Friday, April 9, 2010

Back from a funeral

Much of Wednesday was spent in Oxford, at the funeral of that great lady, the Baroness Park of Monmouth. It was a very beautiful ceremony with fine readings and hymns, clearly arranged by people who knew and liked her.

Inevitably, however, one spends time thinking about the person who is being buried and eulogized. There was much to think about the great Baroness as the various obituaries (for instance here, here, here and here) made clear. Interestingly, the Russian media went to town on her. Mostly they translated obituaries from British newspapers but, clearly, this lady, so triumphantly British appealed to them. Here was an enemy one could respect and admire.

All of which reminded me of Daphne Park’s wonderful tales of her stint in the Soviet Union in the mid-fifties. In particular, I recall the story of the “people’s spontaneous demonstration” outside the British embassy at the time of the Suez crisis and the Hungarian events. Part of it was related in one obituary but I shall now attempt to recall the whole story.

Demonstrations outside “imperialist” embassies were not unknown and during the Suez events they happened with some regularity. This time round not everything went to plan. Daphne Park’s room was on the ground floor and one of her jobs was to provide the daily digest of the press, Soviet and Western, including the BBC Monitoring Service summaries. She, therefore, knew better than anyone what was happening not just in Egypt but in Hungary.

As the demonstrators approached her window with their slogans, all shouted in unison, and their carefully printed placards, Daphne Park leaned out and asked them in Russian whether they would like to know what is going on in Hungary. Naturally, they would. Some of them would have had sons or other relatives in the army, others had heard vaguely that things were not going according to plan in the previously liberated people’s democracy, a few may have felt uneasy at the thought of those Soviet tanks rolling against Hungarian workers.

So Daphne Park rapidly translated some of the latest news while the demonstrators gathered round and listened in silence. This was noted by the Ambassador who telephoned down to find out how she had managed to silence the people but also by some of those in charge who rapidly shooed people away from that particular window.

After a while the Ambassador became slightly worried. He had a luncheon appointment with one of the Ministers, possibly Yekaterina Furtseva, the only woman Minister in the Soviet government for the entire post-Stalin period. (Under Stalin there weren’t any at all.) Would the demonstrators depart in time to allow the ministerial car in or the ambassadorial car out – Daphne could not recall which way round the visit was going to take place.

The staff who were watching from their windows had noticed a certain gentleman in a colonel’s uniform who was standing in one corner watching the proceedings benignly. At the Ambassador’s suggestion the Military and the Naval Attach├ęs donned full uniform and marched over to the gentleman in the colonel’s uniform. They enquired if he had any idea when the demonstration might end. The colonel looked at his watch and said very firmly: “The spontaneous demonstration of the working people of Moscow will end at quarter to one precisely.” And at quarter to one it ended, the flags and posters were rolled up and the people departed. The Ambassador was free to keep his appointment. One cannot help wondering whether the organizers of that spontaneous demonstration might not have known precisely what was in the Ambassador’s diary.

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