My Pop Life #211 : Three Lions – The Lightning Seeds

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Three Lions   –   The Lightning Seeds

Jules Rimet’s still gleaming…

Brooklyn, July 3rd 2018.  The Russia World Cup : When Eric Dier stepped up and sank the penalty winner in the last-16 game against Colombia it was the first time England had won a penalty shoot-out in an international football competition, ever.  My wife wept for ten minutes.  I was on the internet booking a flight to Samara.  As a message, it really couldn’t have been any clearer, so, wanting to make the world a better place I took a look at myself and made that change.  The man in the mirror was booked on a flight to Samara, Russia via Istanbul on Turkish Air.    Then I realised that I needed a visa and it was 7pm and the next day was July 4th when everything was closed.  Fluff.

Further internet search revealed that visa regulations would be suspended for the duration of the tournament, and that all I’d need is a Fan ID.  Passport photos from Walmart, ticket number for the loophole and I was all set.

At midnight the next day I was on the plane.  9 hours later I was in Istanbul.  Got some rubles. Flew to Samara and landed at 1am.  The following day I hooked up with The Characters: Billy The Bee, Puns, Andy Dubai Bee, Phil, Obi and Martin in the Balkan Grill near the Fifa Fan Park, downtown Samara.

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My Russian friends for the afternoon

Earlier I’d walked along the beautiful riverbank walk along the mighty Volga with a father & son who’d helped me navigate the all-Cyrillic alphabet subway system and then visited Stalin’s bunker where I learned that Samara had briefly become the capital of Russia when Hitler was only 20 kilometres from Moscow in 1942.

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Marx, Engels & Lenin in Stalin’s bunker, Samara

The city was warm and friendly, colourful and mixed – the mosques and the Orthodox churches share the same kind of architecture, golden domes and spires.

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Samara

People were happy to see foreign fans – Colombians, Mexicans, Swedes and English mingling with locals – they were happy and excited to be hosting the tournament, indeed when I met The Characters I was told that one of our number Obi had been asked for a photo by hundreds of Russians since he’d been here.  A far cry from the racism we’d been led to expect from the Marseilles 2016 incidents involving Russian hooligans attacking England fans, and Champions League games in Russia with racist chanting.  This was all swept underneath the FIFA carpet and normal human people replaced the Russian bogeymen  – helpful, curious hosts wielding their Google Translate Apps amidst plenty of sign language.

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Back in the Balkan Grill we watched France take Uruguay down and advance to the semi finals, then walked up to the giant fanpark to see Belgium v Brazil.  It was set in a huge town square full of old-school statues and grand buildings – I later learned that Samara has the largest square in Europe.  We stood in it drinking beer watching the big screen and listening to Russian techno music and the enthusiasm of the DJs and dancers.  A few English fans scattered here and there, but the vast majority of Fans are Russian.  Belgium tear Brazil apart in the first half – a footballing masterclass with Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku all finding acres of space across the Brazilian defence.  Half-time : 0-2 to Belgium.  We reconvene and drink further pints.  Billy and I wander back out into the crowd.  In the second half young Russians came up to chat to us as they realised that we were English.  Russians watches the Premiership on TV & the fans favour us as their second favourites for the tournament – the following day we would play Sweden and Russia would face Croatia.  Meanwhile the Spurs defence Alderweireld & Vertonghen alongside the mighty Vincent Kompany kept Neymar & Coutinho quiet and gave away zero free kicks around the box.  Brazil scored a goal but couldn’t manage a second. Game over.  Brazil were out, along with Argentina & Germany, what a thrilling World Cup !!

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We walked slowly out – like herding cats as ever – and found the Gareth Southgate lookalike outside Shannon’s the inevitable Irish bar.  Billy interviewed him.  Minutes later we were in the groovy nightclub Art & Fact with a few dozen Swedish fans and a bunch of happy locals.  The Swedes hadn’t been polishing their manners much : “England are shit.  We will beat you.”  It was possible – they’d had a decent tournament.  At 3am I developed a thumping headache and retired to Yandex the local Russian taxi App and my hotel.

