Monday, 22 August 2011

Behind the Iron Curtain

As well as learning how to be a bloke, I spent the weekend catching up on old copies of the London Review of Books. In the 19 May 2011 issue, a review of a book about Western visitors to Communist China called Passport to Peking (whose title the reviewer informs us 'uses the old spellings for period effect' but which I think is probably a play on the film named Passport to Pimlico) contained the diverting information that Stanley Spencer spent his entire trip to China (courtesy of the Britain-China Friendship Association) wearing his pyjamas as underclothes under his suit, 'the cord ... trailing from the bottom of his trousers', flatly refused to touch Chinese food, living 'on boiled eggs and toast ... sometimes demanding fish and chips' and refused an invitation to a meeting from Zhou Enlai, on the grounds that 'he was too busy with a drawing', but then relented 'on condition that "politics are not mentioned."'

The review also noted that, 'Stanley Spencer explained to Zhou that China was like Cookham. The Ming Tombs reminded him of the village of Wangford, where he had married his first wife. Morgan Phillips found that Beijing was much like Bedford. The physician Derrick James noted that Prague, visited on the way to Beijing, resembled Maidstone [!?]. Hugh Casson compared Moscow to Manchester a hundred years earlier; the great scientist Joseph Needham mystifyingly thought that Kunming was a bit like the vicarage at Duxford near Cambridge; the artist Paul Hogarth wrote that travelling from Beijing to Shanghai was much the same as going from Sheffield to Manchester.'

I think this comparing thing must be a particularly British pheonomenon - certainly, we travelled about Yugoslavia and its neighbours in the early eighties with a book written by a man who could not resist relating the Balkan landscape to one or other of the counties of England. He seemed to have no way of explaining things, other than to say, 'The Vojvodina [or wherever] is reminiscent of Warwickshire, with a touch of Wiltshire, and a splash of the most southeastern tip of Dorset thrown in.'

The most interesting thing in the review as far as I was concerned though, in the light of my mixed emotions about the apparent improvements in daily life in Moscow, was this quote from Hugh Casson (who, I gather, was in charge of architecture during the Festival of Britain):

'Today, once behind the Iron Curtain, every building ... even such prosaic objects as trolley-buses or chocolate cake ... are invested with a new mystery, an atmosphere of the other side of the looking-glass which gives a keener edge to everything.'

It seems to me that Casson perfectly articulates something that I have always felt uneasy about, even though I've never been able to put it into words - the fact that the pleasure one got from being allowed a glimpse of that secret, menacing world, which other human beings had to put up with as a permanent reality but which Westerners could pop in and out of, was at least partly voyeuristic. It was the same kind of thrill that people were seeking when they used to peer through the rails at Bedlam.

And, in case anyone has been too influenced by our friend's positive comments about the dazzling present day reality in what was the old Eastern bloc, I urge them to buy this new thriller, written by Gaw, of Ragbag and the Dabbler. Inter alia, the book describes in vivid detail just what a mistake dipping your toe into the post-Soviet world can be, all proceeds from its sale go to the British Legion and it is a snip at under five quid.


  1. I was lucky enough to visit Prague the year before the Wall came down and I also remember having mixed feelings. On the one hand I was appalled by palpable atmosphere of fear and oppression - one man was too scared to even give me directions. But on the other hand, it was very exciting, as if I'd walked into a John Le Carre novel. Was the man 20 yards behind following me? What would he do if I dodged into an alley?

    As you say, those of us from the West had the privilege of being able to walk away whenever we liked, armed with several years' worth of dinner party anecdotes.

    I felt haunted by my time in Prague and bored lots of people about it. Little did I know that in just over a year, Vaclav Havel would be surrounded by cheering crowds in Wenceslas Square.

  2. There was also the odd feeling you had when you flew home and caught the tube back into London and listened to people talking in a way that suggested they didn't know how lucky they were. I imagine aid workers coming back from really poor parts of the world get that to the power of ten. Re Havel, one of the best things I ever read was his Civil Society essay.