Tuesday, September 27, 2011


‘Morning Glory’ was a bush nursing hospital in a remote country town and surrounded by shady eucalyptus trees, giving it a picturesque appearance. During recent renovations, it had just installed new PVC floorings throughout. It was my company’s product and it was selected because it needed only the occasional quick buffing with a floor polisher. Yet despite this ease of maintenance, I had received a phone call requesting my visit to sort out a ‘faulty vinyl’. Sure, sure, I thought grimly.
Sister Theresa, who was running the hospital, smiled when she saw me. It was a trusting smile which made me determined to get to the bottom of her problem.
‘Mal, our cleaner tried to buff the floor with his floor polisher but said your vinyl was too soft!’
Despite the nonsense I’d just heard, I smiled back at her reassuringly. ‘Is Mal here?’
‘No, he starts work at six o’clock in the afternoon’, she stated.
‘But, sister, if I can come all the way from Melbourne to impart some knowledge and help him solve a problem, don’t you think that this merits his being present in his own time?’
‘I’ll phone him now because he does not live very far from here.’ Sister Theresa liked to get on top of problems.
While she retreated into her small office, I walked around the building, head bowed and studying the flooring. It was very well installed and looked bright and friendly. Suddenly, I came across the complaint mentioned and knew instantly what had happened to the flooring. The cleaner had switched on his floor polishing machine without having a buffing pad on the rotating disk with gripping spikes and he had routed into the PVC flooring. Of course, he had not admitted to having made a mistake and damaging the flooring himself, but complained instead about ‘the appearance of the floor after having buffed it’.
Within half an hour Nigel Firty had arrived. He looked annoyed for having been called from his home, in his own time, and, showing no embarrassment, pointed to the spot of approximately 70 cm of damaged vinyl. He took the buffing machine out of the cleaner’s room and polished an area of passageway without any problems. Obviously, he had learned his lesson in the meantime!
‘Unfortunately, I was not here, Sister, when this happened but I am confident that it will not happen again. If I send you a large piece of the same PVC flooring free-of-charge, could you ask the flooring contractor to cut out the damaged part and insert the new piece?’
Sister Theresa nodded ‘That will be fine.’ She, too, realised that this was not the time to point the finger at anybody but to ensure a friendly working relationship all round.
‘Thank you for coming, Peter,’ Sister Theresa spoke again. ‘If you could help us with that piece of vinyl that would be great.’


