Letter From London

All I really knew, to borrow a phrase, was that I knew nothing. The same applied to everyone else in London last week. At the beginning of the week reports were coming in thick and fast of Russia attacking Kyiv with Avro Vulcan-shaped kamikaze drones, a fire had killed at least four people in Iran’s notorious Evin prison, while here in Britain, Jeremy Hunt, the man with the sprung Chelsea dance-floor, announced to the nation he would reverse all of Liz Truss’s tax plans, hoping it might calm the markets but knowing at the same time it could tip the country into full-blown recession.

For all the horrors and tumult of our suddenly untethered nation, informed people knew it was nowhere near as bad as it was for the dozens of reported rapes of women and girls in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Things were put into further perspective at dinner in South Kensington that evening with a good American friend who reminded me that whatever the problems were over here, they were as nothing compared to what was unfolding and evolving in the United States. ‘Our issues are existential,’ said my friend, almost competitively, over a plate of Caprese. ‘Yours are dramatic.’ This was an Ivy League man who had travelled the world and studied at different stages in his life everything from English to Law to Psychoanalysis. When not preoccupied with the January 6th Hearings, he was the first to describe Liz Truss to me as a lame duck prime minister. ‘They wanted the Margaret Thatcher story,’ he said. ‘She should have put Sunak supporters in her Cabinet. She only rewarded her backers. Who does she think she is?’

While fresh news the next day from the States spoke of Trump’s hotels having charged the Secret Service ‘exorbitant’ high rates, here in Blighty yet more public dismantling of Trussonomics was taking place. I spent the evening in the fine company of a Brit in commodities and Canadian in aviation. Both spent time in the States and Caribbean and I was fascinated to hear their take on things. The Brit spoke instantly of Johnson’s rumoured return as potentially relegating Britain to what he called ‘Upper Volta tier’. The Canadian explained the importance of leverage in all things political, citing his time as a businessman in Moscow. We were at the restaurant Rules on Maiden Lane in Covent Garden and all agreed over fresh Caesar salads there was too much of an appetite out there for political hot potatoes. Was no one, we wondered, capable of meritable discussion? Why did so many insist on two opposing sides to everything? Examining a plaque on the wall, the Canadian noted how old Rules was — it was opened in 1798 — and how stability counted for nothing these days. I didn’t have the heart to say the original owner Thomas Rule killed his wife and daughter. I also forgot to mention that both Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh included Rules in their novels, or that it featured in the 2015 Bond movie ‘Spectre’. Maybe I was too busy thinking that someone might very well throw a brick through the windows of an establishment like this if someone else doesn’t sort out the economy.

The third event of note for me last week was dinner at a well-established post-graduate college in the capital. It was a black tie event and I hoped I wasn’t letting the side down with my quickly assembled two-piece blue Zara suit, though I did manage a Kenneth Cole bow-tie. Liz Truss meanwhile had just thrown in the towel. Her party was in a tailspin. Away from the shenanigans of this, however, Putin had just declared martial law in the four regions of Ukraine that he had so recently and charmlessly annexed in violation of international law, whatever that meant these days. Besides, hadn’t the European Commission, admittedly on a much milder scale, accused Britain a few times of breaking international law recently?

To my left — down the impossibly long dining table — was an inflorescence of super-bright young Canadians and Americans in the middle of applauding the fact there was no top table. (‘The young are so earnest today,’ said a friend to me later, though none of the people here lacked nuance.) I even wondered if the solutions to the problems of the world today lay almost exclusively among the ranks of the young. On a lighter note, a charming young Frenchman suddenly wondered aloud if Liz Truss was going to survive, at which point his many friends crucified him with their laughter. ‘She’s gone! She’s quit! She’s history!’ hollered one, a warm-hearted Californian. ‘She is toast?’ smiled the Frenchman, gleefully getting to use that phrase at last.

As the laughter died down, the young Canadian to my immediate left, a bright young spark who had been studying politics at Cambridge, felt there was no time for anyone, young or old, to await for anything. I assumed from some of the things we had been saying that he meant the world had let itself down by not hammering the likes of Jeffrey Epstein from the very start, as if by not confronting both him and other blurred lines between national self-interest and doing the right thing, we were setting ourselves up for at least another 30 years of lies and corruption.

