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The 'Pictures of an Exhibition' 2019 World Tour!

DERBY - NOTTINGHAM -  WALTON-ON-TRENT-  ASHBOURNE Alright, I agree, as World Tours go it's rather limited.  In fact, it only ...

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Four Meals and a Teabreak






Moscow Skyline

Part 6 of The Moscow Chronicles!  Follow the links for Part 1 - Moscow Calling Part 2 - Taksi!  Part 3 - Night in the City  Part 4 - The Road to Red Square and Part 5 - A Bridge Too Far


I left the man swimming in the park to it and made my way back to the hotel.  It was galling that I was going to have to walk past it, on the opposite bank, in order to get to the next bridge but, after my travails with the traffic and finding Red Square shut, it was the least of my problems.

I now had a couple of hours in which to do some last minute checking of my lessons for the next two days before heading out again.  It was Friday night and Cliff, our local ‘fixer’ and licence-holder for the course, had arranged for my two male colleagues, whose programme this was, to accompany him to a local Sports Bar to watch an English football match of some import.  They had, quite rightly, formed the opinion that this wouldn’t be quite my thing and, as it might involve the consumption of a number of beverages, might not be appropriate as I was to commence teaching in the morning.  I had, therefore, been consigned to go with my female colleague, who had finished her teaching stint that day, and with Elena (Cliff’s right-hand woman) to a local restaurant.


I met my colleague and Elena in the hotel foyer and we set off into the deep chill and darkness.  I had half-expected that Elena would have a car or, at least, the use of the driver who had brought me from the airport, but this didn’t appear to be the case.  We set off over some wasteland and were presently climbing a grassy bank.  Elena, being younger and fitter than either of us, made it to the top of the bank first.  When we joined her, gasping and panting and somewhat nonplussed, we were amazed to find that we were now on the side of one of Moscow’s six-lane highways, teeming with rush-hour traffic.  Elena was standing by the side of the highway with her thumb out and my spirits plummeted.  I didn’t think she stood much chance but, within a matter of minutes, there was a queue of about 12 or 15 cars parked on the side, some private cars and some taxis.  Elena worked her way along the queue, conversing with each driver in turn.  Eventually she made her choice and beckoned us across.  We climbed into a small, red Lada driven by a cheerful chap who was clearly on his way home from work.  Elena and my colleague were in the back, I was sitting next to the driver.  I immediately learned, from his disapproving looks, that wearing a seat belt was not considered the done thing.  Elena later told me that it was seen as expressing a lack of confidence in the driver.  Elena barked out a destination and we rejoined the traffic.  It was apparent that the driver spoke no English, which was fair enough as I spoke no Russian.  A few minutes later, he dropped us at our destination, Elena gave him a few roubles and he drove off happily.

Not unsurprisingly, we quizzed Elena about this arrangement and it transpired that this was a common way for people on their way home from work to earn a few roubles.  She had worked her way along the cars that had stopped until she had obtained the best deal for the journey.  We followed her to our venue, which was a fast-food restaurant chain called (if memory serves me correctly) ‘Moo-Moo’.  This was a cafeteria-style place serving traditional Russian food.  I can’t remember what we had as I didn’t recognise anything much but we finished up with a plateful of something and then returned to our hotel by the same system that we employed before.  Overall, it was a pretty surreal experience.

The following morning, Cliff picked me up and drove me to the hotel where the classes were taking place.  He introduced me to the students, who were a great bunch, and promised to return at lunch to take me for a bite to eat.  The students were really bright and many occupied quite senior positions in their respective industries.  In many cases they had travelled many hundreds of miles to attend this course and I had the greatest respect for their determination to succeed and for their ability to learn a complex subject in a foreign language.

At lunchtime, Cliff drove me to another hotel where I sampled caviar for the first time at a hotel snack bar.  Afterwards, Cliff gave me a quick tour of some of the sights on our way back to class.  I managed to take a couple of photos through the car window (see below) but the enduring image that hugely surprised me and made me laugh out loud was the sudden appearance of a giant golden statue of Charles de Gaulle, glimpsed down a side street.  It just seemed so incongruous!




