Letter from London: More Efficient Means for Going Backward

Photograph Source: PoorTom at English Wikipedia – Public Domain

It must have been hot in the prison kitchen at HMP Wandsworth in south London last week. Temperatures outside were stratospheric. Just how hot it was at 7am on Wednesday, 21-year-old category B prisoner Daniel Khalife was about to find out. Soon he was in the sun-slapped yard unpacking groceries from the regular food truck. Was he already wearing the makeshift belt purported to have come from material found inside the prison? Did he have help? Regardless, still wearing his cook’s uniform, with its neatly checked red trousers, as quick as a flash he had strapped himself to the underside of the food vehicle before exiting the prison grounds unseen at 7.30am. Daniel Khalife was an unusual prisoner. He needed to be to do that. A touch of Agent Zigzag, played by a child. The response of the security services suggested something pretty serious. As an ex-Signals soldier charged last January with a crime against the state and as a potential spy for Iran, he must have had something. So why did his privileges exceed those of Julian Assange, still held like a hostage along the River Thames at HMP Belmarsh, a category A prison? Especially if the Signals training for this young man — who once introduced himself as a cybergeek to two young women in a Stafford bar near his former base — must have involved exposure to advanced technology systems.

As many people know, BAE Systems are renowned world leaders in undertakings like advanced technology systems. It is basically a UK multinational arms, security and aerospace company, the biggest manufacturer in the country. Our economy presumably craves its resuscitative powers. Based here in London, they have just created a local entity in Ukraine. Having just signed a wad of deals there with the Ukrainian government in order to pump up the volume on Zelenskyy’s endless appetite for firepower, at a time of continued extreme mental fragility and pain for his country, the Russians have since said any BAE facility in this country is a potential target. These days they are expected to say things like that. But it doesn’t make them go away.

When I was filming and writing in and around Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, the Soviet presence was a nightmare to the development of the Afghan economy. (I was just reading an old essay by Christopher Hitchens mocking Gore Vidal for suggesting the Americans will later be humiliated in Afghanistan.) Similarly, Russia’s ill-conceived designs on Ukraine have been a shock to the Ukrainian economy. Which inspires the question, who exactly is paying the likes of BAE Systems? I will have to leave the answer to people who know more than me, of which there will be legion. I only know that since taking office at the beginning of the year, Republican-controlled congress has not rubber-stamped a single Ukrainian funding bill. It seems odd with all this rising and dipping and cajoling and flipping that people in the West still act as though one fine crisp morning we will find Russia’s presence in the conflict will have evaporated. Unless they mean ALL mankind one fine crisp morning will have evaporated.

Continuing this theme of UK manufacturing, the Ukrainians took a first ever hit on one of their prized 69-ton 4-person British Challenger 2 tanks last week. As it happened, these were designed and built by Vickers Defence Systems, now known as BAE Systems Land & Armaments. Though video clearly showed this formidable armoured monster on caterpillar treads in flames outside Robotyne in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, amazingly the crew were expected to have survived, and the tank will more than likely be fixed. It was one of 14 pledged by the UK last January. All have since been modified by the Ukrainians with cages welded on top to stunt drone strikes. (Not quite as purposefully outlandish as the Russians covering their nuclear bomber jets with tyres to protect them from Ukrainian drone attacks.) About this batch of Challenger 2 tanks, experts say the Ukrainians like the day-night optics, the precision firing, and the main guns thumping their ‘tungsten penetrators’ at least two miles. I guess every war is a shop window. Even some of my own sentences can sound like marketing. Imagine really boasting at an arms fair about weapons-grade tungsten and what it can do in terms of metal-penetration during various types of military engagement? Not forgetting the savage injuries that come from burning, sizzling, embedded shards of hell. Multiply this by a thousand, and in all probability you will get close to the terribleness of Ukraine.

Did technology do a rare thing and actually take a turn for the better last week when a deal was signed for the UK to rejoin the EU’s important £80bn Horizon science collaboration? To some it was like finding a key to the back door of Europe for the first time since Brexit. Or like smuggling oneself out of Prison Brexit under the belly of a truly worthy fact-checking vehicle. (The UK research community is said to be elated over this.) Further east, meanwhile, still in Europe, RAF aircraft were protecting grain-carrying cargo vessels. This was following more and more Russian attacks. UK aircraft were said to be conducting patrols over the Black Sea to discourage Russian strikes. Inside some of our killing machines can still beat a humanitarian heart, I am reminded, but war still sucks.

