Thursday, January 29, 2009

My Universities: Canadian Diplomat

Canada is seen as being an America for losers. While the Republic got the Mafia, Jews, film stars, atomic boffins and Beyoncé, the Dominion ended up with Ukrainians, Eskimos, lots of people called MacKenzie and the French.

Maybe it's because I'm Welsh, but I've always been fond of this Transatlantic also-ran. I've not been there, and don't want to ruin the fantasy of gruff Québécois skating home across the tundra from the 'ockey-stick factory with a plate of poutine in one hand and a Labatt Bleu in the other, pausing only to pleasure Margaret Trudeau over the back of a moose. Dressed as a Mountie.

I'm proud to have served that noble federation as an informal consular official in Moscow in 1988, although I'm not sure whether my efforts were fully appreciated in the Ottawa doughnut shops of power.

I was at one of those frequent crossroads in my life, where one track led to serious achievement in the academy and the other to dicking around with my mates in a grubby dictatorship. Naturally I found myself in the Soviet Union, my thesis on homosexuality in the Tsarist Navy rightly abandoned, and so skint I was reduced to smoking Gitanes.

The switch to spontaneously-combustible Soviet fags was only days away when the Canadian cultural attachée asked to see me. I'd befriended this fine lady out of curiousity about her job - how many Denys Arcand film festivals can one person organise? Or did she spend her time ushering rat-kings of Soviet schoolkids around exhibitions of Inuit penile gourds?

The answer was that she ran a lending library of Mordechai Richler's novels and, like all Canadians, spent much of her time appeasing her Québécois colleagues. She asked whether I'd like to earn some money helping out at the consular section, and arranged an interview with the Consul.

This chap, who really was called something like Guy de Gardebois, assumed I spoke French and hired me on the spot. He passed the next four months muttering asides to me in the gritty gibberish that passes for the language of Cantona up there, and I'd grunt the odd reply in Welsh. We were so happy.

Next day I turned up at the embassy, which nestled next to the house where Khrushchev had spent his grateful retirement, if only to find out what the job entailed. That was when Guy set out the whole horror of perestroika.

"A little while back we were like pigs in clover," he began. "Perhaps a dozen Ukrainian peasants and a Latvian gravedigger would turn up a month seeking tourist visas. They had notarised invitiations from the League of the Avenging Sword of St Adolph the Unreasonable in Winnipeg, and their nieces had ingested the dialectic of various Carpathian policemen in order to obtain their brand-new Soviet passports.

"Then it all changed. M'sieur Gorbachev gave Soviet citizens passports on demand, and our Department of External Affairs decided to double the disfavour by handing out visas to anyone who turned up with a letter from their Uncle Bohdan saying 'Gee, Slavko, it would be neat to like see you and the guys over here sometime, eh?'

"C'est affreux, ça, M'sieur Boyo! Now the embassy lobby is packed daily with a hundred Hutsuls and their hand-me-down breath, and the Russians won't let us bring over any more diplomats to cope with the rush. Now that's where you come in."

Little did I know that this was the beginning of a long and lubricious association with the Ukrainian people.

I had a couple of Soviet lady assistants. They had performed acts of acrobatic self-degradation with KGB underlings in order to land the plum job of being allowed to humiliate their fellow-citizens on foreign territory, and were not best pleased to be doling out precious visas to provincial crones who made their own underwear out of twigs.

As a result they lost no chance to close the consular section because of overcrowding and wiggle off to the Café Arbat for a faceful of compensatory cake.

I dealt with this problem by circumventing protocol and talking to the Soviet policeman outside. Constable Nakeroff was also tired of herding Haidamaks around his shiny pavement, and readily agreed to my proposal to let only ten people into the embassy at a time.

Guy was happy, the travelling Cossacks were happy, the police were happy, and the Soviet female staff were livid. My days passed in a blur of grateful peons clutching scraps of toilet paper with scrawled signatures on them, punctuated with interpreting for Guy at immigration interviews.

