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Russia 1969

On the sunny but blustery morning of 22nd August the Choir began to assemble for the sixth time in its history, to venture from England's shores in search of more appreciative audiences. The pattern of this trip differed from previous ones in that the coach which departed from school at 12.35 did not go to Victoria but instead headed east to the crane-crowded concrete of Tilbury docks.
At the docks, which the coach driver eventually found, the rain began to fall as the luggage was being passed out and shelter was sought in the buffet until embarkation. The vessel which, after certain formalities, we were allowed to board was the Motor Ship Ulyanova, one of the fastest boats operating for the Baltic Steamship Co. though certainly not one of the largest. Our "C" class accommodation was far better than it sounds and apart from headaches caused by sitting up too quickly in bunks, there was no cause for complaint.
Unfortunately, that evening the swell grew worse and by morning many choristers suffered from a well-known mariners' malady. Our most seasoned traveller spent three hours with his head over a bucket while the others found the ship's rail a useful prop. The Purser confessed that it was the worst weather they had encountered this year. By afternoon tea, at 4 p.m., sufferers' systems were returning to near normality and food was once again a permissible topic of conversation. That evening the black coast of Denmark was sighted.
At 9 the following morning M.S. Ulyanova sailed past Copenhagen where six years ago the Monoux pioneer choir had broken its journey to Norway by breakfasting, in the railway station.
Now the choristers prepared for breakfast to fortify themselves before the inevitable practice which followed now that everyone was feeling much better.
That evening we appeared in a talent show which, we were told, always occurs on the last night before the ship reaches Helsinki, where many passengers disembark. In fact there were very few continuing to Leningrad but one worthy of note was Alfie Bass, who was taking a holiday with his family. His young son, Julian, was delighted to have the company of so many boys of his own age group. During the night of the 24th we passed through a time zone, losing an hour's sleep.
As the sea was calm on the 25th a rehearsal occurred at 11 o'clock to put most of the pieces in reasonable condition. The rest of the day passed uneventfully until the boat threaded its way through many small islands as it neared Helsinki. A treble heard an American woman say typically to her companion in a heavy drawl, "Oh! What beautiful islands ; I wonder if they're for sale."
We disembarked at Helsinki to look around the town but we had difficulty finding a restaurant where they would accept sterling. From what we say, Helsinki did not have the life of our own Capital and seemed to reflect the temperament of the Finnish people we had met. On arriving back at the ship we found that time had advanced yet another hour so a further hour of sleep was written off. The following day the ship seemed to be exclusively populated by the choir and it was not until disembarkation that other passengers revealed their existence.
The sky was leaden grey as we approached the large port of Peter the Great and the flat marshland on which it is built only showed us the depressing silhouette of its dockland. As we neared port, some of the more daring photographers, with suitable lookouts, filmed the Russian Baltic fleet. By then the crew had taken all of the luggage up on deck. When we docked this was loaded into a wire basket and taken directly to customs while we were detained on board for passport formalities. In the customs shed they seemed intent on searching every boy, going through magazines and copies of the "Radio Times" thoroughly for hidden documents. Finally, when it was made clear that we were a travelling boys' choir they only troubled with currency declarations and we were allowed to proceed to our guide, who had two buses to take the party and its luggage to Dyuny, a popular holiday resort on the Gulf of Finland. The journey that night took almost an hour but we once did it in 27 minutes. It depended on the recklessness of the driver.
The accommodation at Dyuny was excellent, two in each room with comfortable beds and a balcony. Tall trees surrounded the resort and the beach was only 150 yards away. At 8.30 the following morning we were taken by Olga, the guide, to breakfast. It was discovered that she had only been studying English a short while yet she escorted us competently to all the sights and answered even ridiculous questions most fully.
