Postcard From Peter Hitchens, Part Two

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Mr Hitchens, via Post Office Horizon CCTV, posting to The Debatable Lands.
Peter Hitchens at debate on Eastern Europe,
Nigel Luckhurst
Licence CC BY-SA 4.0

I offended Peter Hitchens. After claiming he’d ignored my letter, I found his reply propped in the alleyway that connects my letter box to the kitchen and garage doors. A white envelope sat undiscovered for months, invisible against a whitewashed wall. In the previous postcard, I apologised to the Mail on Sunday columnist about his letter. This time, as promised, I shall open it.

As keen on the church as I, Mr Hitchens will understand the following analogy. His letter is the Gospel. Myself, a recumbent Saint Augustine. The voices in my head are a childish singsong filling a 4th-century Milanese garden. Tolle lege, tolle lege! Take up and read.

As a great author and as if a medieval Pope or even God Himself, Peter refers to Peter both in the third person and the abstract. Even to the point of beginning his missive by saying he’s replying on behalf of Peter Hitchen.

Hold on a minute. I’ve been calling him ‘Hitchens’. Further offence? Google called. Allow me to correct. As a great author and as if a medieval Pope or even God Himself, Peter refers to Peter both in the third person and the abstract while self-deprecatingly spelling his own name wrong.

Firstly, he thanked me for my interest in the closing of railway ticket offices. This is odd. I never mentioned them. A sign he didn’t read my letter? Or is my dreadful handwriting to blame?

Neither, this is proof that he read my letter over and over again. In doing so, among the terrible spelling, poor punctuation and too numerous subordinate clauses (to which the G-P audience has by now acquired immunity) he began to overthink and misunderstand.

The subject matter was the Iron Road but not as it runs through provincial English stations robbed of their ticket office. The roller blinds are down. A sellotaped sheet of A4 commands, in handwriting worse than mine, ‘Use the app’. A girl at work explains an Edmonson ticket can’t and won’t emerge from her smartphone if I give her the fare. There is further mention of ‘the olden days’.

No, the steel wheels upon steel rails in question stride across the prairies from shiny sea to shiny sea, an ocean away from mine and Peter’s respective Debatable Lands and dreaming spires county town platforms.

Separately, and many decades ago, the pair of us crisscrossed the United States by train. After he shared his recollections on Twitter, now known as X, I put pen to paper and Top Trumped his rather modest recollections with three or four more impressive anecdotes of my own.

We have been following each other about and not only at church and on the Union Pacific.

I often tell the girls at work of a previous life more interesting. Not only did I have hair, teeth and twenty-twenty vision but an Iron Curtain fell across Europe, from Trieste in the Adriatic to Stetin in the Baltic.

Furthermore, Mrs Thatcher wanted me (and Peter Hitchens) on the other side of it. As with my Frankie Howerd, Alan Bennet and Harold Wilson impersonations, the young have no idea what I’m on about.

Likewise, I’m baffled by their earbuds, Spotify and the strange noises (Megan The Stallion? Dodgy Cat? Spice Ice?) that emerge from them. Not to worry. Peter will understand me.

Mr Hitchens makes the most of his own day trip to the Warsaw Pact in much the same way I bore, not least on these pages, with my brief Cold War encounters with the likes of Budapest, Belgrade and Štúrovo.

And if Puffins don’t know where Štúrovo is, that’s because Mrs T never ordered them to swim across the Danube with a dagger between their teeth to count the rivets on a steel box leaving a Czechoslovak ‘paper mill’. Taps nose.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
The author’s Cold War Budapest.
© Always Worth Saying 2024, Going Postal

In deference to Mr Hitchens, I had the easier of it. Yugoslavia wasn’t really behind the Iron Curtain. Czecho was a dump but I wasn’t there for long. Hungary was the happiest hut in the Warsaw Pact concentration camp – or so an emaciated Magyar, shoeless and with his trousers held up by twine, once told me. At the time we were queuing to put our names on the waiting list for a dozen eggs. Whereas Peter was in Moscow.

