Monday, February 16, 2015

Principles? I have several, though not quite the kind you are thinking off. And who is this Vladislav Surkov? Answers on the usual postcard, please. As for ‘media studies’ degrees, well, stick ‘em up your jacksie (Prof Peter Cole and Prof Roy Greenslade, once, in a saner life when they didn’t take themselves quite so seriously, Pete and Roy from the Pig and Whistle)

It would be misleading – ironically, given who we are dealing with – to claim the print industry – that’s ‘newspapers’ in words we can all understand – and those who work in it don’t have principles. Of course they do. It’s just that their principles are not wholly admirable, but as we generally assume that ‘principles’ are noble beasts, a hack usually keeps his principles to him or herself.

One very useful principle in the life of a hack is: ‘Simplify, then exaggerate’. In that way you don’t confuse the poor reader with detail which they won’t understand – and which you don’t understand, either – but once you have reduced it to primary colours, then given it the necessary spin, well, you have a story. I came across a great example of the principle of ‘simplify, then exaggerate’ the other day when I passed a desk here at work on which a copy of the Daily Express was lying. A day or two earlier, writing in the British Medical Journal Aseem Malhotra, an ‘interventional cardiology specialist registrar at Croydon University hospital, London’ (impressed? I am) said that butter, cheese, red meat and the rest weren’t necessarily the fast track to a quick and early death we have been told they were for the past 30-odd years.

In fact, the data on which that claim had been based was potentially misleading in that it did not cover women. Furthermore, all the substitute ‘spreads’ we had been urged to used instead of butter – I call it crap, and have never given up butter, but that is neither here nor there – might well be more harmful than what they were intended to replace. So far, so interesting and for someone like me who loves butter and cheese, rather reassuring.

 The story was, of course, covered by all the British national newspapers to with varying degrees of responsibility: the Guardian played it straight, the Daily Telegraph – here and here - gave it only the slightest of spin, the Daily Mail managed to sound outraged (but then the Mail is easily outraged on behalf of its readers - outraged readers always come back for more), and the Mirror (formerly the Daily Mirror, and why did they change the title?) also played it straight. What the hell, not much of a story really. But it was the Daily Express which won the cigar in tabloid terms: what was that principle – ‘simplify, then exaggerate’? That is what the Express did, and here’s it’s front page – it’s a classic

Er, not quite. And if you want another a further taste of the Daily Express’s exemplary journalism, try this (at the bottom of the post).

 . . .

Before I took up the life of a sub-editor, ensuring commas were in the right place and that any names mentioned in a news story or feature weren’t misspelled more than once, I was a reporter for six years, first for two weekly papers, then an evening paper, then a morning paper. I mention the papers I worked for because the industry has changed to such an extent here that the usual route to working for one of ‘the nationals’ here in Britain has changed a great deal.

Once you started ‘your career’ – of maybe it’s only mine which deserves the inverted commas – on a weekly paper reporting on flower shows and interviewing crashing bores who own the county’s largest collection of antique beer mats, eventually moved on to the local evening, then a regional morning paper before trying your luck in The Smoke – having made all your awful mistakes by then and learned never to repeat them. These days ‘the nationals’ now seem to take on graduate trainees who are given a brief guide to telling one end of a sentence from the other before joining up and being paid a pittance. Actually, that is probably truer of trainee sub-editors on the nationals. The reporters given shifts by the newsdesk must be reasonably clued up to warrant getting the work so they probably did spend some time as a local newspaper reporter.

I joined the Lincolnshire Chronicle on June 4, 1974, and got fuck-all official training until the following spring when I was sent on a two-month course to learn shorthand and ‘law for journalism’ at Richmond College, Sheffield. Before then I picked up a little on the job, though to be frank that is not necessarily the worst way to go about it. I can’t speak for others, but as far as I am concerned being a newspaper journalist – and I far prefer the term ‘hack’ which doesn’t, as far as I am concerned, carry any negative connotation – is essentially practical, and you can do it or you can’t.

