I've just been in Malta for my holiday. It is lovely. If you haven't been you should go. Valletta, the smallest European capital, is an exquisite UNESCO world heritage site, all fortifications, palaces, limestone, churches and Caravaggio. The Maltese love the British. After the beasting they took in WWII they were collectively awarded the George Cross and promptly put it on their national flag. There are prehistoric ruins and a shoreline that is like an aquarium.
Most of my time was spent by the sea, where it is always interesting to see how national stereotypes play out. When I was younger the English abroad were a source of collective shame. Beer guts and fish and chips and English pubs. They may still be, although there was no evidence of that where we were staying. The Brits were largely identified by their acute sunburn, Cath Kidston beach bags and constantly shushing their children. The Americans were universally gregarious, bounding up to everyone and anyone in the pool and banging on about how they loved the place. There were large groups of Scandinavians, all in disgustingly good shape. Germans in Vilebrequin trunks reading improving books and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. And there were the Russian oligarchs.
Ah, Russia. It is an easy target at the moment: a pariah nation with a lunatic president, endemic homophobia, bombers flying over the English coast, agents poisoning people in London hotels and soldiers shooting down civilian jets. But the stereotypes rang so depressingly true.
The handful of Russians who clearly worked for a living were exactly the same as everyone else. There was one slightly spare fellow in boat shoes, rimless glasses and smart shorts who drank lots of tea and read the FT in English every day. The oligarchs were not. I'm guessing "morbidly" is a word in common use in Moscow. Dozens of enormous bodies, some clad in Borat-esque mankinis or singlets, congregated like some great walrus colony:
Others sprawled on loungers, delighting guests by ventilating their genitalia:
They all shouted at each other, chain smoked stupid, long, thin cigarettes and got bladdered on vodka before chucking the bottles into the Med. Here's one I fished out earlier.
Even their kids didn't have a chance.
And where there are oligarchs, there is security. One thug turned up in the evening at the hotel terrace with special forces tattoos, the build of a brick shit house, a green army canvas bag which he constantly stroked and a demonic look for anyone who caught his eye. He shuffled uneasily on his feet for about 20 minutes, staring everyone down and looking like he was about to pull out an armalite.
Families started taking their kids indoors. I imagined the reports in the next day's papers, which would start with the words "lone wolf
" and end with "and then he turned the gun on himself
". Nervous hotel staff radioed each other to try and work out who he was and whether they should call the police. Eventually the manager confirmed he was part of a guest's security detail. He appreciated that he looked absolutely terrifying but if his boss was paying to put him up then what could he do?
He eventually disappeared into the hotel, only to emerge the next day to prowl around the jetty with his even bigger colleague, preventing anyone from getting remotely close to his corpulent, bull-necked employer who was taking a dip.
You can imagine how they were employed.
"I have appropriated a factory from a Jew, so I am now a target of Mossad. I need protection
"Certainly sir. Here is Vladimir. He is impeccably trained in close protection and incredibly discreet. He wears a dark suit and an Hermes tie. You can tell that he knows what he's doing by his earpiece
"He looks expensive. Now that the factory is no longer being run by Jews business is not so good. Do you have anything cheaper?
"Of course. Meet Sergei and Dmitri. They were trained in the country's top neo-nazi groups and on the football terraces. You can tell that they know what they're doing by their crew cuts, massive bulk and tattoos. You don't even need to pay them. Just give them enough steroids to choke a horse and a few Chechens to beat up at weekends and they'll be happy as anything
"Perfect! Now everyone who sees me will think I am strong like bear! As well as fat like pig, hairy like badger and bent like hind leg of dog
I've been to Moscow. I learnt Russian (albeit badly) when I was younger. I am at a loss to understand how the nation that gave us Tolstoy, Gogol, Marx, Solzhenitsyn and the Hermitage now has these porcine jokers to fly its flag.
A friend of mine who is an expert in the region explains to me that Russia is like Britain was a few hundred years ago. A handful of ruthless bullies control pretty much everything and could not give two cents about what anyone else in the world thinks of them. This will all change with the development of Russia's economy and the emergence of a prosperous middle class. If my experience over the last couple of weeks is anything to go by, that is a depressingly long way away.
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