ciao Bella!

We have a new dog. She is called Bella. That is her name because her old owners delivered her to The Battersea Home for Dogs and Cats already answering to it. This is unlike the previous dog. He had been abandoned in the streets and was wandering namelessly. We gave him a new name because he didn’t like the one that Battersea (then catless) had allocated to him. Even so, we don’t know if she is Annabella or Isabella or even Belladonna or Donna Bella. Sometimes, for reasons that will not require explanation she is called ‘Bella Two-shits’.

I think that she is probably Isabella. I hope so. I had a nice girlfriend called Isabella once.

I thought that I should consult Alfredo, my double the assassin, on the point. When he came through the door Bella jumped up delightedly. Alfredo is a much more contemplative sort since he started his course of kefir with Amy, and he tells me that the nightmares engendered by a life in the assassination trade are gradually becoming a thing of the past. Nevertheless he can still turn on the Italian.

‘Bella! Bella! Ciao Bella! Molto bella!’ he said, capering in the customary bandy-legged style.

‘Woof,’ said Bella.

He appraised her.

‘Good capering,’ he said, ‘for a dog. Strong bandiness too.’

‘She’s a staffy,’ I said. ‘Bandiness is in the DNA.’

‘I think you’re right,’ said Alfredo. ‘Isabella it is. Speaking as an Italian.’

‘An ‘Italian’?’

‘Whatever.’

She is a friendly sort. She gets on well with my mother and she very much likes the Ukrainians who have come to do miscellaneous carpentry and seem to have become more or less permanent members of the establishment. They call her ‘Bellichka’. She likes it especially when they sing. At the start of the troubles in their homeland they sang gloomy nationalistic songs about the house but as spring has established itself more certainly they sing happy songs of renewal. Or so I suppose, since I don’t speak Ukrainian. It is difficult to imagine Mr Putin, the Perpetual President, singing at all, unless it is some dreadful broederbondy sing-song designed for all the KGB boys together. I know which I prefer, and on such simple judgments are political decisions reached.

Her predecessor was male. Because they are both staffies, we thought that it would be a good idea to get a bitch so as not to mix them up in our minds. Even so, she sometimes gets accidentally called by the old dog’s name and referred to as ‘he’. Nevertheless it is immediately apparent that they are very different. The old dog came with a range of neuroses, many of which he kept to the end. They indicated a much darker puppyhood than Bella seems to have had. He would get agitated by the appearance of a leather belt, particularly if taken slowly (as, entirely innocently, one does) from the trousers. He had an unnatural fear of sneezing on the part of men (though not women), sudden bangs (Guy Fawkes was always a torment), falling leaves and umbrellas. No doubt a veterinary Sherlock could reconstruct his troubled youth on the basis of these phobias, but what would be the point? Bella, on the other hand, seems well adjusted. Her only worry is to keep the family all together all the time and where she can see us.

She is also refreshingly ungreedy. We have adopted a reward principle involving dog-treats: three for two shits, if you must know. At first she was polite. Then she started declining to eat them, whilst making it clear that the offer of them was most welcome. As Mrs Thatcher would always say to me, it is not the treat that matters but the freedom – the choice – to accept or refuse the treat when it is offered. This morning we were eating, to the accompaniment of hammering noises and Ukrainian minstrelsy in the other room, our usual second breakfast of black bread, gherkins, smoked catfish and green tea: a virulent blend of the latter kindly brought back for me by Amy. (It was China, not Kettering.) I noticed that Bella was perched on the sofa displaying a quiet and polite interest in our food but showing no desire to share it. Any other dog, including our last, I thought, would have been up on the table with his teeth in my catfish as soon as my attention was distracted.

(I say ‘up on the table’ in order not to disturb the even flow of my narrative. In fact we were eating at our state-of-the-art ‘island’, stark modernist white and constructed of new Ideal Homes-approved wonder-material corian.)

