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.


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.”


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.

Santa & Alexander McQueen

We went to demonstrate against the rigging of the elections in Russia. The demonstration was, for some reason, outside the House of Lords, which of course is untainted by elections rigged or otherwise and none the worse for that, and we got there after the main action was over. The rigging of the elections in Russia is none of my business but it is the business of the better half, and I was there to give moral support. We established that if the White Revolution happened – chance would be a fine thing – it would in our name and then we wandered off into the West End.

Around the National Gallery and north into Soho were literally thousands of people dressed as Father Christmas. Many of them bore cans of lager and were singing tunelessly. Sometimes they would crowd together, taking up the whole of the street, banging on drums and urging on whatever was happening in the centre of the crowd. Occasional glimpses of fleshy pink could be seen through the red, consistent either with consensual though public sex with elves, or, more worryingly, a non-conforming Father Christmas being dismembered.

A young man confided that this was a ‘Santathon’ and that it was for charity.

He spoke quietly and his voice in any event was slurred. Maybe it was ‘Satanthon’.

We walked on into Chinatown and bought sticky rice in lotus leaves. Later, at home in front of the fire, it turned out to contain tasty and quite big bits of chicken.

Some days earlier we went to the Alexander McQueen sample sale. A friend was working there so we got in on the opening morning as VIPs. There are a number of good things about the Alexander McQueen sample sale. There is for instance great camaraderie in the men’s changing room.

It suits you, dear. No, no, it was made for you.

There are alarmingly sample-like samples, garments abandoned with only one sleeve or with buttons but no button-holes. One can imagine the despair with which they were put aside by their creator, never to be taken up again; finally sent (a pause only to attach the all-important Alexander McQueen label) to find their level in the outside world.

I found a pale blue suede cape. (I’m pretty sure that it was a cape and not a coat that had been abandoned before the point of putting sleeves in, though of course one cannot be certain.) It was unutterably beautiful, with its pale blue colour, its ample folds and the heaviness of the leather. I could imagine myself, after the style of the dandies of the 1950s, instructing people not to step on it.

It was also rather expensive. I consulted the better half about possible flexibility in the household budget. She suggested that it was a very good cape but entirely unsuited to the needs of an elderly solicitor, or words to that effect. She was right, of course. So there it stayed. We returned on the Saturday when everything was half price, but it had gone. With pale blue suede capes, as in our personal relations, it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

As it turns out, being elderly is a condition that only increases but being a solicitor comes and goes. My being a solicitor depends on two things. One is having a practising certificate from the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the other is having a job. My practising certificate depends, as a result of an exciting new online process introduced by the SRA, on my having an activation code which they are to provide to me. Unfortunately they haven’t, they don’t answer the phone and when I emailed them I got an automated response to the effect that they aimed to answer emails like mine within three weeks. Meanwhile, for one reason and another, I will shortly have no job either.

This is quite exciting but also quite terrifying. I have had being a solicitor as a job for forty years and I have become quite institutionalised. I have no emails except the office emails; I use the office phone and the office document system; my posts to this blog are neatly recorded in the office document system. When it’s cold I rely on the fact that the office central heating works as the one at home may not. I get up at the same time every day and take the shirt from the top of the pile.

Five or so years ago, in anticipation, I gave up buying new suits and new black shoes. The moment has come where this decision is vindicated.

Big changes are ahead.