Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Man on the Engels St Omnibus

Roger Waters Out Of Pink Floyd is clearly tired of making people laugh through his music and has branched out into egomania as a source of mirth. Why anyone would want to pay money (get back!) for a slice of his progrock salami is beyond me, but then this is a country where newspapers employ astrologers, so who knows.

The epic courtroom battle for the honour of the concept album is a warning of how weird the early 1970s were for those of us old enough only to remember the penny tray, school milk and socially-acceptable racism.

As I've remarked before, the Soviet leadership correctly analysed the situation and sought to insulate Red Youth from hip-gyratin' Western good times by exposing it exclusively to aural mudbaths like Jethro Tull and The Doors. The result was several generations of otherwise healthy Slavs with a penchant for ruminative guitar solos and gnomic references to Mexican drug cures.

Such is the crystalline nature of the human spirit, however, that the occasional soul manages to deflect the daily dross from its sheer surface and let harmony, euphony and other Earth, Wind & Fire backing singers flit in.

One evening I was slumped in my seat on the bus home. It was the cold winter of 1986 in Voronezh, the Bridgend of the Soviet Union. I'd spent a few hours with an agreeable selection of provincial bohemians - artists who lived in boiler rooms, guitar-playing medical students with a ready supply of ethanol, kohl-smeared girls in Polish sweaters a size too small, a Latvian who could open beer bottles with his eye socket, and a character simply known as "Ruslan, the Meat-Eating Poet".

We'd spent our time in a way familiar to all British students in Gorbachev-era Russia: drinking whatever was available, eating pickled matter, smoking dandelion & gunpowder cigarettes and debating who was the bigger dickhead - the General Secretary or President Reagan. Mrs Thatcher was universally admired in the Soviet Union for being a woman, and it was a brave CND-badged drab who dared to question her Klebb-like perfection.

Inevitably conversation had turned to music, and I ended up trying not to explain Genesis lyrics to the masses. I even produced a photograph of Phil Collins and noted his facial resemblance to 78% of all KGB officers, to no avail. As usual I left them a few cassettes of The Fall and hoped they hadn't been taped over with Modern Talking by the following week.

I watched the sleet slide down the totalitarian advertising hoardings - Use Toothpaste! Drink Juice! Ensure That Your Television Does Not Explode! - until the doors clattered open and a stringy teenager in Baltic knitwear loped in. He sat opposite for a while, then realised with that Soviet social telepathy that I was a real foreigner, not just some loser from Leipzig.

He moved to the seat in front of mine and, after some hesitation, turned to me with the English form of address unique to that time and place:

"I'm sorry, maybe you speak English?"

Soviet schools taught that this is how to speak to the British, in an effort to make the average Englishman laugh in the face of his Russian interlocutor and turn the latter into an embittered insurrectionist. You could tell KGB plants in the student milieu because they always knew the correct form of address, even if it amounted to "Stand and face the wall, Prisoner Ж1948Я!"

I told my young friend that I did speak English.

He thought for a while, then asked "So, maybe you like the music of Pink Floyd?"

I had two basic options here:

  • I could follow the standard British student response of smiling and going "Mmmm, yes please!".
  • I could be honest and say that, whereas I had the greatest admiration for the audacity and longevity of these thatch-headed public-schoolboys, I had long ago accepted Sid Vicious as my Lord and Saviour and would rather subsist on the toenail cuttings of Yasser Arafat than listen to Dark Side of the Moon, with or without the benefit of The Wizard of Oz.

Instead I distilled the essence of the latter in the concision of the former and replied "No, I'm afraid I don't".

My companion sat silently for a while. The bus reached its next stop, and he ambled to the door. As it opened he turned, smiled, and said "Neither do I!" With that he stepped out into the snow and was gone.

Whenever I hear of new disappointments from Russia I think of that brief and unsentimental exchange. As a generation grows up with no recall of either Communism or an effective opposition, led by a president who seeks out the company of Deep Purple and a prime minister who pretends to fight bears, I hope my fellow-traveller is still out there somewhere, quietly keeping his children's minds clear of all this cant.

I remain an optimist about Russia, all told. It has survived Stalin, brown nylon flares and a health system based on grain alcohol and being punched in the face, so it will get over these preening dwarves. When the final call to account comes, I'm convinced the Man on the Engels St Omnibus will answer for Russia.

And I bet he hates Oasis too.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Mark of Mahmud

Polish composer, statesman and - according to Wikipedia - hermaphrodite shapeshifter Ignacy Jan Paderewski used to tell a joke that summed up European interbellum national characteristics. A representative group is asked to write a book about the elephant:

  • The Englishman spends a month in India and returns with "The Elephants I Bagged".
  • The German buries himself in the archives of Heidelberg University and produces "An Introduction to a Study of the Migratory Patterns of the African Elephant".
  • The Frenchman gets to know the keepers at the Paris Zoo and passes an agreeable afternoon in their company, pausing to pen "L'eléphant, et ses amours".
  • The Russian retires to his garret and drinks himself to death. In his stinking greatcoat is found the scrawled pamphlet "The Elephant - Does It Exist?".
  • The Pole sets out for the National Library in Warsaw and dashes off a fiery tract entitled "The Elephant - and the Polish Question".
All good clean fun, and an insight into the stereotypes of 1919. The perception of Englishman and Russian has changed since, and the punchline then was the Polish obsession with their Cause. But I find the French response more interesting, for out of it grew the entire discipline of cultural history.

I enjoy cultural history. From its brilliant origins in the French Annales school, it slouched into Britain as the latest form of our native snobbery. It now gives well-read types the chance to dismiss entire civilisations with a saloon-bar swagger.

