From Russia, with love.
On this, my husband’s birthday, I choose my subject carefully. For he knows most of the Bond films by heart, is in thrall to George Smiley, is an authority on Jason Bourne. He has a historian’s grasp of the facts of the Cold War, though its secrets remain as insubstantial as the mist which hangs over the Moskva River.
This morning, Vladimir Putin sat companionably – or as companionably as Putin ever sits – watching the Olympic judo at Excel, the largest Olympic venue in London.
Syria, Russian human rights and the countries’ economic relationship were on the cards for discussion. No-one seemed to have given any ground but Putin complimented Cameron on his country’s opening ceremony. Specifically: Mr Bean.
The bizarre has never been far from our relations with Mother Russia.
Spool back 350 years, for example, to the party reign of Charles II. Alexis I was in the middle of a comparatively stable rule and the Russian ambassador was minded to make a special present to the king who so loved his menagerie.
Charles had just finished re-landscaping St James’s park, the land first claimed and laid to parkland by Henry VIII.
What this park needs, thought the Russian ambassador, is a pair of completely incongruous pelicans.
And so he gave a pair to Charles for the park, and the mummy and daddy pelicans were very much in love and had baby pelicans. And the pelicans at St James’s Park prospered.
But the twentieth century was not kind to the pelicans. For centuries they had drawn admiring crowds, but their numbers began to dwindle and by 1970 – the heart of the Cold War – things were in a dire state. There was one pelican left, called Daphne.
I have a vivid imagination. I can just see the British diplomatic community chain-smoking and knocking back the gin while they grappled with the Pelican Brief: should the creatures be allowed to die out, should they go elsewhere for their pelicans, or should they just swallow their pride and go cap in hand to the Russians?
Extraordinarily, they did the latter.
And equally extraordinarily, the Russian government coughed up: two brand new pelicans delighted park visitors.
But the nirvana soon turned ugly.
The most uncomfortable rumours began to circulate. They concerned the new Russian beaked ambassadors eating our very British pigeons.
We all knew that was preposterous. Pelicans eat fish, of which there were plenty in the park.
Russian aggression was slated in the papers, and it is fabled that one MP claimed his children had nightmares after watching a pelican eat a pigeon. Yet still, mild-mannered naturalists insisted it could not be possible.
Until a journalist captured it on camera, and Sky News followed suit. A pelican walked up to a grazing pigeon, scooped it up live but protesting vociferously, and gulped.
Mother Russia had spawned monstrous meat-eating pelicans.
They were ushered off hurriedly to the nearest zoo. I need not remind you that the Berlin Wall did not come down for another 20 years. We do not forget the British pigeon losses with ease.
As you watch the British Prime Minister and the Russian president hob-nobbing in front of the judo, watch them carefully.
And remember those meat-eating pelicans.