Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Eighth of Thermidor of No Good Boyo

An acquaintance of unpalatable right-wing views once asked me with studied nonchalance whether I thought he would enjoy Gregor von Rezzori's "Memoirs of an Anti-Semite". "Only as a suppository," I replied.

It is one of my favourite books, although two aspects of it make me flinch. One is that Von Rezzori himself translated the middle section into better English than I can speak, and the other is a scene where the author encounters some unpleasantness with Bucharest roughs at a suburban circus. It involves his mistress, a bear and vigorous expressions of class resentment.

Collisions with Blood and Soil types distress us, the deracinated of the world, and that passage reminds me painfully of my own dealings with a stuffed squirrel in Soviet Moscow.

The reputation of taxidermy has never recovered from the shoddy work of Messrs "Ed" Gein and Alfred Hitchcock, neither of whom frankly had the skill to match their enthusiasm for the art as practitioner and propagandist respectively. Once was a time when one's aunts were safely shuttered away behind a screen of stuffed cats, dogs, canaries and boy scouts, but now nephews have no defence from their plump, probing fingers, rouged lips and madeira-soaked mutterings.

Where the West led, Soviet Russia firmly refused to follow. As Europe and America embraced deodorants, natural fibres, dentistry and not ramming sawdust up the arses of dead monkeys, the gamey trolls of Muscovy marched past shops full of stuffed rodents, their polyvinyl uniforms crackling in the permafrost, whistling songs of Socialism through mouths full of blackened stumps.

I came across one such shop at Patriarch's Ponds in Moscow one hazy summer day in 1988. I, along with my colleagues Max Braddel, Tubby Johnson, Swanny and a Scotchman called Duncan, had spent Library Day afternoon down the Panjab Indian Restaurant, as usual.

Every Wednesday was Library Day in the Soviet state. Colleges closed early so that students could rush off to the archives to carry out their own research, footnote their essays and order learned journals. This they resolved to do after extrapolating the modalities at various beer halls, kebab cellars and fish barrels. Eager to learn from our progressive counterparts, we did likewise. The Panjab soon became our symposium of choice.

The restaurant was set up in the 1970s glow of Soviet-Indian friendship. Mrs Gandhi had just suspended the rule of law and started sterilising people, so the Kremlin, reassured that Asia's best democracy was heading in the right direction at last, started shipping vodka, combustible television sets and plastic suits to Delhi.

The Indians promptly ousted Indira, restored civil rights and doled out transistor radios to the recently emasculated. As a belated gesture, the foreign minister sent some chefs over to Moscow to set up a few decent eateries so that he wouldn't have to live on Kit-Kats and condensed milk on his next official visit.

The Panjab was one such eatery, and was swiftly heading down the path to putrescence followed by all previous attempts to stimulate the Soviet palate. The pattern was familiar:

  • Foreign chef arrives in joint-venture restaurant. Brings fine herbs and spices, authentic recipes, trains local staff.
  • Restaurant is a hit, chef returns home with the Order of Laika the Space Dog (Third Class) and a moody blonde wife called Natasha who leaves him for an English backpacker called Josh whose father owns Hampshire.
  • Soviet staff junk menu, add exotic spices to the usual stodge in order to mask elderly ingredients, steal light fittings, flood toilets.
  • The restaurant critic of the KGB in-house magazine drops by, staff are executed, eatery closes "for technical reasons".
  • Six months later it reopens as a Stuffed Animal Shop.

We had caught the Panjab halfway through the first stage. It served oily red soup ("What flavour is this soup, comrade waiter?" "Red.") Russian salads (meat in mayonnaise), and a sort of pudding that might once have been a rice-based condiment but was now a hideous rite of passage for the unwitting diner.

It had many advantages, nonetheless, chief among them being its abundant supply of alcohol. Mr Gorbachev's prohibition law was already being widely flouted, but nowhere with such baroque ebullience as down the Panjab.

Not only could you enjoy a relatively fresh bottle of Moscow's finest bottom-watering Zhiguli beer, but it was also the exclusive Moscow supplier of a tarry Moldavian wine called Joc. A brief tasting, courtesy of our tame waiter, confirmed our collective view that it was near-undrinkable liver rot. On a good day we would have a bottle each.

It was after such an expansive lunch that we wandered through the 19th century lanes of Patriarch's Ponds, one of the few parts of central Moscow not to have been turned into a cross between a 1980s after-the-bomb B movie set and the Seven Elms Market toilets by Soviet town planners. A cosy gun shop glinted in the bloodshots of our eyes, and we strolled in.

It was odd that lazily pro-Soviet British students were shocked by the ease with which Russians could buy rifles. First, because a fleeting glance at Soviet and Russian history revealed an epic story of beastly behaviour at home and abroad. The national symbols of icon, axe, hammer and sickle were also a give-away.

Second, if they had such faith in the poise and harmony of Soviet society, why would they worry about those long, shiny guns being used for anything other than pest control and holding back the Polish revanche?

