Letter from London: And You May Ask Yourself, Well, how did I get here?

It was with relative calm I sat down with an old friend at a warm wooden table in the sun of my local park last week, though it was already the end of the line for a handful of wealthy amateur submariners — we just didn’t know it yet — in a far corner of the Atlantic that really should forever be the Titanic. Indeed, though tricky territory when we start placing levels of pity into some kind of league table, many people had far more sympathy for the migrants on board the fated ship off the coast of Greece at the time. Had the warm table been a desk, and such discontent running through a school, the desk might have had been scratched with ‘because I have loved life I shall have no sorrow to die’ or ‘a rich man is nothing but a poor man with money’. My truly good news was that I was with an old friend whose pink shirt was lighter than mine, more elegant too, though both of us did favour the humanitarian charity shop over Budd’s Made to Measure when it came to our couture.

This person had cycled — without breaking sweat, though he insisted otherwise — all the way from George Orwell’s Georgian and early-Victorian patch in Canonbury, north London, to be there. The river-crossing was executed in some style with the sartorial addition of a seersucker suit, possibly American, one in which my friend was photographed and telegraphed on social media the next day at the National Portrait Gallery, whose large new doors the artist Tracey Emin has panelled with women’s faces. I have liked much of Emin’s work in the past and was even introduced by Emin as the first person to have written about her in a national newspaper. But I have yet to see her faces in the bronze, so to speak.

My friend and I had not seen each other in ages, and there was much to reel in, including two fairly recent operations — my dull — and his travelling exhibition of paintings and mementoes as well as book — his exciting. He still spends an unstinting amount of time between Paris and London and New York. Of course, it was from Paris earlier that day that Emmanuel Macron had been trying to ensure NATO’s next secretary general came from an EU member state, hence the pushing out of UK defence secretary Ben Wallace as an option — another nail in the dwindling stakes coffin when it came to the UK? My friend does not as a rule care much for such paltries — he is perhaps smart like that. Anyway, it was his bawdier tales of the three cities — inter-stitched like a waistcoat’s secret lining — that I probably really wished to hear. Nor did it intrude upon our scene that people had arrived and were now searching in the Atlantic for that remotely operated submersible, though this would later be refuted. Certainly somewhere between us and New York was already being written an ancillary myth.

When in each of his three cities, my friend likes to cycle. Like me, he does not drive a car. Nor does he possess a cellphone, clever man. I have filmed him in midtown Manhattan with a bicycle, then later in Paris at a location to which he also cycled. Including in London where I filmed him for something else with his bicycle, my friend hoovers up every speck of information he can find on the red carpet of his life. The total sum of this knowledge — on families, art, love, architecture, poetry, gossip — is like a stack of hat boxes swaying gently beneath a low sky. He is seldom still, he is seldom lost for words. Generously, he is actually here in this part of London to introduce the artist to an estimable Dutchwoman with a gallery in Amsterdam. The artist was not with us as my friend wanted to catch up with me alone first, as he knows what a recluse I have been of late, certainly by my standards. He has helped exhibit the artist before — in a group show in London in the beautiful former space of two dear friends on Jermyn Street. He has also written about the artist for a well known Sunday newspaper magazine, and knows I am grateful for this. Like many, we need all the help we can get right now.

Time is indeed a jet plane. The lockdown has been a nightmare not just for long-distance friendships. That morning I was reading about an alarming 42 per cent surge in eating disorders among teenage girls said to be because of the pandemic. This was according to the peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet. In a study of more than 1,800 GP practices here in Blighty, there has been seen a dramatic rise in cases. Thinking about this as another park magpie savaged a nest, the world took a turn for the worse. It seemed full of parabolic birds falling from the sky. Even the planes taking off from City Airport sounded like complaints. How could this happen? Our conversation had moved briefly like a cloud to the suicide of a well known artist and that of a thoroughly decent documentary film producer, both of whom I have mentioned before. Thankfully, my friend soon did much to repair the mood, as is his wont, by donning the most magnificent pair of shades ever harvested from a garden in London — his own — after entertaining an American there apparently who might just have sold some of the propaganda literature of the Afghan mujahideen to an Ivy League university, something which I would not have felt comfortable discussing had I been there. I am old school when it comes to respect for the Afghans. As my friend squinted at another table, he suddenly looked like a cross between a French film producer and the honorary consul in Malcolm Lowry’s ‘Under The Volcano’. Banished momentarily, though, were thoughts about the increase in self-harm among 13 to 16 year olds. My friend had done the trick. Present instead was a giddy feeling of friends really being my estate, as poet Emily Dickinson almost put it.