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On the day of the game we met on the river at a bar/restaurant called Beluga.  It was sparsely populated with England fans from Bristol Rovers, Sunderland, Notts Forest.  The crew gathered slowly.  Tickets distributed.  A kind of rhythm was established where Andy and I got antsy first and wanted to leave, with others more or less gathering at half-speed to follow.  Billy was usually last with his head buried in his phone, local simcard, media hack, blogger and face of the fans 2018 thanks to visibility and the BBC filming his reaction to the penalty shootout, and using it as part of their introduction to the game.  The shootout victory had put the feel-good back into England.  We could go all the way – couldn’t we?  Memes started to appear “I’ve got a secret….”  and it became clear that this song was back once again.  Over in Samara we didn’t like to say it, to voice it, but it had been in our secret heart for months : this was a decent team with a good manager.  No egos.  No wankers.  Only a couple of weak players, all in all a prospect who might not let us down, again.

My birthday 2010 we watched England 0 Algeria 0 in Greenpoint, Cape Town, one of the worst footballing experiences I have ever had.  We’d gone out in the group stages in Brazil and lost to Iceland in Euro 2016.  The only way was up.  But to move from that to the hubris of ‘it’s coming home‘ after one penalty shoot-out victory?  We boarded the tram clutching our bottles of water.  Billy, Obi, Andy, Puns and I.  Phil had gone early, Martin we didn’t know.  The tram slowly filled up as it passed through the pleasant city toward the highest point where the new stadium stood.  We walked with the thousands of others, face painted, Brazil tops, Russians mainly.  A local TV crew stopped us and asked for a song, so I filmed the lads singing  “Southgate you’re the one, you still turn me on” and “drinking all yer vodka”  the two most popular songs out here.  There were pockets of fans in England colours, we’d been told just under 3,000 in all in a crowd of 45,000.  Then inevitably Obi got asked for his 462nd photo of the World Cup by a Russian family.

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Obi aka Photos

That long walk from the taxi/tram/train/bus to the stadium is a feature of World Cups – and this was my 7th in a sequence that stretched back to Los Angeles 1994, when we lived in that fair city and had scored tickets to every game at the Rose Bowl Pasadena, including the Final.  Hooked, we’d travelled to France in 1998 and witnessed Marseilles being trashed by England fans fighting local North Africans, then met Billy on a train to Toulouse.  I’d flown to Japan in 2002 for the quarter-final game v Brazil with Julian Benkel and we’d gone on to Seoul in Korea for the semi final game between South Korea and Germany.  In 2006 Jenny and I drove from Copenhagen to Sweden to visit our friend Amanda Ooms in Sköne before travelling through Germany for a beautiful tournament and another penalty shoot-out defeat against Portugal.  2010 was the magical South Africa World Cup with it’s highlight quarter-final game in Soweto between Ghana and Uruguay (Suarez handball) after England had capitulated to Germany in Bloemfontain.  Then Brazil 2014 and Rio, Manaus, another group-stage exit for England.  Jenny had sworn not to come to Russia (see My Pop Life #109) and I thought I’d missed it but now I felt full, emotional, in the place I was supposed to be, 700 miles north of Kazahkstan on the mighty Volga, watching a quarter-final game between England and Sweden.

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My seat was in the gods high above the SW corner flag, strangely close to the two Sunderland fans from earlier.  Russians were supporting Sweden, Russians were supporting England but as we found out later, Russians were supporting Russia. I could make out the England players warming up far below me.  Then they left the field and the build-up started.  I was completely ambushed when they played Three Lions through the tannoy system, with a karaoke highlighted lyric line.

…everyone seems to know the score, 
They’ve seen it all before
They just know, they’re so sure
That England’s gonna throw it away, gonna blow it away
But I know they can play,
‘Cause I remember…

And bugger me if I didn’t have a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye as the emotion swelled inside me, completely sidelining any defensive cynicism, any secret irritation for the constant repetition and squashing down of hope to protect the inevitable disappointment, the emotion flooding through me and drowning the irony, we just want to see these players turn up and believe in themselves like they do every week for their clubs.  Sometimes – Algeria, Iceland – it feels as if the very shirt is infected with doubt, a curse is on the land and all who wear it.  But I know we can play…

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We started slowly but were in possession immediately and often and all the corners were right below me.  After 15 minutes Harry Maguire thumped home a magnificent header and we were 1-0 up and cruising.  Sterling could and should have scored a couple more before the whistle blew for half-time.  I made my way down, down, down and around to the far side of the beautiful stadium where the England fans were gathered.  No one asked me for a ticket at any point.  Little pockets of fans were smoking in corners beneath the stands with stewards ignoring the rules.  When I’d got behind the goal at the other end I walked in, and the 2nd half had already started.  It was easy to spot Billy, standing on his seat, so I squeezed over, joined Obi and Puns and Andy then met two youngers Cass and Stu and we sang, we sang, we sang for the entire second half.   To the tune of Earth Wind & Fire’s September :

