Letter from London: A Rich Man is Nothing but a Poor Man with Money

Photo by Alev Takil

Even if Taylor Alison Swift lacks the true edge of Lana Del Ray, I wasn’t a million miles from enjoying The Tortured Poets Department: ‘You’re not Dylan Thomas / I’m not Patti Smith / This ain’t the Chelsea hotel / We’re modern idiots’. Still listening while crossing London Bridge, I received a text from a friend across the pond: ‘Sell everything you have, Peter, and buy gold. Physical gold. Britannias and sovereigns from the Royal Mint preferably. Sell art, property, whatever you can.’ The River Thames was choppy but not as choppy as my friend, who made a living out of such predictions. What I couldn’t work out was why he didn’t know I had no such money. Heading towards the more moneyed City of London, I felt more like Clarence Dalloway in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, who walked this very walk identifying themes of class, than a man with a financial portfolio.

I was actually putting two friends together. Maybe something would come out of that. There was so little money in writing or making films these days. I also knew the FTSE 100 had been taking a hit over continued tensions in the Middle East. In fact, as everyone waited for Israel’s next move, Lord Cameron was saying Israel had already made the decision to respond to the mass drone attack which RAF Typhoons had helped shoot down. Seyed Mehdi Hosseini Matin, Iran’s most senior diplomat here in London, inevitably warned about the West getting trapped in a total war across the Middle East. Dr Sanam Vakil and Bilal Y. Saab of London’s Chatham House however were saying Iran’s attack violated a Napoleonic dictum to never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake: ‘Israel was making huge and unforgivable mistakes in Gaza with its collective punishment of the Palestinian people,’ they wrote, ‘but following Iran’s attack, the West has rallied behind Tel Aviv.’

To others, it was the City of London — like one of those monster black holes at the heart of every galaxy — that was the true mystery. My two friends worked in finance but the local news that day was that City of London police had just seized over half a million pounds of hybrid California cannabis, arresting one American from Huntingdon Park, California, in the process. I returned my phone to my pocket and continued my walk. An Indian visitor with a map fought against the growing wind. The streets were otherwise deserted. (In a movie, a worthless bank note might have slapped against a wall.) Two more tourists were learning from a guide about Englishmen in bowler hats with umbrellas doubling as walking sticks. No mention of their modern-day City men and women superimposed against blurred backdrops working from home. At least the ancient cobbles — as well as the cobbler or shoe repair man — were real, even if the tourist guide had been talking cobblers. One broadsheet claimed the City was learning to love risk again, with compliance costs and red tape bringing the rebel out in people, but there was no sign of this. Even City minister Bim Afolami was calling for a more swashbuckling approach, though Rishi Sunak’s five-point plan to tighten the welfare system after depriving doctors the opportunity of signing people off sick (leading to accusations of a full-on assault on disabled people) was like a buckle too far. Talking of which, England today even has groups of Robin Hoods stealing from supermarkets to give food to food banks.

No longer Dickensian in the sense of a tale of two cities, I wondered how many Londoners knew of the one-day conference on Sudan in Paris. (If I hadn’t been awaiting another kidney op, I might have been there filming.) Attendees were told that in the first 105 days of 2024, humanitarian funds raised for Sudan were less than a fifth of the amount pledged in just two days of Notre Dame Cathedral fundraising. This shouldn’t have been a surprise. I spoke in the region recently to several Sudan-related players — Foundations, governments, NGOs, media — and each struggled to tell the story well. Not just because whenever people are stuck on doing things only by consensus, little ever gets done, but also because the media are telling one-sided stories. if Hamas attacking Israel, plus Iran’s willingness to engage in open warfare with Israel, was a Putin-inspired attempt to take the world’s attention away from Ukraine, as Robin Horsfall — one of the SAS men who stormed the Iranian Embassy — has consistently suggested, what happened in order for the world’s attention to have been taken away from Sudan? At least by the end of the conference, Macron had pledged more than 2 billion euros for the Sudanese people. He even made a direct reference to UAE support for RSF (Rapid Support Forces). I don’t know if he mentioned Iran’s support for SAF (Sudanese Armed Forces).

I picked up the first of my two City friends from his glass-box offices and set off to see the second. The weather was throwing down gauntlets of hail. We passed 22 Bishopsgate with its highest viewing platform in Europe, before finding sanctuary on the 8th floor of my second friend’s private members club — the two of them getting on immediately. One friend was loosely from feature film days including a party given by producer Andrew Eaton and director Michael Winterbottom at nearby Revolution Films. The other was from Covid days when we gifted an early warning system together to the NHS. Brexit came up, including rejoining the customs union, though Rishi Sunak had just rejected an EU offer to allow young Brits to live, study or work in the bloc for up to four years. (Labour also turned it down.) We agreed it was getting harder to find a passionate Brexiteer. I had posted a few days earlier that the former senior judge Jonathan Sumption had just said of the EU, ‘we have not only done ourselves much economic damage by leaving it, but elected to stand aside from our continent’s grandest and most inspiring project.’ We then discussed briefly the Middle East. Of course, Netanyahu would later do what everyone in the West had warned him not to do — he hit Iran with a retaliatory strike, taking out a Russian-made air defence system — though fears of a wider Middle East war had begun to recede by the end of the week. However, 13,800 children had still been killed in Gaza. High levels of destruction were still continuing in the occupied West Bank. Israeli hostages were still being held in Gaza. $60 billion of military aid for Ukraine meanwhile would soon have Democrats waving Ukrainian flags. As for my off-shore friend who said I should sell everything and buy gold, I told him in the end I had nothing to sell. He understood. He still maintained that the entire West was now very close to a wholesale fiscal collapse.

It had been a joy however to see my two City friends. They were even considering working together. Crossing my fingers, I caught a tube train back home. I was listening to Taylor Swift’s song So Long, London: ‘And you say I abandoned the ship / But I was going down with it / My white-knuckle dyin’ grip…’ No doubt a victim of bad taste, I wasn’t going anywhere. I was still in possibly one of the greatest cities on earth, though. As WC Fields said, a rich man is just a poor man with money.

Peter Bach lives in London.