Cures numberless strokes (6)
It has been raining solidly for two days and Osney Island has become one large puddle. Storm Angus has been battering the country although Oxford has escaped lightly so far. I spend a hard day in the Development Office trying to pluck up the courage to call Marie-Claire, but I want to postpone the inevitable rejection for as long as possible. The credits had barely begun to roll on Anastasia when she was out of the Phoenix and back in the lab to torture some unsuspecting gerbils. There was not so much as a peck on the cheek goodbye. Even I can read the signs.
Bostar Hall is one of Univ’s secret treasures, a fusty first-floor meeting room which is only accessible through a maze of staircases and corridors. From Staircase 11 on the Radcliffe Quad, you can take the imitation Bridge of Sighs over Logic Lane and into Durham Buildings. Hacking your way east at first floor level, you eventually reach the vast door to Bostar Hall, a soundproofed and chilly room, looking out over the High St above a charity shop. No one knows who Bostar was or why a hall should be named after him. The college lets it out by the hour to its members for a pittance.
So here we are in Bostar Hall, bashing out a passable version of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. It’s not the easiest of Stones numbers to replicate because so much of the familiar sound depends on the piano, the tom-toms and the whoo-whoo backing vocals. GDP is a lot more comfortable playing straight three-chord blues-rock (‘Satisfaction’, ‘Paint it Black’, etc) so this is more of a challenge. Ozzie Kay, Univ’s Junior Associate Fellow in Eng Lit, is passable (indeed O. Kay) on the keyboards and I have just about got the hang of the chord structure for the bass-line, EDAE, repeated 4 times; then for the ‘Pleased to meet you’ bit, it’s BBE, DAE. Even I can plod through that lot and just about keep time with Rick the Porter on drums. Fast Eddie Prince, AKA Stig Strum, noodles away on lead guitar while Phil struts his Jaggeresque stuff for a notional audience of rock chicks and record company executives:
I stuck around St. Petersburg when I saw it was time for a change.
I killed the Tsar and his ministers, Anastasia screamed in vain.
I rode a tank, held a general’s rank, when the blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank.
Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name, but what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game?
I watched with glee while your kings and queens fought for ten decades for the gods they made.
I shouted out “Who killed the Kennedys?”, when after all it was you and me …
Obviously, the Stones’ certainty about Anastasia’s fate did not deter Kenneth MacMillan!
I have been deputed to add in the whoo-whoos as we go along and so far I have been well short of ept. If GDP is to become a Stones tribute band, we have a long way to go before we should lay our laurels at the feet of the masters.
“Remind me, who did kill the Kennedys?” asks Stig when we have collapsed in a cacophonous heap. “Was it really us?”
“Well,” says Phil, “JFK was shot by someone called Oswald and we do have an Oswald in the band, don’t we, Ozzie?”
“Guilty as charged,” confirms our ginger-haired keyboard maestro. “We Oswalds have been a pretty nasty lot down the years.”
“Oswald Mosley?” I suggest.
“Ye-es. It was all Shakespeare’s fault. He invented the prototype Oswald, Goneril’s “serviceable villain”, sent to kill Gloucester, but failing miserably, as you will recall from ‘I am the Walrus’. We Oswalds have been assassins and would-be assassins ever since. Lee Harvey Oswald is the last in a long line. Fascinating character – did you know that as a young man, he taught himself Russian and defected to the USSR after a long and arduous trip across Europe, aged nineteen, all because he sympathised with Marxist ideology?”
“So did the Russians pay him to go back to America and shoot the President?”
“Possibly. Or maybe it was his own private project – we will never know.”
Ozzie takes another slurp from a can of Boddington’s before continuing.
“And the next most famous assassination in the history of mankind was also the handiwork of an Oswald!”
We consider this proposition for a few seconds.
“Martin Luther King?” suggests Rick from behind his drum-kit.
“No!” snorts Ozzie derisively. “Rasputin!”
“Hang on a sec,” says Phil. “Wasn’t Rasputin murdered by one of Univ’s most distinguished alumni, Prince Felix Yusupov, and a bunch of Russian aristos?”
“That’s what Yusupov would have us believe, but most of the historical evidence points to a rather different conclusion. The man who fired the fatal bullet which did for the Mad Monk was almost certainly an Englishman called Oswald Rayner.”
“Is all this strictly relevant to band practice?” Stig enquires. “We’re paying 50p an hour for the use of this room …”
“Yusupov and his friends were so effete and inbred, they barely knew which end to hold a gun,” Ozzie lectures us patiently. “They tried to poison Rasputin with cyanide in the Madeira and home-made cakes but, when that failed, they didn’t have a clue. Rasputin escaped into the grounds of Yusupov’s Moika Palace, pursued by the hapless gentry. But the bullet which finally killed the bearded madman could only have been fired by an English army service revolver.”
“Your friend Oswald, concealed behind a grassy knoll?”
“Behind a snowdrift, perhaps. It’s pretty cold in St Petersburg in mid-winter.”
“As Alex might confirm,” Phil observes, with a knowing wink in my direction. I am suitably discombobulated, but Ozzie does not notice.
