I Fought The Law and the Law Won
I want you to imagine a scene. I’ll begin with the cafe. It’s pretty much entirely decorated in shades of purple and pink. Velour drapes hang off the walls, covering every window and entrance. It’ relatively dark, but there are christmas lights hanging off the walls giving the place the feeling of being locked forever in some weird alternate version of a 1980′s Christmas party. To the rear, behind an open lap top, stands a very small and bored looking Asian Man. He’s clad in a sparkling white shirt and wears a tight-fitting waistcoat. Through the sound system and from his lap top, comes the sound of some kind of rudimentary techno beat, over which he sings in a deep baritone, reminiscent of the best club singers past and future. It’s brilliant. Moving his way round the dance floor with surprising fluidity, is the lone figure of a fifty year old man. He’s bald, bespectacled, wearing jeans that come as high as his chest and grinning like a loon. He’s brilliant too. Occasionally, from a nearby table, girls get up and snake their way around what I can best describe as this gyrating goblin, moving seductively to the Oriental’s disco beats. None of this is done with the least sense of irony. Now, that’s utterly brilliant.
It’s scenes like that, which I committed to memory, that continue to make life here what it is. Every where, I am still confronted with the alien and the different. That it comes in recognisable packaging just makes it better. It’s as if you were looking at a familiar scene before realising that the perspective was ever so slightly skewed. Consequentially, everything you were looking at, everything you first took to be familiar, was something else entirely. Every detail, no matter how small, had been altered in a slight, though ultimately fundamental way.
We’re going through a bit of a lull in the winter at the moment, with the temperature occasionally making its way above zero. With this change comes new bits of strange. I was lying asleep a couple of days ago when I was woken by something that sounded like a car being thrown off the roof. This continued, at irregular intervals for the rest of the night. It was only the next day when the cause became apparent. The layers upon layers of snow that had built up over the last four months were thawing, breaking off like icebergs and falling from the roof of the high-rise. I’ve seen some go from my window and, trust me, that car metaphor’s not too far off. They’re massive. Make no mistake. Snow is a serious business here. These snow falls kill people. On the day I’m writing this, Pravda, (yes, they still publish it) reports two separate incidents of children being hospitalised with cranial concussions and broken bones after being crushed by falling snow.
Throughout the city lies a standing army of street workers who, like Sisyphus, labour
twenty-four hours a day battling to keep the pavements and roads clear in the face of the continual snowfall. Actually, Canute would have been a better analogy, but I’ve used Sisyphus now so it’s staying. Anyway, I threw the Canute one in later, so you’ve got enough to paint your own picture. Where was I? Snow. This army of street workers has now made its way perilously skywards as they work to remove the thick layers of snow off the roofs and into waiting skips below. I don’t think there’s any real danger from these controlled falls, but it does lend a spectacular aspect to my morning’s commute, as enormous avalanches of snow erupt without warning along the wide city streets falling up to thirty metres to the growing snow mountains below.
