I have been off on a jaunt. And as a result have written a very long blog: apologies to those of you with weak resolve who may not make it through…
In fact some might say that I have been on an extended jaunt since last Wednesday but those people may not fully appreciate how very draining five days spent in a shed a the NEC can be on the constitution of a gentleman of my age. Fun (definitely), jolly (undoubtedly), entertaining (indubitably) but also quite draining. This is mostly because of the air conditioning and the relentlessness of the programme. Still,mid-June would not be the same without it. I was staying in the Crowne Plaza Hotel which has a suite named after the late Ian Curtis of Joy Division. I have no idea why: no other depressive dead rock stars appear to have been similarly honoured.
Less than twelve hours after returning from Brum, I find myself in a cab being whisked off to Heathrow and thence to Russia for the Moscow Flower Show. Birmingham and Gorky Park all in one week: I feel a bit like Prince Andrew. But thinner.And without ever having slept with Sarah Ferguson.To my knowledge.
Monday 16:00: I am now in a very spiffy taxi (with wifi) being driven into the city by a driver who looks very underage. I was last here in April with three metres of dirty snow lying around in vast heaps. Now it is hot and green and summery, all the people have shrugged off their padded hats and are wandering around in short shorts. This can be a little distracting for those of us with constitutions already weakened by age and Birmingham (see above).
Monday 9:00pm I am now in a Georgian restaurant with Chris Beardshaw, Nina, Frances and others. Georgian cuisine is very good involving cheese and ratatouille for starters followed by meat: a lot of meat.. It also involves a long and convoluted round of toasts and speeches. One person starts it off then everybody else has to add something else one at a time all round the table with swigs of wine in between: they are admirably sentimental, the Slavs and love saying nice things about each other. You can see that, with a big party, it would get very out of control, very quickly. 1:30am bed.
Tuesday 7:00am Why am I here? Moscow Flower Show is occupying a chunk of Gorky Park on the banks of the river. Oddly right next door to a full size space shuttle and an imitation beach upon which children cavort. There is another imitation beach upon which Russians in swimwear play beach volleyball. (See above, again). I am chairing the Judging panel which is fun, we wander around having heated discussions in Russian, English and Interpreterish. This is a completely separate language which is very difficult to do well. Some just interpret your words in a flat and mechanical fashion while the good ones try to interpret not just the language but the pitch, the tone, the emotion and the mood. I have good interpreters and try to be as animated as possible.
Some of the entries were a little weird (see above) but, in general, he gardens were better than last year – greater attention to detail and much more thought. The main problem is lack of sponsorship but we will get there.
After judging we trot off to visit an amazingly frescoed nunnery and thence to the Gala opening of the show. I make a vaguely satisfactory speech and doled out Gold medals to the deserving, we then have our photographs taken alongside some very glamorous Russian girls with 7′ long legs. This makes me feel like a Hobbit, and an old hobbit at that. You can see the girls weighing up my prospects and finding me too far down the food chain to warrant a second glance. We then trot off en masse for more Georgian food: it seems that as compensation for providing Stalin the Georgian nation has also provided the best cuisine in Russia. They are however, forbidden from exporting their wine to Russia as a punishment for various rebellious transgressions. 2:00am bed.
Wednesday: Feedback day. Having spent quite a long time sitting around in the fabulous garden built by young Christopher Beardshaw keeping an eye on various bits of luggage and random bags, things were finally assembled so we could trundle round the judged gardens giving the designers the dubious benefits of my experience and insight. Chris’s garden is a remarkable feat constructed as it was in a short time using plants selected from local nurseries from a distance, he (and his planting team, Jody and Nick) done good. They were not judged as the garden was intended to set a standard for the others.
As well as feeding back I was also in charge of escorting the Deputy British Ambassador around the place – I think I was considered Brit least likely to say something undiplomatic. We opened a Chelsea themed exhibition, looked at gardens and had our photograph taken a number of times (sadly without tall girls). The other English designer at the show misheard the introduction to the Ambassador (who, incidentally, comes from Tunbridge Wells) and, after a short while, said “My goodness, your English is very nearly perfect. Almost no accent, how extraordinary”.
