Nazi on the Night Train.

Third class Russian night trains resemble pantries. Long corridors are lined with shelves on which humans are stacked like sacks of potatoes. The nature of the journey depends entirely on who happens to be sleeping on the neighbouring shelves. Settling down for the thirty hour journey to Yekaterinburg, I anticipated unparalleled opportunities for sleep and slovenliness for I was accompanied by only a timid Japanese lady. Everything changed when Pavlik appeared.

He was a dirty, ruddy Russian in a poor state of repair. He slammed a beer and a box of “Peter I” cigarettes on the table and started cursing under his breath. He opened the beer with a combination of brute strength and his shirt and tried to drink it so quickly that it sprayed all over him and the table. He turned and stared at me. He had swollen lips and his nose was smeared across his face. His eyebrows were interrupted by jagged scars and he didn’t look forwards but upwards, for his head was permanently drooping downwards. His ears were ragged like a dog had been at them. He looked like he would steal anything he laid his eyes on and I thanked my lucky stars I was on the bottom shelve and could shut my bag up safely underneath me. Despite my discomfort I couldn’t help but notice a certain sadness in Pavlik’s eyes and I decided that as long as he didn’t steal anything I would try and raise his spirits.

He started watching something on his phone that sounded awfully like gang rape. There were heart rending screams so loud that I could concentrate on nothing but ignoring them. The Japanese lady looked terrified and the whole carriage was eyeing Pavlik nervously. He went away and returned with two more beers. He turned to me, and peering up from below his eyebrows asked me if I had any salt. At first I thought he meant drugs, but he pointed to a pot of potato paste he was eating and I realised he genuinely thought I might have salt in my rucksack.

Pavlik passed me a beer and told me to drink as much as I liked. I didn’t much feel like drinking but I had to be polite. I opened it and it sprayed over the Japanese lady. I assumed Pavlik had deliberately shaken it. She was now very nervous and slightly damp. I was apprehensive for my own reasons: when you accept drinks from a Russian alcoholic you quickly rack up disproportionate debts and I worried that a few sips now would later equate to a few bottles owed in Pavlik’s drink sodden brain. But at that moment Pavlik seemed to be on the right side of the fine line between incredibly friendly and incredibly violent and I wanted to keep it that way.

After a while, Pavlik’s friend Zhenya joined us. He insisted on being called Jonny. He was in a better state of repair than Pavlik and he was polite and coherent which was a breath of fresh air. This air was soon soured, however, when I saw a Swastika tattoo on his leg. This Swastika tattoo was of some concern (not least of all because my nose traces a distinctly Jewish curve), although this concern was diminished by the fact that Jonny was a very nice guy.

An Azerbaijani sitting adjacent provided a comforting presence. His face was plane, his arms Herculean and he had the reassuring smile of a man who lives by the principles of fairness and competence, the perfect foil to the injustice and incompetence that have defined my recent past.

Nearby lay an angry looking man with protruding eyes and a moustache with a mind of its own. The whole journey he wore shiny black flares, shiny black winkle pickers and nothing on his top apart from a dense chest of hair, a mane of pimples and a thick gold chain. Every few hours he jealously escorted his wife to the toilet for sex and something else. There must have been something else. Of this I’m sure, for he was old and unhealthy and it is simply not possible they were having sex every time.

Other passengers entertained themselves with food. I saw a family of four delight in the delicate pleasure of peeling quail eggs. Ali the Azerbaijani spent two hours shelling a mountain of sunflower seeds, heaping the golden seeds and the black shells in two separate piles. It was curious to see a colossal man engaged in such a dexterous pursuit. When he had finished he didn’t eat them. He put them in a bag and gave them to me and Pavlik, explaining he simply enjoys shelling the seeds but hates eating them.

An argument broke out when someone tried to open a window to break the stifling heat with a breeze. Russians superstitiously believe that breezes are unhealthy, perhaps even dangerous. I personally felt that nothing could be more unhealthy than the suffocating heat of platskart. Everyone burned deep red and glistened and the heat was brewing up a terrible stench. In the summer the wagons are cauldrons on wheels. However, the moustachioed sex machine thought opening the window was too dangerous and objected agressively, claiming bacteria would flood in through the open window. Other passengers argued for the opening of the window with equal vehemence and after a brief standoff the sex machine sat down in resignation.

So the window was to be opened and we were to breath once more. Only it wouldn’t open. Various passengers of varying sizes all tried but the heavy wooden window remained resilient. They recruited Big Ali but even my imperious Azerbaijani was not equal to the task. It remained closed and the decrepit sex machine smiled smugly.

When night falls and the lights go down, the carriage ressembles a nineteenth century opium den. Limbs dangle across the aisle, glowing golden beneath the saccharine night lights. By the time night fell Pavlik was off his little nut. He was stumbling up and down the corridor colliding with arms, legs and heads, sloshing beer over sleeping passengers.

Smoking a cigarette with Jonny in the space between the carriages I asked him about his Swastika tattoo. He said he got it in prison, and in fact that’s where he met Pavlik. He showed me another tattoo of some kind of fascist insignia on his arm. He was sent down for killing his wife, but since coming out he’s found a new one. She’s a Christian and she’s made him a good person.

Late into the evening it was universally concluded that I suffer from a deep spiritual malaise. Pavlik, Jonny and Ali set about healing my soul. Ali held forth on the teachings of a Japanese philosopher. He told me I should fast one day a week, three days at the end of the month and ten days at the end of every quarter. Pavlik suggested I liaise with a Shaman in Buryatia by Lake Baikal, for my malaise was too large and intangible to be cured by physical means alone. Jonny suggested Jesus. He worked for him. I decided not to choose, but instead to combine all of these spiritual formulas in a divine cocktail.

