SHIVA NAIPAUL PRIZE
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ENGLISH
ONE GREY morning in the autumn of 19—, a red car might have been seen speeding round the sharp turns of the B45– in the county of W—shire. The cold English sun was hiding behind thick cloud but there was still some hope of it re- emerging. In the back of the car sat a young Muscovite of the high intelligentsia — handsome, sophisticated, cleanshaven. He had arrived in England two days earli- er, and had been invited by Professor Regi- nald to spend the weekend in W—shire with his close friend Fiona —, a rich divorcee, mother of two young children, and a keen Russophile.
`Tumannui Al'bion,' he murmured.
Vot?' asked the taxi-driver, who had not dropped one word since he picked up our hero at the station.
`I am Russian,' the young man declared with pathos, hoping that magically — as it always had in America — this pronounce- ment would kindle a conversation. 'That is how Russians imagine England — Misty Albion.'
But the driver was not to be cajoled out of his fit of phlegmatism. 'Russian with an American accent?' he asked sceptically, and said nothing more for the rest of the journey. THIS is the winner of the sixth Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize. It is awarded to the entrant 'best able to describe a visit to a for- eign place or people. It is not for travel writ- ing in the conventional sense, but for the most acute and projound observation of cul- tures and scenes evidently alien to the writer.' The prize is worth £1,000.
This year's judges were Christopher Sin- clair-Stevenson„Shiva Naipaul's publisher; Gillon Aitken, Shiva Naipaul's literary agent; Hilary Mantel, a former winner of the prize; Dominic Lawson, editor of The Spectator, and Mark Amory, the literary editor of The Spectator.
There were 183 entries from 23 countries. The final shortlist included articles by Edward Whitley and Pico lyer, but in the end Gleb Shestakov was acclaimed as the clear winner. Mr Shestakov, who is 27 next month, is doing a PhD on Kantian aesthetics at Bal- liol College, Oxford. He retains a Soviet passport and is therefore, as he says, a citizen without a country.
The car stopped in front of a mediaeval gateway. Up on the lintel, there was a fine wooden carving of a knight, all eaten away by time and wind. `This is Holywell Manor,' said the driver.
I took my bag and walked in. Virgin grass, unnaturally green, as if newly painted for an inspection, covered the lawns in front of the house. Its stone front, patinat- ed with age, reared up out of the greenness like a rockface.
The bell didn't work. I put down my bag and hammered on the door. It was opened by a tall young woman, 17 or 18 years old, dressed casually in jeans and a black sweater. Straightening my tie, I shyly pre- pared my welcome lines, careful not to mix the order of 'How do you do' and 'Nice to meet you'. I stretched my hand out. She looked at it with surprise and mistrust.
'I'm Gleb.' I respectfully dropped my hand and smiled.
She turned her back, saying, 'Fiona's in the kitchen. Come in.' I followed her down a dark passageway.
`Do you work here, Caroline?'
Suddenly her face thrust towards me. 'I'm Fiona's daughter,' she snorted.
Fiona was talking to my friend Professor Reginald. She was a slim woman, quite beautiful, with dark brown hair slightly sil- vered. She had a strange habit of never looking into your eyes — only past you. I later noticed that most of the people I met had the same problem.
The kitchen was dim, brown and clut- tered. Strings of onions covered the walls; piles of apples and old newspapers adorned every horizontal surface. From the ceiling hung a strange device which draped ends of socks and underwear right onto the table. A lonely light bulb shone from behind dry- ing knickers, giving a mystical touch to the scenery.
I was sat down on a rough bench under- neath the light. Fiona drifted to the win- dow and stared out into the dust. I realised that under her bulky shoes and crumpled bright red socks she had nice legs.
`So you are from Russia?'
I confirmed this.
`Where from in Russia?'
`Were you a party member?' The interro- gation was not unlike the one you go through at Heathrow immigration desk.
`Never,' I answered with as much convic- tion as I could muster, hoping to avoid fur- ther questioning. But Fiona knew the business. She suddenly turned, her expres- sion hidden by the brightness behind.
'Were you a Komsomol member?' she asked sharply. I put down the apple I'd been nervously fondling, and admitted that I had been. But Fiona, to my surprise, was full of understanding. She explained: 'Com- munism is a system of pure evil, it made everyone a collaborator.' I gratefully agreed.
