Letter from London: Hey Ho, Let’s Go!

As I write, little appears on the table when it comes to resolving the strikes over here. The rail strikes for example are to continue. Last week saw the biggest NHS strike in history. Nobody, in England at least, appears to be talking. Scotland and Wales look closer to a deal. I had a post-op appointment the same week and was wondering how the mood would be in hospital. Much of the British press continues to be antagonistic towards the strikers, while the public seem by and large behind them. I am guessing our media barons will have to decide at some point just how far they wish to alienate their British readers. One poll says fewer than 17% think Sunak’s government is doing a good job of negotiating. Labour are not exactly chanting support for the strikers, but an unsurprising 31% expect they would fare better.

It is as though everyone is jumping ship over here. One of the most sorted non-British friends I have has just admitted to ‘getting walloped’ by the cost of living here, and I wonder how much longer they can stay. I also met up with a very good friend who is returning to live in the Caribbean as a result of the present financial and political climate. He has had enough. I don’t blame him. People are in denial about quite how bad things really are. This friend gets the feeling half of the businesses in the country are leaving alongside him. ‘Question I guess is, what would Labour do?’ he asks. I know former prime minister Boris Johnson has yet again been to telling us all to ‘shrug off all this negativity and gloom-mongering’ but it must help when you get handed a £2.5m advance for speaking engagements, taking your outside non-parliamentary income to nearly £5m in the past year. As for my imminently departing friend, the last time I was in the Caribbean, I was remembering to him, was in Trinidad. Even though I was there to see an old school friend who had been battling cancer, a battle he lost in the end, I was reminded again during that trip of why people so liked the region. (I had also visited Bermuda, if that counts, the Bahamas, Barbados, and St Lucia.) It helped that my friend was adventurous and from an adventurous family — his Scottish father had been an aerial surveyor in the Caribbean, South America, Africa, South East Asia and the Middle East. As if realising this might be our last jaunt together, my friend and I — with his brother and brother’s girlfriend — sailed not so far from the Venezuelan coast. This was in their marvellously bashed about yacht. While my friend insisted rather gleefully that there were pirates about, I remember monitoring the horizon with a benign smile on my face. Sailing so close to the wind, and with a shared sense of humour on board, made me feel very fortunate indeed. Still staring out, we began discussing the history of enslavement on the island, and the long brutal journeys that had to be made from Africa to the sugar and cocoa plantations. These would last up to three brutal months. Many people would arrive ill and weak — those who had not already perished, that is. I remember suddenly feeling seasick.

Painter Peter Doig was on the island. (In fact, a large exhibition of his opened last week at the Courtauld Institute on the Strand here in London.) I first knew Peter in the early 80s, before I moved to the United States. He had heard from someone that I was in New York, and was involved ‘tangentially’ in the art world. He sent me slides of his latest work and I was happy to follow these up for him by showing them to one or two gallerists and collectors I knew. I didn’t manage to elicit any interest in the end but did tell one person they could be making a terrible mistake, turning down the chance of buying or showing this unknown’s work. In May 2015, Peter went on to sell one of his paintings for $25,925,000 at Christie’s New York.

My friend moving back to the Caribbean says he is probably most excited about conducting outdoor meetings again instead of indoor ones. He has also been educating me on how the islanders on his particular island really came into their own during the pandemic by helping each other out so spectacularly. I guess a backdrop of regular hurricanes will do that for you, though not all islands share the same resolve. It is some 7,000 years since the first people came to the Caribbean — people from Central or South America. Columbus when he reached there thought at first he had found Asia. But it would be the aforementioned enslavement which would rapidly become its violent heart. It was also England’s first ever overseas empire — this was before 1707 and the union of England and Scotland. 5 million enslaved Africans were shipped to the Caribbean in the end, 2.3 million of which were brought to the ‘British’ Caribbean. Just as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis today appears to want to put some kind of line through Black history in Florida schools or colleges, the legacy of enslavement continues. Reading Susie Day’s powerful interview with Dan Berger in these pages last week — Dan Berger is the writer of ‘Stayed On Freedom: The Long History of Black People Through One Family’s Journey’ — brought home to me just how important Black freedom politics remain. Impressively, Berger says of his book he wanted an uplifting record of endurance and evolution. What type of person would say no to that?

