Saturday, November 29, 2008

Un grand verre en caoutchouc

My last post about Armenia has attracted the attention of many parties, ranging from the Sayat Nova Society, the somewhat tautological but nonetheless alarming Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia ("We mean Turkey," they admitted), lawyers acting for Steffan ap Sioncs, the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, and a rather forward lady called Millî İstihbarat Teşkilâtı.

With such acclaim and gunfire ringing in my ears, I am happy to present the next chapter of my secret life of Armenia.

In 1986, the group of Russian-language students to which I was loosely attached set off on a trip from the sepia-tinted town of Voronezh for a week of summer sun in Soviet Armenia.

"The blokes will screw you, mate," chortled my room-mate Sergei through his morning moonshine mouthwash. "They're like that down there. Goes back to Roman times." He was studying something in the history faculty, usually the plump Cossack rump of Olga the hostel bike.

Reassured that I wouldn't be lonely, I clambered aboard the Aeroflot air trolley-bus for Yerevan, the Murmansk of the South.

My sympathy for the Armenians, combined with a general loucheness, had drawn me into the orbit of a small-time black-marketeer called Tigran. Nominally a student in the economics faculty, he spent his time trading vodka and jeans in a pleasant wooden house behind Voronezh railway station.

Now, the Soviets had just decided to give Prohibition a chance, on the grounds that it had worked so well in the United States and the Arabian Peninsula seemed a reasonable place.

As a result planes were falling from the skies as ground crews drank the flight fuel, the criminals who came to own the Russian economy accumulated the capital and contacts to get properly organised, factories stopped producing combustible television sets as workers bunked off to source some sauce, and housewives found their weekly shopping basket reduced to a bucket of fermented potatoes and two straws.

In a fatal display of flexibility Moscow had allowed the Caucasian republics of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia to carry on drinking because the locals just enjoyed an odd bottle of wine with their grilled meats. The Slavs, in contrast, had a habit of sticking their heads in a vodka trough, wrestling a pig, bursting into tearful song then collapsing in a snowdrift.

Armenians and Georgians were quick to flood the Russian market with spirits of varying degrees of toxicity, distributed by taxi-drivers, flower-sellers and pretty much anyone swarthy and unshaven on a street corner near you.

To this explosive mix just add British university students of the mid-1980s - a grisly lot at the best of times. The failure of General Galtieri, Red Wedge and organised labour to oust the ghastly Mrs Thatcher had left edjucated youth with nothing to hope for but comfortable jobs in accountancy, foreign holidays, a two-up/two-down in Amersham and occasional wife-swapping.

They squelched about in Dr. Marten's boots, long black overcoats and shoe-gazing fringes, snagging keffiyehs on their CND lapel badges and blinking sullenly at Sloane Rangers through their Lennon specs.
They made themselves feel better about having tolerated Fascism etc by conscientiously objecting to life.

Students eschewed fine wines, gaudy clothes, fellatio, pantomines and all the stuff that gets normal people through the day. Instead they tried to read the NME, admire the Style Council and fancy Alison Moyet (I find that task easier nowadays. Mmmm).

Where was I? Ah yes. This Savonarola tendency kept my fellow-students in Voronezh away from Armenian spivs and dancing-girls, let alone contraband and currency speculation. At least initially. Closer encounters with Actually Existing Socialism slowly opened some of their clammy little hearts and beaded purses up to a New Economic Policy of bartering Billy Bragg t-shirts for booze and cigs. I was happy to help, for an undeclared commission fee.

The problem with a largely unregulated financial sector is unpredictable availability of cash and credit, as we have been finding out of late. The same applied to the Soviet black market, and it happened that my pockets were empty of all but some lint and a list of shady phone numbers as we disembarked at Armenia's euphonious Zvartnots Airport.

Equally uncertain was the itinerary of Young Young Aherne. Aherne had split off from the student collective early on and followed a more proletarian path to pleasure than my own. His great, unwashed room-mate Lukich had introduced him to "viper-pit" drinking dens where men grunt, spit, swear and gargle bottom-melting Zhiguli beer while calling each other "whore" in a lazily threatening manner.

Aherne had steadily acquired the three marks of Satan as far as our fellow-scholars were concerned - a social life unbounded by our hostel, a grasp of colloquial Russian and, worst of all, a grasp of a local girlfriend, when he should have been sitting in his room listening to The Cure and wondering why Soviet sugar lumps don't dissolve in tea.