So the bright girls and boys will pick up what they are supposed to be doing in hours, the rest of us took several months to get the lay of the land, and the thickos won’t pick up much at all (and, as a rule, will become the big ‘bastard management’ ‘join the union’ tub-thumpers and full of stories such as ‘they offered me a job on Fleet Street, but we like it round here’ to justify why in career terms they never even left the starting block. Years ago, the thickos who really couldn’t cut it used to drift off into a press officers’ job, public relations and dead-end jobs on trade papers where they would usually die in harness 30 years later. Latterly, PR and press officering has become a damn sight slicker and a great money-spinner if you are any good at it, mainly because the aim is no longer to assist hacks as once it was, but to obstruct them and make sure their pay masters’ arses are covered.

The bright, ambitious ones, on the other hand, were quick on the uptake, seemed to have been around for ages within two days of starting, knew everything that was going on before it had even happened and then were gone and on their way up the ladder within months: bugger if they broke a contract of employment which articled them to a paper for two or three years – the sharper they were, the more contracts they broke: and the news editors they now worked for were glad to get a good operator - good news editors want stories, are never too fussy how they are obtained and if your bright new reporter has fewer scruples than Liberace had wives, who cares?

NB While I was working on the Lincolnshire Chronicle, I got friendly with a hack on the Lincolnshire Echo, the local evening paper, called Peter Kraft. He – I saw them all – had five different driving licences (OK, it was four, but that is gen), all in slight variations of his name. All had penalty points and endorsements.

Then there was the Guardian reporter who arrived in Lincoln in October 1974 to do a piece on the local constituency battle between the sitting MP Dick Taverne and then Margaret Jackson (later the Cabinet minister Margaret Beckett). Taverne had been kicked out of the Labour party the previous year over his enthusiasm for the then European Community – Labour weren’t at all keen in those days. 

Taverne had then formed an independent Labour party in Lincoln and held onto his seat in the February 1974 election, but that October he was defeated by Margaret Jackson/Beckett). The Guardian reporter was Peter Cole, now ‘Emeritus Professor’ in the Department of Journalism Studies at the University of Sheffield, who went on to be editor of the extremely short-lived Sunday Correspondent (September 1989 to November 1990 – will they ever learn?). We both attended a Press conference along with one or two other hacks and I, the trainee scruff from the local weekly was rather in awe of the Guardian journalist from The Smoke and chatted with him.

During the Press conference I noticed that he didn’t have shorthand (and neither did I at that point). So I asked him how he could record what people said – get quotes? ‘Oh,’ he told me loftily. ‘I give a flavour of what they say.’ Well, I now know what he means – and very, very few folk can remember the exact words they used ten minutes ago and if you write a quote they can't remember, well, they cant remember, see, and thats what you tell them – but I did, at the time, think – remember, I was still quite a keen young thing then and had high hopes of making my way – ‘that’s a bit iffy, isn’t it? How can you get quotes if you don’t record exactly what people say?’

Incidentally, others might disagree, but this hack has always felt that turning journalism into an academic subject is grade A bullshit – take note 'Professor' Roy Greenslade, who seems to be forever living off the fact that he once got a tearound in while working at The Sun. (Actually, he was deputy editor for a while, but I make my comments in the spirit of this blog post.) As for a ‘media studies’ degree, the best place for it is as far up your arse as you can stick it without killing yourself.

Notwithstanding that any and every degree course - whether media studies, PPE, history, English Literature, languages or tourism - is most certainly valuable if it trains you brain, mind and intellect to think and gives you the means to tackle almost any job successfully after learning a little bit more about it, you’ll learn as much about reporting, feature writing, dealing with the public and all the rest of what makes up a hack’s professional life from a media studies course as you will be able to learn to drive by reading the Highway Code. Doing it will teach you.