Talking of books, I popped into Daunt Books Marylebone, one of my favourite haunts in all of London. As I surveyed the names of the different countries represented in the books below, I was remembering a crowded book launch there one summery evening over ten years ago. It was for a former senior British diplomat whose personal account of a particular posting he had been on was freshly published. I remembered him standing on the upper tier of the coveted bookshop addressing the great and the good below. This was at a time when civil servants stood up to government. Nor had Brexit removed some of the country’s heft yet. As recent keen observers will have noted, officials here have recently been accused of doing whatever their ministers say, and following this up with immediate protection for ministers. One whistleblower has been discussing in particular Britain’s shambles over the fall of Kabul, describing the civil service generally as having become so political in character that colleagues are reluctant to speak out. Even as a layman, it strikes me that if the impartiality of our civil service is really in such bad shape, there is one way to fix it. All we need do is stop our politicians worrying so much about how they look the whole time. ‘Dogs and deleted emails,’ I jotted down during one recent parliamentary committee on Afghanistan. This was after an email had claimed Boris Johnson had personally authorised the evacuation of 173 dogs and cats from Afghanistan, when really we should have been rescuing Afghans.

For my eventual post-op appointment, the pathway leading to the main entrance of the hospital was lined with cigarette and vape smokers and fresh-air lovers alike. Each patient was in a hospital or dressing gown, some in wheelchairs. The smokers were probably the chirpiest, their defiance worn like a medal on their (bronchial) chests. Though I knew from my days as a smoker how a sharp burst of nicotine can offer relief, I also knew a doctor once who did a tracheotomy on a heavy smoker and swiftly found them smoking through the new hole in their throat. Because it is so addictive, it still amazes me that the tobacco companies appear not to have been met over here with the same vengeance meted out to the Sackler family in the United States over their overprescription of drugs such as OxyContinin. I have to say, few things beat for me that early morning sensation of a coffee and cigarette, especially alone in a foreign city. I would sit like a dog with two tails in Peshawar smoking my first Gold Leaf cigarette while listening to the call to prayer and watching the sun begin its work on the dew. In fact, Deans Hotel in Peshawar came up in a conversation last week with an old friend I first met there nearly forty years ago. We were remembering the late American anthropologist and Afghan scholar Louis Dupree, considered at the time to be the world’s leading expert on Afghanistan. Sadly, Louis would go on to die of lung cancer aged 63 only one month after the Soviet withdrawal of Afghanistan.

My consultant at the hospital was Greek. He told me I was OK. However, after the check-up, he also said he was leaving the NHS. At first, I thought he meant he was going private. What he meant was that he was going home. He had had enough. Yet another person leaving Britain, I was thinking. He said his main reason was Brexit. The second was the political strangulation of the NHS. His third was a simple and understandable yearning for a better quality of life. I felt sad hearing this. I am sorry about everyone leaving. For me, we had been on a journey together and though his work was now done he had operated on me twice. In the end, I asked if he had seen the film ‘Mediterrraneo’. He said he hadn’t. I told him it was about a group of Italian soldiers during WWII. ‘Stranded on a Greek island,’ I explained. He made a note to watch it, and experience rather like following a group of people slowly ease themselves from a place of hostility into a bed of idyllic peace. This is done simply — by no longer thinking about war. As I reached for the door, I was asked if I thought the British public would change their mind over Brexit. ‘They might have to,’ I said.

Not that it was all fruit and sunlight in South East Europe. The next day, Zelensky came into town, demanding from a packed Westminster Hall that dated back over 900 years that the British government give to his people advanced British fighter planes. That same day, whatever people’s views, the single-sourced Seymour Hersh story claiming the US bombed the Nord Stream gas pipelines dropped. But it was the later photographs of a cock-a-hoop Sunak and Zelensky in flight helmets which most troubled me. Nothing was off the table, according to Sunak. Does that include total war? I understand that people’s frustrations over Ukraine are exactly what Putin wants to hear. But didn’t Martin Luther King once say ‘peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek but a means by which we arrive at that goal’?

Peter Bach lives in London.