Oh wee Oh, England Fans in Russia Oh wee Oh, drinking all yer vodka  Oh wee Oh, England’s going all the way……………

Then a corner.  It goes out to Lingard. He crosses to the far post, right in front of us and DELE ALLI BULLETS A HEADER INTO THE BACK OF THE NET !!!  The place erupts in noise, arms waving and beer spraying everywhere, screaming, jumping, celebrating, hugging, drenched in beer, happy, delirious.  What a moment.  I was soaked in beer and my glasses were spattered with lager but we were 2-0 up and heading for the giddy heights of a semi final.  The singing intensified now, glorified, the other song became the favourite :

                   …On our way, we’re on our way, to The Moscow we’re on our way                             how do we get there I don’t know, how do we get there I don’t care – all I know is England’s on the way….

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Puns, me, Billy Grant, Andy 

Something so wonderfully right about singing The Moscow and literally being on our way there for a semi final that we sang it over and over and over again, long after the final whistle and the England players had walked over and at least three of them had danced to our chanting, hands waving – Lingard, Walker and Stones I believe – and Gareth – now inevitably Sir Gareth Southgate had come and punched the air with lion-esque passion at us.  And there it was again

It’s coming home it’s coming home it’s coming Football’s coming home…

We sang it.  The sacred phrase It’s Coming Home which encapsulates so much disappointment and hope.

Where has it been ?  Brazil mainly.  Germany.  Argentina.  Spain.  France.

The highly charged emotive word “home” referring to the modern game’s development in the British Isles in the late 19th Century before becoming the world’s favourite game.  The reason why footballers and football fans around the world HATE the song so much and hate to hear The England singing it.  The utter hubris.  The entitlement.  And they might be right.  Baddiel certainly went to Oxford.

It was written for Euro ’96 which was held in England, so perhaps we all read too much into it.  But it was been dusted down & polished up and sent out to bolster our hopes each time there is a tournament – every two years.  I had always treated it in an ironic way, like a piece of kitsch.  But hearing it in the context of a competitive England match it becomes something else entirely.  It becomes an expression of longing and hope.  A real one.

We left the ground in a daze, taking pictures of the moment, recounting the goals and saves, wondering who we would play in the semi final.  The tram was crowded and unreal.  Some 3000 England fans had been inside the ground and sang their hearts out and now we were trying to get back to the fanpark to see Russia play Croatia.  It took forever, we started a countdown to kickoff and eventually jumped off, then walked ten blocks and jumped back on – or at least four of us did, Billy, me Cass & Stu.  It became apparent that the rumours of overcrowding at the fanpark were true (in the largest square in Europe) as we saw thousands of fans gathered around the corner entrance being turned away.  We stayed on the tram and it swung north.  After a while we jumped off and found a pizza restaurant with a screen on the pavement, surrounded by scores of people.  We went inside.  It was heaving but there was a queue for the bar. Facing the screen.  Then Russia scored.

The noise was incredible.  Billy started filming but there was real alarm on his face as the chant Ross-i-ya arose from the faces around us, deep, gutteral, primal.  Or maybe I imagined it.  We edged nearer to the bar & beer.  The atmosphere was electric and intense.  Then Croatia scored.  Silence.

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We got to the bar.  Sorry there’s no more beer.  Gin ?  Vodka ?  No No more alcohol.  Like a bad dream where you are stuck somewhere hostile but no one is admitting it.  Four cokes please I said.  We only have three : Sprite?  Fine.  Three cokes and a Sprite and back on the tram heading south again.  Andy had gone back to his hotel so we headed there back past the fanpark, still mobbed outside but now it was halftime. At the top of the Slavy Square stands the Glory Monument dedicated to the Kuybyshev aircraft manufacturers of WW2 who made over 30,000 planes.  We descended to the hotel amid the surreal excitement of a city in thrall to a football match happening hundreds of miles away.

