Letter from London: Þetta Reddast!

More details People on the slopes of Fagradalsfjall, watching the Geldingadalir eruption. Photo: Berserkur. CC BY-SA 4.0.

When I visited Iceland a few years ago, there was nothing quite like it in terms of putting earthly matters into perspective. While there, I viewed everything in a kind of frozen, non-critical Nordic light. It helped that I was with family. We all loved it there. Over-critical dispositions — such as the type often found here in London — all of a sudden felt bad for the soul. Centuries of hardship in Iceland, in a country always beholden to the forces of nature, were never better symbolized than by the ever-threatening Fagradalsfjall volcano. And yet I bet the island has been filled mostly with only two words right now — ‘Þetta Reddast!’ It means, it is all going to work out in the end. The people of Iceland don’t seem to do self-pity.

I was thinking about this in the context of London. By constantly denigrating ourselves, I wondered if we didn’t make everything worse for ourselves. My own criticism of the capital here usually tries to stick to what I perceive as obvious injustices. But even gifted expats are telling us now that London is turning into some kind of general headquarters for Hamas. I don’t see it, I tell them with urgency, I just don’t buy it. Pro-Palestinian marchers appear to me to be family-oriented peace lovers, often mothers and prams. Some of the young men are pumped up — aren’t we all at times? — but they are hardly going to bring down this nation. A far greater threat appears to be in the United States where Trump continues to provoke his followers with ‘the threat from within’. Is the problem here that too many of us are simply confusing sufferance with weakness? Anyway, people say Hamas failed. Outside of Gaza, the Middle East has not blown up. Even the Arab world has turned against the Palestinian militant group. Many now go further and say they believe peace is impossible without the removal of Hamas. Largely unreported over here have been British Imams such as Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra delivering moving prayers at nighttime vigils for both Israelis and Palestinians. MP Layla Moran has been brilliant on unity. Not even unhappy Iran or Hizbollah were notified in advance of the grotesque attacks on Israel, leading as we know to yet more killing by the Israelis in Gaza, the cutting off of food, water, and electricity. One million civilians were given 24 hours to leave their homes. We now have the unbearable knowledge of hospitals as basic death zones. Even the Royal Jordanian Army is reported to be moving in substantial numbers towards the West Bank border, possibly in coordination with the IDF to prevent Hamas using the Jordan River to bring more weapons in. Peace strikes many now as the only option now. Even Netanyahu’s days feel numbered, in this regard.

This is why for example I felt last week’s headline in The Times — ‘human rights treaties have had their day’ — such hubris. Also, when people say the UK has been taken over by fascists, just look at the reputed fascists. Please study those said to be representing this kind of thuggery as they gather by Downing Street. If you so, you will soon shrug your shoulders at their not even opportunistic inadequacy. In other words, things are bad. They are really bad. But not that bad. Besides, the people doing Blighty down the most right now are right-wing thinkers, not right-wing thugs. Presumably, it serves an agenda. How ironic is that? Boot boys with brains want to destroy the credibility of nation by falsely claiming it is run by Islamists. There’s your (long) headline. This country is not run by Islamists. The so-called goose-stepping brains trust also decries young people climbing war memorials — climbed foolishly, I grant you, disrespectfully, for sure, but without breaking any law. Furthermore, some of these genuinely sacred statements were erected for Brits who died fighting fascism and intolerance. (French artist Jean-Marc Prouvert once made a deliberately erotic series of works based on these precise memorials without any complaint.) Soak it up, man. Be doing with it. Take it on the chin. We have all climbed statues in our youth, even if they weren’t all war memorials. Our glorious dead are far stronger than that.

As an example of the right-wing thuggery still found in some of the more grubby pockets of the UK, one person tweeted last week, ‘Number 10 Downing Street looks like the set of a Bollywood film instead of the home of a British Prime Minister.’ This from a man with thousands of followers and a popular newsletter, as well as accompanied with a photograph of Rishi Sunak and family and friends: ‘Today,’ he continued, ‘it’s been occupied by a mob of Indians celebrating Diwali.’ As independent commentator James Melville responded swiftly: ‘I’m no fan of Rishi Sunak, but this is a dreadful tweet. It doesn’t matter a damn what color or creed a British Prime Minister is.’

