Friday, 17 February 2012

The Russia House with Connery

In this break from the Leveson Inquiry there is opportunity to catch up on a number of activities and projects including the work of John Le Carré in book and film, and with of my favourite Le Carré film The Russia House because of the romantic, happy and amusing nature of the story which is devoid of grimness of much of confrontation between the intelligence services of the USA, GB and the Soviets headed by Russia. The opportunity was also taken to read the book which functions at a different level.

The film is even suitable for watching in Valentine’s week unlike the reality of the cold war even under glasnost and perestroika where double dealings, betrayals and death continued. Whether loss of lives, expenditure in time and effort was helpful to any of the sides is debatable especially to those of us on the outside gleaned from news reports, literature, film and TV.

The action commences in Moscow at an international attempt to interest the Russians in the English Language Talking Book Audio cassette Fair. The film opens when a woman arrives at the adjacent stand to that hired by Bartholomew Scott Blair, the part owner and manager of a book publishing firm of Abercrombie and Blair. She asks Niki Landau (not to be confused with Andreas Niki Lauder the Formula I racing driver) if he will take a book Barley Scott Blair as he is known who she says he has agreed to publish. Barley nick named after the basic substance of beer was not at the Fair because the aunts who partnered him in the family business, helping to keep it afloat and in the life style which he had accustomed, decided against branching out into audio tapes so he has instead gone to his bolt hole in Lisbon unknown to the intelligence man who is the voice of the book.

The book was first published in 1989 the year when it can be said the Soviet empire disintegrated in a series of independence moves as President Korbechev also attempted to move Russia into a new order. (I have Gail Sheehy’s 1991 biography). The arms race and its industry remained at the forefront of Western economies and politics, at the time that Polish but London based Niki brought the package back to London and not finding Barley had contacted several government departments until making contact with British intelligence.

In the film the role of the character Niki Lander does not impact to the same effect as in the book although even here the role is described as prologue. Niki is fed up with making depressing trips where income rarely balanced costs and he longs for a more comfortable life. Although the persistence of the woman has annoyed him and he was a little disappointed when she declined his invitation to a nice dinner he accepts her assignment because her plea reached to the nice being within his outward shell.

In his search to find Barley followed also by the UK intelligence service we also learn more in the book about Barley that he was married for instance and has two grown children with their own lives, and that he belonged to a London club in addition to his ability to play jazz clarinet and chess against all comers.

The book also explains the lengths Niki has to go to make contact with the intelligence service and the lengths they then go to quiz him about the woman and her package. He had played his part well, getting her to pretend she was passing to him the book in an anonymous plastic bag as a gift, the possession of which marked her as different from the average Muscovite who carried a string bag, in fact as he disclosed he was certain her manner, her dress suggested Stalingrad/St Petersburg as it has now returned to its original name and Russia’s second city and home of the greatest museum art gallery in the world.

The book also raises the discussion about what British intelligence should do with Niki as he had flipped through the three notebooks with over two hundred pages of text and grasped their potential significance without understanding the pages of formulae and technical notes. He was told to cancel the arranged visit to Gdansk so they could cover everything that had happened in minute detail. They wanted to know if he had been given special treatment on his way back home which might indicate that the book was a plant and they wanted to know about anyone and everyone that he might have mentioned the package and its delivery to him.

Fortunately for him he said nothing to anyone but attempted to find Barley and then persisted until making contact with the right people. At the end of the process with muttering dark threats he is presented with a cheque for £100000 financed by the Americans, told his overseas trips have ended and his movements will have to be monitored even with signing the Official Secrets Act. For some the requirements would be onerous but for Niki all his dreams had come true and he was able to open a video cassette store which did interest the police from time to time, by implication because of the material he sometimes stocked and sold, but nothing which his minders could not sort out for him. The only thing that was missing is that his path never crossed with Barley again, a precondition of the settlement but something he wished would happen in order to show his appreciation of the man until his death he believed was a professional spy, for how could you judge someone who appeared in a drunken stupor most of the time and then beat anyone and everyone at a game of chess.

The reason for this emerged during the first part of the book when it is revealed that Barley has an extraordinary precise memory of conversations was well of events. Fifty years ago as part of training I learned to make a process record in which I recorded as much of the conversations and interaction with a client I could remember and then applied my knowledge and in time experience to make an analysis of the problem, the situation, the judgement which could be made.

The intelligence service is able to trace the whereabouts of Barley from his bank statements which shows he rent of the property in Lisbon Portugal. They find him at a cafe playing Chess and he is invited to accompany the man from the Embassy where he is taken to meet a group with includes the CIA who are quite open. In the film the man from the Embassy Ned is played by James Fox and another of the group is played by Ken Russell the film Director who died last year. Martin Clunes is the technician recording the conversation in an adjacent room.

The film foreshortens through visual presentation Barley’s realization that while he has never met the Russian woman Katya played by Michelle Pfeiffer he has met someone who is likely to be the author of the manuscripts.

He explains that on his previous visit for a book Fair, the Sunday after drinking all night they had gone to Peredelkino in Jumbo’s car. to the grave of Boris Pasternak and then he had got into conversation with a man. Jumbo by the way was a Russian Gold Card man, closet Scottish Fascist and Black Belt Freemason. Peredelkino the writers dacha village.

There were some two hundred at the grave of Boris Pasternak which was steeped in flowers. A plane flew over and back no doubt taking long lens photos of those below.. Barley remembered he had quoted the lines from the Nobel Prize winning speech.

