Letters of London: L – O – N – D – O – N

Battersea power station from a garret in Pimlico. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

L is for Language and the fact I had forgotten that over 300 of them are spoken in London today, including Punjabi, Bengali, Gujarati, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, Yorubu (Nigeria), English-based Creoles. Those of us with English as our first language often arrogantly believe everyone therefore speaks English, though on a well travelled polestar like London it is good to be reminded of its many other ‘polestaristas’. Last week I saw a map showing what were the second most spoken languages in each of London’s 32 boroughs. It was like the visualisation of a perfectly broad mind. Forget for a moment the harshness of life. Forget even Brexit. To see a map personify London’s voices in generous colours like this for me was transfixing. I also learned that where we live in South East London it is Nepalese to our east that is the most common second language, and, to the west, Polish. As we approach London Bridge, still south of the river, it becomes Spanish and Portuguese. Arabic is most prevalent towards Mayfair, which is less surprising. There is one genuine turn up for the books — a vast swathe of Lithuanian speakers covering a large chunk of the north-east of the capital. Not all languages have to be spoken, of course. I was reminded of this by learning about multidisciplinary artist Christine Sun Kim and her new series of artworks at Somerset House in London exploring the physical space of American Sign Language (ASL). British Sign Language (BSL) is the preferred language of over 87,000 Deaf people in the UK for whom English may be a second or third language. I am not sure of the figure in London. As an aside, I don’t believe I have ever communicated better on my travels than when sharing only spontaneous and made-up ‘signing’ and eye contact when in a situation without any common language.

O is for Old Friends. Last week meant seeing someone I had not seen for 50 years, an old school friend from Scotland who has been living in Italy for approximately 42 years. A few of those years ago he found me via IMDb (Internet Movie Database) but sadly we never met up. Now that we have, I was thinking that my old friend must know a thing or two about beauty, living as he does in heavenly Italian countryside, not so far from Siena. I have mentioned this before but I had hitched from Scotland to Italy a few times before living there in my late teens. I can still recall the warm sun on my neck and arms, a smell of sandalwood in the woods, the dry red earth at times, a constant rumour of poetry, my exquisite English and Italo-American friends Godfrey and Ellen, Alessandro and Beatrice and Bianca Rosa from Mexico, Behzad and Behrouz from Iran, Ray and Robyn from Canberra. Before my reunion last week with my Scottish friend, I wondered if I would find it eerie, spectral even, seeing someone after so long, staring, as I knew we would, down a protracted tunnel of time, as if in those first few seconds our lives would flash back, then, just as fast, forward again, neither of us knowing what we would find there. But in our case, I am happy to report, it was more than good. Also, my friend is a thoughtful man, which helps, an observant human being, also helpful, who lives what seems a deliberately unpresuming life, full of colour and nature and character, lots of hard work, many friends, prepossessing views when he drives, various newspapers, even Libération from France. About existence, I wonder if it is not just a succession of often unfinished or discontinued moments — something naturally fragmentary. We both agreed that we were still waiting for that wisdom bit. No sign yet, as far as I am concerned. Life has more in its locker, though, we concluded. Another old friend told me that day that he was in the midst of some pretty intensive acupuncture to try and help with his tinnitus. His 78-year-old acupuncturist is someone he described affectionately as a Chinese Yoda. ‘Bow-legged and wise,’ he wrote affectionately, ‘she shuffles around her table, tap-tap-tapping her needles into my back and legs, whilst spouting wisdoms.’ (At least someone has found it.) ‘Perhaps I’m in love,’ he added. Meanwhile, France, surely an old friend, not our natural enemy, as some would insist, continues to rage and burn, most unretiringly. Watching parallel footage of President Macron in China with Chinese President Xi Jinping reminds us that it was Macron — without much support from anyone else — who first attempted to keep Putin talking, to be fair. Now, Macron is having to count on China to make Putin see sense, he says. This at the very moment when pranksters posing as Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko recorded ex-President Hollande agreeing that the Minsk Accords were a ruse by NATO to militarise Ukraine, and for the West in turn to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Ukraine in 2014. As far as raised or dropped hopes are concerned, depending on your point of view, China has since revealed it is in communication with all parties involved, including Ukraine. Was EU President Ursula Von der Leyen’s simultaneous visit to China as much to do with the fact she is in the running to be NATO’s new head, I wonder?

