So I 'waited around' as I was bid. The camp had big jars of pickles or honey and bags of bread and biscuits stockpiled everywhere under a thick blanket of snow, while an army of babushkas was continually arriving to unload more of the same. There was a tent-ful of medical supplies and three tents handing out thick second-hand clothes. A constant relay supplied the canteen areas with big metal cans full of hot coffee. They were preparing for a siege.
The 'Press Centre' was really just a small raised stage, screened off on all sides except from the front, with steps up the side giving carefully guarded access onto it. I was made welcome and seated at one of two bulky old computers, rather ceremoniously considering that I was mainly just sending my girlfriend an email. At the second or third attempt the message did indeed send though the one to my editor refused to. Too bad.
They took my details and I was asked to wait a little longer while someone went to fix me up with Press accreditation. I would then be free to move around inside the camp and talk to anyone I liked. So I waited – as First Foreign Journalist To Show I was the object of some curiosity and I revelled in all of that of course. They showed me a box full of doves which they had prepared in case the government backed down suddenly. One wanted to tell me about a new interpretation of the French revolution that she specially liked, another about Greek archaeological sites in the Crimea. One of the protest organisers – like several of her class-mates born in the same month as the Chernobyl disaster – was a first-year student now, enrolled in the first university course in ecology Ukraine has ever had.
It was in the midst of this that I was approached by Yuri. Yuri gave me a hearty hand-shake. He spoke rapidly with a strong American accent and the brusque air of a youthful media exec. He introduced himself as the director of 'Radio Gala'. Radio Gala, so far as I could make out, comprised the two speakers belting out pop-songs from the Press Centre and the music system they were wired up to next to the computers.
'I hear you are a journalist from England,' he went on.
'We might have some common projects together.'
'Why not? What kind?'
He meant 'a spot' on his radio station.
'You mean an interview?'
'Yea. Many people are interested to know what you think about our revolution, or about democracy in Ukraine…'
I explained – that I'd been here all of twenty-four hours and had never been here before. That my presence here was really something of a fluke.
He was quite unfazed. 'But still you are the first one here so you must know something the others don't know.' Well OK, now that he put it like that… 'Two or three short sentences only. I tell you what the questions are in advance – then I ask them in Ukrainian, you reply in English, then I translate.'
'Alright but what will you ask?'
'Oh – what you are doing in Ukraine, what is your opinion of what is happening here. It's just to keep the tempo.'
A couple of sentences, some patter between the pop-songs, I could manage that much surely. I couldn't go anywhere until my accreditation came through anyway so I asked him to let me know when.
'In fifteen minutes,' came the immediate reply.
'Well then – I'll prepare a few sentences on why I'm here and what I think.'
Fourteen minutes later Yuri re-appeared and asked me to come outside again. I said goodbye to my new acquaintances and followed him down the steps. We found a space somewhere and he started talking to someone on his mobile, eyes professionally averted, arranging transport perhaps. I was looking forward to seeing what sort of studio they had. It would be snug in there anyway – something very ingeniously improvised probably, and I would feel very pleasantly important in there.
It dawned on me then in a flash that he was introducing me over his phone – that we were going to do it right here. I was still in the process of realising this as he handed the phone to me but I started in reasonably smoothly on my prepared account of why I was here. Chance. The Danube Delta….
I was only a few words in when I sensed a curious echo my voice had somehow acquired – nothing like any mobile I'd ever spoken into before – every word I spoke was being duplicated, magnified several times, as it was spoken. 'Gala Radio', I realised now, was wired up not just to those two speakers but to megaphones fitted to every lamp post along Kreschatik. The interview was live and being broadcast the entire length of the boulevard.
I handed back the receiver for Yuri to translate, then he asked the next question – my opinion of what was happening here. My opinion was that a generation of politicians formed by Communism was retiring all over Eastern Europe – Kuchma here, Iliescu in neighbouring Romania – and that the stultifying system they represented should once and for all be retired off at the same time.