“Like a beast in the pen I’m cut off.
From my friends. Freedom, the sun
But the hunters are gaining ground
I’ve nowhere else to run”

Barley remembers that the man who spoke to them was Nezhdanov which those from the visiting Russia House were immediately able to amplify that Vitaly Nezhdanov had become a latter day hero with three one act plays opening in Moscow within the coming few weeks. Barley is pleased to have this intelligence having taken a great liking to the man with their visit to a Dacha, a big rambling house with some thirty people present; this was reduced to probably a dozen for the film. The hostess was a poet. And they spoke English which was essential given that Barley had only a handful of words which is surprising given his memory but there we are. Husband edited a science magazines and Nezhdanov was a the brother in law. That had sat together at lunch at one table drinking and talk about truth.

The closest I got to such a gathering was when at Ruskin when I was part of small group of politically orientated students who also had a sense of history and an international outlook. What happen to them I wonder? That there have not been other such occasions in the rst of my life is cause for regret.

The man was called Goethe, not his real name, but someone protected by the group, a genius, this was the man with whom conversation had taken place which Barley considered led to the manuscript being delivered to him.

Disarmament was not a political matter or military he had said but of human will. This was an important statement which resonated with me given my experience and actions. I would have added that politics ought to be about will but is has become the art of the possible with the Party framework and international capitalism. He had spoken well of Gorbachev arguing that the West had to find the other half of him while the East had to recognise the half they had.

In response to those who said the bomb had kept the peace for forty years he had asked what Peace?

They had gone in after the meal and the drinking to listen to Count Basie whose records I have on one original Long Play and a 3 disk boxed set as well individual numbers among my collection of Big Band Jazz. It was an interesting choice because the more likely artist could have been expected to have been Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman or Glen Miller if they were locked into pre World War one jazz swing, Basis was his own man and style but also main stream

Count Basie Dance Session
Straight Life, Basie Goes West Softly with Feeling, Peace Pipe, Blues Go Away, Cherry Point, Bubble, Right On, The Blues done come back and Plymouth Rock

And a 3 dick Box Set
Oh Lady be Good, Going to Chicago Blues, Live and Love Tonight, Love me or Leave Me, Rock a bye Basie, Baby dont tell on me, Taxi War Dance, Jump for me, Twelfth Street Rag, Nobody knows, Pound cake, Ho long blues, Dickie’s Dream, Lester leaps in, The apple jump, I left my baby, Volcano.

The devil and the deep blue sea, I never knew, Tickle Toe, Louisiana, Easy Does it, Let me see, Blow Top, Gone with the Wind, Super Chief, You betcha my life, Down down down, Tune Town Shuffle, I’m tired of waiting for you, Basie Boogie, Fancy meeting you, My old flame, Ton Thumb, Take me back baby, All of Me, One o’clock jump’

And the angels sing, Bolero at the Savoy You can count on me, Your and your love, What goes up must come down, Fiesta in Blue, Something new, Sub-deb Blues, Boogie woogie, Bubbles, How high the moon, Your’re not the kind, Jumpin at the woodside, Jive at five, Yesterdays, Blee Blop Blues, Straight Life, 16 men swinging, Nails, Two Franks. I have also experience the Count Basie at the former Grand Croydon Theatre, usually a cinema with several thousand seats but which hosted a number of visiting jazz band sin the later 1950’s and 1960’s.

He had gone to sleep in deck chair on the veranda with a blanket wrapped around him waking at midnight wondering where he was. It was Goethe talking to him saying that some things are necessary evils. All victims are equal none more equal than others. Both these were quotes back from what Barley had said at lunchtime. He had asked Goethe who he was with the response a moral outcast. I trade in defiled theories he added. Nice to meet a writer Barley had said asking what kind of a writer he was. There was no denial. History, lies, comedies and romances came the reply.

Asked where his idea came from he had spoken at length mentioning the obscene fantasies of politicians and generals of all nations and from liberated intellects from pressed ganged Nazi scientists, from the great Soviet people and after other thoughts adding occasionally from distinguished western intellectuals who happen to drop into my life,

He said he believed every word Barley had said at the dinner and promised that if he was not a spy he would promise something in return.

The gathering around Barley from the Circus and the CIA had then considered the material in the notebooks, its potential significance and Barley’s appreciation. It was decided that Barley should return and attempt to meet Goethe and that he should have an assistant, an Editor on the books so to speak of the Publishing firm and for this it was necessary to successfully spin a story to the Aunts. He had been taken back to England to a safe house cottage in Knightsbridge chosen because Barley had no connections in the area. with the costs borne by the Americans because they were going take control. There was three weeks of intense preparations at the end of which there was a special meal. A salmon trout on a silver dish two bottle of Sancerre and a rare single malt whiskey. I drank my first bottle of Sancerre late in life at a great meal in Le Touquet in him 1980’s with a whole crab starter and a ain course fish which I have listed somewhere having retained he bills followed by a double crème caramel and coffee. It tasted my first single malt at a club in Edinburgh one afternoon, bought by the chairman of the Dunoon CND after a meeting of the Scottish CND Committee.

Before departing the Circus people had checked his flat for his likely state of mind and discovered he had written from Stevie Smith

I am not so afraid of the dark night
As the friends I do not know.

And I learn by going where I have to go, which applies to me more often than not.

In Moscow Katya had been alerted and eagerly awaited his arrival.

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