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!

No comments:

Post a Comment