So One Hot Summer in St. Petersburg came to an end and I was left sulking somewhat. There is is always a battle that rages while reading a very good book, on one hand you you want to spend every spare second reading it – and on the other you want to slow things down because you don’t want it to end. Then eventually it does, and all these lively characters and beautiful places and moments dissolve back into the void and you feel kind of sad and lonely now that they aren’t around anymore.
Post One Hot Summer I was looking for something to fill the void and I remembered Letter to Brezhnev, a nice follow on as it features another affair with a young russian sailor. I’ll alert you now that there is going to be a SPOLER! in this blog entry as I would like to comment on the end of the film.
Two Soviet sailors, Peter and Sergei, dock in Liverpool and hit the town for the one night they are there. In a nightclub they meet local working class girls Elaine and Teresa and spend a wild night drinking and dancing before finally heading back to a hotel with the girls. While Sergei (who speaks no English at all) is busy getting it on with Teresa (who has spent all day stuffing chickens in a factory) Peter and Elaine stay up talking, looking at the stars and falling in love. They spend the next day together wandering around Liverpool before Sergei has to return to the ship, they confess their love to each other and Sergei asks Elaine to be his wife. He gives her a necklace which belonged to his grandfather, promising that they would meet again. Determined not to let her love disappear into the sunset Elaine finally resolves to write a plea to President Brezhnev (President of the Soviet Union 1964-1982) to allow her to go to Russia and search for Peter. To the surprise of all Brezhnev replies and invites her to the Soviet Union.
The film opens with a a panoramic shot of a grey city, clearly pre perestroika era and looking decidedly impoverished and communist. Is it Moscow? St. Petersburg? Nope, it’s Thatcher era Liverpool of course. Plenty of ingrained industrial grime, urban poverty and even a few ‘COAL NOT DOLE’ posters. Elaine and Theresa are our working heroes (or Elaine would be, but she’s unemployed). Both of them are looking for an escape from the drudgery of daily life, and while this starts as a Friday night on the town it ends with dreams of Moscow.
There’s a lot to be said here for self imposed working class limitations, the life you would like to have, the life you actually have and the grey area between the two. It takes a lot of courage for Elaine to remain true to her convictions and remain determined to go to Russia when all are against her – only Teresa is encouraging throughout the fight. It is difficult if not impossible to defend a place you have never been to and know little about, even more so when it is surrounded by a wall of secrecy and propaganda, and that’s before you rule out the long standing suspicion and animosity from the west. Saying goodbye at the airport Elaine suggests that Teresa could get away as well, and do whatever she wanted if she put her mind to it – but no – Teresa says that she knows her place, and although she can dream it is life in Liverpool at the chicken factory that will endure.
I’m inclined to wonder how much better Elaine’s life would have been in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Better than being working class and unemployed in Liverpool? Or just different? Or is different enough? Poignantly Elaine asks Peter about food shortages and long queues for food in Russia, he says they are told the same thing about Britain. Her move to the Soviet Union is a leap of blind faith, few go in, or out, no guidebooks, no accurate stats but plenty of propaganda – even love is not a certainty, but it’s enough to get her on the plane. Of course this is where the films ends, and the lady vanishes behind the iron curtain – never to be seen or heard from again.
There is always a danger when revisiting books you read a long time ago that they might not be as good as you remember. This realisation can be such a terrible let down, you feel cheated that you carried around a certain idea of something for such a long time and then you wonder at your own lack of taste the first time around. This feeling is exacerbated by the amount of time that has elapsed since you first read the book, one should exercise a certain caution then in re-reading something from childhood. Of course sometimes that book is everything you remembered it to be, and it’s an absolute pleasure –
I read One Hot Summer in St.Petersburg by Duncan Fallowell a very long time ago. It wasn’t quite a childhood read, if I had to estimate I would say I was about 12 – and undoubtably there was plenty in there that was not age appropriate. Literature wise I got away with absolute murder when I was younger, the consequence of being surrounded by adults who don’t read is they they never check what you’re greedily getting stuck into. Something about this book stuck with me though, the heady atmosphere of a foreign city in summer, a city undergoing massive upheaval, a city in all its moods, daydream, reality, insanity.
Years later I’m glad to say I found this book to be a marvellous rediscovery, whatever caught me the first time is still there in the same way that I remember. I think now I’m a (sort of) adult what strikes me is that there is a lot in this book that is similar to the way I travel and experience places, or surrender to places, I can see myself reflected here which is why I like it so much. When I was younger I couldn’t have known that, but must have picked up on the mood anyway. I’m busy making my own plans to spend the summer in Berlin so I think re-reading One Hot Summer has been somewhat tantilising. I can feel the essence of my old european summers in the pages; running through Prague in a thunder storm one night in July, forks of lightening illuminating the skyline. Sunburn in Paris after a day at Versailles. Endless nights in Berlin, drinking wine in the park, walking home at 9am. And all the really awful stuff as well, when you want to cry for no reason, when you feel like a city is alluding you, when it all seems too intense, when you struggle to make a connection to it as a ‘real’ place. I’ve found that almost inevitably wherever you are the best and worst part is always the people. It’s almost time for summer on the continent again, but not quite, so reading this book was both satisfying and frustrating at the same time. I just wanted to be in it, now.
‘Many times in life one may encounter someone who touches us with an adorable and perplexing charm, who cuts the ordinary day with a moment of magic, and almost at once the person has gone, been swept away, sucked back into the crowd. When rarely, through force of circumstance or ingenuity or imagination or daring, one manages to arrest this transience, to jam the conveyor belt of passing events and say no, stop, yes, hullo, and retrieve that person from their fall into the pit of what might have been, and bring him or her forward into the real, the now, the light, your life, this is . . . important. And it means still more in a place where one has little, nothing. And this happened. And as suddenly, it came to naught. I thought this contact meant something. Does anything mean anything here, or is it all fucking quicksand? Is every gesture hollow? How can a person be so full of it one day, and the next – nothing? Is it possible to know someone in this town?’
– One Hot Summer in St.Petersburg
If you’re interested then here’s an interview with Duncan Fallowell: http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/duncanfallowellinterviewed/