At the end of my first day of teaching, we all gathered together for the last time and Cliff took us to his favourite restaurant for a farewell meal.  This turned out to be, somewhat surprisingly, a genuine American Diner in the city centre.  This was the proper steel trailer type design with appropriately dressed waitresses (although the American customer service values were somewhat missing).  I dithered over the extensive menu until Cliff said would I like to try his recommendation.  Grateful not to have to make a choice, I agreed and, like him, ordered steak, fries and gravy.  I have to say it was one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had.

On Sunday, all of my colleagues were heading back to the U.K., I had one more day of teaching and then I, too, would be returning on the Monday.  Cliff again took me to my class and also took me for lunch.  This was another exercise in surreality.  We had to wait for a table to become available in this gigantic hotel he had chosen.  There seemed to be some sort of conference or something going on as there were hordes of people in attendance.  Within a short while, it became obvious that we were in the middle of a body-building competition as hulking blokes, swathed in oil and very little else, made their way between the tables on their way to the arena, accompanied by their entourages.  It was the weirdest lunch hour I think I’ve ever spent.

That afternoon, at tea break, I joined my students in the hotel bar for a cup of tea (with lemon, of course, not milk).  There was an older chap, who was obviously English, sitting in the corner so I struck up a conversation with him.  It tuned out that he was there teaching a different batch of students accountancy.  He didn’t look like he was particularly enjoying the experience.  I asked him if he would be going home soon and he sadly shook his head.  Apparently he had another assignment to teach another class but this time in Sakhalin.  If you don’t know, Sakhalin is an island in the North Pacific and is the furthermost western point of Russia, some 3,948 miles away and a 7 hour flight.  I gave him my condolences and reflected happily on the fact that I would be going home tomorrow.

At the end of the day, Cliff picked me up and apologised that he wouldn’t be able to join me for dinner as he needed to spend some time with his family.  This left me to fend for myself but I had spotted that there was a pizza place a short walk from my hotel, so I took myself off to there.  It was a bit like the Bella Pasta range and I enjoyed a perfectly good pizza and a pint of Baltika.  It seemed to be the place where all the bright young things went and I felt slightly out of it, sitting there on my, nursing my lager.  Nevertheless, I had survived my two days of teaching and could now look forward to getting home and enjoying the build up to Christmas before I had to start the whole process again with the second part of my course, in January.  I paid my bill, filched a drip mat as a souvenir, and headed back to my hotel.



 Watch out for more from The Moscow Chronicles coming soon!  You can find a lot more from Philip here



Wednesday, 17 July 2019

A Bridge Too Far?


Being the fifth part of The Moscow Chronicles!  Follow the links for Part 1 - Moscow Calling Part 2 - Taksi!  Part 3 - Night in the City and Part 4 - The Road to Red Square



Having singularly failed to get into Red Square and see the Kremlin, and having been frightened out of my skin by a young couple who just wanted me to take their picture, I decided it was time to head back to the relative safety of my hotel.  To add a little variety to the journey (and hopefully find more reliable footpaths) I decided to head down the other side of the Moskva river and then cross the bridge before my hotel (see map below).


Tourist Map of Moscow - my hotel is circled in the bottom right corner

My journey back was relatively uneventful until I came to the bridge I had intended to cross to get back to the side on which my hotel stood.  I climbed up the steps and was more than a little surprised to find that the bridge was under repair and had no roadway at all, just the girders of the bridge itself.  If there were any signs warning about this, I didn’t see them.  It was apparent that this wasn’t a big concern to the Muscovites as one or two of them were picking their way across the bridge along the girders.  For a mad few moments I considered this option.  I was getting tired and this bridge was my last opportunity to cross before I reached my hotel, the next bridge would require me to walk past my hotel to get to it.  Then, I looked down into the blackness of the river far below and considered just how likely it would be that anyone would notice, or for that matter, care, if I fell to my doom?  I decided that discretion was the better part of valour and headed back down the steps.

