Letter from London: One Can Not Reflect in Streaming Water

Photo by Chris Stenger

A gifted producer and writer I know was traveling to Rome last week. I told him I was jealous. At the risk of over-romanticizing when so much is raining down on so many right now, Rome strikes me as precisely the sort of place where the grimmer realities of life should be transcended. I have not visited the Eternal City since Giorgia Meloni, the most far-right Italian leader since Mussolini, came to power. A woman for whom President Biden played ‘Georgia’ by Ray Charles last week. However — and this is my main point here — the Italian far-right populist has just lost an important regional election in Sardinia and I feel as though we can all feel involved in this. The Italians have the phrase ‘Mal comune mezzo gaudio’ which means ‘Shared trouble, shared joy’.

On the home front, the artist, donning black headphones, was watching a Danish drama on her tablet. A different type of Danish drama to the one that unfolded that time we found a particular ancestor’s grave in Northern Jutland once. In cities right across the West, inhabitants are both here and not here, parked in these fictive places called elsewhere or the land of the streaming drama. ‘The doorbell!’ shouts the artist, when, in fact, it is the drama. ‘The doorbell!’ she repeats, forgetting already. Such moments are played out across vast tracts of apolitical wilderness. We are both tumbleweed and watching tumbleweed. Streaming has become the new opium of the people.

So George Galloway won his by-election. ‘For Gaza,’ he declared. I don’t know George Galloway well but he did pay me the compliment of interviewing me as a filmmaker once on his TV show. We were mostly discussing the incremental abolition of the NHS by profiteers. He was deeply courteous, even if one or two of his supporters last week — while he took on a well-known TV reporter — were not. There is also the unwieldy fact that in 2008 he was accused of belittling the persecution of homosexuals in Iran. However, none of us want to see continue what is happening in Gaza and it will be important for Palestinian civilians to have such an oratorial voice in the UK Parliament. I don’t however see it as affecting the result of the next election. In the cold English rain, meanwhile, Rishi Sunak had just called out extremism on the steps of 10 Downing Street. Sunak had a point, too, and it needed to be said, but it was more than awkward hearing an unelected prime minister declare support for democracy at the same time as dismissing the many thousands who had just taken part in it.

I saw Sara Suliman’s powerful documentary Heroic Bodies last week. This was in a crowded East End auditorium of mostly Sudanese women. The film told of the methodical oppression of Sudanese women over the past 400 years. Deeply uncomfortable at times, I learned of a people treated as mere property in the past and forced to live as slaves and concubines. It explored in harrowing detail genital mutilation and facial scarring. It felt like a necessary education for me. I was alarmed at my ignorance. What came across strongest however was the gathering resistance over the past 40 years of a handful of tenacious and high-powered Sudanese women. These activists — one of whom I met recently in Kampala in Uganda — were cheered to the rafters every time they spoke. Of course, we weren’t so far away from the former headquarters of the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) and the former home of leader Sylvia Pankhurst. This country, former colonizers of Sudan, oppressed women too.

Give or take the odd French film or US series, I am not so much a drama person as a sports and news or — as above — documentary fiend. Take the recent Carabao Cup Final which took place over a week ago between Liverpool and Chelsea at London’s Wembley. Liverpool fans at the revamped ground booed the national anthem, as they have done since the 1980s and the city’s ‘managed decline’ by the Tories, followed by an even more shameful response to the Hillsborough disaster when 97 innocent Liverpool football fans died and 766 were injured, the highest death toll in UK sporting history. In addition, one set of fans during the match suddenly began chanting directly against the present government until the other set of fans began chanting too in a rare moment of genuine entente. In the end, the match reached extra time and Liverpool scored the winner. ‘Right now Wembley is a suburb of Liverpool,’ declared the commentator. Impressively, German manager Jurgen Klopp and Dutch captain and goalscorer Virgil van Dijk wanted only to celebrate the youngsters who played. At the same time, Chelsea were described as ‘blue billion-pound bottle jobs’ by former Manchester United footballer Gary Neville. Even from here, south of the river, I was imagining still hearing the Liverpool fans singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. Just like they do in the song ‘Fearless’ on Pink Floyd’s album Meddle.

An online friend struggles abroad. I am not alien to such struggles myself. I wish I could help. So often we hear of rich people gathered together in large gardens by lavish blue pools with zero understanding of poverty or the painful dignity of those without. I can think of few better reasons for swimming in cash than to help others in serious need. Maybe this is my ultimate flaw. I have never been very good at a dog-eat-dog mentality. Fig eat fig, sounds more like me. Even everyday issues such as the price of bread keep thumping people in the stomach. Polish saboteurs meanwhile vandalized 160 tonnes of Ukrainian grain. This was against a freshly loaded backdrop of NATO and EU countries contemplating moving soldiers to Ukraine, despite Macron being ‘shot down’ over this, and Putin warning of a nuclear attack. As I write, the Russians are now building up around Chasiv Yar in eastern Ukraine. It may even be a fait accompli by the time you read this. The number of dead in this conflict is obscene. At this rate, it may even reach or surpass the 600,000 killed in the American Civil War.

Talking of which, I received another death text. In other words, someone else I know, hot on the heels of another, whose funeral last week released these beautiful images of highland arrays and personal significances, has died. Are these early deaths related? One thing they do have in common is diabetes. In fact, after realising this, I disappeared down a large digital rabbit-hole researching how voice-based disease detectors using smartphones and voice samples can tell within seconds if someone is diabetic. One in five diabetic people don’t even know they have it.

I had to tell our man now in Rome how much I loved it there in my teens, hanging out each day until the wee small hours, falling in love, writing bad poetry, smelling the sandalwood. Far greater than any drama or sport or war is memory. But the real reason I am mentioning this is to conclude the piece by saying how wonderful it would be if a sudden rolling back of support for the far-right in Sardinia ended up heralding a much larger one across all of Europe. If not, on so many fronts, we are doomed. Both Le Pen in France and Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) lurk menacingly in the wings. Though our troubled continent has seen a decrease in terrorist attacks since 2018, there remains informed concern over extremist sympathies in the military, law enforcement, and political parties and candidates, according to the latest Global Terrorism Threat Assessment from The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Just as there are additional fears of people using the war in Gaza as a trigger for attacks during the coming Ramadan on Sunday. Which reminds me of another Italian phrase picked up while I was living there: ‘Chi si fa i fatti suoi campa cent’anni,’ which means, ‘He who minds his own business lives a hundred years’.

Peter Bach lives in London.