Letter from London: There She Blows

The truck from Portugal outside our window looked like a giant blue whale washed up on the shore. Late into the June night, its driver, who didn’t speak any English, waited by the driver’s cabin for the recovery van to show. He was on a family video call when I appeared with a mug of tea. Upon seeing it, he declared to the light-polluted sky: ‘Deus! Deus!’ His family, 1400 miles away, close to Lisbon, including a proudly shown 4-month-old baby daughter, continued looking on smilingly.

There was a shower of images from Martin Amis’s memorial at St Martin-in-the-Fields by Trafalgar Square, the same venue where father Kingsley Amis was remembered 28 years earlier. St Martin Amis-in-the-London-Fields, it could have been called. In Scotland, they construct a massive memorial towering above the capital’s major street like an upturned claw for one of their writers (Walter Scott). In England, it’s off to a gossip-page reunion of old mates and lovers, plus some inevitably smooth wine, though non-drinker Bill Nighy gave one of the tributes. (Daughter Fernanda Amis’s speech was published: ‘Dad didn’t care about what teams we were on or what colleges we went to. He cared that we were engaged, and funny, and had convictions, and were true to them,’ it read.) Like many, I wrote about Amis when he died last year aged 73. He divided opinion. I am not the first to say I liked his language as much as his literature. Memorial attendee Tina Brown wrote in the Guardian: ‘Off the page, a rich, iconoclastic croak. On the page, a combination of curated American junkyard and British irony that hit the low notes so hard against the high.’ If he sniped a lot in his earlier days, he came round to a few good truths in the end. ‘I can imagine in a century or two that rule by women will be seen as a better bet than rule by men. What’s wrong with men is that they tend to look for the violent solution,’ he said later in life. ‘Women don’t.’

I wonder what late writer Anthony Burgess would have made of the gathering. Burgess was an Anglo-Irish Catholic from the north-west of England who felt shunned by what he saw as a self-regarding Oxbridge elite. His family managed pubs, dallied with the stage, though cousin George Dwyer, first family member to go to university, became Archbishop of Birmingham. Burgess may not have even attended the memorial: ‘One of the delights known to age, and beyond the grasp of youth, is that of Not Going,’ he once wrote. I have enjoyed his work as much as Amis’s. I would re-read him before Amis. A lecturer in the Army Educational Corps during the war, he taught a course on decolonization and building a post-war Welfare State. What Burgess built for me was a fortification around my largely self-taught love of words. That said, I was reminded not of him but Amis when looking out at the big bad world last week: ‘One of the real truths of the 21st century, and earlier, is that history is speeding up. We’re all on a sort of rollercoaster now. There are existential threats that weren’t fully acknowledged not so long ago. We are sort of hurtling forward. It’s more of a task to ask people to slow down,’ wrote Amis.

Very upsetting has been a recent Financial Times investigation done from here in London into the abduction of Ukrainian children taken to Russia in early 2022 and put up by the authorities for adoption. At least one confirmed case used a false Russian identity. To get to the heart of this, the FT deployed image recognition technology as well as public records and interviews with Ukrainian officials and relatives of the children. I still find blanket Russophobia counter-productive but this is truly abhorrent. Nor is conflict peculiar to Ukraine or Russia. Nor, sadly, a world of false claims only, like the ones emanating regularly from the Red Sea, such as the Houthi attack on a US carrier which never happened, followed by a moronic good-for-nothing firestorm of doctored images and fake online videos.

I joined a webinar on Jordan from the well-known London chat-house Chatham House last week. (‘Israel-Palestine: The implications for Jordan’.) As someone who has filmed and written about Jordan in the past, I was filled with trepidation. How it was dealing with Gaza didn’t just mean a significant boycotting of Israeli, American and other foreign goods on top of the Houthi blockade. As well as Gaza, it was the reaction to more than 500 Palestinians killed in the West Bank since October 7. I learned that calls for the expelling of Israeli diplomats were being ramped up. The US was now viewed by the young as complicit in the killing of women and children. ‘I am not sure if it is a permanent shift or not,’ admitted Rana Sweis. Nasser Kalaji mentioned that what was once pure rhetoric from Israel, including threats from its right to come after Jordan once the West Bank was sorted, was now considered by many to be real. He touched upon the wavering mental health of Jordanians. (One in five Jordanians is Palestinian: that is more Palestinians than in the Gaza Strip.) He also worried about the rise of the anti-Islamic and pro-Israel far-right in Europe. The very existence of Jordan to some feels under threat. Nor did I know that some Americans were being refused service in restaurants there, and that many Westerners were being warned that if they were not pro-Palestinian they were not welcome. ‘A sobering prognosis,’ said Neil Quilliam of Chatham House.

I shared a walk with a friend through the park here in South East London. He is that rare thing — an art historian and lay preacher. Though not religious myself per se, we discussed the moment when art, not proselytisation, carries the burden of the spiritual. I was remembering with affection my late friend Guillaume Gallozzi in New York trying to explain to me something similar while talking about British war artists Eric Ravilious and Paul Nash: ‘They had this weird sinewy thing going on like they knew their work was all about death!’ He was probably using his long fingers to better explain the pataphysics. Presently we passed an evergreen oak and later birdsong of a coal tit as recognised by my friend’s phone app. Still running through my head was this idea of contemplation in front of a painting acting as a kind of act of devotion. I even tried, no doubt clumsily, to equate this to a love of poetry — the privacy of inner thought, the confidence granted. At one point, staring down from Observatory Hill at a curling River Thames, we recalled T.S. Eliot’s lines, with the ululation taken from the Ring Cycle: ‘Down Greenwich reach / Past the Isle of Dogs / Weialala leia / Wallala leialala.’

The artist has just finished reading Rachel Cusk’s new novel Parade and lived this: ‘Well, if that’s so, she never thanked me for it, Betsy said. I’ve had plenty of gratitude from artists I’ve done far less for. But I respect G for being ungrateful. She refused to be grateful. She refused to see herself as the victim of any of the things that happened to her. To tell you the truth, Betsy said, some of the women I’ve stuck up for disappoint me by being so grateful, and in the end you can see it in their work.’ The artist even has a book in common with Rachel Cusk which they did together in London some years ago. A few years later, both their daughters did a performance art project together not knowing anything about the other’s mother. (It only popped out they knew each other after the performance.) ‘I have never known anyone to write so formidably and fiercely about being a female artist,’ says the artist about Cusk. Formidably and fiercely does it for me.

‘Deus!’ repeated the Portuguese truck driver, as he finished his tea and his 15-year-old son spoke for the first time on the video call: ‘I just want to thank you for looking after my father,’ he said, in perfect English. In less than an hour, a mechanic turned up and fixed the giant engine. Very slowly, the vast blue whale slipped back into the water, before swimming all the way back to Portugal.

Peter Bach lives in London.