More to the point, they would often rather not know what’s been going on: deniability is worth its weight in gold and not to be sneered at, and as long as you don’t fuck them over. These bright young things used to scare the shit out of me: me sharp? Not in a million years. (I’ve since discovered there’s a lot to be gained by being thought sharp, but that’s another story. The secret is to keep schtumm: if someone thinks you’re a sharp, bright cookie, don’t open your mouth and prove them wrong.)

. . .

One of the first journalistic principles most young reporters hear about – though not all of them seem to adopt it given some of the badly written news stories I occasionally spot in local papers – is quite simple: ‘Don’t let a couple of facts spoil a good story.’ Speaks for itself really: if you have a good tale to tell – and, let’s face it, despite all the hi’falutin talk of the public’s right to know and how the job of the Press is to keep authority in check, all that phoney Lou Grant crap – don’t ruin it.

If a 90-year-old widow has been robbed blind by the local council but the whole matter was at first swept under the carpet but was then eventually sorted out amicably, leave the bit about the happy end until a very short final paragraph, if ‘Council screws widow, 90, rotten!’ is the story you want. OK, you might on the other hand want a hearts and flowers story, because it’s already got out and other papers are carrying it, so that happy ending does go further up the story, but not too far up. The rule is: misery, heartbreak, disaster, grief and all their brothers, sisters and first cousins are hot. Always remember that wise advice: ‘Boy Scout does good deed’ doesn’t sell too many copies and it isn't truth newspapers are after, but big bucks whatever they might tell you.

A reporter for only six years? I hear you ask. Not very long, is it? No, it isn’t. Dear reader, even though I say so myself, I wasn’t a bad reporter, but I wasn’t destined for the top, either. I’ve already admitted that each of the bright, keen-as-mustard young things I worked side-by-side with before they were on their way again before you could even catch your breath scared the shit out of me, and in my heart I knew I wasn’t one of them. Certainly, there are other avenues for a reporter to make her or his way – education correspondent, health correspondent, local authority correspondent – but the truth is I wasn’t interested.

I don’t – and was slowly realising it then – give a flying fuck about ‘news’. My attitude is if it’s important, I’ll hear about it sooner or later, and I consider the standard obsession with ‘hearing the latest development’ a sign of neurosis. So you can see why bit by bit I came to realise that whatever my future was to be in newspapers, it wasn’t going to be as a reporter. There's also the small matter that the public - civilians call them ‘the general public’ - are as a rule dull as ditchwater, never finish their sentences when you need that quote (so you are obliged to make it up), and broadly go on and on an on for hours after you have got what you want and no longer need to talk to them.

Then, of course, there was the little matter of closing down Newcastle airport and grounding all flights all on my own which helped to persuade me that reporting was not to be my long-term future and that I should seek out another avenue - did someone say career path? - in this glorious industry of ours, But that, too, is for another day. But I will say this: that embarrassing matter with Newcastle airport did help me acquire another of my principles, and an invaluable on even though I learned about the hard way, is: Never come clean - ever!

Incidentally, I might perhaps be painting too rosy a picture of our glorious industry. But if you are still intent on making a name for yourself by indulging in all that ‘Lou Grant crap’, don’t bother doing so in, among other countries, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Somalia, Pakistan, Paraguay and Brazil – you might well end up dead long before the fags and booze claim you. So far in 2015 – not even two months old – 16 journalists have died in one way or another. In 2014 it was 61. Take a look here for more information.
. . .

I  mentioned a certain Peter Pomerantsev and his new book Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible the other day. (Here is a review of it which appeared in the Guardian.) He was on the radio this morning on a programme called Start The Week (unfortunately this morning presented by Andrew Marr, but that was just a one-off) and he was giving further details of his take on life in Putin’s Russia. Naturally, this is just his views of the situation there, but whether they reflect the reality or not – and, well, I’m going to go for ‘they do’ – Russia seems like a wackier version of Alice In Wonderland. Pomerantsev mentioned a character called ‘Surkov’ upon whom, it’s claimed, Putin relies quite a bit.

