Sunday, 24 July 2016

Dydya Kolya and the spirits of the underworld - Voyage to Siberia part 5

Dyadya Kolya
Dyadya Kolya lived on the edge of the village with his wife, Tamara. It was said that he was 86. He was proud of his young wife, Tamara, who was in her early 60s. Dyadya Kolya had built 26 houses in the village, we were told. I marvelled at this news, for he was the closest I had ever seen to a wood goblin: tiny and squat, with leathery skin, and barely a tooth in his mouth; his eyes were all but hidden behind laughter lines and folds of skin. He was a skilled fisherman - and that kept his wife plump and both of them fed and largely independent from the village. Tamara sold vodka on the sly, mostly bartering for food and other goods. Viktor (see previous post) often took the carcasses of birds to Tamara to swap for vodka. She liked a tipple herself, and when drunk would become even more raucous, railing against the other villagers, especially our hosts, and Dyadya Kolya would chuckle delightedly.

Two of the houses in Nelemnoye that Dyadya Kolya built

Dyadya Kolya's 'young' wife, Tamara

He didn’t drink as far as I remember - instead, and I suppose this is what kept him young - he was always occupied: his hands were making things - whether it was little toys from splinters of wood, or untangling fishing nets, building houses, or with his wife, as he liked to tell us. His tiny body was lithe - he squatted rather than sat - his eyes concentrated on his hands, and his thoughts were, well, who knows where they were. Dyadya Kolya appeared to live in another world, unrestricted by the worldly burdens that weighed on the other inhabitants of Nelemnoye. Akulina Vasilievna (the elder of the village) and he told similar stories, and believed in the same spirits, but while she was the official carrier of Yukagir myths and legends, he practically was one of these spirits himself. Did visiting anthropologists interview him? I doubt it. Few would have sat out the boredom and frustration of being under verbal attack by the crazy Tamara. Dyadya Kolya delighted in the fact that she was 25 years younger than him, ‘look at my beautiful wife,’ he would say, ‘her soft skin and juicy breasts,’ and give a filthy laugh.

The banks of the river in Nelemnoye, NE Siberia during the short summer

One day, after tolerating Tamara’s crazed company for several hours in their hot and stuffy freshly built pine cabin, Dyadya Kolya told us a story, which was worth the wait. He told us about how he had been hunting one winter and had not managed to find an izbushka (one of the huts in the taiga where hunters take refuge) and had begun to freeze. He collapsed against a tree and slumped on to the ground in a faint. A hole opened below him, under the roots of the trees and he tumbled in, following a voice that was calling to him. “It was the voice of a spirit. I could see him in the distance of a long underground tunnel," muttered Dyadya Kolya, toothlessly. "I caught up with him and asked him ‘who are you?’ He said to me that he was from the spirit realm and that because it wasn’t my time to go to the spirit world, that I was still destined to wander this earth, he would lead me to safety. We wandered for many hours in this middle world - I was tired and hungry - I was scared and I didn’t know what was happening or where he was leading me. I thought maybe he was leading me to the underworld - I could hear lots of voices of other spirits. Some were lost in the middle world and would never make it out. Others were friendly. Mine was friendly. He turned to look at me and he looked me in the eyes and I was frightened, very frightened, I thought that I would die. Then I passed out. The next thing I knew I was opening my eyes under the tree, but I felt warm, and not hungry, and full of life. I stood up - my limbs didn’t ache. I walked forward and immediately found an izbushka. In the izbushka there were tins of food and a fire laid. There was no window and there was a storm that night but no snow came in. I slept like a log and the next day I shot several sable.” 

Dyadya Kolya burst into a high pitched fit of giggles and thumped the table. Thus Dyadya Kolya had met the spirits, who live in elaborate labyrinths beneath the permafrost, and returned. 

Monday, 18 July 2016

Broken engines and Viktor the alcoholic hunter. Voyage to Siberia part 4

X and I slept long that first night in our new beds. The next morning we had our first request for money - 8 million roubles for a new engine for the Kolya’s boat. Inflation was off the scale in 1997. This made bartering and negotiating even more trepidatious. Just getting one’s mouth around the thousands and hundreds of thousands slowed one up by a half second and let doubt and brazenness in. The engines were not built to last: that had never mattered before, as new ones had been dished out every year, but this was no longer the case. If you didn’t have a working engine you couldn’t get to Zyryanka, the nearest point for supplies, nor could you hunt, to put food on the table. Kolya’s motor, like so many in the village, was 2 years old, and kept breaking. 

In the summer months - between May and September, you needed a boat to get around. The other months you needed a vezdekhod - an all-terrain vehicle. Or skis. These people, now settled, had no choice but to rely on the support of the government. 

