The “Evil” Empire


I had the pleasure of watching “The Purple Ball”, a 1986 fantasy film made in the Soviet Union a few days ago. Around the time the film was made I went on a trip to the CCCP with my school. The films date reminded me of that bizarre excursion and I am about the same age as the protagonist featured in the above picture.

I imagine that due to it being the period of Gorbachev, Glasnost and Peristroika that the Soviet Union wished to encourage school visits. I was 11 at the time and was told that this planned trip for the years above me had spaces and there was an opportunity to go to Russia and to me it seemed too good a chance to miss. I didn’t appreciate how strange such a trip was. A few years later a county musical ensemble I was in were offered a tour to Israel, but all the parents refused to let us go to Israel, so went to Sweden instead, but Soviet Russia? fine???

It is perhaps telling that there wasn’t such a huge enthusiasm for the trip from the other kids at my school, brought up as we were with the Cold War, fears of Nuclear Armageddon and the Western propaganda that Russia were “the Evil Empire” and the “Bad Guys”.

Yet, off we went! It was my first time flying, I was 12 by the time we went but I was probably too young to really understand what I was seeing. We were more interested in collecting the really cheap Soviet badges that we were constantly offered by street hawkers and the seemingly endless refrain:

“You want Paul McCartney record?”

“Niet, spaseba”.

This LP was not available in the “West” at the time. We did stand out a mile and must have been a magnet for every hawker in the city dressedas we were in bright primary colours. All the locals were in black or dark greys. We stood out for miles around!

The memories I do have are perhaps of interest:

The Moscow State Circus were amazing.

We went to a school disco, which was very strange as we had no Russian and the Russian school kids had no English, so we sadly didn’t speak to them at all. A large group of them were surrounding this laser disco light, that seemed entirely new to them, which was perhaps provided to make Soviet Russia seem more “modern” I don’t know.

We went to this shop that sold electronics that Soviet citizens were barred from, though quite why a bunch of young teenagers would want to buy big lumpy electronics designed for a different current level? I think the idea was to get Sterling out of us.

We were very naughty. We were supposed to change money into Roubles at a bank, but our teachers decided to take us out into the street and change money on the black market. Which was worth it! Instead of 1 Rouble to the Pound, the official rate at the time, we got 5 Roubles to the Pound. I imagine that those guys were making a very healthy profit on that as well! We even had to do it twice as there was another local school group with us and their teachers wouldn’t let them change money with guys on the street in Moscow.

Was this risky? Were the KGB watching our every move? Or were we just left alone for political reasons, who knows?

Food & Drink

We were even naughtier than that. We went to a shop and brought bottles of Vodka. 12 years old, no questions asked, which was pretty much the case in Wales too at the time! But surely a nightmare for our teachers having 12 year olds drinking vodka in their hotel rooms, especially when we weren’t eating very well as were were young and picky and struggling to like the Russian Food.

One night we seemed to be offered cat food by the hotel, some sort of meat in a thick jelly, just like in tins of cat food we thought, ych a fi! There was this wonderfully sweet tart we got for breakfast though which was heavenly.

Russian Lifts

Our hotel in Moscow was high rise, which was new to me, so there were the lifts. The doors of these lifts would only open for three seconds so we had to manually hold the doors to get more than one person in. I really hate lifts (mild claustrophobia). They were often full too. I think we were on the 27th floor but I was young enough to just run up the stairs without it being too much.

Travelling 1st class

After some days in Moscow we then took the night train to Leningrad (now St Petersburg again). We had a private cabin for me and my friend and I have never since travelled in such luxury on a train. The cabin was beautiful. It was a shame it was night as we didn’t get the see much of the Russian countryside, which coming from ta farming area was actually what I was more interested in seeing than the big cities.

So we arrived in Leningrad, which was very different to the cold concrete blocks of Moscow, and lots of very pretty pre-Soviet buildings. It was colder, snow on the ground and -10 degrees, but it didn’t feel that cold. I now had a furry Russian hat, but I think it was more the lack of humidity that made it seem warmer than Wales was.


The St Petersburg Hotel was very posh, wonderfully clean comfortable rooms, however not so the toilets. They didn’t flush, no bucket to manually flush the pan and had no toilet paper. I remember exploring different floors of the hotel in search of a loo that had sheaves of old newspaper left on the string. Once I had to resort to a trip to the lobby to buy a copy of Pravda for such a use!


We were taken to lots of tourist shops where we bought lots of cheap Soviet tat. Looking back, I wish I’d bought more as these days it probably has something of a cachet. We did buy reams of Soviet propaganda posters though as they were 2p each! Hopefully, they are still in reasonable condition in my dads attic somewhere!

Sadly most of the trip was very touristy, endless coach tours and the like, though the Space Centre was very cool. The Leningrad underground railway was stunning, every station was beautifully designed and only 5p to go anywhere in the city, if only London was like that!

Really I was too young to appreciate it all and we, as a school group were ferried around by our InTourist guide (who incidentally did extremely well from all the Roubles we were unable to spend or change back.