Vladislav Surkov is billed here as more or less the author of Putinism and is said to pull many of the strings. According to Pomerantsev even the opposition parties are Kremlin-sponsored to give the appearance of – well, democracy. Who knows? Could be true, Pomerantsev could be just another stooge putting out a set of lies to counteract another set of lies. After all, ‘nothing is true and everything is possible’. There was even the claim on the programme that Putin’s anti-gay drive at the time of the Sochi Winter Olympics was all a sham, a pose, though I can’t off-hand now remember what – if that is true – it was intended to achieve.

I’ve ordered the book from Amazon and it should arrive tomorrow. I look forward to reading it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Hold on to your hats, times are getting more interesting

If one can take a dispassionate view of something, not be swayed by emotion but examine it as a doctor might examine a broken leg, now is the time to take another look at two things: the euro and Nato. Now is the time because both could well be facing the ultimate stress test, and if they fail they will, among other things, be consigned to history. I say ‘among other things’ because of different consequences of them failing, being consigned to history will be the least interesting and least important consequence. We will be worrying about other things.

The stress test Nato might soon be facing will be brought about by one Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia who has, to put it mildly, been in the news recently. As usual, I can only go on what I read in the media and hear on TV and radio, but by those accounts Putin wants to re-establish Russian pride and the pre-eminence it once had in world affair. Nothing much wrong with that, of course, but it is the means by which he seems to be doing it which is causing concern in the West (which is again putting it mildly). I am not one for taking very seriously pub bores and wholesale merchants of instant opinion, but I am inclined to listen carefully to the view of former British ambassadors to Moscow, and one of those in Tony Brenton (as he cares to sign his newspaper articles) aka Sir Antony Brenton, who was ‘our man in Moscow’ from 2004 to 2008. Brenton says he first came across Putin when he was mayor of St Petersburg and where he was a man who ‘got things done’.

A potted history of Putin from Brenton is that after a somewhat misspent early youth when by his own account he behaved like a hooligan, Putin, whom Brenton credits with ‘iron self-discipline’, took an interest in judo and went on to study law. After graduating he joined the KGB with whom he served until the KGB-backed attempted putsch on Mikhail Gorbachev. Brenton and others also say Putin plays things very close to his chest and can be alarmingly laconic. He also stands out in that he is a teetotaller (as we all know drinking doesn’t exactly keep the mind clear), keeps himself very fit for a man of his age and is always impeccably turned out, which, Brenton, records rather sets him apart from the men who surround him.

Elsewhere I have read that Putin, despite the belief in the West that he has some kind of masterplan, is actually more someone who reacts to situations. So, for example, when the West more or less did nothing over what can only be regarded as Russia’s acquisition of the Crimea (and many Russians would describe it as a ‘re-acquisition), Putin was emboldened to push his luck a little further. So now Russia is, apparently, actively supporting the ‘rebels in Eastern Ukraine’. One suggestion is that Russia would like to have control of a sizeable strip of Eastern Ukraine in order to have a land link to the Crimea which it doesn’t, at present, have.

There is also the suggestion, however, that despite its support for the insurrectionists, Russia doesn’t have as much ‘control’ over them as the West believes. Most recently, Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Francois Hollande flew off to Moscow for what turned out to be abortive talks with Putin in view of the deteriorating situation in Eastern Ukraine. (Incidentally, I’ll leave the questions as just

                                                           As some see it . . .                                               ©

how popular the insurrection is and just how much support the rebels command among the general population for others to answer. As usual with such questions, you reads the papers, you pays your price and you makes your choice, which is to say most of us give the most credence to those reports which seem to substantiate the view we already hold. Me, I have no idea and no means of establishing ‘the truth’.)

After that visit, from which Merkel and Hollande returned ‘empty-handed’ and which was compared by some to Neville Chamberlains’ flight to Munich for a chat with ‘Herr Hitler’, rather alarming talk began of an incipient World War III. Here, I’ll succumb to the temptation to give the most credence to those reports which seem to substantiate our views, in my case my hope: Brenton – I think it was Brenton in a piece for the Daily Telegraph, but it might well have been someone else – suggested that Putin will not try to take on Nato, by for example invading one of the Baltic states, its newer members, because he knows that in the long run he will be the loser. The trouble is, of course, that even if that is true and Putin and Russia do come off second best in a dust-up with Nato, a great many lives will have been lost and a great deal of disruption will have been caused in the meantime.

