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Exchange August 29, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
19 comments

The best thing about having a beloved from another world, apart from realising that, not surprisingly, the similarities outweigh the differences, though I’m sticking with my snobbery about British humour and am yet to laugh at a single Russian joke – though the ones about Finns aren’t too bad – about people falling over – nothing will make the Russian laugh more uncontrollably than mention of someone falling over (or, if he’s extra lucky, actually seeing it happen. I had to look on slightly bollockingly as he saw an old babushka unable to negotiate the St. Petersburg metro ticket machines getting mangled by metal and laughed hysterically rather than running to her aid) or a pun that produces anything vaguely similar to the word fart – is the quid pro quo cultural exchange. Like many a Westerner, I’d embarked on my foray into the Russian world prompted by the times I grew up in and the deserved fame of their literary canon. And then having the most private of access to a real Russian soul could only help deepen my acquaintance. “…a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” my arse. Churchill should have got out more.

But the terrifying part of the equation, from a responsibility point of view, is that I could have had almost total power to shape the Russian’s cultural learnings of Vyest for make benefit of his glorious Russian soul. He can rightly claim that he has made more available, more accessible, more comprehensible to me the wonders of Dostoevsky. Would I have bothered my arse reading Rozanov – a shit of the first order – were it not for him? Would I have made myself sit on an elektrichka and visit some out-of-town palace if I didn’t think the Russian might take his shirt off as my reward? Would I have put my suit on to go and see/hear Tchaikovsky at the Mariinsky if I hadn’t thought it was my duty to integrate in my new surroundings? Would I be intimate with the secrets of the Russian kitchen – I’m serious, by the way. Best food on the planet. Perhaps – if I hadn’t found the love of a local? Look at all he’s done for me, culturally. Literature! Music! Man-made beauty! Cuisine!

Russians younger than the Russian are as exposed now to the Anglo-Saxon West’s cultural offerings as much as everyone else on the planet. But when the Russian was a youngster, the West was still heavily culturally sieved for impurities. Germany was ideologically OK because half of it had come to consciousness and seen the political light and its philosophy and romanticism had been very influential on Russia. France, though politically wicked, was always seen as the height of sophistication. The aristocratic cachet of French as a second language hung on in some circles. French films and music were popular. Indeed, in its attempt to filter out much of popular culture from the West, popular culture in the Soviet Union could be very open to areas which, when I was a youngster growing up in London, would have seemed arcane and otherworldly. Indian cinema was popular. Italian film and music got an airing. And Central Asia and the Caucasus weren’t foreign at all. Mainstream Anglo-Saxon western stuff came through in drips and drabs. The Beatles were popular enough. Soviet citizens chortled happily at Some Like It Hot.

But now that we’ve sunk into the morass of degradation that is Berlin, the Russian has put all that is noble behind him and decided to make up for lost time. I’d had a head-start by learning his language and studying his country before I’d met him. For him, the West, beyond what he’d been given access to by his kindly Soviet cultural guardians, was a blank spot on the map. He hadn’t learnt any English. (German and French were far preferable.) Paul McCartney was a living byword for everything the Anglo-Saxon West was about. And the UK was a place where the soot-covered proletariat toiled for a slave’s wage while posh aristocrats in bowler hats and dripping in jewels flung the crusts off their cucumber sandwiches into their ungrateful mouths.

I’ve been lazy. Let the Russian decipher his own way through the cultural menu of my childhood. And the internet and TV do most of my job for me. Somehow he finds the music I grew up surrounded by on last.fm. Trips to the UK at Christmas mean he is exposed to all TV classics in one fell swoop. And it’s lovely to watch those programmes or listen to that music with a fresh set of eyes and ears. With a different set of prejudices. Heavenly to watch Steptoe and Son with him in a hotel bedroom with the subtitles on and him pissing himself with unprejudiced laughter. Wonderful, as I curl up in bed in the daytime to hide from a translation, to witness him enjoying Sister Sledge – Sister fucking Sledge! – as if they were the new, um, Sister Sledge. Or putting on Bananarama to encourage me back to work.

It slightly makes me wish he wouldn’t fuck off to Russia for half the cunting summer/autumn every year to stock up on new cultural goods to meet his side of the bargain.

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Size matters August 25, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
15 comments

Darlings, my big computer is broken – feel free to alert the media – and having to use this shitty little laptop with the reaction times of a deaf, sickly tortoise always gives me Sydenham’s chorea, or perhaps St. Vitus’ Dance – I’m forever confusing the symptoms – but then blogging is the only thing in the world I like more than dreaming of unimaginably exuberant, unearned riches so blogging on this two-bit, wheezing piece of toss it is.