Corduroyed scholars toil among decrepit records to raise squat outbuildings on foundations of footnotes and an abandoned social life. Their reward for "Curricular Changes in the St Petersburg Higher Women's Courses: 1896-1906" is tenure somewhere like Aston, if they're lucky.

Cultural historians leaf through some Penguin Classics Turgenev, gaze at silver birches from a taxi and chat to a lady violinist in a wagon-lit, then craft an illustrated treat called something arch like "Samovars & Saints". For this they get a CH4 series and a wardrobe allowance for jeans a size too small.

I am too idle to breathe properly most of the time, but if I ever had the energy O! a cultural historian I would be. As for my pet project, I'd trace the trajectory of the Mongol arrow as it pierced skull and social strata from Karakorum to Cracow, and the book (and TV series) would be called "Tamgha".

This refers to the livestock brand that the Mongols brought with them across the wolf-haunted steppe, and which provides the basis for both Ottoman imperial seals and the heraldic emblems of the Polish nobility.

In Baghdad, where Genghis Khan had given the Caliphs a lesson in applied atheism, I fancy it lived on in the sociopath and thwarted dynast Uday Hussein's alleged habit of branding his unwilling bedmates' buttocks with his mark - whether a curvaceous "ع" or a suggestive "U" is not recorded.

It endures in its more natural state among the herdsmen of eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus, where Circassians in particular take pride in their ancestral mark.

One such Cherkess mountaineer, Mahmud, worked for a Turkish construction firm in Uzbekistan during my spell in that terrier-shaped tyranny. As a paddler in the brackish pools of Tashkent expat life, I admired his brisk, Atatürkian approach to lifting the dead hand of the Karimov régime from the exercise of his various appendages.

Mahmud soon discovered that this city of two million mutton-hawking drabs and underage drivers had no bars or clubs, apart from a nylon-draped nightmare filled with bugs of all kinds on the top floor of the Hotel Uzbekistan (imaginatively renamed from the Hotel Tashkent on the fall of Communism, if only to let travellers know they've arrived in the wrong country).

Uzbek law rivals that of Singapore and the Shulchan Aruch in banning all fun, and even tries to stop wealthy foreigners doing exactly what they like. The rest of us resorted to the ancient Soviet tradition of kitchen parties, but Mahmud decided to do something about it.

He found an emollient Uzbek businessman, offered him wads of cash and the chance to retain his danglers in roughly their current order, then encouraged him to open an establishment called "Mahmud's".

This involved taking a quaint, Russian-imperial town house of the sort that Uzbek ministries would use for press conferences with stunned United Nations nabobs, and turning it into a little corner of Stamboul.

It had the trappings of an Irish theme bar that wasn't trying too hard and served unmemorable Euro fizz, but was blissfully bereft of the usual blights of a Tashkent night out - lackadaisical but bossy prostitutes, the Billboard Chart of 1987 on a warped cassette tape, German engineers, and gawping, none-too-secret policemen (this was before the day of rogue British ambassador and histrionic lothario Craig Murray).

It all came down to good door policy. No one got in who didn't know Mahmud, and the twin golems in dinner jackets who guarded the portal were rather like Arthur C Clarke's monoliths - large, dark, and capable of immense but silent violence.

I and a few colleagues passed most Friday nights there, enjoying a respite from both Karimov's efforts to turn the country into a Pinochet theme park and the piping tedium of expatriates in kilts.

The regulars were the sort of people who know how to have a good time - arms dealers, oil prospectors, Tajik warlords, Turks, the IMF man and sundry spooks. Mahmud would turn up at about eleven, lean over the back of a chair and recount tales of seedy glory between draughts of rakı and Marlboro Red.

He punctuated my life like a happy apostrophe. The Grand Turk once turned up on a flight to Ashkhabad, bribed the stewardess to disable the fire alarm, and retired to the bathroom to smoke away the 90-minute journey. He paused only to speculate at full volume on Turkmen political leaders, wolves and the fun that could be had by trying to mate them - to the horror of the crosslegged crew.

A dashing entry promises little, as many a lady can testify, but a stylish exit is the true mark of a man, as Mahmud knew well. One evening he gave us a demonstration.

We drones, relaxing down Mahmud's as usual, were surprised to see two sultry, unchaperoned young ladies glide in. They were Tashkent Tartars, the ethnic group on whose cheekbones Uzbekistan's intellectual and erotic life depended, and dressed like dedicated followers of Thai kickboxing films.

"Whores," said Big Time O'Farrell. "Big Time O'Farrell," I imagined them muttering to themselves.

"No way they'd get past the doormen," said Jenny. "Perhaps they're independent businesswomen clinching a contract?"

The word "clinch" did for me, frankly, as I'd been imagining that they were very attached to one another. The two ladies chatted and sipped coffee at the bar without even glancing at anyone else.

Eleven o'clock came, and in bowled Mahmud. He did the rounds of the tables and eventually settled at ours, chair akimbo as usual. A bottle of Altınbaş appeared alongside the car hub that served as his ashtray, and the stereo switched from Tupac to the tambur.

"I sold hotel to Jew. You have seen?" We weren't sure whether he meant the hostelry or the Hebrew, and shook our heads. This spells assent to the Turk, as we recalled too late, and Mahmud launched into what he thought was a shared rhapsodic reminiscence of the state he'd left the building and Mr Berkowitz in after celebrating the deal.

The hours rolled by in a fug of fumes and fretwork before Mahmud gracefully bade us good night. "Tomorrow Bukhara. All men are gays," he remarked as we shook hands. I wasn't sure whether the second phrase was meant to stand alone, and decided not to enquire further.

He lumbered over to the door, patting backs and exchanging nods as he went. Just as he shrugged on his coat, Mahmud stretched out an arm towards the bar and snapped his fingers. Both Tartar beauties sprang from their seats and skipped eagerly after him.

Mahmud had left his mark.