Soviet Bus Stops


I’ve collected all sorts of odd things over the last fifty years, including, when I was a very young child, a series of twelve seed catalogues produced by a company called BOCM. I never read any of them, but I enjoyed possessing them. Collecting them offered a kind of emotional security and control, an illusory feeling that the world might be manageable. I still enjoy and need this feeling today as I gloat over my things. Not for me, I think, a spiritual and immaterial life in a monastic cell, unless I could start a collection of monastic paraphernalia.

I also collect those tiny shampoos, conditioners, lotions and soaps that you find in hotel bathrooms, and I have boxes and drawers of them at home. I’m oddly reluctant to use them. If it comes to ‘having your cake’ or ‘eating it’, I’d always rather ‘have’ than ‘eat’. I haven’t yet catalogued the collection, nor have I arranged them by colour, purpose, quality, brand, or location of origin, but I might yet turn to that in my retirement. No doubt Sigmund Freud would have a few things to say about collecting, but fortunately he isn’t around to ask. In any case, he wasn’t exactly immune from the craving to take control of a small portion of the world. He collected and catalogued neuroses.

I’ve collected the ordinary too – stamps, coins, books, rugs, paintings, DVDs, CDs, etc. – but they’re too commonplace to be interesting for long. But I also enjoy the mad collections of others. I know a man who collects erasers (or rubbers as we call them in the UK) and I’ve visited some very odd museums – the Museum of Catering and Commerce in Budapest, which has a glorious collection of Soviet-era shop fittings, the Police Museum in Prague, where you can gaze in wonder at a cabinet full of poison pens, and the Museum of Humour in Plovdiv, which contains a remarkable collection of jokes, from one-liners muttered in bars in Bishkek to the whole of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Last week I marvelled at a motley collection of Allied and Axis military equipment picked up from the battlefields of Crete, and presented, with absolutely no historical context, in a private museum somewhere between Chania and Hora Sphakion.

But you don’t have to take possession of things in order to collect them. Train spotters don’t possess the objects of their enthusiasm in any literal sense, though I presume they derive a fleeting sense of an ordered world from what they do. Nor do spotters of bus stops come to possess the bus stops they spot.

Which brings me to a book I recently bought with the irresistible title,  Soviet Bus Stops, a collection of photographs of Soviet ‘bus pavilions’,  from all over the evil empire, from Kazakhstan to Moldova, by way of Lithuania and Armenia, perhaps even from places where busses never stopped (or started) at all, Soviet planning being what it was.

The photographs were taken by Christopher Herwig, who travelled tens of thousands of uncomfortable kilometres to compile his collection (and I doubt that the hotels he stayed at offered those little bottles of shampoo). It’s an utterly fascinating book and you’d certainly find yourself looking at it more than once. Who would have thought that bus stops could be so interesting, so varied and so expressive?

But of course public art always had a special place in the Socialist world (consider the Moscow Metro), and the book’s several prefaces explain how in the last decades of the Soviet era, architects and artists, frustrated by the billions of strictures applied to large scale structures, found individuality and expressive solace in the smaller scale of the bus stop.

In fact, designing a bus stop was something every architect in the Soviet world learned how to do. It was a standard exercise for design students across the Soviet world. Many built nothing larger. For some the bus stop offered a single chance  to say whatever they had to say about the world.

Think about it. What must a bus stop do?

  • It must protect the People from the wind, rain and sun
  • It mustn’t obscure the People’s view of the bus as it approaches
  • It must discourage the People from vandalism and other forms of capitalist desecration
  • It must be easy for other People to clean
  • It mustn’t obscure the bus driver’s view of the People or their hailing
  • It must entertain, educate and inspire the People in their relentless construction of a Socialist Utopia
  • It must fit snugly next to the road
  • It must encourage queuing discipline – no one is ‘more equal’ in a bus queue
  • It must vanquish Nature

How many of those criteria does this lamentably simple non-Soviet bus stop meet? I wouldn’t even know on which side the queue should form.


Never mind that the bus rarely arrived on time, and was a rickety old Soviet model when it did. If you were one of the People you probably didn’t own a car, so a bus pavilion was where you spent a good proportion of your waking life (the rest of the time you spent queuing outside shops). So you were grateful for something a bit out of the ordinary to wait in or at, something that would inspire you to come back and wait all over again.