We squeezed onto one bed and sat watching videos of Russian rapper Guf on Jonny’s phone. Sweaty legs rubbed sweaty legs and our greasy torsos entwined in a comradely huddle. Eventually I excused myself and went to lie down. I lay back and revelled in the rank miasma like a rat on valium. For a while I listened to Pavlik rampaging up and down but eventually I drifted off. When I woke up, the floor and table were covered in beer and noodles. Pavlik lay serenely asleep. When we arrived in Yekaterinburg, he stumbled off the train and fell asleep on a bench on the platform. As I walked off, the last thing I saw was Jonny trying in vain to wake the sleeping Pavlik.

I got on a bus. A stout man carrying a barrel of water and a booming radio got on soon after. The conductor shouted at him to turn off the radio. He screamed, “No! No! I’m not disturbing anybody! No! Fuck off!… Fuck!” It was apparent that he was the kind of lunatic with whom you don’t remonstrate even if he is disturbing you greatly. After a few hundred meters the radio tuned out and deafening static ripped through the bus. He didn’t retune it but nobody complained. Finally, after another mile or two the radio found a signal and the music restarted. He screamed, “Yes! Yes! Come on!” and after the awful static, the whole bus rejoiced with him. When nothing is functional and nobody is normal there is nought but chaos for pleasure and lunatics for friends.

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Jury Service in Aylesbury

Evil hangs over Aylesbury in a heavy veil. You mark in every face you meet, marks of weakness, marks of woe. Sometimes it seems the gates of hell were flung open and all the wickedest creatures poured forth to find the only bus running was a direct one to Aylesbury. The town is a repository for depravity. In Trainspotting, Renton says of his friend “Even in his ma’s womb, you would have to define Spud less as a foetus, more as a set of dormant drug and personality problems.” Aylesbury is full of Spuds.

A guy in the year above me at school murdered his mum with a machete and a shower pole. A guy I sometimes sat with on the school bus murdered his dad and buried him under the patio. I once saw scoundrels tear down a road sign and use it to barricade a frightened ginger lad in the ladies toilet in the multi-story car park. I once witnessed drug fuelled juggernauts hoover up half-g lines off a wheelie bin in the Friary car park. I once saw hoodlums hitting tennis balls at cinema goers off the top of the multi-story.  I had high hopes for jury service- I was excited about engaging with evil in an official capacity rather than as a powerless witness or a misguided participant.

For me, the justice system had hitherto been nothing but a lumbering machine, a distant menace devouring humans. In fact, the justice system had always presented itself as a tremendous source of injustice, imprisoning normal people for minor misdemeanours and releasing dangerous criminals into the world. When I was called upon to become a cog in the great purveyor of injustice, my excitement overcame my irritation. I was curious to see how the monster functions.

On the first morning, the crown court proved strangely elusive. It turned out to be the red brick building at the bottom of market square. I have often remarked upon the unusually high density of bastards gathered in that area. I always assumed they accumulate at the bottom of the hill due to the force of gravity alone, but it is in fact the law which draws them there. They are waiting to be digested by the justice system.

Aylesbury Crown Court seeks to give the impression of being bigger than it is, like a Jack Russell or a rude boi. It tries to loom over you but it’s not quite large enough. Despite its aggressive ugliness, the building is anonymous and hard to identify. The metal sign has been so heavily engraved with synonyms for “penis” that “Crown Court” is hardly legible. Like most public signs in Aylesbury, it has become a penile thesaurus.

The Aylesbury flag flies proudly on top of the building. It is appropriately weird and distressing- a swan in chains. The shackled creature screeches. The background comprises of two colours- the red of rage and the black of despair. I would have been perplexed by this monstrosity, but long ago Aylesbury cultivated in me a sense of unquestioning acceptance.

The Crown Court makes ludicrous use of space as if it was designed by a mentally impaired architect. Upon opening the heavy metal doors you are immediately confronted by two security guards. They are right up in your face not due to safety regulations, but simply due to a lack of space. Two overweight guards, desks and a metal detector are stuffed into the tiny lobby and the atmosphere is oppressive, although far from sinister. Incompetence and discomfort are the overarching sentiments whilst Mini Cheddar is the dominant scent.

On the other hand, the staircase behind the guards is ludicrously spacious. The stairs are marble and the banisters gilded. It seems that the whole town’s budget is blown on that staircase.

Up a flight of stairs and into the juror’s room. The first thing I saw was the toilets. They are manky, malodorous, missing tiles and someone had punched a hole in the door, but, like the staircase they are inexplicably spacious. The windows are alarmed so the jurors can’t escape.

Upon entering the jury room, you immediately find yourself at close quarters with the other jurors. The room is lit by long strip-lights of vicious brightness. They are bright enough to hurt, but somehow the room remains gloomy. They are everything a light shouldn’t be.

Having rushed from the car park I was alarmingly sweaty, and the twenty two eyes that greeted my arrival only opened my pores further. The room was stiflingly hot and by the time the usher arrived, I was so sweaty I looked dangerous and unpredictable despite my feeble physique. The usher left us to wait indefinitely. Nobody talked and everyone looked at everyone.

In Aylesbury Crown Court, the jurors’ room is an L shape. This means there are some people you can hear but can’t see. This is incredibly sinister. It is like the room is designed to accentuate tension and ferment fear between the jurors. You hear scratching and grunting from around the L-bend. After half an hour I heard a disembodied voice shout, “I hate it! I just hate things like this! Why do we have to be here!!” One wizened young man looked fearful. How can a young man be wizened, I hear you ask? Because it’s Aylesbury.