Canada operated a high-minded immigration system based on accruing points. Having a useful trade like computer programming or bear-trapping helped. Quebec had its own criteria, among which the ability to speak French and nurture a grievance won you dix points and your own snow plough.

I enjoyed an interview with a glossy young Nicaraguan Communist. She was studying economic mismanagement and electoral fraud at the Patrice Lumumba International University of Ineptitude, and worried that the forthcoming ouster of the Sandanistas back home would harm her prospects of getting a job as a complete bitch in some dusty Managuan ministry.

Guy asked why she wanted to emigrate to Canada when, as a Communist, she would be made most welcome in the Glorious Soviet Union? She pointed out that Russia was a "terrible place", but assured us that she would try to turn Canada into something similar through the Magic of Marxism.

"Heu, l'évêque chauffard, tabarnac', sur la main, hein?" whispered Guy, from what I could tell. "Application denied! Au suivant!" I translated.

The social life of a Canadian diplomat was also most agreeable. The embassy bar welcomed Mounties, senior political officers, grease monkeys and the occasional student in a democratic debouch.

The British embassy's "Britannia Club", in contrast, was as insufferable and impenetrable as Princess Anne. It was staffed by members of the Sunningdale Golf Club c. 1954, transplanted to modern Moscow by some malign sprite.

British diplomats were easily the most unplesant people in the Soviet capital, which is saying something. These slovenly and snobbish drunks served only to provide shrill but slatternly wives for the jaded postgraduate community to bed.

Summer drew to a close and soon I would have to return to London to explain myself to the university authorities, British Academy and various parents, as usual. Just before I left for the day Constable Nakeroff stuck his head round the door. It was nearly five o'clock and I'd just packed away the John Bull Visa-Printing Kit, so I wasn't best pleased.

"Can you squeeze one last old geezer in?" he asked. "He's just turned up from fuck knows where and he smells like he walked the whole way through the sewers. He's spoiling the entire nice pavement thing I've got going on here."

I agreed, and in tottered an ancient Ukrainian bearing the regulation passport and a letter from a nephew saying "come and visit if you're not dead and those Communist bastards have worked out how to fly a plane without bombing everything in its path".

The application form has a question asking whether you've ever been to jail. It should include a note explaining that we don't care whether you're a war criminal or not, just write "no" and spare us bureaucrats any bother. The codger had written "yes".

"I'll tell you what happened," he began, settling his brittle buttocks on our helpless upholstery. "It was after the war, and the Soviets were rounding up Bandera rebels. They had a quota of four arrests per school, and I was unlucky. They gave me ten years. I was 16.

"Then Stalin died, and they let me out. I got a letter saying I'd been wrongfully arrested etc, and everything was ok."

I stamped his visa in relief, as Canada welcomes victims of Stalinist repression. He gazed at the visa for a while, then said "Best part is that I was a rebel - a sniper, in fact - evenings and weekends. And the buggers never knew. You're the first stranger I've told that. Thanks, son!" And off he went.

I'm all for encouraging healthy outdoor pursuits among the young, and I hope the Canadian forests provided opportunities for him to revive his dormant marksmanship.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Pactum Serva

The afternoon was warm, so I decided to take Arianrhod out of the paddock for her first hosing of the winter. Achmed was pulling on my boots in the kitchen when Madame Boyo came in. She told the boy they'd never suit him, so he slouched off to his kiosk barefoot.

She turned to me, her face pale, pinched and querulous. A vein squirmed from one end of her eyebrow to the other. Her fists bunched like ribs through the pockets of her Mao jacket. Everything was as it ought to be. Then she said:

"Three men are waiting for you in the drawing room. They are all Welsh. I've had to lock the dogs in the neighbours' wendy house."

'Odd. The Rugby Union selectors don't normally turn up until February,' I thought to myself as the allyah-oiled door slid open across our best Bokhara rug. Then my guests rose to greet me - Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen, David Emanuel and the late Leo Abse, who was the first to speak.

