Since Julia and I married in 1971, I have never been without a dog. One of these, a Jack Russell, was called Rascal and the name suited him to a T. On one occasion as we were walking by a river, Rascal took a dislike to a pair of swans. Being a good swimmer, he decided to chase them. After 45 minutes of swimming around he gave up, but got out on the wrong side of the river. We eventually persuaded him to jump back in to swim to our side, glad that the swans had completely ignored him.
My present dog, Casey, a rescue dog, is the gentlest creature, but he has one fault – he is a hunter. So when we go out I keep him on a long lead because the last time he escaped he was off hunting for three hours.
In 1973, two years after I was married, I went to visit Natasha in Moscow. I had written a letter, informing her of my visit but when she opened her door she was amazed to see me as she had not received it. This was not unusual in Soviet times. Letters often went mysteriously astray. She then explained that she was shortly coming to England to attend a Course in Cambridge, with the last few days to be spent in Norwich!
She carefully explained that when she reached Norwich, I was to pretend that we did not know one another, otherwise she would be refused permission to attend the Course. In fact, I already knew about her visit as it was being organised by one of my colleagues.
So when I got back to UK, I suggested to my colleague that I would like to invite the group to a party in my house. I did not really expect them to come, but the Soviet Union was an unpredictable country and they came.
I have some surprising and interesting memories of the visit. I found the Russians in our kitchen. They were opening all our cupboards. Looking to see what equipment we had. They had never been in an English house before! As I was carefully pretending that I did not know Natasha, the only time we were able to chat was for a few minutes in the bedroom with a friend keeping watch to make sure the Group Leader did not report her.
In 1980 I had met a correspondent from Novosti News Agency. He decided that he would like to show me the ‘real Russia’, as Moscow was very different from other towns. We traveled to a small town called Zvenigorod. It was a complete mess! The bridge over the river was damaged and people had to use a rowing boat to cross from one side to the other.
The best stocked shop in town was the vodka shop, as the Soviets always made sure that there was a plentiful supply of cheap vodka. Vodka is still very cheap there.
I have always been a keen photographer, so I had a camera with me. I had especially bought a Zenit Russian camera, as if I had had a Canon or Nikon, I would have been spotted as a foreigner at once. For the same reason, I always wore my oldest clothes, as Western clothes were not for sale in the Soviet Union.
I was taken to a very beautiful kremlin. Kremlins do not exist just in Moscow, but also in many ancient Russian cities. I asked why Intourist, the Russian Travel Agency for foreigners, did not bring foreigners to see this lovely kremlin. The reason was easy to spot. Just beyond the kremlin was an Air Force Base. I was aware that Gerald Brooke, who lectured Russian at the London Polytechnic, had been arrested on a trumped-up charge of spying, with his release dependent on the return of a Russian arrested in the UK. And here was I – taking pictures of an Air Force Base! I decided it was time I returned to Moscow.
In my last years at UEA, there were very few students of Russian for me to teach and instead I became Deputy Director of an Overseas Student Centre. In 1989 I moved to the University of Essex. For a few years there were lots of Students of Russian, but then history repeated itself, the numbers dwindled to a few, and I was made redundant in 2000.
It was then that I became involved with Russian Language Undergraduates, an Educational Charity which arranges Courses in Russia for students studying in British Universities who have to spend their third year studying the language in Russia. So I travel to Russia twice a year visiting the various cities where the students happen to be studying and sort out any problems they might have with their Courses. My favourite is a city you probably haven’t heard of – Yaroslavl – an old town on the Volga, almost unique because it is peaceful and its architecture suffered very little during the Soviet era.
Life did not get less adventurous in the post-Soviet period. In 2002 one of the students invited his parents to visit him in Russia, and he bought them theatre tickets for a musical. Chechen terrorists invaded the theatre and held the audience hostage. The Russians sprayed the theatre with a poisonous gas and many of the audience died. Fortunately, the student and his parents survived. To this day, the Russians have not disclosed which gas they used!
About 10 years ago, a group of students in St. Petersburg were having a drink and chatting outside their third floor flat. One of the students tripped and fell over the bannister. He died as a result of the accident. When I got the phone call I was on holiday in Istanbul. I got ready to go out to St. Petersburg. Fortunately, there was no need for me to go, as his university sent a lecturer to liaise with the student’s father. Furthermore, we had a brilliant representative looking after the students. She managed to persuade the police that the accident was not the result of criminal activity.
In 2014, students in Yaroslavl on the Volga river were being taken by bus to Moscow to catch their flight home. They got stuck in a freak snowstorm and missed their flight. The next flight was an early morning one and BA agreed to change their tickets so they could take it. However, their visa finished on that day, and the Russian authorities refused to allow them on the plane because they had overstayed their visas! First they had to go to one office and pay a fine, and then to another to extend their visas.
Unfortunately, the offices opened on different days. They had to spend an extra week in Russia to get the problem sorted. We learned our lesson, and now ask for the visas to finish a day or so after the end of the Course. And we send the students back to Moscow by train! In one respect, Russia has not changed from the old Soviet Union. The bureaucracy is just as bad, if not worse!
I came to live in Norfolk when I was appointed Lecturer at UEA, fell in love with the County and was sad to have to move to Colchester. My wife and I always wanted to move back here. I can remember a post-Christmas break in Blakeney with our dogs. The weather was awful and we got soaking wet, but we realised then that we wanted to move back. When Julia got a job in charge of Special Needs in West Norfolk we were able to move to Stoke Ferry. I love this part of Norfolk and spend a lot of time walking my dog in my favourite places, especially Shouldham Warren and Lynford. It is so peaceful. Such a contrast when I go to see my daughters, who both live in London!
Sadly, Julia died seven years ago after being diagnosed with a brain tumour.
I like cooking and as I love gardening and grow many vegetables and fruits it is easy to avoid ‘ready meals’. All the same, I have a favourite restaurant – the ‘Hare Arms’. It still feels like an old fashioned pub that serves good draught beer and the food is great.
I also love travelling. In recent years I have visited Australia where Julia’s sister and family live. And South Africa, Vietnam and India. I read a lot, – novels, political memoirs and historical works. And my pet hate has to be intolerance. I have no objection to people having different opinions or religious beliefs, as long as they don’t force me to agree with them.
I’ll give the last word to Russia. It is now a very different country to the one I first visited. In the Soviet Union you could not leave the town where you were staying, though I confess that I frequently disobeyed this rule. I have recently come back from a visit to see the students in Russia. In spite of the recent problems with the attempted assassination of the Skripals, there is no problem for tourists (or students) in Russia. People feel free to express anti-government views, as long as they do it in private!!!
I hope you have enjoyed reading these memories of mine. It has been good to reflect on the changes which have happened since I first went to Russia. Lets hope they continue to change for the better.
Edited on behalf of the Editor by jean Marler