An Unpleasant Memory

Sometimes, I watch real-life documentaries about police work in England. As I worked for the police in London before I retired, the procedures interest me, and I like the ‘behind the scenes’ look at how cases are investigated and solved. (Or never solved) I was watching one last night, and it brought back a memory that I hadn’t thought about for some years.

In 1977, I was working as a depot supervisor for a large food company that sold sausages, pies, bacon, and cooked meats from fleets of vans around London. I was based at the Battersea Depot, and we had twelve vans covering west London, out as far as Heathrow Airport.

Because of the nature of the work, it was a very early start. I had to be at work by 4 am, and the vans would be loaded and on the road by 5:30. For the rest of the day, I had to phone in the orders to the factory, deal with routine paperwork, and occasionally drive out to take care of customer complaints about short loads or missed deliveries.

To compensate for the early start, everyone finished early, and the last van was usually back well before 3 pm. Because the drivers/salesmen were sometimes paid in cash by establishments like roadside cafes and restaurants, I had to sort out the banking before I could lock up and leave. The nearby branch of the bank we used was always closed before I could get to it, so we used the Night Safe facility. This was a large opening in the wall of the bank with a pull-down drawer sealing it. I just had to place the sealed leather bag containing the money into it and it dropped into a container out of reach.

Most days, there wasn’t much money involved, but on Fridays some customers paid for a full week’s deliveries, so there could be as much as five hundred pounds in cash in the bag. A fair sum back then. Friday was also a late finish for us as many vans came back to the depot during the day for extra products, with shops and supermarkets asking for more if they anticipated a busy weekend. It was our habit to meet in the local pub when it opened at 5:30 pm, and have a drink before going home.

One Friday, I told the others I would meet them at the pub after dropping off the cash bag. I drove the short distance to the bank, not wanting to walk around that part of south London carrying over four hundred pounds in an obvious night safe bag. I parked (illegally) on a yellow line on the corner of Battersea Park Road and Meath Street, right outside the bank. (I don’t think that bank is still there) There was solid rush hour traffic in both directions, and lots of people waiting at bus stops on both sides of the busy main road.

Walking to the Night Safe which was on the same main road, I could hear someone running fast behind me, and presumed they were running to catch a bus.

The impact of a big man barging into me knocked me straight over onto my side. Another man appeared, trying to grab the bag from my right hand. As I hung onto it, a third man appeared, and kicked me repeatedly in the head. Luckily, he was wearing trainers, or he might well have fractured my skull. The second man stamped on my arm repeatedly as I lay there, until I could no longer hold the bag. Then the first man grabbed it, and all three ran off, turning into Meath Street and heading north.

For some reason still unknown to me, I ran to my car and gave chase at speed. What I was going to do if I caught them I had no idea. But I was angry, and still only twenty-five years old. I soon drew level with them, despite their head start, but being in the car, I couldn’t follow them into the housing estate at the next junction. Only then did I realise that I was still holding a hat I had dragged off the head of one of them. It was wrapped around the gearstick.

They had all been of West Indian appearance, dressed in the ‘Rasta’ style; with casual clothing, and large floppy hats covering their hair. I had this oversized velvet cap, and was determined to keep it as evidence. I turned the car around and drove back to the bank. There were no mobile phones in those days, but many members of the public had seen this happening, and had phoned the police from call boxes or by asking shopkeepers along the road to ring 999.

There were four uniformed police officers there in two cars. I spoke to one of them about what had happened, and he took down the details. I handed him the hat and told him where I had last seen them, minutes earlier. He shook his head wearily. “They will be long gone, I’m afraid”.

Moments later, an unmarked car drove up at speed, and two plain clothes officers jumped out. One flashed a badge at me and said “Flying Squad”, we heard the call go out”. Under his jacket, he was wearing a shoulder holster containing a revolver. Seeing armed police was rare back then, but the Flying Squad from Scotland Yard was world-famous.

I was expecting the police to set off to try to find the suspects. I had given a pretty good description, hung onto the hat for evidence, and declined medical aid. Instead, the Flying Squad officer with the gun took me into the side street, and started to suggest that I was involved. “Where did you dump the bag? What’s the names of those blokes you used to set it up? Come on, you might as well own up. It has to be an inside job, how else would they know what time to be here?”