I’ve seen some of these myself. I was in Moldova a year or two ago and came across a splendid bus stop just outside Cahul. It was just like the ones in Herwig’s book, and far nicer than any other building in the village. I stopped and photographed it but didn’t go on to collect any more. I didn’t then know that the bus stop can be a collectible item.

But hats off to Herwig. I can’t recommend his book too highly. Add it to your collection.

The Cut of My Jib

Everyone knows that love can be sudden, foolish and catastrophic. On the whole it’s better assembled gradually than experienced at once as a bolt from the blue, like the stigmata. Quite how love happens ‘just like that’ no one knows. It might be an ankle, the toss of a head, an imbecilic smile, or an equine laugh. Read as many romantic novels as you can and you’ll never discover the cause. Barbara Cartland, William Shakespeare, they were sensitive observers, but they weren’t true scientists.

Spontaneous hatred is equally inexplicable but we all experience it from time to time. Flowing from us or coming at us. It might be the licking a finger before the turning of a page. It might be a matter of table manners. It might, from a different perspective, be that imbecilic smile or that equine laugh. Sometimes it’s the tiniest, almost imperceptible thing.

I was the victim of it myself, the other day, a spontaneous burst of hatred coming in my direction on the tube between Ladbroke Grove and King’s Cross St Pancras. A man sitting opposite me glared at me in an alarming way as I took my seat, and he went on glaring, even when I wasn’t looking. I could sense it. He didn’t look like a terrorist bent on the indiscriminate taking of many lives, so I wasn’t inclined to reach for the emergency stop. No, it was my jib he didn’t like the cut of, and mine alone.

As far as I could tell, there was nothing odd about my jib. There never is. I was dragging a suitcase towards Luton Airport and my jib was the usual jeans and polo shirt. I caught his angry eye, and looked away, and then back again as we passed through Paddington, and Edgware Road and Baker Street, to see if he was still looking, and then I decided I wouldn’t look at him at all. The last time I looked, he raised a finger at me like this:


I was frightened, to tell the truth, just a little, but I couldn’t see that he was any danger. The previous evening a young man had run amok in Russell Square leaving an American woman dead and several people injured, so I was alert to the dangers of insane behaviour in a public place and ready to run should he lunge.

At Great Portland Street he tottered to his feet and lurched towards the exit, and it was only then that I realised he was completely drunk. I heard another passenger commenting on the smell of drink as he stumbled from the train. Even so, why did he pick on me?

Drunk or sober, instant dislike is disturbing. My father used to say, ‘I don’t like the cut of his jib’ when he took against someone he didn’t know. He used to say it quite often, and, to give credit where it’s due, he was often right about the people whose jibs he took against, and I often ended up taking against them too. But I never remember him raising a finger to make his point.


I looked up ‘cut of his jib.’ It’s a nautical term, apparently, from the early 19th century, the jib being the forward sail that indicated a ship’s nationality. So a ship with the wrong cut of jib is an enemy one best avoided. Wear your jib carefully.


Mass Seclusion

When I was in my twenties, impecunious and pretentious, I travelled enthusiastically as far as my budget would allow, and sometimes a little further. I was occasionally alone but more often with family and friends. I remember one friend in particular who was tiresomely anxious that we should never call ourselves ‘tourists’, or be perceived as ‘tourists’ by others. Rather, we were ‘travellers’, though, as far I could tell, we queued for the Uffizi, and the Vatican Museum, the Duomos, and the Pinacotecas, just like everyone else. And although my friend was sometimes dressed eccentrically, I believe I looked as scruffy and ill-dressed as the ‘tourists’ we despised. I’m sure we took the same holiday snaps home, and the stomach upsets too, even if not the t-shirts.

What is it that makes some of us determined to be a cut above the others? Why do we strive to be different – by which I mean more entitled, somehow, to be where we are? There’s nothing shameful about tourism, as far as I know. And why do we so eagerly avert our eyes and close our ears to the braying voices of our compatriots, and seek out those places, churches, hotels, beaches and restaurants that no one else knows about? We never find them, of course. If they exist they’re already mobbed by crowds of people exactly like us. How we love to find that restaurant where the locals eat, forgetting that they eat there to get away from us.

These days, I’m quite comfortable being a ‘tourist’, and I’m happy to speak my own language with people who are just like me, or indeed not like me at all, even if they avert their eyes at first. You can’t run away from yourself.