The man beside me was rocking back and forth, growling with rage and choking me with rancid breath. He pulled out a copy of The Sun and flicked through, alighting on an article entitled “QUICK! GET THE SEX BOMB DISPOSAL UNIT OUT HERE!” After reading the picture for several minutes he slammed the paper down and resumed his rocking and raging. He looked like a psychopath and it seemed that at any moment he might begin to wound and maim. He probably harboured the same fears about me in my sweaty state. When I took out a book, he emitted the same pained groan people produce when they witness extreme suffering.

I resided in the toilet for as long as I could without arousing suspicion. It was relaxing in there. No disembodied scratching. No eyes all over you.

A noticeboard informed me that Aylesbury Crown Court’s rate of “ineffective proceedings” is twice the national average (22%). It is easy to see why. The building breathes incompetence. How can you work effectively in a topsy-turvy building where the toilet and the stairwell are the nicest places? I was losing my mind after half a day.

After four hours of waiting, the usher floated in. We expected a case. We got a discharge. At least until the next morning. The following day the waiting and sweating and watching and raging was repeated for several hours before we were discharged again.

Then again the next day.

Finally, after several days of this barren Beckettesque existence, we were called into court. We filed into the juror’s box, which was, of course, painfully small. I wasn’t just rubbing shoulders with the psychopath- we were entwined like a jigsaw puzzle. The New Testament was passed round and we swore upon it. The judge was the kind of sterile lump who looks like she’s never done anything illegal in her life, the kind of person who is more repugnant than a criminal.

The defendant was accused of possession with intent to supply. He had 800g of cannabis as well as growing equipment in his apartment. His defence was that he doesn’t abuse the herb, but rather uses it in rituals to give thanks to God. The barrister explained that we could understand “the herb” to mean cannabis.

I looked at the defendant standing all alone in the dock. He was wearing a black suit, the sobriety of which belied the twinkle in his eye. His dreadlocks were imprisoned in a large woollen hat. Accusations of greed and avarice were bandied about, but I couldn’t equate them with the man before me.

It was so clear to me that the defendant was not a heartless bastard high and plastered. He just wanted to be loved, that’s why he broke the law. He didn’t want to use the drugs to get high. He didn’t, as the prosecution claimed, want to sell the drugs to make money. Indeed he didn’t, as he claimed, want to sacrifice the chronic to curry favour with the Gods. He just wanted to be loved. He just wanted to be loved and that’s all anybody ever wants. I resolved to do everything in my power to help this lonely man.

The next day we waited and waited in that infernal room, but waiting isn’t so bad when you know what you’re waiting for. I felt dizzy with love and compassion, Christ incarnate, a saviour in the making. After several hours we were called into court, but instead of hearing the case we were informed that the trial was postponed because the barrister’s wife was ill. Why had we waited for three hours to be told this? Presumably incompetence, although I would not rule out cruelty.

The following day we waited for several hours with the same sense of anticipation. When we were called into court, however, we were informed that the case would not go ahead since the new barrister had been unable to read the case because he was too busy, too bone idle or too badly educated. The trial was adjourned indefinitely, the jury was discharged and the lonely defendant escaped my tender loving clutches.

The following week we spent another four days waiting indefinitely in that stifling room. The usher wandered in occasionally to give us the impression we still existed. Her joviality was most frustrating- I would have preferred her to be rude and obnoxious, a valid outlet for my frustration.

Jury service, like most things, serves as an apt metaphor for life. You spend most of your time waiting indefinitely for nobody knows what. When you’re sure the waiting’s over and something’s going to happen, this something is curtailed by trivial concerns. When you’re really sure the waiting’s over and something’s definitely going to happen, this something is curtailed by someone else’s incompetence. And when you’re certain something is going to happen, it’s suddenly all over.

During life, as during jury service, you maintain the illusion that you are worth something, that you will do something, that something will happen to validate your presence.

Despite being repeatedly confronted with nothingness, with emptiness, with a complete lack of purpose, you continue to hope and to dream. Is it courageous or stupid? Probably both. My discharge was my death- a meaningless conclusion to a meaningless wait. Before the horror of it all could overwhelm me, I injected joy and meaning into my life once more with a Bucks Balti Balti, Aylesbury’s great panacea.

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The Lamas of Siberia: A Buddhist Monastery by Lake Baikal

On the train to Yekaterinburg an alcoholic called Pavlik diagnosed my soul as dangerously diseased. He wanted to save me. He scrawled “Ivolginsky Datsan” in my notebook and gave me a phone number. He told me to go there, call the number, meet the man and have my soul healed. With his wretched body and ravaged brain, Pavlik was an incorrigible degenerate who scared me and I had no intention of taking his advice.  I had never heard of the place, I never intended to go there and I certainly never intended to meet this man. But for some reason I did.

Three weeks after Pavlik on the train and 4000 km further into Siberia I heard “Ivolginsky Datsan” mentioned again. I was eating dried fish with a Russian by a fire on a beach by Lake Baikal. He told me Ivolginsky Datsan is a Buddhist monastery in the hills on the other side of the lake. Buddhists and non-Buddhists go there on pilgrimages from afar in search of metaphysical solutions. Suddenly I recalled Pavlik’s scribbled note. In Siberia my soul was coming under increasing scrutiny. I decided to make my own pilgrimage and have it looked at.

I took a boat and a bus from Olkhon Island to Irkutsk, a train to Ulan Ude, capital of the Republic of Buryatia, then a bus to the village of Ivolga in the middle of nowhere.