To say I was outraged is an understatement. I told the police officer just what I thought of him, using language that cannot be typed here.

Eventually, they let me go on my way, and a uniformed officer said “I will be in touch”. But he never did get in touch, and neither did anyone else. There were no arrests, no suspect questioned, (except me) and we never again heard anything about the incident. It was robbery with violence, and as far as I know was never even followed up.

My bruises soon faded, leaving me with an unpleasant memory of not only being a robbery victim, but then being accused of staging it myself.

That memory never faded.

Lyrically Evocative (29)

Sometimes, song lyrics can make you think about something that you have never experienced. When I heard the first few lines of this song back in 1977, I found myself in total agreement with the sentiments expressed. But I had no children. I still don’t have any, but I still believe the song says it all.

Written by Linda Creed and Michael Massa, it is probably best known as a huge hit for Whitney Huston, in 1985. She undeniably nailed the song, with her famous power-ballad voice.
But ‘my’ version will always be the George Benson original, which sounds as good today as it did to me when I was 25 years old.

It was intended for the soundtrack of the Muhammad Ali biopic, ‘The Greatest’, and included in that film in 1976. George later went on to release it as a record, and had a substantial worldwide hit. His voice suits the song perfectly, and gets right to the heart of the meaningful lyrics.

Here are those lyrics. Words that made me think seriously about having children at the time.

Read them as poetry, they are that good.

The Greatest Love Of All.

I believe that children are our future;
Teach them well and let them lead the way.
Show them all the beauty they possess inside.
Give them a sense of pride, to make it easier;
Let the children’s laughter remind us how we use to be.
Everybody’s searching for a hero;
People need someone to look up to.
I never found anyone who fulfilled my need.
A lonely place to be, and so I learned to depend on me.
I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadow.
If I fail, if I succeed.
At least I lived as I believe.
No matter what they take from me,
They can’t take away my dignity.
Because the greatest love of all is happening to me.
I found the greatest love of all inside of me.
The greatest love of all is easy to achieve.
Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.
I believe that children are our future;
Teach them well and let them lead the way.
Show them all the beauty they possess inside.
Give them a sense of pride, to make it easier;
Let the children’s laughter remind us how we use to be.
I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadow.
If I fail, if I succeed, at least I lived as I believe.
No matter what they take from me,
They can’t take away my dignity.
Because the greatest love of all is happening to me.
I found the greatest love of all inside of me.
The greatest love of all is easy to achieve.
Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.
And if by chance that special place that you’ve been dreaming of
Lead you to a lonely place
Find your strength in love

And in case you have never heard that original, here is George singing them.

Great Albums: Saturday Night Fever

In 1977, I went to see a new film that everyone was raving about. It was a drama set in New York, about a young man who wants to rise above his background and life in the neighbourhood by becoming a dancer. It starred John Tavolta as Tony, ably supported by a group of young American actors, including Donna Pescow and Karen Gorney. It wasn’t a musical, but it was all about the music. After watching the film, I soon bought the soundtrack album on vinyl.

As well as the Bee gees, who wrote many new songs for the film, we had the vocal talents of Yvonne Elliman, and funky stuff from Tavares, Kool and The Gang, The Trammps, and K.C. and The Sunshine Band. Anyone who had seen the film could recapture the scenes easily, by listening to the record, and even those who hadn’t got to see it could enjoy the feast of Disco music on offer.

In the film, Tony is trying to win a dance contest, so we often see him practicing with his partners. The setting is ideal to add great music, as we watch Travolta tear up the floor.

When he dumps his first partner for a better dancer, Yvonne Elliman supplies the heartbreak song.

Much of the action is filmed in the nightclub where Tony is well-known, and the contest is to be held. The crowd scenes and great music give a real feel of being there. Travolta is at his peak here, on sparkling form indeed.

When Tony falls for his new partner, the Bee Gees get to perform their love ballad, which went on to become one of their signature songs.