"You've heard the news about Sir Dai Llewellyn," he announced without ceremony.

I sat on the arm of the chesterfield. "A sad loss to Wales, and therefore the world," I remarked.

"Sadder than you think," continued Abse. "He was our leading nobleman, hereditary ostler to the Court of Senghenydd, and an under-rated political satirist. All of this is true. But it is truer still that he was the last Cotsengi."

A drink sounded like a good idea. I said nothing, but three hip-flasks of gin were offered up to my quivering lips.

"You mean his brother Roddy, surely?" I murmured through a mouthful of Bols.

"Ha, indeed, an exquisite feint. Typical Dai!" snorted Llewelyn-Bowen.

"If not," I ventured, "perhaps you could bring my readers up to date on the Cotsengi and his ways?"

"An honour," bowed Bowen. "As Edward Longshanks lay on his two deathbeds, legend has it that he was attended by a Welsh monk of the order of Saint David, a Brother Ystlum. Wracked with guilt for foisting a gay English on the Welsh as their prince, he sought absolution from the priest.

"Ystlum said he would guide the future Edward II wisely if, in return, Longshanks decreed that a true Welsh should bed each woman that might aspire to marry into the Royal House of England. The dying King agreed, and the line of the Cotsengi was created."

Emanuel lit a cheroot and took up the tale. "In each generation, the greatest rutters, buffers, boffers and boulevardiers of our mountain race have named one of their number to lie with these ladies, so that no munters or psychoes should taint the sang réal. Fact!"

"From Ystlum himself, through Rhowter Hers, who mounted most of the Plantagenets, Nell Gwyn, the finest female impersonator of the Restoration, and right up to Lloyd George, Ivor Novello, Lord Harlech and then Sir Dai, a Welsh has test-driven every princess, at least two princes and, memorably, Oliver Cromwell.

"The only gap was during the Tudors, when the royals was all Welshes anyway. And the chosen one has borne the august title of Cotsengi - Hound of the Ladygarden."
The pride rang ripe in Llywelyn-Bowen's voice.

"I have heard of this,"
I replied. "But why have you come to me? Do you really want my opinion? Do the words 'Tom' and 'Jones' mean nothing to you?"

Emanuel spat in the fireplace, sending sparks flying across the room. "Tom's been out of it too long, man! He can't handle these new girls. A pierced navel and his head of curls is an accident waiting to happen."

"It's not your views we want, Boyo. It's you,"
said Abse quietly.

"No." I wandered over to the window and watched Madame Boyo at the pond showing Arianrhod how to fish with a Mauser. "How could I do it to her?"

"Well, not within an hour or so of covering some Sloane, anyway," noted Emanuel. "Even your pods need time to refill, innit?"

Abse laid his hand on my raised arm. "Think of it, man! If the line is broken, Longshanks is freed from his bond. God alone knows what further horrors he might visit on Wales from beyond the grave!"

Llywelyn-Bowen stood beside me, his eyes trained on the watchtower over by the plague pits. "It's Wales. You know that. Nothing is bigger than Wales."

"Except an area of rainforest twice the size of Wales, and most Australian farms,"
added Emanuel, who had made himself comfortable on the regimental thunderbox.

"I should have realised it wasn't Roddy," I muttered at last. "Armstrong-Jones had already vouched for Princess Margaret."

"We don't need an answer, Boyo." There was a firm tenderness in Abse's voice as he opened a Gladstone bag embossed with the initials D.L. and various teethmarks. On the Ottoman he laid out a garden swing, a pair of stirrups, a doublet and a slate codpiece. "We'll leave these with you. You'll need them."

I watched them walk down the drive towards the waiting Hillman Imp. Madame Boyo emerged from the grandfather clock with a ring of bright snappers in her gloved hand.

"Kannst du diese für das Abendessen kochen?" She wagged the bait back and forth as Arianrhod leapt about her knees.