By and large I decided I had more than had my fill of hiking along the river and would be glad to get back to my room.  My route took me past a small park with a lake (see map) and I thought it might be nice to sit for a while in the sunshine and contemplate the water.  I found a nice spot and rested my weary feet.  Despite the -5C temperature, there were quite a few people in the park, particularly mothers with children feeding the ducks (which goes to show that things are the same the whole world over).  I particularly noticed a scruffy bloke standing a few yards away from me in the trees.  He was standing with his dog (equally scruffy) which he had on a length of rope.  He was staring intently at the water and kept rubbing his unshaven chin, as if deep in thought.  I was a bit worried about what he might be contemplating and whether it would involve something deeply unsavoury happening to the dog (look, I’m British, we have our priorities, ok?)

Quite a few minutes elapsed with the scruffy man staring at the water, rubbing his chin, looking down at the dog and so on.  I tried not to stare but it was difficult to avoid doing so.  I don’t know why, but I became convinced that he was thinking about going in for a swim.  This seemed an unlikely prospect as the lake was half-covered in pretty thick ice.  I had just about decided I was seeing things that simply weren’t there, when he suddenly came to a conclusion.  He tied his dog to the nearest tree and then methodically began to undress.  First his flat cap and jacket were neatly hung on a tree branch, then his trousers and shirt and, finally, his vest and socks.  Now clad in some rather grey-but-once-were-white underpants, he pottered down to the lake and waded in. 

You have to say, he must have been made of rather stern stuff.  No power on this Earth would have convinced me to part with as much as my overcoat, let alone strip down to my underpants and I dread to think what the water would have felt like at that temperature.  What really amused me was that the ducks, most of whom were wandering about on the ice, pottered over to watch him breast-stroking his way across the lake from their frozen vantage point.  I tried to capture the moment on camera but I don’t think I really got the best of it


Watch out for Part 6 of The Moscow Chronicles coming soon.  You can find a lot more from Philip here


Thursday, 27 June 2019

The Road to Red Square


Being the fourth part of The Moscow Chronicles!  Follow the links for Part 1 - Moscow Calling Part 2 - Taksi! and Part 3 - Night in the City


I awoke bright and early the next morning.  Well, it was relatively early for me and I’m never all that bright in the morning, but I did my best.  I staggered down to the dining room which was somewhat gloomy, which rather matched my mood.  The gloom was a consequence of the fact that it was below street level, with the only windows high up on the wall, looking out on the pavement above. This was exacerbated by low-level lighting and the relatively short Moscow day.  I grubbed around in the gloom and managed to cobble together something vaguely approaching a Full English.

I wasn’t entirely surprised to find none of my colleagues in attendance.  They all had their work to do whereas I had the day at leisure.  The question was, what was I going to do with it?

On my way back to the room, I picked up a tourist map of the city and noted approvingly that the sun was attempting to shine.  My original intention was to have a mooch around in the general area of the hotel so that I could have a better idea of my immediate surroundings.  I hadn’t been able to see much when I arrived the previous night.  Therefore, wrapped up well against the -5C prevailing outside, I ventured out into Moscow.

It was, by now, a bright and beautiful autumn day.  I had a look at the Moskva River and then, gathering a little more courage, crossed the river by the nearby bridge and had a look at the exterior of the hotel before crossing back and then ruminating about what to do next. 


My hotel from across the Moskva river

I decided, given that it was my only chance to sightsee, that I really should be adventurous and try and see some of the more famous sites.  From the tourist map it seemed to me that I should be able to reach Red Square if I just kept the river to my right (see map below, hotel is circled in the bottom right hand section)


The only problem with this was that there was no scale on the map, so I had no idea of what distance was involved.  The simpler option would have been to take the fabled underground, but I had little in the way of currency and even less in the way of courage.  I decided to walk.

On reflection, I really should have read some of the advice printed on the back of the map.  The very first thing it says is “Moscow drivers are quite aggressive.  Please look for and use underground passes wherever possible and be extra careful when crossing streets   Well, fancy!  I found this to be true in relatively short order.

