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View from Vitalia: Of dotards, sleepers and misnomers

Bad karma can sometimes evolve into a Midas touch, yet one should still be careful not to judge hotels, trains and people by their names (or nicknames) only.

There may be something in the water, or possibly it's just me getting older, but it appears as if - after nearly forty years in journalism - I might have lost one of the true hacks’ main qualities: the ability to attract trouble (i.e. good stories).

That questionably essential trait of mine used to be known to my magazine and newspaper colleagues in the USSR, England, Ireland, Scotland and Australia, who were always cautious not to send me to hot conflict areas in fear that my very presence there would make the conflicts escalate out of control. They were not always successful, I hasten to add. My flying visit to Bulgaria in 1996, where I was supposed to interview the country’s former communist leader TodorZhivkov, not only resulted in a major political assassination - not of Zhivkov, but of the former reformist prime minister Andrei Lukanov – and tanks in the streets of Sofia, but also in Zhivkov’s own terminal illness, from which he never recovered. My European newspaper bosses, who, after some hesitation, decided to dispatch me to Bratislava to interview Alexander Dubcek in November 1992, should have thought twice, for the former leader of Czechoslovakia and the last decent politician in Europe (as I used to call him) died suddenly one day prior to our meeting and I had to be satisfied with reporting from his funeral instead (which in itself was also a good story).

I could carry on and on – up to last autumn when those friends and colleagues of mine, who were aware of that fatalistic bad-karma trait of mine, united their efforts in trying to dissuade me from visiting South Korea – not so much because I was still recovering from major heart surgery and they were understandably worried for my health, but rather being afraid that my visit would disrupt the fragile stand-off between North and South Korea and propel the area into all-out war.

In the beginning, they might have thought they had a point, for one day before my departure another North Korean soldier defected to the South across the demarcation line - the first serious defection in many months - and on the day of my own Korean Air flight to Seoul, North Korea launched its most powerful ballistic missile yet. “No wonder, Vitali is there”, my friends and colleagues were saying to each other, shrugging their knowledgeable shoulders, some even adding, “The world should start preparing for war.”

On this one occasion, all were proved very wrong! On the day of my return to the UK, the situation in the Korean peninsula started improving, literally by the hour (could that be because I was no longer there?).

The telephone hotline between the two hostile states that had been dormant for decades was galvanised back to life; negotiations about the joint participation in Winter Olympics were first agreed and then conducted; high-ranking visits and exchanges started taking place, and belligerent rhetoric on both sides all but stopped. And then last week came the most incredible news: the “little rocket man” (pace Donald Trump) leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, is not only ready to freeze his nuclear programme, but would also be coming to the South on an official visit! And he did! And had tea on a bridge with his South Korean counterpart! And stepped across the famous Korean DMZ demarcation line, just like I did several months ago (I have to note that, unlike Kim Jong-un, I was not surrounded by a squad of burly bodyguards). And promised to close down the site from where he had been happily launching his missiles. And, in the bravest and scariest gesture of all, he agreed to meet with President Trump, that “mentally deranged US dotard” (pace Kim Jong-un) in the near future!

I was, of course, prepared to take credit for all those positive developments and indeed some of my friends and colleagues did comment that my visit must have somehow triggered them. Yet my other, more sober-minded, friends and colleagues remained unconvinced. “It all started happening after Vitali left,” they were saying with the emphasis on the word “after”. “Perhaps, had he stayed on in South Korea, the Third World War would have been raging by now.”

I do hope very much that the latter are wrong and instead of being the bearer of doom, I have somehow metamorphosed (Kafka-style) into a mascot of good luck, even if one major journalistic quality of mine might have been lost. Who cares? I can still carry on being a writer, for as we used to say in the USSR, a writer is but a journalist who cannot get his copy into print for a long time.

Seriously, call me a ‘dotard’ (having first looked it up in the dictionary, as I did), but I particularly rejoiced at the news that the never-ending loudspeaker propaganda across the North-South Korea border to which my own uncomplaining ears were exposed only last December when I visited the DMZ (demilitarised zone) myself, had come to a stop. Hopefully, forever. And now both sides, including the little rocket man and the deranged dotard, can finally enjoy what Buddhists so beautifully call “the sound of silence”. Why not? Buddhism, alongside Confucianism, had always been one of Korea’s main philosophies and was only temporarily (or so I want to hope) replaced with “communism” to the north of the border.

Alongside that truly ground-breaking development, a number of other, much less significant, news – from different media outlets and PR agencies – had landed, like some little Kim Jong-un’s missiles, inside my omnivorous email inbox during the last couple of weeks. This is what life is like: wars, truces, high-profile defections and world-changing summit meetings happen once in a blue moon, whereas rubbish gets collected once a week and buses and trains run late every day.

Speaking about trains, I was informed by the Global Railway Review (to whose daily email briefs I subscribe) that the brand-new Caledonian Sleeper carriages were out for testing in the UK, ahead of their introduction later in 2018. For those who do not know, the Caledonian Sleeper is one of the two remaining sleeper trains in the UK and connects London’s Euston station with Fort William in Scotland, via Glasgow and Edinburgh. The other sleeper train, The Night Riviera, goes from London to Penzance - ‘Cornish Sleeper’ would have been a better name for it, I believe.

When living and working in Edinburgh between 2001-2003, I was a frequent user of the Caledonian Sleeper. And frequent sleeper, too. Whenever I needed to travel to London for a day, I made sure I booked myself in advance one of the now-defunct ‘bargain berths’, the price of which stated from £19 – yes, no kidding. If I wanted to spend the night in the privacy of my own compartment (not that I am a snorer, but other passengers might have been), I would offer a fiver to an agreeable attendant (and they were all readily agreeable) – and he (they were all males, for some reason) would make sure I was left alone for the duration of the journey.