Next was a trip across the city to give a studio interview Russia Today, the English language channel, about the show and about Three Men Went To Mow which had rather tickled the dander of the interviewer. I have always said that Russians have excellent taste.
To add to the surrealism of the entire occasion by the time I got back the Queen had arrived. Or at least a lookalike. She had been flown over for the show and wandered around looking regal in a large pink hat and being photographed. Many of the assembled visitors thought it was a genuine visitation and there was quite a lot of appropriate bowing and curtseying. Tea was taken with the Queen and then dinner. A different Georgian restaurant, more meat. 1:30am bed.
Thursday: Clients day. If you take notice of the approximate bed times and general rushing aboutedness of this week then you will appreciate that I am pretty much exhausted. It is nice to sit in the back of a comfortable car and snooze my way to the outskirts of the city. Via a stone yard to look at paving.
I have always liked places like this, full of strange bits of rock and weird sculptures*. At the risk of staring the obvious Russia is a big place.,The former Soviet Union is even bigger and as a result there is slate from Siberia, limestone from Uzbekistan and river worn boulders from Armenia. We settled on the limestone cut in random lengths for one job and a slightly green tinged slate for the other. Lunch was Ukrainian: little pasta parcels stuffed with potato (calorie watching is not in the DNA), cabbage leaves wrapped around mince, blinis with proper Caviar, warm apricots, cherries and more pasta parcels filled with cream cheese and drizzled with crushed strawberries.
From there my dear client drove us to the ballet. When I say drive, I mean properly drive. Like Steve McQueen in Bullitt ,weaving in and out of traffic, honking, nudging, inching, squeezing and twisting. And on a couple of occasions getting out of the car in traffic and gesticulating. All while wearing a very short dress, it was the most impressive feat I have witnessed in a very long time: my admiration knows no bounds.We arrived at the theatre with about 12 seconds until curtain-up.
The ballet was Swan Lake. It was the sixtieth anniversary of a version choreographed by Vladimir Burmeister in 1953 so very traditional with loads of swans in tutus and men in very tight tights and codpieces the size of ripe mangoes. Beautiful and captivating – so much so that I did not fall asleep in spite of my extreme weariness. This was achieved not just by the quality of the entertainment but also by deliberately maintaining a very full bladder and occasionally pulling the little hairs from the backs of my fingers with my teeth. The combined pain is a good way to maintain a semblance of consciousness.
On my return to the hotel I noticed a lone woman sitting on a sofa in the lobby, glass of wine on the table. As I waited for the lift she winked at me and indicated that I should come and sit down next to her. I have not been winked at by a woman for ages (unless you count people with slight twitches), especially ones who are simultaneously pouting, showing quite a lot of thigh and also looking at me in that lowered lid/Princess Diana/vampish innocent way. It did not take me long to realise that, unlike the girls with the seven yard legs at the gala, I was of a perfectly acceptable standard for her purposes. I think that perhaps the judging criteria were not excessively stringent – to be male, middle aged, alone and staying in a decent hotel was more than enough. As the lift doors closed she was stiqll working it. Bed (on my own and unsullied) 12.00am
Friday: Back to the show in order to do the very last bit of feedback and to try and locate the RHS advertising poster which I had taken with me in order to try and drum up some new members. In both of these endeavours I was sadly unsuccessful – both the drumming up and the finding. I am hopeful that it will turn up and be couriered back at some point soon. There was then more diplomatic ushering around followed by fond farewells to all. The traffic in Moscow is appalling, especially in summer on a Friday. A forty kilometre jaunt out to the airport can easily take 3 hours so jumped on a train which may not be as grand but is much, much better.
I am writing this in the air over Poland, I have eaten artichoke frittata and have trousered the free chocolates for later. Moscow is frantic, exhausting, knackering, vibrant, exciting, noisy, bustling, beautiful, hideous, wonderful and over the top. In fact you can choose any adjective you wish – positive or negative – and apply it to the city. Except maybe reticent. Or boring.
I am now going to watch To Catch A Thief again because I can never get enough of Grace Kelly and the fact that Cary Grant was 51 years old gives me a warm fuzzy feeling. (see above).
The picture is of windmills in Gorky Park.
(i) Although no garden sculpture in the world will ever be quite a weird as this stand at the show.