The spy who almost died and the town he almost killed

Photos of him as a younger man show a rather nasty looking individual with a mean mouth slashed across his face, lined only with the thinnest of lips. His hooded eyes peer out with a warning, his large hands wrapped round a glass of vodka

In his 60’s he somehow managed to transform into an avuncular type, overweight with receding grey hair and florid cheeks, no doubt the result of too much vodka (the florid cheeks, not the thinning hair). As a nod to his new home, photos show him with a tall glass of beer.

Today he looks tired, thin, bald and  desperately ill.

His name is Sergei Skripal. He is Russian and was a soviet spy. He was also an English spy. Straight out of a James Bond Movie he was the archetypal double agent. As 007 will tell you, it is a dangerous game with unpleasant consequences . The first unpleasant consequence occurred in 2003 when Russia threw him in jail for being a double agent.

A few years later England negotiated his release, and granted him dual citizenship. Perfect!

He retired with his daughter to a very ordinary semi in Salisbury. Such alliteration was bound to get him noticed. And of all the places to choose to retire, why Salisbury? Is it where all good (or bad) spies go to die? In this case rather too literally.

The second unpleasant consequence happened exactly 3 months ago.  Sergei  and his daughter Yulia were found slumped on one of Salisbury’s park benches after being poisoned with a nerve agent named novichok, that poisons through touch.  It appears that the poison was applied to the handle of the front door. Now dear reader, how can that happen in an ordinary residential street? Wouldn’t someone notice a man wandering up the street in a hasmat suit and mask, looking for a particular house? In his hand he has a glass vial which he handles with great care, until it comes time to pour it over the front door of number 27 . It seems a little strange.

What is even stranger, is that the attempt to murder Sergei actually failed. This was being done by Russia, a country that has no trouble murdering people they don’t like whenever they choose. Failure has never been an option.  Why didn’t they use the old poisoned umbrella trick and jab it into Sergei’s leg? It worked perfectly in the past.

The attempt on Sergei’s life had another unfortunate consequence. The people of Salisbury were understandably terrified that the poison had somehow contaminated surfaces in and around the park bench or was somehow in the air. The Skripals survived but the city of Salisbury died. No one would go near the park or the adjacent shopping precinct. It took days for the council to take action, but when they did, they closed the entire precinct for almost three months while they decontaminated the area. It was a frightening time for the inhabitants and a disastrous time for the businesses.

We had booked our night in Salisbury long before anyone had heard of Sergei Skripal or novichok. We became aware of the poisonings but blissfully unaware of the impact it had on the city. Our lovely host at the Bed and Breakfast certainly made no attempt to alert us to this before our stay, and had no desire to mention it during our stay.

Our friends are worried and suggest we stay somewhere else. But we want to see the famous cathedral and are happy to support this struggling city.

The cathedral had long ago arranged for an art installation of around 2,500 white origami doves to “fly” the length of the cathedral nave. It was installed just a couple of weeks ago. The doves represent a symbol of hope and peace, and were originally conceived as part of a larger event to mark the centenary of the end of World War 1.

The Fabulosity Meter loves them. And after the tragic events of the last few months they take on a striking new meaning and the entire city has embraced the project. Many shop windows have incorporated white origami doves into their displays, houses have doves hanging in their windows and there is indeed a feeling of hope throughout the city echoing how the nation must have felt at the end of the Great War. It is a perfect time to be there.

But the fabulosity doesn’t stop there. The chapter house, connected to the church by a beautiful cloister,

displays the best-preserved of the four surviving original copies of Magna Carta, a charter agreed to by King John to settle the many grievances between him and his subjects. It still remains a cornerstone of the British Constitution. Amazingly it was  signed on June 15th 1215 and still remains perfectly intact some 900 years later.

There are 3300 words crammed onto one page. I don’t count them or read them. And couldn’t if I tried. I would need a magnifying glass and a great deal of patience. I have neither.

King John also had neither.

But if he had, it wouldn’t have helped. He couldn’t read. It would seem to put a King at a bit of a disadvantage, especially when signing history changing documents. But just like Mr Trump, King John didn’t let a lack of education get in his way.

The docent who imparts this information appears to be nearly as old as the document itself, and just as tiny, frail and well preserved. She looks to be well into her eighties if not her nineties. She can’t be more than 4ft 10′ tall or weigh anywhere near 100 lbs, but she is a formidable presence and clearly brooks no nonsense. The Magna Carta is quite safe in her care. There is not an ounce of flesh on her bones, her pinched face and long nose are dotted with age spots, her fingers are cruelly bent with arthritis, but her eyes are alive with intelligence and humour. Dressed smartly in a suitably serious grey calf length skirt, dark blue silk jacket and colorful scarf, she watches us both carefully, but she pays particular attention to Gordon.  She comes over, and peers up at him with her piercing blue eyes, but says nothing. It’s like being back in school and is a little unnerving.

Finally she speaks.

“I’ve been trying to think what you remind me of with those white glasses. I’ve finally got it. You look like an anaemic owl”

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Gordon, who had been expecting the usual comparison to a handsome pop star or dashing film star, is at a loss for words. He is not amused but manages to compose himself.

“I’ll take that as a compliment” he teases” but I think you were being just a little naughty”

Without missing a heartbeat she replies

“When you get to my age, being naughty is a necessity. Just like taking Metamucil”

We love her. She is what England is all about.

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6 Responses to The spy who almost died and the town he almost killed

  1. bob colin says:

    Precious! And a great story too! And a great portrait of the ane.., I mean Gordon.

  2. Pat C says:

    Something my spicy Mother would have said when conducting tours when she was well into her 80’s. Don’t mess with senior ladies, you will lose every time. I never envisioned you that way Gordon, but one must keep the mind open to new concepts.

  3. Conrad Zagory says:

    Gordon, you do not look anaemic., or as my spell checker insista, “anemic”.

  4. James says:

    This blog entry alone should re-vivify Salisbury as a destination! Very wise, very fabulous!

  5. Angie bennett says:

    Love your travel blogs, Thanks for sharing your travel stories.

  6. Bonnie S Gellas says:

    What a fascinating story…about Gordon, I mean.

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