Perhaps the opening scene has become the best-known, with Travolta walking to work, and ‘Staying Alive’ playing over in the background.

The music won six Grammy awards for the Bee Gees, with the album and numerous singles taken from it reaching number one all over the world. To this date, it remains the biggest-selling film soundtrack ever, with more than 45,000,000 copies sold. And it is a wonderful example of how music can transform a film that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Despite being very much of its time, many of the songs are still powerful and relevant today, and forty-one years later, it is still being bought by new fans.

Retro Review: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)

I have long believed in the possibility of life in other places in our vast universe. And at one time, I was an avid reader of books written by people who claimed to have been abducted and returned. So when I heard about a new science fiction film with this theme, a big-budget production conceived and directed by Stephen Spielberg, I was ready to watch it as soon as it hit the cinemas. The cast included such flavour of the month names as Richard Dreyfuss and Terri Garr, as well as an acting appearance by the famous French film-maker, Francois Truffaut.

The scene is set very nicely. French scientist Lacombe (Truffaut) makes some startling discoveries. A missing squadron of WW2 planes, parked neatly in a desert location in America. A lost and intact cargo ship in the middle of the Gobi Desert, and witnesses describing how they saw a near miss between civil airliners and a UFO. We know this is going to be good, straight off.

The action cuts to Roy, (Dreyfuss) and his wife Ronnie. (Garr) Roy works as a lineman for the electric company, and as he is investigating a power cut one night, a UFO flies over his truck, with the light from the craft leaving slight burns on one side of his face. Roy becomes obsessed with UFO sightings, and begins to build a huge model in his house, using dirt from the garden. As he builds, it takes the shape of a flat-topped mountain.
In another home we see Jillian (Melinda Dillon) and her young son. His toys activate themselves after a burst of light outside the house, and Jillian also begins to have visions of a flat-topped mountain.

With all the UFO activity being reported, Lacombe arrives in the US to investigate. Research identifies a mountain in Wyoming, the Devil’s Tower, as the flat-topped mountain seen in the visions, and the government seals off the area, issuing false reports of a toxic gas spill. Roy has become consumed by his obsession with the UFO sightings and building his replica of the mountain. This ruins his marriage, and Ronnie leaves, taking the children. Despite the government reports, both Jillian and Roy decide to make their separate ways to the site, unable to resist the overwhelming urge to see the UFO they believe to be there. Meanwhile, Lacombe has set up a means to communicate with the aliens, using musical notes as language.

Hundreds of people are converging on the site, and most are caught by the Army, and denied access. Eventually, Jillian and Roy meet each other, and contrive to sneak into the location. Hiding from the authorities, they watch Lacombe begin to communicate with his musical device.

What happens next is true cinema. Something that has to be seen on a big screen, in the dark, to be best-appreciated. Perhaps the best-realised spaceship ever seen on screen appears, appearing to dwarf the mountain by its immense size. I was 25 years old, and actually said “Wow” in a cinema, that’s how impressive it was. After increased musical communication that begins to sound like an electronic concerto, the ship lands, and opens a huge hatch. Out from the ship come men dressed as WW2 pilots, looking dazed and confused. Schoolgirls in uniform appear too, (referencing ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’) and more and more people emerge dazed into the light.
A team of volunteers has been assembled, ready to enter the spaceship with the friendly aliens to embark on a voyage of discovery. After being found at the site and interviewed by Lacombe and his team, Roy decides to go along too.

I liked this film so much, that the following week, when I had a friend visiting from France, I took her to see it. I watched it twice in one week, something I hadn’t done since ‘Bonnie and Clyde’. The special effects are second to none, even now, and the acting from all concerned is just right. For my money, this is still Spielberg’s best film.

Great Albums: Rumours

By 1977, Fleetwood Mac had undergone a complete transformation. Ten years earlier, they had formed as a Blues band, driven by the obsessive Peter Green. Their combination of raw blues and unusual instrumental tracks guaranteed them an early following, and when Christine Perfect joined in 1970, they had a female vocal too. But personality issues within the band led to the departure of Peter Green, and in 1974, Americans Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the group, as lead guitar and lead vocal, respectively.

