This is based on a story related to the author as true. Names have been changed and some details added or amended for narrative effect.
It was a big day for Richard, and he wanted to look his best. He would be meeting the Lord Mayor and, as the city council’s public relations officer (PRO), entertaining a group of important international visitors on the city’s behalf. He’d be doing his little bit to build east-west understanding and end the Cold War.
The high-water mark of détente between the western powers and Soviet Russia (the USSR) was still some time in the future, but there were definite causes for optimism. Mikhail Gorbachev was a reforming secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and apparently open-minded to the west.
It would be two more years before British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would tell the BBC: “I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together,” and five before Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan would sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. But tensions already seemed to be easing.
Councillors in Tyne & Wear still had a War Plan but had stopped worrying too much about the state of their local bunker, and the rest of the population no longer thought as much about how they would use the four minutes warning they would get of a nuclear attack.
So, the fact that that day Newcastle would be doing its tiny bit to move the process of détente along did not seem completely ridiculous. A civic delegation would be arriving for an official visit from some remote, unheard-of but doubtless important municipality east of the Urals, and the city’s civic leaders were determined to show them the best that a Labour council could offer in a capitalist society. Richard was just the man for the job.
After his morning shower, the suave, handsome, dark, wavy-haired, moustachioed man of around 40 donned his best dark blue, three-piece, pin-striped suit, a stiff-collared pure white shirt and a colourful but tasteful tie. He put on gold-plated cuff links and his fake, but superficially convincing, designer watch.
Finally, just before leaving home, he attached his roller skates to his shiny black patent leather shoes, utilising their bright red straps.
He was ready to entertain for Newcastle and for England.
The shoppers and office workers already crowding Northumberland Street, Newcastle’s main shopping street, stared in surprise and amusement at the sight of Richard. as he skated past them on his way to the Civic Centre, which was exactly Richard’s intention. But Alec, municipal (local government) reporter of the Evening Chronicle, whose path he also crossed, paid little attention. He was used to Richard’s flamboyant eccentricity. The two nodded to each other in passing.
Public relations in those days was the ideal job for Richard. It involved mainly glad-handing VIP visitors and generally making a good impression of the city – and of Richard. Otherwise, the job was undemanding: no intense lobbying to be done, little understanding of complex council policies required and none of its finances.
Richard arrived in the Lord Mayor’s parlour in time to stand beside the city’s leading citizen and ambassador as the Soviet visitors were ushered in. The Russians had obviously done their best to look smart, but inevitably looked dowdy beside the Lord Mayor in his red robe and wearing his gold chain of office. And beside Richard
The Lord Mayor shook hands with each of the two women and one man, all middle-aged: “Welcome to N’cassel.”
After short welcoming speeches, translated by Olga, the visitors’ travelling interpreter (and probably party minder, Richard thought), stressing the importance of peace and friendship between our two great nations, the Lord Mayor looked at his watch: 10.30am.
“Can I offer yous a drink?’ he asked and, with the cementation of good international relations at the front of his mind, “Vodka?”
Drinks were poured in amounts as modest as the council official dispensing them thought he could get away with, bearing in mind the early hour and the interests of ratepayers. No Lord Mayor of either party had ever been able to resist the drinks cabinet for official entertaining, a long-serving official in a position to know had once told Alec.
The visitors would only be in Newcastle one day before moving on to London, and Richard had carefully prepared an itinerary to ensure they saw the best sights: Grainger Town, Grey’s Monument, the remnants of both Hadrian’s Wall (entailing a taxi ride to the West Road) and of the medieval town wall and towers).
At all of these, the Soviets nodded solemnly and silently, apparently impressed. But two sights not on Richard’s itinerary caught their attention. He was happy to oblige when they wanted to look around Fenwick’s department store and felt a sense of satisfaction when they gazed in amazement at the range of luxury goods on sale. Olga looked uneasy.
Richard had more difficulty – though it was not unwelcome – in trying to explain the show that was on at the time at the city’s Theatre Royal. Anyone for Denis was a satire on the Prime Minister’s home life, based on a regular feature in the magazine Private Eye. Try as he might, Richard did not think he had really convinced the guests how anything on show at a public theatre could be as disrespectful to authority as Denis was.
Grow your own
By the end of the afternoon Richard and the Soviets had built up enough of a rapport for the gregarious publicity man to feel able to invite the visitors to his home for a cup of tea. He would be pleased no doubt to have a tale to dine out on about the day he had entertained a Soviet delegation, while they evidently felt sufficiently confident and relaxed, if still bewildered by everything they had seen, to accept. Even Olga, though looking rather nervous, did not object.
The little party entered the front door of Richard’s modestly fashionable Victorian terraced house not far from the city centre and walked into the kitchen, where he put the kettle on. “Milk and sugar?” he asked. When there was no reply, he turned round to see his guests staring at two tomato plants growing on his window sill.
“Ah yes”, said Olga in heavily accented English, relieved after a day taking in sights almost beyond her comprehension to at last be seeing something that accorded with what she had been taught about the capitalist West. “In England you have to grow your own food.”