The address is off Piccadilly Circus. We expect deafening music, a corner of an overcrowded bar. It’s the fourth anniversary party of a newspaper for Russians in the UK. I’m coming along with a colleague who knows the advertising manager. A cold night in November. Downhill on Regent Street, roadworks, black cabs, the blindingly-lit premises of a travel agent. I’m about to begin learning Russian, which could be a useful conversation gambit.
Waterloo Place. Dark windows. Except two: we cross the road and peer. People standing by tables, unmistakeable cheekbones. We’re here, doormen nod us in. It’s a generously baroque interior, bunched drapes, huge and ornately-framed mirrors, gilt, marble, vases of extravagant flowers, a Hollywood eighteenth century. There are a few people milling by the doorway, but not my colleague’s contact, so we drift the few yards to the bar. No bartenders, but we study a list of drinks: a dizzying abundance of cocktails.
“Vadim!” My colleague is moving towards a tall, dark-haired man in his 30s and in a grey suit. I join him, and we shake hands. Vadim, the advertising manager, welcomes us, tells us to have a drink and later there will be food. My colleague somewhat excitedly says how honoured we are to be here, though expresses concern that we speak no Russian. Vadim, who is in equal measure friendly, careful, and considered in his responses, assures us that most of those present speak English, and that the cloakroom is on the left.
It is. We hand over our coats, and survey that which is before us. Perhaps 60 or so mostly young and middle-aged men and women, all dressed very smartly, and clutching glasses of wine, gently circulating. It’s a large room, crowded with decoration and dim lighting, divided into a bar area near the door, and then up three steps into two adjoining spaces, one with sturdy-though-elegant chaises longues, the other is an open floor where a large screen shows grinning slides of the newspaper’s staff: with visiting dignitaries, with sports teams, at an airfield. A long, empty, trestle table anticipates the arrival of food.
We make for one of two promising-looking tables laden with glasses of red and white wine, and some thin tumblers of blue, brown and possibly green liquids, as divided and unmixing as oil and water. I recognise a bottle at the back of the table as a very pleasant Georgian brand, and take a glass of red. Smooth, faintly spiced. We move a step toward the hungry tables. “I’ve actually got to do some work tonight,” my colleague says, looking into his glass. “I need to have a word with Vadim about an advert, it’s been dragging on for ages.” He takes a sip and looks around.
I go in search of the gents, and on returning find him in conversation with two women. One is very young and pretty, the other slightly older, and he’s listening to her. They’re both lawyers, probably advertisers with the paper, and the older one used to write a legal advice column. My colleague asks what part of Russia she’s from, and she smiles, stating that she’s in fact from Georgia. Her companion remains silent, I ask her: she’s Lithuanian.
My colleague then asks a rather odd question, whether the former was paid for her legal advice column. She begins to reply, but thankfully a microphone starts up elsewhere, and people begin moving toward the front bar area. All eyes on a large alcove, where some musicians have set up their loudspeakers, and where the speaker is holding court. It’s in Russian, of course, or what we presume to be Russian, with tantalisingly brief, interspersed English sentences apparently translating entire five-minute stretches of speech. We are here to celebrate four years. It is good to see so many friends. But we are also losing our editor. She is getting married and moving to Denmark. So, soon we shall surely see a Russian newspaper in Denmark!
Applause is frequent, we join in. Several others take the microphone to say a few words, including Vadim. Staff members are called up, photos are taken. After 20 minutes or so, my colleague sidles off and returns with two of those thin tumblers with the interestingly-coloured liquids. It’s sweet, warm. Someone who may be a diplomat is announced, the English translation mostly drowned by applause. After another ten minutes of speeches, we notice numbers of the assembled moving off: food has arrived. We leave the speakers to their dwindling audience.
It’s a buffet, there are small bread rolls, but no knives or butter. Bite into them and a prawn is revealed at the centre. There are also canapé crackers bearing smoked salmon and cream cheese. Over more wine, we debate whether or not this is Russian food, and inconclusively conclude that it may be.
“Vadim!” my colleague collars him as he effortlessly circulates, and launches forth into a discussion on advertising content. Vadim is as friendly, careful and considered as before, while we are now rather more voluble. He moves off, music starts up from the front, we dispense with our plates, and make our way over. A pianist, a guitarist, a violinist. Quite by chance we find ourselves standing next to the lawyers from earlier, and the Georgian informs us that these are very well respected musicians back home. It’s a charming, energetic folk music, and the audience are soon clapping in time and warmly applauding each number. We watch, entranced.
After a while, a group in fancy dress appear from the cloak room area and make their way toward the musicians. They’re in eighteenth century wigs and frock coats; a young man wears a crown, and moves with a regal glide. They dance, inviting others, and soon there is a merry dozen or so twirling away in front of the musicians. At one point they all stop and briefly act out a scene of sorts, but it’s mostly obscured for us by a pillar and a dense crowd.
Then the music starts up again, and we go to recharge our glasses. Amid the chaises longues there’s now a photographer’s umbrella-like lamps, a camera on a tripod, and typewriter on a table with copies of the newspaper. A grey-looking elderly woman sits alone, waiting to pose in the dark, but the photographer is elsewhere, his equipment switched off.
Inevitably, my colleague and I start discussing Russian books and writers. The Master and Margarita. One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich. A Hero Of Our Time. For a moment, in the lavish surroundings, I am in one of the literary salons or drawing rooms of Turgenev. Then I notice some startlingly beautiful women, and that my glass is empty.
It is time to leave. My colleague makes a swaying effort to find Vadim and say goodbye: he is engaged with a group of senior-looking officials. The attempt is abandoned, and we instead shoulder out the door into the sobering cold.
First published in January, 2010, in Lucid Magazine, under the pseudonym Pol Rochester. Available in This Is The World That We Live In, a collection of Lucid Magazine (2010): http://www.lulu.com/gb/en/shop/sylvia-arthur-and-athena-kugblenu-and-paul-knipe-and-james-willsher/this-is-the-world-that-we-live-in/paperback/product-12034251.html