In the Volga hotel we were rejoined by Andy, who had my cases in his room, Puns and Obi and we watched the second half with a large number of Russians, a few English, the odd Swede, some Kazahks, three Bolivians and a handful of Brazilians.  They also ran out of beer as we arrived at the bar.  Vodka and orange then.  Vodka and coke.  And finally these mythical imaginary drinks arrived.

Extra time.  Croatia scored again.  Modric was playing a blinder.  I turned to Billy at one point and said – there is a giant Croatian pin heading towards a big Russian balloon.  Surely it was all over.  But no – Russia equalised with minutes left and we were down to penalties.  I had a plane to catch at 3.45am going to Moscow – I’d got the last seat – but I couldn’t leave yet.  Russia had beaten the Spanish on penalties thanks to their goalkeeper Akinfeev but this time they couldn’t go the extra mile to the huge immediate palpable disappointment of a vast nation. Croatia were through to the semi final and a match with England.  I grabbed my cases and said my goodbyes – we’d all meet again in Moscow but character’s planes weren’t until Tuesday in the main. Outside it was drunken and mobbed, taxis everywhere but I had my Yandex App.  It didn’t work.  No wifi suddenly after three days.  I stood on the street corner and watched the Russians high on drink and disappointment crossing the road, singing, smoking, laughing in some cases.  They appeared to be taking it well.  I saw a cab across the road and dragging my cases, walked over.  “Airport?”  I wondered.  She nodded and off we went.

The airport was an hour away.  My driver had a translation App and switched it on immediately.  We started talking – had an entire conversation in fact.   She told me she had a man in Italy and she wanted to move there but that her friend had warned her about Italian men and now she wasn’t so sure.  She told me her daughter was her sole reason for living after she called in and they’d chatted.  She told me she wanted to leave Russia.  I became a counsellor for an hour.  Keep your goals in mind, focus and keep your self-esteem high. You can have whatever you want if you keep it front focus.  And so on and so forth.  Then she said – written on the App in front of me :

I am terrified of the loneliness

I became quite moved and we were silent for the last ten minutes.

There were a handful of drunk England fans in Samara airport among the vast majority of media workers and like loud people everywhere they changed the environment for everyone.  Even on the plane they continued to repeat the same few simple melodies and words I have already outlined above, like some broken clockwork toys before I fell asleep.  We all got about an hours sleep before we landed in Domodedovo Airport near Moscow at 4.30am.  We staggered onto buses and commenced a 15-minute drive to the terminal while I realised that I had left my phone on the plane.  Taken to Lost Property I sat there for half an excruciating hour before the stewardesses came in with it in their hand.  Exhausted relief.  Got a bus through the green field and forests south of Moscow to the Metro then a Metro to Tverskaya.  When I got up the escalator to the subway exit there was a monsoon outside.

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A monsoon.  I waited.  The address of the hotel was 14 Tverskaya and I was steps from 18.  When I finally took those steps though some 25 minutes later I was nowhere near 14.  When I got there I was wet – and the number 14 just told you which chunk of the block we were on, then it was building 4.  No one could tell me where it was.  Round the corner.  Into the alley.  Ask at the flower shop.  He didn’t know. He asked his mate.  He didn’t know.  There was no internet on my phone and I was getting very wet now.   I also had sharp pain every time I put down my right foot and realised that I must have blisters from walking around Samara for hours the previous day.  I squeezed my foot to protect it and limped my way into an apartment building in Number four thinking there might be a secret hotel on the top floor but no go.  At least it wasn’t wet in there.  My England jacket was drenched so I changed into the Burberry raincoat.  I stood under an archway for about half an hour watching the torrential downpour before realising that I had to move, somewhere, anywhere.  I walked back around to the cafe which was opposite the grand old grocery which I later learned was the famous Eliseyev Food Hall:

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A cleaner told us the cafe was closed until 10am – it was 8.30 by now – and the two chaps who had come inside looking for a cafe with me told me in broken Russki English that MacDonalds had wifi.  Back down the underpass, out the other end and into a vast Micky D with breakfast roll egg Macfuckface and fries with black coffee AND WIFI.   Connection.  Suddenly all the messages and email come rolling in.  Loads of WhatsApp messages from EnglandOnTourRussia2018 and plenty involving last night’s party in Samara which developed into dawn selfies with girls and loads of photos of people with fingers to their lips.  I later worked out that this referred to people resisting the urge to say

It’s Coming Home

under any circumstances and to keep radio silence as far as winning the world cup was concerned…Meanwhile back in England that’s all anyone could say and non-football fans were in secret righteous fury vowing to kill the next person who said it.  When drunk of course, people say it louder and more often.  Was it to become our secret undoing ?  I couldn’t get the stupid phrase out of my head.  Or the Three Lions On A Shirt bit.  It was taking over my brain.  Worst of all I was re-writing it to stop it being repetitive brain injury.  Sealions on a Skirt.  Felines on a Flirt.  Or that evergreen Scaffold cover in praise of laundry Three Shirts On A Line.

Of course I wanted England to win the World Cup and now and again in my secret heart I thought they could.  But my undrunk morning self knew that we were underdogs, that we didn’t have a midfielder like Luka Modric who could run a game.  Nevertheless the hope was planted by this carefully constructed and rather sweet song from 1996.  The music was written by a Liverpool musician Ian Broudie and the lyrics by a Birmingham comedian Frank Skinner with a London comedian David Baddiel and recorded by Broudie’s band The Lightning Seeds.   It contains famous pieces of commentary describing the England team as disappointing.  It is indeed a song about failure, about how the team never quite rise to the occasion, although sometimes, it feels as if they might. There are moments.  Lineker’s goal against Germany in Rome 1990.  Gazza.  And of course Bobby Moore and 1966 at Wembley.   The England squad of 1996 appear in the video and sing the chorus.  It has become the England supporters’ anthem and rises into the charts during most football tournaments, the torture of watching England playing football once again like a recurring nightmare that will never go away. It’s the hope that kills you.  Like itching powder I couldn’t soothe the damn tune out of my ears.  But Southgate has made all the difference hasn’t he ?? And here we are.

  A World Cup semi-final in Moscow for fuck’s sake.

At 10.am I went back to the cafe and it was finally open.  The Uzbeki waiter Jim spoke good English and was a budding film-maker.  He wanted to follow me on Instagram because I was an actor.  He now does.  He also realised that I’d been looking at 14 Tverskaya Street, rather than it’s cross street Tverskaya Bul Var, or Boulevard.  OMG.  I’d been walking through a monsoon for the last four hours and I was drenched.  I changed my shoes and my socks and headed in hopefully the correct direction.  The area was really nice.  After further fluffing in almost every direction I finally found the East-West Hotel hidden carefully behind a cool restaurant called Didi and checked in at 11am.  My room was small and perfect.  I examined my right foot.  Two blisters.  I broker them both and promptly fell asleep.

When I awoke some hours later I noticed that all the beer stains on the back of my England Jacket had been washed out by the monsoon rain.   It was time to walk out into the Russian capital and see what I could see.  In the small reception area of the hotel the TV was showing the defeated Russian players being paraded across the stage at the FanPark near Luzhniki, with their manager, thousands of Russians filming it on their phones.  The receptionist and I watched.  I turned to him and put my hand on my heart.   “Are you proud?”  I asked.  “No”  he said.  “Sad?” I asked.  “Yes” he said.  Fair enough I thought your team got knocked out on penalties.  “But do you feel patriotic?”  I asked again.  He rolled up his right trouser leg and showed me a thing white crescent scar around his kneecap.  “I was a footballer”  he said,  ” It could be me up there“.   I said I was sorry and walked out onto Tverskaya Bul Var.  As I walked in the bright sunshine I felt a lump in my throat and tears coming to my eyes.  The conversation had opened me right up.  Russia was making me feel emotions

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My Pop Life #209 : Classical Symphony in D – Sergei Prokofiev

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Classical Symphony – Sergei Prokofiev

I should be on my way to Russia right now.  Quick stopover in Moscow then on to Ekaterinberg, the furthest east of all the World Cup 2018 venues.  That was the plan.  Targeting the game there on Friday – Egypt v Uruguay.  After the season that Mo Salah has had I’d like to see him at a World Cup.  Will he be fit ?  Hmmm

However here I am at home in Brooklyn having spent the afternoon on a reconnaissance trip to Brighton Beach.  Little Odessa, not Hove, actually.  Looking for World Cup vibes because we’re spending this World Cup in New York City.   We’ll be seeking out neighbourhood cafes and restaurants showing games, in particular representing the teams which are playing.  So, on Friday we’ll be heading to Bijans,  an Iranian restaurant in Boerum Hill, just down the road, for the must-win game for both Morocco and Iran since the other two teams in that group are mighty Portugal and Spain.

