View from Vitalia: Of cured kippers, Chernobyl vodka and bouncy Boris

As usual, the ‘silly season’ brings about some half-baked news and unlikely technologies

After nearly 30 years in the West, I am no longer surprised, or even amused, by the flow of irrelevant, insignificant, boring and at times openly idiotic news poured at us from newspaper pages and computer screens during the so-called ‘silly season’, i.e. August and early September. The origins of that murky sewage-like flow are obvious: with nothing much happening, editors still have to fill their publications – print or online – with some kind of stories.

This year, however, the story that ushered in the ‘silly season’ was certainly not boring, even if somewhat ‘Boris-ey’ (please forgive my awful pun: was unable to restrain myself).

I don’t know why, but I have a premonition that Mr Johnson’s time in office won’t be much longer than the life span of his infamous hurricane namesake, which raged above the Pacific Coast of Mexico for just several days before dissipating on 1 July 1996, having caused enormous damage, the exact estimate of which is still unknown.

Here I want to say that I do feel very strongly about the recent global tendency of electing (or appointing) aspiring buffoons (the USA and the UK) or professional comedians (Italy and Ukraine) as presidents, prime ministers and leaders of major political movements. In fact, calling this tendency ‘global’ isn’t entirely correct, for it definitely doesn’t include China, where the overwhelming majority of ‘great’ and not-so-great, yet invariably dead serious (and occasionally stone-faced), leaders have had an engineering background – a tradition that seems to be working well, at least on the economic level.

To be honest, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if at some time in the foreseeable future Rowan Atkinson, aka Mr Bean, becomes Britain’s next Prime Minister to replace Boris Johnson who will by then compromise himself totally by breaking all his promises, made in countless passionate speeches, peppered with colourful metaphors. Why not? After all, although it is not common knowledge, Atkinson has an MSc degree in electrical engineering from Queen’s College, Oxford – a fact that is bound to facilitate considerably this country’s relationships with Communist China and its ex-engineering leadership.

In all seriousness, however, I would not put too much faith in Boris’s (forgive my familiarity, but I had some dealings with Mr Johnson when he was editor of the Spectator magazine, and we hacks have a habit of addressing each other by first names irrespective of the position we occupy in the editorial hierarchy; besides, everyone else in the country calls him ‘Boris’) ever-so-optimistic pledges for the bright future of British technology. With his most memorable techno experience so far being the spectacular fiasco of the proposed ‘Garden Bridge’ across the Thames, which cost British taxpayers £53m and came to absolutely nothing, apart from being aptly branded by the Guardian newspaper “an absurd vanity project for our age”, one can be forgiven for taking his techno (and other) promises not just with a pinch, but with a full bucketful of salt!

Speaking of salt, brings to mind Boris’s other recent – and rather tasteless (not ‘salty’ enough?) - boo-boo, which, only due to the ‘silly season’, no doubt, made front-page news in the UK for several days in a row. I mean his ridiculous pre-prime-ministerial claim that the EU regulations required smoked kipper suppliers from the Isle of Man to keep their products cool with ice-pillows. In a brazen electioneering gesture, he even snatched a pre-packed smoked kipper from somewhere under the podium and brandished it in the air, which made him resemble momentarily the late Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev pounding a similar podium at a UN General Assembly with his shoe during his historic ‘shoe-banging speech’ in 1960.

As a long-time collector of the EU’s silly regulations, of which there are plenty, I have to admit that the above kipper requirement is not one of them. It simply could not be issued for a couple of reasons: 1. The existing EU regulations only cover fresh, not smoked, fish (heaven knows why). 2. The Isle of Man is not part of the EU (like some other British dependencies, it is excluded from the EU membership by a special protocol – see my Isle of Man feature in E&T https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2016/05/brexit-lessons-from-a-non-eu-neighbour/), with all island producers, including the thriving kipper-catchers and kipper-smokers, therefore immune to any EU regulations – silly or wise.

I wonder if that public address by the then still would-be prime minister will go down in history as a ‘kipper-banging speech’?    

I’ve been to the Isle of Man many times as a journalist, but lost interest in Manx kippers (if not in Manx cats) after the very first visit there in 1993. I saw them (kippers, not cats) on the menu of a small café in Douglas and immediately ordered them. It was an ill-considered step (or rather munch): my face and hands smelled of Manx kippers for weeks afterwards. The odour was ineradicable: no amount of soap and deodorant was able to beat it. I probably brought it to London, since my colleagues and friends started avoiding me like the plague, while packs of stray London cats trailed me wherever I went, as if I was an over-sized, two-legged mouse. Even now, as I write these lines, I have the feeling that the keys of my word processor smell of Manx kippers.

I have to confess that several years on (by which time the smell had worn off somewhat), I had another foolhardy attempt at getting hold of some Manx kippers and, duped by a magazine ad, ordered a small amount to be delivered “vacuum-packed” by post. The vacuum packing proved a bit leaky, and I, having tightly squeezed my nose, chucked the parcel right into the bin (my next-door neighbour’s one) moments after its arrival… 

To finish with them (kippers) forever (for Boris is unlikely to mention them ever again) and knowing our readers’ unfading passion for technology, here’s how they (kippers) get cured, according to www.manxkippers.com:

“First, as the herring are passed through the splitting machine, they are measured, split, gilled, gutted and washed at a rate of almost one a second. In the 19th century, women would hand-work the herring but now a specially designed machine is used. Once the herrings have been split, gutted and washed, they are then soaked in brine for approximately 10 minutes to ensure their unique flavour and freshness is retained.

During the next step, the herring are traditionally oak smoked above fires for 6-12 hours, the same method has been used for over 120 years which gives them their unique flavour."

Thus enlightened (as well as slightly smoked), let’s proceed to another recent ‘silly season’ news scoop: the appearance of the new 'Atomik’ Vodka from …Chernobyl.

According to a BBC report on 8 August, the “artisan vodka”, made with grain and water from the Chernobyl exclusion zone, is the first ever consumer product to come from the contaminated area around the nuclear reactor that exploded in 1986.

Well, when I visited the site of the Chernobyl tragedy with Channel 4 TV crew while making a documentary about Ukraine in 1994, I saw with my own eyes some mutant fruit and veggies on sale at nearby food markets: strawberries the size of apples, and apples the size of watermelons. My only vodka-related memory, however, was the sight of a busload of the ‘liquidator’ workers returning from their fifteen-day shift at the reactor. At the exit from the innermost contaminated zone, they were getting off the ‘dirty’ bus and boarding a ‘clean’, decontaminated, one to take them to the neighbouring town of Slavutich for a fortnight’s rest. They literally fell out of the bus, drunk out of their minds.

Our local escort explained that many reactor workers started working in a state of mild inebriation and continued drinking throughout their shift inside the reactor in the mistaken, but officially encouraged, belief that vodka could fend off radiation!

And here we go again! According to Professor Jim Smith from the University of Portsmouth, UK, who somehow found himself in the team behind Atomik (by the way, if the name of the vodka is a joke, it leaves pretty nasty aftertaste even before you start drinking it), “this [drink] is no more radioactive than any other vodka.”

So far so good. Professor Smith also told the BBC that so far there’s just one bottle of Atomik in existence. “I tremble when I pick up,” he added. I bet he will tremble even more when he finally puts the (empty) bottle down…

The obvious question here is: why? Why vodka? Why now? And why in Chernobyl?

And again, the omniscient Professor Smith has all the answers: “Any chemist will tell you, when you distil something, impurities stay in the waste product. So we took rye that was slightly contaminated and water from the Chernobyl aquifer and we distilled it…  We asked our friends at Southampton University, who have an amazing radio-analytical laboratory, to see if they could find any radioactivity. They couldn’t find anything – everything was below their limit of detection.”

Well, it’s good to know that the bottle was shared (equally, or so I hope) among the Portsmouth and the Southampton academics, albeit back in Russia we’d normally share a bottle not between two but among three parties. There was even a special colloquial expression to denote such a transaction, normally completed in a dark and dirty gateway –“vipit’ na troikh” (‘to triple drink’). So I do hope that – to complete the picture - one more respected UK uni will join the valiant vodka researchers in the near future.

The making of Atomik’was, allegedly, an attempt to attract attention to the needs of the “local communities” (as far as I know, people are still not allowed to settle anywhere near Chernobyl) and to make some profit too. I can only hope it is all going to work out nicely, and soon vodka drinkers will start enjoying Atomik en masse both in UK and in Ukraine. But as someone who, through sheer stupidity, inadvertently drank a glass of water (not vodka) from a heavily contaminated well while filming in Chernobyl and since then has never stopped worrying about the consequences, I am certainly going to give it a miss – thank you, but no, thank you!  

The last ‘silly season’ news story which attracted my attention was a lengthy – and surprisingly topical for this time of the year - report “What’s the best way to stay awake at meetings?”

You of course are dying to know the answer/s. Here are some of the tips from Elise Keith, founder of Lucid Meetings (sic - VV), a US-based meeting coaching company, and the UK-based workplace culture expert Judi James, quoted in the report: never “do meetings” (that’s what they say – “do meetings”) right after lunch; try to have more “walking meetings outside”; “engage”; “fidget away”, “if you notice a colleague drifting off, only nudge them awake if you are friends”( meaning if you are not too friendly, let them snore away happily?) and, last but not least, a somewhat contradictory piece of advice: “if you succumb to sleep, it may be best to leave.”

The respected experts do not clarify, however, how one can leave a meeting while still asleep. The only way I can think of is by sleepwalking which I am going to try at our next editorial meeting...

Sweet dreams at meetings and a Happy Silly Season to all the readers!



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