Letter from London: Snowfall City

Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow

— T. S. Eliot, ‘The Waste Land’

Those two lines by Eliot up there in the frozen north of the screen get me each time. Here in our short-lived London snow, the paradox of it being winter that is keeping us united — like a loved one, say, even out of character, in need of deliverable warmth — is powerful. That following line about forgetful snow is even better. I tried explaining this to a bemused barista in Greenwich Park last week after seeking refuge in one of its cafes. We were peering out at a kind of demented white blankness while an Irish widower, normally outside among friends, sat at a table with his dog at his feet. A few meters away, two young mothers were discussing something they clearly didn’t want us to hear.

For the rest of the day, I remained keen on this notion of forgetful snow, its presence in what was a usually snowless reality making everything somehow dreamier, as if there was no such thing as time before the snow, only the moment being experienced now — Zen and the Art of the Nucleated Snowflake, if you like. For me, it was also about memory. What are we not remembering?

On a possibly lighter note, do I remember this view across the River Thames from Observatory Hill before any of those vast office buildings at Canary Wharf on the Isle of Dogs? (‘The barges drift/With the turning tide/Red sails/Wide/To leeward, swing on the heavy spar./The barges wash/Drifting logs/Down Greenwich reach/Past the Isle of Dogs,’ also wrote Eliot.) Beyond the much older Queen’s House and former Royal Naval College used to be creaking masts and rigging. Now, there is just the glass-enshrined dry-docked Cutty Sark, while back over at Canary Wharf, the big ships are Barclays, Citigroup, Credit Suisse, HSBC, JP Morgan, Infosys (cough, Rishi Sunak), Chase, Deutsche Bank, Morgan Stanley, etc. Plus we have the very occasional sound of a Chinook crossing the crisp blue London sky, with St Paul’s Cathedral in the distance, the twin rotors now overhead, and the snow gleaming like a blanket of white gold. When London looks so beautiful, it is easy to forget when it is ugly.

Cold is a killer. Just like the 50 people fished barely alive — some already dead — from a freezing English Channel last week made one feel incredibly sad. Those capsized in the icy black water in the middle of the night were not part of some Anglo-French problem, I was thinking, as I crunched back through the white snow. It remained a global one. If each person on that piece of plastic junk masquerading as a boat was paying — as some reportedly were — £5000 for the crossing, that’s £2,500,000 in total. Those of us who were on Lesbos a number of years ago witnessing and recording such things know that it is towards the monstrous super-rich people-traffickers — with so much money behind them there is always the nagging suspicion that something semi-official is behind them — we should be directing our wrath. Not folk with bizarrely survivable flip-flops in sea temperatures of 23 °F (−5 °C) in malevolent darkness.

They say the amount of people sleeping rough in London has jumped a whole 24 per cent in the past year. The London I walk through is not supposed to be poor. It shouldn’t be poor. Look at the house prices in the windows of the estate agents. It is as though the silver has been stashed away somewhere, banished to some dark metaphorical corner, kept away as if we will only dent it with genuine need, or doctor the self-congratulatory engraving. I suppose with the possibility of one cabinet minister too busy bullying to help and another desperate to appeal to the furthest right of the party, it is bound to be difficult. Here is another paradox: while London fails to function why do we still love it so?

I noticed last week on the non-striking Central Line underground during one of the rail strike days — this was 6:40am — most of my fellow travellers were carrying scuffed hard hats and wearing heavy boots. They were speaking what I took to be Bulgarian and Albanian, though they wouldn’t say when I asked. I was impressed by how they looked out for one another. They were in fact headed for a building site, as had seemed obvious, or so one of them eventually told me, to work on ‘large office new building’. ‘Which people may struggle to fill,’ I said back, but my words were lost in translation. Housing, yes, I was thinking. Offices, less so. Nor did I see any suits on the train. Maybe they were taking the day off, especially as there was an England test match on that morning with victory in sight against Pakistan. It was good that touring in Pakistan had been resumed, I was now thinking. Cricket really is a bridge of peace, as Shaharyar M. Khan once called it. I ascended the steps of Notting Hill tube station and clocked the droplets of recently melting snow already turned back to ice. Wrapped up well from the cold, I was soon passing through a crescent of white-painted townhouses. It was like being in a Richard Curtis movie. Some of the doors to the buildings were so reinforced they screamed back only fear.

