Alexander Piatigorsky

London is a kind of disarray where everyone knows how to behave. But separately.

Alexander Piatigorsky

on a walk

Strange to his country and time, he faces the space where he can think, and even think about thinking.
Alexander Piatigorsky

Alexander Piatigorsky came into this world in 1929 in Moscow, the city of his first love, and left it in 2009 in London, the city that had become his last love. Everything that happened between the two events was a series of insignificant facts that barely influenced this fantastic man: he was expelled from two schools because of poor performance; graduated from the Moscow State University; taught at school in Stalingrad; worked at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow and was sacked for insubordination and public expression of his opinion; couldn’t find a steady job; was involved in the infamous ‘Buddhist trial’; was asked to emigrate by the chief Moscow KGB officer, which fortunately coincided with his own desire; since 1974 lived in London, taught for more than thirty years in the School of Oriental and African Studies; happened to be homeless twice; wrote books, gave lectures all over the world.
In London, he found what he had been missing in Moscow: the feeling of anonymity and being lost (in Moscow he was fashionable, popular, and sought after). He would often say that London is not an inquisitive city, therefore it is neutral to its inhabitants. It accepts anyone, and does so indifferently. London tells you: “Do whatever you have to do or don’t do it, be whoever you want to be and don’t be at all, go wherever you want—no one cares, and I for one care least of all.” That is what Piatigorsky did, and he loved London with an unrequited love. He gauged its streets, squares, and parks with his strides. He struck up relationships with its houses. He could walk there for hours, from one pub to another, and tell stories, stories, stories…
In an interview about his novel An Ancient Man in the City, Alexander Piatigorsky said: “I have always been obsessed with the city and architecture. The city is a natural environment for my thinking… The ideal city is one that presents its history to you. There are cities like that in England. In that respect, it is a unique country because it can’t live without its history.”
This is one of the ‘introductory’ walks around old London that Alexander Piatigorsky performed for his Latvian friends. History is the core of this city: it never goes away, never evaporates, each new layer remains simultaneous with other historical layers. Our ‘tour guide’ gives us a lesson of thinking in the city and about the city. Among the routes picked by Alexander Piatigorsky, there is a particularly curious one. He leads his guests along the streets where walked the protagonist of his novel Remember the Strange Person: Mikhail Ivanovich was heading to his mistress. “Strange is he who does something to you that was not supposed to happen in your life but still forms a part of your fate… A really strange person by merely being there excludes others from the epoch and circumstances. And the few who want it look for that kind of excluder.” While writing the novel, Alexander Piatigorsky walked along that way a number of times: from Mikhail Ivanovich’s hotel to the house where his mistress lived; he followed the shadow of his strange character who had left this world long before… In the same manner, we are now following ‘the paths’ of Alexander Piatigorsky, hardly catching up with his swift gait. “There is a moment when a person becomes unambiguous—the moment of death. That is when the person in all his diversity is reduced to an indivisible ‘minimum of himself’ that makes it different from any other person in the universe, to the brand by which the angel of death recognized him, and by which those who knew him here will recognize him there.”
In this tour, Alexander Piatigorsky was accompanied by his close friends and disciples Uldis Tīrons and Arnis Rītups. But ‘the boys’, as Piatigorsky used to call them, were more than friends and disciples: they had become the members of our family. And they still are, even after Alexander Moiseyevich passed away. Thank you, boys. Specially for you, I will conclude with another quote from Alexander Piatigorsky:
“If a man is laughing, the philosopher says: he is laughing at his doom. If a man is weeping, the philosopher would say: he is weeping about his triumph. If a man is condemning, scolding, cursing someone, the philosopher would say: he knows his perdition. The philosopher does not watch life, he watches the life of consciousness.”
Let’s get back to that tour guided by Sasha. I’ll join you if you don’t mind.

Lyudmila Piatigorsky

Alexander Piatigorsky in London. Photo: Uldis Tirons


In London, almost nothing was built according to plan, beginning in the 9th or even 8th Century, but this is actually one of the 20 or 25 places in London that were. And it was developed by two phenomenal architects of the second half of the 18th Century, the Adams brothers—as you will have guessed by that name, they were of course Scottish. This architecture is notable because there is nothing original about it, yet it is uncommonly pleasant. The Adams brothers built in this area about 140 houses; all of them are mansions in this, I would say, pre-Empire English classical style, and really it is all very beautiful here. But I repeat—there is nothing original here. Go ahead, look around—is there anything original? No, there isn’t. Yet it is all beautiful. Pleasant. And that, by the way, is in very sharp contrast to the buildings that begin a little further. It was gentlemen who lived here—big, respectable families. As you might guess, even at that time, such houses were built by big, indescribably big money. Do not look at the shit who now lives in them; it is disgusting, embarrassing and at the same time painful… And at the same time—I am continuing in Russian—it’s sad.

Grosvenor House Hotel, Park Lane, London

And here is the monument to Robert Grosvenor. He was like a father to the city that was named after the Marquess of Westminster; he was a pioneer in his area, i.e. urban construction. And next to him are two marvellous foxhounds—no decent person lived without such dogs. Well, a sympathetic gentleman after whom practically all of this part of the city has been named. And do you remember the Grosvenor Hotel in my novel? All the richest, most elegant things were in Grosvenor. But—and this is interesting—none of this was in any way related to the royal family and ruling aristocracy. These were respectable, rich and self-sufficient people. They had titles, but they did not attach themselves to high aristocracy—just the opposite, they by and large wished to remain on the sidelines.

Well, do you like these little houses?