'Do you want some tea? Or maybe vodka?' she asked. 'I bought some especial- ly for you.' She pointed to the fridge: a bot- tle of English vodka was standing on it.
Warm vodka at midday and without food? 'Tea, please.' She poured me a cup.
`Sorry, in this country we don't have glasses. Lemon?'
`Milk and sugar please.' She looked at me with surprise. But she soon regained her confident tone: 'Well, I know what you would love. Let's go and see my vegetable garden.'
'Everyone from communist countries loves vegetable gardens,' the Professor interjected.
`Their shops are empty, and they know that it's better to depend on nature than on the state bureaucracies,' he remarked cate- gorically.
We went out into the rain. Mud lapped over my newly bought £50 shoes; I wished they could have realised that shoes in Rus- sia are much scarcer than vegetables. We walked down a little trench to look at Fiona's 'cabbages' — clumps of dystrophic deadly green leaves sticking out in all direc- tions. Fiona picked one, remarking, 'It'll go well in the soup.' I wanted to protest; but then, little did I know about English soups.
Thank you. It was very tasty.'
`Tasty is prohibited in this house,' Fiona informed me as she took away the remains of the soup.
`Why is that?'
`It's an American word.'
`American English, you see, Gleb, is like junk food,' chipped in the Professor. 'Quick, bright and undemanding.'
The four of us were lunching intimately under the knickers. Caroline had been silent throughout, drinking her soup grace- fully. Her face was slightly flushed.
Fiona served the next course. The Pro- fessor stuffed a lump of grey meat and a piece of half-baked potato into his mouth. `Absolutely delicious.' He ground the words out, still energetically chewing.
Fiona gave a short girlish laugh and looked down coyly.
`Caroline, why don't you take Gleb to the drawing-room and get the fire going? You will be good at that, Gleb.'
I sprang to the door and smartly opened it for Caroline. She glanced at me as she passed. In the corridor I stopped for a sec- ond to check my hair.
She was sitting back in one of the two huge armchairs which stood on either side of the ancient fireplace. Layers of soot coated the crumbling red brick; a stack of uncleft logs stood at the side.
`This room, Caroline, I can only describe as baronial.' She shrugged. The fireplace,' I bravely continued, 'one might fry a lamb there!'
She broke into a laugh. 'I suppose one might.'
`You know, you are the first English girl I've been alone with.' Without answering she dipped her hand inside her jersey and fished out a packet of cigarettes. Smiling, I offered her a light.
`Actually, I can light my own cigarettes. And open doors.'
`I'm not helpless, you know.' 'Of course, no, but what is wrong with doing honour to a beautiful girl like you?' Little did I know about Englishwomen. She introduced me to feminism while I dealt with the fire.
`Do you have a boyfriend?' I asked.
'No, should I?'
'Damn,' I thought, 'not much chance of anything with her tonight.'
Caroline finished her cigarette and left without saying a word.
I went into the kitchen — there was no one there.
I was sitting quietly watching cartoons on television when Tim, Fiona's eight-year-old son, came in.
'Hi.' Tim was a pale, fat child. Solemn as a cardinal, he processed to the far end of the kitchen, climbed up onto a chair and carefully pulled down a large glass jar from a high shelf. Sticking a handful of sweets in his mouth, he sat down next to me. With his free hand he reached for the remote control, mumbling, 'Cartoons . . cat's poo . . . boring . . . ' and switched over to an American talk show.
'Is Fiona upstairs?' I asked.
Tim wiped his mouth with his T-shirt, gulped, said, 'Don't know,' and dipped into the sweet-jar once again.
Half an hour later, she came in. The scene hadn't changed. Fiona lazily knocked Tim's hand away, as if pushing a cat away from her shopping bag, popped a sweet into her mouth and put the jar back on the shelf.
`How many times must I tell you to eat a proper lunch?' Having dealt with her son, she turned to me and asked brightly, 'I hope Tim has been looking after you, Gleb?'
'Silly cow,' he growled out of the side of his mouth.
I turned angrily to him: 'How dare you talk like this to your mother!'
They both stared at me in astonishment. Fiona broke the silence saying, 'Actually, Gleb, it's "talk like that" not "this".'
`Sorry.' Little did I know about English families.
