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How the Wild East came West

The London Evening Standard, for which I work, has a new Russian owner. There is some poetic justice in this for my generation, whose defining event was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the opening up of the Wild East.

Having covered East Germany's transition, the awful chaos of the Yugoslav break-up and the helter-skelter Yeltsin era in Moscow, I was weaned journalistically on the painful and exciting change from communism to capitalism.

It took a while for it to dawn that it would soon cut both ways. I had a source in East Berlin, a young man who struggled to study and establish his career because he refused to join the Communist Party. Next thing, he was adopted by the transitional Christian Democrat government, rose to a key position before unification, and kept apologising for cancelling dates - "Because I had to be at a meeting with Mrs Thatcher and Mr Mitterrand about the end of the Four Power agreement." We lost touch until he turned up in London. "What are you doing now?" I asked. "I'm here to privatise your water industry," he said.

I am working on a radio programme revisiting the old East, which means a re-encounter with my world of 20 years ago. Digging through the cuttings, I find my favourite cartoon from the dying days of the GDR. It shows a crumpled and sheepish Karl Marx in clothing fit for down-and-outs, muttering: "Sorry guys, it was just this idea I had." I think we can guess what he would make of global capitalism now, though I can't find the solution in Das Kapital.

This is a safe distance from which to confess that I nearly spent Barack Obama's investiture looking for a dog in a park . Having soaked up the "Yes we can!" mood in the National Mall, I headed back to a friend's house to columnise. My sole duty was to walk a Jack Russell called Ringo. I reckoned a trot around the block and Any Other Business would be rapidly concluded, giving me time to settle in front of the widescreen for the big moment.

Ringo had other ideas. She dragged me off down M Street with all the crazed determination of Scooby-Doo. At the park, she begged to be let off the leash. "It's a special occasion," I thought. "Give the dog her day." So off she bounded with a tennis ball discarded in the Nixon era. The minutes ticked by. At four minutes to 12, I brandished the lead and made a flailing grasp at hyperactive Ringo. "You'd better get her home quick or she'll miss it," said the lone street marshall. We arrived panting, just as Barack opened his mouth to garble the oath. Ringo fell asleep to the sound of the marching bands. My pulse returned to normal an hour later.

One of the treats of America for those used to the British railway system is the joyous smoothness of the Amtrak from New York to DC. You board at Penn Station, which plays a starring role in the brilliant indie homage to New York nightlife, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. A voice decrees in authoritative, Pentagon-like tones, that noise in the quiet carriage is to be at "library level". No leaky headphones suppurate tinny sound, no one eats fast food or squawks that "I'm on the train".

I was just getting ready to write a piece about how fab it is, when I read an account in the New Yorker of its wider failings. A writer heading from New York to Albany endured a journey of delays and tribulations. "Next stop will be Albany," announced the conductor, "though on past performance, who can say?" Even if you don't get there, you get a better standard of wit to compensate.

Complicit opens at the Old Vic. It's about a journalist who first backs (a modicum) of torture in the war on terror, then becomes a campaigning hero and ends up at the mercy of the Cheney-Rumsfeld state and his own too-wily lawyer. I go with heavy tread, since so many plays about the Bush era are more one-note than magnificent symphonies. It turns out to be rather good. Richard Dreyfuss is all heavy self-absorption as an investigative journalist, confronting what his own motives really are. Kevin Spacey's direction puts sprightly pace into the proceedings. A virtual Andrew Marr appears on giant plasma screens, like the hologram of Laurence Olivier they once used in the musical Time with David Cassidy.

Naturally, when a play is about very serious matters of conscience and responsibility, the mind wanders to trivia. Like: is Mr Dreyfuss going to wear his earpiece through the entire run or will he finally learn all the lines? And how distracting is it that the lovely Elizabeth McGovern, who plays the dogged liberal wife, looks exactly like Barbara Amiel, while playing her antithesis?

We discuss the "cash for ermine" affair. A leader writer says that in return for allowing the Lords their independence and influence, there has to be a "quid pro quo". Now there's an apposite phrase in the circumstances.

Anne McElvoy is executive editor of the London Evening Standard and a presenter of Nightwaves on Radio 3

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Interview: Alistair Darling