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One of Barry Wilson's yarns

Updated: Mar 14, 2022

On the long flight home from Kununurra recently, I was thinking about the recently departed Barry Wilson with whom I had worked closely back in the 1980s. We were an odd couple, as I was a forester, and Barry was a marine biologist, but we got on well and enjoyed each-other's company. I recalled that he had a lovely sense of humour, and that he told a good yarn.

One of these yarns has stuck in my memory, although now I cannot remember whether Barry himself was the protagonist, or if it was some colleague of his. For the sake of the story let's say it was Barry. In any case he told it, it was as if he was reading from a novel by John Le Carre.

The story was set in the late 1960s, at a time when the Cold War was still icy cold. Barry was travelling by train from Poland to Moscow to attend an international conference on marine science, a field in which Barry was an international titan.

When the train crossed into Russia, the train stopped at a lonely border post and armed Russian soldiers entered. They were large, burly men, great-coated, with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders and snow on their boots. Slowly they worked their way up the train, minutely and mirthlessly inspecting the passport and visa papers of every traveller.

Leafing through Barry’s passport, the soldier gave a sudden Slavic grunt and called his mate, who looked at the passport and also grunted. To his horror, Barry then found himself frogmarched off the train. Beside the rails was a small hut, the Border Post, and before it, hissing in the snow, was a glowing brazier. To this Barry was escorted, almost petrified with anxiety (remember he had a Russian wife). Four Guards stood Barry before the brazier, silent for a moment. Barry thought they might be debating whether to shoot him now or simply pass him straight on to the KGB for an unpleasant experience in the bowels of the Lubyanka.

Then at a signal, they all started to sing, in heavily accented English: “Heppy birthday to you, Heppy Birthday to you, Heppy Biiiiiirthday dear Berrrry, Heppy birthday to you!”

The song completed, the guards clapped him on the back and escorted him back to his seat in the train, chuckling like undergraduates who had just pulled off a devilish prank.

Barry had forgotten it was his birthday, as clearly stated in his passport, and the Border Guards had had their little diversion from what must have been a lonely and boring job ......


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