I still don’t do normal holidays, maybe because of this trip. Maybe it’s a desire to see strange different parts of the world and see how other people live, rather than sweat on a packed beach in Spain.

It was a place that can no longer be visited, the CCCP no longer exists. I could go back to Russia and see it all completely changed of course. Even though I hadn’t spoken with hardly any real Russians, I think it did leave me with a positive view of Russia, which was perhaps the aim, but as one of the kids who had signed up to go, I didn’t have a negative view of Russia.

I still live in a country with a negative view of Russia and still negative media propaganda about Russia, deservedly so to some extent but our government and that of the US are no Goodies by any means. Now though at’s all about Putin, rather than the Soviets. Generally, I feel the ordinary Russian people haven’t had the chance to really connect with Western Europe, there hasn’t really been a period in my lifetime when Russia has not been regarded as a political ‘enemy’ and I think that does influence peoples views of people. If a government is regarded as a bad guy then it’s people must be bad guys too, though this is a false connection as pretty much every government is terrible.

Really if we had just watched more Soviet films and less American films (which often do have a very pro-USA underlying message, <cough> Star Wars <cough> what was that about really? <cough> ‘the evil empire’? <cough>, there would may be less bias against our Russian comrades. The Purple Ball is ultimately a much more uplifting film than Star Wars in my view and it has dragons in! which of course, warms any Welshman’s heart.

Crying at the Movies

People often bring up films they’ve seen in conversation, they often express surprise that I haven’t seen the film. So, I get the feeling that I’m missing out on a lot of great films. I do enjoy watching films, but maybe not as much as most people? Why is this?

I love live theatre and going to music concerts, much more than I like going to the cinema. When at home I prefer listening to music and reading books more that watching films. So, what is the difference, how am I different?

People often ask why I’m not terribly keen on going to the cinema. I usually respond by saying that i am tall and thin, so after about an hour i find sitting with restricted leg room gets increasingly uncomfortable. So, when I do go the cinema, I usually leave it until the last minute before taking a seat, to reduce the length of the discomfort. however at a classical music concert or the theatre, I have the same issue, but I am usually more tolerant of my personal discomfort. Incidentally,this is why I love the Proms or The Globe theatre in London, because you can stand throughout the performance.

When I was young i was involved in a youth theatre group. and we put on shows. The director once said, also a tall thin chap, that he judged the audiences by how much fidgeting there was. His argument was that the more an audience is involved with the performance, the less they fidget, I agree with this.

So, perhaps because I have a preference for theatre and music over cinema, I am more involved. By more involved I mean that I am more interested and engaged by the art on offer. However I think it’s more than just that, I am emotionally involved, I connect with the performance, I am spirited away from the real world and live with the performance and I simply don’t do that usually when watching a film.

It’s not simply the presence of live performers as I do sometimes burst into tears whilst reading a book, it is that generally I don’t connect emotionally with films.

Last night, I did connect with a film, I was in floods of tears at several times during the film. There may have been qualities of this film that other modern films lack, that the makers of the film are more part of the theatre tradition, rather than the entertainment tradition.

Perhaps it’s that many modern films to me seem to focus on entertainment, they are fast paced, filled with special effects and attempt to thrill us with their complexity, thus lacking this emotional engagement.

Whereas traditional theatre and opera, do the opposite, they simplify, they distil the complexity of the world, into a more basic narrative. Characters are not multi-faceted and complex, but simple and more one-dimensional. It is this simplification, a connection to  rawer motives, that I think enables the audience, or me anyway, to connect. It is the exposition of a simple facet, rather than an overloading of the senses with complexity that appeals to me.

The film was ‘My Name is Khan’. The film concerns how a man with Asperger’s syndrome (played by the wonderful Shah Rukh Khan) tackles the prejudice towards Muslims in a post 911 USA. The story is that the protagonist, faithfully follows his dead mothers advice that: There are only two types of people in the world, good people and bad people. His mother also requests that Khan seek happiness. So, Khan, goes to America and finds a beautiful wife (well Bollywood actresses are often stunningly beautiful anyway) and a happy life. Disaster strikes with the murder of his stepson and Khan continues to struggle to understand the world of prejudices, between Hindus, Muslims and Christians and how people respond to these prejudices with violence and become bad people.

It is simply a great film, because for all it’s fantasy and sensationalism, it is true; that we all have this continual struggle with prejudice. Connection with a truth, identified though religious practice, a play, a book, a piece of music, or whatever, somehow makes us, as humans, feel good to be alive. I seem to have found this in Bollywood films, and Western films seem to lack this quality in modern times.

‘We met on the train’

I attended an event in Ebbw Vale, some years ago, when the late politician, Tony Benn was touring the UK. At this event Mr Benn, described entering into a conversation with two people whilst stuck on a delayed train. During the conversation Mr Benn asked the two people how they had met, they answered ‘We met on the train’. Perhaps the romance, or at least the social leveling of sharing a train journey encourages socialising. In a sense on the train, life stops, givign people space to think and talk with people they wouldn’t otherwise speak to. However these days, people cocoon themselves with their mobile devices, carry on their lives and don’t allow the world to force them to stop.

