Anniversary connection

Exactly 40 years ago today, Berwick Rangers travelled to Cliftonhill for a midweek game against Albion Rovers.

Thursday, 25th April 2019, 12:16 pm
Updated Wednesday, 24th April 2019, 16:54 pm
The Russian cannon on Berwick's ramparts.

Dave Smith’s charges knew that a win would extend their unbeaten sequence to 15 matches and keep them in the hunt for the Scottish 2nd Division title.

Jim Morton opened the scoring with a penalty on 51 minutes. Following Iain McLeod’s 80-yard run, a stunning overhead screamer from Peter Davidson doubled the advantage, and goalkeeper Callum Frame’s clean sheet ensured the points came back to Shielfield.

Unsurprisingly, the Dream Team’s exploits dominated the sports section of the next day’s Berwick Advertiser. Even so, a headline halfway down the front page, Russians to visit Berwick, must also have aroused at least some curiosity. The short piece explained:

‘The mythical ‘hatchet’ which exists between Berwick and Russia will be buried on Sunday when the Mayor, Councillor Eric Longbone, and the Sheriff, Mr Lambert Carmichael, will entertain three Russian guests in the Mayor’s Parlour.’

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During the centuries of intermittent warfare between the Scots and the English, each of the settlements at the mouth of the Tweed enjoyed (if that’s the right word) reputations as hotbeds of international espionage. Should anyone ever decide to try to turn Berwick into a tourist honey trap by promoting this aspect of our history, a marketing slogan might be: ‘If walls had ears…’

While it may be tempting to think all such shenanigans are a thing of the dim and distant past however, it’s worth recalling that a significant number of troops were stationed in Berwick during the Second World War. In July 1940, the town was one of Britain’s first to experience an air raid, and Spittal’s chemical production facilities were later targeted more than once.

Less well-known though, is the spike TD15’s ‘intrigue-o-metre’ registered towards the end of the period of détente between the West and the USSR.

On Thursday, May 3, 1979, the Advertiser’s lead story was the election which saw PM Jim Callaghan’s replacement by Margaret Thatcher; BRFC’s nervy 1-1 draw with Queen’s Park at Hampden featured on the back page. Coverage of Berwick’s peculiar exercise in Cold War politics was inside, under the headline Russians come in friendship: ‘Berwick was pleased to welcome three Russian newsmen on Sunday – and at the same time dispelled the story that the town is still at war with that country.

‘The visitors were Boris Strelnikov, who is Pravda correspondent in the UK, Alexander Stepanenko from Tass News Agency; and Yuri Kobaladze, Soviet TV and radio correspondent.’

On May 2, Rangers secured promotion with a 2-1 victory at Cowdenbeath; but if you’d mentioned Central Park to Boris Strelnikov, he wouldn’t have made any connection to the Blue Brazil.

Born in the Volga region of southern Russia, Strelnikov established his reputation covering developments at the United Nations in New York. Soon after his visit to the Guildhall, he filed an article for Pravda, at a time when it had a circulation of around ten million. Although To the North from London went to press before news reached Moscow that the Wee Gers had been crowned Division 2 champions, a sizeable chunk concerns the day spent in Berwick, tying up loose ends from the Crimean War.

Having been taken from the Old Bridge to the allotments on Ravensdowne (presumably via the Russian cannon on the ramparts), Strelnikov offered his readers a glimpse of life in the border stronghold following one of the harshest winters in living memory:

‘It was Sunday. The River Tweed calmly carried its waters under a low stone bridge, built more than three centuries ago. Next to an even more ancient fortress wall the townspeople, having thrown off their jackets, dug their kitchen gardens. On the other side of the walls the cold North Sea gleamed metallically.’

Of the other two members of the Soviet delegation, Yuri Kobaladze is the more attention-grabbing. Little did Berwick’s office-holders realise that on April 29, 1979, they welcomed into the Mayor’s Parlour at least one actively serving KGB intelligence officer – and he even signed the visitors’ book!

In the 1990s, Yuri Kobaladze became the official spokesman for the SVR, Moscow’s overseas spy agency. He attained the rank of General and shared a nickname, Koba, with his fellow Georgian Joseph Stalin. However, the wit and bonhomie which have since made him a popular media personality, got him invited to all the best parties while he was on assignment in London. His 1984 farewell bash was even attended by Mrs Thatcher’s press secretary. That surely would never have been possible if the football-loving secret agent hadn’t pulled the wool over the eyes of Britain’s security services.

So in theory it looks as if Sheriff Carmichael and Sergeant-at-Mace Jackie Weatherburn were caught napping – but who could blame them for being distracted by the Black and Gold’s thrilling progress? (This was especially true in Lambert Carmichael’s case, as he was on the board of directors).

In fact, of course, there was no disgrace on the part of Berwick’s dignitaries. First and foremost, this is because they took an impeccably measured and diplomatic approach to their guests. There was hardly likely to be any problem when Mayor Longbone (in the Advertiser’s words) ‘…expressed their deep regard and hoped that the friendship between the two peoples would prosper, and that they could work together for the betterment of the world.’

“On behalf of the people of Berwick-upon-Tweed,” said the mayor, “I wish the citizens of your great country happiness, further prosperity, success. But one cannot have happiness without peace, and therefore I most of all wish you peace.”

And meanwhile the Advertiser’s observation: ‘What particularly delighted the visitors was the Russian flag which had been raised outside the Guildhall for their arrival.’

James Bruce writes about pilgrimage and fund-raises for Mary’s Meals. He is chairman of Berwick History Society.