While Merkel and Hollande opt for the jaw-jaw approach to defusing this crisis, Barack Obama yesterday declared that he would not rule out arming the Ukrainian government as it battles to defeat the insurrection in the east of its country. Many see that as the worse possible thing to do in that it can only help escalate the situation. Others, and this is the view I subscribe to, see it was the West playing good cop/bad cop with Putin, though if they are doing that, it will not be lost on Russian president and so, in a sense, is all rather pointless. If Putin does decide to test the West’s mettle and makes some kind of move into any of the Baltic states, that is when Nato’s stress test will start: under its treaty obligations and attack on any member is to be seen as an attack on all its members and to be dealt with accordingly.

I personally can’t see China sitting quietly by if the situation does escalate badly. As far as I know China is most certainly intent on world domination but only in an economic sense. Any military aggression it decides to engage in will be pretty local. I think that is also true of Russia: whatever else one might think of Putin (and the German in me is rather attracted to his reputed self-discipline), he is most certainly not daft and it would seem very unlikely that he would make a move which could result in real damage to his country despite what real damage he could cause elsewhere. He does not strike me as the kind of man who would cut off his nose to spite his face.

How all this will play out remains to be seen. (There was a claim on the radio last night that Putin and Russia are financially supporting various right-wing and extreme right groups such as France’s Front National, but that is the first I’ve heard, so all I can do here is – rather lamely – to report that some are claiming it to be the case.)

NB Britain’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond was on the radio the other night warning along the lines that the West could not stand by while a nation deployed troops in another country and violated that country’s sovereignty. My first thought was ‘didn’t the bloody Foreign Office have someone to hand to go through what someone like Hammond intends to say and edit it accordingly? And if they did and she or he let this though they should be sacked immediately.’ For wasn’t that a very succinct summation of what the U.S. and the UK did in Iraq? And wouldn’t Putin and Russia quite legitimately be able to claim ‘what’s sauce for the goose…’ Yes, of course they could and can, which is why Hammond shouldn’t have said it in the first place. But he has and I don’t doubt it will all come back to haunt him at some point.

For an interesting take on the situation try this from the Financial Times. (You might have to register to read it, but registration is free and you won't be inundated emails and offers. High quality global journalism requires investment.) He concludes:

A collapsing oil price and the impact of sanctions have made [Putin] more dangerous: without oil and gas revenues, his domestic support now rests on his capacity to mobilise nationalist anger against the alleged attempt by Nato and the EU to subjugate ‘mother Russia. The west’s options are limited, but the beginning of wisdom is to understand that this is not just about Ukraine.

. . .

How the growing euro crisis plays out will, on the other hand, be known a lot sooner. Greece, under is new ‘extreme left’ government – I put the description in inverted commas because I think it is complete cobblers – has announced that it wants a very large proportion of its debts written off and and end put the austerity programme imposed on it. The crunch point will be reached within the next three weeks when another tranche of the money it is being loaned is due. If that is withheld, and it at the moment it seems likely it will be. If that happens, the Greek government run out of money and go bust. And if that happens it seems likely that it will leave the euro, either by being kicked out or leaving voluntarily.

The EU is caught between a rock and a hard place: if it gives into Greece’s demands for some of its debts to be written off and the austerity programme to end, it will attract not just the ire of Ireland which gamely played the game and submitted to austerity, but also face demands from Spain (which now has it’s own anti-austerity party) and Portugal (which, like Ireland, also gamely played the game) of similar favours. If it doesn’t give in, Greece defaults and is forced out of the euro, it is possible that the whole currency will in time collapse. Britain is already said to be making contingency plans for such a collapse, as, I’m sure, everyone else is too.