I think that at least one of the Adams brothers died from overwork. They both were maniacs. They simply designed hundreds of houses. They filled half of Edinburgh with their houses, receiving for them huge amounts of money, but that’s not the point—it was maniacal construction of a new type, construction of rich people’s houses where life was comfortable and, for that time, very highly esthetically saturated life: pictures, music—great European composers stayed in these houses and gave house concerts for their owners, family and friends. And also there were hygienic facilities in these houses that were unheard of for English houses.
See this, you know, this modest little house belonged to the family of Mikhail Ivanovich’s lover. You like it, don’t you? Afterwards, a huge chemical company was housed there and, even later, some embassy bought it.
Just look what wonderful houses there are here! You see, don’t you? Look at these houses! This one and the next one. As you probably can guess, I want your eyes to get used to these things.
By the way, do you know why there are two separate faucets everywhere in England—one for hot and the other one for cold water? Because of their classical English stupidity. You see, my daddy washed in this kind of a bathtub, so why should I change it? Sometimes I even love them for this.
The greater the distance from the square, which is the center of Grosvenor, the more there will be houses that were not built by them and you will immediately see the difference. This is Chester Street, a really charming street. Come here, boys! I would like to draw your attention to this house. This is no longer the Adams brothers, you understand. Look, there are completely different columns here; this is late classical period, a different type of architecture.

But do you ever look at a house and begin thinking—wouldn’t it be nice to live there?

Very rarely, because I know that I don’t deserve it. These houses are early ones, without a doubt preceding the Adams brothers. An acquaintan­ce of mine lived here, a really charming man.

But you said that you are embarrassed for these people who live here now…

My embarrassment passed. But my sadness remained. Look—there are so many memorial plaques on the buildings. See, here, for instance, the great physicist, Lord Kelvin lived, the one who came up with the Kelvin scale, the temperature one, you remember, right?
But this is no longer Grosvenor Square, these are modest homes. In those, there are no more than, say, ten rooms. Look! This is old English classics, the beginning of the 18th century. But I am crazy about these houses! What wonderful proportions of windows and division into stories! This is old English architecture, which I of course love more than the Adams brothers. There is quite a bit more strictness and taste. And less luxury.
I wanted to tell you about another thing without which one cannot understand new English architecture—new in the sense that it came after Christopher Wren, after John Nash and after John Vanbrugh—it is such conscious stylistic variety, conscious eclecticism. In every house—even this one—there is a set of at least five different kinds of windows. They loved to do this even before the Adamses, but the Adams brothers exaggerated this; they knew their clients. The clients loved their glance to rest on elegant variety, on pleasant, comfortable, superficial estheticism.
Now we will turn onto a small side street, which consists only of stables and tiny houses. We will forget about the Adams brothers and about all this magnificence and will only admire the extent to which the impenetrable conservatism of this country preserved here the entire history of architecture. I mean, an Englishman always found it hard to break something, plus also everything has always been made out of stone. That would be difficult to knock down. And third, it would often have been uneconomical. Expensive. Why knock it down if it’s possible to live there. Let people continue living there, paying rent. This is what is so alien to the Russian genius and why there exists such a charming, playful desire to destroy something in order to replace it with something new, but what exactly—who the fuck knows.
Okay, so now we enter a yard that in the old days was filled with stables and tiny cottages for the servants. We have entered a completely different time period. This is the 18th century, right? See, in front of you there are buildings from late 20th Century—there, on the right? Complete shit. Or over there, right? It’s the Austrian Embassy. Come here! See, this cottage is from the end of the 17th Century—come here! And this one is from mid-17th Century, the green one. This is 17th Century; all the windows have been changed, of course. This is 16th Century. Henry Tudor’s time. Not bad, right? This is the beginning of 17th and this is 16th. See. Not bad, is it?

It looks like for you, the older something is, the better.

Naturally! It’s charming, is it not? See, a stable lad once lived here with his family. See. Let’s go! Here, incidentally, too, are the essentials of the 16th or 17th Century, but everything has been rebuilt to look like shit, if you don’t mind. Now to the left. See, here you have charming 17th Century, take a look, isn’t it charming?

But how come stables have been better preserved than the residential buildings?

Because they are inside the block. See. This is again the end of 17th and beginning of 18th century.

What about the cobblestones?

The cobblestones are also from that time, everything is. And look—do you see that pub? The one called the The Star Tavern. It is a classic of the beginning of 18th century and therefore it is absolutely impossible not to step inside.

Statue of Robert Grosvenor on Belgrave Square


Would you like to sit at this table? Let’s—it’s very cozy. What beer are you going to have, boys?

I would like a lager.

Then let me choose for you. And you, would you like a lager or a bitter one, Uldis?

I would like an English bitter, so that I would feel more bitterness in my soul.

I hope you can have big ones, can you not? I can only drink a little one. “Ооо… Good evening. You do not have my lager—Kronenbourg? No? What kind of… Then half a pint Stella. What do you have in the way of porters or stouts? Then a pint of Guinness, please, and a pint of Carling, please. I think it is all. Five eighty-five… I am sorry, I have only fifty…”
Enough, turn off that idiotic machine of yours, that’s enough, can’t we sit like normal people? Only don’t print it in your Latvian paper The  Youth of Latvia Today! What—are we going to take pictures all the time?

There’s just this thing that that swarthy young man over there looks like Proust.

Which one? Oh yes, I noticed him. Yes, he does look a little like Proust. It is because Proust was a half-Semite. But that man is apparently a hundred percent Semite. As far as I understand, he is Lebanese. Do you like the beer or should we have taken another one?

No. Why…

I felt very sorry for your friend when he… When I read his interview, he struck me as a very naïve man. And in addition, he also left the impression of a very unhappy man.

I would not venture an opinion.