Ukrainian footballer Andriy Shevchenko was gracious in Wrocław in Poland this last Saturday in the run-up to another Euro 24 football qualifier between Ukraine and England. I can well remember the last one at Wembley six months earlier in London, which in fact I wrote about here. ‘I would call it one year of nightmare,’ said London-based Arsenal player Zinchenko back then. Now he was telling Channel Four he was living in his phone effectively, watching all the news. ‘I would like to say a massive thanks for everything they are doing,’ he said of his country’s estimated 500,000 military personnel. There was a lot of Anglo-Ukrainian unity being expressed in the stadium. (At the same time, it had just ben revealed that a former British army soldier found dead in a body of water had his hands tied behind his back.) At Wembley former players on the touchline had been talking about the conflict resolving itself very soon. Grimly, there are no signs of this. What remains indisputable is a very real spirit. It was visible among the 40,000 Ukrainian fans draped in yellow and blue. One thing Putin has done is to unite a nation. But it isn’t his own. No matter what people say, Russians are now obliged to live with prematurely released murderers in some of their communities as Wagner ex-convicts hit the promised home button. It will also be very hard for Ukraine to submit to Moscow now.

As you were, we were told on a freezing, innocent, Scottish parade ground in my youth. Dropping our shoulders to relax, our minds would drift to the sun bouncing off the frost on the roof tiles of the nearby clock tower, or maybe a lone goose looking for its people in the sky. (I would have related to that.) For many people, this time of year is supposed to be a moment of resumption. A return of sorts. Only, this time, here in 2023, it feels strangely otherwise. It is like going backwards for so many. As you were, seems not a possibility these days. As we appear always to be right now, seems closer. There is tension on the parade ground. The light on the tiles looks vaguely thermonuclear. The goose is a drone. It is as though this year’s eventual winter — once we get over the rather cuddly hump of an Indian summer presently affecting Blighty — contains far too many impenetrabilities or unknowns. It is as if some kind of crazy flux has entered the system, dragging us away with it, and that nothing will ever be the same again. Yes, summer will soon be over and autumn — or fall — waits like a thief around the next corner. Yes, it wants to rob some of their dreams, strip us of our leaves, take away our sunlight. We get all that. It always does that. But this time round there looms a major fork in the road, one so significant it could herald either total peace or total war. I know which one I want.

I wonder how kitchen staff at HMP Wandsworth responded to the follow-up news of Daniel Khalife’s eventual arrest last Saturday. There turned out to be no rigid Iranian inflatables to whisk away. He was in Northolt, in west London, close to RAF Northolt, on a bicycle, a mere 12 miles away, four whole days later, in a white top with dark shorts. This same young man who told those two young women at that bar in Stafford before his initial arrest that he would be famous one day must have known the game would soon be up. His worried family had certainly wanted him to hand himself in. At the same time came breaking news of another arrest in another part of London. This was of a UK parliamentary researcher with links to MPs with classified information said to have been used by the Chinese, perhaps more as an influencer than a spy. One Sunday tabloid even claimed the person had been turned by Beijing while living and working in China. Rishi Sunak met Premier Li Qiang before the Chinese leader left the G20 summit in India on Sunday, conveying what were described as significant concerns about Chinese interference in the UK’s parliamentary democracy. It was unclear what the response had been from the inscrutable Chinese leader.

At the end of the day at HMP Wandsworth, maybe somebody did not like prison life. As US President Truman almost too famously said: ‘If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.’ Less reported was the news of a German court’s recent refusal to extradite a UK man over concerns about the state of UK prisons. The Karlsruhe Higher Regional Court in south-west Germany concluded that an extradition was inadmissible in view of the ‘state of the British prison system.’ Whatever happens now with Khalife, the security of 271 terrorism prisoners has been set out for urgent review.

Peter Bach lives in London.