I liked to start the trip with a drink (or several) in the lounge car, where the probability of bumping into a celebrity was much higher than in Kensington, even if somewhat lower than in Ascot (I even thought then that had I been one of Scotrail bosses, I would have thought of renaming the Caledonian Sleeper the ‘Caledonian Spotter’). Until now, I find it particularly hard to forget the sight of a cigar-smoking, black-clad George Galloway at a neighbouring lounge car table.

As happens with most British (and Scottish) Rail passenger-friendly features, it wasn’t long before the coveted ‘bargain berths’ disappeared and I would rather spend eight hours behind the wheel of my car than blow £200 for an overnight sleep in the Sleeper, even with the prospect of spotting George Galloway thrown in.

My hope now is that the ‘bargain berths’ will be reinstalled inside the new Caledonian Sleeper carriages. This hope is rather faint, though, largely as a result of another press release received a couple of weeks ago.

A respected British PR agency sent me a press release about a new way of railway travel – a direct opposite to the above-mentioned ‘bargain berths’. “The Romanov Suite – an entire private carriage aboard luxury train”, the press release proclaimed. Those of you who recently watched the BBC TV serial ‘MacMafia’ may have guessed already where ‘The Romanov Suite’ originates from: from Russia, of course!

“It is not just royalty that can command their own private railway carriages”, begins the release (not a huge revelation: we know that Russian oligarchs can ‘command’ them, too) and continues: “Now, Luxury Trains is raising the luxury train travel bar still further on its Trans-Siberian journeys and introducing the Romanov Suite onboard the private train – an entire private carriage with its own kitchen, chef and personal guide.”

The release also mentions in passing “new carpets and soft furnishings throughout”, “private guiding and chauffeur in the destinations”, “Russian language classes and vodka tasting.”

I hope the vodka tastings in the carriage are frequent enough for the lucky passengers to forget about the price they have paid for the trip: £66,495! If that seems a bit extravagant, let me reassure you somewhat: the above price is not per person, but per couple, so hurry up!

I wonder why this kind of press release was sent to me, of all other journalists. Do they believe that all people with Russian-sounding names are secret oligarchs and billionaires?

Probably it was due to the fact that some years ago (in 2002) while working for the Daily Telegraph, I was invited by Abercrombie & Kent to join – for just eight days and for free – the world’s most-expensive package tour, “Around the Globe by Private Jet”. For the non-journalist paying participants, the price was $75,000 per person (not per couple!). The most striking thing, however (to me at least), was that drinks while on the ground were not included in the price!

I wonder if arrangements are the same for the above-mentioned luxury train journey and one has to pay extra for all those essential vodka tastings.

There’s one other thing that worries me a bit about that trip in general and the ‘Romanov Suite’ in particular – not so much its ‘soft furnishings’ as its name. Let me explain. The Trans-Siberian Express, of which it is a part, routinely passes through and stops at Yekaterinburg, where Nikolai Romanov, the last Russian Tsar, was brutally murdered with all his family in 1918. The dark basement where the royals were dwelling before the execution was disdainfully referred to by some of their Bolshevik captors as “the Romanov Suite”.

If I were part of a peripatetic oligarch couple, I would think twice (once for each member of the couple) about travelling in a carriage with such sinister connotations. Unless of course the private chef can also act as a bodyguard.

This brings us straight back to the issue raised in my previous “View from Vitalia” – that of tact, or rather tactlessness, which is more often than not triggered not so much by bad intentions, but simply by the insufficiency of knowledge.

“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked rhetorically, meaning there was nothing much in it and that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

The ‘Romanov Suite’ story, as well as the story below, show that the great English playwright could have been wrong on this occasion, for a wrong moniker can undermine and destroy even the most positive and praiseworthy things and concepts.  

To put it bluntly, “Simplicity is worse than theft,” as a wise Russian proverb goes. You could as easily substitute stupidity for simplicity.

Here’s the last press release I want to mention today. Just like most PR emails, I have no idea how the hotel company in question got hold of my email address and why it keeps bombarding me with electronic missives, devoid of the coveted ‘unsubscribe’ option, so that all of them get deleted automatically without being looked at. This one, however, escaped the above plight simply because, while preparing to press the ‘delete’ key, I noticed from the corner of my eye the name of Oscar Wilde - one of my all-time heroes and favourite writers. To see his name in the body of the email informing the world about the opening of yet another hotel in central London was highly unusual, for the reason I will explain.

I opened the press release and discovered that the new hotel in question was just another one in the chain of ‘Wilde’ Aparthotels and that it was officially opened by Oscar Wilde’s own grandson himself! Not a pedant, I am still struggling to understand the reasons behind calling a hotel - let alone the whole hotel chain - after Oscar Wilde, whose strongest (and, from what I know, only) association with hotels was that he died of meningitis in what was then the rather dodgy Hotel L’Alsace, now called simply L’Hotel, in Paris. The wallpaper in his room was old and peeling and the writer’s last words, as he was staring at it, were reportedly: “One of us will have to go”.

To me, calling a hotel chain after Oscar Wilde is like naming a steam engine, or a train, after Anna Karenina!

This is, of course, my own highly personal opinion. Please do not be put off by all of the above from staying at Wilde hotels (which, I have heard, are really nice in all but the name) or from travelling to Russia. In fact, I am going to take you there, to Russia (or rather to the former USSR), in my next “View from Vitalia” – not by train, but with the help of one truly spectacular book – and thus save you £66,495 per couple.

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