Monday, May 03, 2010

Amongst my souvenirs

Russian badges by Pants

I'm not really one for mementoes. I'm basically a cheapskate and don't like to carry heavy things. I went to Russia, or the Soviet Union as it then was, in the middle of winter 1987. I had to carry a lot of heavy clothing. Fortunately I had most of it on nearly all the time. These badges seemed ideal souvenirs.

There wasn't much to buy in Russia in any case. The hard currency shops in the big hotels sold caviar, Fabergé eggs and flavoured vodka. What I really wanted was some old revolutionary posters or postcards but the few secondhand bookshops had been picked clean of these items many years before. A trip to the USSR was a rite of passage to anyone who'd grown up in the Little Red Book era. At the time, the Russians weren't really into meeting demand with supply. There was one 'department store' in Moscow called GUM, opposite Red Square. It was like a flea market. The only difference was the tat wasn't pre-owned.

I remember being shocked at how well-tended Moscow and Leningrad, (as it was then called) were. There was always someone cleaning or repairing something and the buildings, buses, trains and stations all looked to have been the recipients of continuous maintenance. At the time, London bore the pock-marks of severe structural neglect. Everything was filthy and crumbling. The buses and tubes led the march of decline in London but in Moscow they were proudly pristine. It was rather a strange inversion of preconceptions.

The only hint of a fracture in civic pride in Russia was that the public toilets were rank. There was invariably shit smeared all over the walls. It was strange and shocking in a very Orwellian way. I carried a small bottle of Channel No. 5 everywhere and steeped a hanky in it if ever I was caught short.

I wore these little badges on a woollen greatcoat and risked looking like Rik from The Young Ones. It didn't matter. No one looked at what you were wearing in the 80s, not in London anyway. I found them this morning when I was looking for something else that I have not yet found, which is generally the way I find most things. The entire two-week trip replayed in my head like a grainy super-8 film. The space park where all the Sputniks made their final touchdown, Lenin when he was still in his mausoleum. His was the first dead body I ever saw. The Bolshoi. The Kirov. The Hermitage Museum and its hoard of Picassos and playing poker with some young black marketeers on the overnight train from Moscow to Leningrad. I won. I was good at poker in those days.

Gosh. Where has the day gone?

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

T.S. Eliot - Four Quartets