And you cannot have one. The problem is that you, dear Arnis, and you, charming Uldis, have great difficulty judging who is happy and who isn’t because both of you are happy by nature. Although you make pretenses, you fool around. At certain times, you try to show to women how unhappy you are and how they are the only ones who could make you happy. You see… And then they see that you are unhappy with them and are feeling sorry for you thinking that if you are unhappy with them, then you cannot be happy with anyone. Whereas in fact you are making fools of everyone else—you are two totally happy people… Every rabbit can see that.

That two happy people are sitting here?

But of course. No, actually three.

And you too are fooling around?

All my life! What do you think I am doing?

I always thought of you as a happy person, whereas about myself…

No, I mean happy by nature.

Is happiness really a characteristic of being? In that case, stones would be happiest of all…

I think yes. But it’s very complicated. My late friend Grigory Petrovich Schedrovitsky would call being a false ontological picture. Because in fact, pure being is simply a figment of the imagination of bad philosophers. It does not exist. In the pure sense, it cannot exist. It only exists in some…


…phenomenal sense. As a phenomenon. And in the sense of our reason being capable of classifying phenomena. And that’s all.

Mamardashvili talked about phenomenon using as an example a house, which we do not see and what we see is only a façade.

Not only. We can actually enter the houses.

It does not look like we could enter the kind of houses that we just saw.

Well, you know, I have been inside a few of these houses. In one of them, there lived one of the most extraordinary people I ever saw in my life. He was the author of at least two outstanding books. Yet he was neither a professional scientist, nor a professional writer. You may have heard his name—in certain circles he was well known: Marco Pallis. He lived his entire life in London—well, actually he traveled half of his life, he was a great traveler. In some ways, resembled Gurdjiyev—they were in fact acquainted. Marco Pallis sold rugs. In addition, he also sold all kinds of wonderful things that he brought back from his travels. He had been to Tibet, to India, in Western and Southwestern China, Indonesia; he was a phenomenal connoisseur of things. But that is beside the point, the main thing was that it was an extraordinary person—and not because he was a genius, but simply because I have never again met such people in my life. And I have met my share of funny and strange people…
When I came to have tea with him—but he never eats anything after noon, all his life…

So he must be getting up really early.

No, he told me that in his old age, he can no longer get up before six a.m. But before, he used to get up at four or five. When I asked him why he said: I have only one fear in life—all my life, I have been afraid to pass up something interesting while I sleep. Or while I talk to someone.
He treated me to tea. When I tried this tea, I thought that nothing similar ever touched my lips.

Even a woman’s lips?

You know, I would not make any exceptions here. No! Nothing! You know, I tried that tea and, in my utter bewilderment, put the cup back. He looked at me and said: “You know, this used to happen and is still happening to me every day. Every day, I think: can there really be such extraordinary tea? I drink it every day, but that after all is not so much time—only the last sixty-nine years.” I said: but is it possible—just that kind of a demeaning question—to buy this tea somewhere? A mortifying question, right? A humiliating one. Not for a human being. A human being is such a mortifying creature that there is nothing that can humiliate him. But it was a question, humiliating for a guest of Marco Pallis. He said: “Oh, it is completely impossible. I would not want to go into detail, but if you wanted to drink it like me, every day, then you—I am sorry, I don’t know about your situation—you would go broke in very short time.” And then he pronounced a phrase, which I did not understand, and apparently it does not even refer to standard commercial tea terminology, but he said: “It is tea of the fourth infusion.” I said: “What do you mean?” And he said: “Let me bring it to you. You just touch it.” So he brought me a little bag with this tea—the leaves were very big—and he said: “Just look at it. Look at this color. Similar teas are sold on Jermyn Street but this of course is something different. They cost, on average, ten or twenty times more. All my life, I have been supplied with this tea by old friends of mine with whom I got acquainted—with some of them—even before the First World War. When it was a different kind of life.” When I left, when I had put on my raincoat and was going down the stairs, I felt the bag of tea in my pocket—he had put it there.
At the end of that evening, having decided to violate all norms of decency, I asked him a direct question: “Tell me, please, have you ever been unhappy in your life?” He answered: “Oh yes! I was unhappy for two days of my life. The first day was awful. It was the day when in the morning, even before breakfast, my mom and dad came to me and said: “Son, you are seventeen now. You should go to Oxford.” “What for?” I asked. “Well, you know, you are a good and clever lad. You are gifted in languages. You are interested in the East. The children of all our friends are students either at Cambridge or at Oxford. And we decided to send you to Oxford.”
He said: “Because I really loved my dad and mom very much, there was no question of me objecting. So the car was called and our chauffeur took me to Oxford. I began feeling unhappy the moment I got into that car. Once I got to Oxford, which I knew and loved very well I thought: my God, it’s such a wonderful town, such an extraordinarily beautiful town, but there is something very unpleasant about it, and that’s the university. At about two o’clock that afternoon, I understood that I had to escape. How I managed to survive till nine p.m., when all the receptions for students were over, I have no idea. It seemed to me that I was beginning to lose consciousness from horror and unhappiness. So I went out on the street, flagged down a taxi and said: “London, please!””
Can you imagine—taxi from Oxford to London? It’s about as far as now on the airplane from London to, I don’t know, to Bilbao. Or a little farther.
“Once I got home, I went straight to my father and, looking at my face, he said only one thing: “All right, son, no Oxford for you.” Another year of happy life passed. Everything was wonderful. But then my father said: “All right, if this is the way it is, you have to get used to business.” The family firm. And he sent me to my uncle at the office to take care of business. From eight to twelve, I drew medieval castles—on the paper on which I was supposed to write memoranda. Then I began drawing swords. And then I began drawing rugs. Around three in the afternoon, I understood that I was dying. And just as at Oxford, I decided not to wait till the evening. There was no need for a taxi; tears flowing, I went home on foot. “So nothing came of it again,” dad said. “No,” I answered. “I can’t do it again. It seems to me like I am losing my life.” These were the two unhappy days of my life. Since then, I have not worked in any office and have not studied at any university. How can I bear to hear: take these rugs and sell them, say, in Madrid? After all, I have to think about rugs! I have to use my imagination on rugs! In my lifetime, I have sold a huge number of rugs. without any office. But I knew my rugs and I knew whom I sold them to! I knew what I was doing! I loved my trade! But I was the one doing it, on my own. I found them myself, I smelled them myself, I touched them myself—these were not some sort of abstract things that you sell sitting in your office.”