I think, amidst all this strangeness, it might be easy to lose your sense of self. But then, at other times, I’m not so sure. I wrote something about this for an online magazine, which – if you have a mind to – you can read here: http://innerspacemagazine.wordpress.com/2011/01/27/im-not-me-im-him/ I have no comment on anything else in there. My point here, (which isn’t entirely related to the magazine article) is that there’s a lot of external
prompts that make us, us. Maybe this goes back to my fixation on the sofa http://life2thesequel.wordpress.com/2010/10/19/i-dont-know-why-you-say-good-bye-i-say-good-bye/, But then, as I said in the magazine article, it’s not what happens to you that makes you who you are, but how you react to it that defines you. Let’s have a For Instance: Say you were struggling to achieve something. It could be anything, I don’t know what, but imagine that it’s something important to you. OK, so you’re struggling to achieve something and then, as we inevitably sometimes do, you fall short of that goal. I don’t think it matters where you are, or what your circumstances are, whether you’re in Lagos or Lancashire, it’s not falling short of the goal that makes you who you are, but how you react to it that does. It’s in how you deal with that which gives you a glimpse of the ‘Core You’. I apologise for the use of ‘Core You’, it’s a bit pretentious. I think my point is that the reaction has to come from somewhere. That’s to say, this is an equal and opposite reaction to the stimulus. Am I making sense? No? OK, try this; imagine that the failure I outlined above was a falling tennis ball. Well, the Core You would be what it
bounced against when it landed. The bounce is your reaction and consequentially, your best indication of what lies within you; good and/or bad. Sonar would probably have been a better analogy, but, like with my Sisyphus and Canute ones, I’m going to stick with my bouncing ball. However, (and I’m about to contradict myself) I think the more you experience, good and bad, the more it has to impact upon that sense of inner self/Core You. If you’re alive, then experience must force change upon you, so here’s a question; would I have taken this step and come here if I hadn’t lost my sight? Probably not. However, here’s a tougher one; would I have reacted in the same way to being here after having lost my sight as I would before? In other words, has the surface the tennis ball bounced against been fundamentally altered by the experience of being blind? I’m afraid that the truth to that one is, despite my clear self-absorption and rampant narcissism, that I just don’t know. Which is a pity, as that would have been good.
Maybe the Core You is really just a variety of reactions within some slowly shifting boundaries. Maybe it’s not really important to reach a conclusion, just to consider the question. The truth is that I don’t really know.
I should probably have made that clear before agreeing to write the article.
Enough of that. Let’s turn to thrilling accounts of daring and danger. Failing daring, we may just do Danger.
Firstly, some clarification; Russia does not have a Police Service, it has a Militia. From street level, this creates the impression of a permanent occupation. To give you an idea of the scale of this para-military presence, there are supposed to be around 26,000 Police
Officers in London and 40,000 in New York. Moscow has 150,000 Militia. They line the walls of every Metro Station, attack dogs on tight leashes, staring glumly at the passing crowd, eager to spot the first Caucasian face to detain and question.
A ‘For Instance’? I think so. In my work induction here, I was instructed never to answer the door to the Militia or to hand my documents over to them. The feral dogs that roam the streets looking for scraps of food tend to be better regarded than the Militia. The dogs also roam the streets in similarly sized packs. That they are not highly paid is a given. Subsequently bribery and ‘on the spot fines’ are accepted within the Militia hierarchy as an almost legitimate means of supplementing your income. This isn’t winning them many friends. The barely concealed violence doesn’t help either. At the riots in Manezh Square towards the fag-end of last year, the Militia held back against going in against the far right nationalist, in a near reverse manner to the speed and brutality with which they went in against the liberals protesting for freedom of assembly a few weeks earlier. Don’t worry, this isn’t just a diatribe against the Militia. I’m going somewhere with this.
But first I’m going to go somewhere else.
Moscow is very expensive. This isn’t the same city I came to 1999, where a bunch of Glasgow Post Grads could live/drink like Lords/Bankers on the back of some pretty miserly stipends. Everything here is expensive. Moscow is divided between the very, very
rich and everyone else; with prices generally geared towards the former. One of the ways this disparity manifests itself is in taxis. There are two types of taxi here; the official cabs with lights and meter, and the ubiquitous, illegal, Gypsy cab. In reality, the official cabs are out of the price range of most people here, so the Gypsy cabs that patrol the nighttime streets looking for anyone with a couple of roubles and an outstretched arm tend to make a pretty acceptable living.
