MY FAVOURITE RECORDS
I borrowed this idea from BBC Radio 4 many years ago. Like all the best ideas, it’s very simple. There was no equivalent in Russian for listeners in what was then the USSR, so I adopted the format after I joined the London bureau of Radio Liberty. My early guests were all Russian-speaking Brits who knew and appreciated the genre.
One of the first was Theresa, a television producer, who had grown up in South Africa. She talked about her nanny, who was black and carried Theresa around strapped to her back, singing African tunes all the while. And so Theresa absorbed the rhythm of her walk, a kind of dance step that reverberated constantly through her body. Donald, a Slavist, described English culture as too thin and acid a soil for the healthy development of music and spoke with envy of Bartók and Shostakovich. The translator Sally reminisced about the wind-up gramophone in her parents’ home and the suburban London dusk accompanied by Schubert’s piano trios. Oleg Prokofiev came to the studio with a recording made in the Vatican of Alessandro Moreschi, the last of the castrati, singing in a pure, fragile, other-worldly soprano.
I heard and broadcast hundreds of remarkable stories connected with music. Some of those who told them are now dead, but they left me with music which I still play from time to time in my programme. Among them is the musician Aleksandr Yakulov. He was arrested in 1949, accused of kowtowing to bourgeois composers such as Bach, Mozart and Richard Strauss. Playing their music in his head helped himsurvivesolitaryconfinementinSukhanovoprison.Musicsavedhislifein the camps: the zeks petitioned the commandant to release him from work down the mine. He would play for a scrap of bread, frozen mashed potato, dog meat. The Ukrainian nationalists would request their beloved tango Hutsulka Ksenia, while the screws wanted another one, La Comparsita, as they shaved the pubes of actresses, diplomats’ wives and students. He only refused to play once: when the camp commandant announced the death penalty for two young poets who had written satirical verse about the Great Leader and Teacher. “My hands refused to play”, Yakulov recalled, “and the punishment cell was the price.”
Thanks to this programme I came to understand the importance and complexity of the role music and acoustic images play in a person’s life. All my subjects came with their own personal story: a last love, the death of a loved one, a first parachute jump, a risky defection to the West. And all the stories, like in the movies, had music in the background. My subjects carried this music inside, it could be heard from within them. Yes, indeed, the music we listen to resonates with the music that lies hidden inside us. It is an acoustic current, an audio mirage, a mould of the soul in sound.
THE MUSIC OF DICTATORSHIP
And what millennium, my dears, is it out there?
Jamming is the classical music of dictatorships. In February 2010 the Iran regime turned it on, full blast. Western stations broadcasting in Persian can no longer be heard in the country. I made my debut on Radio Liberty in 1978. That was the first time I was jammed. For the next few years I broadcast for the Russian Service of the BBC to the same cold war accompaniment. I can live with the fact that my voice was inaudible. But how did one lot of people dare to deprive others of the gift of hearing? This is God’s gift or, if you like, Allah’s. People in the Soviet Union were graciously restored this gift in 1988. Soon after I began gathering material for a programme I called “The people who jammed me”. A Lithuanian colleague gave me a list of veterans of jamming and their phone numbers. I tried calling Anatoly Stepanovich Batyushkov of the State Communications Committee, but he wasn’t available. He was recuperating in a sanatorium. I did manage to catch the chief jammer, Natalya Yevgenyevna Krestyaninova, who was by that time a pensioner. She wouldn’t talk on the record: too busy, retired a long time ago, grandchildren… Perhaps I used the wrong approach with her. Perhaps I should have been nicer – after all, you could say we’d been in the same business for years. Yes, what I should have done is give my name and then say something like: “Natalya Yevgenyevna, my dear, don’t you recognise my voice? It’s me, Igor? Which Igor? Igor Pomerantsev. Surely you remember? Come now, you would have heard me first in August ‘78, back in the Munich days. Yes, first in Ukrainian and then Russian. First on Liberty and then on the BBC. You don’t remember? Aw, surely you do? You’re busy? Of course. I understand.”
That’s what I should have said. And I didn’t even ask about her grandchildren, how many she had, what were their names, how were they doing at school and what their favourite subjects were. I didn’t ask. And never felt quite up to calling back.
P.S. So what millennium is it now in Iran? The second. And what year? 21 March marks the start of 1389. Happy New Year.
A LOVE SONG
I was in Tirana watching a British news channel with some new Albanian friends when there was a story in which a woman refugee from Kosovo described how she’d been raped by Serb soldiers. “You told me”, I said to them, “that no Albanian woman would ever admit publicly to being raped.” “She must be a prostitute”, they replied. “Yes, she was raped, and that is a crime, but she is a professional prostitute. She may have been from one of the Prishtina brothels, so she could talk about it.”