Elsewhere, I see Facebook owners Meta paid a hefty £149m ($185m) to break the lease on an eight-floor building close to Regent’s Park here in London. Facebook never got to occupy it. British Land announced the broken lease in September. Meta did, in fact, propose alternative tenants, but landlords felt that with rent rises in similarly grand spaces, they should hold out. They are now said to be converting some of it in anticipation of the new kids on the block — the bioscientists. With bioscience comes a greater demand for laboratory spaces, naturally enough. Yes, white coats are back in town with life sciences prospering through lots of fresh investment and cabals of expertise. Step aside: the anaerobic chambers, hot plates with magnetic stirrers, and laboratory syringe pumps are coming through. London’s software techies are not exactly out on their ear. AI has not vacuumed all their jobs yet. But we are entering the age of bioscience. Last week in Blighty for example saw family-run life sciences developer and investor Gen Two grow ever closer to full planning permission for the sprightly development of a brand new 125,000-square-foot next-generation life sciences hub in Cambridge. Just outside London — in Stevenage — Stanton Williams was given the green light to create a 400,000-square-foot life sciences quarter smack in the center of Stevenage. The end of the world may not, in fact, be nigh.

So why I do still notice many of the capital’s professionals wandering about in a kind of furtive daze? Is this confusion at the return of Lord ‘Flashman’ Cameron of Chipping Norton, immediately after King Charles made him baron for life in order for him to be fast-tracked to the role of Foreign Secretary? It happened as swiftly as people imagine the cane proposed by the late Queen on Cameron’s posterior — six of the best, she said — after he told the world she had ‘purred’ when Scotland voted against independence. Whatever else, it is a relief to see some of the more truly right-wing thinkers returned to the fringes. While they all lick their wounds, Cameron’s appointment is being read by some as a possible shift in relations with China, though Boris Johnson’s over-excitable former chief adviser Dominic Cummings — by describing Cameron as ‘a clear security risk’ — seems out of whack. As it happens, Cameron’s first trip was to Kyiv to see a recently overlooked but no less complicated Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whose brave counter-offensive appears over for now. Natural instincts for peace always flinched at the more over-confident Brits at the beginning of this conflict who were blindly calling for the Ukrainians to go all the way. Others felt at the time that the Russians were never going away. Now, all we can do is feel sick to the stomach for all the victims from both sides. Positional warfare is when warfare is conducted along fortified and permanent front lines. It doesn’t take much to see this definition as the right one for Ukraine now. It is, at best, a stalemate. At worst, the beginning of another Russian advance.

The festive season is upon us. A series of outdoor artworks by ten different artists form a Winter Light trail at the Southbank Centre by the River Thames. Elsewhere, ice rinks are opening up. Christmas card venues for these include Somerset House, Hyde Park, Hampton Court and Greenwich’s Queen’s House. It would be churlish to decry the accompanying Christmas lights on Oxford Street, Regent Street, Covent Garden and Carnaby Street. Crisis? What Crisis? I hope I can say it reminds me of the climactic dinner scene in the harmlessly bawdy comedy movie ‘Carry On Up the Khyber’ when the Khasi commands his army against the British HQ. ‘Screw the war, we’re partying,’ responds Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond, Queen Victoria’s Governor of the Indian province of Kalabar near the Khyber Pass, played brilliantly by Sid James. Nothing, not even defeat, is going to prevent Sir Sidney’s superiors from completing a formal and sumptuous dinner. Come to think of it, there is a fictitious quality to much of London these days — a kind of Ted Lasso meets fake Colony Club thing — concealing our multitude of sins. (Another Colony Club was recreated last week under the guise of art.)

Finally, buzzworthy Iceland again — if I were a super-drone I would power into the sky — attempting satellite heights of true reconnaissance — in order to peer solicitously towards the most beloved and beleaguered of islands parked like a jewel between the Arctic and North Atlantic Oceans. With its evacuating residents still scattering themselves daily across their uniquely painterly lunar-like landscape, minor earthquakes continue to rumble on and lava bubbles and spits, while magma forces its way upwards, stretching the crust and causing the ground to sink. Though hardy people at the best of times, I really do wish the Icelandic people well. A land where one in ten inhabitants publishes a book. The last place on earth settled by humans. Bjork. The oldest democracy in the world. Bjork. Women-only strikes. The best childcare in the world. All year-round outdoor swimming (hot springs). They don’t even have an army, air force or navy. Twenty-five of their bankers went to jail as a result of the 2008 banking crisis. (In the US, only one.) I do wonder however just how much of their superb strength of character and obvious broad-mindedness is predicated on the simple fact that all of their lives they have been brought up to believe that the earth at any moment could suddenly explode beneath their feet. Þetta Reddast!

Peter Bach lives in London.