FLAT EARTH: Experience the real Russia - in Bayswater

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CHAOS, despair, a mystery wrapped in an enigma . . . our flying visit to Russia last week confirmed that the national stereotypes of that country still apply. Russia itself wasn't so bad - the horrors are all concentrated in advance at the visa office in Bayswater Road. Long queues in both directions, a locked gate, an unseen voice which, from time to time, intones an order for five people to enter.

At one point two delinquent British grandmothers in pink leisurewear nipped in as well, making the party seven. A furious man appeared and ran shouting towards them, the icy glare of the gulag in his eyes. All seven were forced out of the gate, the whole queue of 100 or so made to shuffle backwards, the gate was closed, then opened again. At school this used to be called "Going Out and Coming in Again Properly."

After a few hours of this, one humbly accepts whatever treatment the fascinating but haughty creatures behind the counter dish out. I specially liked the 400 per cent surcharge for coming in a day early to collect one's visa.

Moscow mulish

IN MOSCOW I gave my views on Bayswater Road to friends. "Rubbish," they said. "Western embassies in Moscow are far more horrible. The Brits keep people queuing in the snow for days on end, and only let one in at a time. The Americans charge two months' average salary just for an application, and there's no refund if the visa is refused." All of which confirms our suspicion that international friendship, indeed the comity of nations, is far too important to be left to that cold-eyed crew who make a career in the diplomatic and consular services.

Back in the USSR

"RUSSIANS," say the Poles, "are the sort of people who will slit your throat then weep bitter tears over your corpse." It sounds like the kind of libel neighbours like to visit on one another, but maybe there's something to it. A tale going round Moscow describes two foreign journalists who recently found themselves on the open road as darkness fell. This, in Chechnya, is a mistake. They spotted an army post, went in and more or less announced they were going to stay the night

As the minutes ticked by, this too began to look like a mistake. The Russians, who have already murdered more than one journalist on the road, grew more and more menacing. Then the BBC man saw a guitar in the corner, picked it up and began to strum a few old Beatles tunes. Within minutes the ferocious conscripts were reduced to sentimental tears. They specially liked Yesterday, but for some reason were not so keen on Why Don't We Do It In The Road?

Black magic

THE amazing precision of the food-poisoning outbreak which struck down the All Blacks on the day before Rugby World Cup final can now be explained. It was not, of course, as some suspicious people have hinted, caused deliberately by the Boers. But a highly placed ANC source tells me, by a nod and a wink and other arcane gestures, that in the final week a plan was hatched to get the country's top witchdoctors to cast powerful spells in the direction of the Kiwis in their sinister black jerseys.

The effects surpassed all expectations. Imagine . . . in a five star Johannesburg hotel, where the guests eat a la carte, 27 out of 32 in the squad were struck down, yet no other diners in the hotel were affected. In modern witchdoctoring circles, this is known as a "surgical strike". "We had no answer to such powerful magic," "Pinetree" Meads tells me mournfully from his farm in Te Kuiti. In order to blunt the efficacy of the dark arts in the future, All Black teams to the Republic will henceforth be taking their own cook.

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