The new Mayor here, Sobyanin, has ordered a crackdown on the Gypsy cabs. That most Gypsy cab drivers are from the Caucuses may not be entirely coincidental. In any event, that was a very long way of getting
round to describing how my flat-mate and I were making our way home in the back of a Gypsy cab when we were flagged over by the Militia. However, I wanted to set the scene and it’s probably important that you know the background to events. In any event, keeping with that commitment to total honesty, it’s probably also fair to tell you that the pair of us were really quite drunk when all this happened. In retrospect, this was probably luck, as what happened next would have made a sober man very nervous. Drunkenness has many advantages over sobriety, bravery is just one. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, or why we had stopped. The first thing I was aware of was a uniformed head sticking itself into the cab and ordering us out on to the street. Leaving any car and getting into the freezing cold of a dark Moscow night is always disconcerting, not least when that dark Moscow night is populated by three Militia of varying ages and a nervous looking Gypsy cab driver. However, the nerves didn’t appear to be entirely contained to the cab driver. I remember one of the Militia, probably still in his teens, also seeming quite nervous. That should probably have been the cause for some concern on our part, and I remember telling myself that someone else should probably be quite concerned about it. From here, and after some fairly abrupt questioning, we were bundled into the back of the Militia Car, flanked on either side, and driven across the city. It’s worth stressing at this point that neither of us were in any way scared. In fact, sticking with that whole commitment to honesty thing, I should admit to a shared drunken thrill in the experience. However, maybe that’s just me. I don’t know. Certainly, looking out of the window and staring out at the city passing me by, I don’t remember feeling any real sense of dread. There’s something inherently reassuring about being driven through a city night. Perhaps it’s the neon lights, maybe it’s the warmth of the car against the nighttime’s cold, I don’t really know, but it’s soothing and, even under those fairly extreme circumstances, I was failing to get overly excited. Rather,I remember an idle curiosity as to what would happen next and an almost lazy detachment to events as I calculated the odds of getting a beating. As it was, we came to halt in a darkened and fairly secluded residential area where we were removed from the car and our documents taken off us, (I know we were supposed to keep them but they had guns). I think this was the fist time I became aware of my nerves. I had no idea where we were, but I knew it was dark and no one was about. Furthermore, I knew that they now had my passport and were not looking at us in a very friendly way. The details of what happened next are pretty blurred, but matters soon came to rest on the subject of how much money we had and how much money we were going to give them. For reasons that entirely escape me now, I made the decision to haggle, before conceding to reality and handing over most of our money. Duty done and richer for the experience, the Militia drove off leaving us to the Moscow night.
It was then the Gypsy cab driver appeared from the shadows, telling us that he had followed from a distance and kept watch on us for our own protection. It was never made clear exactly how he was going to protect us. However, he was very clear about now wanting to be paid for this service, which, I’m pretty ashamed to say, we did.
Alone, blinking, shivering and quite drunk, without any money to our name, we looked around our new surroundings. It was then that the dark and forbidding streets segued into the comforting and the familiar as the realisation took hold that the Militia had driven us home. I can only thank them for the courtesy.
We’ve since indulged in endless speculation as to the cause of these events. It might have been that they had initially targeted the Gypsy cab, before finding richer pickings in the back. Alternatively, they may have claimed they were just offering us secure conduct home. Others have suggested that the cab driver was working with the Militia in securing payments from luckless drunks. The truth is that we didn’t really know then and we don’t know now. Everything else is just speculation.
Of course, this is all well and good. But I don’t want to give you the impression of living out here on the edge. Life just doesn’t work that way. As I’ve said many times before, life exists in the day-to-day and the routine. Night time rides with the Moscow Militia are external and quite alien to that. Something strange happened to me a couple of weeks ago. I was at a party when someone spilt their drink on my null. To many, this next admission is going to sound a little strange, but it’s only with the loss of the thing that I realised just how symbiotic my relationship with it had become. Up to that point, it seems that I barely spent a minute outside of a classroom or my flat without it in my ears. It must seem strange to read of someone who
involuntarily, albeit temporarily, lost one sense going on to quite deliberately forfeit another, but music is a large part of who I am; so here we are and there you go. However, for the first time, I can now actually hear Moscow and the experience is a little disconcerting. As I’ve described previously, three times a week I join a moving army as it makes its way into the centre to start work. The scale of the commute is overwhelming. People, in their thousands, shuffle along the pavements and through the underground passages on to the Metro and into the centre. Nobody does, or could, move quickly. You walk in small steps pressed in on all sides as you make your slow and deliberate way through the cavernous underground system and on into work.