Inevitably, many of us in London have been thinking about the NHS (National Health Service) and the present nurses’ strike. Strikes are now coming at us from all directions. I was shocked to be reminded that our nurses are the poorest paid in all of Europe. Even more so by the fact that so many when they work overtime do so for free and cannot survive without the presence of equally overworked food banks in their local communities. Having spent two years of my life researching and making a film on the NHS, I have heard just about every argument there is to make on the subject of privatisation. The invented internal market is what really first riled me. Few points were ever made more clearly to me than by two retired nurses. Let us hope that by the time you read this, something has given. Presently, the government just won’t talk. Even some former Tory ministers have now joined calls for Rishi Sunak and his ex-soldier health secretary Steve Barclay to negotiate with nurses. It is not just the nurses, either, drawing heat from occasionally unsympathetic Brits who should really know better. Trade unionist Mick Lynch who is General Secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) has been on the receiving end of much vitriol from several TV studios last week while standing out in the cold trying to protect what he sees firmly and clearly as the interests of his colleagues. The fact the government were continuing to say no to any discussions whatsoever had some of us looking admiringly towards Scotland. Thanks to an agreement there to at least sit down like civilised human beings and talk, there are no striking nurses.

People across the medical profession are smart people. They know what is going on. Many are smarter than some of our politicians. Maybe that is part of the problem. I reconnected with Dr Chris Day last week. He once put on a small screening of a rough cut of my NHS film SELL-OFF in his house one day in order for me to receive testing criticism from experts before it was shown to the public. (Only London Live dared broadcast it in the end but it did enjoy a long life on YouTube and countless private screenings organised by tireless Dr Bob Gill.) Dr Day is presently battling with a South London employment tribunal which he believes guilty of ignoring clear evidence from two senior consultant anaesthetists that literally and physically and however else you wish to put it effects whether people will live or die. He says that he has a plan but needs people in his corner: ‘I need more people to understand. I need more people to care,’ he says. (‘Teach us to care and not to care,’ wrote Eliot in ‘Ash Wednesday’.) On top of which, it is sickening to think that 7.2 million people at the end of October were on a waiting list to start routine treatment. This figure was 7.1 million in September. This is the highest number since records began in August 2007.

One night last week I was sitting with the artist on the top deck of a red London bus coming back from a gig in a superb clothes shop called Paper Dress Vintage. This was during another rail strike and the city that night despite it looked both forceful and attractive in the dark. The journey was taking us back through Hackney. Morocco that night had just been knocked out of their World Cup semi-final by France. I spotted a Moroccan flag flying defiantly next to us in the road from an albeit French-built Renault. The passenger’s friendly face was sticking out as you might see someone after victory. I was impressed. There is doing and there is being, as I had said to someone earlier. At the same time, I noticed the passenger in front take out from his bag a small laptop and plug it into the charger on the seat in front. I’d never seen this facility before. Maybe I’ve been travelling on the bottom deck too much lately. Just then, we passed someone leaning against a brick wall collaged with torn posters. They were visibly shivering. They looked frightened and alone. The mood on board the bus among anyone who saw this sharpened.

It was heartbreaking to hear last week of the death of Matthew Leeming. We met only a few times in Afghanistan but Matthew made a strong impression on me. The last occasion we spoke was on that neat Canadian wooden decking at Kandahar Airfield about 14 years ago. He was trying to sell fuel and sort out an attacked convoy. We spoke about Afghanistan both old and new while cupping our eye from the sun. He wanted to know what Abdul Haq had been like, the military commander I knew briefly in 1983. To be honest, I was more fascinated by Matthew’s theology degree than the fact he came to Afghanistan ten years after me. Because he was working in the fuel industry, he said that to ensure its safe passage, during what is now seen fundamentally as having been occupation, it meant paying the Taliban via militias to allow it through. In effect, the Taliban were being paid by the West to fund their war against them, encapsulating perfectly the ridiculous state of affairs. As Matthew wrote to me a year or so later, there were oil wells and a functioning refinery in Afghanistan yet all the fuel was being imported.

One of his last messages was that he was planning to go up to the Wakhan Corridor to the ice cave where Curzon found the source of the Oxus. I don’t know if he made it there. I had just been talking about the area to novelist Paul Pickering who had recently travelled there in deepest snow and I wrote to Matthew this. I never heard back from him — his replies dried up like a river. Apparently he had been living in England all this time. Others will know more about Matthew’s circumstances but I gather he found life very difficult towards the end. I also gather he had been working, in one form or another, with the homeless.

Maybe the biggest takeaway from the quote from Eliot therefore is the major possibility of rebirth.

Peter Bach lives in London.