Wednesday, September 14, 2011


A few months after the Cuban Missile Crisis (note the capitals), I was lunching with another Russian expatriate who rejoiced in the name of George George. I knew him well as he was a great friend of Alex’s. He ran a small import/export business from a minuscule office in Jermyn Street and was a fairly frequent traveller to Europe, including the occasional visit to East Germany (sorry, the GDR).
Early in the meal, he said, in almost an off-hand way, “I hear you’ve had a spot of bother with the War Office.”
I was staggered when he said he knew of my fracas with Colonel Allen. Then I remembered George’s tale of how he came to Britain.
He had been in the last class of the Imperial Russian Military Academy, escaped shortly after the revolution and eventually set up in Germany where he qualified as a lawyer. In the early 1930s, he didn’t, as he said, “like the look of Hitler” (though he was not Jewish); he felt that Germany was not for him. He had corresponded with some vague relations who lived in Scotland, a situation which went back to the late 18th century when there was a flourishing trade in timber between Scotland and Russia, so, after much thought, for he spoke virtually no English, set off for the United Kingdom.
He found his German law degree was quite useless in Scotland. Indeed, an English law degree did not qualify one there either. So he left for London.
He much enjoyed telling of his time after war was declared in September, 1939.
“I went along to the authorities and said I would like to volunteer. I pointed out that I was fluent in Russian and German and had more than a working knowledge on Italian, Spanish and most Slavic languages, so thought I might be useful as a censor. They thanked me but pointed out that my request for naturalisation had not yet been approved. So I was sent off to learn how to be an air-raid warden.
“Someone may have pulled a string or two, as my naturalisation was approved quite quickly and I was sent for by what we now call MI5. They decided to use me in
their foreign language department……..and put me in the Dutch section; I knew, perhaps, a dozen words of that language.
I digress. George, very tactfully, asked me if I was still seeing a lot of Alex.
“I suppose I see him most days when we are both in London.”
“I had a call from Jim Craufurd. He’s worried about your friendship with Alex.”
In parenthesis, I would mention that Jim Craufurd was a cousin of my father-in-law and, thus, knew me, though slightly.
“Gosh, is that old fool still with the spooks?”
“That’s not very polite, Michael. He’s among the most revered ex-members of the intelligence service.”
“I’m astonished. I know what my wife’s immediate family think of him. I knew he was a KC in the dim and distant past but that most judges wouldn’t have him in their courts as he was almost impossible to understand.”
“Be that as it may. He is worried about Alex.”
“My dear friend. You know Alex better than I do. You know he is almost the archetypical Russian. He loves Russia, loves using the Russian language, he’s volatile and demonstrative. But he’s no more a fellow-traveller than Winston Churchill.”
Then I remembered the chance encounter in Geneva but thought better than to mention it to George, sure that, despite the lady’s nationality, nothing of a sinister nature had occurred (if you omit the cuckolding of a husband)
“Oh, well, I know it’s a difficult situation. I’ll trust your judgement.”
Blimey, I thought. Dear little (he was just over 145 cm tall in his Homburg hat) George was still heavily involved in the defence of Her Majesty’s realm. I supposed it was a case of ‘once in MI5, you’re there for life’, though that rule had hardly applied to Messrs Burgess MacLean and Philby
1963 arrived and with it the “Profumo Scandal”. A fairly senior Cabinet Minister (the Secretary of State for War—i.e. the bloke in charge of the Army under the Minister of Defence) had been accused of having an affair with a famous (?notorious) call-girl, Christine Keeler. That might have been tolerated but it transpired that among those enjoying her favours at the same time, was a Russian naval captain, one Evgeni Ivanov. Golly, I thought. Wasn’t he one of the blokes I met with Alex in the Moscow Arms?”
He was indeed and, it turned out, no more a naval captain than our daughters’ nanny for he was identified as the head of the London office of the Russian secret service, the NKVD. Obviously, ‘our chaps’ in MI5 had known this, hence their great interest in Alex. Incidentally, it is amusing to recall that British spies in embassies, whether in friendly or not-so-friendly countries nearly always seem to use the cover of “The British Council representative”, while our American cousins are often undercover as “Agricultural Attaché”.
I have often wondered what MI5 thought when one day early in 1962, they saw the front page of The Manchester Guardian (as it was then called). There, slap in the middle was a photo taken at the British Iron and Steel Federation’s trade mission to the USSR. Three men were depicted. One was the head of the BISF, another was Comrade Khruschev. Standing between them acting as interpreter, was Alex.
In the summer of 1964, I called on Alex in his flat in North Notting Hill one Saturday afternoon. It was on the top floor of four, no lift, quite spacious and comfortable. I knocked on the door and Alex answered immediately. He greeted me “Slav Style” with a big hug and a kiss on the cheek.
“Ho, ho,” I thought. “He’s been at the vodka.”
I went into the living-room and was introduced to a cheerful-looking chap, about fifty or so.
“Meet ‘Uncle Vanya’,” said Alex.
Now I had heard of the Chekhov play, but this fellow wasn’t dead. He solved my unspoken question by saying,
“I am Major-General Efremov, Senior Military Attaché at the Embassy.”
Here we go again.
What with one thing and another, plus the undoubted fact that Alex and “Vanya” were at least two very large ones ahead of me, I let that one through to the keeper. Vanya told me of his time as a parachutist in “the Great Patriotic War” and I, without too much exaggeration, retailed some of my Korean experiences.
“We were bloody fools to back that awful Kim Il Sung,” remarked my New Best Friend. I felt I could pluck up the courage to ask him to come to the window which overlooked the street below.
“Look at that──those two cars opposite.”
The automobiles in question were a Morris Minor with two men in bowler hats in the front and a large black car which I picked out as a Russian Zil. In this were a couple of hefty-looking chaps in large fedora-type hats.
‘Uncle Vanya’ roared with laughter.
“Those fellows in the little car are your chaps watching me. The blokes in the black car are my chaps watching your chaps watching me. Bloody stupid. Your MI5 know that the new head of the NKVD here in London is he ambassador’s chauffeur. I am what I told you; the senior military attaché. But they continue this charade. Gives them something to do on a wet Saturday afternoon.”
That was (almost) the end of the affair save that, once more I heard from Curzon Street. Not the rude Colonel Allen but a much more polite chap who asked me what I thought of Efremov.
So Our Spooks know I met him. Here we go again.
But it turned out a little different.
“What was your impression of the General? Does he like it here?”:
“He certainly seemed to. Indeed, I have wondered whether he might be ‘turned’”.
“Yes. But he doesn’t have his wife and family with him. The NKVD/KGB think he’s not totally reliable, so they keep them in Moscow as a kind of hostage to ensure his return to the Soviet Union.”
And that, as far as I was concerned, was the end of my (very sketchy) entry into the world of the NKVD, MI5, KGB and anyone else who had thought that my mate Alex was a fellow-traveller.