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Jenny and I in Soweto, World Cup 2010

But why aren’t we going to Russia then?  Jenny and I have been to the last six World Cups – in Los Angeles ’94, France ’98, Japan/Korea ’02, Germany ’06, South Africa ’10 and Brazil ’14.  Amazing times.  Truly.  But Jenny decided about a year ago that she didn’t fancy the Russia World Cup because of the continued racism at games in that country.  We met some Russians in Rio in 2014 on their way to the Maracaña to see Russia play Belgium.  I asked them where they were from and they, all fresh-faced and covered in flags, said “Irkutsk”.  Wow, I thought, remembering the Risk board from my teens, Siberia !!  They’ve come a long way.  And they seemed so sweet and naive and I remember thinking – the World Cup in Russia will be cool.  I still hold to that.  But Jenny has been in England for 4 months doing a play at the Donmar and only just got back, I don’t really want to fly off to Russia on my own, leaving Jenny behind,  in the hope of hooking up with our old football buddy Billy The Bee who has a slightly more England-centred agenda than me.  I did want to, but I didn’t.  I wouldn’t.  I haven’t.

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Me, Melissa (her 1st game!!) & Bella Bee at Griffin Park after 2-1 win v QPR

When I travelled to London in April to see Jenny in the play ‘The Way of The World‘  by William Congreve, I decided to see Billy to break the news to him that I wouldn’t be accompanying him to Russia.  I went west on the Piccadilly Line from Covent Garden to Northfields and walked down to The Globe, where I have been many times before for Brighton & Hove Albion away matches v Brentford, for Billy the Bee is, yes you guessed it, a Brentford fan, and today they were at home to West London Rivals Queens Park Rangers.  (Brentford won 2-1). As the afternoon and beers progressed, a number of Billy’s mates, including dear David Lane who I know, came up to Billy and expressed worry on his behalf in Russia.  None of them were going.  I added my forthcoming absence to his day.

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Billy the Bee in Johannesburg, World Cup 2010

Jenny and I met Billy on a train from Paris to Toulouse during France ’98. We watched the England v Romania game together on a pavement TV after failing to score tickets for the match, and found each other at every World Cup since then.  We were in Jo’burg together in a large house, went to Soweto pretty much every day.  You can find these stories on my other blog.  Rather weirdly they read from the bottom up.  Gonna see if I can fix that.

Anyway.

Russia.  I wish I was going.  But I’m not.  The country, the nation, its politics and culture has had a huge part in my life since I was small.  Always held up as the reason why people weren’t communist, or the reason why they were.  The 20 million war dead who stopped Hitler alongside the British and the Americans always turn up in arguments, rightly so.  I read Marx at school (he was German I know but his writing had a profound effect on Russia) and wondered why his teachings, which resembled those of Jesus in the New Testament, were so reviled in my own country.  I pieced it together fairly quickly, indeed to the extent that I chose to go to University at the LSE rather than Cambridge, and studied Lenin and the revolution.  There in the late 70s I did a course entitled “Soviet & Yugoslav Legal Systems” which made up 25% of my 3rd year, and was taught by Law Professor Ivo Lapenna who was a Slav.  Four or five times a class he would utter the famous formulation “according to Marxism…” and this almost made the three years of law worthwhile, indeed privileged was I to spend part of my youth sitting in educational establishments learning these things.  Ten years later in 1989 I read Mikhail Gorbachev‘s book Perestroika and was there in Berlin when the wall came down at the end of that momentous year (see My Pop Life #166).  There was a shrinkage of the Soviet state down to its essence, Russia, and the gangsters took over.

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And of course I’ve had to parse the media throughout my life regarding stories and attitudes to The USSR as it was known until I turned 33.  United Soviet Socialist Republic. Stories are inevitably negative until you read The Morning Star, or go to the source material, the history, the books that Marx or Gorbachev or Solzhenitsyn actually wrote.  They’re very good by the way.  The current Western bad guy is once again the Russian Bear, personified, as these short-hand attitudes always have to be, by a figure, in this case, Mr Vladimir PutinRandy Newman had a song called Putin on his last album which contained the opening line

Putin puttin’ his pants on

which is both hilarious and childish.  But now we’re supposed to be interested in these cartoon personalities and their egos.   Forgive me if I don’t get into politics, right now.