Nevertheless the old dog had depths that his successor seems to lack. We used, as persistent readers will remember, to imagine the old dog talking to us. We used to mock his touching though demented delusion that he had written the Ride of the Valkyries, by Wagner, and kept our little family afloat, financially, with the royalties. There seems little risk of Bella’s embarking on such lonely spiritual journeys. At the same time I think that she will probably be spared the anguish that drove the old dog to hurl himself repeatedly from the tops of kitchen dressers in the hope of catching a ceiling-suspended German sausage on the way down, or to attempt to assuage his alcoholism in the consolations of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet.

It takes, as a very wise man once said, all sorts to make a world.

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Neighbours

‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’

This phrase is regularly produced by contributors to Any Answers, their smug and querulous tones suggesting that they are the good men in question and that their mere contribution to that venerable Radio 4 forum is averting – necessarily – the triumph of evil. It is retailed as a celebrated quotation but as such is of doubtful provenance. It’s variously attributed to John F Kennedy and Edmund Burke but apparently neither originated the phrase.

It is also of course nonsense. Good men doing nothing may I suppose be necessary for the triumph of evil but it is not the only thing necessary. There are good people sniggering and looking the other way in Russia, to take one example from many, but Mr Putin bears the main responsibility for his own evil and its triumph. Many of us reproach ourselves daily for our part in the appeasement of Mr Blair at the beginning of the Century, but in the last resort the responsibility for his misdeeds is his.

This is not a mere quibble. These smug and querulous assertions, whether on Radio 4 or in what we are encouraged to call the social space, make matters worse, not better. The triumph of evil is bad enough by itself.

And what’s all this about ‘good men’? Do women who snigger and look the other way not bear their share too of the responsibility?

Anyway, the better half said something of the sort to justify picking a fight with a neighbour. This is the drug dealer to whom I have referred before. He (it is a he, like the good men doing nothing) is as yet in a small way of business. His drug dealer’s limousine has blacked-out windows but is one of the more modest of the range of small cars offered by the Kia motor company – and not new. However he is admirably hard-working. Lanky youths with bicycles come and go at all hours, collecting small packages and returning with pockets full of what appear to be bank notes.

All this would be a matter of simple local pride if it were not for the nature of the coming and going. The drug dealer’s flat, like all of them in our block, is serviced with two locks and the tenant is provided with two keys for each and two fobs for the front door to the building. These are not replaceable and in the case of the drug dealer’s flat one of the fobs has, as we later learnt, become lost.

He cannot be in his flat all the time. He has to travel around, ensuring that his product remains tip top. His is, I understand, a world where sources of supply can disappear overnight and it is essential always to have a plan B. The result of his absence is a succession of people requiring access at the front door, and when they cannot raise an occupant of the flat in question, they press our buttons indiscriminately. Sometimes there is someone in the flat but they are asleep or ‘nodding off’ as I believe it is known.

One tries to help. ‘Are you a ‘mule’?’ I say to the young men (and again it does tend to be men, notwithstanding what one might expect from, for example, the excellent Harpur & Iles detective stories, where the process of delivery of the narcotics is often entrusted to women) as their faces loom Barry Manilow-like onto the screen in my flat provided for that purpose. Depending on the apparent good faith of their response I may or may not let them into the building.

On one occasion it turned out to be the drug dealer himself, locked out of his own flat. Irritation overcame my underlying desire to be neighbourly. It was the seventh or eighth time that afternoon and I was trying to work. I replaced the phone without first pressing the ‘Enter’ button. He got in anyway – someone else obliged – but he was sufficiently irritated to stand outside my door for some minutes, where he made a sound that can only be described as howling.

This was approximately the point at which the better half took things in hand.

“Something must be done,” she said. “It’s unacceptable behaviour.”

“I don’t really care,” I said feebly. “Local colour…neighbourliness…importance of not upsetting people who habitually use knives…our lovely new car parked just outside.”

And then she said it.

“‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

“Or women,” she added.