This resulted in a complete change of direction. The Blues roots were discarded for a more commercial pop sound, with Nicks’ vocals as the centrepiece of most songs. An album release in 1975 saw them appeal to a totally new market, and a much wider audience, and this was followed in 1977 by ‘Rumours’.

This new album was an immediate success, all over the world. Not only did it take the number one spot in the UK, it also topped the US charts, as well as in Australia and Canada. They may have changed their style, but they had undoubtedly hit upon a winning formula.

The album just didn’t stop selling. Over thirty weeks in the US charts, platinum and gold discs in many countries, it became a recording phenomenon. In the age of vinyl, it seemed as if everyone you ever met had a copy, including me.

It had something that appealed to almost everyone at the time. If you didn’t like one track, you were sure to like the next one. Selling over forty million copies, and becoming one of the biggest-selling records ever, it earned its place in history.

Perhaps the crowing glory of ‘Rumours’, and still played widely today, this track showcased Stevie Nicks’ vocals perfectly, and sums up the appeal of this unique album.

It has since been released on CD of course, later remastered and reissued, in 2013. Still selling in considerable numbers to this day, forty-one years after I bought it.

Significant Songs (151)


Back in 1977, I bought a copy of the new album from Fleetwood Mac. It was called ‘Rumours’. Some time later, I didn’t know anyone who didn’t have a copy on their record shelf, or propped up beside their record player. Small wonder that this sold an amazing fifty million copies, and is still being bought today, on CD and download.

I have featured the group before, both in their earlier Blues incarnation, and later on with ‘Big Love’. But ‘Rumours’ is worth a look on its own, as there are few recordings in history that have crossed so many genres, and appealed to a vast array of music fans. This was always my favourite track. It suits Stevie Nicks’ voice to perfection, and strikes the right mood in so many ways. The lyrics are worth adding in full, on this occasion. They meant something to the band at the time, with all their personal upheavals. Forty years later, they are still powerful to read.

Now here you go again, you say
You want your freedom
Well who am I to keep you down
It’s only right that you should
Play the way you feel it
But listen carefully to the sound
Of your loneliness
Like a heartbeat drives you mad
In the stillness of remembering what you had
And what you lost, and what you had, and what you lost
Thunder only happens when it’s raining
Players only love you when they’re playing
Say women they will come and they will go
When the rain washes you clean, you’ll know, you’ll know
Now here I go again, I see the crystal visions
I keep my visions to myself, it’s only me
Who wants to wrap around your dreams and,
Have you any dreams you’d like to sell?
Dreams of loneliness,
Like a heartbeat, drives you mad
In the stillness of remembering, what you had,
And what you lost and what you had and what you lost
Thunder only happens when it’s raining
Players only love you when they’re playing
Women, they will come and they will go
When the rain washes you clean, you’ll know
Thunder only happens when it’s raining
Players only love you when they’re playing
Say, women, they will come and they will go
When the rain washes you clean, you’ll know
You’ll know, you will know, you’ll know

Significant Songs (96)

Native New Yorker

I have never been to New York. In fact, I have never been to America. Despite a lifelong love of many American films and recording artists, I haven’t got around to visiting that vast country. In 1977, disco music had a firm hold on the music charts in many parts of the world. The film, ‘Saturday Night Fever’ gave us many examples of this rather sanitised and safe disco music, which was being lapped up by audiences everywhere. A few years earlier, artists like Gloria Gaynor had started the trend, with huge hits like ‘Never Can Say Goodbye.’

I was twenty-five at the time, and happy to add the occasional disco record to my collection, though I carefully avoided some of the kitsch examples, such as the awful Boney M, and some other rather dubious European efforts. Then I heard a record on the radio, and liked it so much, I had to get it the same day. I had never heard of the group before, but knew that I was going to like them. Odyssey delivered a disco sound with a rich soul vocal, and this song seemed to sum up much of what I imagined life in New York might be like.

