Horace, my long-lost relative

This book is a very personal story for me, and not just because I drew so heavily for it on the seven years after the end of Communism which I spent living in Moscow and St Petersburg, or because I made the Leman family with whom my heroine lives in 19th-century St Petersburg so very like the wonderful Karpov family with whom I lived with in modern St Petersburg (they share an address and a weakness for apple cake), or even because, in the course of describing violin-makers in Russia, I learned to make a violin myself. There’s one more even more important thing. One of the book’s three central characters is an Englishman called Horace Wallick who worked for Faberge the jeweller’s in pre-Revolutionary St Petersburg. He’s drawn from real life. He was my great-great-uncle. The real Horace Wallick was, just as I have him in the book, a jobbing artist who painted miniatures – the kind that went inside lockets, or in miniature portraits, or on top of jewelled boxes. From 1910 to 1919, right through the last days of Tsarism and both the Revolutions of 1917, he lived a few streets away from the Faberge shop. Then he escaped from the starving city during the Civil War between Red and White forces that followed 1917. Like many White hangers-on, he ended up among Whites in the southern resort of Yalta. Eventually he was spirited away by a British ship, along with a good chunk of the defeated Russian aristocracy, just as the Reds won the day. He never returned to Russia. I can’t claim that I learned Russian as a schoolgirl, or travelled to the Soviet Union as a student, or loved the art of the early 20th century, or went to work in new Russia as a journalist, as any kind of homage to Horace Wallick. In fact, I only discovered he existed when I’d already spent years living in a Russia that was returning to the overblown, turbo-charged, thrillingly transgressive form of capitalism he must also have experienced nearly a century earlier. (In my Russian 1990s, hardly a day went by without a coup, or a war, or a banking war, or a smear campaign, or a corruption scandal, or a shootout, or a millionaire being caught in a KGB honeytrap. There was always something. You might be shocked, but you were never bored. I couldn’t leave – I was always worried that, anywhere else, I would feel bored. And yet I’d been there so long that it was beginning to seem I might end up staying forever.) And then I found Horace. I went back for a quiet weekend in London with my mother, who lived in the house where my great-grandmother, Horace’s sister, had died, and still had many of her books – I’d found my first Chekhov and my first Tolstoy, in old Everyman editions, on those bookshelves. And I saw an old catalogue of a London exhibition of Faberge eggs from the 1950s. That’s very Russian, I thought, and it might come in handy if I have to write about Faberge starting up again, which was always being talked about at the time. So I took the book back to Moscow with me. To my astonishment, when I flicked through it, I saw the margins were full of pencil notes. What drew my attention first was simply nostalgic pleasure that they were written in my much missed grandmother’s handwriting. They told the story of my “new” relative and his hasty departure from Russia, on the British Princess Ena from Yalta to Malta and on to England and, as she wrote, in parentheses, “peace and plenty”. I was thrilled to find this unexpected family member who had lived in Russia even longer than I had. Between us, we neatly book-ended the Communist years. And I was also thrilled to find this connection to the city where the Russian family I loved lived. It was a joy to be linked to the place where I’d spent so much of my life. My own family in England had drifted apart after my parents’ divorce, and I knew very little about my father’s relatives. Feeling rather rootless was part of the reason it was easy to live abroad for years on end – but, at the same time, my long time abroad had left me wondering quite where “home” was. St Petersburg seemed like a pretty good answer. horace wallich I spent a year trying to find out more about Horace Wallick’s time in Russia. I had only the patchiest of success. I went to libraries and archives and Russian Aristocracy Associations where the very Soviet-looking doctors and lawyers behind the office doors barked into very Soviet-looking orange plastic phones on giant desks but answered to the recently revived title of “Your Excellency”. But no one could tell me anything. The past, as one of my interviewees said, really is a foreign country in Russia. You might never find out. All I did learn – when I eventually thought to ask my father, who, it turned out, remembered him from his childhood, and drew me a picture of him on the back of a restaurant napkin (which you can see on the left) – was that Horace had stayed too long enjoying the glitz and over-the-top drama of Russia. He’d let his own life drift. He was spoiled for England. He never quite settled back into the quiet phlegmatism of home, into “can’t complain” and “mustn’t grumble”. He drifted around, doing bits of art jobs for friends and relatives and making ends meet. He used to show my teenage father pictures of the Tsar’s treasures. He always wore slightly grubby white gloves, my father remembered, and he liked a luxury or two, though he couldn’t afford them. From time to time, he used to bust out of the old people’s home in Richmond where he lived and come over to cadge a fiver off my father’s parents, to keep him in gold-tipped black Balkan Sobranie cigarettes. “I didn’t get the impression Russia had been very kind to him,” my father said. Still, I’ve always been very grateful to Horace Wallick – grateful enough to want to write him a happier ending in this book. Finding out just when I did that he’d spent his years in Russia, with all their parallels to my own – but that no trace of time remained – helped me decide to stop hanging around there myself, and come home to make a grown-up future before it was too late. I can’t help thinking that it’s all thanks to Horace that I did.  

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