As usual the sightseeing, which our east European friends seem to glory in and be able to organise better than anyone else, began immediately after breakfast. We were taken across the River Neva to the statue of Peter the Great who, from his horse trampling the dragon, gazes across at the original fortress which he had constructed at the expense of 200,000 men which is now dominated by the gilt spire of the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. From here we visited St. Basil's Cathedral before proceeding to the Baltika Restaurant, via the Winter Palace. After lunch the Aurora, the battle-cruiser whose forward gun was fired to signal the start of the revolution, was boarded and photographed. We were taken to a House of Friendship where a film on the reconstruction of Leningrad and its art treasures, after its long seige and destruction at the hands of the Germans, was shown. However, some of the choristers had already seen this film when it was shown aboard the Ulyanova but the extent of the restoration and the craftsmanship involved never ceased to astound us. In preparation for a concert on the following day, that evening was taken up by a rehearsal.
When we had breakfasted at the same time on the morning of the 28th, our bus delivered us outside the Winter Palace. The buildings which were the Winter Palace have been turned into museums which are referred to collectively as the Hermitage. Unfortunately we were unable to see the entire group as that could have easily have taken months and even the few major ones we did see had to be rushed through at great speed so there was little time to dwell on individual exhibits such as a solid silver tomb weighing over two tons or fully appreciate the Breu, Rembrandts and Renoirs. All we could hope to do was to gain a general impression. At one stage in the tour we stopped and sang the slow-moving madrigal "Lay a Garland" and within seconds a large chamber we had selected was filled with an audience which seemed disappointed that we did not continue. Time did not permit it.
The bus was waiting as we emerged from the Baltika and a little time was spent visiting the Cathedral in Peter the Great's old fortress. We managed to sing several religious pieces in this building which houses the tombs of many Russian Tsars including Peter. We were then taken to the Gardens in which was the concert hall where a speedy rehearsal was needed before our performance. The audience seemed fair considering that the concert had been arranged only two days before and the posters had only been displayed since that morning.
Our excursion on the next day was to the Pushkin Palace. This magnificent building with its gilt onion-shaped domes in beautifully wooded grounds was breathtaking. It was, naturally, still under reconstruction as it had been maliciously destroyed by the Germans when their looting was complete. The masterful job done in restoring this is impossible to describe without going into some detail, but the original craftsmen would have found it extremely difficult to fault the work now available to public inspection. We managed to sing in the chapel there and upon leaving were asked by the resident guides to sing more. As time permitted we obliged and it was plain that our audience were deeply moved.
For the last time we dined at the Baltika and then returned to Dyuny to prepare for our concert at that resort which had again been arranged at short notice. Yet to a full audience we performed our choir pieces and "The Bear," Walton's operatic version of Chekov's play which was well received considering that it had to be put over more on the acting than the incomprehensible singing. After this we were a little surprised to find that one of the major composers to the Kirov Opera and Ballet, Dimitri Tolstoy, had been listening. He showed great interest in the work of the choir and, like many of the musicians we have spoken to, while abroad, he could hardly believe that we did not attend a college of music but only a general school. To dispel all rumours he is not a relation of Leo Tolstoy the poet, but his father was a historian renowned for a Trilogy on Peter the Great. At the end of yet another exhausting day the Monoux Choir retired to their beds. Most people looked forward to their journey in a hydrofoil to Petrodvorets, Peter the Great's country residence, whose innumerable fountains were supplied with sufficient water under pressure from underground springs, enabling them to be in operation for ten hours out of every twenty-four. We were unfortunate in that the heavy rain which greeted us soon after disembarkation soaked everyone, quite literally, to the skin and prevented what would have been an enjoyable tour of the fountains and surrounding woodlands from taking place before dinner. The rain did not cease until forty minutes after dinner (when appropriate sacrifices had been made to our resident weather-god "Bert Ford" by younger members of the party). The fountains we saw were varied from beautiful gilt statues to artificial trees and flowers. What delighted everyone were the trick fountains designed by Peter the Great (who had a reputation for such humour). Many were surprised by them and their often inexplicable functioning. It is perhaps excusable to be caught by a trick fountain but when an over-confident optimist slipped into a plain shallow fountain, he found it extremely embarrassing. The only injury he suffered, however, was to his ego.