Which is why I'm a useless journalist, of course. If I was a real journalist I would have sung something from the Wizard of Oz and screw the question and been famous in a week. Instead all I did was say something more or less true but forgettable – all I did was 'keep the tempo'.
I heard Yuri translate 'Iliescu' as 'Ceausescu' – a very poor translation, by the way – and then the pop music was playing again as he thanked me with another business-like hand-shake and beetled off on some new mission. When the press accreditation arrived it felt deserved anyway. The first twenty-four hours since leaving London had now passed and I'd long since lost count of the number of times I'd had to re-think everything since boarding that flight. They will no doubt rank among the more memorable twenty-four hour periods of my life. I'll bore my grandchildren to death with them.
And why do I bother the reader, who is not a relative of any kind, with this swollen-headed anecdote? A perfectly fair question. It amounts to little more than a funny story after all. And what was so funny about an uprising that didn't have to turn out right and very nearly didn't? What is so funny about people like Kuchmar and what they will do to stay in power?
But those people are the past. Stories about them are what my grandparents bored me with. The present and its predicaments are more in line with going, within twenty-four hours, from complete ignorance that a revolution is even happening, to having one's opinion about it sought publicly by the very people who are running it. The point about one's opinion of course being that it will be expressed in English.
The obvious moral to draw would be one about the fleeting, insubstantial nature of 'news'. The story I did write in the end, for example, was accepted rapturously by my editor. A large cheque was in the post and he was going to see if he could expand that section of the magazine specially to get it all in. The large cheque was in the post, as it happened, but the tsunami sank the Ukraine – then Kyrgistan sank that – then the Pope died, and there is always Iraq. And so the pearl of my marvellous article was cast before the swine-ishness of a news-hungry world.
Or rather the article was posted on the web-site but never printed. The trouble with that 'moral' is not only its myopic egotism. It is also hypocritical. That first day – having my reactions tested like that – was tremendous fun. And over the next three weeks Press accreditation gave me access to some very interesting people. Just because the news is a circus it doesn't follow that there's nothing worth saying about such events. Particularly when they are good ones, as this one was.
Nevertheless, as I have told it here, it is obviously not the story's 'news-content' that will recommend it to the serious reader. At the risk of meeting with further charges of swollen-headedness I will observe that I returned home to an unaccustomed rush of party-invitations. At one of these I was sat next to a newspaper editor, to whom I explained one of my idiosyncratic theories about Europe. Namely that it is strange to me that the British should endlessly commemorate its violent destruction, but take so little interest in putting some real life back into it when we are, after all, now quite free to do so.
She was genuinely puzzled by this theory. How could I expect 1989 to have the same resonance as the Second World War? The fall of the Berlin Wall was, and I quote, 'a news story'. The other was the great narrative of how we stood alone. No contest.
Of course if November1989 was 'a news story' then November 2004 was very small beer indeed, the merest classified advertisement by comparison. But if she was right then why don't these countries get it? Don't they read the British papers? Why do they insist on imagining that Europe is a marvellous and fascinating place to be when it really isn't?
Why indeed, and yet they do insist. And what does that dream of theirs mean? Fifteen years from now, when the establishment of supermarket chains and multiplex cinemas right across Ukraine has become that dream's de facto meaning, we will all say how predictable it was. But which of us is doing anything to prevent that, or even mitigate it?
There already is a fairly elected assembly. There will, eventually, be less corruption, less flouting of international law, better opportunities for the fortunate – and these are not to be cavilled at. Nor hailed as a new heaven and a new earth either. These things are measurable and the country's progress towards them will no doubt be monitored carefully by the EU.
But surely we can also want to know about such events in a way that doesn't just keep us up to speed about current events but speaks to us where we are. How else can they ever become anything more than 'scraps of newspaper intelligence'? When the western way, when the media giants and the new improved detergents have proved beyond a doubt how good democracy was for Ukraine, the way they have everywhere else, let there be left at least a funny story or two about how it looked at the time to someone in particular, not just people in general. If only to comfort the deluded and amuse the not very well informed. And maybe to remind us what we thought freedom and Europe were going to be about, way back in November 2004, when we were young and foolish.