Letter from London: Regrets, We’ve had a Few

A beleaguered Rishi Sunak set out plans last week to increase food security in this country by decreasing our dependence on food from abroad by growing it ourselves. I was already on it, Prime Minister. On the kitchen window-sill was a small pot of soil once hosting a parsley plant, from which a few weeks ago I plucked the last of the dried thin stalks before grabbing a baby tomato from the bowl on the kitchen table and squeezing it open under a cold running tap. From this baby tomato, I collected some seeds and poked three holes in the soil of the previously abandoned pot and dropped seeds into each one before sealing them and returning the pot to the window-sill, watering it regularly thereafter. Right now, three very strong shoots of baby tomato plant seem destined for stardom. How I regret not having known I had green fingers, Prime Minister.

Writer Olivia Laing knows her flora from her fauna. We first spoke over ten years ago when she was writing about late American artist David Wojnarowicz, someone I briefly knew in New York before he died far too young in 1992. Unlike me, Laing could probably feed an entire Suffolk village with her present enclosure. She has just written a new book with green fingers, you see, essentially about what happens when someone leaves the world of renting and creates a utopia of their own. It is called The Garden Against Time. Is it still possible, I wonder, to feel regret as we shunt on bended knees from one plant to another? Hers is a melodic ‘English country garden’ once laid out by admired gardener Mark Rumary — ‘Was there still a spotted laurel, grown from a cutting taken at Chopin’s grave, or pinks from seed gathered in George Sand’s garden at Nohant?’ asks Laing — while mine is just a pot. But it is the same principle. Isn’t it?

I wonder how much regret Ukraine feels at surrendering its position as the third largest nuclear power at the end of the Cold War? Conversely, political analyst Jessica Berlin recently warned of future regret by saying in a recently posted video that Russia needed to lose, and lose badly: ‘Russia needs to crawl out of Ukraine on their knees, begging for mercy,’ she said: ‘That’s what every dictator on the planet needs to see.’ Though never convinced such rhetoric helps, what would I know? I am not Ukrainian. There must be a huge weight on Ukrainian shoulders. It is impossible not to feel enormous sympathy for its people. One person has since responded to Jessica Berlin by saying the Ukraine war was all about money-laundering for corrupt foreign politicians and international defence companies. Former Tory MP Andrew Bridgen takes it to an even darker level by saying the UK was already at war with Russia, and that since 1991 the UK had conspired with others to push Russia back a thousand miles. ‘They haven’t moved nearer to us,’ he pointed out. Others may regret not embracing the outcome of those early peace talks in Turkey. The ones which Wallace and Johnson implored Zelensky to ignore by pushing Russia instead all the way back across the border. Meanwhile, still assembling Russian forces — still assembling — have just entered the border town of Vovchansk close to Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv, which Putin at the end of his pancake-making trip to China claimed Russia was not planning to capture, though these days I wouldn’t put my baby tomato plant on it.

And what of Xi and Putin? Will there be any regrets further down the line for us or for them? Not that we Brits don’t have our own fair share of regrets. To name just one, as historian Niall Ferguson once pointed out, the Brits committed possibly the only true genocide in history in deliberately wiping out every single indigenous inhabitant on the island of Tasmania. As for Gaza, Francesca Albanese — Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories — found ‘reasonable grounds’ of genocide committed there. Indeed, Biden’s administration has said it regrets its failure to express sufficient concern over the loss of Palestinian lives in the strip. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. have since said past US efforts even in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan never saw civilians die to the extent of Palestinians in Gaza. I wonder if it is possible they regret not having made this point that the US military would not have inflicted so many casualties much earlier?

And what of Covid? How much more regrettable can 500 million people falling into poverty be? Not to mention, as Scots commentator James Melville reminded us here last week, the biggest transfer of wealth in history since 2020 — a whopping extra $3.78 trillion to the world’s billionaires?

‘A bird does not sing because it has an answer,’ goes one Chinese proverb. ‘It sings because it has a song.’ The song ‘u’ by Kendrick Lamar is high on regret. (‘I know you’re irresponsible, selfish, in denial, can’t help it / Your trials and tribulations a burden, everyone felt it / Everyone heard it, multiple shots, corners cryin’ out…’) In fact, the whole album To Pimp a Butterfly has been described by Dan Farrant as ‘one of the most vivid expressions of regret in all hip-hop.’

What song embraces, sport can superbly prolong. The new three-part documentary series on Manchester United — Man United — sports a two-pronged moment of regret. Simply called 99, the new series is set in 1999 when the club won the treble. Today the Old Trafford stadium leaks rain. The defence leaks goals. But watching this as a Red — a Man United fan — is like winning the ‘treble’ all over again. I had completely forgotten that Irishman Roy Keane and Englishman Paul Scholes were both suspended in the semi-final and could not play in the Mother-of-All Champions League Finals against Bayern Munich in Barcelona, though Roy Keane was injured in the FA Cup Final beforehand anyway. To witness the regret still silently haunting both remarkable sportsmen was powerful. (As was the send-off at the weekend to Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp.) If anything, it reminded the viewer that baked into most regret is the knowledge that we cannot change the past.

If Charlotte Brontë was correct in saying remorse was the poison of life, I wonder if we should not be removing remorse or regret whenever we encounter it. But where would that end? With no helicopter flights in Iran? I have heard Buddhists speak of embracing ‘this moment onwards’ as the answer. (Are there really as many as 3000 realms in a single moment of consciousness?) Maybe that is it.

Finally, I regret profoundly not having been old enough to have a single personal memory of my mother but at least I know there is nothing I can do about this. I regret deeply not having had more than one real conversation with my father before he died and wish there had been more. I do love the fact, however, I need never regret not having seen Bobby Charlton play football; I need never regret not having been woken by wolves at night in Afghanistan; I need never regret not having felt snowflakes on my eyelids in Washington Square; I need never regret not having been taught by Bedouins how to read the desert sky; I need never regret not having seen the Himalayas; I need never regret not drinking palm wine in West Africa; I need never regret not having witnessed the Aurora Borealis not once but twice in Iceland. I won’t even begin to list the family bliss I need not regret missing. In fact, I should be celebrating. Baby tomato, anyone?

Peter Bach lives in London.