As a tourist you have hard choices to make. If you’re seeking authenticity, isolation, and communion with the locals, you must forget comfort, safe food and drink, easy access and escape. If you want seclusion and comfort, you must accept the ferocious expense of it, and mustn’t expect anything to be authentic. You won’t learn a lot about the country you’re visiting and its people if you’re holed up in a five-star resort hotel. You’ll be surrounded by the burnished rich, and you’ll be served by people who’ve had all the individuality trained out of them. If it’s exclusive, it’s excluded everything of value as well as the ‘riff-raff’.

The middle way is simply to accept that if there’s an affordable, moderately comfortable place in a spectacular setting, then you won’t be there alone. If it’s perfect, then the crowds will have found it.


Take Loutro, for example, on the south coast of Crete, a spectacular bay that you can only reach by boat. The sea is unpolluted, the architecture simple, the hotels and guestrooms affordable, the cafes and restaurants neither sophisticated nor primitive. It’s hard to get to, but thousands do. This tiny strip is the perfect getaway with a population density nearly the equal of Gaza. And your friends from home will have the room next to yours and you’ll chat about Brexit at the Bar. And yet I would return.






There’s only one thing worse than being told what to do, and that’s being told what not to do. I mean, of course, when there’s no justification, though I have to admit that in quite reasonable circumstances, too, as, for example, when I was learning to drive, I don’t like being told what to do, and in 1987 when a man in Twickenham barked at me for four whole days and occasionally seized the steering wheel, it meant that I never got as far as taking the test.

When you’re on holiday, as I am now, in a quiet place on the south coast of Crete, being told you can’t do something when there’s no good reason at all, can make you very peevish indeed.

Consider this, posted at the top of the steps to the bar at a very modest three-star hotel in Loutro  (70 EUR per night for two).


Two things annoyed me immediately. First, the spelling of ‘ambiance’, which I mistakenly took to be wrong. It turns out that ‘ambiance’ is an acceptable, though little used alternative to ‘ambience’ so it’s fortunate that I mounted no attack on the hotel’s management on that score. But second, the assault on liberty.

In general, we should be free to do what we want as long as we don’t harm others or infringe their rights, and whilst moralisers, blue-rinsed conservatives, and luddites might long for an age when quiet conversation was the only alternative to suicide, times have changed, and if we choose, as couples, individuals or families, to sit quietly with our eyes on our phones, and laptops, texting, totting up numbers in spreadsheets, emailing, blogging, talking quietly to our distant colleagues and loved ones, or snapping a pic or two, that is surely our business and no one else’s.

Obviously we mustn’t make too much noise, and we must switch off those pings and beeps. We must certainly prevent those tinny high-pitched tones to seep from our earphones into the calm quiet around us, but if we’re doing no harm, then let us do what we want in the bar.

‘Harming others’ of course, is something that is hard to define, but we should be very wary of allowing those who would curtail our liberty from citing what they might call ‘indirect’ harm. A man wearing the wrong kind of cricket gear might be said by some to ‘lower the tone’  but I would struggle to understand what this might mean.

And, for example, there were some who argued against same-sex marriage on the grounds that, whilst it didn’t in any obvious and direct way harm mixed-sex marriages, it nevertheless undermined the whole ‘concept of marriage’. Piffle. It would surely be hard to demonstrate exactly how, just as it is hard to explain quite how the use of mobile phones or laptops harms the ambience of a simple and unsophisticated bar at three-star hotel in a remote part of Europe.

Nevertheless rules and conventions are hard to ignore. A couple of months ago I went to see Der Meistersinger at Glyndebourne and I didn’t wear Black Tie, as most men do, rather a lounge suit, a little tight around the waist. I would have been much more comfortable, though even more ill at ease, in jeans and a polo shirt, and I can’t think that anyone in the audience would have been harmed in any way. But, convention is powerful and even if we don’t care about belonging to a particular tribe, we don’t want to be scorned.

At the Salzburg Festival, three weeks ago, believing that the rules would be more strictly enforced than in Sussex, I wore Black Tie, but, to my dismay, saw that most of the audience was quite casually dressed. I didn’t feel ill at ease, but I certainly felt uncomfortable. It was a very hot evening and the auditorium wasn’t air conditioned. Two rows in front of me, a man was wearing blue jeans and an open-necked shirt. I didn’t notice any scornful looks cast in his direction, and I cast none myself. There were only envious and admiring ones, but that might have been for other reasons.