The Professor appeared. 'Let's go to the village, Gleb,' he said. 'We can have a drink in the "local"!'
The little winding road down into the valley was sunk between high hedges. The tidiness of the surrounding country green hills punctuated with dark islands of autumnal trees — contrasted dramatically with the dilapidated appearance of my companion. His clothes were picturesque ruins. Patches of black stubble showed on his pale jawline as he lectured to me about the concept of organic unity.
The countryside, Gleb, gives you the essence of England. In Russia, you have an endless profound monotony. Here, each valley, each field has a different personali- ty. And you know what the lynchpin is of the whole system?'
The word was new to me. 'What is "lynchpin"?' `Hedges,' he said triumphantly.
I felt like Alice talking to Humpty- Dumpty.
`They divide and they unite,' he contin- ued.
`I see ...'
`And that's why it's so stupid to object to fox-hunting!'
He explained to me about the impor- tance of well controlled jumping.
I didn't understand much of his theory, but the Professor promised that the ritual would be enacted at Fiona's place tomor- row morning.
We arrived at the village green. It was just like a picture from the English-lan- guage text-book we used in third grade: a cluster of mottled stone cottages with a church like a miniature castle.
Once we were in the pub, the tutorial continued. 'In your country, Gleb, the state can't accommodate free association — so people are forced to drink behind closed doors. The result is that alcohol, like a spir- itual Aids, destroys their ability to fight the germs of communism. But in England, where pubs are essential to the process of acculturation of ordinary people, alcohol is a tool for democracy, a social cement.'
I looked around at the few scattered cus- tomers each hiding with his pint in a dark corner, and suddenly felt for this professor, trying so hard to make up for things which were so obviously lacking. Or was he just getting tipsy?
While he got another round I went to the juke-box and selected a couple of classic Rolling Stones numbers, hoping to drag these Hogarthian drinkers out of their gloom. I even smiled to one of them — he hurriedly stuck his face into the beer glass.
The Professor had returned. 'Ghastly American music!' I hurriedly drank some beer.
`One of the few good things about com- munism was that it prevented the spread of such awful trash.' I nodded sadly.
The door burst open and a corpulent well-dressed man strode to the bar. Unlike everyone else's shabby greens and browns, he wore blue, white and black. Cheerfully roaring his order — a pint of bitter and a double vodka — he slapped a large bank- note onto the counter. He hoisted the pint, tilted his head back, and poured the beer down his throat. The vodka followed quick- ly, and he gave a loud sigh.
Turning round, the newcomer noticed the Professor and grinned vacantly.
`Hello there! Researching into pub life, are we?'
The Professor introduced us. Lord K was one of Fiona's guests for the evening. He loudly insisted on giving us a lift. In the car he kept up a barrage of fast talking. Lord K was, as he explained to me, a dilettante but keen politician, currently spearheading the educational reform programme.
`Three years at university — far too long. It's just a waste of tax-payers' money. We're damn well going to cut it down to two, and high time! Right, Professor?' He murmured something.
`Did you study humanities or sciences?' I asked innocently.
`What? Didn't go to university at all,' he laughed. 'That's what's kept me unbiased.'
The dining-room of Holywell Manor was big enough to sit 30 people. It seemed even colder than my bedroom and, for some reason, smelt like a stable. Fiona was just finishing the flowers when I entered. `Has England matched up to your expecta- tions?' she asked.
'I am disappointed by London. I always imagined it to be magnificent. It turns out to be rather horizontal.'
`What do you mean?'
`You have to remember, Gleb, that we suffered terrible destruction during the war. Of course,' she added earnestly, 'noth- ing in comparison with what your country has gone through.'
There was an awkward pause.
`What about the way people live?' I talked for a while about freedom, and then unwisely commented on the bad English weather, cold in the houses and the state of the plumbing.
`Isn't it cold in Siberia?' Fiona objected. `Anyway, I thought there was no hot water at all most of the time, except in Moscow.'
`Everyone I know has got hot water.'
'Oh yes, Gleb, but you're from a privi- leged background.'
She turned away from me and gave the silver a last check.
`By the way,' she went on, `if you're cold in your room I can always give you a hot- water bottle' A 'hot-water bottle'? That sounded sexy and rather dangerous. But I let it pass with a gracious bow.
`How many are we this evening, Fiona?' `Seven,' she said and rattled through our names.
