cultural ties

18Jan08

I try not to write on events in anything like real time. Think of it as a contrarian posture of a blogger who spent 15 years in newswires. But yesterday’s reporting on the intimidation of British Council officials in Russia cuts conveniently into my current Russian reveries. It also highlights, in a small way, what I learned at a seminar I attended on Wednesday at University College London.

The kind people at UCL let unaffiliated roughnecks like me in for free at the London Judgement and Decision Making Group meetings. Terry Connolly, Eller Professor of Management and Organizations at the University of Arizona, was talking about Regret and the Perils of Decisional Improvement. His themes are some that I’ll return to in coming weeks, I hope, because regrets (you guessed it), I’ve had a few.

When I was a student (and briefly after) I confess that I did occasionally wear bow ties. Once I’d figured out how to tie the pesky things, it was a badge of honour. With someone of my social background it represented a bit of cheap sophistication. But bow ties don’t really work in the rough and tumble of a Fleet Street newsroom. So pretty soon after I started work I stopped wearing them. I still have most of the tweedy garb from that period, and it allows me to go to fancy dress parties and pretend to be Mr Toad. There are some bow-tie-wearing journalists around still, and you can learn more about their bad temper here, and how they hacked off the hack (though not really) here.

This is the story of the first bow tie I ever owned and how I parted company with it, overcoming the kind of “regret salience” that Prof Connolly describes. His research shows that this can all too easily (but not universally) be at the heart of bad decision-making.

I was in Leningrad, and my Russian language trip (during which I took the pictures of Viktor Tsoy) was coming to an end. I guess I got a little more dressed up than usual, as it was leaving day, and donned my only bow-tie. We made our way from hotel to train station. The station offered the last chance to meet our Russian friends and say good-bye before heading back to Moscow to catch a plane. Most of us were destined for London, the rest for Kiev where (little did we know it) Chernobyl would blow up just a few days later.

The Russian friends were an assortment of underground types, and I can’t remember now all who were there. But Viktor was definitely amongst them. Viktor — this time not Tsoy but a beatnik and member of the Pop Mechanics, an avant-garde group of improvisational jazz musicians-cum-artists — had been a mainstay of our acquaintanceship over the past month. Barely a day went by when we weren’t hanging out with him in the afternoon, once our morning lessons were dispensed with.

Viktor was a tall and dapper young man, with big floppy hair and a mischievous quality about him, and he wore an elegant old suit. One night, when we had a party in our hotel, he got arrested with one or two others in the wee small hours for what I believe is called an “involuntary conversation” with officials. But this was after he’d called me in the middle of the same night as part of an elaborate practical joke to rouse me from a regrettable vodka-induced semi-coma. The dialogue, reported to me the following day by my fellow travellers, went something like this (excuse my Russian transliterations, I’m a bit rusty):

Viktor: Mozhna Teem? (Can I speak to Tim?)

Knackered Hack: [sleepily] Da, eta Teem. (Yes, this is Tim)

Viktor: Teem, eta Viktor. Kak dela? (Tim, it’s Viktor. How are things?)

Knackered Hack: [In a moaning, evidently nauseous voice] Neechevo (So-so)

Viktor: Teem, u tebya seegareta? (Tim, do you have a cigarette?)

Knackered Hack: Nyet (No)

Viktor: Teem, ya ‘khochu seegareta. (Tim, I want a cigarette.)

Knackered Hack: Ya tozhe … Do sveedanye. (Me too … Goodbye.)

If this is true then it represents one of the more fluent conversations I ever had in Russian. So it’s sad that I wasn’t there to recall it. In vodka veritas, clearly.

Viktor was a charming man and could easily have freed us from the oppression of our capitalist goodies. But, in contrast to the black marketeers often encountered during my two visits, he and the other artists and musicians never pressed me for anything, despite the fact that their cultural needs must have been greater than most. However, on the station as we were ready to depart, in a rather sheepish and shy way for the man, Viktor sidled up to me and said (this time in English): “Teem, caan I haave your bow-tie?”

Now, that should have been an easy transaction, you’d think: a man with next to nothing but his art, living in a police state, and me a student not short of much materially (although as mentioned here, down one Fender Telecaster). Ostensibly an easy life lay ahead of me, weather permitting.

But Terry Connolly’s regret salience reared its ugly head, for the bow tie carried sentimental value. It was bought for the Knackered Hack, by the Knackered Hackette. I liked the tie. It had been hard to pick out such a nice one. Those small paisleys were really something else. Something about the way the silk fell made for a much more stable knot — it was easy to tie.

You’ll be glad to know that Teemofei Gordonovich did the right thing. Viktor’s need of artistic expression would be better served by my humble bow-tie. It would set him apart in his culture in a much better way than it was setting me apart in mine. And I could handle the potential 20-years of explaining to the Knackered Hackette why it was nothing personal.

As I discussed with Prof Connolly, it seems we are hard-wired to reciprocate. Viktor had brought along a Russian army belt, so ubiquitously given as gifts to westerners that I’d already acquired one from my previous trip to Leningrad during my only unsupervised encounter with an ordinary Russian (also a professor) next to the statue of Peter the Great, where I’d exchanged it for a 50p piece commemorating the formation of the European Common Market. I wonder if he still has it in his coin collection? Or if he ever had a coin collection at all?

Viktor need not have bothered. In terms of memories, I’m sure I did much better from the exchange. However, I’m sure too that when added together with so many other students, and particularly those more regular visitors who introduced me to these fantastic people, such meagre cultural exchanges mattered disproportionately in keeping the hopes of these cultural cold warriors alive.

And I guess that is why institutions like the British Council are important. Their intimidation now should not be taken lightly, for the sake of all the Tsoys, the Pop Mechanics, their friends and followers who have given others the kind of freedom the rest of us enjoy as a birthright.

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