Exposure to Muscovite militarism was a sort of Billy Wilder moment for these students, a small tug at the sleeve of their received opinions that would eventually hoist them aloft by their drainpipe trousers and send their Red Wedge and ANC badges tumbling about their pierced ears. The next step tended to be a casual leaf through last month's Daily Telegraph at the Consulate, during which they found themselves nodding slowly at the letters page.

The gun shop was empty of customers despite being stocked with everything the modern Russian might need - big guns, much ammo, evil knives, gumboots, bundles of twine and a stuffed squirrel. I spotted it first.

"Squirrel," I slurred to myself, describing a slow arc across an upper shelf with an outstreched finger. "Ha ha ha ha," I added. The others, being town boys, were entranced by the big guns, and saw nothing. The squirrel had been stuffed by a committee of blind Gypsy violinists, and seemed to have died from ritual Chechen disembowelment before being mounted on a tree stump with a couple of nuts in his paws. Then we ambled off to ogle the lady policewomen on The Arbat.

A few weeks later there dawned Duncan's birthday, and my mind returned to the squirrel. "What a semiotic amuse-gueule of a gift that would be," I told Max. "It meets all the requirements of 1980s Moscow expat postgraduate life - it's ironic, authentic, portable and useless. I'll pick it up this afternoon."

Having committed myself to the purchase, I set off for Patriarch's Ponds with a few hours to spare. The gun shop, however, was now packed with horny-browed anglers buying buckets of worms, gun-toting werewolves filling their pockets with shot, and silent giants trying out the latest blades on their own forearms.

They all turned sullenly as I inched past their steaming flanks up to the counter, where I extended an etiolated hand towards the upper shelf and lisped "Can I have the thquirrew pleathe?"

The shopkeeper took some time to scan the premises for my little stuffed chum, then enlisted the help of a pair of knife-swallowers to hoist it down. He asked whether I wanted it wrapped all nice. "Yeth," I whimpered as he carefully crated and bound the beast in "23 Years of Soviet/South-Yemenite Friendship" bunting. I handed over 12 roubles 15 kopecks and shuffled off with my new companion under my arm amid a collective simmering of gruff pity.

Duncan liked the squirrel, it reminded him of happy afternoon strolls by the Ponds. It presided over the room he shared with Swanny, playing the odd hand of poker and looking after everyone's hats. But, every time I looked into Comrade Nutkinich's feral eyes, the painted mask of a gamin bound for a gigue with Madame Guillotine gurned back.

Some men have nightmares about finding themselves naked in public, or having to run a gauntlet of picketing miners while dressed in evening wear. In my dark places I teeter through a throng of armed stevedores with a tufty-tailed wig on my head.

When the Welsh state publishing house Taffizdat comes to print my official autobiography in years ahead, the anonymous author may have cause to return to that shop on Patriarch's Ponds. There he will try to recapture the moment when I came to full maturity as a Marxist political leader. He may write:

"Boyo had never had time for the dictum 'That which does not kill me makes me stronger', noting that the leaders of the various former opposition parties in Wales were still alive but certainly not flourishing in the Martyr Michael Owen Underwater Cockle Plantation off Bardsey Island.

"Nonetheless, L'Affaire Nutkin did bring him to an awareness that Lenin, Robespierre and Kinnock had reached by less pathetically fallacious means - namely that the working classes cannot be beaten or joined, except in some elementary experiments in Madame Boyo's father's Carpathian laboratory. But they can be led."

["Boyo: Triumph and Tragedy"; pp245-246, Taffizdat, Morgangrad]


Anonymous said...

So where's Comrade Nutkinich now?

No Good Boyo said...

Living in Mexico under an assumed name. But ADEC (Adran Diogelwch Cenedlaethol) has a llymru spoon with his name on it.

Gorilla Bananas said...

Did you actually meet an authentic member of the Soviet proletariat (apart from the squirrel)? Dilettanti foreign students and petit bourgeois shopkeepers and restaurateurs are the only people who get a mention here.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Thanks for bringing that Rezzori book to my attention, Boyo; I reckon it should be required reading for me and I've just sourced a copy for 2 squid.

Our Tufty the Squirrel was mascot of killjoys The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents; I'm envisaging Comrade Nutkinich as his nemesis.

Ms Scarlet said...

The pic at the top of the post will be giving me nightmares. It looks like it's a still from a particularly scary episode of Dr Who.

Have you still got a lisp?
And yes, do you still have Comrade Nutkniich? Have you added to your stuffed animal collection? Have you found Comrade Bugsyov?

So many questions...

Ms Scarlet said...

Ah, apologies... you've already answered my second question!

Kevin Musgrove said...

The Tufty Club was an insidious tool of the bourgeoisie: each episode of these "road safety presentations" was designed to show the wanton stupidity and carelessness of the weaselly proletariat.

What's the party line on Davy Crockett hats?

(One day I will blog about my failure to get a stuffed head on my living room wall.)

