UNIVERSITY AND ALL THAT

ImageProxyThis is my alma mater, the Moscow State University of Foreign Languages named after Maurice Thorez, acknowledged as the second-best university for the teaching of foreign languages (pipped only by the very exclusive University of Foreign Relations) in the whole of the USSR. This is how it looked in my day – the stone work painted yellow ‒ but now it’s been re-painted a sort of drab beige (as you can see from the photograph below). Such a shame.

It’s here that I studied for my Masters in English and French and is the inspiration for ‘Ghost Love’s’ Moscow University of Languages where Tonia is studying. Brilliant university! Happy days, when everyone was young, full of energy and looking forward to the future.

Uni 1

I had grown up wanting to be a concert pianist but to be successful meant getting a place in one of the best conservatoires in the USSR. For anyone to do that they needed two things: talent and blat. Blat is ‘connection’ – the helping hand of an influential friend or family member ‒ a sort of Russian equivalent of ‘the old school tie’ but much more pervasive. Without blat it was difficult to get anywhere in the USSR … not that things have changed much since the fall of Communism. Whilst I had the musical talent to be a concert pianist I had absolutely no blat and the prospect of attending one of the second- (or third-) rate conservatoires outside Moscow and St Petersburg did not appeal.

Therefore I decided to pursue a career centered on my other great passion: languages, so I set my sights on getting into Maurice Thorez. Doing this was problematic: the schools attended by the children of those high up in the Party had better English teachers and these kids often had supplementary private language lessons. The result was that their English was miles better than that of kids from ordinary schools. Fortunately Maurice Thorez employed a system of positive discrimination whereby about 10% of places in each year’s student intake were reserved for kids from working-class backgrounds (like me) and that (after taking a year out and working like crazy to get my English to a standard that would meet the university’s entry requirements) was how I managed to get in.

Maurice Thorez has about ten thousand students and teaches 35 languages. I took a five-year Master’s course in English and French though there were a broad range of other subjects thrown in for good measure: Marxism-Leninism (of course!), linguistics and pedagogics, Latin and Russian being just some of them. It was very intensive but I loved it. I lived and breathed my university, so proud that I had made it to the famous Maurice Thorez.

French A

This is me in the final lesson of my French course. I am on the right. In the middle is our French professor, Alla Sergeevna Sokolova, a great teacher and a great person.

The Language groups consisted of 7-8 students. We studied six days a week, compulsory classes were from 8am to 1pm, the classes covering conversational English, newspaper English and home reading as well as lessons in more specialized subjects such as phonetics, grammar, Old English and many more.

Uni 2

One oddity was that most of the male students were in the Interpreters’ Faculty – they were being prepared to work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the KGB after graduation. As the vast majority of the students in the other faculties were girls ways had to be found for the girls to meet the boys! As Tonia explains in ‘Ghost Love’, this was done in the ‘smoking areas’ where the boys went for a cigarette between classes. This photograph shows where we all congregated in Maurice Thorez – a little skverick across the road from the main building.

My elder daughter is reading Russian and Linguistics at Oxford University so this has given me an opportunity to compare and contrast the styles these two universities adopted to teach foreign languages. My conclusion is that Maurice Thorez was superior: the amount of contact time between student and teachers was miles higher there. I couldn’t believe how little interaction my daughter has had with her tutors.

MUSIC LESSONS

Nelli performing AWhile I was a good pupil my real passion was music. Somehow my parents scraped together enough money to allow me to have after-school tuition and every week I would go to Music School 52 for lessons. Lots of lessons. I had two 45-minute lessons learning to play the piano, one lesson on solfeggio (the theory of music), one lesson on the history of music and one lesson of choir practice. A tough schedule but it was certainly effective.

This is me performing a piano duet by Beethoven in one of the school’s concerts when I was ten (I’m on the left). Good posture!

The piano syllabus concentrated on the music of Bach, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and other classical composers. As I got older we moved on to Chopin and Skriabin and I suspect this is what whetted my appetite for jazz which I took further in my career as a jazz singer when I came to live in the UK (but more of that in a later blog).