Arriving in Armenia meant getting to know The Gang all over again, something Aherne wisely decided he'd rather not attempt. I had contacts, he had money. Together we devoted ourselves to some grand bouffery.

I whisked the gurgling Gael off on a tour of Armenian geezers from Tigran's address book, ranging from the Hooch King of Tsaghkadzor to The Fiendish Professor Morozov, a physicist at Yerevan University whose friends at the cognac distillery provided him with enough eau-de-vie to fell the Soviet women's shot-put team. In return Young Young paid for lunch.

Half-way through our trip I sensed his largesse was flagging, and decided to play my last and grubbiest card.

Earlier in the year one of the many girls called Hilary in our group had brough Aherne a bag of French letters back from Britain. He never wasted time on trips home, as these would have interrupted his delicate drinking/mounting/swearing continuum. The would-be Mrs Aherne, on the other hand, was clearly tired of making do with galoshes, the gritty, allegedly re-useable Soviet prophylactics that came in two sizes - too small and too large.

As a practical joke I and a few blades had lifted the condoms from Hilary's bag, fully intending to return them to her amid much relieved laughter and nudging after Aherne had calmed down. But somehow we never did. Hilly assumed she'd left them in Britain, and long agonised over her parents' reaction when they found them on her dressing table. I found this out relatively recently, in a bonus that has done my soul no good at all.

Through a complex series of thefts that remain unexplained, the stash had come to rest in the lining of my ox-blood leather jacket, which on that evening in June 1986 was draped across my shoulders on a balcony in Yerevan's atmospheric Micro Region No.5, where Aherne and I were sampling some of Armenia's primo hash.

"Things going well with the would-be Mrs Young Young?" I ventured.

"Aye, she's cracking, we're going to get married, joint bank accounts etc etc," he blathered.

"Then allow me to give you an early wedding present," I drawled, presenting him with the sheaths that he'd paid for some months ago, give or take a few.

Even I was moved by his squawks of Papist gratitude. Few were the men who willingly handed over their stack of johnnies to another in the Soviet Union, although he had no idea that I wasn't one of them. I dined like a provincial party secretary for another week, and returned to Voronezh laden with jazz records and kebabs.

"So, did you get screwed, Boyo?" beamed Sergei over his dried-fish and boot polish breakfast.

"Not me, cher Serge, not me," I murmured as Aherne barged past us on his way to the girls' floor, bag in hand.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Горе от ума

One of the wraiths that drift through my blog like pedalo Flying Dutchmen once asked whether I was or had ever been an office joker. The answer is a firm but inviting "no".

I have carried out guerrilla attacks on the email accounts of managerial fiends from time to time, but a packed lunchtime drinking schedule leaves me little time for japes. Indeed, I set an example of Montgomery clipped efficiency when leading my team of crumpled hacks to ever greater feats of tardy and inaccurate reporting with a distinct Byronic bias.

Sometimes my tow-haired charges gather at my shiny knee to hear cautionary tales of journos past. Those inclined to tomfoolery are chastened by my account of the Great Guatemalan Voodoo Hunt, and muck about no more.

I used to work at a business consultancy group, which was as disagreeable as it sounds. To leaven the loam I devised a game of mental poker for my colleagues. Our 0830 morning conference was organised by regional or thematic desk (Europe, International Business etc). Each desk had a staff editor (I was Soviet Union and Eastern Europe) and an outside specialist, usually an Oxford don or freelancer.

The Dons, as they were called, were likeable chancers in the main, but one or two took themselves far too seriously. The aim of the game was to slip an absurd story past them without their noticing.

We staff would usually assemble at 0745 while the office gimp was compiling the desk files. These were folders of agency wires and press clippings sorted by region, with each headline typed up on an overall crib sheet. The Dons got a copy of the crib-sheet in their files.

As the gimp listened to the BBC World Service headlines at 0800, one of us had to alter a headline on the crib-sheet in the typewriter. The technique was to find a story from a region where the Don was either too preoccupied/befuddled to notice the doctored headline, or more rarely would spot it and get the joke.

The challenge was to ensure that the Chief Editor, a bellicose and drunken Old Arab Hand, and the Director, a born-again American, didn't notice either. This required guile and confidence.

