Thursday, May 29, 2014

True Confessions . . . by Sue Townsend (Penguin Books 1989)

We retreated back to Moscow. We arrived at 6.30 in the morning. Even at this early hour Russia was on the move; the station was jam-packed full. We passed through a massive waiting room where every plastic chair was occupied, yet nobody spoke. Christopher Hope was much affected by this. It was in complete contrast to the milling, shouting crowds outside with their ungainly luggage and wool-wrapped children in tow. There was one policeman at the door – could he alone have cowed hundreds of people into complete silence?

We went to the Bolshoi and saw the most exquisite dying swan, performed by Ms Larissa, the toast of Moscow, who was reputed to be rushing towards sixty years of age. Her arms vibrated like piano wires, they shimmered, then as the violins soared and swooned she sank to the floor in the final gesture – it was perfect and lovely and I shall always remember it.

I arranged to meet my translator, but he mixed up Tuesday with Thursday so it was not possible. He is translating a diary. As Mr Bennett said, ‘Friday: Got up, went to Sunday school.’

We were invited to Kim Philby’s funeral and said we’d go, but the day was changed and we’d flown to Lvov in the Ukraine. We met more writers and admired the beautiful town and visited the cathedral which was crowded with old women, many on their knees. The sadness was tangible. It was Ascension Day and a kindly old woman began to explain the story of the Ascension to Alan Bennett.

Alan listened as though the story were completely new to him. Then an unkind old woman intervened and ordered him to uncross his legs. She then turned on the kind old woman and berated her for talking to us. Later, strolling round the town, we saw the unkind woman praying at the locked gates of a church. She looked very unhappy. We met the mayor of Lvov, a big, handsome man, very conscious of his duty to preserve and renovate the many lovely buildings with which the town is blessed. Alan Bennett is thinking of retiring to Lvov. We met a dirty, ragged man who told us about the concentration camp which used to be situated to the west of the town. Hundreds of thousands of people died there. I asked our official guide about the old man. ‘He is a fanatic,’ she said. ‘He has spent his life since the war studying the fate of the Jews. He is a Jew himself,’ she added, ‘a professor of history.’ She disapproved of the ragged old man.

The writers of Lvov were particularly kind and hospitable, and we lunched in some style to the sounds of a string quartet – all girls who blushed when we applauded. The conversation at Messrs Raine, Bennett and Bailey’s end of the table had turned to sex. Their laughter attracted the attention of the wife of the chairman of the Lvov Writers’ Union. I said, ‘They are talking about sex.’

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘All say’s, little do’s.’

Quite a devastating remark from such a mild-looking woman.

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