Letter from London: Birthrights

Soho roofscape, , London. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

I was reading last week how the legendary Hunkpaka Lakota leader Sitting Bull declared himself the last man of the Lakota tribes to surrender his rifle, and how he was later killed by Indian agency police trying to arrest him. Europeans over here are waking up more and more to Native American history. There is even a 36-foot-tall sculpture of Sitting Bull at Legoland in Denmark where children inoffensively enjoy the fact Sitting Bull was also known as Jumping Badger as a child, and that sixteen years ago his great-grandson was also born Jumping Badger. What I am trying to say here is that children, or having children, even great-grandchildren, seeps into our very being, which is why for us a Lego sculpture of Sitting Bull avoids trivialisation. Seeing the world through the eyes of a child can be a very important civilising factor indeed.

There has been a great flurry of interest in the artist this past week, one new ally even suggesting a special energy in her latest acrylic ink works on thick paper, some of it to do with childbirth. Cosmic, inspiriting, radiant: not concepts the artist was used to hearing about her art. The next day, however, she surprised herself by acknowledging that, yes, maybe the work can be seen like this. She had also been talking to the collector about when she had children. To the Young Fathers track ‘Tell Somebody’ from the album ‘Heavy Heavy’, the artist on the back of this conversation arranged filming of three other large new pieces. As if bearing as much as it was revealing, the work felt curiously pod-like and it stared back from the white wall. Womb-like, she even described one piece.

I asked the artist what she reckoned men were insufficiently aware of when it came to childbirth. ‘Everything,’ she smiled. We both know we are fortunate in having both a daughter and son. I am separately lucky for having attended both births. Those first sightings of their little heads pushing themselves with their mother into the world was for me like being granted the keys to the universe. Twice. At the same time, the artist was also remembering just how basic both pregnancies were, recalling for instance the welcome and sudden passing one day of chronic morning sickness. How little we men know. Truly.

You might think you know someone and then you see them give birth. What I saw were Herculean acts. Many people, I am sure, will have seen and thought likewise. My experience is not unique. In the artist’s case, the first birth, our daughter’s, required an epidural; the second, our son’s, heavy drugs. (The first was in London, the second in the foothills of Snowdonia.) Having witnessed both, I now feel sorry when I hear of cultures barring men from attending births, even if male attendance in Europe and the States only began in the Sixties and Seventies. Conversely, they do say that with births taking place more and more outside people’s homes, it has meant women losing the support of other women. I was born at home, in my parents’ bed, their first boy after five spirited girls, right by the North Sea. I imagine my mother knew what she was doing. Giving birth however was something we never talked about. Some men remain in the dark all their lives.

In Muslim culture, I was reminded last week, a baby’s head is traditionally shaved after seven days. Respectfully, my family allowed for mine, the blond of my locks visible now only in surviving family cine-film. Some Hindu families write ‘OM’ on the baby’s tongue with honey after their birth. In different cultures, there is ear piercing, circumcision. Closer to home, there is the informal wetting of the baby’s head with a splash of champagne. I seem to recall at least one bottle being brought to the artist’s bedside following our daughter’s birth. I was still overwhelmed at the time by the exquisite detail of our daughter’s eyelashes. In Japanese Shinto traditions, parents and grandparents visit the family shrine with the baby. In our case, we thanked the tireless medical staff, felt oddly reborn ourselves, and returned to the flat, away from the river and up a steep hill. As it happens, the building in which our daughter was born has since been demolished. I can point to thin air there with baffled friends sometimes and say this was where she came into the world. Though two weeks late, she did soon afterwards show perfect time and a penchant for karate.

I was with a well known and radical British TV anchor in London when our son showed signs of arriving, in his case two weeks early. This was while the artist was 275 miles north-west of London on the southerly edge of Llanfairfechan where she was visiting her parents. There were no trains to Bangor that night, no passenger trains at least, but with a mixture of good fortune and one or two mail-train shenanigans, I managed to arrive just in the nick of time for our son’s grand entrance at a well run public hospital overlooking Mount Snowdon. Clean white walls. Blue-grey sky. A green sweep of mountains. Not only was Snowdon the highest point in Wales, it was where Rhitta Gawr was killed by King Arthur. Arthurian Britain however was the last thing on the artist’s mind as the heavy-duty painkillers began to take hold. Our son emerged through this brief fog with remarkable sureness, his mother in initial tears just as she had been when our daughter was born. I was already being encouraged by hospital staff to take my shirt off and hold my son close to me — skin-to-skin contact within one hour of birth now considered essential by experts — because the artist was deemed temporarily out of action, having done all of the real work. That said, on average 74.2 per cent of babies born in the UK today at 37 weeks have skin-to-skin contact within one hour of birth — just not so often with their father first. Time flies, of course. Last week our son had saved up enough money to go to North Africa with his girlfriend where he bought a drum. His sister, at whose birth a happy metaphorical drum had been beating, was putting the final touches to a new song. There are on average 111,683 births each year in London. ‘Sweet joy befall thee,’ as William Blake wrote in his poem ‘Infant Joy’.