The main problem with being a pedestrian (at least in 2005) was that Moscow seemed to have a rather lackadaisical attitude with regard to pavements.  On many occasions I found that the pavement I was confidently striding along, just disappeared leaving me standing in the direct line of traffic, which seemed to see me as providing good target practice.  This often happened when you were trying to work your way around the strut of a bridge or the sharp corner of a building, which meant that your appearance in the road was somewhat like the Demon King in pantomime.  I rapidly learned to peer carefully around any such corner and be prepared to duck back very quickly if there was anything coming in the opposite direction.  It was also quite usual for road works to suddenly make what little pavement there was completely impassable, with no alternative provided.

I had started the journey in a state of some wariness, largely connected to being a stranger in a strange land, but also because all of my impressions of Moscow to date had come from 1960s spy films and it was difficult to shake off the vague feeling of being a marked man, particularly when every car seemed to have my number on it.  This odd feeling of being in a 1960s spy film was further enhanced when I noticed, on the opposite side of the river, a series of army trucks making their way along the road laden with armed soldiers.  All of a sudden, this did not seem like any other city, anywhere in the world.  I later discovered that the rationale for the troop movements was that the authorities were anticipating demonstrations objecting to the imposition of a new public holiday, in replacement for the traditional holiday normally held the following week.

The Road to Red Square

What with playing chicken with the Moscow traffic and the troop movements across the river, I was in a fine state of apprehension by the time that I finally reached the bridge leading to Red Square and the Kremlin.  I was also conscious of the fact that I had walked considerably farther than I had originally intended.  Nevertheless, before me were the impossibly colourful spires of St. Basil’s, looking like something Walt Disney might have dreamed up in one of his wilder moments.


St. Basil’s

I wasn’t sure whether I was disappointed, or not, to discover that access to Red Square had been shut off for the same reason as the troop movements I had previously observed.  I leant against the railings of the bridge and contemplated the Moskva.  At that moment, there was a tap on my shoulder and I leapt about six feet in the air.  This rather amused the young Russian couple behind me who simply wanted me to take their picture with St. Basil’s in the background.
By the way, if you think the quality of my ‘holiday snaps’ in this article isn’t up to much (and I would agree) that’s because all of the pictures I saved from my trip have inexplicably disappeared from my hard drive (cue the theme tune to ‘The Twilight Zone’) and I’ve had to rely on my one and only print of the thumbnails of those pictures.  Curiouser and curiouser!


The bridge on which I jumped a mile (with Red Square in the background)

Now read Part 5 of The Moscow Chronicles - A Bridge Too Far?   You can find a lot more from Philip here



Thursday, 13 June 2019

Night in the City



Being the third part of The Moscow Chronicles!  Follow the links for Part 1 - Moscow Calling and Part 2 - Taksi!

Stepping out from the Arrivals Hall of Moscows Domodedovo Airport into the Russian night was more of a surprise than I expected.  It was, of course, cold, this being November.  However, at an average of -5C it was, apparently, relatively spring-like by Muscovite standards.  The real shock to the system was stepping out of a relatively modern airport building, which could have been anywhere in the world really, onto what appeared to be a building site.  There was a makeshift tarmac path which petered out after a few yards into rough ground, which we clambered over to reach the car, parked, with loads of others, on the side of a sort of road designated by wire fencing.  To be fair, I have since learned (thank you Wikipedia) that Domodedovo was upgraded substantially in 2005 and I must have arrived there in the middle of all of this.  Nevertheless, the sudden switch from modern building to rough and ready ground was unexpected.

We set off for the City Centre, with me trying to find something to say that might be internationally comprehensible, and largely failing.  The relative silence did give me chance to observe the road and traffic in more detail than I perhaps would have done.  I was surprised to find we were on a busy six lane highway which did not appear to have any central reservation or safety barriers, just three lanes of traffic going hell-for-leather one way and three lanes doing the same in the opposite direction.  The other surprise was that there was no hard shoulder, or rather, if there was it wasn’t used in the way we would expect.  Cars that had broken down or stopped, for whatever reason, just stopped right where they were, in the lane in which they were travelling.  This made for an interesting journey when you suddenly realise you were approaching a parked car at some speed and had to switch lanes in a marked manner.

