Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Friendship's Timepiece


Should we be poetic and sentimental over material things? Wordsworth went for the organic, nature, with his daffodils. Can you wax lyrical over a wristwatch? No? If that’s the answer, I stand in defiance.


Your black face, your red star,
Your inaudible tick-tock,
Your rugged brassy metal,
I have stared at you upon my wrist
For almost half a life.

Nightly, sitting tired and aging
Upon the mattress edge,
I wind you up again,
And through your scratched glass
The symbol of a struggle flickers.

Who made you, sturdy tovarich?
Who put that symbol of defiance,
That T34 upon your face?
Who sat at a Christopol bench,
Assembling meticulous movement?

Comrade Vostok, snug upon my wrist,
You have marked the times,
Red second hand sweeping
Chronometer marking,
Moments of love and of grief.

Kommandirskie, you are as tough
As the people who made you
As victorious as your tanks
My biology is transient
Your horology lives on.

The story of how I got my watch always reminds me of a better side of humanity and friendship. In 1986, I was working as a sales representative for a typesetting company in Grimsby. I was driving 1,000 miles per week throughout the UK. Our speciality was setting complicated timetables for bus companies and airlines. One such customer was Midland Red Buses in Rugby. One Monday, I received a phone call in our Grimsby office from Midland Red, where I was due to visit the following day.
    “Roy. Could you do us a favour? We’ve got a young Russian student here from Leningrad. He came over to study computer-assisted shipbuilding at Wallsend, but somehow ended up in Walsall. As his funds have run out, he’s ended up studying our transport system instead, but we’ve had the poor lad in the office for the past few days and don’t know what to do with him. He speaks good English. We’ve clubbed together and bought him some trainers, but if he’s studying business he’ll need to report back in the USSR about more than just our bus fleet. Any chance you could take him on the road with you for a couple of days to show him what a UK salesman does?”
I said I’d have to run it past my boss. He was a tight-fisted, awkward commercial pedant and I had to use all my guile to convince him that we’d simply be fostering good Anglo-Soviet relationships. He sneeringly agreed, adding
   “But we’re not paying for any of his meals or drinks or accommodation, and he travels in the company car at his own risk, and don’t let his presence interfere with your work, and get rid of him as soon as you can.” Such corporate humanity was underwhelming.
    So the next day in Derby, I picked up my young guest, the handsome, 18 year old Edward Emdin, and never have I experienced such delighted company. I was driving a new 2 litre Granada Ghia and to Edward it seemed as if he was on Sunset Strip in a Cadillac. We were bound for London for 2 days. He asked many questions. Being an incorrigible leftie and an admirer of early Soviet history, I became slightly bemused by his own less than enthusiastic take on the subject. I arranged for us to stay over that night with a good friend, another unrepentant Bolshevik, Bill Brewster. We decided that night to go for a meal and a few pints at the Slug and Lettuce in Islington. As we ambled along the streets en route to the pub, Edward stopped several times when he saw fly-posters on walls put there by organisations such as the Socialist Workers’ Party.
    “Roy! Bill!” he cried, “What is this? I see pictures of Lenin and Trotsky on your streets? How is this permitted in London? Why are they here?”
We explained the awkward concept of our freedom of political expression. But we could see that, Russian or not, young Edward’s passion for Soviet Icons hardly matched ours. We bought him a meal, I think it was either pasta or a pizza, and in the pub told him he could have anything he wanted. We drank plenty of beer, with Edward settling on Guinness as his favourite. Having little or no money, he frequently expressed his gratitude for our generosity. He was a young man of impeccable manners, and both Bill and I liked him a lot.
   The following day I let Edward accompany me on several calls to London bus companies, explaining to their marketing managers that his presence was part of some Anglo-Soviet education project. I think in those Reagan/Thatcher months of ‘the Evil Empire’ some of my customers thought I’d lost my marbles.
But Edward was diligent, took note of everything, and expressed his deep appreciation for 48 unexpected hours in the company of a stranger. I dropped him off in Walsall and we exchanged addresses. He later wrote to me from Leningrad and we kept in touch.
    Months later, I received another call in our Grimsby office. It was Edward. He was back in the UK, this time in Coventry. We met up and had lunch, and as we parted that day, he handed me a small parcel, telling me it was a gift in appreciation of our friendship. Thus I received my Vostok Kommandirskie T34 Tank officer’s watch. For almost three decades this rugged timepiece with its butch black leather strap has graced my aging wrist and kept accurate time. At midnight I wind it up, and as I gaze at the little image of the T34 tank and the red star above it, I think of Edward.
   Yet that meeting in Coventry would not be our last.
In 1997 I finally succumbed to my raging muse and took the risk of writing full time for a living. As the new millennium kicked in, my first major commission was for Honoured By Strangers, a biography of a forgotten WW1 naval hero, Captain Francis Cromie CB DSO RN (1882-1918) Cromie had commanded the Royal Navy’s Baltic submarine flotilla in 1915, fighting alongside the Tsar’s navy against the Germans. But when the revolution broke, Trotsky pulled Russia out of the war. Cromie scuppered his subs, sent his 200 men home via Murmansk, and stayed behind as Naval Attach√© in the British Embassy in Petrograd, simultaneously conducting an adulterous liaison with a beautiful socialite, Sonya Gagarin. Defending the British Embassy against invading Red Guards on August 31 1918, he was shot dead and is buried in what is now St. Petersburg.
   It was a sheer delight being sent to St. Petersburg by Saga magazine, accompanied by my good friend the photographer Graham Harrison, to write up Cromie’s story as a 2-part feature which helped to promote the ensuing book. Whilst there, a planned trip to Tallin went badly wrong when, at the Estonian border I discovered that my visa was inadequate, and I had to leave the train in the middle of the night. I was banged up by border guards in a station called Kingisett on the Russian border. In the morning I was bundled back onto a train bound for St. Petersburg, where I had no accommodation booked. Graham Harrison had stayed behind in St.P to take pictures, but I was alone with nowhere to stay until we would both meet up again three days later. I had Edward Emdin’s phone number. Would it work after all this time? From a booth at the Warsaw Station I called, and the minute I said ‘Edward?’ the reply came back; “Roy?” Within an hour he had collected me from the station and taken me to his apartment, where I would stay for the next three nights.