Plus, naturally, I’ve been far too busy to blog, what with my new position as Head of Things Olympic for London 2012. I watched the 29th Olympiad with committed dispassion. Until all of a sudden there was a glut of British golds, which meant I had to show the medal table to the Russian several times a day. But the Russians went and spoiled my fun by sneaking past ‘us’ – sorry, I always feel a bit of a wanker sharing in others’ hard-earned victories – in the dying seconds of the games, probably as David Beckham was kicking his ball and that man from Status Quo was guitaring along to that lady sitting on top of a pole. “Well, you should have been old enough to witness the Moscow games,” I intoned gravely, demonstrating my birthright to talk bollocks by dint of having had the common decency to get round to being born earlier than my darling. “We won everything then,” I added, without providing any documentary evidence, but the Russian took my word for it, in awe that anyone he’d got busy with should remember an event so sacred and Soviet as the Moscow Olympics when chemicals were fired into the air – they borrowed them from the East German athletes – to prevent rainclouds forming. “The 800 metres. The 1500. The darts. The snooker. Every god-damned medal worth winning, we won it.”

“I not remyember enysink earlier Brezhnev funeral,” the Russian admitted sheepishly. And asked if I’d like a hot-water bottle.

“Darlink, maybe zet’s vy you mad. Because you so old,” the Russian resumed, putting away his abacus after double-checking his figures and wiping his brow in disbelief.

“Darling, there’s nothing mad about the way I live my life, polluting my internal physical and mental landscapes, living in a (now faulty) virtual bubble, stumbling from crisis to crisis and then writing it down for strangers to read. Anyway, I feel decidedly between crises at the moment. What you call a personality disorder, I call a personality.”

But an awful worry to be told you’re bonkers. Well, not really a worry. Plus, everyone knows that words designed to injure when ushered into play by a beloved must have their truth-content made subject to at least potential dilution by a factor of, say, a billion. Just to be on the safe side. But then the seed of doubt. It at least provides a distraction between avoiding work, worrying about something or other and thinking when I can next get stark-raving hammered.

“Bugger, now there’s a thing,” I exclaimed internally as I sat sanely sticking pins in voodoo dolls of my neighbours in full view of everyone on the balcony and wondering if I could sell the ash from burning my tax bill on ebay as a work of art. “What if the Russian’s right?” I let out a haughty snort of derision at the very possibility! “But what if bonkersness is as boring as this? And as relatively slow? The descent into madness might not be rapid at all. And at such slow motion, the change is so gradual that it’s bound to seem normal.”

Darlings, so do tell me if you see any tell-tale signs. I’m off to write letters to the Stasi with the old bag upstairs. Between you and me, there’s talk of a plot to assassinate Churchill.

London 2012 August 8, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
45 comments

My greatest fear is that I’ll be put in charge of organising the 2012 London Olympics’ opening ceremony. Stranger things have happened, and I might easily be having an affair with someone important by then, like Seb Coe or Jacques Rogge. So what if they say, thinking, mistakenly, that I’d take it as an honour, “‘ere, BiB. We reckon you’ve got what it takes. Here’s £22.75. Come up wiv summink a bit spesh.”

So I’ve been watching the opening ceremony from Beijing to get some hints. I’ve been taking some notes and think with a little bit of cross-cultural adaptation, I might be able to produce something pretty god damn memorable. And it’s relatively early days, of course, when I presume, if push comes to shove and I am expected to portray the UK to the world in a positive light, I’ll just have to go down Barking High Street a few weeks before the event and ask a few willing citizens if they’re happy to help me out if I buy them a pint afterwards. I doubt the good salt-o’-the-earth folks of East London will let me down.

I suppose I could grow into the job, once I conquer my initial dread. But what if I pitch it too low? What if I shame Queen and country? What if I paint a false picture of the UK in the eyes of our overseas chums? The Chinese, after all, have packed thousands of years’ worth of culture into their extravaganza. And Sarah Brightman.

A central motif of today’s spectacle has been paper. The Chinese invented it after all, probably. And fireworks. There’ve been plenty of those. And money. And all that number 8 symbolism – 8pm, 8th day of 8th month – is to do with the word being the same for wealth. Much of the action has happened on an olde-worlde scroll which unfurled itself, in a very newe-worlde way, and provided the central stage for much of the ceremony’s proceedings.

Now I’m sure there’s no such thing as plagiarism when it comes to Olympic choreography so I think I might stick with the Chinese paper motif for 2012. But then how to keep costs low? My budget will probably only be £22.75, remember. So I’m thinking of getting some volunteers – we can cut their benefits if they refuse – to sew a few thousand copies of The Sun and The Mirror together, preferably ones that have at some point in their life had fish and chips wrapped up in them, and unfurling them to whoops of joy from the world’s public.

But what could be the opening gambit of the ceremony? Once we’ve got the fish and chip scroll unfurled, we need to get a bit of a show on the road. And it’ll be London. So I think we should have a London Routemaster bus trundle out into the centre of our new and nearly-finished Olympic Stadium, incompletely built in the shape of a bowler hat. A pearly king and queen could be the driver and conductor. Or, if they’re willing to waive an appearance fee, the actual Queen and her consort. They would deliver to the centre of the fish and chip scroll the bus’s only passenger, our compère for the evening, Britain’s best comic, Jim Davidson. He could wow the crowd and, indeed, the world with gag after gag. “My wife’s so ugly…” he could begin.

