A Divided City

What can you ever know of a major city, a foreign country, from a short visit? For a few days in April last year I was in Kyiv (Kiev), attending the Eurocon. When you are invited as a guest, when you have never been to a country before, when you speak nothing of the language, it is not only impossible to form reliable impressions of the place, it would also be close to bad manners to assume you could. You go where you are taken, see the places and things you are shown, you try to find your way around on buses and the metro, you tend to stay in the company of the local people who can speak your own language or other visitors whom you might already know from other trips to other places, you make friends with the people who have invited you … and eventually you gain a glimpse, but only a glimpse, of what are the lives and concerns of these people who are being so generous and welcoming to you. That’s what it was like for me in Kyiv.

Babi YarI had few preconceptions before I went. I knew little of Ukraine or its capital city, but I was aware, in a horrified sort of way, of what had happened there during World War 2, when it was occupied at different times by both the Soviet Red Army and the German Wehrmacht. One of the worst Nazi massacres occurred in a ravine in a park called Babi Yar, near the centre of Kyiv – some 34,000 people were murdered in a single action. I thought before I went I should pay a visit, especially as it has gained literary connotations since. The book with that title, Babi Yar by A. Anatoli (Kuznetsov), was described by its author as ‘a document in the form of a novel’, but even that was a disguise, as it is clear that every event described in the ‘novel’ really happened. Anatoli’s book includes the testimony of the only known survivor and eye-witness of the events, a woman called Dina Mironovna Pronicheva: her testimony was later included, controversially, in D. M. Thomas’s novel The White Hotel. However, once I was actually in Kyiv it seemed a visit was never going to be possible: several people said they had only barely ever heard of it, others said the ravine had been filled in and the park re-landscaped, hardly anyone would admit to knowing where it was. I didn’t push the point.

Independence Square 2One morning I went with a group of fellow visitors from the convention to visit Maidan Nezalezhnosti – known in the West as Independence Square. We were a multinational lot: from Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, France. The photos show what we saw that cold day. Most major cities have similar large open spaces where crowds gather, where speeches are made, where ceremonies are conducted. That was how Independence Square seemed to be. In the last few weeks the world has gained an altogether different image of the place, as many of the people of Kyiv are engaged in a violent protest against their government. The word ‘horrified’ rises again: this complex, historically important and often beautiful city is Independence Square 3tearing itself apart. Of course, the chances are remote that any of the people I met in Kyiv are directly involved, but even so it is extremely concerning. I am especially thinking of Alexandr Vasilikovsky (who invited me to Kyiv and who spent hours taking me around), of Yuliya Kiro (who gave up a day of her university studies to take me around the galleries and memorials of the city), and of Natasha Krynytskaya (who acted as my interpreter and translator). These are the people of Ukraine I know best – I can’t stop worrying about them.

I Knew it was Somewhere Here

Regard the photograph below. It was taken by my father with his Voigtländer Brillant camera. This model dated from 1932, and is a ‘box’ type camera, which looks a little like a twin-lens reflex, although the upper lens is used only for lining up the shot. Focus cannot be adjusted through it. The camera used 120 film, allowing 12 pictures (56mm x 56mm) per roll. The Brillant was made in Austria and was something of an improvement on the popular Kodak Brownie camera. It had three shutter speeds as well as B (Bulb) and T (Time) settings, could focus from 1.2m to infinity, and had aperture settings from f6.5 to f22.

Frinton Beach 1950

This photograph was taken in the summer of 1950 on the beach at Frinton-on-Sea, which was where my family took all their holidays at that time. My father’s parents had lived in Frinton most of their lives, and still ran a toy shop in the centre of the little town.

The two adults in the picture were called Noël and Chloë, and I think were friends of the family. For convenience they were known to me and my sisters as ‘Uncle’ Noël and ‘Auntie’ Chloë. The small child holding the sailing boat is me, aged about 6 or 7.

The reproduction here is of course a digital scan from an old print, but in the 1950s film was processed by a photographic shop (or more often by a pharmacy) and returned to the customer in the form of contact prints, together with the original negatives. The negative of this particular photo has long been lost, and because of the muddle of my unsorted old albums and packets of unmounted prints I had thought the contact print was missing too. However, I have been having a clear-out this week and rather to my pleasure this photograph came to light once more. It is the only one I can find from that particular roll, although I do remember other, similar photos taken at the same time.

A close look at the photograph reveals a certain oddness. Uncle Noël is wearing a wristwatch on his right arm, whereas most people (both right- and left-handed) usually wear a watch on their left wrist. The dress that Auntie Chloë is wearing is buttoned with the left side over the right, while nearly all women’s clothes are buttoned the other way. And the small child, me, has a plaster cast on his right arm.

A few weeks before this holiday, I had been messing about in the garden at home, and had unwisely tried to climb a large pile of logs. The pile gave way, I plunged headfirst to the ground and in a moment of astonishing agony I broke my arm. It was a memorably traumatic incident — I had never before known such pain, and hope never to do so again. However, by the time of this holiday there was no need any more to wear a sling, and the plaster was due to be removed soon after we returned home. The holiday photographs came back from the chemist’s shop at about the same time as the plaster came off, and to my surprise they showed the plaster on the wrong arm. I knew for certain I had broken my left arm, not my right … as the photos appeared to reveal.

To the adult eye, the explanation is simple: for some reason, presumably accidental, the contact prints had been made with the negative reversed. But at age 7 I had no idea how photography worked, and although no doubt my father tried to explain it to me, no doubt I failed to understand. It was a significant mystery.

By the time I was a teenager I had become seriously interested in photography and was developing and printing my own pictures. I was no longer in any doubt about the method, and I had forgotten all about this incident. However, some thirty years later, in 1980, I did remember it all over again, and usefully so while I was writing.

The Affirmation MasterworksIn Chapter 3 of my novel The Affirmation, the narrator, Peter Sinclair, describes a similar incident from his own youth. Trying to write an autobiographical account of himself Peter looks at old photos to check out details, and comes across a series of similarly anomalous reversed prints. The conclusion he draws from this (and my own intention in describing it in the novel) is how unreliable memory can sometimes be, and how even objective reality, a practical test of the past, is something you can’t always depend on. The Affirmation grew from that incident, and itself became a long elegy to the wonders of unreliability.

I am another three and half decades on from the writing of that novel, and at last I can find and reveal at least one of the photos that was behind it all. I still have my father’s Voigtländer camera. It is in full working order, and from time to time I take it out and think about trying to buy some film for it and seeing what it can do. Here it is today, taken with my much more up-to-date Japanese camera: