Letter from London: a Long Week in March

MONDAY last week threw a surprise. It began with word from Central Asia about a film project, an anti-war tale plugged into a moment in recent history. This meant liaising with an American scriptwriter friend in Oregon to whom I immediately sent a text. It just so happened he was waking up in the middle of the night ‘from one of those really long detailed dreams where for some reason your dad shows up with a sick dog.’ Pacific Time and Central Asian time are 13 hours apart and throughout the day I tried bridging the gap. ‘A Long Week in March’ was used to describe the military success of the 36th (Ulster) Division in the German Spring Offensive of March 1918. Mine was no such thing — and the week had only just begun — but it was acquiring momentum.

I spoke on video to a second American, this person in Philadelphia with a knocked-focus background, re-visiting his childhood. The power of the past was forefront in his mind. After discussing a new art movement in the Arab world, I explained how London was preoccupied with the latest banking crisis. ‘It looks like the Treasury will become the new depository of choice for those who have the financial resources,’ wrote Michael Hudson in CounterPunch that day. ‘Or gold of course,’ said an English friend, upset the greatest financial crisis in fifteen years had some media focused on Gary Lineker, Lineker being the former soccer player no longer suspended by the BBC for tweeting about government language related to asylum policies.

The crisis had my New Yorker friend, freshly back from his father’s 100th birthday celebrations, considering writing another book on banking. I had been trying to encourage him to write one on his loyalty to the UK, but clearly he preferred meatier topics. To be fair, his last book was on the American and EU financial system and regulation, with particular emphasis on Blighty, which of course was very much the European finance capital at the time.

Talking of books, the artist stepped out from her studio Monday night to a revamped Kings Cross with poet and teacher Kate Ling, knowing how important it was to remember friendship, on this occasion a Faber book launch of ‘Dance Your Way Home: A Journey Through the Dancefloor’ by their good friend Emma Warren. The artist on social media later described what she saw as Emma’s compassion in her work, and how the book was a key celebration of dance and the spaces in which we dance.

TUESDAY got under way with a four-way chat with three good friends, people I had introduced to each other over a year ago during what were intense circumstances for two of them. All three became a component part of the Nobel Peace Prize Forum 2022 in Oslo, their particular event taking place in the university’s great ceremonial hall beneath artist Edvard Munch’s only publicly commissioned works. Formal humanitarian occasions are challenging at the best of times. It is a legitimate question to ask if anything ever comes of these panel-type discussions at the top table, other than a reinforcement of already established points of view. However, my friends were more than holding their own with a mixture of originality and poise, and in the company of a former American Secretary of State, too. Talking to them again last Tuesday, I was reminded of just how profound and disruptive it must be when your love of country is stunted by endless conflict.

At the same time, someone sent an energetic Twitter thread posted by Sunday Times chief political commentator Tim Shipman, a man last sighted at my local chemist. In fact, an increasingly bearded Foreign Secretary James Cleverly is also in the ‘hood, though former Chancellor Kwazi Kwarteng has been keeping a low profile of late. Nor are there many sightings these days of Kwarteng’s close neighbour Liz Truss. I also see Mail on Sunday columnist Dan Hodges striding across the heath, plus his marvellous twice-Oscar-winning former Labour MP mother Glenda Jackson in the aisles of the local supermarket. I haven’t seen in a while the bicycling Andrew Gilligan of tragic David Kelly fame, who became a special adviser to Boris Johnson. Maybe he has cycled off into the sunset. Anyway, it is elsewhere in the world we must look now for consequence, staring out as we do from an increasingly precarious crow’s nest on the good ship Britannia. I noticed across the ocean DeSantis in Florida saying Ukraine was not vital to US interests, suggesting the war was more of a squabble between Ukraine and Russia. Trump has also come out with claims he could end it in a day. Whoever the 2024 Republican party nomination is, you do feel the battle-lines are already being drawn. Continued war (Democrat) or brutal peace (Republican); I can’t believe I am saying that. Who knows what further hell awaits the people of Ukraine, or the innocent young Russian men and, more recently, Russian women, sent there to fight. If a future American President does call off the dogs of war, are we honestly saying it will be left to the UK to lead the fight against Russia and therefore China?

WEDNESDAY being Budget Day introduced itself with a suitably flat grey sky. You could already sense the ruckus about to kick off on the back-benches over Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt’s likely raising of corporation tax. This decision would be despite repeated warnings from economists that it would stifle recovery. Global banking crises aside, the air was rank with fake optimism. You felt anything could be happening, including total economic collapse, and some of our politicians would still be praising good old British spunk. Maybe I am reading this all wrong, and that somewhere within the mayhem is something somehow admirable, but I am not so sure. ‘The thing is,’ said another friend, ‘the west’s economies have been a debt-fuelled illusion for the last thirty years.’ He found it amazing they had even lasted that long.

Striking doctors meanwhile continued to protest outside Downing Street, and I wondered how many attended the screening of my NHS film ten or so years ago at Queen Mary University in London when Professor Allyson Pollock asked the auditorium if anyone knew that the NHS in England had been abolished. This was after the Health and Social Care Act 2012 abolished the government’s duty to provide secondary and other NHS services. It did however later that day appear that NHS unions might reach a pay deal soon for nurses and paramedics. Junior doctors were also beginning to agree formal talks. One growing problem is that so many UK doctors are being lured to Australia as International Medical Graduates (IMGs) with the UK providing more than any other nation. It is a doctor-drain.

I was still mulling over this as I caught sight by the Thames of a lone coot on the water’s edge. A coot is an attractive black water bird with prominent white beak. It is also a word used to describe a stupid or eccentric person, typically an old man. Who was the real coot? It had a more interesting voice than mine. A chipping sound, like a sculptor’s chisel on granite. I also loved the way it kept stepping in and out of the water and stamping on each and every wavelet.

I knew THURSDAY was going to be interesting because it meant meeting up with someone I had never met in person but with whom I had spoken almost every day during the pandemic. This was while we worked together on a successful voluntary data project. While corporations elsewhere were profiteering on misery, we were doing it for free. In the end it grew over-complicated and ultimately ungiving but had been the source of at least two continuing new friendships. On my way to London Bridge, avoiding the striking overland trains, I was fascinated to know what exactly the third dimension would bring. Friendships, even relationships, have been made and lost in this sphere. What pure joy it was to discover therefore that this person even more remarkable in the flesh than on the screen. Our hugs were swift and sincere. We spoke of another friend and sent an image of our meeting, reaffirming throughout the important loyalty underpinning it.

Still thinking about my news on Monday, FRIDAY had me wonder how much we can effect change through creative endeavour. Can artistic works transform how people think? Or has creativity become so powerless in this age of division that by appearing to take sides we never get to present the big picture? What rubbish. Creatively we can do whatever we wish. With the right formulation we might even help make a better world. Just because it is on the sick list now, it doesn’t make it dead.

Peter Bach lives in London.