As you go further east into Siberia, Russia gives up all pretence of being European. Tarmac gives way to sand, dust and craters. Mercedes give way to hoards of improvised vehicles with extensions bolted on. Cows roam the roads as equals, refusing to give way to passing vehicles. Supermarkets are replaced by sprawling markets with precarious mountains of fruit and yodelled exhortations to try before you buy. Utilities become more immediately perceptible- water pipes thrust up from the earth, bundles of wires dangle across pathways and rusty water towers sag contentedly. Misty mountains quietly make their presence felt behind an ocean of asbestos roofs. Morosity gives way to rambunctiousness. The Slavophile-Westerniser debate becomes redundant in this place. Buryatia is a very different beast.

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The datsan was a rag-tag bundle of Buddhist temples and ramshackle lama huts. The Dalai Lama has been here five times. I arrived early and the sun was yet to burn away the morning mist. Worshippers follow a circuit round the perimeter, spinning the creaking prayer wheels, mashed-up metal cylinders mounted on sticks. Some are smaller than a bottle of Tanqueray. Some are bigger than a bear. A whole human body hurled against them instigates only a tiny rotation. The temples are like canted stacks of ornate dinner plates. They lean in and out and slope this way and that. It is only through their combined imbalance that they achieve equilibrium.

There was hardly a human in sight. Prayers rumbled out of the huts and the temples, paradoxically contributing to the peace of the hilltop.

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I phoned the number from my notebook with some trepidation. My call was answered by a lilting voice suggestive of lunacy. He told me his name was Gombo Lama. “Come and see me in an hour my dear boy.” Accepting invitations from strangers has got me robbed on so many occasions, but long ago I learnt that I will never learn. So come I did.

I found Gombo’s hut after a few more laps. Two ladies were waiting outside. One was crusty and one was not. Three vodka bottles stood beside the door. The sun was unbearably hot and we ventured up to the door and poked it tentatively. It was open and in we went. Nobody there. We sat on a bench.

One lady had come to see Gombo because her dead husband kept appearing to her in dreams and his continuing presence was casting a dark veil over her life. The other was a paediatrician who had brought her sick daughter. They were due to move to Moscow but she feared her daughter’s illness was a premonitory omen.

I realised that I was fortunate enough to have no reason to be there. All is well and I am implacably cheerful. I started to problematize my life and invent spiritual ailments to justify my presence.

The hut began to fill as more pilgrims arrived. Some of them were in a bad way. Gombo’s hut felt like A & E. Some had travelled hundreds of miles for a piece of this sagacious lama.

Then Gombo arrived. One of the strangest things about the male anatomy is that the legs don’t fatten apace with the body; however huge a man gets, his legs don’t widen. Gombo’s little legs tottered beneath a tremendous torso. Under the orange-maroon robe his gluteus maximus trembled as if he was twerking.

He took the lady and sick daughter into his room. Words were exchanged. Lama Gombo emerged and tottered off elsewhere, smiling indulgently like a bacon-butty slob. I heard activity within, then the lady moved into view clutching a broom. Stooped low to the floor, she was cleaning diligently. When the floor was swept, Gombo returned, gave a lecherous chuckle, dispensed more orders and left her to it.

She doused a rag in vodka and proceeded to wipe down the wooden Buddha statues on the shrine. Whether this was in the interests of spirituality or hygiene I will never know. When her work was done she got her séance. Sanitation for salvation is a cunning exchange. The kind of entrepreneurship upon which all religions are founded. Gombo’s weight, his scent and his noxious misogyny recalled none other than Jabba the Hutt.

Then we were all invited in. Twelve pilgrims packed into a tiny room. This was anything but the kind of privacy conducive to spiritual healing.

Gombo racked up a line of green powder on a bed of sand and set it alight. The room filled with malodorous fumes. It felt authentic, the real deal. He looked at us expectantly.

A large lady with small eyes piped up. “My son is very ill. I think he’s dying.”

She pointed to the man beside her who had a healthy moustache and a sickly complexion. He looked older than his mother who was at least eighty.

“What’s his date of birth?” asked Gombo.  She responded. They spoke as if the man and his moustache were entirely absent.

Gombo produced a stack of cards, flicked through pensively then asked the lady if her son plays football.

“No,” she replied.

Gombo looked doubtful.

“Well did you used to play?” he addressed the invalid for the first time.

“When I was a boy…” he croaked like a frog with quinsy.

Gombo exploded with self-satisfaction, saliva and the coos of an owl.

“Well start playing football again! It’s simple!”

Before they could protest and demand a sensible response, Gombo had turned his attentions upon me.

“Ask away.”

I quickly conjured up a non-existent problem. All eyes were on me and my pores opened up, setting the sweat flowing in nervous torrents.

“I have…. I have plenty of problems. For example… I have no home. I am always going, never staying. I don’t know where I belong.”

“Where do you come from?”

“England.”

“Sixty per cent of French people have left France,” said Gombo. “Only forty per cent remain. And you know why that is? Because they are worthless. The French are worthless. Worse than worthless. They know nothing and they do nothing.”

I nodded in confusion.

“In England the English are poor,” he said. “The Indians have all the money. All of it. Come back here in six months when winter has fallen. Then you will understand everything.”

I didn’t understand but he is a guru and I smiled at his wisdom. Who needs truth when you have wisdom? I left before I began to laugh.

I sat down outside and refused to believe that people make pilgrimages to see a man like that. I was about to leave the datsan, but decided to try another lama first.

I found a discrete hut on the outskirts of the datsan, knocked and entered.

A lama peeped round a corner and beckoned me inside. His weight was normal, his whole body in proportion. We were alone.

His smile was reassuring and the touch of his hand on my arm conveyed nothing but calm and a sincere desire to help. This time I tried a different ailment.

“I have been suffering from bad feelings deep inside me. Very bad feelings indeed. They are profound. I don’t know where they come from, but they are very bad feelings.”

