THE MIGHTY HANDFUL
VERSUS THE REST OF THE WORLD
Had the five Russian composers who made up The Mighty Handful been
less stubborn, they could have been playing indoors - indeed, one of the ballrooms of the
Winter Palace had already been placed at their disposal. They were offered Brussels lace
coverlets for goal-netting, extra chandeliers for floodlighting and wigged servants for
corner flags. Such a luxurious all-weather pitch, with every facility, would have cost
them only a couple of waltzes each, but theyd refused.
composers, piped up Cui. We dont do waltzes.
Rimsky-Korsakov - who was to
orchestral colouring what a chameleon is to tropical undergrowth - suggested a compromise
set of Polish-style mazurkas.
Court Chamberlain insisted. Strauss-style.
The rest is history. Throughout
the winter season The Mighty Handful were forced to play their five-a-side home games in a
local park where, from October onwards, the snow fell thickly, and daily. Blizzards were
Today was a grudge match. As they got themselves into their shorts
and boots under the protective canopy of umbrellas held by liberated serfs, muzhiks
and the teams droshky driver, the talk had been defiant.
See these Rubinstein
brothers and their Conservatory team! A bunch of - Shit! Mussorgsky was so wound up
hed snapped a lace. The pair of them trying to play a European game. Well,
theyre not Europeans -
Neither are we!
interrupted Balakirev, Were Russians!!
out Cui. He stood to attention and saluted.
Thats the right
spirit, Professor Borodin glanced over and smiled an indulgent, professorial smile
at the plucky composer whod only just managed to make The Mighty Handful team on the
strength of a polka and variations for piano. The older man stopped himself just in time
from reaching across to give the recent signing - whose name he could never remember - a
professorial pat on the head. Everybody ready?
The Five got to their feet for
the pre-match photocall. As winter deepened, this part of the fixture took up more and
more time. The wind came from the north-east across the Siberian plains driving the snow
before it, so the serfs, muzhiks and the droshky driver were regrouped into
a line to shield them from the blizzard long enough for Sergei Sergeivitch to take the
Sergei Sergeivitch hadnt
asked to be the team photographer, and didnt want to be. If the truth were told, he
didnt want to be a photographer, period. Having grown up in the village of N- in the
province of K-, he had come to St Petersburg determined to become a Russian novelist. His
own small village boasted few Russian novelists, but the city, he soon discovered, was
stricken with them. And a gloomy crowd they were. At nights they gathered on the Nevsky
Prospect to draw lots for the best lampposts to hang from or formed a queue to jump into
the frozen Neva - declaring the vast and unendurable emptiness of the Russian Steppes to
be a metaphor for the yearnings of the Russian soul. They talked a lot about soul. In less
than a fortnight Sergei Sergeivitch had switched to photography.
Why photography? people asked.
Well, why not? - was his reply.
Soon he was attending Czar christenings, hunger marches and, like today, snapping football
As always when being
photographed, Mussorgsky stared at the hooded figure and felt himself growing tense all
over. Recently, against a team of Young Nihilists, hed let in four sitters,
including a between-the-legs nutmeg. He was hard at work on his opera Boris Godunov
- heavy going even when he hit mid-season form - and the resultant crisis of self-doubt
had cost him a weeks work. Some days it felt Boris would never be finished.
Which made it difficult to smile on command. He bared his teeth.
Pouf! The magnesium flare
lit up the huddle of players, their ice-stiffened beards and chilled knees. One more for
burial at the bottom of the inside back page, thought Balakirev, who despaired of his club
ever receiving the write-ups it deserved. The Rubinstein brothers, academic lickspittles
unable to tell the top of a ball from the bottom, were now fielding a team that included
three expats from the German Late Romantic Movement - free transfers if ever there were.
These reactionary throwbacks got more coverage than they knew what to do with: their
training sessions and concert rehearsals got full-page spreads, their team photos were
centrefolds. Last Sunday, Anton Rubinsteins most recent piano concerto, a
sepulchrally mock-Teutonic effort in D Minor, had been puffed in all the supplements with
accompanying league tables detailing the teams form and cup chances.
Balakirev spat the word into the snow, and watched it freeze.
The snowstorm was getting worse. Every so often the ball came
hurtling out of the blizzard - sometimes Mussorgsky was ready, sometimes he wasnt.
He had been booked for talking to himself. Speech patterns, he had protested
as the yellow card was hoisted to invisibility in the storm, Im basing the
libretto on speech patterns and need to run through them for -
The referee was having none of
it. A yellow card it was. One more booking and hed be on the bench. They were
trailing six down already . . .
Later, on the team droshky
home, the same thought - Couldnt we drop Cui and sign up Tchaikovsky? - was
on everyones mind. On everyones mind but Cuis, of course. But they were
The Mighty Handful: five Nationalist composers determined to put Russia on the map. The
flyers had been printed, there was a wagonload of T-shirts, scarves, mugs, souvenir
strips. Like it or not, till the team merchandise was shifted, they were stuck with Cui.
Something had to be done.
They got in a firm of
After this, things naturally went from bad to worse. Against
the Bakunin Anarchist Cell Five - who, of course, could field only 3 players at a time -
they lost 15-0.
The consultants were sacked.
To everyones surprise it was young Cui who came up with a
plan. Just in time, too - all the merchandise had been sold bar a few scuffed-looking
videos they couldnt even give away.
It was late February. The game,
against an Old Believers Select, was scheduled for that afternoon. Balakirev had organised
a pre-match team-building session but had been the only one to turn up. Yet again
Mussorgsky had pleaded Boris Godunov (people were beginning to wonder if the opera
existed at all, and wasnt just a full-time alibi), Rimsky was working his way
through a re-orchestration of the entire back catalogue of Russian music, Borodin was in
his laboratory . . . and Cui?
Well, that morning Cui had woken
with a great idea. He knew he was under pressure. Every pretentious match commentator had
begun making the same joke: Cui - qui?
Ill show them
who! hed boasted to his shaving mirror. Ill show them!
He arrived late, and panting. Straight into the boots, shorts and
strip. Ready for the team photo. Being, musically, the lightweight of the group he always
felt like the team mascot. But not any more. Today he was going to be the team saviour.
It started snowing.
Pouf! Photograph over,
everyone began running on the spot, flapping their arms. Mussorgsky passed round the
bucket of vodka and they were ready.
Considering his junior-league
status, Cui drank deep, and he emerged from the team bucket a sombre man. He told the
other four to form a huddle. Then, having glanced round to check he wouldnt be
overheard, he crouched down to join them.
In a vodka-scorched voice he
whispered the mysterious words: Real Madrid, 1959. Then paused.
Only once they realised
hed actually finished speaking, did their four questioning grunts grunt together as
one: . . .????
Real Madrid, he
repeated, then let them into the secret that would one day transform the entire dynamics
of international football: No more big-toeing it up the park and running after it -
well pass the ball to each other.
Pass? they echoed in
Let me explain.
Reaching under his strip, Cui took out the video, Historic Moments in World Football.
He opened the accompanying booklet and showed his huddled team-mates a series of
black-and-white illustrations. Fortunately, these grainy photographs came complete with
colourful overlays, computer-simulated dotted arrows and lines, demonstrating the
revolutionary approach pioneered by Puskas, Di Stefano and Santa María, which was to
secure the European Cup for Real Madrid three years in a row.
. . .!!!! came
their ecstatic response.
The falling snow turned into a
That was to be the last time The Mighty Handful ever played together
as a team. Their previous record defeat of 17-0, now became 27-0. The boots were hung up,
the strips torn up for cleaning rags, the remaining merchandise disposed of under the
cover of darkness. Balakirev became a clerk in the railways; Borodin decided to stick to
chemistry with music as a sideline; Mussorsky gave himself to Boris Godunov and
vodka. Rimsky-Korsakov began orchestrating everything he could lay his hands on:
overtures, symphonies, tone poems, shopping lists. . .
Cui they left at the bus stop -
with three hours worth of video tape draped around his neck like so much plastic
creeper. The snowstorm got worse. Everything around him, the cobbled street, the pavement,
the bus shelter, became more indistinct. Gradually he too was all but erased from sight.
Half an hour later, Sergei Sergeivitch happened to pass by in his
pony and trap. Days like this made him regret having given up his career as a Russian
novelist and put him right in the mood for a night on the Nevsky Prospect. As he drew
level with what looked like a snowbound postbox standing next to a long-abandoned bus
stop, he had a sudden inspiration. Surely here was his way forward. He took out his
Pouf! Forget the rewards
of artistic compromise, hed become the very first Russian Conceptualist. Pouf!
and Pouf! again. This pair of objets trouvés hed call: NOTHING
TO SAY AND NOWHERE TO GO. A double metaphor for the eternal yearnings of the
Russian soul. Perfect.
Cui hardly noticed the magnesium
flashes. Stood there like a snow-covered block of ice and with his mouth frozen half open,
he listened to the jingle of the pony and trap grow fainter, then fade to nothing.
Afterwards he listened to the silence of the falling snow. No bus was going to come. Ever.
But what depressed him most was the injustice of it all: he had bought a return ticket.
From the Russian fairy stories
his mother used to read him he remembered that no one should ever give up hope. Well,
hed try his best not to. Though it seemed he was becoming more of a snowdrift by the
second, there was at least one consolation: he was growing so deliciously sleepy.
Maybe things would look a little better after hed had a short nap . . ?