Letter from London: Exile on Main Street

The traffic. I couldn’t hear it. Where the hell was it? The cars? The buses? The hundreds of lorries (trucks)? The white vans? Fast ones weaving in and out? Slow ones not giving a damn? Where was that ever-constant urban din of four-stroke combustion cycles, intaking, compressing, combusting, exhausting? This was like our London of old, at the height of the pandemic. Silent. Void. Weirdly placated. (A time I enjoyed.) What has happened to our noisy, clattery, impulsive capital? Oh. Wait a minute. This was not the capital. This was not us by our hectic busy road. This was me rubbing my eyes in relative countryside, barely awake after my first proper night’s sleep in ages. I had entirely forgotten. We four members of the immediate family had decamped together the day before on a long green train from London to celebrate Christmas with the artist’s family. In short, I was waking up in exile.

Over the next few days, in between catching up on all the news and enjoying the company of some of those important to us, I grew marginally and perhaps ridiculously obsessed with this unbidden concept of exile. It was like learning about Napoleon all over again, whose exile by the way had always been presented to me as punishment but which remained strangely attractive to me. Furthermore, my own life as child felt like being in exile. It had settled down again by the age of about four after a spirited burst of life on the road but I spent most of my following childhood winters and summers in both England and Scotland in a kind of twinship of exiles. I always seemed to be living life one step removed, though never overburdened with predictability. Maybe all of us who never knew our parents have always been exiles.

One day, leaving everyone to the warmth of our hosts, I took a short walk on my own. There was a graveyard nearby and though in a stone-walled enclosure with a kind of grim constellation of exiles within, I saw nothing morbid in paying my respects. Over the past three generations, we Bachs — apart from one sister — have never been buried as we have always preferred cremation. I knew of only one buried relation on my mother’s side, a Shaw, a Skyeman, to boot, who was recently granted the presence of a piper by his now weather-worn Edinburgh grave. This was in honour of successful legal battles with the likes of Lloyd George in a now distant past over the unfair treatment of highland crofters. I had to go all the way back to the nineteenth century in Denmark and a grave near Thisted in Northern Jutland to find a Bach buried. This was when finding the revamped headstone of Danish great-great-grandfather and life-long parliamentarian Jens Bach.

As a result, the concept of burial remained alien to me as I continued walking tentatively through the graveyard, the faintest of drizzles on my back. At one point more than powerfully I came across the final resting place of a group of exiled young Poles killed in WWII while fighting the Nazis during the Nazi occupation of their homeland. E. R. Janovic. (Age 20.) M. Gmiter-Gmitrewicz. (Age 21.) These were my children’s ages. The headstone of arguably the most exiled said only ‘A SOLDIER OF THE POLISH ARMY 1939-1945’ with ‘Known Unto God’ at its foot, close to the dark earth in which this unidentified body was buried. Death really is a grim business, I was remembering, as a family nearby placed flowers on a child’s grave.

The reason for my summers as a young boy in England and my winters in Scotland was because my grandmother owned a hotel just south of the border which was open only from April to September. At the hotel, every guest would arrive in a kind of expectant state of benevolent exile. From my grandmother’s table in the tall wood-panelled dining hall overlooking the North Sea, every day I would study each of the guests’ faces, even their dining skills, and always their sense of detachment. Everyone appeared to be thriving and it helped that the beach was so long and white and golden. (To my younger self it was like a landing strip for all that was good in life.) As for the sea, often inky-blue, occasionally restless, it was like an expression of faith. Of all the people making these annual pilgrimages called holidays, the ones I liked best would visit twice each summer. That way I could develop a proper relationship. I was sad of course when it was raining and I was having to wave goodbye through the window.

Returning from our brief stay in relative countryside, I was wondering as we approached the unmistakeable intensity of London again just how Julian Assange was getting on. Forcibly exiled to HM Prison Belmarsh while previously uprooted pretty much out of choice from Australia, the famous WikiLeaks founder was incarcerated in the Category-A men’s prison a mile or so away from us since 2019. People forget that he is facing prosecution on an ancient statute never used before in a case of this kind. Because these are charges from the Trump-era, a growing number of people are wondering if Biden will ever make good on his pledge to defend the press. They wonder this as many of Julian Assange’s supporters regard him as a journalist who really should be covered by the first amendment.

London of course has been home to many royal exiles over the centuries. Only slightly more recently, we have had Agustin I, Emperor of Mexico. King Jaja of Opobo. Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia (whose gifted devotee Bob Marley when in London was one of London’s finest Jamaican exiles). Let us not forget King Zog of Albania, either.

It seemed last week that wherever I looked there was an exile of sorts waiting in the ether. I was considering for example watching Joseph Losey’s ‘The Servant’ again when I remembered he had been a victim of the McCarthy witch hunt and ended up living in exile in London, often working with Harold Pinter not just on film such as ‘The Servant’ but also ‘Accident’ and ‘The Go-Between’. Ridiculous though this sounds, Charles de Gaulle’s London exile was not so dissimilar, as it was also borne out of a desire to fight fascists, even if Churchill did maintain a kind of mocking upper hand with his rather unnecessary ‘franglais’. (During one contretemps with de Gaulle in Casablanca in January 1943, Churchill said ‘Si vous m’obstaclerez, je vous liquiderai!’) The tall French leader wrote his rousing ‘À tous les Français’ speech at one of my old haunts — The French House, in the arms of Dean Street in London’s Soho — where I actually first met the artist. Drinking, of course, to some, can be a form of exile.