They went on to produce a string of hits, including the well-known, ‘If You’re Looking For A Way Out.’
Unusually, they became more popular in the UK, than in their home country of the USA. This led to them becoming based over here, and the current incarnation of the band continues to perform to this day. Whenever I think of the city of New York, I always remember this song.
‘No-one opens the door, for a native New Yorker…’ Great line.

Significant Songs (67)

Here You Come Again

This will come as a surprise to anyone who has known me for a long time. I am well known for not being a fan of Country music. That’s not strictly true, as I did have a flirtation with the lovely Crystal Gayle at one time. Her records were undoubtedly Country, though perhaps more acceptable to the mainstream. I also quite like a couple of Glen Campbell records; ‘Wichita Lineman’, and ‘Galveston’. Other than a few retro moments, and being obsessed with Patsy Cline singing ‘Crazy’ (another post to come), I don’t usually like Country music. It is too American, often too redneck, and far too misogynistic for my taste.

Dolly Parton is one of the most enduring and successful Country artists. Her career has seemingly spanned my entire life. She has had a consistent fan base, enjoyed huge record sales, and become one of the most well-known and famous recording artists in history. As recently as last summer, she was able to headline the Glastonbury music festival here in the UK, and amaze the young audience there. She has also branched out into acting, and been well-received in many films, not least the hugely popular ‘Nine to Five.’ Her songwriting and performing talents are legendary, and her collaborations with other singers have seen her go from strength to strength, until it seems that she can do nothing wrong.

This diminutive lady, best known for her assortment of stylish wigs, and her pneumatic large breasts, is far from the usual singer that you might expect to find celebrated on this blog. Recent plastic surgery has altered her appearance, and not in a good way. She is actually six yeas older than me, and thanks to her surgeons, is beginning to look it too. However, in 1977 she attempted to record an album that would enable her to cross over from Country, to the general charts, and released ‘Here You Come Again’. It worked. The single release was a hit, and more followed. She got recognition in the Country charts as usual, but more importantly, also gained high places in the pop charts too.

I couldn’t get this track out of my head. I still can’t.

Holidays and Travel: Soviet Union 1977

As a young man, I had read all the classic books of Russian literature, as well as newer works, by Mikhail Sholokhov, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I had watched the films of Eisenstein over and over, and seen countless war documentaries. Russia was a mythical place to me; enemy in the ‘Cold War’, ally when it mattered most. The Russian Revolution was fifty years old in 1967, and the western allies still regarded this country as the greatest threat to world peace. I had always considered myself politically on the Left, and I really wanted to visit The Soviet Union, and to see all the wonders for myself. I had to wait though, as it was not that easy to travel there in the 1960’s.

By the start of 1977, I had a fiancee willing to travel with me, and enough money to finance a short trip. More importantly, some minor tour companies were beginning to offer reasonably priced packages, all escorted, and excursions included. I could hardly contain my excitement, when we booked a holiday to include Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev. We would fly direct to Leningrad, spend two more days there, on to Moscow for two more days, and then down to the Ukraine, before returning for another stay in Leningrad, then home. As it was going to be in late February, we had to prepare for weather we had never experienced. I borrowed an enormous sheepskin coat, and bought thermal underwear, and new ski mittens. We had been advised to take large amounts of chewing gum, women’s tights, and ballpoint pens. Apparently, they were hard to get there, and would be valued as tips, or gifts. We received visas in the post, and were informed that they would be stamped on arrival, and retained on departure, so we would never have the desired CCCP stamp on our passports. We would also have to exchange our money for Rubles over there, as it was not a traded currency.

We had to travel by the state airline, Aeroflot. This was not a prospect we relished, as their terrible safety record was well-known. It soon became apparent that customer service was also unknown, with the grumpiest flight attendants I have ever seen, as well as no announcements in English. The aircraft had basic seating, no-frills catering, and nothing by way of in-flight entertainment. We were later informed, that at this time, all the pilots doubled as military pilots, and the aircraft could be stripped out for use by the armed forces, at short notice. This went some way to explaining the unusual flying style, reminiscent of bombing raids, and totally disregarding passenger comfort (and panic). Despite feeling ill during the flight (and on all subsequent Aeroflot flights), it was all forgiven on arrival in Leningrad. Although the daytime temperature of -20 that greeted us almost froze my ears off, I could not have been more excited. We were ushered to one side in the airport terminal, and dealt with quickly, helped by our guide. It was obvious from the looks and stares, that they were not used to western tourists, and we stood out dramatically, in clothes that were totally different. I just wanted to get to see The Winter Palace, and to retrace the films of my youth, so gave this attention little regard.

Once in the coach on the way into the city, I was a little disappointed to see endless rows of large blocks of flats, flanking each side of the road, and stretching into the horizon. However, I soon recalled that the view from Heathrow Airport into Central London is not a great deal better. Many of the blocks also had huge painted symbols on the sides, my first ever view of the iconography of the Soviet Union; something that I was to get to know, and to admire greatly. Arriving at the hotel, on the banks of the River Neva, looking across to the Gulf of Finland, I was amazed at how luxurious it was. Our room overlooked the water, and we had an oblique view of the famous Cruiser Aurora, the museum ship that fired the signal shot to begin the October Revolution (as legend has it). I was keen to get out and about, but it was already beginning to get dark, and the biting cold made it impossible to be out for much more than thirty minutes at a time; even the river was frozen.

Since its early construction as a Russian city in the 18th Century, the architecture and open planning of the old city has rightly been regarded as an example of some of the best ever seen in Europe. The grand squares, and the canal system, even gave rise to its common description as ‘The Venice of The North’. With the coastal location, and marvellous buildings such as The Hermitage Museum, the Peter and Paul Fortress, and the Kazan Cathedral, it really is a touristic gem. We walked along the wide avenue called Nevsky Prospekt, home to the elegant shops, restaurants, and nightlife. This thoroughfare has been mentioned in the works of Dostoevsky, and Gogol, and here I was, strolling along it. We went to look at the famous gates of The Winter Palace, seemingly unchanged since they were stormed by the Bolsheviks, in 1917. Inside The Hermitage, too large to ever see in one lifetime, we managed to marvel at Faberge Eggs, lavish costumes worn by Catherine The Great, and rows of magnificent coaches, once used by the Tzars. There was so much to see, and so little time to see it. In bitter cold, yet bright sunny weather the next day, we went to The Peter and Paul Fortress. Originally built to defend against Swedish attacks, this large area has served as a garrison and prison, as well as being home to a Cathedral, with its distinctive bell tower and gilded cupola. It is also the burial place of all Russian royalty, and even houses the remains of Nicholas II and his family, killed by revolutionaries, in 1918. I was enamoured with this city, and even now, would urge anyone to visit it.

The next day, we flew to Moscow; capital and largest city of the USSR, and famous for so many reasons. Who has not seen Red Square on the news, with its Mayday parades, the multi-coloured onion domes of St Basil’s Cathedral at one corner? The Kremlin, The famous Metro system, the monolithic Art Deco constructions of the University, and some grand hotels. I wanted to take it all in. I did my best. Despite continuing cold (but not as as cold as Leningrad) we toured as much as possible, in the short time we were there. The Sparrow Hills, giving a wonderful view of the city, full of newlyweds, traditionally having their photos taken. The huge stadium, later home to the 1980 Olympics, and the breathtaking sight of the banks of the Moskva River, illuminated at night. We went to the incredible galleried department store, GUM, and experienced the strange style of shopping there. You chose an item, went to another desk to pay for it, then took the receipt back to the original counter to collect it. It was time-consuming, yet fascinating, in its own way, and seemed to apply in every shop, whatever you bought. Once burned by Napoleon, and later bombed and shelled by the Germans, the city has endured through history, and is a great place to visit. We enjoyed a trip to see The Bolshoi Ballet, at that time housed in the enormous Palace of Congresses, inside the Kremlin. I am no huge fan of Ballet, but really enjoyed it. We also went to see the famous Moscow State Circus, a dazzling display, inside a purpose built arena. The Metro stations are worth the trip alone; with their amazing architecture and chandeliers, statues in alcoves, and tiled graphic images, they really are a wonder. We watched the changing of the guard at Lenin’s Tomb, queuing for an eternity to file past the embalmed body later. Despite the sights of Moscow, I was harbouring a soft spot for Leningrad, and looking forward to returning there.