That night we packed, said our goodbyes and left Dyuny for the last time in our two buses and at the station boarded the "Red Arrow" to Moscow, which left on time at 24.00.
On arrival in sunny Moscow at 08.30 two buses conveyed us to the Hotel Ostankino. The telephones and radios supplied in every room were examined by the more suspicious (i.e. addicts to Ian Fleming) for any concealed microphones, before going to breakfast. Sightseeing commenced almost immediately afterwards. Apart from the Kremlin (the old city of Moscow) and Red Square, the Russian Capital was a little disappointing after Leningrad.
The museums within the Kremlin, visited on the day after our arrival, were of particular interest yet the tight schedule did not permit us long at any one exhibit and we did not have long at the cathedrals within the Kremlin walls. We were even refused permission to sing. The 200-ton broken bell and the great cannon, which has never been fired, were seen as we went to the bus to take us to the Metro, where we were shown the more decorative stations. In the afternoon we visited the Exhibition of Economic Achievement where, after being driven around the perimeter in a peculiar vehicle which was similar to a train of minibuses (the front one being motorised and drawing the others), we had only enough time to see the space exhibition and the inside of an Ilyushin airliner before proceeding to a cinerama show.
Lenin's Mausoleum was the next "sight" we saw on the following morning. We were then shown the graves and plaques of interest which were below the wall of the Kremlin that faces the large multi-floored market, "Gum," across the cobbles of Red Square. When this was over we created some necessary free time in order to do a little shopping for gifts and also to buy food for the long journey home, which was to commence that evening, one day earlier than planned because of some confusion regarding train bookings.
The two-day train journey home was brightened up by a stop at Brest-Litovsk where the bogies had to be changed. This two hour process enabled us to pool our Russian money to buy every one a cooked breakfast (as it was only 08.30) and then give a short concert in the large waiting-room. The audience which, as usual, soon formed around us continued to ask for more until we disbanded.
The two hours of time that were "borrowed" from us on the outward journey, which many had convinced themselves would be well slept through, were returned when we crossed the Polish border soon after leaving Brest, thus prolonging our waking hours. Nevertheless the choir, guided by its conductor and organiser, Mr. Moffatt, and Mr. Chapman, a very experienced traveller, once more were led safely to the familiar disembarkation point of Victoria.
It was disappointing that lack of co-operation or administrative failure prevented fully publicised concerts or, in the case of Moscow any concerts and the promised radio broadcast from being arranged. Yet this did not prevent the tour being one of the most enjoyable. It was distressing that Mr. Moffatt had to spend so much time chasing officials in Russia, to arrange concerts and sort out the travel problems which resulted in our returning a day early, after the time-consuming organisation at this end and the ever-present worry of finance which had troubled him since November.
In connection with this, I would like to thank, on behalf of the choir, all those individuals who helped to raise money for the most expensive tour we have ever undertaken. Unfortunately, I cannot mention them all here. The work of Mr. Stirrup and the Parents' Association deserve mention for helping to share the money worries and taking a great part in their solution. Without their active co-operation and interest this tour would not have been possible.
As this was the last tour that the choir will undertake in the form it has existed in for the past nine years under Mr. Moffatt's leadership, I should like to thank all those who have helped it travel and sing in eight European countries. Again thanks ought to go especially to the Parents' Association and Mr. Stirrup, whose regular support we depended upon as more ambitious tours were planned. The annual donations by Waltham Forest Council were also appreciated.
Last of all, at the end of a significant chapter in the history of the school, I should like to express to Mr. Moffatt, the thanks of all the choristers who have enjoyed singing with the choir, many of whom realised when they joined other choral groups how high a standard was expected of them by their conductor. Mr. Moffatt should be congratulated on not only maintaining a worthwhile standard but getting it to improve despite the problems of an ever-changing group. It is indeed a great pity that the choir, because of the changeover to the Comprehensive System, will have to be radically reorganised as the treble voices have been eliminated. The Monoux Choir can never exist again in its original form.
Roy Phillips-late 6iiM