Archive for October, 2017


We joined the queue one warm afternoon two days

before Victory Day, and the week Putin

was first crowned. There were police everywhere –

mostly, it seemed, armed thirteen year olds

in wide-brimmed caps. One halted the queue

to allow a group of be-medalled,

self-conscious veterans to enter first.

Inside, we were ‘forbidden to smoke, talk, photograph,

video, or have your hands in your pockets’.


Exiled to the conifer forests

of Central Siberia with its gnat

legions of summer, its winter numbing,

he took his pseudonym then soubriquet

from the river Lena, its waters

replete with minerals and mammoth tusks.


Curious the great revolutionary

with that questioning, directing look  –

who found sleep elusive so studied French

grammar books to send him to the Land of Nod –

through no choice of his own, preserved like a

waxwork or a shaman!




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Ten minutes or so into a performance

of Mathew Bourne’s ballet at Sadler’s Wells,

with the principal alone spot lit en pointe,

there was muffled shout off stage right

and a clatter as if a metal ladder

had been toppled. (Professional dance –

that always seems heartbreakingly effortless –

is always on the cusp of injury).

The music stopped suddenly, the curtains closed

– and, as the house lights came on, we were asked

to remain seated, assured the show would start

again soon. Voices rose like flocks of sparrows.

Mobiles were turned back on. Texts and selfies sent…


Many decades before there were cell phones

you had a pair of red high heel shoes,

of which you were especially fond

having the spirit of a dancer.

We had been to a rather dull party

in Liverpool 8, and, changing trains

at Hooton – from electric to steam,

as if in some cut-price sci-fi movie –

you stumbled and one of your shoes fell

between the carriage and the platform.

You limped from Chester General on my arm,

to a taxi, like an elegant, injured bird.

I returned to Hooton the next day.

A porter had seen and retrieved the shoe –

scuffed, and besmirched all over with soot.

You said, ‘Some glass slipper!’. ‘Some prince!’ I said…


The ballet recommenced. We watched the girl’s

destiny unfold like a Greek tragedy –

her hubris vanity, men, the joy of dance? –

and end, like Anna Karenina,

in front of a steam train.




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Lenin, to leaven his exile in Zurich,

would sometimes weekend in Luzern and,

after kalberwurst with onions and gravy

at the Wilden-Mann on Bahnhofstrasse,

would always visit the Panorama

in the Löwenplatz – or so it is said.


Panoramas were popular before

the illusion of photography,

still or moving, became reality.

They were cycloramas painted in oil,

typically fifteen metres high, one hundred

metres in circumference – often

with a three dimensional aspect:

in this case, for example, an empty

railway wagon – Huit chevaux, Quarantes hommes.


General Bourbaki’s beaten L’Armée de L’Est

in Bismarck’s Franco-Prussian War

sought asylum with the nascent Red Cross

of the now united cantons. In deep snow

eighty seven thousand men, twelve thousand

horses crossed the border that January.


An escapee from a school trip to the town

in the year of Hungary and Suez,

I wandered in by chance. The custodian

that day knew no English. My schoolboy French

struggled with his German-accent. But

I still remember the images

of the aftermath of some great battle

my history lessons had not mentioned.


Imagine if Lenin had learned from this –

the stumbling soldiers; the dead horses; the piles

of discarded, expensive rifles;

the woman with her basket waiting to help

whoever it might be lying in the cold.


He certainly learned from the railways.

Disguised as a worker, he returned

to Russia via the Finland Station.

But maybe he also learned from William Tell –

marksman and anti-imperialist –

or, rather, the apple.



Note: The piece was first published as LENIN AND THE BOURBAKI PANORAMA on the site in July 2016.




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In a black cab on our way to the ballet –

‘The Red Shoes’ at Sadler’s Wells – we passed

the munificence of St Pancras Station

that dominates the six lane highway

and then the removed magnificence

of King’s Cross set far back from the road,

and I was reminded of some of Moscow’s

imitative terminals, and I thought

how a railway terminus is like

a proscenium arch and the track

inevitable like a plot unfolding.

Terminus was the god of boundaries,

the guarantor of happy ends, as it were.

And Moscow’s land locked dénouements came to mind:

Berlin, Warsaw, Kiev, Ekaterinburg.


For islanders the world supra mare

is almost abstract, fictive, the notion

that the end of land might be days away

impossible to contemplate – like

the stage gone dark, the dancing stopped.




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A week before Easter our Cyprus hotel

hosted the season’s last two conferences –

‘Moscow Niardmedic’, ‘Nestlé in Russia’.

The spacious, tiled, white walled lounge, the free bars,

the terraces with pergolas were filled

with Big Pharma salespersons on a jolly –

the many ethnicities of Russia,

all seemingly impassive, inscrutable,

seemingly suspicious of strangers.


April 3rd on the St Petersburg metro

a bomb was detonated between stations…

April 7th the US Sixth Fleet,

below the horizon due south from here,

launched its missiles against Syria…

That afternoon an Uzbek exile

drove a lorry at a crowd in Stockholm…


One evening, in the resident pianist’s break,

a Russian improvised – then played a slow,

soft melody all his compatriots knew.

They sang sotto voce, suffusing the space

with a wistful murmur.




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