From what you just told us, it seems to follow that doing what is interesting and what you want to dо is almost the same thing.

It is not the same thing, but often they overlap.

But what did Pallis not want to miss—when he slept or conversed?

What if suddenly a new prophet appeared? What if a new statue of Buddha came to light that no one knew about? And what if a person appeared who said some extraordinary things without anyone able to understand him? And who knows in what language this person would say it? So, without studying anywhere, he learnt about ten languages which he spoke freely. And what if during this time some music would begin playing, music that he had never heard? And what if it should disappear and he would never get to hear it? It’s a terrible risk!
When I asked him: “Were there ever times in your life when you were close to despair?” He said: “Yes, several times. I remember a time, a really terrible time when I was in Nepal and walking through a market. And suddenly I saw a person, who seemed to be straight from the mountains, selling a huge piece of cloth with half of Buddha depicted on it. It was a really unusual portrayal. And it was about this big—we unfolded it—five times four meters. But it was just a half. I asked: “And where is the second half?” He replied: “Nobody knows.” I was utterly desperate. Will my lifetime be enough to find the other half? I immediately bought it; and it cost probably as much as we have just spent. At most. Some peasant took it to the market. He said: “Sometimes we spread it out on the floor for the guests; it was impossible to put up on the wall, there was not enough space.” I cleaned it; hundreds of people begged me to sell it, but how can I sell half of a thing? Seventeen years passed, and I got the other half. Of the same thing, not something else! And then I understood: Marco Pallis , you are a man of destiny.”
I said: “But is it not difficult for you to part with things?” He answered: “No. Not at all. I saw them after all; I felt them. Now someone else will feel them.” And he also said: “I don’t like clutter. It all went inside me and there it rests, so I can sell.” Phenomenal, isn’t it?
What amazes me in this story and in your novel—it’s the fact that things like that don’t really happen. At every step, you run into something amazing. I don’t understand where you get such conversations? I would be happy to have one…

Me too.


Come, quick! Quickly, no, here, here you should take a look. You will see. This is no Adams brothers!

What is it? Beginning of 17th Century?

The beginning of the 20th. If I am not mistaken, this is the official representation in London of the Knight of the Cross of the Order of Malta.

But if you like London so much, it probably means that you don’t like Paris?
No! I love Paris, I have been there dozens of times, I love walking the streets of Paris, I love living there, I really love Parisian cafés and little bars—but I would never in my life want to settle there forever. Never has this thought entered my mind. I could not live forever in Paris. Paris is not at all my city.

But there are places which we choose to die in.

No, I don’t want to die in Paris either.

But where would you like to?

In Ladakh. I asked Marco Pallis many questions about Ladakh—he had been there several times. It is a really unusual place. It has only one drawback—it is cold there and there is no heating of any kind. But it is a place after my own soul.

And London is a place after your body?

Ultimately, yes. But I wanted to say one last thing about Marco Pallis. In addition to everything else, he was a man of natural, absolute benevolence. And his benevolence was dispassionate. It was said about him that, living very modestly, he gave money to many young people for studies at the Sorbonne, Oxford, Cambridge.

Did they know who gave the money?

I am not sure about it. I think not. A classical English benefactor never mentioned his name. Incidentally, it is also an old European tradition. You give money and your name should not appear, otherwise it is not a deed in the service of God.

But can money generally be used in the service of God?

It can. Also in Buddhism. It’s possible not to do it anonymously, but then it’s a rather lesser karmic merit.

But when you take money, how is that from the karmic point of view?

It in no way worsens your karma. Buddha took money! Buddha actually has a wonderful sermon where he says that a person who is indifferent to money must take it when it’s given to him. But if not, not.
For that reason, it is somewhat misleading to say about Marco that he was kind. It was simply his nature, it’s not kindness, it’s some sort of… what you call in Buddhism ‘karuna’—it is translated as compassion, but it is not at all compassion. The word ‘compassion’ necessarily involves passion, but here there is no passion in the sense of suffering—it’s sheer pleasure. But again, the pleasure is calm. It’s uninvolved.
But these streets are wonderful!

They are too perfect, whereas you prefer a lack of principles.

But you understand, it’s a specially designed area; it’s the only one like that.

But isn’t it proof of human inconsistency?

No, just the opposite! And shouldn’t there be one designed area in London with its lack of design—just for variety? Oh my God! This is too much! I will die this minute—I adore this street! This is Wilton Street. Look at this marvelous little house! Maybe we should have gone to this pub, it’s not a bit worse. A Russian guy who came to London not too long ago said to me: “It’s absurd! Beer in a pub costs twice or three times as much as in the store.” I said: “Yes, but you can go into a good pub and not even buy a beer, and just sit there. And think about whatever you want.” And he said to that—you see, I have moved from Marco Pallis to a person by the name of Victor—“Yes, but I might as well think at home, it is much cheaper there!”

But you can’t say that this street you also have great feeling for?

