Gadfly in russia, p.1
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       Gadfly in Russia, p.1

           Alan Sillitoe
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Gadfly in Russia





  Gadfly in Russia

  A Story of Travel, History, People, and Places

  Alan Sillitoe


  Part One

  Motoring There

  Part Two


  Part Three

  A Nest of Gentlefolk

  Part Four


  Part Five


  Part Six

  The Last of George

  A Biography of Alan Sillitoe by Ruth Fainlight

  Part One

  Motoring There


  The only essay I remember writing at school was about the German advance into Russia during the Second World War. After mentioning the Napoleonic Campaign of 1812 I said that the aim of the current offensive in the Ukraine was to acquire the oil wells in the Caucasus, to fuel the Nazi economy. I was thirteen, but had probably taken most of it from a newspaper.

  The first topographical map I owned was sent from Stanford’s to me in Nottingham, a sheet covering the Stalingrad region, on which to follow the fighting. It cost two shillings and three pence, and came rolled in a cardboard tube. I still have it.

  Fascination with Russia remained, even after the final victories. In 1963 I stayed a month in the country, and wrote a book called Road to Volgograd. In the summer of 1967, impelled to get away from my writing for a while, I sent a letter to Oksana Krugerskaya in Moscow, whom I’d met on the prior trip:

  Having finished a novel, and with time to spare, I would like to visit Russia again. I’ll drive there in my own car through Finland, and as for the itinerary, let’s say a couple of days in Leningrad, and the same for Moscow. Then I’ll go to Kiev and Chernovtsy, and out into Rumania. This will mean about two weeks in the USSR, so would it be possible to collect enough royalties from the translation of Key to the Door to pay my hotel bills? Please cable me if this can be done, then I’ll make bookings.

  In accepting the plan Oksana said I would be met in Leningrad by a graduate of English from Moscow University called George Andjaparidze, who would stay with me all the way to the Rumanian frontier. I didn’t like the idea, preferring to motor on my own. Perhaps it would be possible to avoid his company soon after my arrival.

  As it turned out I was to know him for most of my life. His adventures with me, and misadventures with others, will be related in their place.

  Monday, 12 June 1967

  It wasn’t the biggest of cars, being fifteen feet from snout to stern, but would more than do. Everything necessary for the journey was stowed on board. My son, five-year-old David, unhappy at seeing me go, watched from the top of the steps, old enough to imagine that some catastrophe might stop me coming back. He was right to wonder, since there were five thousand miles to cover, all plotted and mapped.

  Why was I going? He couldn’t or wouldn’t articulate. It wasn’t his fault, but he might have thought so in the confusing tunnels of his mind, as he brought another box by way of help. A child senses a betrayal of custody when you leave home for no obvious reason. Voluntary absence was an insoluble puzzle to him, even though I promised a cargo of presents from the retail outlets of Soviet Muscovy. Doubling a month’s spending money into his warm palm, I broke free, and left him standing by the door. A last goodbye to my wife Ruth, and I was off.

  All paperwork was done, a litany that set the heart racing: visas, international driving licence, passport, car insurance, currencies and travellers’ cheques, were in my wallet. The car had been fully serviced, even the brakes relined. At the garage the manager had sold me a box of spares, including, he said, all possible bulbs and fuses. He guided me out on to the street calling: ‘You should have no trouble at all,’ something I’d heard too many times to feel complacent.

  The boxy dark blue Peugeot Estate made a northeasterly vector of escape. Too long where I no longer wanted to be had been no good for the heart. A Tree on Fire had taken much of the mind, as is the way with a novel, and was now with the publisher, but I still felt that my present venture was self-indulgence.

  The gypsy in me surfaced on sounding the klaxon and showing a smile at green traffic lights, waving at other drivers and getting daggers back at my supposed high spirits. At times the sense of freedom faded, leaving only loneliness and deprivation. I had the urge to turn back, but pressed on across the Thames.

