Pole to Pole
Day 29: Leningrad
A rare honour has been accorded me today, and I wish it hadn't. I am to be permitted to fire the noonday gun from the roof of the barracks of the Peter-Paul Fortress. This is a tradition stretching back 250 years to the days when the sound of the gun was the only way of giving the city a daily time check. It's still taken very seriously and today everything depends on my ability to fire a 152-millimetre howitzer cannon, built in 1941 and with a range of eight miles, at precisely twelve o'clock. For obvious reasons practice is out of the question, so an elderly gunnery officer prepares me by describing everything that could go wrong, ending up by offering me earplugs. As the moment grows closer crowds of Russian tourists begin to assemble. I have never felt more like a condemned man. The crew adjust their earplugs, the officer orders everyone, except me, to stand well away, and I'm left looking out, beyond the barrel of my howitzer, towards the glinting towers and domes of this imposing city. My last thought is that there are over five million people out there and it'll have to be a hell of a loud bang, when down goes the officer's hand and before I know it, I've pulled the rope and ignited the cannon. There is a city-shattering boom and I am turned instantly from a jelly to an artilleryman, and can't wait to do it again.
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