`What about Tim?'
'It's a life-size replica of Colin Moynihan.'
`Oh, he'll find some crisps and choco- late.'
At that moment I noticed Tim. He was standing in the back corridor, staring intently into a small rabbit-hutch.
Fiona followed my glance.
'Oh yes, that's Winnie. I do like to bring him inside once it gets frosty.' She smiled apologetically. At least I knew where the smell came from now.
In the drawing-room I met the two remaining guests: Mrs Goodfellow, a mid- dle-aged woman draped in several layers of black wool, with greasy, dark-blonde hair heaped up on her head like a plateful of egg-noodles; and the glamorous and lively Isabel.
Lord K was rubbing his red nose into Isabel's bare shoulder as she smilingly took my hand. She was a politically ambitious graduate of London University. Her bub- bling laugh attracted me.
`Are you a feminist, Isabel?' I thought I'd better check first.
`Good God, no!'
At this interesting point we were sum- moned into the dining-room. I was seated between Fiona and Mrs Goodfellow. Grim- ly goggling her mascara-plated eyes, Mrs G tightened her black shawl and started the interrogation, while the others discussed smoked salmon.
`So you are from Moscow?'
`Yes' — I put my knife down.
'You've got an American accent . . . ' `I've been visiting there.'
`Visiting? Isn't travel restricted?' she asked casually.
`They relaxed restrictions slightly and I managed to get out.'
`Aha, they let you out, how exciting . . . ' I could see I was in for a rough ride. `Gleb was a Komsomol member,' Fiona butted in helpfully.
`Komsomol . . . And why is your English so good?'
`Tanks!?' she exclaimed.
`No, "Thanks". I went to a special school — extra hours of language-teaching.'
`Weren't those only for Nomenklatura children?'
`No, not really.'
She scoffed and finished her wine.
The Professor came to my rescue: 'In Soviet Russia they had this Brave New World school-system where babies were assigned to specialised institutes so that society would get a planned quantity of mathematicians and historians.'
`Yes, it's awful how they treat their chil- dren,' said Fiona. 'The way they swaddle them up and spoil them. No wonder they never learn to think for themselves.' She turned to me for confirmation.
The second course arrived — roast pork with golden-brown potatoes, tough cabbage and thick apple sauce. Fiona, who all through the first course had tried to make me drink some vodka, now thought up a way of disposing of it. She pushed it around the table suggesting that since there was a Russian at dinner everyone should have a little taste. We poured it into our white- wine glasses; in a second it was all gone.
The eating and drinking started to speed up. The Professor and Lord K traded colourful stories of foxy genocide. I was intrigued: 'Tell me, what do you do with all the furs? Sell them, or share them out?'
The Professor fielded this naive ques- tion: 'There isn't much demand for fox fur actually.'
This was too much for Caroline.
'Do you know what happens to foxes?' she exploded, slamming her glass down.
`They're torn into pieces that big by a pack of mad dogs! The only thing they can do with the fur is to rub the blood into each other's stupid faces!'
Everyone started arguing about sports- manship.
To attract the attention of the girls down at the other end of the table, I took a bold initiative. Getting carefully to my feet, I tapped my glass with a knife and embarked on a toast: 'Let's drink to women, since, as we say in Russia, you can't live with them, but you can't live without them! And I raise this glass especially to honour the fairy-tale beauty of the women of England!' Isabel smiled encouragingly, Caroline kept her head down, the Professor looked at Fiona, Lord K jumped to his feet with a barking laugh, knocked off a glassful of wine and hurled the glass into the fireplace.
`Isn't that how you do it in Russia?' he said as he sat down. I could tell Fiona was displeased.
To save the situation, I provided some ethnographical details: 'In Russia, when you drink to the ladies you're supposed to balance your glass in the crook of your elbow, like this, and drink without touching it with your hands.'
Unfortunately, my wineglass was ill-suit- ed to this operation. It overbalanced as I raised my elbow and fell straight into Mrs G's lap. She took it stoically — 'That's why I always wear black to parties.' She seemed almost pleased.
I thought Mrs Goodfellow might not talk to me now. But she grabbed my knee and half whispered in my ear, 'I'm a full-time commie-basher, you know . . .
`There's so much deception going on in your country, no one can tell black from white. How would I know, for example, that you're not a spy?'