In case the Marxists among you were wondering, the gimp never spotted anything because he was too harassed and his eyesight had been ruined by years of rummaging in the early morning gloom.

My finest moment involved the then French prime minister Madame Édith Cresson, President Mitterrand's final act of revenge on the Socialist Party. La Cresson was the chainsmoking ideal of what French women of a certain age and wayward moral compass look like. She devoted a good part of her premiership to calling the English a bunch of poofs and the Japanese an army of speccy yellow ant men.

What would be fair comment for an officer in the Royal Welch Fusilliers c.1943 was not acceptable from a European stateswoman of the 1990s, one can only regret to note. Her refusal to apologise for anything only made me want her more.

The latest outrage was some comment she'd made about sex in Japan, thereby uniting her two favourite themes. The Reuter headline was something improbable like "Mrs Cresson denies discussing sex". I altered this to "Mrs Cresson denies discussing oral sex". The gimp printed 12 copies and away we went.

My gamble paid off as no one except the desk editors noticed it. Behold the keys to my success:

  • I added a solitary word. Avoid ostentation, but don't play too safe.
  • Make it plausible. Madame Cresson was quite capable of complaining about the service she'd got from some Kyoto gigolo.
  • The headline was no higher than 5th or 6th from the top. By then most Dons have stopped reading and gone straight for their regional stories. Any lower in the running order would be poor sport.
  • The European Don du jour was a bearded buffoon who read Le Monde at the conference table with great ostentation and rarely noticed anything else.

The risk was the reaction of the Chief Editor and Director. This time the former was fuming about some dastardly American plot to make Arab states behave themselves and the latter was pawing the sleeve of a visiting client, so I got away with it.

Various headlines I recall from other colleagues were "Gulf states raise mermaid question", "San Marino denies irredentist ambitions", "Major recommends Chateau Lamont, then laughs" and "Bush backs bid to drill for owls".

We were swashbuckling news brigands, lusted after by men and women alike. Who would not want to join our lunchtime roistering at the Nags Head? Who would not want to join our teatime roistering at the Nags Head? And as for our evenings, you would have to imagine the Algonquin Round Table re-enacted by male models on water-skis.

One aspirant member of our fraternity of fops was an earnest young American intern whom I shall call Dr William Tompson, later of Birkbeck College, the OECD and Chatham House. Cursed with a real doctorate, corporate loyalty, a penchant for Monty Python, a fetching wife and a voice like Lippy the Lion, "Tompo" as he disliked being called was the diametrically-opposed opposite of everything we stood for.

He caused endless distress with his pressed trousers, good standing with the management, advocacy of blush wine, polished manners and young life of genuine achievement. One day Tompo decided to win us over by trying his hand at Headline Poker.

He came terribly unstuck by breaking the rules outlined above:

  • He invented an entire new headine.
  • He let his imagination run riot.
  • He placed it too high.
  • He chose Latin America, the Cinderella desk with a monomaniac editor who read and cross-checked everything.

As usual the Chief Editor went around the table asking for our top stories, desk by desk. At last he came to Latin America.

"So, Crabtree, anything to report from the Pampas?"

"Well, David, Menem is talking about a major deflationary package, De Mello is still denying a range of accusations, there are some interesting developments in the Bolivian mining sector and, and, it's rather odd but I can't actually find the wire, but there's a headline here, you all have it, third on the list, 'Guatemalan cabinet struck down by voodoo curse'. Most curious, as voodoo isn't usually a problem in Guatemala or indeed Central America in general. Does, does anyone have the wire in their folders?"

Extensive rifling of folders followed, growing louder to suppress a steady trickle of giggles from the ranks.

The Latin American Don that day was a sound fellow who'd never sold cocaine to convent girls or thrown anyone out of a helicopter. He raised his single brow from rapt study of the healthcare editor's cleavage to mutter "Suspect someone's pulling your leg, what?"

Our conference table would have given a fair impression of Pandæmonium if demons ever shopped at Burtons. The Chief Editor bellowed about lack of respect for the editorial process, the Director was babbling in tongues, and the poor Latin American editor looked like someone had wiped their arse on Isabel Allende and sent him the Polaroid.

Tompo decided to own up. "I thought it might be funnay," he ventured, thereby unbelting another blast of Berkoff from the top management. To Tompo's credit he never mentioned that we had all been tampering with the agenda for months. Nor did he express annoyance when the rest of us failed to point this out in his defence.