My work as interpreter began in earnest at this point and I translated as X negotiated. On this occasion, he resolved the situation by leaving the room. We went to see Slava the Yakutian schoolteacher. He was a serious individual, who would have been more at home in a university corridor than a village in the Siberian taiga. He advised against lending the money, saying that Kolya’s protestations that he would get it back to us within a week were hot air.

Kolya and Dusya asked us repeatedly for the money for the new motor over the next few days. It was extremely awkward but we held our ground. It was a good thing we did as we were to need the money later.

Requests for money became regular occurrences, from all quarters. This would, I imagine, have always been the case - in Soviet times it may have been for coveted goods, but now it was simply for hard cash. These people had nothing, and those who didn’t hunt, or didn’t run the shop, had only tiny, irregular pensions. Wages for the village doctor and school teacher hadn’t arrived for months. Money did get through every now and then but it was unpredictable.

Available food was as follows: bread baked in the village shop, where you could also buy fresh butter brought in from a dairy in Zyryanka; moose meat - if you were able to shoot one; condensed milk and other preserves also available in the village shop. And sometimes, strangely enough, granny smith apples at vast expense. Moose meat is delicious: they are herbivores and the flesh is sweet and fragrant, despite the villagers’ ability to render everything grey and tasteless. During the 2 months we spent there, I also tasted: finely sliced frozen deer liver, swan baked in tiny pies, fish freshly caught, and once, a potato, a cucumber and a tomato. People decorated their apartments with empty Uncle Ben’s Rice and Choco-Pie boxes, but I never saw them on the table. 

The people in the village who ate well were the shopkeepers, Slava and his wife. They were Russians from Crimea who had been tempted to this far off region by the hardship wages. They had moved here in the late 1980s planning to save up for a quiet old age in Crimea. Then the Soviet Union collapsed, the rouble inflated and they could barely afford a ticket home to visit family. Nevertheless, they had a more comfortable life than most in the village, simply because they had access to food. There were major ethnic tensions in the village - between Yakuts, Yukagirs and Russians. The village was predominantly Yakutian and it was the language that almost everyone, apart from the handful of Russians, spoke. Everyone could speak Russian, although many of them spoke it primitively and with poor grammar. 

The animosity occasionally shown towards the Russian shopkeepers was, I think, as much envy as it was racial. On our arrival in the village, for example, we drew up alongside the shopkeeper in our boat. She had a bag of onions between her knees. Rosa said to her ‘I thought it was the Russians, and that I wouldn’t bother saying hi.’ ‘Bitch,’ was the reply she got. 

This was an introduction into the intense bickering and conflicts that determined the life of this tiny village in the middle of the taiga in northern Siberia. Around us was infinite space and wilderness, but when you are in the village, you are cooped up in pokey houses with small windows all day, sheltering from the mosquitos. There is little distraction from everyday life - people take refuge from this boredom and, especially at that time, uncertainty, in petty squabbling, drinking, and scheming. There were healthier, refuges too: sewing, buildings houses, making toys, planning the next hunt. 

For his film for his MA in visual anthropology, X decided to focus on three stories - two portraits of people in the village, and the third story would be the hunt. 

The first story was about an alcoholic hunter called Viktor. He approached X and I on one of our first evenings in the village and asked to borrow 45,000 roubles to make a phone call from the telephone exchange. That also happened to be the price of a bottle of vodka. We didn’t give him the money, but we agreed on a time to come and interview him.

Viktor was one of the best shots in the village - a dark, handsome man, with a beaten up face, his brother had been killed in a terrible drunken accident the previous year, and his wife and children had also left him. When sober he was kind and gentle. When drunk he was morose and melodramatic. 

Viktor would shoot at the swans that migrated in a great arc over the village. The day before we interviewed him he gave me a swan’s foot with a metal tag on it. The swan was converted into tasteless little meat pies by Rosa that night. Viktor sold everything he shot, and more. There is a Russian word - пропить - propit - meaning to drink through. When X and I went to film him in his house, we saw how we had  ‘drunk through’ it, for it was entirely bare, apart from a dresser with a mirror, around which were some pictures of his wife and daughters, and a mattress and blanket on the bare wooden floor, that was clear and shiny in the sunlight - its emptiness glaring and bleak. He grabbed my hand as I walked in and said ‘you don’t believe me, you don’t believe me do you. Look!’ He handed me a birthday card from one of his daughter, that was full of formal birthday wishes.