Why do we lay down the law, when it doesn’t matter a jot?

At the hotel beach there’s this notice too, which I think equally silly. I go topless, myself, as it happens.






The Artificial and the Natural

Playing the oboe is difficult. It’s a woodwind instrument topped with a double reed made of cane, wire, cord, cork, nail varnish, beeswax and brass. When the reed is working well the oboe makes a beguiling and plaintive sound (think of the solo from Swan Lake or at the start of the slow movement of Brahms’ Violin Concerto). Played inexpertly the sound can weaken concrete. Most parents don’t have the patience for it, nor can most afford the isolated farmhouse that it requires, which is one of the reasons why so few children learn how to play it and why almost all oboists were brought up in the countryside. It’s said that 10,000 hours of practice can make you an expert at anything. Your first 8,000 hours on the oboe should be spent in solitary confinement.



Putting others’ aural comfort aside, the challenge of the oboe is that if you want to play it well you’ve got to make your own reeds, or, at the very least, have the skills to adjust them if others have made them for you. You have to be a craftsman as well as a musician. If you’re a flautist you can simply pick up your flute and play it. There’s no fussing about with a box of DIY tools. In fact, there’s no other instrument I can think of that involves such pernickety fiddling about with bits of cane, and wire, and cork and knives. It’s as if you should know how to make corsets in order to function as a barrister. True, playing any musical instrument involves a certain amount of manual dexterity, but that’s a different thing from taking tube cane, splitting it, gouging it, shaping it, binding it and scraping it. Lucky indeed is the oboist who’s a good craftsman, luckier still the oboist who enjoys the craft of reed-making. If he or she is a good oboist and musician too, it’s like winning the Euromillions Lottery.


I make my own reeds. I was taught how to do it by my wonderful oboe teacher, Douglas Heffer, more than forty-two years go. I still hate doing it, but I can’t play on anyone else’s. Each one can take me an hour or so to make and test, and only one in eight (a low hit rate – some oboists achieve one in four) works well enough. Worse still, when you’ve made yourself a good one, it lasts just a week or so in peak condition. They’re fragile and organic, and they’re gradually digested by saliva. The mouth isn’t a good place to put a natural substance, but as far as I know you can’t play the oboe in any other way.

So, we oboists have dreamt of the artificial oboe reed – the ‘plastic reed’ impervious to saliva and time. Clarinettists already have them (but theirs is a single reed rather than a double) and bassoonists are starting to use them too. Both of these types are much larger, and the higher margin of error means that artificial clarinet and bassoon reeds have been easier to develop.  And even if they’re not using artificial reeds, bassoonists and clarinettists can buy reliable natural ones made by others. They don’t need to be craftspeople.

So, we oboists have been excited recently by the launch of the ‘plastic oboe reed’ by Légère, and I went to the oboe shop, Howarth, in London, with my oboe-playing friend Caroline, to try one out, in the hope that for the rest of my life I might never have to make another reed. Mind you, they’re expensive, but I and most oboists would sell half of what we possess, as well as our souls to the devil, for a reliable supply of pick-up-and-play, last-forever oboe reeds.


And, they’re not bad at all. I think I could get used to them. The ‘scrape’ has a different contour to mine, and the sound is a remoter, mellower, more closed sound than mine, but I think I could get used to that, if others could.  I also understand that they can be adjusted slightly, if you’re nice to Ollie, who works at Howarth, but once you’ve adjusted them you can get months, even years, of life out of just one. I’d wondered what it would feel and taste like to put something dry and artificial in the mouth but it felt just the same as the natural ones. So, I’ve ordered four. Why four? You’d think they would be identical, since they’re made out of the same substance by a machine, but apparently they can be hit and miss. And at more than one hundred pounds each, and with a waiting list,  I thought I’d improve my odds by buying in bulk, and trust that Ollie won’t ruin them all.