However, and here’s the thing, with one exception, (more on this in a bit) the entire process takes place in absolute silence. I hadn’t realised it until now. Previously, the entire slow motion ballet took place to the accompaniment of The Violent Femmes and the current silence is a little unsettling. I don’t know, maybe this takes place in every city across the world every day. Maybe I’ve been plugged into my null so long I can’t even remember anything before it, but it’s strange. All these people hemmed in and buffeted on all sides, proceeding in their slow immutable fashion and all in absolute silence. It’s weird.
The one exception to this, (as promised) is the speaker system that runs the length of the escalators at most central stations. I’m told that, in the Soviet days, these self-same speakers would play patriotic music and urge the silent shuffling masses onto further endeavours in the field of tax accountancy or whatever, (I don’t even know if the Soviet State employed tax accountants). Now, ironically, they bleat out advertisements, urging the self-same silent and shuffling masses to take part in the new enterprise culture that embodies the new Russia. Every day I walk past a small network of interconnected shops, outside of which, huddled deep within a thick fur coat and hat, stands a very short woman with a loud-speaker urging the passing citizenry to call in at one of her
outlets. This is far from an unusual practice here, but it’s odd; every time I see her my mind immediately conjures up images of the commissars urging soldiers onwards to certain suicide in their tens of thousands for the glory of the Motherland and Stalin. Though I don’t think many of them were short women in fur coats.
Remaining vestiges of the soviet era can be seen throughout the city, like empty glasses the
morning after the party. It’s not just the obvious, like Lenin in his mausoleum, it’s everywhere. The elaborately, (and fantastically) ornate frescos of the Metro hold testimony to thousands of muscled and patriotic workers, or hundreds of
steadfast and inspirational Lenin’s. It’s not just the Metro either, if you keep an eye out, you can still see engravings and plaques on many walls commemorating the efforts of Party apparatchiks of year’s past. I’m not sure if this is because Moscow is still trying to
decide how it feels about that period, or it’s just been there so long that no one even notices. Maybe someone else will tell me. Either way, I like it.
This Post Soviet hangover even impacts upon me in a very direct way. In keeping with previous form, one of my first priorities on getting here was to put a band together, (‘Lazarou’, you should check us out. We’re on Facebook). After a while, we needed to move to some proper rehearsal facilities and, after a brief search, located an old Soviet Bunker that rented out rooms. It’s a strange experience, from the outside all you can see is a door in the middle of some scrubland, through which you enter before descending a vertiginous – and with the ice, killer – flight of stairs to the inside. Once there, it’s almost impossible to stand. You scurry, like mice, through the low and rounded and labyrinthine network of tunnels between rehearsal rooms. The doors are nearly all made of heavy iron, with the kind of wheel lock usually reserved for submarine movies. In sum, it’s quite brilliant.
It’s been a few days since I started writing this update and, as you’d expect, temperatures have returned to a more typical seasonal norm. At the time of writing, it’s -11, with -24 predicted for tomorrow. However, temperature notwithstanding, I can’t help shake this feeling that spring is around the corner. Maybe it’s because after the recent snowfalls during the warm period, the air’s a little fresher. Maybe it’s because the sun’s beginning to shine, maybe it’s just me. Perhaps it’s the realisation that all the best bits are still to come. That what I’ve experienced thus far is as nothing compared to what’s waiting for me down the line. After all, that’s what Spring’s about; the promise of what lies ahead and first taste of what the summer will bring. I’ve been thinking about all that ‘Core You’ stuff and I’m still not sure I’ve got it right. On reflection, I have a better idea. Maybe it’s our actions that define us. Not the navel gazing, the introspection or the philosophies, but what we actually do. In a way, that’s infinitely more comforting. It gives us the opportunity of a life without limits. If we accept that we can pretty much achieve whatever we want, and we can, then it must follow that we can be whatever we want. Forget Core You, forget about balls bouncing off surfaces, simply think about what you want to do, then do that. Choose to be that person. That’s a far better option.