No, but it is a mews, only half restored. You have to understand that the Germans subjected this area to horrible bombardment. It’s a miracle that it survived—just like the royal palace and Westminster Abbey. If you only knew how much metal is dug out of the ground here in construction sites! Hitler had some sort of hellacious hatred of London—much worse than of Moscow or Leningrad. He had a physiological hatred of London as something that existed independently of his thought. And he particularly dreamt to destroy all of historical London through bombardment—Westminster Abbey and the City first of all. The best pilots were given an important task, to destroy, at any cost, four objects: Westminster Abbey, Whitehall, the Royal Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral. And I understand it very well—it’s right, from Hitler’s point of view. Paris never evoked such feelings in him. Who gives a fuck about Paris! Is Berlin any worse than Paris? Although he could not stand Berlin either. Disgust toward London was something spontaneous and historical. Hitler could not stand history.

Do you think that buildings are history?


And London is an embodiment of its history?

Absolutely. You know, London is one of the oldest preserved cities in the world. And, to a great degree, it was related to the fact that it, just like everything else in England, was built in stone. They economized on wood; wood cost a lot. There were fewer and fewer trees.

But these houses are evidence that we are transitory.

Of course. But that’s what history is. History is—we arrive and we are gone. Hitler wanted to be outside of history. This was at the basis of his hatred of Freemasonry. Freemasonry is terribly historical. Freemasonry is one of the stops—here is history, there is history. This is how it was here, this is how it is now.

Are you a member of any club?

Not at аll!

Or of an order?

Never in my life!

Or a party?

I was—if you’ll kindly forgive me—in the Komsomol. Although there were unpleasant things associated with it, I was a very enthusiastic member for about five months. Afterwards—and it is a very strange story—something happened. I still can’t understand it.

No, we should not care about what does not depend on us.

Well, young Arnis… It is such a high-class observation that we have nothing to say; we just keep quiet. As my grandfather would say: “Never before has our synagogue seen such a clever one.” He really loved this expression. The implication was that our synagogue has seen everything.

Here is where Piccadilly begins. This is a monument to the victims of the Gallipoli operation where Churchill demonstrated his lack of talent as a leader killing seventy-six thousand soldiers and officers. At that time, in 1917, he was the First Lord of the Admiralty. He had an opportunity to destroy a wonderful army and he did it. Because he was totally incompetent in naval matters; I think he never even stepped on the deck of a warship. For that reason, he was made the First Lord of  the Admiralty.


What is it that you love London for?

For its absolute impersonality. A person can remain who he is only when the atmosphere is impersonal.

And the person himself is personal?

He is—himself. This is key to London, that which is missing in Paris. I think the same was the case in old Moscow. But it disappeared very quickly.

What generates this impersonality?

I think everything does. Like that Moscow which I knew and which—this is really funny, by the way—survived the most horrible period of Stalinism and was destroyed without any executions, tortures and prisons, by purely peaceful means in the post-Stalinist era, during Khruschev’s rule. During Stalin’s time, there was still something of that deep indifference to one.

Strange, because what you are saying about the houses of London and its past, it is really oppressive.

Yes, but it is the past that’s oppressive; the present is not. That’s the heart of the matter. Moscow was terrible by the fact that it was the present that was oppressive. Meaning that Moscow never achieved real anomie.

But anomie is lawlessness.

I am using anomie as the term invented by the American sociologists in the 1950s. It means that there is no law for a separate personality; it is as if neutralized. Even if a person does not observe the law, he also does not violate it. Who was it that invented it—I think it’s that blockhead of new American sociology, what’s his… Stanley Schachter, yes.

Incidentally, where do Freemasons gather in London?

My dear! In London, there are about 600 different Freemasons’ lodges! No, many more, in fact.

I wanted to ask you to take us to a Freemasons’ lodge…

No! It is absolutely impossible!

But what does Freemasons’ Hall mean?

It is like their central office, the Masonic Grand Lodge, official Freemasonry.

Is there unofficial one in addition to the official?

No. It is the main one, but besides there exist the so-called higher degrees. The highest Freemasonry. It is very complicated. England is a country with aristocratic traditions. Of course, if you hold a high place in the Grand Lodge, then you must have a degree in the highest Freemasonry. But it is not official. For instance, one of my main sources of information was a member of 17 lodges.

I still don’t get it: Vienna, for instance, that’s something…

No, but in London you cannot belong or not belong. There are too many different groups that have their own kind.

But so it’s not even a city but a…

Yes. It’s a country. Like old Moscow was. A huge, anonymous country.

In a village no one can remain anonymous?

No. It’s absolutely impossible. Because one has neighbours. In England, if your neighbour notices that you haven’t gone out in two days, he will come to your place, knock on the door, crawl through the window, call a doctor—he will simply not be able to sleep. Here, being neighbourly does not violate anonymity. I will give you an example. When I settled here with Elya and the children, I bought a house twenty-four years ago—no, excuse me, twenty-three years ago.

Do you perhaps remember the date?

