Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Balalaikas in Notting Hill

The Historical Monument of the American Republic by Erastus Salisbury Field (1888)

America is the Republic of my imagination but England is my home.  And a pot of lamspang souchoung and slice of Dundee cake was much needed after a twelve month stretch in Atlanta, "the city too busy to hate".


But the Red Army has invaded London. Stinking rich, spasmodically vulgar Cossacks, with saber-rattling manners and trashy wives in thick make up and tottering heels. Russians are ubiquitous. In the queue at Lidgates on Holland Park Avenue, downing champagne and fruits de mer in the gastropubs of Portobello Road, scouring racks for designer bargains at TK Maxx on Ken High StreetThere are so many you can almost hear balalaikas on Notting Hill Gate. We won the Cold War but it is the Russians (and others) who are breaching the peace.

But dodgy Russians have always lurked in the leafy gardens and seedy cul-de-sacs of Notting Hill. This is because of the Russian Embassy and its residences on the stretch of Bayswater Road that turns into Notting Hill Gate by the Czech and Slovak embassies.  Worried about the 6,400 employees of GCHQ listening to your phone conversations and analysing your metadata? I have had 30 plus years of it living in Linden Gardens. Because of the embassies across the road the phones are ALWAYS tapped.  And, like many other residents, I am quite used to phantom calls in the middle of the night, crossed lines and strange clicks and whizzes during conversations.

Russian spy Anthony Blunt with HM Queen Elizabeth II

And we have a history of shady residents and unwelcome passers through. The hard drinking BBC man and double agent Guy Burgess briefly lived on Clanricarde Gardens (conveniently opposite the Russian Embassy) before he was posted to Washington. Another member of the Cambridge Five spy ring was Bayswater resident Anthony Blunt. He was once recognized by punters at the local cinema on Notting Hill Gate and booed out of the auditorium. And international terrorist Carlos the Jackal had a bolthole (paid for by the Russians) above a launderette on Moscow Road until the early 1990s.

But the Eastern European invasion is an issue that binds the fears and prejudices of all classes in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The working class argue about Romanians and Bulgarians claiming benefits and council homes (who the Hell wants to live in a council home?) And the English bourgeoisie (who would want to live next door to them?) carp on about ostentatious Russians buying up homes and lording it like Loadsamoney.

What do we know about these dodgy incomers, eh?  It is best, after all, to know your enemy.  And the Russians (slash whatever) have ALWAYS been the enemy.  They hate our propaganda about winning the Cold War. And they are back, in Notting Hill and elsewhere, to serve us a dish most cold. Let's face it: we are a soft touch to Ivan and Co. We will always be “decadent westerners” with “supernatural beliefs” (IE faith based) to these warped products of the Soviet educational system.

CCTV of German Gorbuntsov's hitman in London 2012

The one thing that all of these nouveau riche commie finks and oligoons share in common is a fear and loathing of Vladimir Putin. And the Siloviki, Russia's ruthless 'men of power' now running the Kremlin. They hate the regime and can't wait for Putin to die.  Too chicken to go back home to Mother Russia they feel "safe" in London. Safe, that is, until someone contracts a hired gun or slips polonium-210 into their sushi. 

Entrance to Maddox Club on Mill Street in London

Many Londoners don’t feel safe. Russians can be vulgar, violent, unpredictable. One friend, Dodgy Roger, the resident DJ of Maddox Club, was threatened with a grim fate by a Russian oligarch’s moll if he did not play “Russian music” during his set. Her request was in deadly earnest and she dispatched two heavies to put the frighteners on him. The ageing DJ managed to dissuade them with a hasty impersonation of Bob Hoskins from The Long Good Friday.  But they can be extravagantly generous, too. On one occasion a visiting Russian to Maddox’s “green room” gave our man a £10,000 tip. Would an English billionaire do that?  Not bloody likely.  They are too stingy. 

This new super rich class feels at home in London. For London now has more multimillionaires than any other city in the world. There are an estimated 4000 individuals in the city with a personal fortune of £20m. And they like to flash this absurd wealth.  They have no qualms about spending £123,000 on a bottle of Scotch or £98,000 for a bottle of Chateau d'Yquem. At a time when the poor in British society are heading for Dickensian times, they do silly things like buy yachts and helicopters. Forget the 1980s: the rift between London's wealthy and the rest of the population hasn't been this bad since the 1940s.    

Putting on my counter-espionage flat cap from Lock and Co., shouldn't we be concerned about Russians treating London like a billionaires playground? Shortly before I was posted overseas in 2003,  MI6 advised the UK Department of Trade and Industry to block Roman Abramovich's £140 million takeover of Chelsea Football Club. They were overruled by Lord Peter Mandelson. Ee by gum, are we that daft for trade and investmentWe must be coz we are doing exactly the same thing with China in 2014. Ah-so: time for honorable payback for Opium Wars by venerable Chinese hatchet men!

Is this the death of England as we know it? Are we doomed to a life of obsequiousness and servitude to our new foreign masters? None of this Hastings by stealth for me. Or barmy UKIP rhetoric. On the whole, I'd rather be in Atlanta. The city too busy to care