Edward Docx has a charming account of his recent visit to Russia for a literary festival, and the scuffle he accidentally started when he explained the Man Booker to the Russian writers.
I begin to explain that the chair of the judges is Dame Stella Rimington and that she is an ex-head of the security services in Britain. And—bam!—that’s it: now everyone is laughing. Oh, the west, they guffaw. Oh, England, they chortle. Oh, hypocrisy. Oh, MI5. Oh, MI6. Even the FSB would not dare! You mean, they splutter, that the winner of your most famous literary prize is judged by the security services? It seems I could not have told them a more perfect Anglo-Russian joke if I tried.
I try to explain that they are mistaken, that Dame Rimington is retired and is a now an author herself. Yes, someone cackles, like Putin is retired from the KGB!
Fuck it, someone else suggests, we should set up an international prize for the security services. We should judge the FSB versus the CIA versus MI5 versus FBI and Mossad. We should proudly declare we know nothing whatsoever about security but say that we intend to make the award based on who we feel has the most zippy-looking offices as seen from street level. Had I ever been in the boy scouts? Yes, for a day. Well, then, certainly I was qualified. Let’s set it up tonight. A famous meta-realist falls off his chair.
Reading the essay I’m reminded of the… is it Bruce Chatwin?… quotation that the famed Russian hospitality is mostly just the Russian love for seeing a foreigner drunk.