Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

Am I getting paranoid? During a bookshop talk in New York, I noticed a weasel-- faced character in the front row taking notes of everything I said. His expression was conspicuously sardonic and his dress-- sense struck me as unmistakably Russian. But why the front row? Was he trying to spook me? The only alternative that I could think of was that he might be one of those crazy conspiracy theorists who are drawn to such events. Yet they always want to vent their wild suspicions. (The favourite at the moment is that 9/11 was really the work of the US government.) This character, however, did not open his mouth during questions at the end. He just slipped away. It seemed to confirm my hunch that I would not be receiving this year's Ferrero Rocher award for diplomacy from the Kremlin. thor tours produce a number of unexpected encounters. One of the strangest occurred in England at a lecture organised by a local bookshop in Gloucestershire. During the questions afterwards, there was the sound of somebody vomiting, but nobody moved. The noise was repeated even more unmistakably. I was tempted to remark, 'I do hope it wasn't something I said.' From the platform I noticed a slight movement in the third row. A woman was being violently sick, yet those around her were trying their hardest not to notice. I was so amazed by this behaviour that I completely lost the thread of the question that I was supposed to be answering. I, too, tried to pretend that nothing out of the ordinary was happening, and brought the questions to an end as soon as decently possible. Afterwards, when I sat at a table signing books, a young woman came up. She leaned forward and murmured, 'I think that was the most thoroughly English experience I have ever witnessed.' I could not have agreed more.

National characteristics represent an inexhaustible source of potentially misleading insights, especially in the form of jokes. A favourite in the Russian army is about a soldier who, in the peasant-cunning tradition of the Good Soldier Schweik, asks his lieutenant, `Does a crocodile crawl or fly, sir?' `It crawls, you idiot,' the lieutenant replies. `But the colonel says a crocodile flies, sir,' the soldier answers. `Well, so it does,' the lieutenant replies hurriedly, `but very, very low.'

News of the recent death of General

Aleksandr Lebed in a helicopter crash in Siberia reminded me of his favourite dinner-- party story. When Lebed arrived as governor of Krasnoyarsk, his first act was to invite round the local military commander. Lebed asked him what his problems were. `Well,' this general is supposed to have replied, `it's the weather, of course. During last winter, about a dozen conscripts committed suicide and the ground was so frozen that we weren't able to bury their bodies. So, as soon as the thaw came, I had all the conscripts out digging graves so that we wouldn't be caught out that way again the next winter. And do you know what happened?' he demanded in outrage. `No,' said Lebed. `What did happen?' `Eighteen of them deserted the next morning.' (This was no doubt followed by Lebed's uproarious laughter at his own anecdote.) Unlike in Russia, where concern for human rights is developing rather slowly, the authorities in the United States bend over backwards to eliminate anything that might offend their own citizens. The New York State Education Board is in the forefront of the struggle for freedom from offence, but it has just suffered a severe rupture as a result of the necessary intellectual gymnastics. …

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