Thursday 17th November

Make wingless noble tiger (6)


So here we are at the Phoenix Picturehouse (formerly known as the Scala and Studio X) in Jericho watching a screening of Kenneth MacMillan’s 1971 ballet, Anastasia, as revived by the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden. It’s not as bad as you would think – the combination of rippling muscle and Romanov opulence is oddly engaging even for a ballet first-timer like me. Anastasia tells the story of Tsar Nicholas II’s youngest daughter who may (or may not) have survived the Yekaterinburg purge of July 1918.

Natalia Osipova plays Anastasia/Anna Anderson as she tortures herself in an asylum with memories of her gilded childhood and her family’s annihilation. MacMillan’s ballet was written long before Anna Anderson’s death and the discovery that her DNA did not match Anastasia’s at all but it does not matter that she was a fraud of sorts – her psychodrama is every bit as powerful if the disturbing “memories” of Rasputin & co are just figments of her deranged imagination.

Perhaps Anna Anderson started in the same way as me, making up a story to impress her gullible friends? Perhaps I too will end up in a padded cell, gibbering wildly about my family’s lost splendour.  But everyone tells a few white lies to impress the opposite sex, don’t they? It makes a change from claiming to be a black belt at jiu-jitsu.

It is the second interval and Marie-Claire and I are enjoying our complimentary thimble of nalivka and the time for pleasantries has passed – Prince Alexy must tell his story.

“My great-grandmother, Princess Irina, was once good friends with Anna Pavlova,” I confide. “Or so she told me. Mind you, she was 93 at the time. She and the great ballerina used to go to fancy dress balls in London in the years before the First World War. Irina was a second cousin of the tsar and she married into the Hoggatov family, the richest in all Russia.”

“What, richer than the Romanovs?” Marie-Claire asks, pretending to play along with this Walter Mitty figure she has unwittingly agreed to spend the evening with.

“So they say. Think Roman Abramovic and multiply by about a hundred. That rich. But it counted for nothing in the Revolution.”

“Did your family lose everything?”

“They were lucky to escape with their lives, I think. They jumped on a boat out of Yalta with a few Rembrandts, a clutch of Fabergé eggs, and baby Alexy under their arms.

“Baby Alexy?”

“My grandfather.”

“Alexy Hoggatov? You’re not thinking of Anastasia’s brother, Alexy the haemophiliac?”

Marie-Claire’s eyes glitter momentarily. Fortunately, I had anticipated the question.

“Just a coincidence, that. Hoggatov is a name familiar to every Russian, especially amongst the nobility. So Alexy Hoggatov was like John Smith here.”

“Is that so?”

“Of course, the name got anglicised somewhat once the family settled in London. It was Hoff for a while but that still didn’t sound English enough…”

“So you decided to go the whole hog? The whole Hogg!”

I feel obliged to chuckle.

“We did indeed. It’s not the most glamorous of surnames. I was born in England but my father felt some kind of atavistic draw to St Petersburg and he managed to wangle a posting there from this engineering company he worked for. The Old Hoggatov palace had been turned into apartments by now, so my parents rented one of those and I was brought up in one corner of the ancestral home.”

“Gosh, how romantic!”

I am not sure she believes one far-fetched word of this but what have I got to lose? At the very least, I may gain some credit for the quality of my story-telling.

“… although almost all of the family wealth had gone by now, they were determined that I should be brought up as a prince. I had my own private tutors who instilled in me a love of books which has stayed with me to the present day. There was a surprisingly big expat community in St Petersburg and I was out skating one day with a young English friend on a frozen tributary of the great River Neva when I fell through the ice and almost drowned. My ankle was severely broken and I have never fully recovered the use of my left foot.”

“But you walk perfectly normally …”

“Years of physiotherapy,” I sigh. “My parents pooled together every penny of their savings and sent me on a Grand Tour round Europe – Greece Italy, Switzerland, France, everywhere.”

“What, all by yourself?”

“No, I had this tutor, more of a minder really, a Monsieur Gothon. He saved me from a lot of scrapes such as when I feel in love with a French girl called Rosalie with the most extraordinary eyes.”

Marie-Claire’s extraordinary eyebrows rise at this revelation but she does nothing to disturb the flow of my picaresque novella.

“How I loved those eyes! But then I was kidnapped by a religious cult…”

More raised eyebrows.

“No, it’s true. The e-Lutherans – an obscure fundamentalist sect for the digital age. I can’t think what I saw in them. Their mission was to spam the entire world with the Apocryphal Gospel According to St Thomas. This was the early days of spam, you understand.”

“I don’t remember finding anything in my InBox …”

“It was in the original Coptic.”

“The Sahidic or the Bohairic dialect?” Marie-Claire flutters her eyelashes encouragingly. I am suitably disconcerted.

“I’m not entirely sure …” (Surely this Intermission has gone on rather too long?) “The Sahidic, I think. They wanted me for my knowledge of bandwidths and IFP protocols, not for my ability to transliterate Coptic script.”

“I’m not sure Martin Luther would have approved of such an enterprise!”

“It was as if I had temporarily taken leave of my senses, brainwashed by the charismatic leader of the sect, the e-Lutherarch, as he styled himself…”

Where is this coming from? I honestly have no idea. I confess I’d googled a few terms (“loony sects”, etc) but most of this is plucked from nowhere. Even I’m impressed.

“I’ll tell you all about the weird initiation rites some other time,” I promise. “Anyway, the proverbial scales eventually fell from my eyes and I began to feel trapped within this commune of evangelical spammers. Were we all heading for some sort of Waco-style dénouement, I fretted? I felt I needed to take some sort of drastic action …”

But by now the cinematograph is whirring up again, the familiar sounds of Tchaikovsky have given way to some weird stuff by Bohuslav Martinů and Ms Osipova is off again. The rest of my story can wait till who knows when. Marie-Claire sits back in her threadbare mock-velvet bucket seat to lose herself in the spectacle once more. I feel high on a heady mix of nalivka and adrenaline, a king for a day.


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