  Wanting to get more quickly out of the country I cruised the outer lane at seventy, until a huge black wagon blocked the way ahead, and for no apparent reason braked. My heart fluttered like a sparrow’s at the notion of a tangled wreck, but the Peugeot fitted into a leftward gap between another car and the municipal dustwagon. Life saved, the blue sky blessed me on towards Harwich.

  I’d always wanted to get away from England, took every opportunity. Loving the place, I didn’t often like it. Such an errant traveller was untrustworthy, liable at any moment to desert family or friends, but however much the tight-lipped stay-at-homes preferred it here, I paid no mindless homage to the cosy fixed customs of a particular piece of earth, and revelled in the fevered acts of departure, seeming only alive at the wheel of a car. Perhaps the zest for travel was a desire to find a spot that would provide tranquillity until death. No such place. The quest would be hopeless. If I thought that way I wouldn’t drive a mile, never mind five thousand.

  I telephoned from the quayside, and when David came on he sounded more grown up at my departure, asking me to bring back ‘painted things’, such as Palekh and Fidoskino gew-gaw boxes with hand-coloured scenes from Russian fairy tales on their lids.

  The car was stowed, and a cabin allotted. Farewells suggest one might never return and, superstitious as travellers inevitably are, I refused to consider the possibility. One could, after all, be killed in an accident a mile from where one lived. Lunatic Hamlets shipped between Denmark and England must make up a good share of the two-way traffic.

  Instead of giving a sardonic wave to the nondescript marshes of Essex I sat for dinner in the Danish ship that was called England. The food was as good as London fare was vile. At my table a paunchy grey-haired businessman of about fifty said he was on his way to Copenhagen and then Cologne in a Humber Imperial. He wasn’t put out by my questions, and we went on to talk about the campaign of Israel against Syria, Egypt and Jordan, both of us sufficiently informed after reading the Sunday Times account. Judging by his interesting reappraisal of the conflict he must at one time have been a soldier.

  In the cabin I listened on shortwave to an adaptation of Mr Norris Changes Trains. Then the news was read which, as the saying goes, went in one ear and out the other. On deck at half past ten waves beat along the ship’s white flanks, the western horizon a deep pink above a wide band of green and blue. Venus, the first star of the evening, kept company with a sickle of moon.

  Travelling alone was a form of deracination. Nothing seemed real, drifting through nowhere in my lit-up coffin of a cabin, one of the almost dead only to come fully alive on driving into Denmark. A vibrating of engines and the rush of water suggested that an unfathomably devious will had brought me to where I was.

  Lights off, the ship made headway. From the radio again a voice said that one should not be afraid to die. I wasn’t, thank you very much. Why should I be? If the earth had fallen on my foot, and left me lame – metaphorically speaking – I was nevertheless still able to walk. Snug in spirit, I switched off the light, wondering why I didn’t much care about anyone or anything, because being en route for Russia filled me with optimism, and I fell asleep.

  Tuesday, 13 June

  A young marine enginee
r with a reddish beard was riding to New Zealand on a powered bicycle, and expected to reach Singapore in six months. Slender and of middle height, he wore a checked shirt and jeans, and I wished him good luck as he gazed towards land after breakfast. Travelling so light, he seemed set for privation, though I didn’t doubt he would get to the Antipodes, sooner or later. On docking at Esbjerg his bike wouldn’t start, so he pushed it ashore to find a mechanic.

  The Peugeot shot from the quayside like a lion from its cage, as if smelling raw meat on the road ahead, and took me through the town on a well-scaped scenic highway. On the short ferry crossing between Nyborg and Korsør the deck entertainment system played Paul Robeson records, while over a coffee and pastry I checked the route – idly, for I needn’t have done – given by the AA. Petrol pumps, places with hotels, and interesting cultural sites were indicated, though I also had Baedeker’s more or less up-to-date Touring Guide to Scandinavia in the glove box for more detailed information.

  At Elsinore by six o’clock, I had crossed Denmark in five hours, but what was the hurry? Don’t bother to tell me, I told myself. There was ample time to do the thousand miles to Leningrad, and meet George Andjaparidze.

