My childhood was characterised by homogeneity. Everyone we knew – indeed, everyone we had ever met – was like us: white, Protestant, working-class and Bristolian.
Everyone left school as soon as they could; all the men had jobs; everyone hated the Welsh. We were the same as everyone else – except, that is, in one respect. My mother believed she had been Russian in a previous existence.
The conviction was based largely on a viewing of Dr Zhivago at the Henleaze Orpheus, but mother was sufficiently keen on discovering the Soviet within that she signed up for night school classes in Russian, and often took me along. I remember us both sitting in baffled stupor on the minuscule chairs of a local infant school while a bouffant haired teacher scrawled hieroglyphics – or was it Cyrillic? – on the blackboard.
One day, my father, who was and is a builder, saw an advertisement in the Daily Express (the only newspaper ever to make an appearance in our flat) for package holidays to Moscow. The concept of the package holiday was new; we had never been abroad; Russia was as remote as the South Pole. But before I knew it the money had been found, and in September 1 971 we made the long journey across to Heathrow, crawling along A-roads between Swindon and Maidenhead, where the M4 did not yet exist. I was ten.
It was late at night and explosively cold when we were herded from the airport bus into the grand entrance of the Rossiya Hotel, a r 2-floor, 4000-bed block of Soviet concrete in the historic Zaryadye district, hard by the Moskva River. In this monstrous edifice, which had its own concert hall and later entered the Guinness Book of Records as the largest hotel in the world, the watchful authorities billeted Westerners. Premier Kosygin had nominally ruled the country for seven years, but First Secretary Brezhnev was in charge. Although the Soviet Union was not yet the economic basket case of later years, Brezhnev’s reforms were failing, and stagnation loomed. To us – hardly accustomed to luxury – everything in Russia looked grey, tatty and worn-out.
We awoke the next morning to a vista of Red Square, our grimy window facing the monumental bronze of the patriots Pozharsky and Minin, greenish with age but still plotting the expulsion of the Poles. Having piloted us safely to the cavernous dining room, my father engaged a waitress in the first of many high-decibel conversations in pidgin English. He conveyed the message that we wanted eggs (can he really have clucked and flapped his arms?), and shook three fingers vigorously round the table, indicating that we all wished to have an egg. Half an hour later, just as nine fried eggs were conveyed to us, a file of twenty-odd men in grey suits with plastic shamrock button holes trooped in to the room and sat down
My parents recognised them immediately as the Northern Ireland football squad, in Moscow to play a European Championship qualifier. It was as if the Gods had come down among us. Derek Dougan! Dave Clements! Tommy Cassidy! And of course, the titanic figure of George Best himself, sheepishly tackling a plate of rubberised fried eggs just like us.
All talk of Romanov ancestry vanished as groups of players stopped at our table for a chat. (Foreign tourists were a rarity in Russia then.) Best was twenty-four, and already established as one of the most dazzling strikers the beautiful game had ever seen. He had been wearing the Number Seven shirt for Manchester United since making his debut for the club as a shy 17-year-old with a Beatles haircut. The season before the Moscow fixture he had netted his now legendary six goals in a cup tie against Northampton Town. Drink had not yet taken hold, and Best’s devilish good looks, sky-blue eyes and soft Belfast vowels had won the nation’s heart. In Moscow he let others do the talking, always standing bashfully at the back of a group.
When player-manager Terry Neill asked if we’d like tickets for the match at the Lenin Stadium that night, Dad almost fainted clean away. Later that morning, in the hotel foyer, we posed with the stars in front of a small mob of British newsmen in belted macintoshes (they had not yetev d·into glamorous paparazzi). Best was noticeably less forthcoming with the press than some of his teammates. He certainly didn’t care for being photographed. But it was his face they wanteclr ‘Put your arm rouncl. her, George!’ a snapper shouted when he spotted me close by. ‘She’s a bit young, even for me!’ he called back.
Swaddled in all the clothes we had packed, we sat alongside tens of thousands of Muscovites under the malfunctioning floodlights of the Lenin. Everyone smiled at us. Dad wanted to buy a programme as a souvenir, and tried to convey the fact to a bear-like man in the adjacent seat. Once the rouble dropped, the man leant over into the next row, snatched a programme from an innocent spectator’s hands, and gave it to Dad. The greens went down r-o after a penalty decision went against Terry Neill. The next day, our tribe back in Bristol opened the Daily Express to see us grinning goofily alongside Georgie Best. We returned to a heroes’ welcome, and still talk of the event today.