No, I can’t remember, because it was bought for me—found for me by the late Oleg Sergeevich Prokofiev, son of Sergei Sergeevich. The date was maybe 15th or 18th of June, 1976.
Our neighbor was Mr. Dambey—he met me at the door of the house and said that he was Mr. Dambey, bank manager and that he did not like foreigners. In Russia it would spell danger. But do you know what it means in England? My wife and I do not love foreigners. That’s it! It does not mean anything. It means that he wants to be honest with his neighbor. After all, we will be living side by side for many years. Our next encounter took place when my jacket had turned into a thing in which I could not appear, according to one of my students, in any social gathering. She said: “Even in the company of tramps.” She said: “Perhaps you could give this jacket to me and buy yourself a new one?” I asked her why she needed my jacket. “I will throw it out,” she said. She understood that I could never throw it out. So five or six days after meeting Mr. Dambey, I went to buy a new jacket. I stopped by a store called Liberty. Suddenly I felt someone take me by the arm. It was my neighbor Mr. Dambey: “Why are you standing in front of this shop?” he asked. “I would like to buy myself a jacket.” But he said: “Let’s get out of here. No gentleman buys his jacket here. Everything is very expensive and very bad here.” For about ten minutes he walked silently, holding me under the arm, and took me to a different store. And he said: “Look, professor! Here you will buy yourself a jacket. It may be a little more expensive, but it will be a good jacket, because my brother and I, and my father-in-law, we all get our clothes here. And so should you.” And he departed. “Good morning!” When I am told something I tend to listen. I bought myself a jacket. When I returned home, Mr. Dambey was standing by our house. He said: “Where’s your jacket?” “Here it is,” I said. But he said: “Take off your coat and put on the jacket. I want to see how it looks on you.” I was already having fun. But so I put on the jacket: “Go ahead and look.” He said: “How much did you pay? Well, of course, it’s robbery, but nevertheless it’s a good jacket. Good morning”, and he disappeared..
Two weeks passed. The toilet in our yard had a problem. Every respectable English house has a second toilet, because when a person is gardening, he can’t just come into the house with dirty boots and go upstairs… So my wife took some sort of hammer and some pliers and began unscrewing some sort of a nut. In the meantime, I was having a cup of coffee and eating a sandwich. The door to the yard was open and I saw that Mr. Dambey was looking at what Elya was doing. About five minutes later, he climbed over the fence, grimly walked over to Elya, said “Good morning, madam,” took the hammer and the wrench from her, took off her apron and put it on himself, waved at her to go to the kitchen and in about three minutes he was done with the repairs. I said: “We are so grateful to you.” He answered: “We are neighbours. That’s what neighbours are for.” Adorable, isn’t it? And no attempt to begin any kind of personal relationship.

Eaton Place; in the first house (No.15) lived Lord Kelvin

Another three months passed. In the evening, without any warning or telephone call, five Russian guests arrived demanding vodka, wine, food and lodging. It was ten o’clock at night. Our little daughter, the one still in the crib, is crying; the other daughter is also still little; son Ilya says that he no longer wants to go to his shitty school. I have just come home from work and am thinking: “What the fuck!” And here are these five Russian guests, and none of them I would ever even want to see. Because these were not friends, they were just people from Paris and I didn’t give a damn about them! But hospitality is hospitality. So I went to the refrigerator, found two pieces of sausage and made an omelette. But that’s no food! Five people! There were some remnants of vodka. Soon it’s eleven o’clock! I was desperate and they were sitting at the table obviously displeased. Because what kind of fucking hospitality is this? Are we Russians or not? One of them, a poet, simply said: “Sasha, we did not expect this from you.”
Suddenly, a knock on the door. The wife of Mr. Dambey is standing there, and she says: “We heard some noise here.” I said: “Please forgive us, yes, suddenly some Russians arrived from Paris.” She says: “Yes, I understand. My husband said, there is noise there, some guests must have arrived unexpectedly. Do you have food?” I said: “Not a thing!” And she said: “My husband reminded me that we had guests the other evening and a whole pie was left uneaten. We are not going to eat it, so it will just go to waste.” And she gave me a pie this big! I was in such a state that I almost asked: “But do you have just a tiny bit of vodka?” But that was not all. I said: “But Mrs. Dambey, won’t you come in?” “No,” she said, “I would like to go to bed and my husband is in a bad mood.” He said: “Go to them, take them something. They were not ready for so many guests. Let them make some tea.” And suddenly she handed five candles to me. I asked: “And what is this?” And she said: “Candles. Everyone got a phone call, but you may not have heard it. At eleven thirty, power will go off in our neighborhood. So you will be in the dark. And you of course did not make sure you had candles!” I simply lost it, I hugged her and kissed her. I think she liked it.
There is something in this, no?! They thought, poor things, all they need is these fucking guests. They understood. The English understand this very well. It is like when a cousin suddenly arrives from Yorkshire with his six children without calling ahead. It’s like the plague!


Could you tell us which are the bad parts of London?

You know, it is hard to say. It all depends on money: on the lowest level, it is pubs and prostitutes around King’s Cross station. A finer place is Soho. But I think there are fifteen or twenty such places in London. Gambling houses, most of them illegal.

So there are many Londons.

There are very many Londons.

But how did you learn so much about London?

You know, I have walked all through the city. I know London physically. I walk. I am a walker. I have walked hundreds of kilometers through London. I know places that I don’t like, places that I love and places to which I am indifferent. But you know, there is one thing about London which increases its anomie: it is the great number of parks and gardens. In terms of the number of parks and gardens, London is number one in the world. There are about two thousand of them.
And there are foxes…

Well, it is an attack, as far as the foxes are concerned. And dogs are barking, cats are meowing… London is a city that hardly ever changes—because it is so wildly spread out. And there is another important thing, which is practically impossible to describe. It is something purely social. The issue of wealth. It seems that there is no other city in the world with so much money. Yet you don’t see it. In London, there is a great number of circles where it is considered impolite to dress well. There are also very many circles where people dress luxuriously, but they are all poor people. It is just a custom to dress well. London is also distinguished by the fact that the issue of wealth is not at all important. It gains importance only when you are in the environment where wealth is the main thing. And that is the case in the City, Saint Paul and around there. The secret mile.

I noticed that you are not indifferent to money.

Me? Excuse me, with my debts—how can I be indifferent? I am a decent person and think that I have to pay my debts.

What beside…

…debts is it that you have, Alexander Moiseevich? Not a fucking thing!

No… Is money anything else beside your time turned into banknotes?

Where? In London?


You know, in that aspect… This is because Americans often do not feel at home in London. In America, everything is much more obvious. In London, you can be a billionaire and live God only knows where. But this is how you like it! Your daddy lived there! Or your grandma. And you buy your clothes second-hand. My wealthiest acquaintance buys his clothes only in a second-hand shop. I say to him: “Listen, where did you get these indescribable boots?” And he always says: “I am not a billionaire.” Of course he is just fooling around. For him, it’s a question of style.

If Londoners think so much about style…

They do not! It is just their nature. It is actually very funny. I have a good acquaintance who wanted to—God Almighty!—to become a member of the Saint James club, which is the most aristocratic club in London among whose members are, for instance, the entire royal family. I can imagine just how fucking boring it is at that club! You enter and immediately fall down senseless. Out of boredom. So I said to him: “Andrew, why the fuck do you need this Saint James?” And of course there are these absolutely incredible membership fees. And this is a person counting his pennies. Why does he need this club? And he answered: “My father was not a member of Saint James, but I will be one!” And he is a lord and a baron. But he got a no vote! He was terribly insulted. Terribly insulted! I just laughed—why should one pay three thousand a year for membership in some indescribably boring place. A couple of years passed and a very good acquaintance of mine came for a visit. Not a friend. From France. A Moscow lad from the past. Monya—a Jewish name, from Solomon. A chemist. A very funny person and a polyglot. He could speak about ten languages equally well. But he was fucked up. Seriously fucked up. He was not very rich, but a scientist, chemist, polyglot—read the incunabula in Latin. There was a period where he collected gloves. Can you imagine—a person is collecting gloves? Can you? He almost does not drink—well, some good wine at times, but that’s all. So we are sitting there talking about this and that and suddenly he says: “It’s time for me to go.” I said: “Where are you going? You came to spend five days in London!” He said: “You know, there is a banquet at my club tonight.” I said: “Which one?” “At Saint James,” he answered. He said: “I met some guy in France and afterwards we went together to the Swiss Alps.” And he said: “Hey, I think you are the right person for the Saint James club. I will propose your candidacy.” But what the hell for do I need this Saint James? But he said: “Don’t talk like that. When in London, you don’t need to stay in a hotel, you will be at Saint James. You don’t need any other library, because Saint James has an outstanding one. Food. (There is cheap food at clubs because of the membership fees.) You can bring a beautiful woman.”
And he was just accepted at Saint James. I said: “Really? You were elected member of the most aristocratic club?” And he explained: “There are either real aristocrats or interesting people. And I am interesting!” So that’s England for you.

How can it be boring then if there are interesting people and aristocrats there?

Well, you have simply no idea what any English club is like.

In how many clubs are you a member?

You must be crazy! Not one! Never in my life! I have been in Saint James several times—I was invited to lunch. I have been to many clubs. But why the fuck would I need them? In some places the food is good, in others it’s bad. There are clubs where they serve unusual wine, world’s best wine. But I don’t drink wine!

You said that London has been created as a structure for impersonality. But you are in no way a part of this structure. You just keep enjoying it.

On Monday I am supposed to go to a club. My old friend Audrey said to me that if I don’t want her to die of boredom and sadness at the club—and she has to go to dinner there—I should accompany her and her friends, so that there would be some sort of a conversation. The food will be bad. I know it for a fact. But why not?
But in a sense it is my city. Because I do not feel so good anywhere else. Here everything simply depends on me: if I want to talk, I talk. If I don’t want to talk, I don’t. If I want, I go for a walk, if I don’t—I don’t go.

Merab loved Paris…

Merab loved Paris. Merab was a Cartesian. That’s why he loved order.

But you said that you too like order.

At my place. But around me I like a complete lack of order. But again—this complete lack of order is inside a particular, invisible, unthinkable order. It’s simply that a real Londoner is phenomenally sure how to behave. It is very interesting. It is a kind of disarray where everyone knows how to behave. But separately. London is basically an indescribable phenomenon.

But why then he did not like London? After all, the two of them are formal to the nth degree.


London and Merab.

It is very complicated. London offended Merab’s sense of form. In Paris, form is form. But in England… For instance, he participated in my seminar. And he could not understand how there can be a seminar, there are eight people there and they are not a group. In Paris, it is impossible. The whole idea of formalization is exposed in Paris, whereas in London it is concealed. Why do you need to know whose friend I am? In London, it is a personal matter. Whereas in Paris it is absolutely clear who is a friend and who is a foe. Who belongs to one circle and who to another one. In London, it is all at an intimate level. To Merab, it looked like chaos. I think that in the final analysis, he did not like the classic British individualism and I think that this is what seemed like chaos to Merab. Atomization—he did not like atomization. It constantly gnawed at him. Do not forget that Merab was a person of form. His main objection to me was about this. Atomization is individual formality. When I introduced him with my English friends, I was hard put to explain to him that even if they are my friends, they are not in the least friends with each other. They are just my friends. The only thing that unites them at a given moment is me. And besides, the issue of language was very pronounced. Merab did not take a liking to the English manner of speaking. He liked the French. Don’t forget that the French are more exact in their language, more determined. The English type of gabble and the French one are polar opposites. Or, say, a conversation about Tolstoy. A Frenchman would, for instance, talk about the structural peculiarities in Tolstoy’s writing, but an Englishman may say: “Ah, Tolstoy… I nearly forgot him. Yes, I read something… My impression is that the old man is completely shit.” Do not think that this is serious, it is just the English manner of shooting the breeze. From a Frenchman’s point of view, it is totally unacceptable. And it is so from Merab’s point of view as well.
Do you know what statistics show? It is terribly interesting. Many years ago, an acquaintance of mine, a professor nuts about statistics, told me that France is one of the top countries in the world in terms of faithfulness—the family kind—husbands to wives and wives to husbands. But it would seem… Right? We would think that in France, all husbands have mistresses and all wives lovers. But do you know which country turned out to be the top one in terms of spouse unfaithfulness? Austria. But who, taking a walk in Vienna, would ever suspect that? No, it does not mean that the French do not have mistresses along with wives. It means that when a Frenchman has a mistress, it is part of the order. Whereas when an Englishman has a mistress—and it is a more frequent occurrence in London than in Paris—the Englishman does not at all feel that it is part of the order. He knows that it is fucking chaos. Well, it unfortunately has to do with politics. And it gnawed at Merab, he thought that it was cynicism. But it is not cynicism, just different rhetoric.