Moscow itself seemed, reassuringly, much like any other city, with the same advertising hoardings, neon lights and traffic jams.  We parked at the front of my hotel and I walked into the lobby, which apparently doubled as the hotel bar, to find a table full of my colleagues from university.  I pulled up a chair and gratefully accepted a Baltika beer.  Around the table were the two senior lecturers whose programme this was, a colleague of mine who was part of the teaching team and who had just completed her first day of teaching the students in Moscow, and Cliff.  Cliff (not his real name) was the local ‘fixer’ whose company held the licence for the course and with whom our university was partnered for the course delivery.  Cliff was an amiable and charming English chap in his 30s who lived and worked in Moscow and had done for several years.  He knew his way around the city and its bureaucracy and was, therefore, the ideal link for us.  My ‘taxi driver’ was, in fact, Cliff’s right-hand man here in Russia and was rumoured to be ex Special Forces.

I recounted my travails at the hands of British Airways, Domodedovo Airport and putative taxi drivers, which they found amusing.  After a couple more Baltikas, I was more amenable to seeing the funny side too.  I collected my key and set off for the lift to go up to my room.  Beside the lift was an English version of the local Moscow paper, the headline warned of possible trouble ahead.  Apparently, the following day, Friday 4th November, 2005, had been announced as a Public Holiday at relatively short notice (Unity Day, I think) and there were concerns that there might be some demonstrations as the public were expecting to be celebrating a different event on a different date.  This did not bode well for me as I had Friday at leisure, was due to teach on Saturday and Sunday, then returning to the U.K. on Monday.

I repaired to my room, which was not unlike a student’s bedroom in the Halls of Residence at home - bed, desk, T.V., small en-suite shower room, wardrobe.  I knew, from discussions before at the university, that the cost per night for this room was eye-wateringly expensive and had only been reduced to this exorbitant level by virtue of one of the two course leaders staying on for a few days to deliver some free management training to the hotel staff.  To find that all we were getting for this amount was this tiny room, was a bit of a surprise!  Still, I would be able to review my teaching materials here in my spare time tomorrow.  Now it was time to call my wife and let her know I was safely installed and then to collapse in a heap at the end of a long and stressful day.  Tomorrow, I could explore my new surroundings.

Watch out for Part 4 of The Moscow Chronicles coming soon.  You can find a lot more from Philip here



Thursday, 6 June 2019

Taksi!






Being the second part of The Moscow ChroniclesI  Follow the link for Part 1 - Moscow Calling

I'm not a big fan of flying.  If I could manage it on my own, I might probably be just about alright, just as long as I didn't go too high.  Terry Wogan used to have a correspondent (Willie Gofar, I think) who aimed to circumnavigate the world by hot-air balloon, the only problem was that he didn't like heights, so he had to keep one foot on the floor at all times and he also had to be back home for his tea each day.  By and large, I had some sympathy with him.

If you remember, from the first blog-post, I'm currently, and rather reluctantly, on a flight from Heathrow to Moscow's Domodedovo Airport on a mission to teach Human Resource Management to a cohort of students on behalf of my university.  I'm travelling alone but the seat next to me is occupied by a young, very well dressed, Russian gentleman.  We've exchanged pleasantries, as you more or less have to when crammed together for four hours, eating like a Praying Mantis (by which I don't mean a diet of insects but rather the position you have to adopt if you're to avoid elbowing your fellow passengers) but nothing more.

When we finally landed at Moscow, somewhere around 20.00 local time, I discovered the first snag of the trip.  British Airways in its own inimitable way had forgotted to give out the Landing Cards necessary to get through Russian Passport Control.  These were available on a table as we approached the Passport Control Desks but, there was only one English translation available for the entire flight, so the whole thing took on something of the air of a rugby scrum.  I began to despair of ever getting any further into Russia than this Arrivals Hall until my Russian travelling companion very kindly stopped and guided me through the completion of the card.  I was pathetically grateful for this help given that I was wound up like a coiled spring long before I arrived and I was really not in a good place for things going wrong. 

