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Tuesday, 16 February 2010

the tale of ukraine

"A long, long time ago in ancient times, the land we live on now was called Halychyna and was home to a people called the Red Rus’. That’s as far back as we can remember, when we were still called Rusyns. Then there came a Prince called Vladymyr the Great, he was one of the greatest of the Kievan Rus’ people. His people came and took over the big Red Rus cities while fighting with the Poles. And so we became part of the great Kievan Rus. Their empire was so large it reached as far as Moscow and beyond! Just imagine, Moscow was once ruled by Kiev! Prince Vladymyr the Great, and Prince Yaroslav the Wise ruled for a long, long time and the Kievan Rus’ grew and grew. With them they brought Christianity, our Cyrillic writing and the freedom to develop our own cultures. But this was a long, long time ago, much before anyone now alive was born...”
“The Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria came much later, when we were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In those times, we Ruthenians (as the Austrians called us) were peasants much the same as we are now and we were ruled by Polish aristocracy and gentry, although some Poles were poor peasants like us too. But the Polish landlords didn’t like us very much. Because they in turn had to answer to the Austrians, who cut back their rights and dues. We peasants no longer belonged totally to our Polish masters and we had more personal freedoms. We owed them much less work and we could even get married without our Lord’s permission. Ha! And what’s more, we could go over the heads of our Polish Lords and appeal to the Imperial Courts, whatever they were. I never heard of anyone who did such a thing, but maybe we didn’t need to - the idea that we could if we needed to seemed to be enough for everyone. All the common folk; be we Poles, Jews, Ruthenians, we all loved the Austrian Emperor. Although in some ways we paid for it too. The Austrians took lots of our people away and made them fight in their armies. But they were our masters, and we were mostly left in peace so we weren’t so badly off.”
“But for a long time there had been a problem. The Poles were not content with what they had. They wanted The Kingdom of Galicia to be their own, and didn’t want to belong to the Austrians. We, the Ruthenians, just wanted to be equal with the Poles. We wanted to keep our own language, our culture, stories and folk songs. The Polish Lords tried to turn us into Poles! Us! But they failed to make our Church change to their funny calendar or to replace our letters with their horrid Latin ones. The answer to us was always obvious, yet the problem has caused so much trouble. People seemingly will only be happy in a country which is truly their own. So divide Galicia - the Poles can live in the West and the Ruthenians in the East, united with the rest of our beloved Ukraine.”
“These peaceful times ended with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Austrian Emperor had to abandon us back to our Polish Lords and what about us? We were not happy. But we couldn’t decide together what to do and split up into groups such as the Russian-lovers, and the Ukrainians - they were the main group. They were linked to the common people, peasants like you and me. Ukrainians still wanted equality with the Poles and to cut up Galicia into a Polish West and a Ruthenian East. But the Poles were still saying that Galicia was once upon a time theirs, and should still be so, because the Austrians had taken it away from them one hundred and fifty years before...”
“But then there were great wars, with much heavy fighting and so many men dying all around here, so terrible were the battles. We were caught in the middle of everyone else’s wars and revolutions, such as mess! Austrians, Russians, Germans, Poles, Romanians, Ukrainian republicans and anarchists marching throughout our lands. A Red Army, a White Army and a Green Army. And we Ukrainians, in our country which isn’t even our own, what could we do?”“We had the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsing on our West, and the Imperial Russians falling apart on our Eastern flank. Here in Galicia we were stuck right in the middle of these two battling giants. And our villages were forever being destroyed in their crossfire. When the Great War started in 1914, we were split up into the two opposing armies. Lots of our men fought with the Imperial Russian Army, while others fought for the Austro-Hungarian Army. Many ended up fighting each with one another, on other peoples’ behalf! Even worse, those of us not fighting also suffered as both armies killed people thought to be collaborating with the enemy. First the Russian troops came and took over, forcing the Austrians out of our Galicia. The Russians then immediately started to stamp out all Ukrainian ways of life. They arrested many of our leading people: politicians, lawyers, writers, teachers, and sent them away to Siberia never to be heard of again. The next year, the Austrians came and took back Galicia and they promised us many things, trying to buy our support because things were going badly for them on other fronts. But we were not satisfied, we strived for complete independence. Because you couldn’t win with either side, or neither. It was turmoil. Anyone suspected by the Austrians of being sympathetic to the Russians was taken away never to be seen again. Then the Russians had their revolution and their civil war and it got even worse. A lot of their fighting took place here. And by the end of all these wars, more than a million Ukrainians had died, and those of us who had miraculously survived saw all of our land given to other countries. And we vowed once again that we should be our own country, independent of all these others."