So what with all that, the onward march of ISIS in the Middle East and the ongoing civil war in Syria it looks very much as though we are increasingly living in the ‘interesting times’ the Chinese were apt to which on their enemies.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

America Russia, Russia America – I’d like to explore both, but Russia does have an added morbid fascination. Oh, and let me introduce you to one Vitali Dyomochka, who has a lot going for him (not least, I suspect, a good brain)

It’s odd how you come across people and facts which interest you. I have long considered – once I retire and have saved enough money to do so – to take an extended break in the U.S. – that is, one longer than the customary two weeks most folk take to learn about the country and its people from the side of a pool in Florida – to travel the country. We hear so much about the U.S. and see so much about it on TV and in the films that I thought it might be worth taking a look at the real country.

So much of it resonates: New England, the ‘Deep South’, California, the Appalachian Mountains, the Great Plains, Montana, Utah, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, LA and New York – you get the picture. For one thing, however much I dislike the behaviour of successive governments and their attitudes and am shocked at many instances of their hypocrisy, when I have come across ‘ordinary’ Americans, they have invariably been extremely pleasant folk (though as someone once pointed out, the ‘ordinary’ Americans one comes across in Britain are those who have bothered venture out of their country and visit abroad, so perhaps they might not be quite as ‘ordinary’ and representative. Who knows. I was once bemused when I was asked for advice while on London’s Tube by an American. He asked me how safe it was to walk around London. Where are you heading to, I ask. Holland Park, he told me. Oh, I assured him, you will perfectly safe, and only allowed myself to laugh out aloud once he had got off at his station.)

. . .

I have only spent a week in the U.S. and that week was spent in New York. And what struck me quite forcefully was that although Britain and the U.S. have a language in common, it is as much a ‘foreign country’ for us Brits as are Spain, Bulgaria, Greece and Sweden. It is that shared use of English which is misleading. What I was also struck by was how far more polite were the folk I met than your average snotty-nosed Brit, but, on the downside, how unexpectedly regimented life seemed to be. It began with the excessively officious border control lady at the airport who treated me as a criminal merely for daring to visit the US of A, and continued a few days later on the subway. I was heavily into photography at the time and taking a lot of pictures.

I had just taken a picture of a train arriving and was just about to take another when a cop – a short-statured female cop but with enough weaponry hanging around her body to equip the army of a small nation – approached and told me photography wasn’t allowed on the subway. Fair enough, I thought, and began to put all my gear away. That’s when a passer-by intervened and instructed me to ignore the cop and carry on taking pictures. No, I said, that’s fine, I’ll do as she says. No go, on take your pictures, she said (it was another woman) and began arguing with the cop. Very quickly the situation got out of hand, and although I didn’t say a word, in the ensuing argument the cop almost arrested the woman and me. It was surreal.

It isn’t however, just the U.S. which has a certain fascination for me: I should also like to spend more than the usual touristy two weeks travelling around Russia. That, of course, would prove to be far more difficult as I don’t speak a work of Russian. But, just as with the U.S. you pick up this and that, here and there, snippets, half-facts, which intrigue you and which, in my case, decide you to find out a little more. Where could I start listing the bits and pieces I ‘know’ about Russia which make that country interesting? Its composers, its writers, its history (the little I know), its language (when I hear Russian women talking to each other, as one often does outside the office here in High St. Kensington, they always, always, always sound as though they are complaining, but the men don’t), its various political systems, from the ruthless autocracy of the czars, to the tyranny of that secular czar Josef Stalin, to the growing and apparently also quite ruthless autocracy of one Vladimir Putin (and I gather life wasn’t fun if you got the wrong side of that autocracy and it still isn’t) Then there’s the drinking – no one, it seems, can drink quite like the Russians, though given how cold it gets, that is really no surprise.