Saturday, September 10, 2011


Dear Visitor,
Today, I have the pleasure of introducing a guest author, my good friend Michael Muschamp, and am confident that you will enjoy his amusing reminiscing as much as I do. PETER FREDERICK

Yes, I know the heading should be “The NKVD and I”. Whatever, at least it rhymes.

1962 found me in London where I had worked for three years or so as manager of a New Zealand firm’s UK office. Not the world’s biggest office; self plus secretary and the occasional visiting fireman.

For the past three years, I had been sharing an office in the posh environs of Mayfair with another Kiwi, Alex Marks, who was the London end of a large NZ construction company. His boss and mine were good friends and the arrangement worked very well until the summer of ’62 when, for reasons unknown either to me or Alex, the bosses fell out and I was told to find an alternative home. Which I did, just round the corner from the ‘old’ one. Mind you, to get to my small office on the first floor, you had to fight your way past he rubbish bins of the ground floor caff.

Alex was about fifteen years my senior, a chap of medium height, greyish hair, bright eyes behind large rimmed glasses. Annually, he attended his good friend, a Jewish tailor, and bought two suits; by the month’s end they looked as if he’d slept in them. He probably had, for his success with the opposite sex was, not to put too fine a point on it, extraordinary. Given that he was usually emitting a good deal of garlic, I could only remain somewhat staggered

An example of his success in this important aspect of heterosexual life occurred in the spring of 1962. We met, by arrangement, in Geneva, both en route to the Hannover Fair, the biggest of its kind in Europe. It was chilly for the end of April but we put up with the temperature and had a coffee in a lakeside café. There was hardly a soul there, save for, a few tables away, an attractive woman in, I guessed, her early thirties.

We left to do our own bits of business, arranging to meet at Alex’s hotel three hours hence, i.e. at 7.30. A stickler for punctuality (a defect which has haunted me ever since my naval days), I knocked on Alex’s door at precisely 1930, local time. The door was opened. But not by Alex but the “lady by the lake”.

She joined us for dinner and left immediately after, explaining that her husband was due home early next morning. She spoke English with a decided Russian accent, but, at the time, I thought no more of that, knowing Alex’s love of his native country and its language.

He had arrived in New Zealand in 1920, the youngest of three children whose parents had undertaken the perilous journey to escape the Bolshevists, via Siberia and Kamkatcha for, as I was to discover a little later, they were , in the words of another émigré, “upper-middle class intellectuals, a bit like the Huxleys”. The language at home in Wellington, where they eventually settled, was Russian. Indeed, his father who was one of the founders of New Zealand’s radio manufacturing business, only spoke a very few words of English to his dying day and, whatever their family name was, it certainly wasn’t Markov or even Marx, the anglicised version of which had become Alex’s patronymic.

A few months later, in early October, it was cold, grey in England and, when it wasn’t raining, looked as if it would do so at any tick of the clock.