He hummed and reflected, then asked my date of birth. I told him and he told me I am a horse. He said this explains the bad feelings, which he specified as “sadness, loss of power, waning strength and tiredness”. I concurred, although I am a stranger to the feeling of “waning power”. He said he could rid me of these feelings with a few rituals.

He sent me away to get some milk and a tomato. I returned, incense was lit and all was ready for my ritual cleansing.

He sat me up straight, arranged my hands on my midriff and told me that whilst he chanted, I should breathe in slowly, visualising a red Buddha pouring a vase of goodness, joy and long life all over me. When my lungs were full I should exhale all the evil inside before taking in another breath of goodness, joy and long life.

I closed my eyes and the chanting began. Deep and primordial, it rattled my soul. Buddha, in my mind, tipped the vase over my head and I swelled with goodness. Then I blew out the evil and felt better already. Another breath in then out and better still. I felt better and better until I got bored and Buddha disappeared but the chanting continued. I tried to bring Buddha back but my mind refused. The chanting went on and on and by the time it finished I was so bored that the initial goodness had almost dispersed.

Then the lama sent me outside. I was to rotate on the spot, pouring milk to the West, to the North, to the East and to the South, all the time absorbing goodness, joy and long life from every point on the compass. By the time I had completed the ten rotations required, I was standing in a milky muddy mush, but I was full of goodness and the dirt was irrelevant.

Back inside I was given a final blessing, the goodness was sealed inside and a sacred drop of oil was smeared on my forehead.

When I emerged I was infinitely better (when I went in I was already pretty good). Whether this improvement was the truth or an illusion is beside the point- when it comes to your soul, all you have are your feelings- I felt better so I was better and I left it at that. I floated out of the datsan on a cloud of bounty and bemusement.

On the bus I saw a large image of Christ on the cross on the wall of a church. He was bloody, dying and in tremendous pain and I couldn’t help but think that Buddha, cross-legged and calm in the ecstasy of Nirvana is a more inspiring symbol for people to work towards. But then again, I thought to myself, Buddha is comatose and helpless, as impotent as Jesus all nailed up.

It was at that moment that I saw my own reflection in the dirty bus window. “HE IS THE ONE!” I said to myself excitedly. I was neither in tremendous pain like Jesus nor tremendous pleasure like Buddha, but I was conscious and I was moving and I realised that as far as I am concerned, I am the one for me. I kissed myself (on the lips) and pledged my life to me.

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Prayer wheels

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Lenin

Although his heart stopped ninety years ago, Lenin still resonates in the Russian Federation. He is everywhere. His legacy lives on in the lessons in political kitsch served up by Putin’s personality cult. His legacy lives on in the sacrifice of civil liberties for the progress of the state. He lives on in colossal concrete replicas in almost every town square, in a street name in every city, in gift shops on every street. Most perversely, he “lives” on in a parody of life, suspended in a box in front of the Kremlin. Patched up and perhaps more wax than flesh, the endless repairs on his corpse are testament to Russia’s refusal to let Lenin die.

70 years ago, during World War Two, Lenin’s corpse set out on the Trans-Siberian railway. He was fleeing the very same Germans who gave him safe passage to Russia in 1917 in the hope that he would derail Russia’s war effort with a revolution. So whilst he served the German cause in World War One, he spent World War Two hiding from them in the Agricultural Academy in Tyumen.

As you travel east into Siberia, Lenin becomes bigger and more ubiquitous. The most remote, crumbling hamlets with no electricity and only two streets still have a street named after Lenin. I have seen his name nailed to collapsed wooden shacks in Buryatia and precariously balanced piles of bricks by Baikal. Wherever there live Russians there lives Lenin.

Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia beside Lake Baikal boasts the biggest Lenin cranium on the planet. It looks more like Genghis Khan and this is no coincidence. The head was apparently placed there as punishment for Buryat resistance to the Bolsheviks. The local craftsmen had the last laugh by giving him Asian eyes. They colonised the great Communist conqueror.

However huge, no recreation of Lenin’s cranium can do justice to the scale of the impact he had on our planet. It is utterly impossible to imagine how the world would look if Lenin hadn’t been there to lead the Bolshevik revolution. No century of Communism. No victory over the Nazis. No half century of Communist-Capitalist Cold War.

Although no one misses the cruel realities of the Soviet Union, people do miss the ideological sheen. They miss having something to believe in. Now there is nothing but bling and greed and cynical repression.

In the summer I found myself in a bank in Yekaterinburg indulging in one of the staples of Russian life- queuing.  At first you despise spending hours queuing for the most basic services, then you learn to laugh, then finally you cease to feel anything at all. I reached that final stage long ago, so now whilst I queue I cease to exist. But in this bank my brain was dragged back into existence by the most curious sight. A man was mincing around in a sparkling silver suit. The seams were lined with fake diamonds and his tie was encrusted with sequins. Resplendent in his livery he oozed everything but class. He strutted up and down like a space age peacock.

He picked up a microphone, a photographer moved in, and with a grandiose flourish the peacock revealed a huge lucky dip from underneath a sheet. He announced the grand-draw to the bemused customers- three crusty old ladies in grubby coats (and me). In melodramatic tones he declared the grand draw open to all customers with a loan of over 500,000 roubles (£10,000). This certainly applied to nobody present.

The peacock continued to strut and explain the grand draw which nobody could enter. The three ladies became increasingly disgruntled, growling and tugging their grimy coats in disgust. Eventually one of them exploded with revolutionary fervour, “In the Soviet Union everybody could enter the grand draw! Everybody! 500,000 roubles… SSSHUGAR!”