Doesn’t sound like much fun, but Russians seem to have one thing which in America, as far as I can tell, only its blacks possess: soul. Where the Americans have Coca Cola, the Russians have vodka; where the Americans have football (with the whole helmets, padded look – British rugby players always laugh themselves sick), Russia has chess.

Then there is an anecdote, sadly wholly apocryphal but it makes a point well, that when returning American astronauts complained that their ballpoint pens were useless in space, drying up, refusing to write when held upside down and generally a pain, Nasa scientists spend a great deal of time and money coming up with a ballpoint pen which would solve those problems. Russians astronauts had reported the same problems: they were issued with pencils. It does tend to describe something. OK, there might well be other interesting countries, but somehow Russia grabs my interest.

. . .

It was because that interest that last week I tuned into the BBC Radio 4’s Book Of The Week which it broadcasts every day from 9.45am to 10am, and repeats it 12 hours later from 12.30am to 12.45am. Last week the chosen book from which five 15-minute excerpts were broadcast was by Peter Pomerantsev called Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart Of The New Russia, and boy did Russia sound surreal. Pomerantsev is a Ukrainian who was brought up in London and who went to work in as a producer for Russian television.

The stories he had to tell about Russia in the Putin which he feels illuminate life there at the beginning of the 21st century included that of one of the girls who make a career of being the mistress of a rich man, a woman who suddenly found herself in court on drugs changes when the industrial solvent she was selling was reclassified by corrupt officials as a substance used to make drugs; and, for me most fascinating of all, the story of a gangster from the Russian Far East.

. . .

Vitali Dyomochka (pictured below right) sounds like an extraordinary man. His story, as recounted in Pomerantsev’s book, was that after shining at school, he drifted into crime as the Soviet era came
to a close and the country was run by Boris Yeltsin and did well for himself. He served several spells in jail for various offences, including murder, apparently, and when he was released from the last sentence came to lead a gang called Postava which specialised in rigging car crashes and forcing the other drivers to pay extortionately for repairs. This went well for several years until the Putin ear began. Bit by bit as more authority was taken into the hands of the KGB successor the FSB and the freebooting became harder, Dyomochka decided enough was enough and instead of a life of crime he would become a filmmaker. He felt that the series and kind of films shown on Russian TV and in cinemas were ludicrously inaccurate and misleading, so using his own gang (and its victims) he would make a series showing what real gang life was like. And the series Spets was made and screen on local TV.

There was no script, Dyomochka’s gang played themselves (and many were jailed during filming and one was murdered), the characters being beaten up were men who owed Dyomochka a debt and agreed to be beaten up for real in front of the camera if that debt was reduced. Real bullets were used and the ‘staged’ car crashes were real car crashes. There was even a claim that local police agreed to play ‘local police’, with one quote as saying ‘we work for gangsters anyway, so why not work for a different set for a change’. To be fair, this is disputed and many local police were very unhappy with Dyomochka’s film career, turning up on set to arrest him first thing in the morning and holding him to dusk so that there wasn’t enough light to film. Believe what you will – most probably both versions are true (in keeping with the theme of Pomerantsev’s book where ‘nothing is true and everything is possible’.

I say, and truly believe, that Dyomochka is an intelligent and very capable man, because he has now apparently knocked gangsterism and crime on the head – so to speak, and am apt metaphor given his previous life – and has become a novelist, writing comic crime novels. And by all accounts they sell. And I suspect that he didn’t end his life of crime for any moralistic reasons but because he’s bright – given the far more powerful gangsters who now seem to run the country, he probably reasoned that it was wisest to get out while the going was good. A man after my own heart; never push your luck.

I don’t really drink a lot anymore – I am thoroughly sick of hangovers these days – and when I do drink, I tend to stick to wine, port, sherry, Campari – anything, in fact, except spirits. But were I obliged to drink a spirit, I would make it vodka and would like to do so in the company of Vitali Dyomochka. Dyomochka’s resemblance to Vladimir Putin was commented on in Pomerantsev’s book, but I know who I would prefer to drink with and it isn’t Putin. За твоё здоровье, жизненный!