But there’s got to be music and dancing too. And, like China, the UK is a multi-ethnic country. Naturally, these being the London games, we’d have local school-children doing a routine as chimney-sweeps and then a right, good ol’ Cockney Knees Up Muvva Brairn song and dance. Got to make the most of those braces, after all, as they’ll take up a good chunk of the budget. There can be some bagpipes to represent Scotland and bottles of whisky flashing up on the overhead projector (kindly donated by some London Borough Council free of charge as long as we leave their sticker on the side). A Welsh choir singing to footage of coal-mining and eisteddfod druids. Some murals from Northern Ireland. And something Cornish from Cornwall.

I’m thinking Right Said Fred for the pop interlude once the athletes from all those Pakistans and Palaus and Panamas are in. They should have the crowd going wild as the build-up to the Olympic flag being run up the flagpole and the Olympic flame being lit becomes unbearably tense. I’ll give Jacques a little kiss on the cheek and wish him good luck for making a rousing pre-Olympic speech. Prime Minister Dave can declare the games open and even announce that, thanks to me, not that I think I should be central to the ceremony at all, but maybe they could put a snap of me from my hols on the overhead projector at that point, we’d kept within our £22.75 budget. The Olympic flag, in a last-minute cutback, can be welched on and a photo of it can be stuck up on the overhead projector instead.

These games will be, most importantly of all, green games. Burning gas wantonly when it’ll be light for most of the proceedings is a great waste of resources. So we can modernise the Olympic flame. As the crowds hush and everyone realises the climax is upon them, Eddie the Eagle can be greeted in a riot of swooning, flag-waving and adulation, light a Swan Vestas safety match, set fire to a piece of string leading to a great big cauldron high above the not-quite-finished stadium and, just when everyone expects flames to billow out over London’s historic skyline, someone behind the scenes can flick a switch and a huge long-lasting two-pronged light-bulb will flood the Olympic sky with just as much mythos.

But I’m still not sure I’m the right man for the job.

Tax apple August 6, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
25 comments

I now await my tax bill with bated breath. I reckon I’ve been underpaying by some millions so fully expect to starve to death the day the bill plops onto the doormat.

Which all takes away from the feeling of heroism I richly deserve at having done the bastard in the first place. The Russian’s only utterance to me since the beginning of the year, bar, perhaps, the odd, “You look pregnant,” has been, “Tyex dyeklaration.” Which means, of course, that to do the tax declaration would have been giving into one of his requests and, ergo, a massive moral defeat.

“Hmm, this is very unsatisfactory,” I’m almost bound to have thought to myself at some point as I mulled over how not to do my duty by the state. “How to spread the gloom?”

I wrote the Russian a text message in case he was having a nice day somewhere without me. “Darling, I’ve decided you should do my tax declaration. After all I’ve done for you.”

“You khev done naasink for me,” he answered from the next room.

“What?” I texted back. Perhaps even in capitals. “If it wasn’t for me, you still wouldn’t know what an avocado was…” I write, relieved to have remembered yet another example of my beneficent altruism. “I introduced you to MacDonald’s, the internet, credit card debt!”

Duly chastened, he agreed. Though it would require my help. I’d have to provide the figures, after all. I fought him off as long as I could. “No, I’m too busy,” I’d say, as he appeared on the threshold of ‘my’ room sporting books on tax and an earnest look.

“Aha, Slaminsky!,” the Russian exclaimed, catching me having a sneaky look, in a short break from my frantically busy professional life, at Slaminsky. He reappeared as quick as a flash with the least interesting books ever written, the earnest look, and an insistence that I switch on my antediluvian laptop.

We co-approached the task differently. The least interesting book ever written gave tips on how to fill in each point on the least interesting form ever written. The Russian pored over each one, dignifying them with a respect I thought they were in no position to have earned. German compound words had me flailing for alcohol – the best part of alcoholism is the drinking – whereas the Russian would furrow his brow, as I last did when trying to read philosophical texts at university, and try to understand. “Darling, I didn’t fill in that box last year,” I’d say jollily, reminded helpfully by the computer programme. “We can probably skip to the next one.”

The Russian took a bite from a therapeutic apple. I made a grab for it too, but the Russian brushed my hand away from the forbidden fruit. I always tend to think I have a spousely right to anything belonging to the Russian, be it clothes or food. Whereas he is a much more modern type, thinking what’s his is his and what’s mine is mine. I remind him that I’m the one that grew up in the wicked West whereas his formative years were spent in a laboratory of social brotherhood, but he is not for turning. But I had to insist. These were no ordinary times. We were filling in a tax declaration. We were up against it. Us against the state. Spending unprecious free time doing something horrible to help the state reinforce my poverty. This was no time for not sharing the tax apple. We exchanged a solemn look, understanding the gravity of the situation. The Russian smiled reluctantly. And gave me the tax apple. I slobbered all over it. We had a manly hug.

Anyway, the bastard’s in. Anyone know what it’s like in debtors’ prison?