Despite the bicycle, my friend still managed to bring much with him. Not only was he introducing the artist to a Dutch gallerist later, it turned out he was also re-introducing me presently to a Dutch journalist based here in London who lived nearby. When the Dutchman joined us, not only was the sun finished drying every last drop of moisture in the ground, Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu was saying ‘the leadership of Ukraine’s Armed Forces plans to strike at Russian territory, including Crimea, with HIMARS and Storm Shadow missiles. Using these missiles outside the SMO will mean the full involvement of US & UK in the conflict.’ There was no mention yet of the Wagner Group which as we know now was about to place an allegorical pick-axe in his side.

We continued with the necessary business of imaging the world a cuddlier place than it was. My friend had brought mementos, perhaps to show the Dutchman, as the Dutchman was writing a book about people in the area, and my friend, heaven forbid, may have wanted my inclusion in it, knowing I would probably not have activated such an inclusion myself. His mementos included a book I am in alongside a photograph from younger, happier days in the East Village, where I spent much of the first two to three years of my five years and eight addresses in New York. He also had a poster from the Off-Broadway play I wrote there put on by Tarquin Callen at the CSC Theatre. This included text and a photograph of a former girlfriend playing the lead. (I had written most of it in West Hollywood by Sweetzer and Oakwood while she was acting in a movie there.) He also had a copy of an old article written by someone I took with me to the Middle East, who scooped me in the end with this piece in what is today a far more right-wing Spectator. Anyway, there they were, various bits of one’s life, placed like events across the table, poised like condiments to be shaken not stirred. I have to say that to witness such physical manifestations felt both poignant and frustrating, as if proving the unbridgeable gap between ourselves and the sometimes melody of the past.

Off this time to buy coffee to add to the lunch already bought by my friend, he said to the Dutchman: ‘You two can now talk about all that stuff that you both like, er, like politics.’ Talking of politics, England’s Chief Medical Officer Sir Chris Whitty had just said cryptically but sensibly of the state and the pandemic that ‘the danger in government is that people feel the document is written and therefore the problem is solved’. As it transpired, the Dutchman and I did swiftly touch upon politics by discussing the absence of any argument in the UK press lately against supporting Ukraine. ‘Other than Peter Hitchens,’ he said, showing he had been concentrating over here. This was of course before the most recent events in Russia had begun last Saturday morning. It was also before I put my back out, for what it was worth. The Dutchman writes regularly for the Dutch press and I mentioned with a fair degree of affection the directness of the Dutch. ‘That’s us,’ he smiled. This bluntness I’ve always put down to the libertarian values of the Dutch rather than bloodymindedness. You see it in their gifted but sometimes doomed soccer squads at major international tournaments. I asked if he knew a certain German journalist who had appeared out of nowhere in my life but then had disappeared as if having got what he wanted, but the Dutchman didn’t know him. Meanwhile, someone online was describing locating the still missing submersible as like finding ‘a white van in Wales in fog’. Funny how it is always Wales in these abstracts.

As my quarter-Welsh friend returned from ordering the coffee, we didn’t yet know of the initially ambiguous explosion in the Left Bank where the elegant facade of the Paris American Academy Design School in the 5th arrondissement had collapsed onto the street, and where firefighters and police were soon busy at the scene. Thick smoke would later be shown on TV rising calamitously over the Pantheon monument. Several people were injured in what turned out to be an accidental gas blast and not a terrorist attack, as had been warned only a few days earlier. That afternoon, I said goodbye to my by now two companions. My friend, meeting the Dutchwoman there, went off to see the artist. The studio visit sounded like a success and the hope was for confirmation soon of an exhibition in Holland in the fall.

Filmmaker James Cameron had the last word on the submersible. He told the BBC that the search ‘felt like a prolonged and nightmarish charade where people are running around talking about banging noises and talking about oxygen and all this other stuff.’ He continued: ‘I knew that sub was sitting exactly underneath its last known depth and position. That’s exactly where they found it,’ he said. It did indeed appear that the US Navy knew about the implosion all along.

In the end, though, it was the other sort of implosion in Russia which became the most important story of last week — after friendship.

Peter Bach lives in London.