A difficult week followed. She remonstrated with the drug dealer. She told him that his howling, whilst acceptable in strictly circumscribed conditions, for example at a Halloween party, had no place outside the door of our flat. He in turn cunningly played the race card and told the management that we were harassing him because he was black. When we passed each other on the staircase we turned away from each other with a contemptuous shrug. The better half contacted her friend George who said that if muscle was needed he was our man.

It was the drug dealer who very decently brought this unfortunate conflict to an end.

“I know it’s been difficult,” he said. “But now it’s new management. You’ll see changes. Sorry for any inconvenience.”

He told us affectingly about the lost fob, which explained everything.

“I don’t know where I can have put it,” he said. “Actually, I suspect foul play.”

I for one was happy to see amity restored before my throat was cut, and so was the better half, whilst glad to have made her point. Now, when we see the young men on their bicycles, plying the streets of Stratford with their precious restoratives, we wave to them. If only all problems with neighbours were resolved so readily. We have more serious ones elsewhere, but that’s another story.

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Of Ducks and Drugs

“I am reading,” Amy said, “a very good book about a duck. In English; this book not translated for Chinese.”

Since she discovered that Anthony Powell was a writer she has become a keen reader of English fiction.

“About a duck?”

“It is a big duck, very dignity, and sometimes he changes into another person, very bad, have a good time. Then he is a duck again.”

“A duck: an aquatic bird found often on farms and also, once dead, in the windows of restaurants in Gerrard Street?”

“Not bird.” She laughed shortly. “Big big man. Very important man. Downton Abbey. Duck Ellington.”

“Oh, ‘duke’,” I said. “But I still don’t know a book about a duke who turns into another man. It sounds like Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. But he was a doctor not a duke.”

“Yes, yes. Doctor Jekyll. Not Duck Jekyll. Doctor very important people.”

“In Edinburgh, certainly.”

I wondered what she was making of Anthony Powell. He is famous after all for dissecting the relations between the English classes. Although his novels are not unsympathetic to the natural world – his cast of characters includes for example Sultan, Eleanor Walpole-Wilson’s dog, and Maisky, the monkey that kills the butler, Smith – there is little investigation of the social relations between species: unless Maisky’s killing Smith counts.

Amy’s confusion, I reflected, merited further thought. Of course her pronouncing ‘duke’ as ‘duck’ was amusing but neither here nor there: she knew what she meant. Muddling doctors with dukes was a different matter.

I’m not sure that I have actually read Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, but, like most English people I feel as if I have. To Amy, on the other hand, coming from south-east China by way, possibly, of Kettering, it was entirely fresh. She wasn’t to know that late-Nineteenth-Century Edinburgh had a ruling caste which included doctors but didn’t include dukes. The nabobs of Edinburgh were Scots; dukes were to be found further North, in the grouse-infected Highlands, and they were English.

Doctor Jekyll transforms himself into Mr Hyde by means of an elixir, a drug of his own devising. I have a vague memory of Spencer Tracy in a film version wrestling with retorts and pipettes as the effects get to him. Was hair on the back of the hand involved, or was that werewolves? Amy also wasn’t to know that dukes do not prepare their own elixirs. Persons on lower grades of the peerage might. Anthony Powell in A Dance to the Music of Time has an Earl of Warminster living at about the same time as Dr Jekyll who is known as ‘the Chemist Earl’, and he was no doubt a dab hand at both retorts and pipettes. But earls are earls and they are not dukes. If a duke wants an elixir he rings for it.

Amy is much more knowledgeable than I am about many things, but one of them is her own elixir, kefir, as regards which she is currently presiding over a curious see-saw effect involving me and my double, the assassin Alfredo. I have recorded that Amy’s kefir is the real stuff. The sheepskins within which the intestinal flora of sheep were first combined with dairy products to create the original Culture from which Amy’s product is grown were first beaten, so as to advance the fermentation process, by camp followers of the Sixteenth Century Montenegrin warlord Apa’tman, and in more recent times by Kurd Maverick and his Valkyries as they carried the Culture across the sea. Amy’s kefir bears as much relation to that purchasable in little Eastern European corner shops as a forty-year-old Ardbeg does to a bottle of Old Tartan Trews Blended, purchasable for £7 from the same sort of shop. For one thing, it is much stronger.