Back in the supermarket, one of my co-workers enjoyed a parachute jump for his eighteenth birthday. While he told the tale, he was impressed by my knowledge of such things. I reassured him I dropped out of the course early on.

Jumping off a stool with a school satchel on my back proved the limit of my courage. Forthwith, I would arrive by train wherever and risk border guards and barbed wire rather than a field in the dark hit at high speed.

Similarly Mr Hitchens. In those days, the Soviet authorities insisted upon passport, visa and Aeroflot ticket. Desperate to get their hands on hard currency, entry by air was only allowed via the national carrier. An experience even more daunting than cotton, string and a 10,000 ft drop. Sensibly, as did I, Mr Hitchens struck east by rail, taking the train from Oostend to Moscow when posted to the Russian capital by his newspaper in 1990.

I just happen to have a 34-year-old Oostend to Moscow railway timetable in my attic derring-do box. My Cyrillic is a bit rusty but the daily service appears to have left the Belgian port at 1530 and by midnight was between West Germany’s Essen and Dortmund.

Breakfast was served while trundling between Berlin Zoologischer Garten and Berlin Friedrichstrasse after sleep had been interupted crossing the frontier into the DDR at Helmsdedt in the middle of the night.

From that point forward care must be taken. The want in 1960s rural Ireland (Mr Hitchens will have been there too) was for the natives to point road signs in the wrong direction to frustrate the possibility of marching Red Coats.

Likewise, the suspicion lingers that the Communists juggled places, times and distances in their schedules. All those time zones didn’t help. Neither did changing placenames in among invasions and revolutions. Nor did different languages and having more than one place with the same name.

As far as I can work out, by the following midnight, the Daily Expess’s new Moscow correspondent was leaving Brest. Not that Brest, the one in Belarus, or the Socialist Soviet Republic of Byelorussia (SSRB) as was. The expectation being of a mid-afternoon arrival at Moscow’s grand Belorussky Station.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Only part of the Moscow Belorusskaya facade
© Google Street View 2024,

Three days on a bunk and being roughed up by the border guards in the dark will have been no great shakes for a former minor public school boy like Peter. Something else, besides church, railways and putting pen to paper that we have in common.

Mr Hitchens being born in Malta, his father a naval officer, the 72-year-old was educated in England at Mount House School, Tavistock and the Leys School.

As for myself, I rather liked school but a near half-century ago it was a bit amateurish. When we returned from summer break to start A-Levels, it emerged the school secretary had typed our options up all wrong.

By the time we realised we were all in the wrong rooms listening to the wrong things (the Wheatstone bridge? Which of Ovid’s Metamorphoses took place there?), it was too late. Correction wasn’t possible as the school timetable had been calculated and changing subjects created too many clashes.

This being the days of stiff upper lips, we plodded uncomplaining through subjects we didn’t want to do and knew nothing about.

One willowy, bookish youth, whose only ambition in life was to read Classics and write poetry in Greek, found himself sentenced to the natural sciences. Thing is, he ended up a consultant at one of the London teaching hospitals. Has a knighthood. The Lord moves in mysterious ways His wonders to perform.

Despite war, sanctions and the strange times we live in, it’s still possible to wander around Moscow Beloruskky Station on Google Street View.

As a sign of the advancing mild autism accompanying early middle age, beneath the neo-classical domes and murals of St George, I was able to count 32 manned ticket counters and even an information desk or ten. Make of that what you will.

Before we compare notes from the United States, we must pause to read Peter’s other train Tweets. When asked by another Tweeter of his experience of the Trans-Siberian Express, Mr Hitchens replied he’d never been on it.

The excuse being those who have report nothing to see but a week of birch trees and trains coming the other way. Soppy boy. Other trains? Luxury. Those of us who ventured to the less well-served lands northern to Siberia just got to see the trees.

Anyway, did Mr Hitchens try harder when he was the Express’s finest in Bill Clinton’s Washington DC?

Find out next time on Postcard From Peter Hitchens!

To be continued…

© Always Worth Saying 2024