The newspapers, the BBC and ITV (thank God, only two channels then) were full of dire warnings. World War Three was just a-round the corner. Or, so they said. The United States and the USSR were playing a deadly game of ‘chicken’. Who was going to crack first as the Russian ships bearing missiles for Mr Castro were approaching Cuba?

My previous employment as a naval officer meant that I was subject to recall to the forces of the Crown whenever a state of emergency was declared or such seemed likely. Thus, I was not completely bewildered when my phone rang and an unmistakably military voice said, “Muschamp?”

“Michael Muschamp,” I replied, hoping, in vain, as it transpired, that the disembodied one might be a little less peremptory.

“You’re on the Emergency List of the RN, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I was transferred from the RNZN when I came to live in England.” I purposely omitted ‘sir’ as I had no idea who was interrogating me. I didn’t have long to wait.

“I’m Colonel Allen, War Office,” quoth the ill-mannered one, “come to my office in Curzon Street tomorrow at eleven.”

Not so much as ‘by your leave’ or ‘hope you haven’t another appointment.’
“I’ll be there, sir.”

“Room 35 on the third floor. Don’t be late.”

Having established that the fellow was three ranks senior to me (maybe only two as Lieutenant-Colonels are usually referred to without the first word), I thought I had better throw in the ‘sir’ in aid of good and friendly British Commonwealth relations. And ‘Curzon Street’ meant ‘MI5’, a fact of which I had become quite aware. for, before she was lucky enough to marry me, my wife had worked there though, of course, her post was a good deal junior to that of the peremptory “Brown Job” (the navy’s epithet for army personnel).

This exchange had left me aghast. I was fully aware that, some seven years since I had ‘been at sea’, I would be about as much use to one of Her Majesty’s Ships as a rope entangled in a propeller (‘screw’ in naval parlance). Nevertheless, I fronted the apparently anonymous Curzon Street building, told the guard who I was and where I was going. He checked, made a phone call to which he contributed,

“He’s in a suit, sir. Quite smart, actually.”
Some compliment.

I took a creaky lift to the third floor, found Room 35 and knocked.

“Come in, damn you.”

So I came in.

To face an angry-looking fifty-ish man, regimental tie, rather creased suit. He motioned me to a chair opposite him.


If that’s the way to win friends and influence people, I went to the wrong school, I mused.

I sat.

“This feller Alex Marks, you know him?”

“Yes, sir. We shared an office until about six months ago.”

“Why did you leave?

“Our respective bosses in Auckland had a bit of a falling-out.”

“But you still see Marks?”

“Yes, he’s a very good friend.”

“Funny sort of friend. You know he’s a Russian?” 

“ I know he was born in Moscow about 1916 and fled eastward with his family a bit later.. They finished up in New Zealand after a hair-raising trip. Not that he remembers it, but I’ve met his sister who told me about it.”

“You know he’s been seeing some Russians from their embassy here?”

“Yes, sir. I went with him once to the Moscow Arms where he introduced me to several Russians.” (The pub’s name had nothing to do with matters Russian except for the odd coincidence that it was in Moscow Road. In West Kensington) “But they all wanted to speak Russian so I didn’t go again. Of course he knows plenty of Russians who live here. He enjoys speaking Russian and, as someone once said, ‘You can take the man out of Russia but you can’t take Russia out of the man’”

“Well, I don’t want you to see him any more.”

“Might I enquire, sir, what right you have to tell me this? I may well be on the Emergency List of the Navy, but I am yet to be called up and I was unaware that a State of Emergency had been declared.”

“You are a cheeky young colonial. Get out.” 

So I got out.

I didn’t tell Alex.

(to be continued…..)
Would you like to leave a message for  Michael, right below? Many thanks!

