Tuesday, June 25, 2019

St. Petersburg

The first time I ever saw Kev was at the Willow Room in Corby. I must have been sixteen, I guess. Our friend Roddy had booked an all day show there and one of the main bands was this lot he knew from Nottingham, they were called Hard to Swallow. I’d never heard of them before. Nobody had, I guess, since it was their first ever show. I had no idea what to expect. There were five or six of them in the band, quite a bit older looking than us, and they all looked hard as fuck. Like, proper “don’t fuck with us” types. What caught my attention more than anything, though, was the fact that they had two singers. One of them had red spiky hair and these intense eyes, he looked totally unhinged as he stood there waiting for the gig to start. When they did begin, all hell broke loose. It was manic, spastic hardcore and the singer with the spiky red hair and intense eyes was completely freaking out as he screamed into the mic, like, completely all over the place, as if he was recieving an unholy series of electric shocks. This, I would soon find out, was Bloody Kev. I could have no idea then, of course, how interlocked our futures would become.

Weird thing is, for some reason an argument kicked off between the Nottingham crew and a bunch of Corby twats at the gig and the HTS van ended up getting rocks and eggs thrown at it as they dashed off after the show. Fuck knows what that was all about.

Anyway, that gig was the first major turning point in my life. I’d never heard such brutal sounding hardcore punk before, I’d never seen a band play so viciously on stage before, and I’d never seen a band with two singers. I didn’t even know that was a thing. It changed the way I thought about music and it inspired us later on to have Speedhorn as a dual vocal band. I’d never have imagined for a second back then that Kev would later on become one of those two singers, and one of my best mates. I’d also come to learn that Kev is blind as a bat and without glasses or contact lenses has a weird, intense eye thing going on. Although the person on stage is a projection of who he is in a sense. He is fucking mental at times. In a good way. Most of the time.

As interlocked as our futures would become, playing in the same bands and touring the world together, becoming really close friends and all, there is another weird connection between Kev and I. We share the same birthday. Exactly ten years apart. Although me telling everyone that last little detail hasn’t always been thoroughly popular with Kev. Although we’ve known each other for almost twenty years, we’ve rarely spent our birthday together. There was the one time we were on tour and had a day off in Ljubljana, which turned fucking epic, due to us finding a bar serving vicious cocktails for about 50 pence a pop. Other than that, I usually just wake up to a text message on the morning of the day, “Happy birthday cunty”, or something to that measure. Last year, though, was different. It was my fortieth, which meant of course, Kev’s fiftieth. Ninety fucking years between the two of us! There was no way my wife, or our friends, were going to let that one go by without a party.

As much as Kev said he didn’t want any fuss, Jen sorted a really nice do for us here at our place. She made this great bar in the entrance to our garage around the back of the house and we had a parking lot party with a whole bunch of friends. Kev told me it was the best birthday he’d ever had, which made me really happy. What really blew me away though, was that Jen had arranged with all of our friends to buy us a trip to St. Petersburg. Flights and hotels all taken care of. I couldn’t believe it. I’ve had a bit of an obsession with Russia for a long time, and I’m always banging on to the Victims guys about going to play there since we get gig offers all the time, but it never happens. Although if those guys thought that chipping in for this trip for us was going to quench that particular thirst, they’d be mistaken.

I don’t really know what it is with Russia. It’s actually Eastern Europe in general. I think it started when I was a football obsessed kid and found all the teams from the east, with these exotic sounding names like Lokomotiv, CSKA, Spartak et. al really fascinating. And then as I got older and interested in history and social politics the interest in the east just grew. To be finally going to Russia was something I couldn’t quite get my head around as my daughter Polly presented us with the present in front of all our smiling friends. Felt like fucking crying.

Of course, it’s Russia. It was never going to be simple. I was aware that you needed a visa to get in, and that it wasn’t just a matter of turning up in your holiday best and wafting your passport. Although there were some pretty mental required fields on the application, like your parents jobs, your social media accounts, dates and locations of every trip you’ve made over the last ten years, your last three passport numbers, a print out of an official invitation from the hotel you’re staying at… it didn’t take all that long to suss out. You then had to print out the form and make an appointment with the Russian visa office and send off your original passport with the application, if the interview at the visa office was deemed to have gone well. Kev had a look on some internet chat boards and found some Russians saying about how the Russians like making it particularly awkward for Americans and Brits when travelling to their country since we make it so hard for them when the shoe is on the other foot. Fair enough, I guess. There was one little moment at the end of my interview, though. After going through the form, speaking about what our intentions with the tip was etc, the woman asked for my passport and bank card to pay for the visa, which would cost 350 kronors. When she saw my British passport she said, without even a hint of a smirk, “Oh, you’re British citizen. Then it costs more. 1300 kronors”. Fucking arse. Next time I go at least I’ll be carrying a Swedish passport…

Jen felt a little bad about the fact that she'd booked Kev on an early flight out of Gatwick, but there were no direct flights from London to St. Petersburg, so Kev was going to meet me at Arlanda for a flight from here. I assured Jen that Kev was used to travelling early. He always goes for the piss cheap flights with Ryanair or whoever when he’s travelling, which usually entails getting up at the arse end of dawn. As I expected, he looked perfectly perky when I met him by passport control, despite the fact he’d left home at three am. Sometimes it feels like there's been a mix up somewhere with our dates of birth. The energy he has puts me to fucking shame at times.

As we sat there on the plane, waiting to taxi, we were going through the plans we had for the weekend. We’d hopefully get to the hotel around four pm, which should leave us plenty of time to explore some stuff tonight. The thing that’s great about Kev is that he’s a perfect holiday match for me. We like doing the same things, namely: walking, looking at obscure shit, looking at old building, punk rock, art, veggie food. In the Speedhorn days we’d always fuck off together if we had a day somewhere, leaving the rest of the lads to sit and stew in the van. We decided that tonight we’d simply just walk, no particular aim, just walk and look at St. Petersburg. Jen had booked us a hotel which seemed to be in the middle of everything, so from there we could just explore and then find some decent dinner somewhere later on. The next day we had a hook up with a guide, some guy called Krzys who was an acquaintance through the punk scene. Jeff from Hello Bastards had met him when they played here last year, and he’d told him about us coming. Apparently he was up for showing us around the real St. Petersburg. Seemed like a great plan.

We’d barely left the ground, still in the very first stages of the climb to the clouds, when a rank smell wafted our way. I looked around, assuming someone had dropped their guts, but couldn’t locate the source. Then I noticed a few rows ahead and across the aisle, some old pair chomping on hard boiled eggs. The dirty bastards. Fucking stinking the place out. Kev looked at me and laughed, chuffed, “Fucking different rules where we’re going Gaz!”

The flight over was just over an hour, really just a hop over the Baltic. Funny but Russia always seems so far away, but I guess that has more to do with just a false geographical perception. As we came into land we flew in low over what I guessed was some suburb of the city. I’ve never seen compact living like it in my life. Just gigantic blocks, long row upon row upon row of tower block buildings. It seemed to sprawl on forever, an ocean of grey. It matched perfectly the picture of Russia portrayed in the Moodysson film, Lilja 4 Ever.

Obviously, the positive side of going through the whole rigmarole with the visa application was that there was barely any fuss at customs once we landed. The stern looking young woman in the uniform glanced at my passport and then waved me through. No smiles. Not that I was expecting any. We jumped in a cab, taking heed of the warning we’d been given about booking it through the official desk inside the airport. It was about a twenty minute trip. The driver was this huge wrestler looking guy with a neck the width of the Volga, Kev noticed he had some tattoo on his wrist which signalled that he belonged to some secret society, or Kabbalah, that he was aware of. Much more Kev’s domain than mine, all I knew was that I wouldn’t fuck with the guy.

The hotel was indeed right in the middle of the city, within walking distance of the Winter Palace and the Church of the Saviour on Blood. First impressions were good. I kind of expected no less, given that Jen had booked the hotel. I can sleep in a squat or in a five star hotel, I’m happy either way. Jen, though, has left that attitude behind her as the years have passed, she feels she’s done enough of the sleeping rough game and has made peace with herself that now we’re entering the maturer years of our lives and we can afford it, only four star and above will do. All the same, I wasn’t expecting complimentary champagne at check in. Kev was nigh on astounded, “Fuckin hell Gaz, Jen has got good taste!” he chirped as he swilled the bubbles down his throat. As if the trip alone wasn’t enough, this hotel was a really wonderful gesture on top.

After chilling out in our room for an hour, Kev observing all the little luxuries about the place like hand wipes and free nuts, as well as dubiously reading the information channel on the TV which gave helpful tips about how to react in the face of a terrorist attack or bomb strike, we head out into the late afternoon, ready to explore St. Petersburg.

The first thing that struck us was how European the city looked, and felt. I know that the city was built by Peter the Great with the intention of rivaling the great cities of Europe that he so admired, but I still expected to feel more of a Russian vibe to the place, whatever that may be. But the long avenues could have easily belonged to Berlin, Paris or London. The colours were different, though, somehow. An array of fantastical, shiny greens and blues, and the golden domes on the buildings, as if the city was a display of grandeur at the entrance gate to this vast land to the east. Which I guess was old Pete’s very idea. But the young people swarming the streets looked every bit as free, easy and modern as their west european counterparts. But we soon began to notice small hints of the Soviet shadow, creeping through the cracks of the gleaming streets. There were souvenir shops everywhere, literally hundreds of them, all of them selling Russian dolls and small, cheap Fabergé eggs. What especially caught the eye was that every shop seemed to sell Putin posters of t-shirts, in all forms of display, but not seldom with his top off fighting a bear or doing something else “manly”. I wanted to take a photo of it, but for some reason felt the need to do that inconspicuously, as if I’d be adjudged to be taking the piss, which of course, I kind of would have been. I don’t know why but I got the feeling that rocking up in Russia and taking the piss out of Putin wasn’t the best idea. On this topic, I started laughing to myself after recalling a song Kev made up about Putin one time: I boofed Pootins mum, it wasn’t up the bum. Pootins ma son, Pootins ma son.

Probably best left unrecited in our present location, too.

We walked along to the magnificent Blood Church, which was only about ten minutes away, finding it to be exactly as you’ve seen it on the hundreds of images in the media. Only the protective covering on the spire took the shine off of things a little. Kev complained, saying it looked like a big fucking sock. But still, the building was incredible. Pretty fucked up when you think about it, how much these holy buildings must have cost to build, all shiny gold and shit, whilst the peasants inside them praying had fuck all. We had a look around inside and viewed some amazing artworks, shuffling around in hushed reverence, and then carried on walking. It was the perfect weather for a stroll, and the light was eerily dampened by the slowly setting sun. We walked for the next four hours. With no particular aim, we didn’t need one.

First we came to the river, where we found a bunch of old stereo parts sat on the stone wall guarding the water. Just left there. It was a strange contrast with the otherwise spotlessly clean streets. Then we walked over one of the long bridges and found ourselves, unbeknownst at first, in the Fortress of Peter and Paul. By the time we got there the light was perfect, just a dark blue as the last of the sun's rays lit the yellow tower of the main church in the square. There were very few people there beside us, leaving the place almost silent. It was a fantastic experience, hard to put into words. The various statues of Peter, the weird looking tall bloke with the small head and the fetish with dwarves, he really did seem like a proper fiend. The statues of rabbits everywhere, as well as the busts of the countries favourite sons and revolutionaries. I could have walked around there all night. It was simply breathtaking. But there was so much more to see, and so little time.

We walked back across the river via another of the bridges, which brought us right into the heart of the Palace Square, home of the beautiful Winter Palace, the scene of the takeover of the provisional government’s takeover by the Bolsheviks. It was as magnificent in appearance as I’d imagined. We toyed with the idea of going inside, since it is a museum, but given that the night was already rolling in and we’d soon be needing dinner, we decided against it. I imagine you’d need at least a couple of hours in there. The Palace Square was buzzing with Friday night’s merriment. There were street musicians and artists, and lots of young people enjoying the start of the end of their week, drinking beer and wine, eating picnic or take out food. There was also a long line of young soldiers, very young most of them, forming a parade of some sorts as a couple of tanks marched around the square. “Now it feels a bit more like Russia” Kev commented.

We found a pretty cool vegan restaurant, what would you do without Trip Advisor?, just a few blocks away from our hotel. We had a drink there with the food and then made our way back to the hotel. Kev was finally starting to feel the burn off his early rise, so we decided we’d take a nightcap at the cosy looking pub on the top floor of the hotel before bed. There was barely anyone left by the time we got there, so we took a stool at the bar and engaged in conversation with the young bartender who looked chuffed to see us. The place actually brewed its own beer on site, which I thought was great, Kev couldn’t give a piss, though. The bartender poured us each a pint of his own favourite ale and then insisted he pour us a shot of the local poison. After minimal persuasion I accept. Kev is already on his second by the time I’ve supped mine, “Come on Gaz, live a little!” he chorts, clearly chuffed, and clearly over his bout of tiredness. However the fuck does the old sod do it?

Had an absolutely golden night’s sleep, and woke up fresh as a daisy, ready for a day of exploring with Krzys. We found a really hip little vegan café, just down the road from the Blood Church. We sat there and noshed on black coffee and vegan omelette, muesli and yogurt, or soygurt, and then headed back to the hotel. It was a glorious day. We sat in the lobby bar at the hotel and waited for Krzys to call. He was there only a few minutes later, big smile on his face, delighted to make our acquaintance. He was a young looking fella, flat cap and sunglasses. He told us that he was from Poland but had been living here for a few years and worked as a bike courier, as well as having his own tour guide business, that had a purely Polish clientele. So he knew all the history of the place. He was happy to show us around for as long as we wanted today, free of charge, happy to help some fellow punks out. What a great hook up. I felt a little bad, though, since today was his only day off this week, and he had a young family at home. I asked him where he lived, “Out there in the sleeper town, you probably saw it on the way in when you were landing”.

We set about the day, ready to walk. And that we did. Almost eight hours. Krzys told us he was going to show us the real St. Petersburg, the side of the city you wouldn’t see as a tourist. Being a courier he had knowledge of all the city’s nooks and crannies, as well as that, he was a punk, so he would also show us the places where that was happening, too. Absolute perfect set-up. Before we got started for real, he asked us if we’d like to take a guided rooftop tour. Apparently his friend ran a business taking tourists on the roofs of the city. He told us that he was always booked up, every weekend, but if we wanted he could arrange to fit us in for an hour. It sounded great. I asked him how much it would cost and how we paid for it. “Oh, cash, it’s not completely legal”. Kev and I cracked up. Love the punks. Same everywhere.

That booked in for the afternoon, we began a hike around the grand city of St. Peter. The city is full of these “yards”, as Krzys called them, hidden behind the facade of the grey stone tenements. They were basically inner courtyards, but gated off. Krzys had codes to a lot of the places, otherwise we’d just wait for someone to come out and shuffle in before the iron gate closed. They were really cool, though. When you walked into them the buzz of the traffic from the main streets seemed to dampen, and it felt like you’d walked into a time portal, a few decades backwards. A lot of the houses themselves had these wonderful broad stairwells, covered in patterned tiles of marble, that at one time or another had obviously belonged to the richest of the city, but today were somewhat worn out. We checked out a few of these places, weaving our way through the city via it’s inconspicuous “yards” for a couple of hours. Krzys showed us the punk house where Hello Bastards played, which was kind of right in the middle of the city. Right there and then I thought about Andy Victims, and him telling me upon receiving this amazing present that he hoped I would stop hassling him about touring Russia. No fucking chance.

By mid afternoon we arrived at one of the city’s main squares, where we’d meet the rooftop tour guide. He was another young guy, fresh faced and smiling broadly. He suggested a few nice spots where there were great views of some of the city’s finest buildings, as well as a place next to the river. We set off, just a few blocks, and then walked through the main entrance of an old apartment building, taking the small iron elevator all the way to the top. When we alighted the lift we walked up another half stairway to a steel door with flaking brown paint and a little keyhole. Our guide pulled out a large iron ring with an array of keys hanging from it and laughed, “I’ve got the keys to the city”. We ducked through the door and came out on to the flat roof of the building which offered a panoramic view of the city and it’s many golden domes and spires. It was quite a sight. Like Krzys, the guide was very knowledgeable on all the different buildings and their history. This city has its fair share of that...

We stayed up there for a while, taking pics and admiring the view. And then walked on to the next place which was the building Krzys was really eager to show us, the place next to the river. It was the same deal again, in through an innocuous old apartment building and up to the top and a small rusty door. We crept through it and into the delepdated attic of the house, creeping under croaking rafters and walking along floorboards that acted as gangways across the debris of bricks and dust. At the far end of the attic was a short but very steep wooden ladder that led out through a skylight window. We squeezed through, at a bit of a pinch and not entirely comfortable on the old back, and out on to a long, slanted green copper roof. This was nowhere near as comfortable for me. I don’t have an overbearing fear of heights, but enough to make the legs wobble a little. The roof didn’t just slant off to the edge and drop off eight floors, though. There was a small brick wall along the edge of the house. Still shat myself a little though when the guide sat himself on it, legs dangling over the side, and lit up a cig, waving at the tourists boats way below that were cruising along the river. It took me a while to get used to it, but I eventually joined the others and sat there on the side, trying to relax whilst enjoying the vista. The sun had been hidden behind the clouds for a couple of hours previous, but now it was shining in all it’s glory and that moment on the roof was made all the more special, for it. Now this really was something you wouldn’t find at the travel agents.

We sat there basking in the sun, the legs never quite getting to 100%, and then the guide was on to his next party. The three of us headed back to the streets and carried on about our walking. Before long we came upon a Anna Achmatova museum. It was a really nice little place, basically a green little courtyard garden with decorated with various statues and images of the great Russian poet, as well as a little information hut and shop. I was hoping they would have a copy of her work Requiem in English but no luck. Oddly, though, there was some guy sat at an organ under a tiny little tarpaulin tent, just big enough to house the organ and its player. He was just there with his back to us, playing some sorrowful tune. Weird.

With the idea of finding Requiem now firmly implanted in my bonnet I went about looking for books shops that might have. We found a few cool spots, but nothing that had the book I was looking for. I did find a nice little place that sold handmade soft toys ran by some middle aged woman who looked like a bit of a bohemian. Krzys translated for me as we conversed. There were a lot of cool little cat figures, hand knitted, wearing different striped colours. I picked one out for Polly. Later Krzys told me that the city has a very special relationship to cats, for it was cats that saved the city from starvation during the Nazi siege. The cat population was as good as wiped out as the starving citizens fed on them to stay alive. Krzys told me that cats have an almost sacred position in the city ever since. How fucked up a race we are…

We’d been walking and sightseeing for almost five hours straight now. We stopped by a hole in the wall for some falafel that K told us was the best in the city. It was indeed top fucking notch. As the afternoon was running away with us we began to discuss what we’d prioritise for the rest of our adventure. I didn’t want K to feel like he had to stay with us the whole night, he had done more than enough already. I told him I’d very much like him to get home in time to read his young kid a goodnight story, and he assured me he would. Before that though he would take us to a part of town, a market area where there was a punk record shop and a couple of bars. The metro station closest to it was apparently the deepest in Europe, too. I figured it would be fun to pick up a record by a local band if there was any going, and a beer sounded appealing, too. I was starting to feel parched.

The market place was pretty place was pretty cool, and to my disbelief, the first thing I noticed when I walked into the record store was a bootleg print of a Victims poster. Really nice print, too. It just confirmed to me that Victims must come and play sometime. The guys would just have to face that fact. I didn’t find any records of interest though, and to be honest, the need for beer had now taken precedence. As much as I really wanted to see the real Russia, the real “east.” fuck me was I happy to find a hipster bar serving hipster IPA. Russian, no less! Kev was less impressed, of course. I was absolutely gagging and the cold condensation running down the side of the glass, just the feel of it running on my fingers as I held the glass, had my mouth watering. We must have walked around thirty kilometers today. And we weren’t quite done yet.

It was by now early evening, around eight pm, but K wanted to show us one final building that he insisted was a must. Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. Situated down by the river, everything about this building was immense. The pillars, the dome, the gardens behind it. It was just incredible, even more so in the moody, bruised sky behind it. K pointed out that if you looked closely you could see tens of bullet holes in the concrete, a haunting reminder of the war. It was a spectacular end to the day. We walked along to a bar and sat outside of it, treating to K to another beer before he finally made his way home for the evening. We’d been blown away by his hospitality. We could not have dreamed of such a bonus when this trip was given to us. K told us he had some Polish clients to meet at the airport tomorrow, so he would meet us at the hotel and take a cab with us. We waved him off and then took a slow walk back to the hotel, smirking to ourselves as we walked through Palace Square and saw some old drunk giving one of the street buskers some shit about something.

We dropped our bags and shopping items off at the hotel, got showered and then headed for some veggie Indian restaurant that was nearby. There was only us and one other couple there, and the young lady serving, who immediately caught Kev’s eye. “It’s amazing how good looking everyone is here”, he said. “The younger ones anyway. Don’t know what happens when they get older, their skin turns to leather and they wrap a scarf around their ‘eds.”

After dinner we made for a bar that K had tipped us about, called Bukowskis. The name in itself appealed greatly. The truth was, though, after the day we’d had already, we were exhausted. The beer was wasted on me, it just sat heavily in my gut and sloshed around. The young, hip crowd in the bar and the loud music made me feel every day of my share of our ninety years. After just the one, we headed back to the hotel. The pub bar was closing already, and our bartender friend from the night before didn’t seem to have the same interest in us now, which left me feeling a little shunned, I have to say. Maybe he was as tired as we were. But having perked up, just the tiniest amount on the last walk home, we felt like one last beer before bed, so we took one in the lobby bar. There was only one bartender, looking bored off his tits, and a couple of young girls dressed up to the nines, looking very middle class Russian. After a short while a couple of young lads turned up, and for the next twenty minutes I observed them gleefully. One of the young lads was as a quiet as a mouse, obviously very nervous in front of the girls. The other guy, diamond blonde hair slicked back with tits muscles almost bursting through an extremely tight, light blue shirt, was like a fucking cartoon. He was brash and loud, grabbing one of the girls that was obviously “his” all over the place, whilst she just laughed on, looking completely impressed. Tit Muscles then went stumbling to the bar, not like drunk, but just the most over the top swagger, and demanded a bottle of vodka, which he then banged down on the table and harried his friends into drinking. I swear I could read the young, geeky looking bartender’s thoughs… You absolute fucking wanker! Top class entertainment.

The next day we found a restaurant serving breakfast just around the corner, on one of the quieter streets. We sat there in the sun, enjoying strong coffee, feeling not quite ready to go home. We had a couple of hours to kill, though, and our bags were stored in the baggage room at the hotel. The streets were packed with some parade. Loads of young kids dressed in military uniforms, waving flags, cuddling parents and friends. I figured that it must have been like, graduation day from military school, or something. “Now this feels a lot more like Russia,” Kev commented. I guess it did. For all the European flavour to this city, at least on the surface, there is something else here, something unlike our place. Something kind of quiet, but prominent. I guess those Putin t-shirts everywhere aren’t that quiet…

We tried one last souvenir shop before returning to the hotel for our bags. Something about it caught our eye. It looked like all the others, except that it was gleaming a little brighter, it looked like the Fabergé eggs and the Russian dolls were a lot more expensive at this place. We ventured in to find a team of striking looking young women greet us. One of them attached herself to us and said she would be our guide, if there was anything we needed help with. A little embarrassed, we said thanks, but we’re just looking, immediately wanting to leave but feeling forced now to look around, I hate these situations at the best of times, and then nervously walked around a bit as the shop staff looked at us. We checked out the basement floor to find more of the same, Putin t-shirts, eggs, dolls, flags… Then the woman who had welcomed us appeared behind us with a tray of vodka shots. “Complementary vodka?” with a big smile on her face. She nodded as if to answer my silent question, Yes, no joke, it’s free. I just kind of felt bewildered, it’s ten thirty in the morning! and politely declined. “Now! Now it feels like Russia!” Kev chirped.

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