It’s easy to see why they were angry about this shiny peacock forcing their exclusion down their throats. I felt like throttling him myself. Their anger at their exclusion from the grand draw reflects the anger people feel at their exclusion from politics, and to come back to the meme of an eternal Lenin, his words in 1917 still ring true in Russia today, “The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them in parliament.”

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The Shaman Capital of Siberia: Animism and Excess on Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal is the biggest fresh water lake on the planet. It is over one mile deep, holds a fifth of the earth’s fresh water and the sediment of decomposed organisms descends another one and a half miles. 1200 of its 2000 species are unique to the lake. I have no doubt these statistics just blew your mind and this was the intention.

The indigenous Buryat population adhere to a form of shamanism. They believe the material world is alive with spirits and the boundary between the living and the dead is fluid. During Stalin’s purges in the 1930s, the authorities tied weights to the shamans’ feet and dropped them underneath the ice, although since Communism collapsed shamanism has been resurgent.  Siberian shamans use the psychedelic Amanita muscaria mushrooms in their rituals. The raw mushrooms can be toxic so the shaman eats them, acting as a human filter before feeding his urine to the faithful like a psychedelic cow. Incidentally, although psilocybin mushrooms were classified as a Class A drug in 2005 in the UK, Amanita muscaria are still legal.

Olkhon Island is the Shaman capital of Siberia, a spiritual leviathan in the middle of Baikal. Although I can’t say for certain that the place is magical, I can certainly attest to the strangeness of my stay there. NB: Don’t get your hopes up- I didn’t manage to sniff out any shaman urine.

I spent a few days in the regional capital Irkutsk, a town built by successive waves of exiled criminals and dangerous lunatics. The city was founded by bellicose Cossacks who subjugated the local peoples in the 17th century. The population was swelled by violent criminals exiled in the 18th century and by revolutionaries in the 19th century. The town’s unsavoury genealogy and its harsh environment have conspired to produce a particularly robust population.

The hostel messed up my booking so I was billeted with a local old lady. She was very short but very powerful, with forearms the size of my thighs. Half of her face had been paralysed by a stroke, but the other half compensated for this by being twice as vigorous as any face I have ever seen. It was constantly snarling at trifles or laughing at nothing, and juxtaposed with the immobile half, the effect was truly remarkable. She was the kind of wild, red-blooded devil I have always dreamed of and I only wish she was three years younger.

I went to the shop with her and I have never felt more empowered. I have never seen anything so brutal. She walked with her arms rather than her legs, leading with her elbows, utilising them like battering rams to smash through the ranks of oncoming pedestrians. Her legs were not really discernible as separate limbs, but instead resembled one incredibly powerful limb like that of a mollusc. In crowds she moved one step left, one step right, one step forward, inflicting maximum pain on the people around her. Right, left, forward. She sent alpha males scattering. Right, left, forward. I followed proudly in her wake.

Irkutsk is full of rotten wooden houses cheerfully falling in on themselves. This was a most welcome contrast to the oceans of grey skyscrapers that make up Siberia’s other cities. I took a bus across land and lake from Irkutsk to Olkhon Island in the middle of Baikal. Olkhon is covered in forests, cliffs and pristine beaches. Although the island is 730km2, it has a population of only 1500. Plagued by potholes and roaming cows, the roads are stimulating to say the least. Some trees are blessed with particular shamanic powers. People tie a garment to them and make a wish. They stand alone on cliff tops like itinerant necromancers, vibrant, ragged and bound up in dreams .

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I camped on the beach beside the “shamanka” rock, the most sacred shaman site in Siberia. The rock thrusts forth from the depths of the lake like a double-headed spiritual juggernaut. The great God of Olkhon, Ugute-noion lives in the cave in the rock. In bygone times the locals made sacrifices to him on the shamanka. If you put your mind to it, you can feel the spiritual energy rolling off it in waves. I put my mind to it and lost control of my arms and legs. By the time night fell I found them carrying me up and down the beach at great speed in a frenzied euphoria. The power of the island is irresistible.

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In the morning I crawled out of the tent straight into the lake. The water is so clean you can drink it. I swam around with my mouth open consuming everything in my path like a mighty whale shark.

I was camping with a German friend who turned out to be remarkably multifunctional. In the morning she was a chef and she gutted some apples with ruthless efficiency, slicing them into segments, an unnecessary but not altogether unpleasant preparation. She placed the seedy entrails on a large rock that she called “a table”. We sat and ate and drank and bathed in the spiritual sunshine.

Suddenly the German chef shrieked and pointed to “the table”. One of the apple seeds had sprouted, sending forth a shoot like an adventurous maggot. It had sprouted incredibly quickly and courageously on the hard grey table. This was not normal. This was magical. In this pale shoot I saw the preternatural power of the island and I saw the wonder of nature and I saw that my life will be long and prosperous and pregnant with joy and I saw that yours will be too and for five whole minutes my little legs trembled with the excitement of well-reasoned optimism.

The German chef went for a swim and returned proudly clutching a dead dragonfly. She laid it on “the table” next to the still sprouting seed. Its wings were latticed and translucent like stained glass windows and the death of this creature was a tragic occasion. Then the chef became a forager and we talked and walked through the forest collecting wood for a fire. When we returned, the forager looked sadly at the dragonfly. Buffeted by the wind, it looked almost alive. Suddenly, she let out a shriek of fear and jubilation. The beast’s head was twitching and this was not just the wind. Its wings began to beat faster and faster, picking up speed and power until the once deceased beast soared into the sky. It swooped low to the water before gaining height and disappearing into the distance. The surge of happiness almost whisked my head off my shoulders. Resurrections, shoots sprouting- Olkhon Island is truly enchanted. For the rest of the day I watched the dried fish on “the table”, expecting that at any moment it might rehydrate, regrow its eyes and swim into the air and back to the water.