“Oswald Rayner and Prince Felix were close friends from Oxford days. Who knows, they may have met in this very room at the inaugural meeting of the Russian Society, set up by Yusupov in 1909. Young Oswald was studying French and German and I guess he had taught himself a little Russian. They were close friends, maybe more, and Yusupov invited him to stay in St Petersburg. When war broke out, Rayner’s Russian was pretty good and he was recruited by the Secret Service Bureau, the forerunner of MI6, then posted to St Petersburg, presumably because of the Yusupov connection.”
“Why would someone like Rayner want to kill Rasputin?” Stig asks.
“With Tsar Nicholas away at the Eastern front, Russia was being run by the Empress Alexandra, a German, and the sinister Rasputin. They both favoured making peace with Germany and carving up the old Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires between them. If so, all the German troops deployed on the Eastern Front would be moved west. With double the manpower, Germany would win the war. Thus it seemed vital to British interests that Rasputin was eliminated.”
“Did it work?”
“I should say so. Rayner “stuck around St Petersburg”, as Jagger puts it, trying to get Yusupov and his pals to do his dirty work for him. Rasputin was picked off in the grounds of the Moika Palace, Alexandra’s power was compromised and Russia carried on fighting on the Eastern Front just long enough for the Yanks to join in on the Allies’ side.”
“So why has nobody heard of your Oswald from Oxford?”
“Rayner was successful not only in shooting the Mad Monk but also in dodging the bullet of personal or national responsibility. Yusupov was determined to take all the credit or blame himself. Ten years later, he wrote a lurid 250-page account of Rasputin’s murder and omitted to mention Rayner at all. He even got Rayner himself to do the English translation!”
“So, not just the most effective British spy of all time, but also the most self-effacing?”
“Yes, after the war, he became the Times’ correspondent in Finland, called his only son John Felix and, when he died in Botley, he took his secret with him to the grave.”
“A stirring tale, Ozzie. No wonder they made you President of the Russian Society. Any further assassinations planned?”
“I think I could murder a couple more Stones’ standards and then we should call it a night.”
“I have a cunning plan, actually,” says Phil. “I’ve been talking to a friend who’s on the sub-committee that runs the University Parks. They let the parks be used for all sorts of stuff. How about we recreate the Stones in Hyde Park from July 1969? Here, in the Parks, this July coming?”
“I can think of about thirty-seven reasons why not,” says Stig, “the first one being we’re nowhere near good enough.”
“Then it’s something to work towards. We’d headline the show but it wouldn’t just be us – the other bands who played in Hyde Park that day could also be represented. Rick and I went to see the Twenty-First Century Schizoid Men at the O2 the other week, and they were brilliant. They played the whole of ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’.”
“Way out of our league,” Rick sighs. “We don’t even have a name for our band.”
“Yes, we do. We are the Strolling Dons. Unless you can think of something better …”
“The Stoning Trolls? Or the Strolling Ones?” I suggest, “if we want a more accurate Spoonerism.”
“You know what …” Stig intervenes, “I’m not sure the general public would get the joke.”
“Of course they would,” Phil insists. “The right logo, the right image, and you’re there. Saturday the 8th is the weekend date closest to the anniversary of the real thing in 1969,” Phil explains.
“The Strolling Clones? Wouldn’t that work better?” Stig suggests. “Except I think they already exist. If we play in France, we could call ourselves the Gaulstones …”
“How about we go with Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings?” I suggest. My co-conspirators barely raise a snort of derision.
Rick seems more impressed with Phil’s absurd idea than the others:
“A free all-day love-in? I’d be up for it, lumbago permitting!”
“We’ll need to look the part,” Phil continues. “I’ll dress up as Shelley in a frilly white tunic and recite Adonais. Shelley himself drowned on 8th July, of course, so it’s the 195th anniversary of that too. We’ll need a Marianne Faithfull lookalike and a Marsha Hunt lookalike to sit in the front row and exchange jealous glances.”
Stig is warming to the idea at last.
“In terms of publicity, we just need one of us to drown in his swimming pool a couple of days before the event. Any volunteers?”
Everyone laughs but me. I think of pointing out that one of us will indeed have drowned but it will probably be six months too early to have a material effect on the attendance. We play a couple more songs in desultory fashion before Rick has to go off for his night shift. I catch Phil on his way out into Cecily’s Court and we head up to his teaching room in 83, High St.
“What was that about me knowing what the weather was like in St Petersburg?” I ask casually.
“I’m sure you would, Alex. Or, should I say, Prince Alexy?”
“Prince? Where did you get that from?”
“Marie-Claire was very impressed with your storytelling abilities, I can tell you!”
“She told you?”
“Sorry, was it a secret? I’m afraid that Marie-Claire and I have no secrets from each other.”
“That’s right. We’ve been seeing each other for a few weeks now. I think she could be the one, Alex!”
Cecily’s Court is deserted. Picking up a large stone from the rockery and smashing it over our lead singer’s head has its merits. Being disappointingly British, I try to reason with him instead.
“You said that about Hattie. You married Hattie! Was she not ‘the one’?”
“Marie-Claire is so much more … sophisticated! Please be happy for me.”
Happy? My world has just ended. Ah well, it was due to end in forty days anyway. Why should I care? Phil does not notice my pain.
“Talking of Hattie, she’s still missing, you know.”
“What about the kids?” I ask.
“Her ghastly sister, Liz, is looking after them.”
“Shouldn’t they be with their father?”
Phil does not even deign to register this low blow.
“Hattie’ll turn up,” he insists. “She’s got to turn up …”