  The route had been familiar from two years before, when with Ruth and David we had gone through Elsinore on our way to Koli in Karelian Finland. At Hamlet Town we had strolled by the castle shore hoping to find the swan moat where Ophelia perished.

  Rain came for a while in Sweden, and every sensible motorist showed headlights. I followed their example. The forest to either side, called skog and pronounced ‘shoe’, was dense and dark. Last time we stopped for a picnic, only to flee from meat-eating flies as big as overripe blackberries, and their fighter escorts of virulent mosquitoes.

  By dusk, which would last nearly all night, I staggered mile-drunk into a small hotel at Lagan, glad to find a room. Walking the street before an evening meal I noted the Swedish fondness for flagpoles, each garden flying a proud banner of blue and yellow. Perhaps a national day was coming up, or the poles were thought of as totems or symbolic trees, seasoned to death and stripped of bark and branches, so many billion matches lost to the world. The first Swedish word I learned was tändsticka, the matches to buy in Malaya because all local boxes fell to pieces as soon as you picked them up.

  The only other people in the restaurant were a man and a little girl supping at the next table. No word was spoken by either. The girl, ten or eleven years old, had long slightly curled dark hair, and lived in her own silence, yet dominated it by the coolness of her expression. The father – or uncle, or guardian, it was hard to say – wore an open-necked shirt and unpressed jacket, and needed a shave, though was clean. The waitress joked with him, for the child’s sake I thought, but he continued scooping at his soup as if no one else was in the room, unaware of her attractive milkmaid stance. She went away, but tried again to get some spark from him during cheerful deliveries of further courses.

  It was hard to imagine the girl was his daughter, with her formed and sensitive features, where his were nondescript in the extreme. His grey-blue eyes looked vacantly around for a moment, then saw nothing but his place and bottle of beer, the spirit behind his fragmented face unwilling to assert itself beyond indicating that he was either overwhelmed with unhappiness or simple fatigue. Perhaps he was divorced, and this was the only time of the week when the girl, being his daughter after all, could be taken out.

  I finished my meal, and lit a stubby Danish cigar. He turned as the match caught fire. The one I offered was accepted with a smile, and he lit it with exaggerated gestures: ‘Churchill!’ he cried, blowing out enough smoke to conceal the girl’s eyes. ‘English?’

  I admitted it, so he held the cigar as high over the table as his arm could reach. ‘Bomb!’ and brought it down at a tangent, fumes trailing from the end. ‘Berlin!’ he added, treating his plate to the same amount of drifting coverage. When the waitress cleared our places she was rapturous at seeing him drawn at last from his presumed fit of misery.

  Wednesday, 14 June

  The weather was good, so at two o’clock I snacked by the roadside, set my radio on the bonnet, and played out the aerial to get news loud and clear from London. My weakness for wireless sets of good looks and performance had cost over a hundred pounds in Imhoff’s on Oxford Street, for I didn’t care to be cut off in Russia or the Balkans with only the Daily Worker as my bedside informant. Not that I listened while driving, preferring as much silence as possible. I never find engine noise unpleasant, however, having spent much of my youth in the noise of a factory, and since been little-boyishly fascinated by the machinery of aeroplanes, ships, trains (and cars) or the insides of shortwave radios.

  I was going through Sweden as speedily as was safe, turning out miles like nuts and bolts on a capstan lathe during a factory’s bull week before Christmas, yet thinking to come back one day and see the country as properly as it deserved, which I always tell myself while travelling. After 400 kilometres I broke through to the Baltic, and reached Trosa by three o’clock, booking into the same hotel as two years ago and by coincidence being given the room David had slept in.

  Trosa was a quiet place off the main road, a collection of neat wooden houses mostly closed and perhaps waiting for the celebrations of Midsummer’s Eve. They backed on to the canal, with a car or sailing dinghy (or both) nearby, and pyramids of logs for winter weekends. I could only hope the pyromaniacs in Sweden were under strict surveillance.

  The coastline was indistinct, impossible to tell where land ended because of so many small islands in the way, but high-chested swans floated on their birthright of water, savouring the soft Baltic rain starting to fall.