I then proceeded to the Passport Control Desk and cheerfully produced my UK Passport, complete with the requisite Visa stamp allowing me to visit and work in Russia.  Obtaining this stamp had been a major exercise in the first place and there had been some doubt about whether my passport would be returned by the Russian Embassy in time for my trip, which had done nothing to calm my underlying panic.  I think all Immigration Officers are trained to treat you with a certain disdain but I don't think I've ever been regarded as if I was something that the cat had dragged in, in quite the way that this Officer did.  She peered at me and my passport with open hostility and then, clearly against her better judgement, stamped the passport viciously and returned it to me with the air of one who thinks 'on your own head be it'.

Delighted to have jumped this particular hurdle, I hurried to collect my luggage from the carousel and was chuffed to find it was all there.  One of my chief worries had been that all or some of my luggage would go missing.  This wouldn't have been the end of the world if it was just my clothing but my pilot's case had all of my teaching materials, videos and laptop inside and I would have been completely up a gum tree without those.

 Up to now, my experience of Domodedovo Airport had not been markedly different from that of any other airport, even the Immigration Officer hadn't been all that unusual, you can get surly Passport Officials everywhere.  However, that was all about to change.  I went out through the double doors marked Exit and was immediately engulfed in a wave of people, apparently taxi drivers, all yelling and shouting at me.  Some were holding name cards for those they were to collect from the airport but most were not.  I was expecting to be greeted by someone at the airport so I surveyed the scene hopefully, but my heart sank when I realised there was no card with my name on it.  In the meantime I was being assailed by all these men offering to take me to Moscow, for a price.  I explained that I had someone coming to collect me but this didn't seem to dissuade them.  I eventually fought my way through the melee and sat down on one of the benches disconsolately, still under siege from the massed ranks of taxi drivers.  It dawned on me that I had not taken the precaution of getting the phone numbers of my colleagues who were already here in Moscow and, therefore, I had no way of contacting them to ask what was happening.  Then I realised that, with the time difference, it was possible that the Subject Administrator for the course back at my university might still be at work.  I rang her and, glory be, she was!  I explained my situation, against the babble of orbiting taxi drivers, and she said she would get in touch with my colleagues and find out what was going on.  I rang off, much relieved.  The taxi driver phalanx had thinned out whilst I had been on the phone, presumably having hijacked further passengers after me.  I settled down to wait but there was one remaining taxi driver from the previous horde who clearly did not believe in taking "No" for an answer, as he kept asking me if I needed a taxi.  Out of interest (and inadvisedly I suppose, but I wasn't at all sure that I would be collected) I asked him how much it would be to take me to my hotel, he then quoted a figure that would only have made sense if it had been a gold-plated limousine.  This was laughable not only because I didn't have that sort of money but also because I was sitting opposite the Airport Taxi Desk, behind which were quotes for typical fares to various places, which showed an amount about half of that being quoted my persistent friend, for a trip to Moscow City Centre.

The phone rang and it was my colleague in Moscow who was the Course Leader.  He apologised that I hadn't been met at the airport but assured me that my driver was on his way.  All I had to do was wait and beat off the entreaties of my circling taxi driver.

Quite some time passed and I began to wonder if I would ever see civilisation again.  I must have cut a lonely figure, surrounded by my luggage in a deserted Arrivals Hall, just me and my pet driver.

Just then, a tall young man in a leather jacket appeared and produced a piece of card with a variant of my name on it.  Overjoyed I picked up my luggage and went over to him explaining volubly the trials and travails of my recent past.  He smiled blankly, took one of my cases and we headed off to find his car.  I realised that there was every likelihood that he didn't speak any English and, of course, I don't speak any Russian.  This was clearly going to be an interesting journey.

Watch out for Part 3 of The Moscow Chronicles coming soon.  You can find a lot more from Philip here




Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Moscow Calling






Part 1 of The Moscow Chronicles


The darkening skies all around the aircraft rather match my mood.  It’s only 15.00 GMT but it’s already as black as night out there.  This, I suppose, is only to be expected as it is November and I’m flying eastward, away from the setting sun.