As soon as we trained the camera on to him, Viktor sparked into angry animation. I wrote in my diary at the time: “Viktor thrives under the camera, he talks to X through it, begs and pleads and persuades him, it is as if the camera multiples the audience a hundred fold. He has a sad fate ahead of him. He was meant to be on an archaeological expedition last week but he drank through all the money with Kostya. He is meant to be going to the senokos (hay cutting) the day after tomorrow but he will probably have a terrible hangover and the helicopter will go without him.”

After shooting him in the house, we took him down to the graveyard that is situated at the end of the village. Because of the permafrost, the graves slip and slide and the crosses protrude feebly at obtuse angles from the earth. These bodies are simply frozen: if the ice melts, which it slowly is doing, they will float to the surface in a semi-frozen state. The graves are home to the dead of Nelemnoye, some of whom met old age, and the many who died young in alcohol-related deaths.

There was a wooden table and benches in the graveyard that provided a morbid backdrop to Viktor who dived into the story of all those he knew who were buried there, with great relish - the alcoholic’s lament - parents, brothers, cousins. The interview was exploitative, and as empty and depressing as his house. Viktor didn't tell us anything - he just gave us a portrait of a broken man. He did the interview in exchange for a bottle of vodka. X was delighted with the results. 

In the meantime, plans for a hunt were afoot and we spent every spare moment in discussion with those we were going with. 

Monday, 11 July 2016

First meeting with the village, the Yukagir tribe, and local cockroaches, Kolyma, July 1997 (Voyage to Siberia part 3)

July 1997, X and I had just arrived in the village by boat, on a dodgy engine. See here and here for previous 2 posts. We were having tea, served with bread, butter and moose meat, in a little hut, that, Rosa was explaining to me, was their summer house, and we were to live in their apartment - one of the two-storey buildings in the village.

Our host, Kolya, was clearly thoroughly disreputable: a swindler and a crook. And his sister Rosa didn’t seem to be entirely straight either. Kolya, once Mayor, was no longer the most powerful man in this tiny, under-provisioned and dwindling village. However his connection with foreigners was clearly a major source of cachet, and profit. And it was one of the reasons that the present mayor, Prokopieff, was not friendly towards us - he was a sworn enemy of Kolya the swindler.

After tea, Rosa took X and our to our lodgings and we had a chance to see the village. The main drag was no more than a wide track, lined by houses, generously spaced apart. They were mostly typical village houses of the kind you find all over Russia - made from thick, rounded wooden beams, padded with moss, and with some wooden fretwork around the windows. There were a few variations of the single storey houses - with porches -  that served as the village club, the shop and the telegraf (post office and telephone exchange), and there were, two 2-storey apartment buildings. At the end of the village, furthest from the river, was the graveyard - but no church. At the other end, nearest the river, was Kolya and Rosa’s summer house, and another little wooden house, slightly set back from the line of the village, made of gleaming golden freshly hewn pine planks. This was Dyadya Kolya’s house. He lived on the edge of the settlement in all senses - but more of him later. 

There were about 110 souls in the village, two of which, according to their 'Alma' or shaman, were purportedly ‘pure’ Yukagirs, of the Yukagir tribe. There were a further half dozen or so half Yukagirs. However, the majority of the village identified themselves as Yukagir, even though they were a mixture of Yakutians (the biggest ethnic group in Yakutia-Sakha), Russians and mixed race. The Yukagir were one of many tribes in Yakutia that were settled by the Soviets in the 1930s-50s, in effect continuing the work of Russian colonisers, who had commenced colonising in Siberia in the 17th century. 

Cheerful looking Yukagir Alma (shaman) photographed in 1902
There was no wikipedia at the time of our journey there. Now, to my amazement, I can google ‘Yukagir’ and find out the following: “The Yukaghir are one of the oldest peoples in North-Eastern Asia. Originally they lived over a huge territory from Lake Baikal to the Arctic Ocean. By the time of the first encounter with Russians, Yukaghir were divided into twelve tribes with around 9,000 people.” I also now know that we were staying with the ‘Odul’ Yukagirs, one of the three Yukagir villages. Odul means ‘mighty’. In the 2002 census, out of the 1,509 Yukagirs, 21 identified themselves as Odul, there are many other smaller groupings within the Yukagirs. 