N is for NATO, neatly enough. As it happened, a group of NATO leaders stood like a choir as neat as a new pin in the April sun in Brussels last week. They were welcoming Finland and brand new President Niinistö to the Organisation. ‘Finland is safer and NATO is stronger with Finland as an ally,’ declared lofty Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, minds no doubt already drifting to the additional brand new 832 miles of NATO border to the far north-east. Mobilised, the Finnish army numbers some 200,000, even if it is a likely Ukrainian counteroffensive that will be preoccupying most minds. I always remember controversial poet ee cummings writing ‘O to be in finland/now that russia’s here)’. As well as a play on Robert Browning, it was from a satirical poem on American foreign policy during the Finnish Continuation War, or Second Soviet-Finnish War. I half-recall learning of extraordinary courage on the part of Finnish soldiers during this time. I worked in a voluntary capacity with two Finns at the beginning of the pandemic, and two better people I would have laboured to discover. They were successful and busy in their own right, but still gave their time to help assist the people of the UK. Giving up its neutrality must not have been easy for the Finns. They were borderline proud of it. Now it will be like staying awake with a loaded pistol in the drawer. Of course, Sweden, neutral since 1812, are supposed to be joining NATO next, though the path remains blocked by Turkey and Hungary. With every member famously having to defend any one member if attacked, I am not so sure this makes us closer or further away from war. Let us hope for the latter. As many know, one of the reasons Russia invaded Ukraine was because of its fear of NATO moving ever closer.

D is for Docklands which I see most mornings when walking with the artist to the Thames, the two of us still trying to make sense of this world. The artist is a phenomenon. Her work never ceases to impress and inspire me. The Docklands looked good from where we were. I think the first time I was aware of the Docklands, certainly as a re-emerging London concern, was well over 40 years ago when I was watching the film ‘The Long Good Friday’ with friends in a cinema in Edinburgh. That last scene with Bob Hoskins in the back seat of the car having failed to stop the IRA destroying his brand new empire is one of the great cinematic moments. The wordless shake of the head. The IRA hit men — in real life, the Provisional IRA would go on to explode a massive Docklands truck bomb in 1996 — at the wheel. Not forgetting that dissident republicans have remained a concern in Belfast over last weekend with the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Sometimes when we pause to look at the Docklands superstructures like this, we are obliged to remind ourselves it was probably money laundered from the £26m Brink’s-Mat gold bullion robbery in 1983 that paid for some of its development. The brazen sight today of all these banks huddled together at the heart of it has a kind of menacing reverberation to it. On an even more historical note, it has just been announced that a memorial paying homage to the victims of the transatlantic slave trade is to be built at West India Quay in the Docklands, next to where the statue of slave trader Robert Milligan stood before it was hauled away after the 2020 Black Lives matter protests. £500,000 has been committed to the new memorial and it will recognise London’s central role in the slave trade. (‘Hatred, slavery’s inevitable aftermath,’ said José Martí.) I have also touched upon this before here but between 1662 and 1807 British and British colonial ships purchased an estimated 3,415,500 Africans. Not without quarrel, historians are presently digging deep into the extensive involvement of the British monarchy in supporting slavery. Until the 1730s, as our local maritime museum reminds us, ‘London dominated the British trade in enslaved people’. A bank of clouds resumed position between us and the sun as we headed back.

O is for Overground, in this case the city’s extraordinary interlacement of overland trains. Taking one such train across the capital used to mean you could still receive a signal on your phone, a deciding factor when the alternative was an underground train with no signal — and we all know how addicted people have become with their phones. Now with WiFi available almost everywhere across the capital, even on many underground trains, travel preferences have changed yet again. Similarly, I hadn’t quite realised how much morning gridlock on the overland roads of London is created by countless school runs with large parent-driven 4x4s and one lone 7-year-old sitting in the back like an important head of state. With Easter holidays upon us, the roads are so much more quiet now, it reminds me of the pandemic. I suppose it should be noted that those who educate their children locally have no need to clog up the roads, as their children can walk to school each day. Furthermore, the exercise and pupil camaraderie can do them good. It appears to be mostly those who educate their children privately, or understandably have to send them to specialist schools, who do most of the clogging. Finally, the artist took a long overland train to the south coast last week. This was in order to help another artist with some free mentoring. Very sadly, this particular person’s partner committed suicide a number of years ago. Art has become both a blanket of warmth for this person and one to strip away. After all, most affectingly, is it not the rawest and most real moments in our lives — moments unpersuaded by spin or concealment or control — which end up defining us most?

N is for Now.

Peter Bach lives in London.