The next stage of the trip took us west to the Ukraine, and the city of Kiev, on the River Dnieper. This is one of the oldest cities in Europe, and was once part of the Khazar Empire. It was traditionally independent, and despite incorporation in the Soviet Union, retained its own Ukrainian language, and a degree of self-government. We were taken on a tour of the sights, including the St Sophia Cathedral, the Golden Gate, and the Monastery of The Caves. This was a somewhat hurried part of the trip, and after just two days, we were soon on our way again, back to the airport, to return to Leningrad. We had just one more day there, before returning to the UK, and I pledged to return another time. And I did just that.

So, what of the real Russia, the people, everyday life, and the experience of the tourist? There was little time for this, to be truthful, but we did what we could. The first thing we noticed, after changing our money into Rubles, was that it didn’t buy much. This was due to the entirely artificial exchange rate of one Ruble to one Pound. In the ‘real world’ it would have been more like twenty rubles, but we had no alternatives, and could not shop around for better rates. As a result, we were ‘ruble-poor’ and everything seemed ridiculously expensive. We knew that this could not be the case, as ordinary Russians only got around £25 a month salary, so they would never afford to live. No, it was simply the exchange rate. We were approached in the streets, mostly by youngsters, who wanted chewing gum, coca-cola, and any western logo items. Denim jeans were very popular, and they would happily wait while you took them off in a secluded spot, (presuming you had brought something to change into) offering high-value items in return. Cameras and watches were offered, and for the smaller items, we were given badges, belt-buckles, and small Russian souvenirs, like Matryoshka dolls, or carved boxes. Almost nobody spoke English, or at least not to us directly, and this bartering was all done using sign language. Normal shops seemed to sell only one thing. Some shops would be completely full of milk, others of bread, yet another sold only cakes. Supermarkets were not apparent, and the larger stores were like department stores, with different goods on each level of the shop.

We did see some people queuing, a very long queue indeed, all around a city block. We later saw what it was they were waiting for, when a truck loaded with oranges arrived, and they all went in to buy them. Getting around was not that easy, mainly due to language difficulties. I only knew the Russian for ‘Please’, ‘Thanks’ and ‘Comrade’, so not much use. There is also the fact that they use the Cyrillic alphabet, which makes looking at signs and directions almost impossible. I did manage to buy a fur hat, in a department store in Kiev.  This was the three-stage process, all done with sign language, and pointing. They seemed to be implying that the hat I had chosen was too expensive, and were amazed when I casually handed over the equivalent of £17 for it, which would have been a bargain in London. There were lots of people in uniform everywhere. There were City police, State police, Militia police, KGB, (in uniform) as well as the numerous soldiers and sailors, on and off duty. Young people were sometimes dressed in uniform too, as members of the Komsomol, the Young Communist League. They often acted as honour guards, around famous monuments and buildings. They were approachable, and one gave me his belt, with brass Hammer and Sickle buckle, for six packs of Wrigley’s chewing gum. I still have it, to this day.

For tourists who wanted to buy things, we were directed to the Beryozka shops. These shops contained most Russian consumer goods that were not widely available outside. Large items, like cameras and lenses, telescopes, and binoculars, as well as general souvenirs, and the exotic lacquered boxes famously made in Russia. In these shops, only foreign currency was permitted, and no Rubles could be spent. Outside one of them, we were approached by a well-dressed man, who explained, in good English, that he would like us to buy an umbrella for him, as he couldn’t get one anywhere else. In a country with so much snow, it seemed crazy, but he offered us fifty Rubles, for a £10 umbrella. I felt sorry for him, but had to decline, as exchanging money unofficially, in any form, was strictly forbidden, and we didn’t want to fall foul of the authorities. So, our interaction with ordinary people was limited, but you have to recall the mood of the time. I did make up for this, later, getting to see something of real life. But that is for another post.

My first visit to the Soviet Union was all that I had expected, and more, and whetted my appetite for a longer trip, which I will describe another time.