Another Letter from London

Photograph Source: @LondonNPC – CC BY 2.0

Last week I arranged to meet a good journalist friend in one of the capital’s great parks. Or ‘lungs of London’, as Dickens liked to call them. We met by the tall gates where a well-to-do man in a modish tweed coat was looking around for a light to his cigarette. This used to be commonplace. Now, it’s as though people have to scour the souls of their fellow man or woman before asking. I was sorry I couldn’t oblige and watched him traipse forlornly to a nearby ice cream van, before disappearing towards some shops. I am so grateful I was able to quit smoking — it was one of the hardest things I have done. There is certainly no sign of our politicians finding ways to treat the atmosphere as some finally do their lungs. Liz Truss had recently asked the new King not to attend COP27 — the upcoming UN climate change conference in Egypt. Rishi Sunak, the latest rookie prime minister to come hurtling off the Tory party conveyer belt, has just declared that he won’t be going, either, reminding some of a man looking for a light while his house burns down.

The weather in London was unusually balmy — which one columnist had argued was down to climate change — and I was so pleased to see my journalist friend appear on the horizon. He was soon despairing about his profession, though, and we both remembered with some nostalgia how much we were actually paid writing what in my case was only very occasional freelance features in the national press over 20 years ago — it was for sure more than we would be paid now. We moved the conversation along — there is always much to talk about — to the fact I’d been asked for advice by a young journalist friend of his daughter’s based on what I could only assume was my hostile environment training and sometime experience of conflict zones. Fully expecting this person to say they wanted to travel alone as a freelancer to eastern Ukraine, I told my friend that I had been poised and ready to tell them not to. ‘I couldn’t bear the idea of firing someone up and getting them all excited, only to have them receive a bullet to the forehead,’ I said. Besides, if this person really wanted to go, I rationalised, they would ignore my advice. In the end, it was all about attending some conference or another in Poland. I had forgotten about the often peripheral and sometimes profiteering busy bees that people make of themselves whenever a war takes place.

Not so long ago, my journalist friend dated a well known figure working in Hollywood. As a parakeet dramatically chased off a magpie above our heads, we discussed this person and he remembered me encouraging him to write about the experience of being out there at the time and how he now wished he had. He has some wonderful stories still to tell — and I implored him once again to do so — of busy sets and sideline parties interspersed with driving through burning landscapes. One particular story relates to an extremely well known actress upset during a particularly important outdoor shoot that everyone was suddenly diverting their attention from to study instead a giant and wonderful sea mammal breaking through the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. Affronted the star was. She had been upstaged by a bloody whale. As I said goodbye to my friend, I noticed a long line of black 4x4s choking up the road, with only one person in each. The sun in the sky remained unseasonably warm, almost Californian, as it continued to reach planet earth, and all should really have been well in the world, but it so infuriatingly wasn’t.

I was privately trying to solve in my head the puzzle of a friend’s suicide in Scotland. I’d only recently discovered he had taken his life. There was an obituary I had missed in a major newspaper and the fact it had taken place over a year ago made it no less close or painful. I even felt I had betrayed him in some way by not knowing. I didn’t even realise he had returned from Africa. At the same time, a writer friend had lost her young niece only the day before who had also killed herself. You want to sell life but it is simply too hard sometimes. Staggeringly, roughly 7% of children in Britain have attempted suicide by the age of 17. There is simply insufficient money allocated to young people’s mental health here. In order to provide whatever people can of vital early intervention and treatment, I suspect we will be seeing more and more radical, though still not necessarily successful, independent community action instead.

On a selfish note, I have just had my fourth Covid vaccination. This was the new Pfizer/BioNTech one. It thanks to the largesse of the NHS, our ever-embattled National Health Service. To my surprise, people still download the one-hour film ‘SELL-OFF’ I made almost ten years ago about its attempted dismantlement. Clearly, it was not dismantled as I kept my appointment at the local hospital. I knew several people who still saw vaccinations as too high-risk. I was obviously still up for it. Half of this new one targets the original virus strain and the other half Omicron. It was administered in a tidy white cubicle by a retired pharmacist with a polite lowlander Scots accent, who said he had been ‘importantly invited’ to help out. It actually reminded me of being back at school north of the border and I told him I had just read that this new potion would soon be selling for $110 to $130 per dose for teens and adults in the States once the US government quit paying for them.

Waiting for my bus outside the hospital during a respite in the traffic, I heard the fetching strains of Patsy Cline: ‘I knew you’d love me as long as you wanted and then someday you’d leave me for somebody new…’ Where was this coming from? Then I saw. It was a small motorised disability buggy hogging the central lane with two speakers either side plus a driver, perhaps in his mid-eighties, wearing a battered Panama hat: ‘Worry?’ the song continued, as he drove past smiling, ‘Why do I let myself worry wondering what in the world did I do…’

I consider myself lucky. I live with an artist — a painter. My two children are musicians. I returned home to find the most incredible work-in-progress in one studio and the beginnings of a brand new song in another. I don’t know how we all fit it into this place, which from the outside looks pretty small. As for me, I sat down at my computer and returned to work.

Lately, I’d been helping on a couple of projects connected to Afghanistan, a favourite place of mine. One related specifically to an individual’s personal welfare, which I am glad to report has now been sorted, and the other was a project designed ultimately to help the Afghans help themselves. Funds for the latter, which I had believed were secured, had only recently been thwarted by backers with suddenly cold feet. As I said to one of them, I really do despair for the people of Afghanistan. The latest news is that the Americans are reportedly meeting a number of high-ranking Afghan representatives in Qatar during the upcoming World Cup. Let’s hope this doesn’t prove to be just another own goal. For both sides.

So much of the world is patently unwell. I have a gifted friend presently in the Himalayas and wrote to him the next morning: he is always a good person to talk to. Many of us are looking at the war in Ukraine, I was thinking, through the lens of self-interest. People are either on this side or that. Worse, if people don’t pick a side it is considered appeasement. It strikes me that every single avenue for peace, ridiculous or sane, naive or circuitous, stridently overt or not somehow how it seems, must be explored. People are not seeing this. Some believe the longevity of the war depends not just on some kind of necessarily violent righteousness in response to Putin’s brutal aggression but on the American people’s continued backing of Biden on this and Europe’s continued appetite to withstand the pain of rising inflation and the bitter cold this winter. That said, instead of buying up radiation pills, perhaps the Russian people could do with a robust and up-to-the-minute brand new peace movement. Otherwise, it won’t matter about climate change. We’ll all be dead.

Peter Bach lives in London.