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And in parallel to these political revolutions and counter-revolutionary upheavals, I was reading Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn as a teenager.  Crime & Punishment, The Idiot,  One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovitch, and Cancer Ward.  I actually wrote a short story whilst at school entitled One Day In The Life of Ivan ‘eadache Mum, which was a kind of parody of me being late for school as I recall.

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 I read Turgenev and the amazing Nikolai Gogol as a student, surrealist and hilarious material in the case of the latter, and my first Leo Tolstoy novel Boyhood.

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I finally read Tolstoy and Pushkin as an adult.  Of these, Tolstoy’s War and Peace is my favourite, I relished it, every word.  I will read it again if I live long enough.  Fyodor Dostoyevsky writes so well about people and I’ve always felt that The Brothers Karamazov perfectly described my two brothers and I.  But I was a teenager when I felt that and it may not stand up to detailed scrutiny to be fair.   The Idiot is quite superb.   The Peter Sellers film Being There is based on it.    I’m saving Anna Karenina for a rainy day, but remember clearly my first girlfriend Miriam Ryle reading it when she was 16.  I never got on with The Master & Margerita I must confess, but I’m prepared to have another go, neither have I got around to Nabakov yet.  Plenty of time for that I hope, and I have been told how great he is.

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I haven’t seen the Bolshoi Ballet, but I have seen a Russian ballet company from St Petersburg during the Brighton Festival with my friend Millie (who loves ballet) performing Tchaikovsky‘s Nutcracker Suite & Swan Lake.  It was a classic performance which for me meant it was a bit of a museum piece but it was breathtakingly beautiful.

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One of my top five films is Russian – I refer to Andrei Tarkovsky‘s Andrei Rublev, made in black & white in 1965.  It is a three-hour meditation on the life of the medieval icon painter Rublev, but that doesn’t even begin to touch at the remarkable achievement of this film. Seek it out and enjoy if you haven’t seen it.  I know it doesn’t sound like a film that you want to see, and there’s nothing much I can say to change that, except that it is absolutely breathtakingly brilliant.  All of Tarkovsky’s films are extraordinary in different ways – I name-checked his sci-fi masterpiece Solaris in My Pop Life #121.  The final film, made in Sweden is called The Sacrifice and again it is quite an astonishing piece of work.

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Original poster for Battleship Potemkin, 1925

Other Russian films I have marvelled at include Elem Klimov‘s ‘Come and See‘ about the effect of war on a young man, some of the images from that screening sometime in the early 1980s are seared onto my brain.  And of course Sergei Eisenstein‘s Battleship Potemkin and Alexander Nevsky are both essential viewing for film buffs as is Bondarchuk‘s War & Peace.  And just last year I was sent a BAFTA dvd for the film Loveless, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev which was quite superb.

I have managed to avoid Dr Zhivago both in print and on screen.

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Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov of course was a genius, if there is such a thing, and his plays have thrilled me.  From The Seagull which I saw with with John Hurt to Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya -they are all exceptional, exquisite. My friend Simon Korner was pleading with me to read Chekhov’s short stories when we were both 18, and I finally read them in my 40s.  They are indeed quite the finest short stories I think I have ever read, although James Baldwin still takes some beating.

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‘Day of the Artist’ by Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall is Russian isn’t he ?  Belorussian.  I love his work.  And the propagandists of the revolution created some incredible stuff.   And Kandinsky.  I’ll only get into trouble if I start rabbiting on about Constantin Stanislavski and the method school of acting.  I read his book as a young man – of course I did, having not trained as an actor it was the least I could do.  I’ve never really got past the “if you’re acting it you have to experience it” thing though, having played a number of killers myself over the years and never actually killed someone to see what it feels like.

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Sergei Prokofiev

And so to the music.  I should have listened to Peter & The Wolf as a child but I have no memory of it.  Sergei Prokofiev wrote it in 1936 when he was 45 years old, and had finally settled in Moscow after leaving Russia in 1918, although he was never an exile from the Revolution as I understand it.   I suspect Tchaikovsky was the first Russian music I listened to – Swan Lake no doubt which I even suspect we may have owned on 78 rpm and played on our portable wind-up gramophone (see My Pop Life #43).  Once you’ve heard of someone, you keep hearing it of course.  Everyone’s a Fruit & Nut Case was a commercial on British TV (Cadbury’s chocolate) to the tune of Sugar Plum Fairies.  Then it was probably the 1812 Overture  with its cannon gimmick, then he gets a mention in Harold Pinter’s  The Caretaker which I did for A-level English Literature, then the Ken Russell film The Music Lovers.  Of course I must mention Mussorgsky because in 1971 I bought the Emerson Lake & Palmer LP Pictures at an Exhibition which introduced me to public humiliation being a prog-rock canter through his song suite of the same name and deeply uncool. Its still brilliant, and it was when I was 14.