Like all drugs there comes a point at which it stops working. Kefir is a benign drug and the solution is not to take more but to stop and rest for a week or two. That is what I am doing, but the traces still surge through my blood and where they would formerly have stimulated my dreams now they just keep me awake, and, as I have recorded, they coat daytime life with a baleful veneer. And even though I have stopped taking the drug, I still wake up, having finally achieved some sleep, with the true kefir headache, what Goethe, bless him, called Kefirs Katzenjammer.

At the same time Alfredo is in the joyful opening sequence. He cannot get enough of it. For a few nights now he has not come back to our flat at all. He stays at Great Secret Miss nearly all the time. Sometime you see him in the lobby reading a couple of the magazines that he likes to buy at the international newsagent on the corner, but usually he is in one of the back rooms. Amy has assigned three of her girls exclusively to help him and they work round the clock, eight hours each. She is rather proud of their progress.

“He has many bad things. He process them in dreams.”

“And he processes them so that the dreams themselves are not bad?”

“Yes, kefir dreams benign. Vivid but benign. Even with Putin.”

She spat.

“Sometimes there are very large snakes, but not usually. Depend on person. Putin,” she said, “obviously not processing very bad things. Has kefir every night, so we are told, but goes on doing them. Probably low-grade supermarket product.”

One of the girls gave me to understand that the details of Alfredo’s ‘many bad things’ were hair-raising. But of course discretion is the absolute priority and I shall never know what Alfredo doesn’t tell me himself.

“Like Dr Jekyll,” I said, drawing a parallel. “He has the elixir, becomes his evil self and emerges purified.”

Amy gave me to understand that his was an absurdly sentimental interpretation of a rather hard-headed book. Not, as I say, having read it I didn’t argue.

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Real Powellites

Towards morning the teleprinter’s bell sounded.

This is opening line to The Military Philosophers, the ninth and – always provisionally – my favourite volume of Anthony Powell’s great novel A Dance to the Music of Time. It is four in the morning some time in 1942 and the cable announced by the teleprinter’s bell is the first news of the slaughter by the Russians of the Polish officers at Katyn. Nick Jenkins, the narrator, decides that it is not necessary to wake Finn, his superior officer, specially to hear of this atrocity, one that colours the rest of the book.

I love the openings to Powell’s books. Who can forget the first sentence of Hearing Secret Harmonies:

Duck, flying in from the south, ignored four or five ponderous explosions over at the quarry.

When you first encounter these words you are embarking on your first leap into the very last book of the series: a bitter-sweet experience.

It’s the first comma that always gets me.

Anyway, towards morning today I thought of the teleprinter’s bell. The better half’s iPhone was giving its brief efficient notifications of the arrival of messages of various sorts: texts, emails, probably not of the slaughter by Russians of Polish officers – Putin has no doubt put overt action of that sort on hold with the announcement of his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize – but requests for money by Polish builders and announcements by Russian friends that they know best what we need in terms of the decoration of our new house.

What an adventure – both decorating a house and sidestepping well-meant but bossy advice from one’s Russian friends. There’s gold in them thar taps!

As for Putin, I salute the thought processes of the worthy Swedes, Norwegians, whatever, who dreamt up his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. He would be an entirely appropriate follower in the steps of Henry Kissinger, Menachem Begin and Pol Pot.

Consider also the nonentities who won the Nobel Prize for Literature and the great writers – one in particular – who didn’t.

What the better half’s mobile did not do, since she still slept, was make iPhone’s noise for sending a text, which always reminds me of premature ejaculation: a sound that is gratified but rueful, and mildly surprising when encountered in what we are encouraged to call the social space. Nor did my mobile make any sounds at all, as I had switched it off.