These strange events astounded and alarmed me but what do you expect when you camp in the shadow of the most spiritual rock in Siberia?

One night our camp fire attracted a local Buryat man who sternly warned us to keep the girls away from the shamanka, explaining that the rock is holy and women aren’t. For a moment I scorned this primitive, regressive religion, before recalling that almost every religion treats women as unholy, second rate humans. Women must be kept off the sacred shaman rock, they must be kept out of the Orthodox iconostasis, they must be kept out of positions of higher responsibility in the Church of England, the Catholic Church, the Mormon Church, Buddhism, Islam and almost every religion that has ever existed. In twenty three years I have been fortunate enough to meet a diverse selection of females, and blasphemous as this may sound, I will say it in the privacy of the internet- I am yet to meet a female who is less holy than me, more sinful than me, or one who is less deserving of a place on the shamanka rock. Although far from exhaustive, my research is “extensive” and I conclude with some certainty that females are holier, purer and undoubtedly more angelic than their male counterparts, who are often filthier in mind and almost always in body.

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Somewhere (who knows where?) on this island, I met a friendly French anarchist and we sat on a hilltop and discussed returning the means of production to the proletariat. Although I didn’t say so at the time, I realised I have no idea what the means of production even look like these days. The last thing I produced was a crippled juggling equipment stand for GCSE DT. The means of production I used were dilapidated and frustrating and I fail to see how they could provide the inspiration for a revolution.  But this is beside the point. What matters is that that the proles have not only been robbed of the tools of production, but they have also been robbed of their dignity. I’m going to get it back for them. When I said this to the anarchist he was excited and delighted.

One evening I was in a kind of café-cum-tavern putting bread and borsht in me when I was accosted by a red faced Russian. Arms real big, legs real big, head real big. Everything real big. I, feeling real small, was invited to his table along with my German friend. He was sitting with his wife, his best friend and his best friend’s wife. The women were beautiful. The men were beastly. They were all battered.

They were delighted to have us with them. We were patted on the back, the arms, the head, we were shown pictures of their sons, dogs and daughters, we were pumped with vodka and treated to physical contact and the joy of friendship. I have never felt so wanted, so part of it all. The big one (named Vova) kept spearing huge hunks of meat on his fork and feeding them to us like an overgrown, grotesque mother bird. As the meat went into the mouth, his eyes lit up with the most tremendous delight. More vodka was poured, more meat was spoon fed, the hugs became firmer and more passionate and soon the word “friendship” no longer did justice to proceedings.

When the tavern closed, we spilled out into the road and they offered us a lift home. We tried to explain we were camping on a beach which a car couldn’t reach, but spurred by the vodka, they insisted impossible is nothing, if not contemptible. Big red Vova’s car was correspondingly huge and red. He stumbled over to it and bounced off the door a few times before he got it open. I was bundled into the back with the wives and the German. Cigars were handed round and I felt quite the G. “Somebody that I used to know” by that greasy fellow “Gotye” was playing.

I was overwhelmed by that unique euphoria that comes from drinking a lot very quickly with complete strangers. My eyes were malfunctioning and my empathy was sky high. We zigzagged through the village, dodging cows, dogs and potholes and catering to the whims of Vova’s half-open eyes. If he saw a house he liked he would drive straight at it and turn away at the last moment.

At the end of the village he lurched off the road, squeezed between two trees and sped off into the darkness. I tried to call time on the journey shouting, “Stop! Thank you! Stop!”, but Vova refused to hear. Sacred shaman trees wrapped in rags came flying towards us out of the darkness. I don’t know whether the trees dodged Vova or Vova dodged the trees, but somehow there were no collisions. If he was sober I’m sure we would have died, but we were all enveloped in that miraculous force field enjoyed by drunk people and drunk people alone.

The red juggernaut ploughed joyfully through the sand, the dirt and the darkness along the top of the cliff. There was a dense cloud of dust surrounding the car, a thick cloud of cigar smoke inside it and nobody could see a thing, least of all the driver who was screaming “You didn’t have to cut me off!!” with his eyes closed. A moment later, the stereo and Vova screeched “You said you felt so happy you could die!” This felt ominous.

Eventually an impenetrable copse of trees brought the jeep to a screeching halt. Clara and I fell out of the car, into Vova’s kisses and embraces and then into the darkness and down to the beach.  My continued existence is testament to the shamanic powers of the island.

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The Normal Superior K-Hole of Paris

The Ecole Normale Supérieure is the most stupidly named university I have ever crossed paths with. How can you be both normal and superior at the same time? The simple answer is you can’t, and I don’t know why anyone would try. The students here refer to themselves as ‘normaliens’ which I would translate as ‘the normal ones’. To add ‘superior’ to ‘normal’ has the same effect as adding the prefix –ab. The normality is negated by the simultaneous claim to superiority. In other words:

normality + superiority = weirdness

Most of the students here have little trouble with the ‘superior’ epithet, even if their superiority is limited to the realms of maths or physics. What they really struggle with is the aforementioned normality. Trying to be normal is a paradoxical pursuit- if you have to make a conscious effort to be normal you are undoubtedly a freak.

These superior mathematicians and physicists spend six days a week being superior solving complex equations. They devote one day a week to the futile pursuit of being normal- K-Fêt Thursdays. Although the K-Fêt sounds profoundly and joyously psychedelic, it is anything but. It elevates the worst elements of the k-hole- the claustrophobia, the paralysis, the disorientation, the dirt cheap economics and attendant penchant for excess- at the expense of any pleasantries that might be salvaged from such an experience. In the K-Fêt as in the k-hole, you perceive the horror that lies beneath the surface.