After a discreet interval Tompo retreated to the public sector, leaving his erstwhile colleagues to find other ways of having fun at the expense of human decency.

And so, my pretties, remember that office jokes are best carried off like married love-making. Ensure your victim is half-asleep, don't be too involved or obvious, and have someone you can blame if it all goes wrong.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Staring into the Abyss

Rabbi Simon the Righteous said the world stands on three pillars - God's law, worship, and the bestowal of kindness (Mishnah, Ethics of the Fathers I.ii).

Schelling thought our world stood on a fragile crust, below which boiled natural chaos (Naturphilosophie).

Lovecraft saw the world as a brittle veil, barely concealing squamous she-goats from uncounted stars (The Whisperer in Darkness).

In the fire sale of ideas you take your pick. I, however, know that the world rides on an army of drunks.

This web blog has already spoken up for the rights of drunk blokes, but it is now time to explain how much we all owe to shambling men in porous trousers.

I once worked in an office in Ukraine, Europe's bulwalk against Muscovite beastliness. One morning our office manager came up to me with a key and a fistful of grubby banknotes. "Boyo," he said. "I have to go out. Sometime this morning a drunk bloke will turn up with a sack of sugar. Give him the key, then give him the money."

I nodded gravely and assumed the lad had an appointment at the psychiatric clinic again. But sure enough there came a knock at the door. As I opened it an unshaven man wearing what look and smelled like a dog mattress barged past me. I followed him into the kitchen where he deposited a sack of sugar on the floor in front of a locked cupboard.

"Ffycin key whore innit," he muttered with outstretched paw. I gave him the key and he opened a Fingal's Cave of pots, bags and condiments. In went the sugar. He took the money, spat on it, fixed me with a milky eye and said "Ffycin off bitch 'til next month whore". And with that my knight was gone.

Our office manager later explained that all our kitchen, stationery, bathroom and running maintenance needs were met not by the various shiny new service companies that speckled the grey streets of Darnytsya, but rather by a network of drunken Touretteers in filthy vans.

"All Ukraine, indeed all the former Soviet states, depends on these derelicts,"
he went on. "No one outside government and foreign law firms can afford to pay taxes or proper wages. This is how we get things done."

The more I looked around that mighty land, the more I realised he was right. Every towering symbol of Ukrainian statehood was propped up against a lush in piss-strained brown trousers trying to roll a cigarette out of tree bark.

Of course, the drunks do not actually run the country, unlike its neighbour Belarus. That is left to thumping great crooks, demagogues and seedy financiers like everywhere else. Except when the crooks etc head off for a break in that hotel just down the beach from yours, and hand over the keys to arms dumps, missiles, gas pipelines, coal mines, more missiles, the gas mains, yet more missiles, jet fighters, nuclear power plants and Eurovision to the winos.

The results are always unfortunate, and teach us that drunks are useful but need strict supervision, especially during the summer months. The general term in Russian for a soused plebian is пьяный мужик (p'yany moujik), but in the House of Boyo we prefer the term Gosha.

Gosha is the improbable love interest in the evergreen Soviet film Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, which won the USSR State Prize for Least Ponderous Title of the Year in 1981. Gosha is sanitised in true Soviet fashion, as a real moujik can barely utter two words in succession without snarls of "whore", "bitch", "ladygarden" and various imaginatively-conjugated invitations to copulate.

Nonetheless, his slovenly attire, manual trade, essential decency, consumption of dried fish and ready recourse to grain alcohol make him the acme of the worthy drunks upon whose self-tattooed shoulders the whole Slavonic world rests.

Whenever the power goes out in Madame Boyo's Carpathian redout, she doesn't call the electricity board but rather sends one of her urchins over to Kolya Lektryk with a half-bottle of monkey juice. Kolya soons returns with his bag of wires, Wehrmacht-issue pliers and diving helmet, eager to plug the missus back into the mains in return for the other half of the bottle and some bones.

Goshas also underpin/mine our own economy, as a visit to Humphries Tyres & Exhausts, Caversham, will confirm. The phenomenon of Goshery (Russ: Гошность) has spread into the other castes and classes of meritocratic Britain as well. Our financial system has collapsed because the grown-ups at the Bank of England and HM Treasury did not notice that City traders are sweaty little soaks in Aquascutum suits.