Is it true that the English do not know the city well?

Of course it’s not true. They don’t know it at all, whereas every Parisian knows Paris perfectly. It is an amazing phenomenon. They are simply not interested! There is no city London, there is a city Paris, however! They know Paris much better than London. Or the other way round. When I was involved with the Freemasons, I talked to a master of the Masonic lodge in Shrewsbury—it is the capital of Shropshire. He was an interesting person, I would even say sophisticated. So we were talking about something regarding England, and I said: “Could you tell me which city in England you love the most?” And he replied: “What a question! Shrewsbury, of course!” You know, in any English pub Shropshire would sound approximately like in Moscow if someone asked: “Where are you from?” And the answer: “Oh, I am from Yelts.” Or “I am from Kimr.” From Tmutarakania. So that’s Shrewsbury. And he said: “But of course Shrewsbury. Just look at our cathedral!” Well, actually their cathedral really is nice. No question about it—a classy cathedral. “There is no comparison with Westminster,” he says, “Westminster is just a pile of rocks, a tasteless pile. Whereas the cathedral in Shrewsbury—what marvelous Gothic! Incidentally,” he says, “I only saw Westminster Abbey only once in my life. When I finished secondary school, I was fourteen and mom took me to London.” So what? “Well,” he says, “since then, I have never set foot in London, I don’t like London.” “Okay,” I say, “but have you seen any other cities?” “Paris,” he replies, “Paris I know like the back of my hand. I’ve been there—I don’t know—maybe fifty times. I fly to Paris all the time.” I said: “Wait a minute, but from where do you fly?” And he answered: “I don’t go to London. I drive to Manchester and fly to Paris from there. Or, if all else fails, I go to Heathrow, but I don’t drive into the city.” He does not need London at all. There you have a typical Englishman.

But who lives in London?

Everyone! There is a huge number of foreigners in London. In Paris too, but…

Only strangers live in London.

Not only. The English constitute a little over one half.

Can it be said that no one belongs in London?

Generally, yes. But there is another feature in England, which is very difficult to explain. I remember how I took my sick father to the university hospital. It is the famous King’s College Hospital. We had to wait. And there were such splendid doctors—British associated professors, professors, residents—all of them in white, scrubbed clean… But among the patients, half were some sort of dirty blacks, completely unimaginable, with wild cuts and bruises, after binges or fights, with broken legs, some sort of chauffeur lying there half-drunk… So the nurses were busy with them. And there was my poor intelligent dad. And then I noticed that not only the nurses but also the doctors are playing some sort of verbal tennis with these blacks. But they could not do it with me or my dad. These blacks were their kind, they belonged. They knew the lingo, the jargon. In Moscow that is completely out of the question. I mean, for that hospital staff my totally white and intelligent dad in a good suit was much more of a stranger than a half-drunk ragamuffin. At the same time that London is a strange city, it is also their city. And they feel it. I was flabbergasted. You understand—it was the language issue. And also—and that of course separates the English from Russians—there is their love of talking. They love to talk, using language—any language, even the basest kind. For many years, I could not understand it. It is even difficult to call it slang. Because any lord or university professor knows it. It is some sort of linguistic conditionality.
I remember when I just began working, our dining room where the teachers eat was closed and I went to the workers’ cafeteria. By the way, the food there was twice as cheap and, in my opinion, much better. But that’s normal for England. And in the cafeteria, people spoke some totally incomprehensible language. I could understand only separate words and phrases. After returning to the department, I told them that I had gone to the workers’ cafeteria and that it was quite alright, if only they hadn’t spoken some strange language. Seeing me, they said something like “saucepan lid”. Do you know what a saucepan is? Yes. And lid? Also. And I saw that all of my colleagues were rolling with laughter. “But what is it that they said?” “They called you that,” was the explanation. “What? Why a saucepan lid?” “Well,” they told me: “It’s the rhyming slang of London. You say some words but what you don’t say rhymes with them and it is clear to everyone what that word is. Saucepan lid rhymes with Yid.” I said, listen, you should immediately teach me. There are about a thousand things like that in the dictionary. If a woman is a foreigner and someone in her presence says: “Oh, Bristol…”—it may seem to her just the name of a British city. But it turns out that this too is rhyming slаng. There is this verse: “Bristol city, she is titty.” It means that she has large breasts.
Or, for example, you are talking about something and everyone knows that you don’t understand the slang. They say: “Oh, cobblers!” Cobbler’s awls are balls. Men’s balls. Аnd cobbler’s awls are a cobbler’s instrument. It rhymes with balls. It would seem that it means nothing. But in slang it means “he’s lying like a gray ass”. You don’t know that, but they are all laughing. London is a linguistic town. They think: well, I can talk to this guy, I can share a laugh with this black, but this white intellectual—who cares. Saucepan.

So for them it’s important to talk?

Extraordinarily so. It’s unlike any other nation. The Englishmen who have a centuries long reputation of reticence, of being quiet, are the biggest windbags in the world. They are reticent because the conditions are not right. There is no one to talk to.

Questions by Uldis Tīrons and Arnis Rītups
Translated by Ieva Lešinska

From Spring 2016 issue

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