Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Royal Receptionist

My father’s office in Hamburg was in the former Gestapo HQ.  It was the North German Station of MI6 and of course I never actually got inside his office, only to a small reception area which, I remember, had a two-way mirror. When he came to collect me he would say ‘Ah, I see we have you in the interrogation chamber’.
But before I could even get that far I had to approach a sort of cinema-style ticket booth with bars separating any visitor from Vera, the multilingual receptionist. Her full name was Princess Vera Constantinovna (Romanov) and she was a great-granddaughter of Tsar Nicholas I, the last Tsar of Russia. My father had previously worked for an organization which screened the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons left in post-war Europe. When he moved across to Intelligence he took Vera with him. She was always very nice to me. At Christmas she received masses of greetings cards, many from other European royalty such as Queen Mary, the Queen Mother, the King of the Belgians and others. She would pass them to me through the bars of her little keep so I could see the royal signatures.

When I next visited my father’s office in the summer vacation I found that she had gone, moved to Paris so my father said, where she was looked after by the Russian Orthodox Church. Later I heard that she moved to New York and worked for the Tolstoy Foundation.
I remember my father saying that Vera was the last surviving member of the Romanov family who could remember Imperial Russia. And she was my friend.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Unidentified Flying Object

To say you have seen a UFO seems to consign you immediately to the lunatic fringe. For this reason I rarely mention having seen a UFO but now that I am old and grey I don’t suppose anyone cares.
My sighting happened in the 1950s at a time when there were many reports of unidentified flying objects or, as many scientists preferred to call them, ‘unexplained’ flying objects. There was always an inference that they, the scientists with their superior knowledge, could have immediately explained the phenomenon.
But with my UFO I think not.
Anyway, it happened at about 10 o’clock at night when I was at boarding school at Canterbury in England and well after ‘lights out’ in our dormitory. Suddenly I noticed a strange glow coming through the windows and got up to have a look. Our dormitory overlooked an orchard in the rear garden of the Dean of the Cathedral, the Very Reverend Hewlett Johnson, also known as ‘The Red Dean’ for his Marxist sympathies. Indeed he was the recipient of the Stalin Peace Prize which didn’t endear him to the general public during this period of the Cold War.
So there in his garden was a strange, very bright white glowing object which also emitted a soft but quite audible humming sound as it hovered about three feet above the ground. It was the size of a walk-in beach tent and shaped like an elongated football. There was no firm edge to its surface; it was wispy like cotton candy.
After looking at it for a few minutes I decided to wake some other boys to look at the ‘object’ and I still remember their names, David Collier and Brian Kemp. I pointed excitedly at it and said, ‘There is a UFO’, as it slowly rose then gathered speed and disappeared into the night sky.
The following morning I spoke to them again but they merely shrugged and declined to discuss it further. Later I mentioned it to our housemaster who just smiled at me.
In the newspapers the following day there was a report of my UFO being sighted to the north of Canterbury. It had been chased by two air force jets from the nearby Faversham air base but they lost contact with it over the North Sea.
Finally many months later at a talk given by Fred Hoyle, a famous English astronomer and mathematician, I asked him if he had an opinion on UFOs. ‘Absolute rubbish’ he roared. ‘Nonsense’. ‘Purely natural but unrecognized phenomena’.
‘Thank you sir’.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Parquet and Piano

Click image to enlarge

With the huge unemployment in postwar Germany our large house in Hamburg, which had been requisitioned from the family of a German admiral, was well staffed. In the basement was Willi and his family. He was the hausmeister (janitor), as well as the stoker of the boiler, who had been a merchant seaman. Upstairs were a live-in maid and a cleaning lady who came each day, and a nanny for my baby brother. The live-in maid was blond, buxom, Hannelore, a simple country girl from East Prussia, who spoke no English. In contrast, Clara the cleaner was an intense, well-educated woman in her twenties. Amongst her duties was the weekly chore of cleaning the beautiful oak parquet flooring. This entailed slipping an abrasive wire pad beneath one shoe and then slowly working her way to and fro over the intricately patterned wood blocks until all scuff marks were removed.
Half way through her first day Clara threw an almighty tantrum, screaming and cursing and finally burst into tears before she ran off and hid in the toilet. When she finally reappeared she apologized, saying that she was not a cleaner but a concert pianist, but had to do something to help feed the family.
My mother, the headmistress at the International School and experienced in dealing with outbursts in many tongues, quietly led her to the Admiral’s Bechstein grand and suggested she play something. From then on each afternoon, after some token cleaning, the ballroom in the house echoed to Chopin and Liszt.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Applying for a Chinese Visa