But let us return to Anthony Powell, as one constantly does; once entangled in the nets of his addictive and labyrinthine prose one never quite gets away. Anyway, last night there was a delegation from a group describing themselves as Real Powellites. It did not include Lord Gowrie and I think that it cannot have been in any way official. They were visibly angry and the better half said afterwards that if it had been up to her they would not have been allowed in. Specifically they were unhappy about the great man’s designation in my latest post as the ‘Bandersnatch of Frome’. There were hints that my continuing welcome at receptions related to Powell and his works might be at risk: physically so. Let me explain, not least as I am not sure that I got my arguments across in the heat of the meeting last night, what I meant.

First, I didn’t call him a bandersnatch: Amy did. Indeed, I am recorded as demurring, though mainly, it has to be admitted, on the grounds that it was a laboured joke.

Secondly, towards the end of Powell’s life, as evidenced by the Journals, he was waspish about people who deserved better. He was for example much ruder about the notoriously rude Evelyn Waugh than Waugh ever was about him. In fact, as regards Powell, Waugh was scrupulously kind.

Thirdly, what’s wrong with being a bandersnatch? Tenniel evidently thought it was pretty cool, and in The Hunting of the Snark it was the Bandersnatch that terrified the Banker, an achievement that we can all applaud.

I thought more about it in the interval after they stormed out and before we turned up the volume on Strictly again. I wondered if the relation between great artist and fan is not often rather like that between father and child: almost unconditional love and admiration on the part of the child being qualified by a desire to be naughty, to rebel.

Possibly: but there was little naughtiness at the Seventh Biennial Conference of the Anthony Powell Society. There was no naughtiness at all in the demeanour of the Real Powellites in my drawing room.

Moreover I examined my feelings, by way of comparison, about Goya, the one painter whom I regard as being beyond criticism. Do I feel the need to be naughty about Goya?

On the whole not.

There we are.

(Lady Violet Powell, incidentally, Anthony Powell’s wife, records in one of her books of memoirs a visit to the Prado and doesn’t mention Goya at all. Seeing Goya’s paintings in the Prado is for me like being hit over the head with a very pleasurable brick. It’s not unlike the sensation of reading the first sentence of Hearing Secret Harmonies. It’s quite possible however that the great man together with Lady Violet felt differently. It takes all sorts to make a world, as someone remarked somewhere.)

The delegation’s final shot, incidentally, as they huffed out was to point out that Pol Pot’s Nobel Prize was not for Peace but for something quite different. I really hate to think what, and I hope that Putin, if indeed he is honoured by the Swedes, Norwegians, whatever, will not regard it as a challenge.

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The Lions of St. Petersburg

Society in Russia is rigidly stratified. Unlike England where a cat can look at a king, in Russia a cat can look only at a slightly larger cat, the consolation being that the cat can be absolutely beastly to slightly smaller cats. Since they tried equality for sixty-odd years, and look where it got them, who can blame them?

It is like the situation at my public school in the sixties, where any boy could require any menial service of anyone his junior. That was based on respective age. In Russia it is a little more complicated, though ultimately simple: it’s mainly about money.

At the top of the tree of course is the Perpetual President along, I imagine, with the Perpetual Presidential girlfriend, since, as in the English aristocracy, consorts take on the status of those more powerful who have taken them under their protection. Although immensely wealthy, as a result no doubt of investing his Presidential salary wisely, he is not the richest man in the country. Nevertheless he has the power in practice to ask other rich people to give him their money, which comes to the same thing.

We were invited by our good friends R and S to a party which they gave, where some of this became apparent. The guests included a couple who are probably at the top of the tree in their city. As I stood nursing a small measure of vodka before we went through to the dining room, the she of that couple advanced on me in a regal Dior dress. By ‘regal’ I mean that it looked as if it might have been designed for a queen – not a real queen like ours but one in a story book.