Academia and the world of business are also a den of Goshas. I used to work at a consultancy group and regularly commissioned studies of this sector or that on behalf of major corporations. Nynex, Morgan Guaranty and Levi Strauss were naturally delighted that the high tables and snuff boxes of Oxford were abuzz with how to penetrate the Polish telecoms and Egyptian cotton markets at their request.

In reality the work was done by a 20-year-old postgraduate from Sheffield in a Bollocks To The Poll Tax! t-shirt whom I'd found arm-wrestling for coppers down Cowley Working Men's Club.

Lovecraft was right when he wrote that "We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity; and it was not meant that we should voyage far" (The Call of Cthulhu). Do we really want to know that car and computer repairs are carried out by bandaged men armed with sticks, agony aunt and marital guidance columns were once written by my Dad and his Army mates for beer money, and leading broadcasters employ people like me?

Lovecraft went on to say that we would "either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age". In this he was wrong. That dark age is already here. Cheers.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Agenbite of Ffycwit

Gyppo has recalled an incident where the trip-switch between his brain and mouth failed, with potentially incendiary consequences.

Many a young blade has been felled by this fault, as was landfall-in-motion Neil Kinnock.

I remember his being interviewed about the Falklands not long after he became Labour leader. The BBC pencil-neck said something about Mrs Thatcher having shown "guts" in her conduct of the war.

"Oh no!" I wailed "Don't do it, Neilo! Don't throw it all away for the sake of a quip! It may sound droll to you, but the press and public will know you for the twat you are and we'll be Thatched for ever!"

He clearly couldn't hear me from the depths of my Swansea petri dish. "Pity so many soldiers had to leave theirs all over the Falklands so that she could show she had guts, innit, eh? Lovely!" he drivelled.

"So that's the 1987 election we won't need to prepare for then," sighed the Gnomes of Walworth Rd.

How many more teeth might we all have between us if we'd not essayed that witty attaque au fer on the collier in the Sketty Arms and just agreed that we were, on balance, probably a passive homosexual with English tendencies, and inquired whether it would nonetheless be alright to buy him and all his other little Scargills a few drinks each?

The gob of shite is a shute that shuttles us down to many circles of Hell:
  • the burning at the Javanese stake;
  • the last Roman-candle splutter of a political career that was not meant to be: and
  • the use of one's face as a dartboard, pissoir and brieze block by irked troglodytes.
And all because the Shadow didn't fall quite fast enough between the essence and the descent.

The tightest circle of all is reserved for those who put the bon mot before a good bedding. We have all enjoyed George Bernard Shaw's reputed exchange with Isadora Duncan.

"With my looks and your brains, what children we could produce," cooed the doomed hoofer.

"Ah yes," parried Shaw, "But what if they had my looks and your brains?"

It took the sturdily demotic Mary Whitehouse Experience to follow the scene to what all men know was its logical conclusion:

Shaw left the salon in a glow of applause and laughter - laughter that turned hollow as he slowly doubled up, clasped his head in his hands and moaned "Oh no, I can't believe I just turned down a sure-fire shag!"

I too have crept around that circle many times, and if only it had been my head in my hands.

The moment I recall most frequently from the forced march of my love life was a Russian literature seminar at the University of Wales's concrete country knocking-shop, Gregynog Hall, back in the 80s.

A fetching lady lecturer of a certain age and bouyant embonpoint had caught my bloodshot, ravenous eye one morning during her paper on the "Anal Triad of Nikolai Gogol". Later at elevenses she was fussing happily over the coffee jugs. I approached, cup in hand.

"Shall I be mother?" she simpered.

"Only if I can be Oedipus," I leered. The room fell silent, and my pasty features gurned back at me from a row of unforgiving tea urns.

"A fence for wisdom is silence", said shepherd and sage Rabbi Akiva (Ethics of the Fathers, III). He may have added that this fence can serve as a ladder to a primo bunk-up too, but the Mishnah does not record it.

He would not have approved of pretending to be a Greek pervert, either.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Cortez amors

All the best news sources have covered the literally exciting news that HM Government is to expand and extend sex education so that it finally fills all the cracks in our edjucation system.

As ever, the sausage-fingered managers who staff the Labour Party opt for process over product. What do they hope to achieve by getting primary-school dwarves to draw Venn diagrams of ladies' intimate plumbing in non-toxic crayon?

"It will, somehow, reduce the level of teenage pregnancy," they wail, clinging to the Rugged Cross of Coincidence.

