Letter from London: Everything Was Forever

Russian soldiers in Sean Langan’s documentary. Photograph: ITV/Youtube.

Cruella Braverman wrote about Islamists bullying the country into submission last week. What Braverman failed to grasp — similarly, Liz Truss spreading her own conspiracy theories on a platform across the pond praising among other things far-right activist Tommy Robinson — was the steely quality of the tolerance of others. Quite right, too, if you ask me, stripping MP Lee Anderson of the Conservative whip after he said London mayor Sadiq Khan was under the control of Islamists. Does he not know the divisions he sows by saying this? Hermann Hesse once wrote about ‘breathing thoughts of unity at every moment of life’. No chance of that with people of prejudice.

Rain was a theme in the capital last week. As I arrived for a gig at Islington Assembly Hall in North London, old, largely male, punters were gathering outside in the rain. Once inside, I watched them water themselves with tall beers in music loving clusters beneath art deco fittings. About 890, in all, had gathered — the gig was sold out. Its vast standing room only auditorium with smaller upper tier was run by the local authority like a symbol of everyone’s right to enjoy themselves. (As the man on the radio said earlier, ‘You have to score goals if you want to win games.’) I know it’s hard for some to match successful money-making ventures under public ownership with a lingering prejudice against Islington, whatever Islington still means to them, but there we have it. Personally, I warmed to the man with the waxed white moustache nimbly checking the guest list before letting people in. Goodness knew how many he had seen before. We were actually there to see our son’s band support Sea Power, formerly known as British Sea Power, whose ‘British’ part of the name had been dropped in 2021 because of what they perceived as a rise in ‘isolationist, antagonistic nationalism’ — their subsequent album fittingly called Everything Was Forever.

25 years ago, after working as a freelancer for various feature film directors for a few years, I ended up working for a single outfit to secure a large movie contract for a later Oscar-winning film director. The movie never happened — a whole other story — but I stayed on, no matter my relative unfamiliarity with corporate culture. Besides, I was a young father and it meant working with a wonderful group of young digital artists. Anyway, some of them won a BAFTA last week — the UK’s equivalent of the Oscars — for their VFX work on Poor Things. Cracking shot to the boundary, Union VFX.

I first met media expert Mark Borkowski 30 years ago before traveling to West Africa to write for an English newspaper about Peter Kosminsky’s Dying of the Light, a film on murdered UK aid worker Sean Devereux. I have long warmed to Mark and always try to read him. Last week, he spoke of our growing push for smartphone-free childhoods and asked why so many of us were considering switching off entirely. Is it harming our mental health and strength, he asked? Does it stunt our attention span? Will it affect our cognitive abilities? Mark also referenced overloaded media channels struggling to balance quality with survival, hinting at things racing away from us before proper safeguarding. (As it happened, I had also been reading about the interface between Dharma practices and tech and how neuroscientists have been measuring the brainwaves of monks to research ‘neuroplasticity’.) One major thing I like about Mark is his consistent search for informed engagement. ‘In my view,’ he wrote, ‘for governments, the answer isn’t banning smartphones, it’s educating people (not just kids) how to consume media healthily, discerningly and, yes, safely. We’ve all heard about Finland battling fake news in primary schools. Perhaps we could extrapolate that to the responsible consumption even of ‘good’ information.’ As a footnote, Finland recently halved its suicide rate, with not dissimilar initiatives and interventions.

It was a grim sort of rain stroking the Thames when detectives still searching for Afghan asylum seeker Abdul Ezedi recovered his body close to where he must have jumped. Here was a man wanted for a corrosive substance attack on an innocent mother still in hospital and believed to have been his partner. (There were children involved.) Ezedi’s own wound from the attack included a large dark stain in and around one eye. Here was a person who had traveled through Europe around the time I was on Lesbos filming other Afghans waiting to be processed. I knew where they were all coming from, having already traveled to Afghanistan five times by then. Abdul Ezedi settled in Newcastle in the northeast of England after hiding in a lorry to here in 2016. Twice he was turned down for asylum before appealing one last time to the Home Office on the grounds of sudden Christian conversion. A number of people seized upon this as example enough of lax border controls, also citing his 2018 conviction for sexual assault and exposure. The Archbishop of Canterbury saw such criticism as a ‘mischaracterisation of the role of churches and faith groups in the asylum system’. All I saw in the meantime was one man’s wretched life ending tragically with those around him who tried to help him suffering too. Wars have consequences, at the end of the day. Who knows, we may even be complicit in this one.

Talking of war, I have just watched the new documentary Ukraine’s War: The Other Side directed by Sean Langan and produced by Leslie Knott. Its women-owned production company Tiger Nest Films is renowned for humane filmmaking and worth exploring. I remember well Langan and his translator being kidnapped for three months in 2008 during one of my aforementioned trips to Afghanistan, from where I also knew Leslie Knott whose 2010 documentary Out of the Ashes with Tim Albone and Lucy Martens was about Afghan cricket team refugees bursting into stardom at the Twenty20 World Cup. This latest one by Sean Langan was again unique and frankly welcome in its brave attempt to tell the story of the present conflict from the Russian side. People under fire walking their dog. A grandmother watching protectively as a granddaughter speaks. Cigarettes. Lots of them. Soldiers with footage of family on phones. Fighters on their way to the frontline playing Highway to Hell by AC/DC. Tears in a bombed-out church right before Easter. For so long we have been fed powerful footage of Ukrainian drones dropping grenades on Russian positions. Here were the people they were being dropped upon — human beings like you and me. At the end of the day, the ultimate wisdom of this film, I believed, was its honest inability to over-simplify. The world is indeed a complex place.

Not that the likes of Cruella Braverman, Liz Truss or Lee Anderson will understand that.

Peter Bach lives in London.