I’m on a flight from Heathrow to Moscow - Domodedovo Airport to be precise. It’s the year 2005 and I’m not doing this for fun, as you will have probably guessed, it’s part of my work.  This may come as a surprise to those whose last encounter with my work-related exploits was in 1976 when I was a Statistical Clerk at Harold Wesley Ltd. In Burton upon Trent.  Trips to Moscow were not a feature of that employment.  In fact I never even made it as far as their Head Office in Harlesden!  29 years have sailed by and quite a lot of water has been passed under the bridge since Wesley’s.

I’m now working at a leading university in the MIdlands.  I’ve been doing odd bits for their Department of Human Resources ever since 1999, when I completed my studies there but now, as of 2005, I’m actually on the payroll and leading a course of my own.  Why then am I flying out to Moscow?  Well, there’s a bit of a scramble amongst the universities to set up overseas courses and attract foreign students, largely because they pay full fees and therefore help top up the coffers but also because there is a certain prestige in having the worth of your courses recognised abroad.  Our Department has stolen a bit of a march on its competitors by establishing our Postgraduate Diploma in Human Resource Management course in Moscow with the blessing and authorisation of the Chartered Institute of Personnel Management (CIPD) whose professional qualifications this leads to.

The course has recently successfully completed its first cohort and the university and the Department are keen to involve as many of the Department’s teaching staff as possible in the delivery of the programme.  I am not one of life’s intrepid travellers and never have been, so I’ve been trying to keep a low profile on this one but it has been made clear to me that it would do my new-found teaching career no harm at all to be involved with this. 

I’m also at a disadvantage because, being new to the game, even with my course leadership and associated teaching responsibilities taken into account, I still don’t have enough ‘hours’ to my credit to match the amount that I need to fill my part-time teaching contract.  Don’t think, for a moment, that I’m spending my days with my feet up on a beach somewhere. I’m actually working more hours than I’m being paid for but you only get so many ‘hours’ allocated to each activity and these don’t necessarily bear any relation to the actual time it takes to, for example, prepare lessons or mark students’ work.  As a consequence, I need to find more teaching opportunities to beef up my notional hours, so I’m in no position to turn down the chance to teach on the Postgraduate course in Moscow.

A number of us in the Department expressed an interest in the course.  Some because they relished the idea of foreign travel, others like me because they have been ‘guided’ towards this.  One of the beauties of working for a university is that they are never short of experts on pretty much any subject and so a resident expert on living and working in Russia was wheeled out to give us a half-day introductory course on Russian culture, norms and values, along with some basic knowledge of Cyrillic script so that we could have a stab at understanding any signs we might come across.  Never optimistic about my involvement, my gloom deepened as the course progressed and sank further when I bought the great man’s text book on the topic.

In the fullness of time, I was offered a Module Leader’s spot on the course.  This was a good thing in many ways because (1) it meant more notional hours and (2) because it was a module I had already taught in the U.K. and therefore had lessons pre-prepared.  Module Leadership often meant that you were in charge of a number of lecturers who were contributing to that module, but that wouldn’t be the case in this instance because I would be doing all of the teaching.

My module would be taught in two two-day sessions, the first in November and the second in January.  The university would arrange my accommodation and transfers to and from the airport, I just had to arrange my own flights.  The deal was that I could fly out on the Thursday, have a day to do whatever I wanted to do in Moscow on the Friday, teach on Saturday and Sunday and then fly home on the Monday.

Flights to Moscow from the U.K. could take you to one of two airports.  Sheremetyevo was the oldest airport, I was told, and tended to be the one that indirect flights took you to, whereas Domodevedo was more modern (having recently been reconstructed) and direct flights from Heathrow on B.A. took you there.  I don’t really like flying at the best of times and so the idea of catching not one but two planes didn’t appeal.  Hence, on the relevant Thursday morning, I was being driven to Heathrow Airport by my brother-in-law, accompanied by my wife, who was to stay with her brother and sister-in-law in Ascot over the weekend whilst I was in the frozen wastes, and then return home with me when I returned on Monday.

