The events of yesterday took me straight back to the summer of 1968, a turning point in my life. I was driving around Scotland in my own car, having just passed my driving test, and in the autumn I was due to start university. Not long before, my mother had told me that although she had been born in Vienna—which I had known for a long time—her parents were both from Czechoslovakia. The so-called ‘Prague spring’ that year, spearheaded by the reformist leader Alexander Dubček, seemed likely to lead to more liberal governance in the country. It was as though even hardened communist regimes were not immune to the ‘summer of love’ effect.
Then as I was driving home, the news came through that tanks from Warsaw Pact countries, headed by Russia, had rolled into the capital and crushed any possibility of a democratic rebirth. They crushed my hopes too, because I had the vague idea of trying to track down my grandparents.
And so to yesterday, when the pleasure of doing a very well-received talk on my book about the Red Barn Murder to a local U3A, was completely overshadowed by the appalling news from Kyiv. It is pointless to repeat all the reasons why this is a brutal and cynical crime against the entire free world. The Iron Curtain falls again, as Putin starts to construct Soviet Union v 2.0.
I had thought that when the original Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the world would be able to forget about ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’—wondering whether our children would ever grow up—and concentrate on more useful things like feeding the planet. Swords into ploughshares... Now we are back to the bad old days. It is difficult not to be very, very depressed.
I wonder whether Liz—don’t call me a surgical appliance—Truss realises just how ridiculous she looked lecturing that wily old war-horse Sergei Lavrov in Moscow this week. Moscow has more troops around Ukraine than the UK has in its entire army... The days of the Great Game are well and truly over, and it really is time that people like Johnson and Truss realized that. I wonder if many others, like me, could not get out of our minds the vision of Truss’s indignation at the Tory conference on the discovery of how much cheese the UK imports...
Russia needs to be treated with great care. Putin may be a barely disguised hoodlum not chary of sending murder squads to this country, but the Russians are a proud people with a distinguished history. Twenty million Russians died in world war II, and they sustained 300,000 casualties in the storming of Berlin alone. The national pride was badly dented on ‘losing’ the cold war, and I suspect that the West was too busy congratulating itself to have been aware of that.
The way to deal with Russia is by quiet—even secret—diplomacy, like Kennedy did with Khrushchev after the Cuba missile crisis, not by making absurd threats that everyone knows are as empty as the drawer where Boris Johnson keeps his morals.
Fifty-six years and a few days ago, I returned home after a moderately lengthy stay overseas.
In late May of 1965, the band had arrived in Rome to take up a one month contract to play at the Piper Club, a prestigious nightclub in Via Tagliamento near the Villa Borghese. The paradise of several weeks in the eternal city in summer, was such that when our contract came to an end, we decided to stay on in Italy. We believed that there was a good living to be made. But by the winter of that year, now lodged in a decidedly dodgy hotel in Modena in the north of the country, it was becoming clear that we could not earn sufficient money to support ourselves.
Reluctantly, we decided to call it a day and go home. We had a booking to play at a club on the shores of Lake Garda near Verona in mid-January 1966, and decided that it would be our last in Italy. When the gig was over, we planned to drive north to the Brenner Pass, cross the border into Austria, and thereafter via Germany and Belgium back to England.
Our transport was a Ford Thames 15 hundredweight two-seater commercial van. The back of the vehicle had a plain wooden floor with only our equipment and suitcases to sit on. We were very short of money, having barely enough for fuel and the price of the channel crossing, so we decided to drive in relay stopping only for petrol and scratch meals. There were three drivers and me. I did not drive then, so the plan was that the two resting drivers would sleep or doze as best as they could in the back, while I got to sit in the passenger seat, navigate, provide company for the driver, and keep the windscreen clear. There was no heater, so the condensation from our breath quickly froze on the glass if not promptly removed.
It was well after midnight before we left the club in slushy snowy conditions. The distance to Brenner was around 150 miles, and given the conditions—dark, hilly country, relatively minor road, snow and slush—progress was not very rapid. We had heard that snow-chains were required to cross the Brenner Pass, which is higher than Ben Nevis, so we bought some and fitted them to the tyres when we judged the snowfall on the road was thick enough. It wasn’t, and whether they were cheap chains or just only useful for thick snow, they broke well before Brenner. It was probably five or six am when we arrived at the pass, chainless, and were mightily relieved when they let us through into Austria.
Innsbruck was around twenty miles further on, and it was important to turn left there and then right to take the shortest route north westish towards the German border and Stuttgart. It was early morning, still dark, and I had been awake for twenty-four hours. Whether the map was bad, there was poor road signage, or I dozed off I don’t recall, but we did miss the turning, and found ourselves driving east. After twenty minutes or so I realized the mistake. I had to decide whether to turn round or keep going. The map showed a turning north in a few miles and I elected to take it.
By now it was broad daylight, and the road became steeper and started zig-zagging; we were getting higher and higher and passed through a ski resort. We also skirted a beautiful alpine lake, The Achensee. But what was astonishing, and almost made up for the anguish of adding at least two hours and more than sixty miles to our journey, was the appearance of the trees. Many were pines, and the snow had accumulated on their branches turning the whole into a series of beautifully decorated Christmas trees. It was a winter wonderland. The effect was quite magical and one I will never forget.
Finally we arrived at the German border. This was a minor crossing; we were very high up and I was more than a little anxious. The guards looked askance at our battered van—it had endured several close encounters with Italian traffic, including a tram, in Rome. I was worried they would refuse us entry. We had already been stopped by the Italian police on the Autostrada who told us that the van was in a dangerous condition—the nearside front was badly dented with some bits missing...
We could speak no German and the guards had no English; fortunately, this was the Tyrol with considerable Italian influence, and one of the guards spoke that language—as did I, albeit very badly. I explained that we had been driving all night and only wanted to go home; we were not vagrants and would drive right through their country to Belgium and thence to the Channel Ports. After some discussion among themselves they allowed us through but insisted that we purchase insurance for the van. We drove all day through Germany and it was dark when we finally arrived in Belgium. By this time I had been awake for thirty-six hours, and while driving along the motorway from Brussels to the coast, I started to hallucinate. It was frighteningly real and took the form of walls built across the road; time after time they appeared and dissolved as we drove through them.
I don’t remember the crossing from Ostend to England—probably to Dover. Being mid-winter we were obliged to wait some time for a boat, and it was night-time again when I was finally dropped off at my parent’s house in Ealing. We had divvied up the remaining cash, and had a £1 note each to show for more than eight months in Italy.
I rang the house bell; my mother came to the door and greeted me with a “Good God!”. And during my absence, my father had converted my bedroom into a printing shop; for the next few months or so, I was obliged to sleep on a couch in the living room.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs