Letter from London: Friends Old and New

I was on a crowded London Underground train at the beginning of last week, rattling back as my ears popped from what was the wonderful hospitality of three generations of one family whose family home in a war-torn region of Africa had recently been smashed up by the rebels now living in it — rebels having shot themselves in someone’s else’s foot, so to speak. I had left feeling like someone who had just made new friends. My hosts’ warmth and resilience had been both impressive and inspiring. They were exact and illuminating in everything they said, without hyperbole or overstatement. Truth mattered greatly to them. It does when elements of your country are at war with themselves. At the end of the day, it was one of those rare experiences that leave you with a complicated mixture of distress and invigoration — distress, at man’s continued inhumanity; invigoration, from people’s dignity, strength, and defiance.

On the Tube train meanwhile were not just the usual lumpy tote bags and text-happy phones which populate most countries not at war. On this one occasion, there were lines of football — or soccer — fans. This was because an important game had just ended between London clubs Spurs and Chelsea at the nearby Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, a ground which for the thirsty includes Europe’s longest bar. (These were different fans incidentally to those on Armistice Day in central London masquerading with their fists as patriots.) The Spurs ground itself is considered one of the finest in the world. But football is also about emotion, and the faces of these mostly Spurs fans looked deflated. Though the train was incredibly noisy, they just sat in astonished silence, wondering with their brightly printed match programs balanced on their knees what the hell had just happened to their team. Though a home fixture, and their club had been sitting atop the Premier League for weeks, they had just lost 4-1. Two Spurs players were sent off. There were FIVE goals disallowed, eleven major VAR (Video Assistant Referee) checks, a whole 21 minutes of added time, and six yellow cards. ‘And yet that still does not tell the story,’ wrote Jason Burt of the Telegraph, a newspaper happier these days with sport than politics. Not as bad as the Mail, though: ‘COME FOR SUELLA AND YOU COME FOR US ALL’ was one of its front pages last week, referring to the non-saintly Home Secretary Suella Braverman. As novelist Rob Palk wrote after Braverman’s latest unhinged comments in the Times: ‘Just remembered Suella Braverman meditates regularly, raising the question of what she’d be like if she didn’t.’

Talking of meditation, last week began a number of episodic interviews for me with Godfrey Devereux, which with any luck can one day become podcasts. We are presently doing these on spec. My friend lives in Switzerland and while there weren’t any cowbells in the background, there were sirens in mine. Before each recording, I also had to make one or two minor last-minute technical adjustments, but once we left port, it was relatively plain sailing, with no swinging boom. The first episode was all about Godfrey’s views on human nature, which flowed naturally enough into spiritual nature, biological nature, sexual nature, social nature, and cognitive nature, culminating in a kind of all-embracing swim around both consciousness and Consciousness, as Godfrey likes to differentiate.

People on this side of the Atlantic listen to an increasing number of podcasts and audiobooks. I am pretty sure it will be the same in the States. (I have not visited the Land of Liberty for a few years now.) I have come late to this listening malarkey, but am glad to have made it. Nor, thankfully, is it at the cost of actual reading. It just means that when I cannot read, I can, at least, listen. Regarding podcasts, a well-known journalist agreed it was increasingly hard to get people to pay for columns. ‘I think podcasts might be the answer,’ she said. ‘They seem to be the only thing that pays these days.’ I listen to actual radio news less now, though I did catch BBC Radio 4’s Today program this morning, still debating the government’s incessant meddling with policing. The truth is, though this in itself is no longer news, by the time any kind of breaking story is packaged and represented, people have usually picked up on it already through social media.

As many people know, deepfake videos are when someone has their face or body digitally altered so they appear like someone else. These are typically malicious and often used to spread false information. I was contacted last week by digital consultant Rebecca Wilson on this. She said her team had analyzed 95,820 deepfake videos, 85 dedicated channels, and over 100 deepfake-related websites. This was in order to put together what she called the 2023 State of Deepfake report. Some of their findings included the fact deepfake pornography makes up 98% of all deepfake videos online. 99% of individuals targeted are women. The most commonly targeted group, for some reason, are South Korean celebrities. Also, it now takes less than 25 minutes and costs $0 to make a 60-second deepfake pornographic video of anyone, just using one clear face image. So all that work here in London that some of us did all those years ago on cyber-scanned human heads is out the window? Research outfits such as Rebecca Wilson’s, as well as lobbying groups generally, and PR, often do a lot of the work of mainstream journalism these days. In other words, and for whatever reason, much of it belongs or is a by-product of someone else’s angle, or of whose interests are being served. Conversely, journalism involving old-fashioned and earnest checking of horizons, or simple first-hand observations made away from the pack, still impresses me. There is still much good stuff out there — as well as here, I loved for example Alex de Waal’s recent article ‘How the Israel-Hamas war is destabilizing the Horn of Africa’ in Responsible Statecraft.

The problem is, everywhere else we look, it is as if someone in journalism is being laid off. High-profile Mirror man Kevin Maguire, as popular on TV as in print, tweeted on X last week that it had been a painful day at his and other titles in the Reach family ‘with so many quality journalists and colleagues facing redundancy, 320 editorials among 450 job losses’. Important London news was still getting through, however, though this does feel like the poignant end of an impressive era. It was perhaps appropriate to read for instance in one personally-researched story last week that London water company Thames Water had pumped at least 72bn liters of sewage into the River Thames since 2020: ‘The government is standing idly by whilst our rivers are poisoned and water firm execs pocket millions,’ reported Helena Horton in the Guardian.

I have been in the continued throes, if there is such a thing, of a fantastic project with a German film crew. This week necessitated our weekly video call, this time with Vienna, Basel, as well as London. Though nothing to do with the project we were there to discuss, the previous week I had asked if it was really true that there was a German word for inserting a USB stick the right way around the first time you try. There was, I was cheerfully told. It is ‘Stecker Glück’, which is ‘plug luck’ in English.

Further south in Europe, at the same time, producer, novelist and journalist Stephen Arnell, mentioned in these pages before, was in Rome. How I love that city. He had been posting daily images from the Palatine Museum and from the colorful passageway where Caligula was reportedly assassinated. Such sweet memories myself of the City of Seven Hills, I was thinking. He did the Roman Forum by the newly opened Ramp of Domitian, Medusa at the Capitoline Museum, and the ‘Sistine Chapel of the Dark Ages’, the newly restored Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum. My favorite image of his was the Borgia Stairs, said to be haunted, which were not only where King Servius Tullius was deliberately run over by his daughter’s chariot, and Juan Borgia was murdered on his brother Cesare’s orders, but where John Wick — we were reminded — fought off assassins in the second movie of the celebrated franchise. One of the few things Stephen Arnell was unable to capture with his camera was the escaped lion first caught last week between Vialle Mediterraneo and Via Nicosia, before escaping again another two times. Of course, his images all pertained to his next novel — ‘The Fortunate One’ — hot on the heels of ‘The Great One: The Lost Memoirs of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus’. (He was also in Rome for a travel piece commissioned by The Chap.) He knows that the world of TV as compared to books has always struck me as treacherous. TV is a medium that Arnell has navigated successfully for years. He has even advised me, though my very occasional documentary sales have been outright, requiring no in-house maneuverings. One film, because it was a polemic, was never able to see the light of mainstream TV, but thanks to him was at least shown on a more local London channel.

Finally, I accepted an invitation last week to see the tireless Nick Franco and his three busy floors of 1185 Films. These are close to the ‘twinkling’ and mildly folkloric Diamond District of London. Also, to a possible Christopher Wren building still standing despite being hit by the Luftwaffe in 1944. On the top floor at 1185 Films — surrounded by wall-to-wall, glowing arrays of well-loved plants — we drank lots of espresso. The work of Nick’s clients is impressive — there was one well-known series in there. 1185’s own work is remarkable too, as well as attractively independent, and includes gifted Irish director Paul Duane among its ranks. Nick and I had not seen each other in years. He poured me a third espresso, and told me with care our mutual friend Tim Woodward had just died — I felt thumped in the stomach as I had known, or had been able to feel I had known, Tim well. We also both shared a kind of inner restlessness. We even worked together on the Manchester drama ‘The Second Coming’. Immediately I was remembering evenings with him and director Adrian Shergold, shooting the breeze over Manchester’s incredible past — from the Industrial Revolution to the investigative joys of Granada TV. I had been traveling there a lot at the time, mostly as a digital consultant with director Danny Boyle. Tim’s gig — written by Russell T. Davies — was about a Manchester video store worker who realizes one day he is the Son of God. In fact, Tim used to joke that my job was to provide the digital miracles, which, given the paucity of the budget, was just about right, though I was lucky enough to have as colleagues on that one such digital luminaries as Steve Garrad, Ben Murray and Jim Parsons.

Anyway, as I was recalling later on the Tube train, my and Tim’s friendship blossomed once back in London. I was traveling abroad a lot again by then, working in a hostile environment, and my eyes lit up whenever on a breather I saw him through the gossamer of the Soho night. Nice guy. Tall man. Rode an old-fashioned motorbike. He always wanted to know what the land around Lashkar Ghar was like (very dry, a few bits of green, all 2000 meters above sea level), or if I could see the Himalayas from Islamabad (yes, the Margalla Hills, part of the Himalayan foothills). Earlier this year, Tim invited me to a birthday party he was throwing on Lots Road in West London, not so very far from where he had been born exactly 70 years earlier in Kensington. For whatever reason, I didn’t go. How I regret that now. So I urge everyone, in future, go. Whenever a good friend invites you to something, please just go. My apologies, mighty Timothy Oliver Woodward, for not turning up. My heart goes out to you and your wonderfully talented family.

Peter Bach lives in London.