In Kukes I had a conversation on the same subject with Fred Abrahams, an American working for Human Rights Watch. According to him only two women in the Kukes refugee camp came forward with information that they had been raped, and asked to remain anonymous. Fred said the women had been raped in a village called Dragachin. He gave details. He said he was absolutely convinced they were genuine. Anna, a Swedish nurse from a camp run by Doctors Without Borders told me that so far only three refugees had asked for pregnancy tests, and, if the results were positive, for an abortion. They had also been raped. So, out of twenty or thirty thousand refugees in Kukes, there were five victims of rape. Is that a lot? A little? I don’t think it matters. Rape as an instrument of war is a war crime and should be tried before a military tribunal.
After talking to Fred and Anna, I visited the camp. After all, it’s one of the golden rules of journalism to check information at first hand. But I couldn’t just go up to the refugees and ask: “Who here has been raped?” I said hello, told them who I was and asked: “Will anybody here sing a traditional love song for my programme?” The women giggled shyly. Then one of them pushed a little girl of about six forwards and said: “Liri, sing for the man, sing.”
When I was young I couldn’t shake off Paul Éluard’s lines:
There was good news this morning:
You saw me in your dreams.
That’s how a poet understands news. I have translated hundreds of news casts. At the BBC I used to prefer the night shift. They began at seven in the evening, when there was still a typist available. By around nine everybody had gone home. I would go down in the lift to the basement and the canteen, where the lights had never been switched off for fifty years or more and where in the nineteen forties my colleague from the Eastern Service, George Orwell, had also been known to dine, strode briskly between the tables, down a narrow corridor and then, flashing a little plastic card under the nose of a semi-inebriated doorman, stepped across the threshold of the BBC club. This was, to put it somewhat crudely, the company drinking-hole, though a very civilised one. I would buy a bottle of claret (Black Prince) at the bar. The barman would loosen the cork for me and put it in a plastic bag. I would go back through the canteen, pick up a tray (cold roast beef and salad) and return with my precious plastic bag up to the fifth floor and the Russian Service. I would lean back in a chair, put my feet up on the senior producer’s table, and pour myself a drink. That was some wine! Any and every news went well with it. I would finish my last glass just as Anatoly Maksimovich Goldberg, the Russian Service’s observer, was coming to the end of his daily commentary in his deep and solemn baritone. Behind the editor’s desk, on a special shelf of its own, lay a tape with his commentary in the event of a Soviet invasion of Poland. It was the only commentary of his that was never broadcast. I played it once, out of curiosity, and can still remember: “Alas, the Soviet Union has remained true to itself. Today, just after midnight, Soviet tanks entered the suburbs of Gdansk, Warsaw, Krakow…”
In floodlit central London words cast deep shadows. The teletype ticked out rolls of news. I would tear them off, translate mechanically, and mutter to myself:
Talent is the only news that is always new.
Pasternak’s “news” also cast a shadow. One day it suddenly hit me: in these two lines Pasternak was taking part in a polemic about the novel. In English “novel” means both “new, previously unheard of” as well as a literary genre. A translation from Pasternakian into Russian would yield:
Talent is the only novel that is always new.
My secret nocturnal life in the news translator’s booth did not stop me flawlessly translating and reading items about human rights violations, about separatists and loyalists, about the seizure and release of hostages.
These night-time bulletins have long since turned into cosmic dust. What remains of them is the taste of claret and an after-taste of untruth. No, don’t misunderstand me. Somebody really did destroy or pardon whole nations, somewhere behind the scenes of the world’s theatre conspirators plotted, and heroes risked their own and other people’s lives to unmask them. But nothing was ever said in the news about what was most important: that in Verona a youth fell fatally in love with a girl, that in Marrakesh a middle-aged Englishman couldn’t tear his eyes away from the buttocks of an Arab boy, that in Moscow somebody translated Éluard’s lines:
There was good news this morning:
You saw me in your dreams.
Eleftheria, before you
All other joys grow dim,
Set my heart ablaze, keep me your slave, I am forever yours, Eleftheria.
A. S. Pushkin
In May 1999 I was on the border between Albania and Yugoslavia and witnessed a mass exodus of refugees from Kosovo into Albania. Once they were on Albanian soil these exhausted desperate people began to wail, weep and howl. It was there that a thought, quite inappropriate in the circumstances, suddenly struck me: the ancient Greek dramatists had neither invented nor discovered catharsis, they had simply registered its existence.
Working for radio you come to understand that you cannot only study or review European history, you can also hear it. To the ear this history is one of a combat between dialogue and diatribe. There is no genre in radio more basic than the interview. Just by putting together interviews, recording voices, stories, confessions, you can create a living, breathing space on air. Radio – an invention of a new time – can shake up, disrupt Plato’s patent form of dialogue. As I listen to and assemble the voices of my contemporaries, I think more often of Socrates, Plato and Plutarch than of what is topical, up-to-the-minute. “Among the guests were citizens and foreigners, relatives and friends, indeed, all sorts of people…” (Plutarch, Table Talk). It seems to be that the sound of human voices, polyphony, the tower of Babel is more important, higher than ideas, themes, truths. Maybe every craft or trade contains a similar kind of lesson. Fortunately, besides the “trade” criteria, there are other points of view, of hearing, of philosophising. But I want to share what I have heard, what I have listened to, in what delights my ear.
Translation by Frank Williams
* Eleftheria means freedom in Greek.