This the principle behind the film ‘Jab We Met‘ which I enjoyed watching at the weekend. In the film two young people meet on a train and begin a journey together.  It’s a variant of the usual boys meets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl get back together, get married and live happily ever after. I don’t watch enough Bollywood films, though people say i don’t watch enough films generally. When I do watch a Bollywood film I usually really enjoy them.

I am a bit of a sucker for trashy romantic comedies anyway. However generally I find the Bollywood ones are better than the U.S. ones. Better because partly I love the fact that they are usually musicals and that the cast may burst into a massive song and dance number at any moment, which is great. The films can make very serious social points and still provide an exhilarating happy ending. Also, the films are long enough for viewers to fall in love with the characters of the protagonists (whatever your sexuality), the audience can get to know the character and see their development through the film. The films are clearly fantasies, there is a sense of knowing that this is a fantasy story, with elements of reality, sometimes with U.S. films i feel a sense of trying too hard to be real, to make the world real and not leave room for the imagination of the viewer.

With any piece of art, the viewer fills in the gaps in there head, makes it real to themselves by adding pieces of themselves to the experience. I despair a little of much of modern culture that tries to be too real. This applies in films, computer games and indeed music, where video is provided to accompany the music. Traditional forms of theatre,  stop motion animation and old low budget episodes of Doctor Who, I love, because they are clearly leave space for the audience to say yes and make it real for themselves. This fantasy of making things real is perhaps lost in modern media, indeed works are often criticised for not seeming real enough. What I do wonder though, is where the younger generation gets to practice and develop the ability to fill the gaps and use their imagination.

Inside Out

Writing about personality types recently, the implication is that personality is fixed and doesn’t change. Personalities do change, some aspects of of personality are amplified and others reduced. Some of these changes may be short term or long term. Whilst personalities change, the person doesn’t. It isn’t the fundamental person that changes, just positions on various personality spectra may be shifted

A core of personality is probably genetic. The rest is formed through  experience. I identified myself as an intuitive thinker, one whose focus is internal, thought is dominantly channeled through the self, rather than externally. It is perhaps ironic that those who live internally are viewed as the outsiders.

Having identified a internal – external thought pattern spectrum, why do minds tend to select a dominant way of thinking? People choose what works empirically, a mode of thinking is preferred if it provides a more reliable way of solving problems. It is not efficient to spend all ones time on metacognition, so people accept general rules to govern their thinking, come to accept positions, because they work reasonably well.

In a sense a speciality is developed. Ecologically, in dense communities (such as humans) having a speciality is often useful and a part of sustaining communities. Nonetheless, having general skills to use when the speciality is unhelpful is always useful, it is important not to exclusively rely on one mode of operation.

Balance is important, sometimes these systems each mind works out for itself, break down, they fail to solve problems we encounter. Sometimes a radical shift in focus solves a problem. Personally, using more external thinking helped solve some major problems I was having, by looking at patterns in wider society. This is not to suggest that external thinking is superior as it works in  both directions.

Last night, I re-watched one of my favourite films, ‘Heathers‘. In this film the protagonist, Veronica Sawyer, is popular in high school, yet she is unhappy with adoption of the rules of this lifestyle as she has an internal mental life as well. She acquires a boyfriend who recruits her into killing the problematic popular people in her life. By presenting the murders as suicides the vapid popular people are presented as only acting out popular roles to hide their own inner turmoil. Underneath this are the rest of the school, those not at the top of the popularity ladder, with there own insecurities, who are faced with knowing that the ‘popularity’ they have aspired for is not the life of carefree happiness they were dreaming of, which would solve the problems produced by their insecurities.

Generally, the film presents the problem of overly internal thinking. When faced with a problem, the internal thinker, looks within themselves for the source of the problem, to fix it. So, when no problem is detected, the idea generated is that they are wrong in some fundamental way, but don’t know why. Creating a desire to escape from this internal fear to an external world that promises to be problem free (which of course it isn’t).

I was like this, once I realised that the problem was an external one and not an internal one, I felt fixed! Being able to turn off the internal monologue and connect more intensely with external data is liberating. Essentially this seems like an argument for never fixing ideas, ensuring space for other ways of thinking to be allowed to work on problems. Balance is really important.

Another spectra is the sexuality one. Technically, everyone is on a spectrum between heterosexuality and homosexuality, so we should all be pansexuals. The majority of people identify as either heterosexual or homosexual. Looking to my history, there was a period as a young teenager where there was some sexual attraction to boys in addition to a dominant preference for girls. however after a year or so this bisexuality seemed to disappear. I seemed to have decided on heterosexuality as this made things simpler for me, I had adopted it as a rule. This isn’t a case of denying my own sexuality, rather adopting a rule that works well.