On the Ukraine front, this man in his very early 20s believed we had no choice but to back the Ukrainians. ‘Even if an agreed settlement had been made earlier and it had saved many civilian lives?’ I asked, obliged but unhappy to play devil’s advocate. He repeated that supporting the Ukrainians was the only option. ‘Otherwise a country like China will see this as permission to do exactly the same with Taiwan.’ Rather amiably, as an antidote to all of this, he told me he was from Montreal and had made a recent trip with his girlfriend to the Greek island of Hydra, once so beloved by Montreal’s very own Leonard Cohen. ‘I am such a fan,’ he said, ‘but apparently he was high all the time on Hydra.’ I elected not to toss in the fact that most western liberals at the time were high. I did say however that he should check out Cohen’s address at the Prince Asturias Awards in Spain which he could find on YouTube. (‘Poetry comes from a place that no one commands and no one conquers,’ Cohen declares at the beginning.)

Sitting opposite throughout was a commanding Australian politician in his late thirties amazed by what was happening to British politics right now, at the same time as stating his conviction it would shortly ride out the storm. As he sliced through the perfectly parked chicken on his plate, I asked what his thoughts were on The Five Eyes, the famous intelligence alliance between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and US. ‘FOUR Eyes,’ he corrected. ‘Pardon?’ I said. ‘New Zealand?’ he teased with a shrug and a smile. More seriously, I suggested China must feature increasingly in the Australian psyche. I also said that just about everywhere I went in my life there was always an Australian, including on Anzac Day in Afghanistan in 2008 which I managed to celebrate with some of his countrymen. ‘I even knew a fabulous Australian bouncer at Nell’s nightclub in New York when I lived there in the Eighties,’ I said. We moved on inevitably to the epoch-making subject of cricket and the Ashes, that famous test series regularly played between England and Australia. For one happy moment, it led us far and away from the real issues of the day, such as what actually happens to both Australia and New Zealand in the event of war with China?

As it happened, the following day history was made in China with President Xi on the verge of an unprecedented third term. Back here in Britain all eyes had been on a lettuce. Liz Truss had lasted only 45 days and the tabloids and foreign press seemed both interested in a plant with edible leaves eaten in salads having outlived her. I asked a Brit online when exactly it had all gone so pear-shaped for the ruling Tory party. Brexit, he said. He added that still no one could admit it. Someone else I know pointed out that Brexit began on 31st January 2020 and all the lockdowns on 31st March 2020: ‘Any commentary on its failures or successes that ignores this is utterly worthless.’ Knowing we could all nonetheless do with some kind of change, I was excited at the prospect of attending an event this final night of the week at a Central Asian embassy. Indeed I was swiftly reminded upon arrival of the genuine courtesy of certain cultures, by which I didn’t mean blithely the world of diplomacy. Within close proximity to both Russia and China, many Central Asian nations today find themselves walking a fine line indeed. As such, I always advocate treating such countries with respect — awareness and respect. Besides, it may well prove one day to be a Central Asian country that hosts the peace we all pray one day will eventually happen between Ukraine and Russia. As an aside, as the evening there drew to a close, I learned that ancient nomadic culture never considered men superior to women. But it wasn’t Liz Truss I was thinking as a result, it was how wrong we often get other cultures, even — on this week of all weeks — our own here in Britain.

As I stepped into the London night and walked through the semi-darkness towards the Westminster tube, passing the black railings of a rather foreboding Downing Street, beyond the rain-lashed Cenotaph, as the wind strained to pick up the wet litter, by the time-honoured, embattled Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, with its ever-dwindling numbers of staff, I did wonder if Liz Truss had decamped already to her home in Greenwich close to the townhouse of former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng. Or were the rumours of back-to-back partying at the prime minister’s grace-and-favour countryside mansion Chequers in fact true?

Some of the dated posters in the passageway leading to the main part of Westminster tube station spoke of what Liz Truss might do in September, but the paper the images were printed on was already showing signs beneath the perspex of pretty serious warping. As news filtered through of Boris Johnson flying back from blinging it up like a rock lobster in the Dominican Republic, I knew it would be with either hoots of derision or stubborn applause that would greet him. Having no idea what the latest developments would be by the time I arrived at my destination – Rishi Sunak has of course since been made the new prime minister – at the end of this very long week, I played ‘I Am The Walrus’ by The Beatles: ‘I am he as you are he as you are me/And we are all together/See how they run like pigs from a gun/See how they fly/I’m crying…’ Dramatic not existential, I was remembering. Could be worse, I was thinking. This could be the United States.

Peter Bach lives in London.