"Ich dien," I smiled, and led my family to the kitchen.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Creatures of the Night Bus

We Knights of the Stained Beermat (K. Musgrove 2008), were idly discussing our plans for Saturnalia down The Tethered Goat the other day when I noticed some Balkan lady colleagues drifting around a bottle of Chateau Lupescu, livid lips drawn back from tarry teeth.

"Brides of Dracula," noted the ever-gallant K Man.

"Divorcees of Dracula, if the old boy had any luck," I suggested.

There followed a debate as to whether vampires had divorce laws, given that they are not praised for their patience and Death doth them not part. We concluded that Transylvanian civil courts were out of the question, given Catholic Habsburg rule, so Dracula probably used some earthier legal code like the Pukhtunwali of the Pathan tribesmen.

(Lady readers ought to know that 90 per cent of male pub conversations run along these lines. We blunder like moths around such dim candles as "Who'd win in a fight, The Terminator or The Rock?" and "Can Manxmen feel pain?". I shall elaborate on this theme in my forthcoming book "Everything You Learned from 'Sex and The City' is Wrong".)

The vampire is something of an endangered species these days, driven from most of Central Europe by the anæmia of Communist-era victims, improved street-lighting and sheer shame at being mistaken for a Goth.

Even the BBC World Service has closed its Romanian Section, hitherto a chill nesting-place what with its dark corridors, evening schedules and proximity to Charing Cross Hospital.

The vampire loiters on in the American suburbs, baffled by soft rock, body piercings and hostile blonde teenagers, but still hankering for the woodcutter's demure and dark-eyed daughters high on the Borgo Pass.

Most disappointing of all are his new band of mourners. Once he brought Slovak and Gypsy together in bondage before his pallid will, adding the occasional deranged English lawyer for intellectual stimulation and insect control. Now the vampire must make do with pudgy creatures of the keyboard.

One such acolyte wrote to a colleague some time ago, complaining about a minor error in an article on Romania. My colleague corrected the mistake - about Vlad Ţepeş and his residence at Bran Castle - but resented the hectoring tone and advice to consult the Lonely Planet Guide to Romania for further information.

I can't help but think that Brad - our Californian pleintif - was not a genuine scholar of Mediæval Eastern Europe. His views on the Bulgaro-Byzantine wars at the time of the Frankish occupation of Constantinople, the rise of Protestantism in Hungary or the retreat of Turkish influence on the Adriatic littoral would most likely provide little illumination.

Why not? First of all, his counsel to base all further research on travel guides written by hippies and bought by braid-haired trustafarians intent on screwing the last rupee out of their gap-year victim-country of choice did not inspire confidence.

Moreover, I had a suspicion that Brad is probably not interested in Vlad Ţepeş the Wallachian dynast but Vlad Ţepeş the alleged vampire. And then I don't mean the folkloric revenant of Balkan myth but rather the B-movie sexual predator and his bevvy of wan, sluttish brides.

Brad most likely thinks he's a bit of an expert on vampirism. After one Miller Lite too many he may try to impress girls down the college bar with his esoteric knowledge and alluring air of mystery. But when he gets back to the table with some drinks they've gone.

Their laughter echoes as he lopes back to his room to hope that his reflection in the mirror is fading, or that his canine teeth are a little longer and sharper than when he returned from computer science class that afternoon.

So he opens another tab of soda, puts on a favourite video - George Romero's "Martin", or perhaps a toothsome Jean Rollin lesbian flick - slips his tear-moistened palm down the front of his Levis, and waits for the bedroom window to blow open and for long, pale arms to embrace and claim him as their own.

The Frankensteins never had this problem. All they did was turn up in the ancestral hamlet and an authenic hunchback would be there ready and waiting to rebuild the castle, thaw out the monster and point the way to the nearest windmill.

All the vampire has these days are German provincial cannibals, yoghurt-fed Home Counties drabs and fat lads with more bandwidth than friends. "Maudite, maudite sois-tu!"