  Paul Robeson’s sonorous and melancholy voice mellowing out ‘Old Man River’ from the hotel speaker suggested that such entertainment had followed me from Denmark, though I supposed I might hear him again in Russia. The world outside seemed a bigger and more mysterious place during rain, and Robeson’s familiar songs brought back childhood, and made me wonder why I was in a hotel hundreds of miles from where I lived. It generally took three full days to get used to being on the road.

  I refused to question why I was on earth. I’d never got into the habit, having realised how pointless it was. Let rain fall and gloom gather. I was going to where I would look for what could not be found, before settling for the enjoyment of travelling for its own sake. Paul Robeson sang as an exile who could never go home again, a man whose home is wherever he happens to be.

  I stayed at my late meal till the dining room was nearly empty. The waitress all along had given me intense appraisals, even when serving at other tables, as if half recognising me from somewhere, and wanting to talk and find out more. She was thirty or so, wore slacks and an army style jacket over a white shirt. Short fair hair framed a weary prematurely lined face, as if she’d had a long day, or between lunch and dinner had suffered a fraught and exhausting time with her lover. Certainly her grey eyes shone with curiosity as she stood by my table for payment. Her quick smile showed her as fundamentally shy, as if knowing that should we not talk now we never would, and so lose each other for ever. But I was exhausted after so much time at the wheel, and we said not a word – another photograph into the memory box.

  Thursday, 15 June

  After a bout of heavy rain the sun came out. I stopped in a village to telegraph my publisher in Finland, to say I’d be calling on him the following morning.

  I lost my way in the intricate (for me) approaches to Stockholm, though on the former trip there had been no problem. The previous night I’d looked hard at the town plan to check the route but, being exhilarated, I drove too fast and took wrong turnings. In the northern suburbs I got out and walked to a crossroads, read the street signs, and fixed my position. The white ship to Finland was waiting at the landing stage.

  I watched the Peugeot lifted by a crane, its mudstained underbelly revealed, hoping the body wouldn’t bend like the long new car I once saw being similarly hauled on to t
he Majorca boat from the quayside of Barcelona. Its American owner watched, curious yet confident, but as the vehicle began its ascent, firmly hooked at all four corners, it began bending before our eyes, and his aspect changed to one that seemed brought on by seasickness. The clearly visible man at the crane grinned as if telling himself that whatever was happening couldn’t be his fault.

  The higher the car went the more out of place the chassis became. The American was fond of his car, as who wouldn’t be, for he’d had it shipped from the United States, so far unscathed. I heard it bending, as did others, and we scattered from its vicinity like ants from vinegar. I later learned that an insurance company paid for the somewhat buckled vehicle, Spanish mechanics at that time having a reputation for doing what many considered impossible.

  Nowadays one drives directly into the hold of boats from Barcelona, but not on the Allotar plying between Stockholm and Helsinki, though my car and a few others were stowed without damage.

  Propellors pulverised the water. The gap between boat and quay was soon already too wide for those to jump who might change their minds about leaving. Sweden was out of touch, yet still not out of mind as I muttered thank you for my fair passage through. But no land could hold me when another was in the offing. For eighteen shipboard hours I could rest without being bored.

  Our boat took long to reach open sea, the Scandinavian summer spreading heat over light blue water of the archipelago. Rocky islets with a tree or two were sprinkled to port and starboard, each with its summerhouse, landing stage, speed boat, and sunbathers now and again observed through my Barr and Stroud binoculars, bringing to mind Stig Dagerman’s novel A Burnt Child, in which the seduction of the hero by his father’s mistress takes place on one such island.

  In the cafeteria-saloon a tall well-built man in suit and loosened tie, a shamanic grin on his blue-eyed sweating face, played a large electric accordian loud enough to loosen the rivets. The mostly middle aged who danced to his tune enjoyed the high pagan music of Swedish midsummer madness. A man who came exhausted (momentarily) from the throng explained that they belonged to a coach party of Finns who had been touring Sweden – a country they seemed in no way sad to leave.

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