click on image for larger view

Gaining access to China in the 1960s was nigh on impossible without an invitation from the Chinese Government but I was determined to get there somehow.
Since the establishment of the Peoples’ Republic in 1949 nearly all foreigners had been expelled and there were relatively few countries that maintained diplomatic relations. Two academic friends had succeeded but they had letters of introduction from Chinese contacts whereas I had nothing. Despite that I still decided to give it a go.
I had been told that the only visa that I could expect to get was a transit visa and that would be for 14 days. When you think of it, there was really no reason why China should grant any transit visas for travelers from Europe so I had to create something.
The Soviet State travel bureau, Intourist was happy to sell me a ticket on the Moscow – Peking Express, so that was stage one. The next step was to send a reply paid cable to Luxingshe, the Chinese State travel bureau, requesting hotel accommodation in the capital.
Needless to say the Chinese did not reply but they did have my money for the replied paid cable.
With these two items in place I rocked up to the Chinese Embassy in London to apply for a visa.
As I approached the building I noticed that all the blinds on the windows facing the street were drawn and it looked as if the embassy was closed. However, when I rang the bell the door was opened and I was pointed up a long staircase to reception. There sat a man in a black Mao-style suit with a pair of scissors in his hand, cutting up papers. ‘Visa’ I said? And was wordlessly passed a form to complete. I filled in my details and attached two photographs and waited, and waited while the receptionist continued to cut paper. Nobody came and nobody went. Nothing happened. It was like waiting for Godot. Closing time came and the receptionist indicated that I should leave. I left.
The next day, Friday, I arrived at the opening hour and the blinds were still drawn. I climbed the staircase and said good morning to the scissor man and waited. At lunchtime he indicated that I should leave and pointed to his watch. I returned at two o’clock and continued to wait. Closing time came and once again I was politely evicted. The only interruption to my reverie had been the arrival of the post and a courier. This was real isolationism.
I returned on Monday morning and resumed my wait. After about two hours a man came out and explained to me that it was really not possible for someone to just decide they would like to visit China. ‘But, but, but’, I said, ‘I have bought a ticket from Moscow to Peking; tried to book a hotel, even sent money for the reply paid cable so at the very least the Peoples’ Republic should repay me that part’. The man nodded and walked out. Closing time came and I left the embassy.
The next day (Day Four) I resumed my place facing the scissor man and maybe an hour had gone by when suddenly in swept a new person.
‘Mr Blackall’ he said. ‘You are a nuisance’. His English was impeccable. ‘Why don’t you take the train straight across Siberia?’
‘Because the ports are all frozen up in winter.’ I didn’t know this to be true but he seemed to accept it.
‘Oh, all right’, he said. ‘Have you got enough money?’
‘Yes, yes’ I said, making a pile of Persian reals, Russian roubles, Japanese yen, a few hundred US dollars, and other assorted currencies. It was a large pile but the value was insignificant.
‘Give me your passport and come back in an hour.’

With passport and visa in hand I literally danced along the street.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Decadent Sardines

One of the things my father’s MI6 office in Hamburg contained was a stash of Nazi era films – some were feature films with anti-semitic overtones, and others were directed by Leni Riefenstahl such as the Nuremburg Rally. In addition to these were a number of short propaganda documentaries highlighting the depravity and decadence of the USA. All were banned and forbidden to be shown to the German public.

The monthly film evening for this secret fraternity took place at a special cinema in the centre of the city at the Gansemarkt, opposite the old UFA (Universum Film Co) studios. The program would start with a few Nazi shorts, and then lead on to the main film. It was the shorts that I liked best as they showed everything from Harlem jazz clubs to naked women wrestling in rings filled with sardines. As they groped at one another and slipped and fell, the women swiftly became covered in tiny fish scales so that soon they were just a shimmering blur of silver as they writhed in front of the frenzied crowd.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Desert Handcar

Zahedan is a town in south eastern Iran close to the border with Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is also the railhead for travel to Quetta in Pakistan.
I arrived there by bus from Bam, an amazing walled city built entirely of mud bricks, which made Zahedan look very ordinary. Although the railway line went as far as Zahedan, with its station building built by the British, the train did not cross into Iran and so passengers had to wait until it was due, and then travel a further 100 km to Koh-i-Taftan just over the Pakistani border.
The train ran once a fortnight and, as luck would have it, I had to wait almost a week before it arrived.
Gradually a few other travellers drifted in from the surrounding desert, one of whom was an austere and slightly agitated American in his twenties wearing a blue twill raincoat. Obviously troubled by the vagaries of the railway schedule he set off into Baluchistan desert on a handcar, taking his turn with the maintenance crew to propel it along the line. Three days later the handcar returned, still with the blue raincoat man on board.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Gas Masks

At the outbreak of World War II everyone in Britain was issued with a gas mask as a precaution against a gas attack – presumably from the air – and there were detailed instructions on how to put them on.
Most gas masks made the wearer look like an elephant whose trunk had been cut off at the base although some models had extended nozzles so that they really did look like some strange miniature pachyderm. The gas masks came in their own carry bag and for a child they were just another heavy object to carry to school. Somehow my parents managed to procure a Mickey Mouse gas mask for me which, from memory, was just like a full-face Mickey Mouse but with a yellow can, about the size of a can of baked beans, hanging from the chin.
I was quite excited by my Mickey Mouse head until we had the first gas drill at infants school and I realized that every other child had the black regulation Darth Vader sort of mask. I only wore it once and managed to exchange it the next day so I would blend with the pack.