Yukagirs photographed  in 1905
The Yukagirs were always one of the smallest tribes, and dwindled fast under the yoke of the Russians - losing almost half their people by the end of the 17th Century, to smallpox, and early death. In ‘A History of the Peoples of Siberia, Russia’s North Asian Colony 1681-1990’, James Forsyth writes: “Of all the Siberian peoples, the sedentary Yukagirs seem to have been he least able to defend themselves from the Russian invaders. Once their previous way of life had been disrupted and they had been made destitute by ruthless depredation, they were simply absorbed by the Russians - the women as concubines, the men as auxiliary soldiers. The degree of racial mixing between Russian men and Yukagir women was particularly high, so that a population of halfbreeds was established - one of many local mixed strains which were subsequently absorbed into the Russian population of Siberia. Smallpox, apparently unknown before the advent of the Russians, also took a particularly heavy toll among the Yukagirs in several epidemics between 1657 and 1694. By the end of the seventeenth century the total number of Yukagirs had been reduced by 44 per cent to only some 2,500 people.”*

Like most of the indigenous peoples in the Far East, the Yukagir were small and swarthy with slanting eyes and dark hair. Extraordinarily, their language, that was only written down until 1940, has no similarity to any other language in the Far East, and yet, I was told by X, is of a family with Finnish, to the great confusion of anthropologists and linguists. In the years before my trip there, some anthropologists had been working with the village and reviving the language and traditions. More of that later, but I am interested to see now, that the number of those claiming Yukagir as their first language according to the 2002 census, is on the rise

Rosa showed us to our apartment - where she and Kolya and Kolya’s wife lived during the winter months. It consisted of: a hallway where the peeing bucket was, 2 bedrooms that opened off the hallway, and a kitchen. I rejoiced to see that I was to have my own bedroom.

Within half an hour of arriving that afternoon, and beginning to unpack my rucksack, we had a visit from Matvei. Matvei was a 7 year old with a round face and sparkling mischievous eyes, who lived next door with his grandfather Ivan, a trapper, a fierce grandmother, and several brothers. Matvei wanted to play. His expert subject was cockroaches. One of the first facts he told me was that when people moved house in the village, for example from their winter residences to their summer residences, the cockroaches would follow in a single file queue, in order to remain close to the heat and damp that humans generate. 

Matvei began picking over my things and asking questions about where I lived and how long I was here for and what my name was and how old I was and if I had brother and sisters or grandparents and if I had any sweets for him. He alighted on my Nurofen - he had seen the advert on telly. He immediately put his hand to his head and said ‘ouch, I have a headache.’ I was utterly charmed by this playful, open-hearted little boy. The next cockroach fact he told me (cockroaches clearly played a large part in his life) was that at night he and his friends, for a game, put cockroaches in each others’ ears and you could only then get them out by pouring heated oil into your ear drum. He collapsed on the floor laughing at his own story. Then he began pointing out cockroaches moving about the room at that very moment - ‘that one’s got babies on its back - hundreds and hundreds of them! Eeek! Oh and that’s a big one, maybe quite old, I’m going to catch it and show you! If you flip it on its back it can’t get up - hahahaha!’

There was a bright red home-made cloth mosquito net over my bed, tucked firmly around the single mattress. It had a panel of mosquito netting that let the light in. I soon discovered that the mosquito net was mainly for the cockroaches. I woke up half way through that first night and, entering the kitchen, I could see, in the dusky midnight Siberian twilight, that the floor was dark. When I turned on the light, the black, that turned out to be a blanket of cockroaches, receded like a wave. They retreated with a great whoosh - through cracks and crevices to their secret crawling worlds.


Sunday, 3 July 2016

A haven in North Norfolk

Shock makes you look at everything with fresh eyes, without even trying. In the days after the referendum I fell in love anew with the churches in my vicinity in North Norfolk. What is more comforting than beholding a building that has survived upheaval, war and changing fortunes over many centuries? That has been maintained, repaired and cherished by generation after generation, doubtless many of whom didn’t always get along. It puts things in perspective.

Wiveton Church
There is a more modest and less ancient house, also, that has provided much comfort - to myself and others over the last few years, since its owner has rented it out in order to create a life abroad (in an EU country. Yikes.)

It was built in by Mungo Buxton, a brilliant man who had been in the RAF during WW2, was an inventor - a creator of boats and planes, an independent and bold investor on the stock exchange, a man with many and various interests including tree husbandry. 

The house among the beeches and limes that were once the approach to the Rectory

The house next to the Rectory seen from across a barley field

He and his wife Horatia (Racy) Buxton, had lived in the Old Rectory next door. Famously Mungo had once built a boat in the drawing room and the window had to be dismantled to get it out. 

He and Racy bought the plot of land that had once been the approach to the Rectory as well as its vegetable garden, and applied for permission to build a bungalow. From the outside it is nondescript, even rather ugly - red brick with a steep pitched roof and blank window-eyes. However, it is inside that the magic happens. We will go there in a minute, but first, a word about its setting. 