“You look funny,” she said to me. “Are you all right?”

And without waiting for a reply she turned away.

For a moment I was nonplussed. Had my old trouble re-asserted itself? I checked a mirror (the room was full of them) but everything seemed to be all right. Then I realised. I was wearing Scottish evening dress, which she must have found surprising. (The kilt was the Hunting McBlag: black, as you will know, streaked with a disconcerting crimson; the conventional sgian dhu in my stockings playfully replaced with a small Kalashnikov). Her remark that I looked funny was no more than a polite acknowledgement that, from infinitely higher up on the ladder, she had noticed me, and what followed was merely ritual enquiry after my well-being, like the ‘Y’alright?’ with which one’s friends from Essex often greet one. In short she had treated me in a way that was gracious and appropriate: it had just come a little unstuck in the translation.

As to the funniness to her of my dress I should mention that whilst the women at the party had gone to great trouble with their appearance and looked for the most part imposing, formal and lovely, most men had decided that an open-necked shirt and slacks would do. I think that my bow tie was the only tie of any sort in evidence.

Later I watched the him of the couple at the top of the tree. He was acting with impressive benevolence and courtesy, like a laird at a reception given by an esteemed neighbouring land-owner, with a word here and there to the guests and the entertainment, going onto the dance floor prepared to make a fool of himself when the action seemed to be slowing.

Prowling jerkily round the party was another big beast, a woman who has made a great deal of money very quickly and is well known there. I was to meet her as it turned out the following evening, a much smaller impromptu occasion with a few friends at R and S’s dacha. I will call her ‘LOC’.

We were sitting on the veranda, reminiscing about the party and particularly S’s amazing singing, on which subject she was being modest. There was a commotion as someone joined us from the house. I looked up. Was it Laurence Olivier doing his Richard III, I wondered briefly. No, it was LOC. S introduced us, mentioning that of course she and the better half had met. LOC did not acknowledge this in any way but took to stalking up and down the veranda, throwing glances backwards over her shoulder and muttering.

‘LOC,’ someone whispered to me in an awed voice, in case I had missed the point.

I had a small measure of vodka before me on the table. Without warning LOC seized the glass and placed it elsewhere, producing a camera and going about the business of framing an intended photograph. I took it back.

‘I’m drinking from it,’ I said. ‘There is a free one, there.’

Again she did not acknowledge this in any way, but pushed between me and the table thrusting a scrawny arse into my face as she closed on her composition, and forcing me to stand up and move away. At last she spoke to me.

‘Good. You’re angry. I want to photograph you now.’

‘And I,’ I said, ‘want you to fuck off’, and I went into the next room and talked to my friend T, who is a psychologist.

After a minute or so there was a delegation.

‘She didn’t mean to upset you. She says she thought that you must know that she is very famous and eccentric and she has to take photos.’

I was still irritated.

‘Being notoriously rude doesn’t make her rudeness any more acceptable,’ I said.

After a further minute the delegation came back.

‘She’s really sorry. She’s making her sorry face. You must come and see her sorry face.’

And so she was. It was disgusting, like a puppy that has shat itself in a cartoon. Combine that mental image with that of Laurence Olivier doing his Richard III and you’ve got it.

‘Sowwy,’ she said.

‘It’s all right,’ I said.

But she continued to pout and later T, the psychologist, could be heard encouraging her not to abandon her sense of self-worth in the face of such an insensitive assault.

Had I been a psychologist, I told the better half later, I would have drawn a different conclusion: if we all treated each other as fellow human beings instead of rungs on a ladder, there would be no wars, no divorces and no unpleasant scenes on our friends’ verandas.

Bollocks, said the better half.

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The Dogs of St. Petersburg

I shall not disguise from you that this story does not have a happy ending.

We have been staying in St Petersburg, with the better half’s parents, my in-laws. They live in a flat on the thirteenth (or as we say in England, twelfth) storey of an apartment block. From their windows you look down on a playground. As my in-laws and their daughter batted to and fro in Russian the issues of the day, such as had I become fat or was it only a temporary condition brought on by an inability to resist cabbage piroshki, I spent a good deal of time looking down on it.