the cardboard box

On the table, next to the laptop, is an ordinary cardboard box. Battered and a little stained, despite its small size it probably contains more than I have ever known about my late Ukrainian father. Real things. He rarely talked about his life before arriving in Britain, as if he had been born directly into his late twenties and whilst aiming for Canada, had somehow ended up settled in Nottingham and married to a Glaswegian nurse. It was as if someone had only then remembered to press the record button on his life, and all previous existence had been lost. Just occasionally there were shards from a life before, very different to this British working-class life my father had been assimilated into. Once it was a recollection of drinking fermented milk that was so sour it tasted alcoholic, and probably was. Another time was during a trip to Derbyshire, where the hilly landscape surprised him with memories of the Carpathian Mountains. And then there was one of his favourite tales of being caught stealing apples from a local orchard, him and his friends, back home during the famine. The owner punished them by removing their trousers and putting them in the middle of the village square. My father and his friends had to lurk half-clothed, hiding and waiting for darkness, before they could finally retrieve their trousers and skulk off home.
And there were other glimpses of his Ukrainian beginnings. For instance, he knew how to build and run a still. He once discovered me as a young teenager crudely trying to distil something – anything - out of a dribble of leftover wine. Having laughed at my feeble and amateur attempt, he made a still for himself out of two Swarfega cans and fuelled it with home-grown potatoes and sprouted barley. His comment had been that this wouldn’t be possible ‘back home’ but that since here in Mapperley nobody would recognise what the still actually was, we would be perfectly safe. Home distilling of alcohol was definitely ‘Not Allowed’ back home. The resulting liquid was stronger than vodka and tasted disgusting, and was drinkable only when heavily disguised with blackberry cordial, made from home-grown blackberries of course.
And that was another hint of his past life. My father had two very productive allotments in addition to a large garden at home, and a total of three greenhouses. These he ran over and above his daily work as a fitter. And apart from the chrysanthemums, which he produced commercially, everything was laid down to food crops. Good, solid, bulk food. No silly sugar-snap peas when you could be growing kilos of proper peas. Potatoes, apples, runner beans, tomatoes, he grew them all in industrial quantities. As children, we had evenings at home shredding beans and shelling peas and thought nothing of it. It was all carefully preserved and stored away - a massive, edible safety deposit against times of need. The house was so crammed full of food that every space was occupied, leaving just enough space for us.
And now as I look back at these aspects of my childhood, I realise they may not be so typical after all. The allotments, the gardens, the greenhouses, the food stores. I knew my father had been a market gardener or some sort of small farmer ‘back home’. Had this been my father’s attempts to mentally dig his way back to a former way of life? Was he maintaining a link with his past self? Reliving his memories again and again as he turned over spade after spade of soil - memories he could neither share nor get out of his head. Or simply didn’t want to. Was it more of a guilty hangover from surviving through times of great famine and hardship? And a determination that we should never, ever have to go through the same ordeal ourselves.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

chapter 2

My father was most definitely Ukrainian, yet he did not come from the Ukraine. The country did not actually exist at any point while he was alive. And anyway, at that time and in his part of the world the borders and states, leaders and countries shifted back and forth almost like the tide. Meanwhile the population itself was a fairly even mix of Ukrainians and Poles, with the difference being made up by Jews, Germans, Czechs and Russians to name but a few. But by mixed, I don’t mean living side by side. It was more a matter of ‘this village is Ukrainian, the one down the road is Polish’, and so on. No, for my father being Ukrainian was not simply a matter of coming from a country called Ukraine.
Take his surname for example, transcribed from Ukrainian into its nearest English equivalent. The clue is in the ending ‘-skyj’ as opposed to the more typical Polish spelling ‘-ski’. All down to how it was initially translated into English. There is no straight equivalent to ‘-ский’ since some of the letters simply don’t exist in the English language. The Ukrainians tended to opt for ‘-skyj’, which I happen to think is much nicer looking. I like the way the y and the j curl round one another and underneath the k, keeping each other company and neatly rounding off the end of the name. The Polish i on its own looks harsh and sharp in comparison. Or maybe this is just the hidden Ukrainian in me. So what if the native English speakers cannot cope with the sight of y and j next to one another?
But what did make my father Ukrainian then? Even more, what made the Ukrainians living where he lived, in the Western-most province of a place called Galicia, think that they belonged with the rest of the Ukraine to the East? When Galicia has a separate, long and extremely complicated history all of its own. A little hotchpotch region of Eastern Europe falling between Soviet Russia and Poland, the East and the West, the Carpathian Mountains and the river San...more; it is a positive boiling pot of cultures and ethnicities. So where did this group of people get the idea that they belonged together? That they had an identity which bound them tightly, irrevocably to one another and excluded everyone else? Scattered peoples in the borderlands, intermixed with so many others and yet separate, segregated.
It is ironic that a Ukrainian state existed for a few short years just before my father’s birth and never again until about ten years after he died.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

ode to Garfield

I must have sat heavily on the sofa for some time. Eventually the ginger cat, having eyed up my lap and carefully calculated, stirred his lazy limbs in my direction. With an ungainly half-jump; half-scramble he arrived and started the long process of resettling himself on my knees. He padded as always, incessantly, with half-moon claws reaching deep enough to touch my skin, even through the denim. Curling the claws a few degrees and then withdrawing, over and over, over and over. His blissful, round face searched out my own. His eyes were tight slits in the sun, half-closing in happiness.
But the claws annoyed me more than usual, nicking my skin, while the heat collecting between our bodies was oppressive. I started fidgeting - my brain was not in the mood for enforced stillness. I shifted, causing the cat to stand up, re-circle and move upwards towards my chest. He tucked his white paws neatly beneath his sternum and looked at me, blinking slowly and purring deeply. Now I felt suffocated and squirmed even more. I sighed deeply, trying to inflate my lungs against the furry mass and wondering vaguely when the cat had become so heavy. He was insistent, he was here to stay. My will finally broke as his whiskers innocently tickled my nose and I tried to force him to shift. With this he seemed to become even heavier still until he spotted a better alternative, somewhere warm and inviting. He bounced up onto the table, using my ribs as a springboard and his claws for good purchase on my chest. There he settled almost gracefully onto the open laptop, overhanging slightly at each edge and looking truly triumphant, while the laptop purred gently back to him.

novel opening?

I have a crazy surname, with too few vowels for English comfort. When forced to call my name people pause and stand still, with a panicked expression and their mouths twisting silently as if warming up to the challenge. They have three options – they can bravely try to pronounce it, and although they usually start off well, by the end they have speeded up. They are trying to get through the k, the l, the m, and the y’s as fast as possible and have almost made it too, when the final j punches them hard in the face. They tend to finish with a quietly mumbled yet high-speed slur. Sometimes it is almost a pitiful whimper. Or they give up after the first five letters which, after all, look deceptively normal. Another option is to continue standing silent and still, eyes wide and mouth contorting, until I finally feel sorry for them and pronounce the name myself. You can normally tell from the facial confusion that it is your turn. Some days I just feel mean, and wait for them to try anyway. The final option is to just use my first name, my already-anglicised forename. Despite the fact I am Nottingham born and bred, I didn’t start life as a Peter.

Monday, 18 January 2010

His eyes were blue

His eyes were blue. Their precise shade fluctuated, seeming to reflect the changing hue of the sky above. Sometimes when the weather was cloudy the eyes were paler, almost colourless but yet never grey; there was always a shade of hopeful colour, easy to miss unless searched for. But when in deepest midsummer the sky was hot and clear, with dancing waves of heat escaping back up into the atmosphere; then the eyes were mirrors, reflecting the blue above them. Deep and life-warming, almost dark yet brilliant still.