Of course, having children influences heavily what we do or think, for good or for ill, often for good, about the world. The absence of a parental overview may have defined me as child but it also made me aware of this mysterious thing called a buffer zone which is something extremely important that is on most occasions provided by parents. I was lucky in being able to continue my work abroad during some of our children’s infancies and early teenage years, though I suspect as a family we were already showing signs of allowing a natural course of events to lead us forward, even of being able to surmount some of the worst obstacles tossed in our paths. Not so much a design for living as a united compulsion to do our own things, to fight our own corners, successfully or unsuccessfully, in the name of art or writing or film, or, most recently, music. Better the bird on the wire than the drones in the sky.

In this regard, I happen to know a successful Brit working in the States right now who recently wrote that a whole generation was being priced out of London: ‘Unless they pursue a handful of high-paying professions,’ he wrote, ‘for most others it’s simply not an option.’ I felt uneasy reading this. Sure, life is tough for those of us remaining in London, beyond tough at times, but this is where we raised our families, this has become our home, this is who we are now, come rain or shine. Option or not, we want to stay here. The real luxury lies in being able to leave whenever the going gets tough. That said, one English journalist humorously praised the idea of people moving out of London last week on the grounds they would leave more room for the rest of us. Being part-Danish, I read as a child a lot of Hans Christian Andersen. The great Dane once wrote that when a storm was brewing and they anticipated a ship might sink, ‘they swam before it, and sang most sweetly of the delight to be found beneath the water, begging the seafarers not to be afraid of coming down below.’

Sinking ships aside, what has been putting many of our London lives into context of late is the alleged intelligence failure of Sudan. As Africa’s third largest country, it has approximately 21 million children, of which 6.5 million are under five. That is a lot. While multiple powers continue to fund what is in effect a proxy war, each child, in one form or another, will be taking it all in, absorbing it, not knowing where to put it, breaking down, a lifetime of struggles created by the day in their baby psyches. I know people with more experience of this part of the world than me, I have worked with one of them, but it seems obvious even to me that the Russian Prigozhin group (the Wagner Group) is doing far more than just its own private bidding here. It also seems likely that since August last year, and the first appointment of a US Ambassador in Sudan for 25 years, the issue of the Russian naval base has been looming more than large, followed of course by that sudden $288 million in humanitarian aid from the Biden Administration in February this year.

Not that we Londoners show signs of great sensitivity when it comes to the plight of Sudan, a country not so long ago occupied by the British. Home Secretary Suella Braverman, almost forgotten now as a minister previously sacked for leaking a sensitive government document, said last week that Sudanese refugees arriving here on small boats as a result of the fighting will face deportation. At the same time, the artist has alerted me to an equally hardhearted group of art collectors in the capital hanging out regularly under the social umbrella of a xenophobic right-wing political party whose so-called head is a well known actor. Some of these supporters are well heeled indeed, and include one woman from one of the richest families in England. I wish I could say they really should know better.

No, seeing the world through the eyes of a child should make us wonder about their futures not our own. Which is why for me the government’s continued unchallenged decision to wholly back the war on Russia without reference to its own people still feels not only dangerous but undemocratic. By making ourselves obvious targets, we are making our children targets too. Daughter/son: ‘Daddy, what did you do in the war with Russia?’ Father: ‘You mean the one we sleepwalked into?’ By all means, stand up to the bad guy whenever you see him. But let’s be smart here. Let’s not dwindle away the assets of our own tangible peace. When that runs out, we have nothing. Also, beware of anti-war US Presidents coming up on the inside lane. Please don’t drive us into a cul-de-sac where the only way out is by fighting.

Finally, the artist received last week a thoughtful email from a New York art collector, relating to a series of 40 small works she once created before we became parents. Uniquely, the works were of us both, and we never knew all this time that we had been hanging in some room in New York. At the same instant, a Belgian gallerist made contact with the artist last week. She had shown her in Antwerp before we even met. For the artist, it was like having the past suddenly blowing around her like a spirited circle of leaves. How full is the life of an artist, I was thinking. How full is the life of a mother. As Sitting Bull said, if I may quote him here: ‘Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.’

Peter Bach lives in London.