It was a patch of green crossed by two paths, which formed a St Andrew’s cross, and in one of the quadrants stood the paraphernalia of a children’s playground. When I ventured down, one of the young mothers (or as we are now required to say in England, young mums) told me that the playground was the personal gift to the community of the Perpetual President.

I mentioned to her that often when I looked down one of the roundabouts would be going purposefully round even if no one was there.

A fault with the wiring, she said.

Wiring! Why does a playground need to be wired?

For sound, she said. The Perpetual President, when he is worn down by affairs of state, likes to listen to the innocent and wholesome chatter of children, and check that they are on his side. And their mothers.

The next quadrant, to the north-east, contained a life-size sculpture in plastic of a bear and a little girl. The bear had its arm around the little girl’s shoulder and they appeared to be making for the woods together. The bear was grinning from ear to ear, as well he might. So, surprisingly, was the girl. Maybe she was stupid; more likely it was a rictus of fear.

My informant, the young mother, told me that a bear’s penis is small compared with his total body size, and surrounded by thick hair. Furthermore the animal’s attention span would be short. As a result attempts by bears to force themselves on little girls resulted as often as not merely in a small but pungent wet patch in their lower fur. The little girl would be intact – apart from being torn to death by its claws.

I was glad that the scene enacted for us would have a relatively harmless outcome, if it were to take place, as of course it wouldn’t. Apart from anything else there were no woods nearby for the couple to resort to. For another thing, and this was the killer point, it was only a sculpture in plastic. Nevertheless I heard the mothers threatening their children with it.

“Mummy, I don’t want to go home.”

“Do as you’re told or the Lecherous Bear will get you.”

Silence.

In the north-west quadrant was a sandpit. Actually it wasn’t a pit but a flattish pile of sand intended to be played in. It was perfectly round and about three yards in diameter. It was occupied by four feral dogs. If this were a fairy tale they would each have a name but it isn’t and they didn’t – not any more anyway: they were just four feral dogs.

They were all of the same good size and they slept occupying each an exact quarter of the sandpit. There was a pleasing symmetry to the fact that the sandpit, like the playground as a whole, was divided scrupulously into four. The dogs were like heraldic beasts, or maybe more appropriately tutelary deities. When one slept they all slept. When one felt the urge to scratch they all scratched. Sometimes a tame dog would approach them and they would courteously investigate its private parts and welcome it to the sandpit, whilst making it clear that this was on sufferance only.

During the day each of them would separately leave the sandpit and go and sleep at some distance from it, though still within the perimeter of the playground. I watched from the thirteenth storey window this disposition of figures on a ground and wondered what it meant. Were they sending some message, capable of interpretation, like Hawksmoor’s London churches, only from above? Were their chosen locations markers in some arcane code? I soon realised of course that all they were doing was seeking out the warm patches of sunlight on the grass.

Then one day they weren’t there. I asked the better half. They have to go and hunt, she said. They’re feral dogs.

I asked my mother-in-law. What dogs, she said, and haven’t you had enough piroshki for one day?

But they didn’t return that night or the following morning. I waited until I saw my informant arrive with her son and I went down.

The dogs, I said. The feral dogs. What’s happened?

They will not return.

What do you mean, they won’t return?

They are dead. They have been taken. The Perpetual President took them.

No, I said. They’re hunting. Surely.

She seemed to be reluctant to say more. But:

There were signs, she said. They did not go quietly. They fought.

Blood? I said. In the sand? It could be anything. High spirits among the youth…

No. It was certainly the dogs. You see – we found a head…

That silenced me.

I remembered the dignity with which they had held court. I had only seen them for the first time a few days before but I had come to respect them.

That’s terrible, I said.

She shrugged.

The Perpetual President gives and the Perpetual President takes away, she said.

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