Svetlana and Edward Emdin outside the Baron Steiglitz Museum

    Buses or shipbuilding had not had any influence on his post-Soviet career. He was married to a delightful lady called Svetlana, and they had an intelligent boy, Robert. To my surprise, I discovered Edward was now an international art dealer with his own impressive gallery, Solart, based in St. Petersburg’s ornate Baron Steiglitz Museum. Staying with the generous, warm-hearted Emdins was a delight.
When Graham Harrison and I returned to St. Petersburg in 2004 for our research trip on my book A Brief History of 1917: Russia’s Year of Revolution (Constable & Robinson, London). On that trip
both Graham and I stayed at Edward’s apartment . Whatever I did for this young man in 1986 has been re-paid tenfold, and somehow, I hope Graham and I get to see him again in that magnificent city before I die, Putin, Obama and international tensions allowing.

    And so I look at my wonderful Soviet watch every night and think of the happy, successful Emdins. I once asked Edward what he disliked most about his school days in the old USSR. He said it was ‘Kalashnikov practice’. Every day pupils had to break down and re-assemble the gun at ever faster speeds. My out-dated sense of romance for the revolution and the 1941-45 Great Patriotic War which included the horrendous 900 day Nazi siege of Leningrad probably has no resonance with the happy, 21st century staff in the Solart gallery. But we are differentiated and oddly united in an understanding that those who  have lived a history have a much different view than those, like me, who have simply read about it.

And the Soviet T34 tank on my watch? It deserves a mention. It was first  encountered by the Nazis in 1941. German tank general von Kleist called it "the finest tank in the world" and Nazi tank ace Heinz Guderian confirmed the T-34's "vast superiority" over German armour and found it "very worrying."  The T-34 was the mainstay of Soviet armoured forces throughout World War II. It was the second most-produced tank of all time after its successor, the T-54/55 series.
The Russians are a great, brave and generous people. They have been through more suffering and privation over the past century than most of us can imagine. And so my accurate, reliable, somewhat battered old watch will continue to remind me, day after day, of those good Russians who have added such pleasure to my life. Thank you, Edward and Svetlana. You have kept my time and my faith in humanity ticking over for 30 good years.
Robert, now all grown up, with his dad, Edward.

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