Sergei Rachmaninov crept in at some point in my 20s – particularly the 2nd Piano Concerto which Eric Carmen borrowed for the pop song “All By Myself“.  Later I would buy an album called Rachmaninov Plays Rachmaninov which I recommend very highly indeed.  He had very large hands and could play a natural 12th on the piano with ease.   Anyway, I never really considered Prokofiev or Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky to be Russian.  They were “Classical” composers who became international and of no nation almost because of the music.  I’m still learning though, because classical music went through a very nationalistic phase 100 years ago when each nation’s composers started to celebrate their own folk music and turn it into high art, and the Russians participated in this too.  Did Borodin try it ?  Not sure.

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Scheherezade – painting by Léon Bakst

My current swoon is Rimsky-Korsakov‘s Sheherezade which is a suite based on the Arabian Nights and is stunning.  I listen to it once a week, it is quite tremendous.   I didn’t start checking out Dimitri Shostakovitch or Igor Stravinksy until later – but in-between these musical giants  I fell in love with the genius of Sergei Prokofiev.

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I think I bought the Classical Symphony when we were living in Los Angeles in 1992-5.  Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard was a giant Emporium of music – I remember bumping into Meera Syal & her then husband Shekhar Bhatia in there one afternoon, a basketful of CDs in the crook of my arm.  I think they were on holiday, but perhaps Meera was auditioning for things.  Bless her.  Perhaps Prokofiev was in there.  It is his 1st symphony, written in Russia in the summer of 1917, weeks before the October Revolution. He called it the Classical Symphony himself, because he felt that one of his heroes Franz Josef Haydn (see My Pop Life #134) would have written in that style were he alive.  Indeed, all of Haydn’s 106 symphonies are very short and the form then got heavily stretched by Mozart,  Beethoven and later Mahler so that you might be sitting for 95 minutes watching and listening to Mahler’s 3rd Symphony.  In contrast, Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony is very short – in my version by Leonard Bernstein & the NY Philharmonic it comes in at under 14 glorious minutes.  It is a sprightly, melodic, wonderfully-arranged piece with massive dynamics which still thrill me today when I listen to it.  It has both old-fashioned and very modern elements which the ear picks up on immediately.  It does its thing & gets out, rather like Haydn did with his 12-minute symphonies in the 1790/1800s and is similarly instantly accessible and hugely enjoyable.

Prokofiev didn’t stick with the short format for his symphonies, indeed his 5th Symphony which appeared on the same CD is 40 minutes long and very different musically, though similarly popular.  Other works of his which I like very much include the 3rd Piano Concerto, often paired with Ravel‘s 1st Piano Concerto and one of the finest works of the 20th century to my sweet-toothed ear.  His other best-known piece perhaps is the troika from Lieutenant Kije which actually sounds like a three galloping horses pulling a carriage across a white winter landscape.  The Brighton Beach Boys played it at our Christmas gigs and I was charged with playing the melody on my alto in a duet with the French horn.  Greg Lake including the melody in his miserable Christmas hit I Believe In Father Christmas at the suggestion, apparently of Keith Emerson.  It’s the best part of the song.

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I also have David Bowie narrating Peter & The Wolf, where each character in the story is played by a different instrument.  I’m sure you know it.  I have the first 2 Violin Concertos.  There is plenty of his work I have yet to hear, and I can’t claim to be any kind of authority on him.  I just love this piece of music.

So I’m indebted to the Russians for much of my cultural and political nourishment.  Russia is a major slice of me as I hope I’ve illustrated above.  I hope they put on a good World Cup and enjoy it, particularly the non-racist fans.  I hope those visitors from all over the world have a splendid time there over the next four weeks.  I’ll be watching from my sofa and in the various Egyptian, Colombian, German, English, Senegalese, Iranian, Spanish, Nigerian, French, English and Brazilian restaurants of New York City.   I think Brazil will lift the trophy,  who knows.  But deep down, I wish I was there too.

Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic in 1968