The K-Fêt is confined to the north-east corner of the basement. The first time you descend the staircase it is immediately and abundantly clear that the self-proclaimed ‘normal ones’ have failed miserably in their quest for normality. The chaos that greets you recalls the carnage of Picasso’s Guernica. And these creatures are indeed at war, only not with fascist forces – these creatures are at war with themselves.

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It seems that alcohol does not only intoxicate the normaliens – it dismembers them too. You see bodies slumped at strange angles like exhausted paralympians. Arms, legs and heads are entwined in impossible formations. One normalien is lifting another from behind, bouncing him up and down as his head lolls on a limp neck spraying vomit everywhere. The lifter squeezes every last drop from his charge, milking him like a giant udder. A boy lies lifeless nearby. His face is on the floor and his large red instrument of smell is dangerously close to the vomit. What is remarkable is that it takes only a pint of Kronenbourg to do this to the normaliens.

I hear one boy lying to get laid. ‘I don’t work very hard. Work is bullshit. I party hard.’ This ancient tactic reminds me of Pinnochio and the phallic consequences of his dishonesty. The girl nods in approval, ‘Mmm… bullshit… parties.’ She is ready for his mendacious member.

I wander through the carnage, occasionally helping these ‘normal superior’ creatures, occasionally laughing, always horrified. It is sad to see them being sick on themselves. They are like fallen angels, so drunk their wings dropped off.

The devastation often spills up the stairs and out into the courtyard. One boy is asleep on the red carpet rolled out on the cobbles, homage to the greatness we will always aspire to but never attain. This is the courtyard where Sartre did his thinking. On Thursdays people don’t think here, they fuck themselves up. I walked into the courtyard one morning at 8am and saw the fountain was full of chairs and tables. My disgust initially caused me concern – does outrage mean I’m getting old? But then I saw the culprits – a hoard of normal ones who had moved into the foyer and were hurling croissants at each other- and I felt a deep sense of satisfaction that I was scorning them instead of joining them.

These so called normal ones are clearly not normal. But by describing them as abnormal I have almost tricked myself into thinking I am normal by othering the nutters. I bumble along in my own blind little bubble, oblivious to my own strangeness and happy to live by my perversion of David Cameron’s much maligned mantra, ‘learning and gurning’. Rene Magritte said, ‘Everything we see hides another thing.’ My own abnormality hides behind the weirdness of others. Like the back of your head you can never directly perceive your own weirdness. This is nice. Very nice. And that’s why I am so fond of these so called normal ones.

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Notre-Dame, Roma Gypsies and codeine on tap. Paris, je t’aime.

I live ten minutes from my favourite place in Paris and the protagonist of my favourite French novel- the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. In the book the building is alive, caring for Quasimodo when no one else does. Notre-Dame is a beautiful gothic beast. Concentric arches thrust skywards, a spire pricks the heavens, every surface wriggles with embellishments, the whole structure seems to shift before your eyes, intimidating and alluring, it invites and repels you, finally leaving you standing frozen in front of it.

I decided to turn a hungover Saturday into a day of pleasure and sat in front of my favourite building reading my favourite book. In France you can blow your head off with a simple trip to the pharmacy. It is the only country I’ve been to which sells codeine over the counter. A box of that is a one-way ticket to heaven on earth. It feels like you’ve taken a step back from reality and wrapped your brain in a flocculent blanket. You burn with empathy for everyone around you.

My rapidly receding pupils roam like rodents across the masonry. Tiny and nimble, they scuttle over the cathedral, enjoying every last nook and cranny. I refer to these eyes of mine as rodents because they revel in rank surroundings. They like to look at dirty places. Lord knows they ought to, for dirty is the default state of any place I live in. However clean the quarters upon my arrival, they are dirty within days and dirty they remain until someone else lives there. The dirtier the better in my humble opinion. I trace pictures on surfaces. My grime is never static. It swirls around me like a speeding carousel.

In that novel and in this city I am so seduced by the Roma Gypsies. The government says they don’t belong in France, that they’re too wild and unruly to exist in modern society. They are one of my favourite things about France. The bright paisley rags, the earthy aroma, the guttural tongue, rather than giving the impression of not belonging in France, they seem to belong to another world entirely, a different time and a different place, a world of chaos and freedom and exotic transgressions.

In the novel Notre Dame de Paris Esmeralda is an enchanting Roma Gypsy. The cruel, ascetic Archdeacon is tortured by desire and he kidnaps Esmeralda, imprisons her in the Cathedral and sentences her to death. The Roma Gypsies swarm out of their mythical gangsta’s paradise bearing burning torches and battering rams and storm the cathedral to save Esmeralda. It reminds me very much of the past week when the police of Ireland and Greece have abducted children from Roma Gypsy encampments claiming they don’t belong there. I wish so badly that the wronged Roma Gypsies would storm the police stations with battering rams and burn down those ‘bastions of puritan oppression’.

Gazing at the cathedral on that dreamy afternoon, I imagined a hoard of vagabonds swarming across the bridge and smashing down the cathedral doors to save their daughter. After a few hours reading, a Roma Gypsy with a fishing rod approached me for a cigarette. I beamed a codeine smile, sat him down beside me and gave him a cigarette. I picked up his fishing rod, weighing it in my hands as if I could use it. ‘Where are you fishing?’ He said it’s broken. He walked away with his broken fishing rod held high like a standard bearer for the dispossessed and a busker wailed hallelujah and a little tear obscured the view from my tiny pupils.

As evening rolled in my reveries were ruined by the influx of break-dancers. ‘Put your hands and legs in the air if you want to see a show!’ one shouts, the dulcet tones of a doped-up dickhead.

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