No Good Boyo said...

Scarlet, I do still lisp, but I've managed to turn it into a sexy, sinister sibilance rather than a fey tongue-flap.

Gentlemen, you are right to fear the Tuftistas. Especially in the original Welsh:

Ian Plenderleith said...

A most entertaining unravelment. 'Squirrel' is one of the few words I half know in Welsh - something like 'wirry wirwa'. I saved one's life the other day by slamming on the brakes as the dim rodent did its usual suicidals by mis-timing a mad dash into the road. Which is odd given how often I sit out on my deck fantasising about picking them off with an air rifle as they gorge themselves at the bird feeder.

Kevin Musgrove said...

My God, Boyo, that's terrifying!

No Good Boyo said...

Be afraid, Kevin.

GB, my apologies, I omitted a reply to your inquiry. True Soviet proletarians literally crossed my path on a daily basis, muttering through a fug of dandelion cigarettes, piss and vodka. We spoke whenever I needed to buy a glass of refreshing kvass, as they were usually clustered around the barrel in a welter of brown trousers and black eyes. Salt of the earth.

Pop, I'm impressed with your practical knowledge. Modern Welsh for squirrel is "wiwer" (Classical Welsh: "gwiwer"), and I'm struck by how similar it is to the Ukrainian "viverka". An old Indo-European root, perhaps? There's a Max Boyce routine about a poem called "Y Wiwer", and it's as funny as you might imagine.

Gadjo Dilo said...

The Romanian work for squirrel is "veveriţa"*, but that sounds suspiciously like a diminutive and the original word may well have been "vevera", which is somewhere between the Welsh and the Ukrainian words. The ploy thickens.

* Accent on the first syllable, unusually.

Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

The German for squirrel is Eichkatzchen (oak-kitten). Then the Germans often refuse to follow the Indo-European party line, as their words for television and telephone will attest.

Are the KGB still looking for a restaurant reviewer?

No Good Boyo said...

True. Daphne. Any nation that calls the ethereal butterfly a "Schmetterling" is out there on its own.

The Russian spooks call themselves the FSB these days, and probably employ every restaurant critic in the country plus "AA" Gill as part of some elaborate but as-yet undefined plot to make us all eat pelmeni. You could apply to be head of F Section (frites et moules).

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Pity you didn't keep that squirrel. Judging by the location where you have found it, the squirrel could have taken part in major upheavals in Russian history, included (but not limited to) the first wave of sailors to attack the Winter Palace and offing the Tzar's family.

Ms Scarlet said...

Erm... I have an award for you at mine.

xerxes said...

The only roots I've got are parts of my teeth. So does deracinated mean having your teeth out? I've always been a bit confused by this word, but maybe it explains your lisp.

No Good Boyo said...

It's an interesting point, Inky. Lisping is usually an easy way of losing more teeth, especially if you try it in the Swansea Jack public house, having just asked for a glass of green chartreuse and some snuff for your Moroccan boy.

Snoop, that squirrel was the inspiration for The Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil". Fact that is, or it will be once I've put it on Wikipedia.

If I ever get back to Moscow, which is doubtful as it costs a bomb and is full of bastards, I'll check out the shop. It's the sort of place that endures while all else changes, rather like the Isle of Man but without the incest and cat mutilation.

Scarlet, thank you. I've visited your blog with a more fulsome expression of gratitude, and shall write my acceptance speech once my ghastly family allows.

The Count of Monte Cristo in a Bubble Car said...

I recall the time I was on a cycling holiday in the Trans-Dniester region of the former Moldovian Soviet Socialist Republic some time back in the late 70s. One evening, I was engaging in some pre-prandial small talk in a rather down-at-heal workers' guest house in a forest on the outskirts of Kishinev with a group of travelling tomato sellers. Now my limited understanding of the Romanian language comes to me through my somewhat limited understanding of Italian, which in turn I understand only because of my dilettantish encounters with Latin. Nevertheless, I was able to discern that the area had once been the base for a top-secret Soviet military experiment initiated by Stalin himself. It seems that Soviet scientists had attempted to breed human-squirrel chimeras, believing that such beasts would be excellent warriors and would make the Red Army invincible. You cannot imagine how quickly I cycled out of the Trans-Dniester region the very next morning following these shocking revelations. The psyche-lacerating possibilities of what may have have been lurking in that forest still affect me to this day. The only thing that I ever found as disturbing was receiving a copy of the Marquis de Sade's novel "Juliette" (apparently signed by Simone de Beauvoir) as a Christmas present from an eccentric aunt when I was in still in my teens. said...

I feel as though I've stumbled into some druidic netherworld..... that'll teach me to type into google search "Is No Good Boyo taken as a band name?"

Atually, you've all made my day with your humour and otherwise and - of course - No Good Boyo is a wonderful name for a musical is Squirrel

"my teeth are gnarled, my hair is bent, my bones are old and grey." ...ah ....wot a life!

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