Before boarding the flight to Moscow, it dawned on me that I might have somehow contracted swine flu from Michael Nyman. What was I to do? This is not what I had in mind when I decided to bring a taste of Britain to Russia. I felt embarrassed. But stranger things have happened in my life. The reason behind my fear was my sudden ill health and an email from Nyman saying he wasn’t feeling his best due some kind of flu — apparently contracted in Mexico. Fortunately for us both and the rest of the British delegation to Russia, my health improved dramatically by the second day in the country. Mother Russia, so very caring.
Michael Nyman, Michael Portillo, Bella Freud and Hanif Kureishi were among the 150 enthusiastic guests who came to show their support at the London launch party of AngloMockBa, our British-Russian cultural relations festival. I founded this festival two years ago; the first was held in St Petersburg under the name ‘Jewel of Russia’. We later discovered that it wasn’t a clever choice of a name as there was a vodka brand operating under that name. And the last thing we wanted, apart from spreading swine flu, was to run a vodka festival that celebrated British-Russian links. In St Petersburg, the programme focused mainly on opera and classical music, thanks to the involvement of Mariinsky’s Valery Gergiev and Britain’s Thomas Ades. The festival itself had transformed into a legendary opera, thanks to its flamboyant participants Sir Norman Rosenthal and Jon Snow who boosted the programme with invaluable non-musical events.
This time, some might describe AngloMockBa as more like a cultural freak show than a respectable gathering of culture vultures. Among other things, we had a naked British female artist lying on the floor with eyes closed wanting people to put tape on her. Don’t ask me why. Michael Nyman complained that the antique-looking French piano was out of tune. One of the artists decided to hole up in another room rather than appear at their own event. And a Russian band sang English songs penned by a Jamaican in 1980s New York style while the Russian police barged into the party uninvited and took the host away. The festival’s British team didn’t speak a word of Russian and the local Russian team didn’t understand any English. Mobile phone communication between the two groups was not of much use.
I had genuinely wanted to dedicate the festival to the British Council’s memory. But our director Aliona Muchinskaya advised me that Russians were not going to welcome that kind of tribute. It is not easy to describe my work. How do you define someone whose main objective is to create cultural diplomacy ventures? A cultural entrepreneur? It is just as hard as answering the question, ‘Where are you from?’ The logical answer in my case would be that I am someone born in Bengal who grew up in both Calcutta and New Delhi and subsequently divided his late teen years between Port Moresby, Sydney, Brisbane and Marrakech. And early adult years were spent in Edinburgh and Aberystwyth. Possessing a Spanish name and looking a strange mix of Filipino and Mediterranean confuses most. I promote the face of contemporary Britain globally, speak seven languages and travel on an Indian passport but call the UK home. To make matters more perplexing, I only met my mother, who lives in the US, last year. Even she wondered where I was from.
Moscow was warm. Very warm, in fact. Fantastic to have finally descended on a city where the sun was clearly in charge. Swissotel Krasnye Holmy welcomed us as the home of the festivities. Whenever we got lost we simply pointed out the ultra-modern hotel tower to our taxi driver. It was simple. Even simpler was finding a taxi. On the streets in Moscow, all you have to do is signal with your arm and cars stop before you can say ‘swine flu’.
GQ’s ambassador extraordinaire Dylan Jones flew over for one night only. After discussing literature over a rather curious-sounding main course with the enigmatic Russian author Victor Erofeyev, son of a Soviet diplomat who apparently had a close working relationship with Stalin, Jones was introduced to William Orbit’s DJ performance at the club downstairs. Hugo Rifkind interviewed him about his book on David Cameron the next morning. All kinds of things were asked, ranging from questions about drugs to middlebrow art. The expression on the female interpreter’s face was one of puzzlement. Most members of the audience by now believed the future is neither Orange nor Brown: it is Karma Karma Karma Cameron.
The result of exchanging several emails with Dasha Zhukova came in the shape of an event at her gallery, the Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture. The conceptual artist and teacher Michael Craig-Martin and YBA Gavin Turk took part in a discussion chaired by Danny Moynihan. Moynihan’s new film Boogie Woogie, starring Charlotte Rampling, about the New York and London art worlds will be released soon. At an earlier discussion on film with filmmakers Martha Fiennes and Andrei Konchalovsky at the Sergei Eisenstein Film Library, Moynihan revealed that before getting involved in the film business, he was a happy man. He slept well, and he ate well. Now his whole life has been consumed by the production. And sadly more sleepless nights must have followed as the Russian backer of his film was assassinated. The film director Stephen Frears later asked the Eisenstein audience, ‘Russians own England. They own English newspapers, football teams, real estate, so why not film? Why is Abramovich wasting so much money on art?’
Zhukova’s gallery provided the ideal venue for the art talk immediately after the film discussion. Gavin Turk proclaimed, ‘The most important artwork is the one that is misunderstood by the most amount of people.’ Not sure if the audience understood this as much of it seemed lost in translation. Or perhaps the Russians don’t smile much. Craig-Martin spoke in a relaxed tone. ‘It is exciting to do something other than the orthodox. It is exciting to be resistant. So many ways to make art that people had not considered.’
The final event took place at a restaurant called Chocolate. The dinner menu featured numerous dishes but there was no chocolate in sight. The milliner Stephen Jones and fashion designer Henry Holland were joined by Russian designers for a discussion that seemed to go on for the entire evening. Riveting though. Jones exclaimed that he had rarely refused a commission. Someone renowned from the audience shouted out ‘Tart!’, to which he responded, ‘The fashion business is full of tarts!’ As for me, I was still waiting for a piece of chocolate tart — but no such luck.