Which brings me back to where we started.  My flight left Heathrow at lunchtime and was scheduled to arrive at Domodedovo around 16.30 GMT, which would be around 20.30 in Moscow because of the four hour time difference.  My day was being shrunk which the encircling gloom testified as we travelled remorselessly eastwards.  I wondered what was in store for me?  My knowledge of Russia had been framed, over the years, by spy films and bleak documentaries from the Soviet era.  Was this what I had to look forward to?  What would my Russian students be like?  Would we understand each other?  Would they laugh at my jokes?  Would I be able to work the display equipment wherever I was teaching?  What would I do if it all went wrong??

These and a whole host of other concerns were churning through my mind throughout the flight and I knew that only time would tell.

Watch out for Part 2 of The Moscow Chronicles, coming soon.



Monday, 20 May 2019

Mortimer




I'm leaning against the playground wall with an air of studied indifference and boredom.  A number of my friends are standing with me affecting the same pose.  We are watching the antics of the younger pupils.  In particular, we are watching the antics of Mortimer, who is not actually a younger pupil, he is a contemporary of ours.  Mortimer is being a plane.

It is 1970, it's my last year at Anglesey Secondary Modern and my friends and I are contemplating our future.  Except for Mortimer, he's being a plane.  

The purpose of Secondary Modern Schools was to prepare those who had failed the 11+ exam for a world of work in which they would be, all  being well, engineers, printers, draughtsmen or mechanics, if they had shown aptitude, or factory workers and labourers if they hadn't.  This relates to the boys, of course.  If you were a girl you could hope to be involved in secretarial or clerical work at best or shop work or factory work at worst.  In fact, many of our class have already left school to take up apprenticeships or trainee positions in such illustrious places as Rolls-Royce, the CEGB (Central Electricity Generating Board) or one of the breweries.  We who remain are the ones who have stayed on to study for our GCE and CSE exams and are now bound for Sixth Form studies at either the Grammar School or Burton Technical College.  I'm heading for the Technical College for two reasons.  Firstly, the Grammar School didn't want me and, to be fair, I didn't want them.  The idea of going back to school uniform and compulsory sports didn't, somehow, capture my imagination.  Secondly, I can smoke at Technical College (yes, I know, I know, it just happened to be important then!)

I'm not at all sure what is going to happen to Mortimer (not his real name).  He has something of an aptitude for maths, but not much else.  I think Mortimer's parents have great hopes for him, which I suspect are going to be dashed. 

Throughout his school life, Mortimer has always attended in immaculate school uniform.  He is clearly loved and doted upon.  In the environment of the Secondary Modern, this would be enough to make him the target for everything going, and he is.  There are a number of different coping strategies for this.  Firstly, you can attempt to ingratiate yourself and be everyone's friend.  Secondly, you can attempt to blend into the background (this was my chosen strategy, sometimes I didn't notice myself) or thirdly, you could be belligerent and chippy and try and face your tormentors down.  Mortimer chose Option 3.  I can only imagine that his parents had told him to 'stand up for himself', which is very laudable but likely to end in tears.  What's more, Mortimer wasn't just chippy and obnoxious with his adversaries, he was quite capable of being like this even with those of us who had his best interests at heart.  He didn't make it easy to like him.

What I admired about Mortimer was his absolute refusal to fit in.  Here we all were, pretending to be grown up, cool and disinterested in play and here was Mortimer being a plane.  Our futures were uncertain, the only thing we knew for sure was that we were leaving school behind and taking the first step on the road of becoming whatever we were going to become.  Mortimer didn't think about the future, he was too busy being a plane.

I remember this moment so vividly because I recall how I felt at that time.  I realised, as I watched Mortimer, arms outstretched, making airplane noises and leading a crack squadron of first years, that right now I would give anything to pack up the whole idea of growing up and, just for a minute or two, join Mortimer and be a plane.

All of this comes under the general heading of 'nostalgedy' which you can find a lot more of here.