"Doubtful," I reply, "But what about the more important matter of giving the ladies a thoroughly good time? How can Play-Doh® models of Fallopian tubes help Mrs Benson next door blow her top like a narwhal slung from a siege engine?"

The earnest canvasser slunk away from our threshold, ushering her children before her.

As ever, the Cymru Rouge not only has a solution - it has the only solution. Both of them.

1. The United Kingdom, like many North European countries, has benefitted greatly from the discovery of penicillin and liberalisation of the divorce laws. These twin flumes of freedom have filled a fragrant reservoir with non-infectious women of a certain age.

These ladies reach the age of Keatsian ripeness with the realisation that their children have left home, their husbands are bacon-breathed drones, the house is worth a fortune and they themselves are still hot as a cage of minks on mezcal.

The divorce papers soon fly off the fax machine, then South Oxfordshire wine merchants, Open University summer schools and muscular curates brace themselves for the silken assault.

I had the pleasure of teaching Russian to a display of such ladies in the late 80s, and rejoiced in their smoky élan. Marxian principles dictate that these dimpled Deneuviennes should now devote some their ample skills and experience to the Common Weal by taming and training British youth.

If you were a blundering 18-year-old, what would you prefer - three chafing minutes with a pink-eyed classmate, or an afternoon of firm but patient tutoring in the ars amatoria by a gin-scented divorcee in a basque?

And when said youth moves on to his first proper girlfriend, she will be treated with the brio, charm, depravity and duration that she deserves on, or even elaborately suspended from, a Georgian four-poster bed in the Cotswolds - not jack-rabbited in a student dorm to the accompaniment of some "wrap" music. What better torch could one generation pass on to the next?

I propose a Council of Merry Widows to ensure that the young men of Britain are brought up to a consistently high standard of amatory prowess - the last thing we want is a postcoital postcode lottery whereby Shropshire lads will march on Llangollen because they heard Mrs Owen Edwards has a saddle strapped to her dresser. Again.

By the same measure, I would urge harnessing the thoroughbreds from Britain's rainbow stable of diversity - literally, in some cases - to this noble cause. The Kama Sutra, Thousand and One Nights, the Red Book of Hergest, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, Old Moore's Almanack, the Freemans Catalogue - there is so much to bring us all closer together, from Position XIX ("The Surprised Peacock") to Joan the Wad.

2. If, however, the Government insists on using visual aids to reduce teen pregnancies, I would suggest recourse to hardcore pornography. By which I mean American films with primo production values, waxed blondes and a funky soundtrack, not handheld barmaids in a Brummie bedsit.

A year hanging out at the Moscow Institute of Cinematography gave me an epicure's eye for glossy scud. The techniques, devices and choreographed deviance deployed in such flicks send sprays of seed in all imaginable directions but never hit anything that could remotely cause conception outside the pages of the Gospels.

Persuade our youngsters that this is what it's all about, and I'll be surprised if we don't have a procreation gap to rival that of Vatican City within a decade.

Mr Speaker, I commend these measures to The House.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Then Dawned the Morning After

A post-Obamatag conversation down The Tethered Goat:

The K-Man (leafing through The Guardian photospread on the US elections): Ach, that Palin woman, she's no my type.

No Good Boyo: I suspect the feeling's mutual. (Notes K-Man's baseball cap and general air of dereliction) But, on the other hand -

The K-Man: I dunno. She's got a silly face.

No Good Boyo (looks over K-Man's shoulder): K-Man, that's Hillary Clinton.

Saturday, November 01, 2008


For those of you who thirst for seasonal Silurian cheer, I commend Comrade Sedgemore's recounting of a typical Welsh start to winter.

Mrs Boyo mounted her sonic broomstick this morning and headed off to the US, where she will be enlightening Mr Obama as to the Ruthenian Question.

Last night she did the doors as trick-or-treaters ventured out into the Berkshire gloom.

We alternate festive duties. Last year the kids who came calling got genuine Welsh taffy and Glenys Kinnock masks from me. They were ecstatic.

This year they took the Moldovan prunes in ration-book chocolate (from Mrs Boyo's father's bunker in Czernowitz) without a word.

Wait until they open the wrappers and each find a copy of "Auntie Dühring", Mrs Boyo's specially-written children's guide to and critique of the early opponents of Marxism!