Out and About in the Fourth Estate With Steven Gilfillan

Under The Greenwood Tree

It was one of these evocative autumn mornings, so I was doubly shocked to hear that Borak Yesenin’s mother had died. It came as a surprise too when on behalf of him and the rest of the family I was asked to the funeral, and in the small parish church where the old woman had worshipped was requested to read a designated passage from the New Testament. The honour was great, but the milieu I try to escape is host to ruthless people, whose cynicism rubs off.

Interestingly, Alma Yesenin had chosen for her interment a woodland burial in semi-private soil, a good many versts from her husband, who having pre-deceased her had opted for cremation. His ashes were scattered on the Dover shoreline, that symbolic place of the couple’s first entry into the country that took them in as refugees. As has been said, by a previous commentator, whose division of the world is into Barbarians, Philistines, and the Populace—

…we are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Those ‘ignorant armies’ I heard about from Borak’s nephew, Zbigniev, who as an assimilated Englishman stood up before me in that Surrey church and delivered his grandmother’s eulogy. Alma and Boris, I learned, were of aristocratic stock, but stripped of all they possessed in a previous revolution. They supported electoral reform, a redistribution of wealth, and were of an ancestry boasting a clutch of distinguished painters, physicists, ornithologists, military generals, political pamphleteers, and more recently a lyric poet (‘Had the pen really all that might, / With one dotted i I’d put all ideologues to flight’).

Boris and Alma’s second retreat was from the march of fascism all over Europe in the 1930s, their destination a damp poky basement somewhere in north London, and the arms of what was then the ‘natural’ party of government, a sort of after-dinner gentlemen’s club, dominated by principled Tories, whose veneer at least was moral and upright. From there the Yesenins dirtied their hands with trade, and arrived at a middling middle-class life, out of whose stable fabric son Borak was able to launch himself into the restaurant biz. He’d made money, of course, though that still didn’t lend him the right credentials to land himself on the present Tories’ A-list.

A great deal more I heard about this later in the narthex, where we drank tea and filled our plates with sandwiches, after the service. According to Zbigniev, no end of cosmetics applied by the party’s clownish leader would ever obliterate that intolerance and prejudice palpably emanating from the Old Right, which throughout modern European history remained poised, awaiting its opportunity. ‘Perhaps your uncle should stand as an independent,’ I suggested. ‘Ah no,’ he said, ‘that is not how the alien ever truly absorbs himself. You have only to look at those Tory grandees whose own parents were refugees, to know how inextricably woven into the tapestry of English life the real insider has to be.’

I considered these words, and told him I would try to report something of them through the papers I prostituted my pen for, bound as they are by their own rules of propaganda. He shook my hand warmly, and thanked me once again for the reading I had given, which before I forget was Philippians, chapter 4, verse 8—

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure…whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think….

Alma Yesenin, requiescat in pace.


Peter Cowlam has won the Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction twice, most recently in 2018 for his novel New King Palmers, which is at the intersection of old, crumbling empires and new, digital agglomerates. His fiction, poems and reviews are published in a wide range of print and online journals. Steven Gilfillan is his fictional spokesperson experienced in journalism and other forms of literary art.