His forehead was broad and clear. Not yet furrowed but fine-lined enough to define and give some gravity to the face which narrowed away below it. His body was long and slender without being thin, strong and muscled without being bulky. His skin was an easy brown, acquired from just being outside, as if the sun and the skin had reached an amicable agreement, an equilibrium between man and his environment.

As the sky was reflected in his eyes, so the seasonal changes were to be seen throughout his body. Spring saw his lean, pale arms strengthening; bared half way to the elbow. Sleeves rolled back for working hard in the vegetable garden, the fields and the barns. The fields would become green with the promise of new crops and animals were growing and multiplying with hope and potential.

By summer the fields were full of golden waves of wheat moving in the breeze like a blond mane. Whole fields perfectly synchronised in the dance, brushed this way and that, as the sun worked its magic on lengthening stems and swelling seed heads. The arms were now fully exposed, the muscles hardened to work and the skin a deep sun-ripened brown. The long-lit days meant long work-hours. The light brown hair was fading to gold to straw to pure white-blond. The hands were tough and forever dirtied, despite washing. The skin was covered with cuts and scars, criss-crossing the previous years’ to make a complex patchwork of little white lines.

Then came autumn and with it the pivotal harvest. The fields were shorn of their golden locks leaving behind the bald earth. The potential was reaped, stores were prepared and laid away for the coming winter. There was close anticipation of the long hours spent closed in at home, fires burning up the stockpiles of wood and stomachs burning up the stores of food. Long awaited days of rest, most labour curtailed by the lack of natural light. But there was also the tinge of sadness at the passing of glorious summer that was matched by the hint of cold in the atmosphere; the annual climatic climax has passed and now begins the steady downward decent into winter. The bare earth was once again covered, but this time in chilling white. Stillness. The tanned arms faded to white, hidden away until the thaw.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Baba Yaga

“Baba Yaga is a very ugly and ancient hag who hides away deep, deep in the enchanted forest. Don’t ask me where, for how would I know such a thing? As if I would want to know where to find such a creature - only a fool would go seeking her out for no good reason! At nights she flies around in a mortar, which she steers using the pestle like a rudder. Her feet are crammed in very tightly, so tight they only just fit. With her broom of silver birch she sweeps away the tracks behind her so she can never been traced. The rest of her stands tall and straight, right up out of the mortar, tilting forwards as she flies. Oh, what a sight she makes! Her wild hair screams out behind her, silver and black and long. Her arms and legs are scrawny and brown, but do not be deceived - her strength is unbeatable. Her long crooked nose and bedraggled garments, her crazy eyes shining yellow in the gloomy, dim moonlight - sharp cat-like slits reflecting any light which penetrates the thick forest canopy, like a flash to blind you. To seek out Baba Yaga is a very dangerous thing to do, but then some people are driven to desperate measures. And sometimes, just sometimes, she provides guidance, although it is such that people rarely care to hear. Those who seek her must be totally pure of spirit and thought. And mostly she will lock people up, enslaving them to do her housework, threatening to eat them, or even their children, unless they complete the impossible tasks she sets them.”
“She lives in a hut which has no windows. There is a door, but it will only show itself if a magical phrase is uttered. And would you really want to go through it? Once you are through it would probably disappear and you would be enslaved inside for good. Baba Yaga herself enters and leaves by the chimney but she is never burnt by her own fire, because she is magical I guess. The hut is raised up high on a set of giant chicken legs, which dance and move the hut around at her command. So she never stays in one part of the forest for long. You never know where you might accidently meet her... take care! There are three riders to be found around about the hut. One is dressed all in brilliant white, and sits upon a white horse with a white harness – he is Day. The second is a red rider, he is the Sun. The third is all in black, and he is Night. The hut is surrounded by a palisade made of human bones. Atop of each pole is a human skull. Well, nearly each pole – there are a few spaces left for potential future victims... ghoulish light seeps out of the empty eye sockets, as if desperately seeking escape...”