Nor has this flow of exiles been only one way. Many English poets for example have left these shores for another, and not always on a sweet-tempered whim. In Byron’s case, this was because of an incestuous triste with his half-sister, or because of debts, or because of England’s brutish laws at the time against suspected homosexuality. Take your pick. Hassled by poor health as well as creditors, the poet Shelley — who of course ‘met a traveller from an antique land’ in his exile-heavy poem ‘Ozymandias’ — took his entire household to Italy in 1818. And some believe that Keats, ever the mentally dexterous outsider, wrote his best work in Rome in a room close to the Piazza di Spagna. Indeed, I remember wandering those streets as a sixteen year-old traveller having hitched there, in silent awe of the man and his work, knowing with great sadness that he went on to die in Rome aged twenty-five and was buried at the Cemitero Acattolico. Keats had said he only wanted ‘HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER’ on the oft-visited headstone. In the end, though, uncomfortably, it would in fact read: ‘This grave contains all that was mortal, of a young English poet, who, on his death bed, in the bitterness of his heart, at the malicious powers of his enemies, desired these words to be engraved on his tomb stone ‘HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER’. Elaborate, and beside the point, to say the least.

Art always wins in the end though. Even when the Stones had to surrender 93 per cent of their earnings in taxes and became tax exiles, their first album from this period will forever be linked to a creative rather than commercial outcome, which it no doubt also was. Famously, the brilliant ‘Exile on Main Street’ was made with the use of a niftily operated mobile recording studio at a rented spacious villa in the South of France, then completed at Sunset Sound in LA. It is one of their best albums. Accordingly, I paused writing this to listen to the tracks ‘Shine a Light’ — ‘Berber jewellery jangling down the street’ — and ‘Loving Cup’.

When I moved without ceremony to New York for five years I also became an exile. This was after a briefer but no less appreciated period of time in Perugia in Italy, and the first of what years later would become several trips to South Asia. I wrote a couple of plays in New York, one of which was put on at the CSC Theatre. It was about a couple in exile on a fictitious Polynesian island that was later invaded by the Americans. What I was trying unsuccessfully elsewhere to get my head around with my more private writings was this awkward juxtaposition between a conflicted childhood and someone else’s war in Afghanistan. In truth, it is only recently that I have begun to understand how best to attempt this.

I am sure I would have known while in New York that there was a vast difference between living in exile in one of the finest cities on the planet at the time and ‘being barred from one’s native country, typically for political or punitive reasons’ as the dictionary would have it. Mine was hardly the exile of the Jews in Babylonia or the seven popes in Avignon. That said, there is something to be said for the removal of our cultural safety nets — such as an over-familiarity with one’s surroundings — in order to find out who we truly are. Having no parents had already removed one layer for me but maybe even then you can still have too many. Both the Chinese and Japanese have variations of ‘If you love your children, send them on their travels,’ while our own phrase over here, rather anxiously, is ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’. You could say any form of sacrifice is akin to a state of exile. What makes it so interesting is precisely that it has so many possible meanings.

I wonder if Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard will one day write about living in physical as opposed to cerebral exile, the latter being one of the themes of his six-volume autobiographical novels. I only say this because the artist is such a fan, though I have read some of his writings. In fact the artist had been reading him for years when suddenly she saw someone who looked exactly like him at our children’s old school. This person was looking around as a prospective parent. It seemed unbelievable that someone the artist admired so much and who was supposed to be living in Scandinavia could be so pensively wandering the hall and corridors of our local state school. Which is why she dismissed it as just an uncanny coincidence of looks in the end.

But then she saw him again in our local supermarket car park, just as he was placing a small child into a baby-seat. This was getting so weird, she laughed to me. But it had to be Knausgaard. Immediately, she threw caution to the rain and complimented him on his work. It was him. Having left Sweden where he moved to from Norway, he was now our neighbour. As a footnote, we still affectionately joke in the family about the time I pretend to have since saved Knausgaard’s life. This was after I came across him on foot while he walking down the road — in the road, that is to say, not on the pavement — towards the local railway station. I was walking in the opposite direction, uphill. A truck suddenly appeared behind him and he was so deep in thought he seemed entirely unaware of its looming presence. So I veered ostentatiously towards the wall and in so doing created an attractive enough space for him to step off the road and into just as the truck roared past.

Finally, I saw my New Yorker friend after he flew back into London from the ‘bombogenesis’ snowstorm in the States. We smiled about how successfully we had swopped roles. By living in London, he was now the one in exile. We used to meet often in New York when I was the only exile. One of the things he was back from seeing was his elderly parents, including a 99 year-old father still playing tennis who only last year finally stopped driving a car around Manhattan.

Now, there is a person showing no signs of exile.

Peter Bach lives in London.