One of the things that struck me when comparing piano teaching in the UK and piano teaching in Russia is how little attention is paid in the UK to posture technique. I was taught that for a pianist it is essential that the whole arm be relaxed from the shoulder to the hand so that the whole of the arm’s strength could be focused into the fingertips. When I began to study jazz seriously I was aghast at the technique of Thelonious Monk (boy, did I have some arguments with my band’s pianist about that!). If you want to see impeccable technique watch Gary Oldman playing Beethoven in ‘Immortal Beloved’: he must have had my teacher rapping his knuckles to get that good!

Karen and Ellie AMy progress was such that my parents bought me an upright piano to practice on much to the annoyance of our neighbours (the neighbour bashing the heel of a shoe on the waterpipe to stop Tonia practicing in ‘Ghost Love’ was what I endured). That black ‘Rodina’ piano has moved with me wherever I’ve gone – it’s had seven homes since Rod and I got together – and as it weighs a ton (literally) shifting it around has been a real labour of love. But my two daughters both learned to play on it so its work isn’t done yet. This is a photo of one of my daughters singing at a party Rod and I gave in the early 2000s. She is standing in front of the ‘Rodina’ being accompanied by our friend (and excellent pianist) Karen Chalmers.

Maybe, one day, I’ll have grandchildren tinkling away on it?

When I finished school my thoughts turned to what I would study at university and whether I could make it as a concert pianist but, again, that’s for another blog.

FIRST DAY AT SCHOOL IN 1970s’ MOSCOW

Blog Class This is me on the first day at school – on the left-hand row third from the back.

I started school (as all Russian kids do) when I was seven, attending Middle School 288. I was so excited I thought I would burst! My mother had already taken me to the school to register and to take their test (which, being a clever little girl, I managed without too much of a problem) so I knew a little about the place. When I arrived on 1st September to begin my school career I was very, very eager.

The everyday uniform for a schoolgirl was a brown dress with a black apron but for the 1st September we wore a special white apron and had a white ribbon in our hair. Did we feel important!

Not that I liked my dress. I had one which was straight cut whereas some of the girls had ones which were waisted with a pleated skirt (boy, was I jealous). My dress also had what was called a white stoechka collar – a bit like a dog-collar ‒ and I vastly preferred the optional shirt-type collar. Such little things, but when you’re seven they mean such a lot.

My first day at school got off to a bad start. We were welcomed by speeches from the school’s Director and some of the children recited poetry and then the parents were dismissed and the older kids were directed to take the new arrivals to their class. The boy who took my hand was an idiot and delivered me to the wrong class. That caused a lot of confusion (I nearly cried because I was so worried I’d never find my right class) but finally everything was sorted out and I settled down to become a pupil.

As you’ll see from the photograph, political education started early in the USSR: that’s a poster explaining the teachings of Lenin on the back wall.

The school hours were from 8:30 to 1:15 six days a week but for those without parents at home these hours were extended. We were given lunch, time to do our homework and then there were various societies, the day ending at six in the afternoon.

All-in-all an excellent educational system.

IN THE BEGINNING

My first novel, ‘Ghost Love’ has just been released. The blurb describes it as follows:

A STORY OF LOVE LOST AND FOUND… WITH A FLAVOURING OF THE SUPERNATURAL

In the madcaGhostLove-lgA FBp, chaotic days when Communism crumbled in the USSR, Tonia meets and falls in love with Englishman, Peter Monroe. Despite the protests of her family and the more strenuous objections of the KGB Tonia agrees to marry Peter only for him to mysteriously disappear.

Twenty years later a life-toughened Toni must revisit these bitter-sweet memories when she finds herself and her daughters endangered by the consequences of that love affair. In her despair Toni comes to realise that true love really does conquer all … even death.

I was born in Moscow, grew up there and studied English and French at a Moscow university. When I graduated in the early 90s I found myself in a country that was enduring the second revolution it had endured in the space of seventy years, this time the collapse of Communism and the USSR and the growth of a new, capitalism-inspired Russia. I met my English husband-to-be in Moscow and together we travelled around the CIS witnessing first-hand the changes that the country and its people were going through. Traumatic, exciting and often upsetting times, these experiences have flavoured ‘Ghost Love’ and my second book which I have just begun to write, ‘Hotel Russe’.

But both ‘Ghost Love’ and ‘Hotel Russe’ are stories so I thought it might be interesting for my readers if I give a little more detail about what it was like to grow up in Communist USSR and to see it all come to nought in the maelstrom of the early nineties.