I nearly choked on my potato. 'Well, I guess you can't.'
Fiona, who was busy unloading leftovers onto my plate — prompted by the Profes- sor's remark, 'East Europeans hate seeing food thrown away' — said, 'There's one way of telling who the absolutely sound ones are.'
`How?' asked Mrs G.
`Religion. Only believers can completely withstand corruption by communism.' `Are you baptised, Gleb?'
`I'm a Jew.'
We all stared at the pile of pork.
`That's OK. I'm not religious.' I'd just failed her test; but Mrs Goodfellow, sur- prisingly, took my part: 'The KGB is terri- bly anti-Semitic, isn't it?' she said with compassion.
`Of course,' she continued, `there've always been a lot of Jews in military intelli- gence. . . '
Several bottles of wine were demolished and more appeared. We moved to the third course — apple crumble with cream. Fiona's cheeks were going scarlet. The Pro- fessor slumped heavily back into his chair like a sack of sawdust.
Lord K fell asleep; I took my chance and sat nearer Isabel, who was now discussing London life with Caroline.
`Are there any nightclubs in Moscow?' she acknowledged my arrival.
`So what do you do in the evenings?' `Depends,' I grinned wickedly.
`Are restaurants any good?'
`There aren't many around. We usually cook at home. Why don't I cook bortsch for you some time?' I started writing down my telephone number — the pen scraped along ineffectually .
`Typical communist product,' the Profes- sor commented.
`Ha-ha-ha!' — Lord K had woken up.
`It is not a product of communism.' I protested. "It comes from one of the most expensive American hotels — Four Sea- sons.' (My robust patriotism was mixed with the desire to show Isabel I wasn't a country bumpkin.) `Better count your spoons tomorrow, Fiona!' Lord K roared with laughter at his own joke.
`English humour, I presume,' I said curt- ly.
Fiona tactfully took us through to the drawing-room for whisky and coffee. After about half an hour, Isabel stood up `Mrs Smith . . . For a pregnancy test.' unsteadily, saying that she had to fetch her bag from her car. 'I'll help,' I said instantly, and we stumbled outside together.
As we were going back in, she stopped in the doorway. 'Good night,' she said and kissed me on the cheek. 'OK!' I thought. I pulled her close and gave her a long, pas- sionate kiss. She broke away and went upstairs without a word.
The last coals had faded away and I climbed up to my room. It was furnished a la orphanage, with a metal bed which seemed to be frozen into the floor. I undressed with a speed I could never achieve in the Soviet Army, even under the threat of extra hours of potato-peeling, and jumped under the blankets trying not to swear too loud.
A burning pain shot through my body. My buttocks felt as if they had been set on fire. I'd met my first hot-water bottle.
The church clock woke me up at eight. I was in England, 'ancient land of laughter, freedom and beauty', in Pushkin's famous phrase. Feeling slightly shaky, I got a glass of water from the bathroom, which looked more like a study with its bookshelves and armchair, and slunk downstairs. Tim was watching television with a white rabbit on his lap. The dining-room was full of people in violent red coats and black helmets. The Professor emerged from the crowd with a tray of glasses.
`Morning, Gleb. Want some port?' `Portwine? Isn't there any beer?'
`I can't drink portwine in the morning.'
'It warms up the blood before the hunt.'
I took a glass and sat on my own in the drawing-room, sipping carefully. In Russia, portvein is only drunk by the most desper- ate of alcoholics. If only my mother could see me now, I thought, looking at my white shirt all spotted with grease and my crum- pled red tie.
While waiting for Isabel to come down- stairs, I laboriously wrote down my tele- phone number. Fiona brought some coffee and announced that my taxi would arrive in an hour. Out of the window, I saw Isabel, walking to her car.
I rushed to intercept her. 'Are you leav- ing?'
`Yes. Well, nice to meet you.'
`Here is my telephone number. Maybe we can meet some time?'
She looked away and said, 'Yeah, let's' — without any enthusiasm.
Back in my London hotel room, I dialled home.
`How is the motherland of capitalism?'
— my facetious uncle had picked up the phone. Bewildering question. I glanced out of the window — it was raining.
`It is raining.'
'Oh,' he responded gladly, 'just as it's supposed to be — Tumannui Albion!'