And it doesn’t’ stop there when it comes to oboes and the artificial. Oboes are traditionally made of a very hard wood called African Blackwood that sinks in water, and is so close-grained that it looks and feels like stone, but the mischievous Michael Britton, who runs Howarth, and whom I’ve known for 35 years, brought out a swirly purple ebonite oboe for me to try. Ebonite is a hard plastic that’s closely related to kryptonite (apparently), or Bakelite, the hard stuff that old-fashioned telephones were made of. Howarth have made just two of them, and they’ve both been kitsched up with gold key work.. If Liberace had played the oboe, not the piano, this would have been the model he would have chosen. But, to my very great surprise, it played remarkably well, though at 14,000 pounds, I don’t think I’ll be buying one tomorrow.

It’s a myth that natural is always best. Let plastic reign.


A Simple Ten-Page Tale from India

Until this year I’ve got away with watching the final presentation at the Children’s Theatre School in Shiroka Luka without understanding anything at all. Elena Panayotova’s narration in Bulgarian has whizzed through my brain without depositing a single iota of information, and I’ve been able to enjoy the costumes, dancing, puppetry and other forms of theatrical wizardry, undisturbed by knowledge.

Not so this year. On our arrival in Shiroka Luka, we foreigners were handed a ten-page story, in excellent English, and encouraged, indeed commanded, to absorb the plot before Saturday’s performance.

In summary:

Young, rich, eligible bachelor king Nal is unexcited by the local girls.


But, so famous is he, that a distant princess, Damayanti, falls in love with the idea of him before she’s even seen him.


In due course Nal hears about Damayanti from his soldiers (apparently whilst dancing), and he falls in love with her, again, sight unseen.


Pining by the shore of a lake in the palace garden, sometime later,  Nal sees seven beautiful swans and can’t resist grabbing one.


The swan begs to be freed. In return she will fly to Damayanti and tell her of Nal’s love. Which she does.


Then, Damayanti’s father, the king, noting her new-found happiness, decides it’s time she got married. He invites all known nobles to present themselves, assuming that the man Damayanti loves will be one of them.


Indeed, Nal sets off to make his case, but along the way he meets four Gods (Indra, Varuna, Agni and Yama) who are also bent on winning Damayanti’s hand. They demand that Nal should be their messenger and that Damayanti should choose one of them.


Reluctantly he does as they command, and rapturous as Nal and Dmayanti are at meeting each other, he explains that she must marry one of the Gods. Damayanti refuses and promises that when the Gods present themselves she will choose Nal.


And that’s all I’ve got time for today.











Being at your own Pre-Funeral


My mother is 95, and in good health, both mentally and physically, facing the last years of her life with equanimity, good grace, and a total absence of self-pity. Her powers are failing, but, as I remind her, so are mine. So are everyone’s. She might well have another ten years to go, or even more, and if she can maintain her mental acuity, and her sense of humour, and of the ridiculous and the absurd, they will be good years for her and for those around her. She has no expectation of immortality and is determined to make the most of the time that’s left.

I spoke to her yesterday on the way home from the airport. She’s been cajoling me into playing the oboe at her ‘final’ concert party in Salisbury in September, and I’ve been teasing her by pretending to demur. There have, after all, as I point out, been several ‘final’ concerts – almost as many as the great Spanish soprano, Montserrat Caballe, has given.

Our family concerts involve my brother and me, his children, their spouses and partners playing classical music on the oboe, flute, violin, bassoon and piano, often awkward arrangements of well-known pieces such as the Rite of Spring. These concerts serve as reminders, in some cases, of how much better we used to play when we were children or young adults.

So, I have pretended to be unsure of whether I can take part, citing business travel, lack of practice, broken reeds and hugely more important things to do. My mother has countered with various powerful arguments, most of which boil down to the unreliable suggestion that ‘this really is the last.’ But I am not convinced.

Yesterday, however, on the spur of the moment, she launched a new line of argument.

‘You played at that old lady’s funeral last year,’ she said, referring to my two-minute oboe solo at the funeral of my dear friend Jane last May (my mother has total recall, it seems, and I should never have told her about it).

‘So, I really think you should play at my pre-funeral.’


What a marvellous idea! All the ceremony, glad-handing and fun of the funeral itself, with the added advantage that you can actually BE THERE to enjoy it.

We had a good laugh about it. She can still be funny, inventive and absurd. And it is true that we shall probably play the same music at the real one, assuming we do not pre-decease her, and as long as we are still young enough to play.

But the question is, how many pre-funerals can you have? I am afraid this may be the first of many.

Nevertheless, I suppose I shall play at it.