The house is set among the trees that once led to the Rectory- now tall majestic beeches and limes with wide canopies casting an under-water light into the kitchen. Behind the house is an orchard: plum, apple, pear and quince and behind them some unkempt alice-in-wonderland box hedges like frozen waves. The present tenant has done some trimming to open the view up to the soft emerald unripe barley field beyond - swaying and verdant, the wind rippling and whispering through it. 

Mungo applied for planning permission to build a single storey house. He gave it an enormous attic, thus the pitched roof, accessible only by an external staircase - a victorian wrought iron spiral stair, salvaged from Watts´ Naval School outside Dereham, where, Mungo's daughter Rose tells me, it had been used as a pulpit when the gym doubled as church on sundays. The children, who slept in the attic, had to brave the elements, wind or shine, when going to and from their bedrooms. Rose doesn't think that this was to get around planning regs, but it certainly made life simpler. 

Glass roof tiles let light into the attic, and then on down to the ground floor, through a large thick glass section of the attic floor. The design throughout it in the same spirit: functional, stylish and ingenious. Perhaps because much of it is clearly inspired by ship design, you feel like you are in a different kind of vessel from an ordinary house - the proportions are efficient and the storage neat.  

Mungo suffered from arthritis, so he preferred storage low down, below the floor boards, as it was easier for him to access than high up. Thus, in the sitting room there is storage for wood next to the fireplace. And in the kitchen there is floor storage for (I imagine) wine and jam. There is an unusually narrow doorway leading from the kitchen into the hallway. Tall and elegant - like Mungo and Racy. 

under floor storage perfect for wood, and children

the kitchen 

There is a hidden door in the sitting room, disguised as panelling; rather than paint or wallpaper, there is exposed plaster work throughout, now slightly grubby, that was daring at the time, and still has a warm patina. 

Hidden door in the wooden paneling in the sitting room

The guest bathroom has wooden surfaces that create a rich, warm interior even in the winter. Its simplicity is given an extra lift by a touches of brass and ceramic in the taps and door and cupboard handles. 

The round hand basin in the bathroom possibly inspired by Sir John Soane

Rose says: "Dad was inspired by many sources in designing the house: the golden proportion, that underfloor storage and the nifty brass rings to lift the lids are from ships: I once found a drawing of graduated drawers (for an office) by his friend Kit Nicholson and realised that the drawers in the kitchen probably copied them: and when I went round the Sir John Soane museum I saw a little washbasin in a library with the same round bowl and rounded wooden top."

built in desk and shelves in the bedroom

The master bedroom lets out on to what I like to think of as the summer bathroom - way too cold to enter in the winter - but in the summer - lie back in the bath, the door open and lilacs blooming all around and you are floating on a happy cloud. 

Without doubt the tour du force is the study, which you enter through the master bedroom - down a short flight of angled steps. This has a large window and a glass door opening directly into the garden. A handsome dutch wood burner keeps the room warm. 

Many was the day that I would spend at the desk, gazing out sideways at the plum tree, the surreal box hedges and fields beyond - watching the sun set, feeling the warmth of the stove, Malinka curled up beside or under it. 
the steps down to the magical study. Malinka asleep by the Dutch stove.

Because it is on another level, the very action of entering this room, taking the few steps down, takes you into another headspace. This was Mungo’s desk and is a place of concentration where ideas are considered and given form. But hell, who cares if precisely nothing happens in that room - the point is, it is simply a wonderful pleasure to be in. I worked on lots of articles and essays there, and did lots of research for a book that got more and more ambitious and was never written. But I do not begrudge a single moment  - it is one of the best rooms I have ever had the good fortune to have the keys to, and I thank Mungo heartily for creating it. 

the orchard

I moved to the house for 2 years after a difficult 9 months during which lots of major life events that were set to happen, didn’t happen. I crawled into the house fairly devastated, and its peace held and healed me over two years and was a haven from expeditions to London and Moscow.

After two years I decided to move to Golden Lane - a more urban spot you could barely find - and gave up tenancy of this wonderful house in the woods, 2 miles from the sea. As I packed my bags, I received a message from a cousin who had a friend who was looking for a house to write a book about his recent kidnapping and release by the Taliban. For the following four and a half years this survivor became still enough to realise he had PTSD and like me, fail to write a book.

He evaporated as quickly as he appeared, again leaving the house empty. The owner had given up on finding someone, when through a chance encounter in the village, the present owner was found, in need of a home in the UK after a family break up in France. 

The super talented artist Blott Kerr-Wilson is now in residence - creating shell wonders in the living room and the study - benefiting, I trust, from the magic of the house, and feeding it too. Well done Mungo and Racy,  and all who have lived there. 
 shell artist Blott Kerr-Wilson at work