Monday, September 5, 2011


The town of Bilbool was not very far. I had already passed its signs and soon I would be amongst houses again. Bilbool was a small country town and I only had to visit a school, a Government department and a bush nursing hospital.
The school had always fascinated me. It was so small that the principal was also a teacher, the cleaner and God knows what else. It had a small administrative building made of red bricks, many years ago, and since the town’s population was dwindling, there was plenty of space everywhere.
‘Good morning,’ I greeted the friendly lady behind the office counter. ‘Would Mr Frank Upton be in? I don’t have a firm appointment but he is expecting me today.’
She smiled. Obviously, they did not get too many reps. calling, being in the middle of grain-growing country with little else to warrant a visit from far away Melbourne.
‘He is teaching right now but just knock on the door and he will come out. But he may ask you to wait till recess.’
‘That is fine.’ I thanked her and walked the long corridor in search of a classroom with children and a teacher in it. Through the glass windows I could see into empty classrooms that would have been filled with children in days gone by. With young people flocking to the cities, country towns now struggled to preserve their small communities.
Sure enough, the last classroom to my right hand side was active. Children were sitting on their small chairs and listening with admiration and awe at what was being taught. At the front of the room, I saw Frank, the principal, teacher, caretaker, and whatever other functions he may have had in this little country school. He looked more like a farmer than a teacher, with his shirtsleeves rolled up, his collar unbuttoned. His sunburnt face, with lean features beneath a tussled shock of hair, was animated as he talked. I had also noticed that his pearly white teeth and blue eyes, cheerfully darting from one child to another, accentuated his personality. And, of course, he wore the grey gabardine trousers of the country folk and matching desert boots, made for walking on unsealed roads.
Suddenly, I realised that he was teaching German language. His blackboard was covered with picture cut-outs of various household articles and he kept pointing at them with a thick forefinger. I don’t know what came over me, but I knocked on the classroom door, opened it and stuck my head in.
I heard myself say in German: ‘Could I see you for a moment, please? I won’t keep you long.’
He flashed a smile at me and nodded. I am sure he mentally checked my grammar. However, my question had a noticeable effect on the children. Their mouths dropped open and they stared at me utterly surprised. Obviously, they had accepted a foreign language as being something to give them a hard time in school, but that somebody would actually speak it, when he didn’t have to, seemed to astonish them.?
‘That was a surprise, Peter,’ Frank extended a grateful hand. ‘Could I ask you to wait another ten minutes, when we have recess? I shall not teach for the rest of the morning and I am all yours then.’
‘Great, Frank. I shall wait outside the reception area. Alright with you?’
‘Perfect! See you soon.’ He went back into the classroom and recommenced torturing the poor children with a difficult language.
It turned out that Frank wanted my advice on installing a safety floor in the passageway. ‘Every time it rains, the rain water comes inside, making the corridor slippery and downright dangerous for the children’.
I had a look at the situation. ‘Frank, I’ll give you my honest opinion. The installation of safety flooring will cost a large sum of money and will still not solve your problem.’
‘Well, what do you suggest?’ Obviously, Frank was not keen to spend money unnecessarily. And if a floor covering rep. advises against buying flooring, there must be a valid reason.
‘Your main entrance to the school has no porch; it is flat and without protection. You step from outside directly inside. The rain hits your entrance and virtually comes inside every time the door is opened. And even closed, it runs from outside into your interior as there is no barrier.’
‘Y-yes. But what can be done about it?’ He was keen to make the right decision and was prepared to listen.
‘You have no roof protruding as a barrier for rain. If you had at least a canvas or aluminium awning which would act like an umbrella, the rain would fall at a distance from your entrance! ‘This, combined with outdoor industrial matting and another industrial mat inside, a minimum of five paces long, would take everything off the soles of shoes and your corridor would be dry.’
‘That is very good advice, Peter. It certainly would cost less than replacing a floor. I’ll be glad when I’ve stopped the kids from slipping.’
‘Now, hang on, Frank.’ I interrupted his beautiful thoughts. ‘There may be kids still falling because they push and shove each other. Even if you had a safety floor, there is no guarantee that nobody will slip - ever! But you will reduce the chance considerably if discipline is high.’
‘But that means your own advice will lose your company business,’ he said looking puzzled.
‘We do not work that way’ I explained to Frank. ‘If you really needed flooring I would say so. But I will not recommend something that’s not necessary’.
Frank assured me that he would get some quotations for a large awning and industrial matting and do his homework budget-wise. We shook hands and I left with the elating feeling of having helped a friend!