Letter from London: Attempts at the Apolitical

Photo by Chris Chan

A number of times over the past five years I have woken up in the middle of the night wondering how Julian Assange was getting on in nearby Belmarsh Prison. (I have written about this here before.) I wondered again last week, only to discover — like one of those dramatic slam cuts in a movie — that Assange of course was already on a flight to the US-governed Pacific island of Saipan, before flying on to freedom in Albanese’s Australia. At least his young children can have their father back now. A tireless partner, her partner. At least Assange’s father can have his son back too. Before the bitter pill of politics kicks in again, as it always does, maybe some fresh apolitical rain now needs to fall.

You know how in a dream you revisit a place from your past and everything is moved around? Rooms are not how you left them? Walls have come down? Sets are rearranged like in Fellini’s 8½? I had this exact experience in real life walking past a local well known riverside pub the other day. There never used to be an entrance from this one alleyway. There weren’t doors leading straight through to a view by the river. When I lived nearby I would read tales of J.M.W. Turner dining by moored brigantines. Or read Dickens in Bleak House telling us about fog in the eyes and throats of local pensioners ‘wheezing by the firesides of their wards’. Or think about the anarchist bomb attack immortalized by Joseph Conrad in his novel The Secret Agent. In the park I was discovering for the first time Saxon burial grounds and the site of a Roman temple. Coins were discovered by others dating back to Claudius and Honorius days. Who needs dreams?

The night of the England soccer match against Slovenia in the Euros for me began with a book launch on Marylebone High Street. The last book launch I had attended at Daunt Books was for former UK Ambassador Sherard Cowper-Coles, a gifted polyglot who I once had to interview and film in the heat of Kabul stepping into his car with a military attaché and assorted others. This time I was there for Anecdotes of an Arab Anglophile written by seriously dapper Faisal Abbas. Arabist founder of the book’s Nomad Publishing — and of Gilgamesh Publishing — Max Scott gave the occasion an added 21st century Graham Greene frisson with his modish white summer suit and worldly manner. (We discovered a mutual love of Ghana.) I was also there to see Simon Petherick whose 2021 novel Like Fire Unbound was awaiting me at home. It is set during a London heatwave like the mini one being experienced that day. I do find London at its best when it is fusing cultures in the heat. I find the concept of isolation — as promulgated by some of my louder fellow citizens — terrifying. By the way, England drew their match against Slovenia — a match dull enough for me to end up remembering Slovenia from a bashed-up bus with a cracked windscreen fleeing the Balkan War after doing some filming, instead.

On a London bus last week by contrast was a group of teenagers from a local comprehensive school. For no particular reason, I was thinking about The Stranger Song by Leonard Cohen: ‘Like any dealer he was watching for the card / That is so high and wild / He’ll never need to deal another.’ Words were the order of the day. A huge argument broke out among the teenagers on the bus. It was a passionate debate on how Shakespeare presents fear in his work. No kidding. (Didn’t fear ‘go large’ in the Scottish tragedy, I was privately thinking?) And Hamlet: ‘Be wary, then; best safety lies in fear.’) I feared I was missing much but now instead of Cohen was remembering John Cale’s Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend.

Avoiding writing about politics or war before a general election is a major challenge. But if you want to know the true state of the British aristocracy instead, read no further than here. I know an English Baron whose family were once the richest non-nobles in England. Effectively abandoned by his family, he has been living alone in a council house for the past five years but is for now in a home for stroke victims. I was trying to track him down because the last time I had seen him he got stuck in his council house bath for six days and very nearly died. He had no phone and no one could hear him shouting. Only after losing weight did he manage to dislodge himself from the narrow bath and crawl out. Unfortunately, now we are in touch again he keeps leaving me messages for somebody else, a woman he claims to be dating. I do hope she exists and that he hears from her soon. The man needs affection. He says with wicked dryness he still hasn’t established his claim to appear in the House of Lords. He is so different to my 97-year-old neighbor — more than 30 years older than the Baron — who broke his hip two weeks ago with this followed up by a stroke. He phoned me from his hospital bed to see how I was. ‘How I am?’ I said, incredulously. ‘How about you, dear sir, more like?’ It must be all that Art Tatum, Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller he listens to.

‘The breaking of a wave cannot explain the whole sea,’ wrote Nabokov. Well, Creed ‘CC’ O’Hanlon probably comes close. He should have slipped his French moorings by now — the Bay of Biscay was beckoning all last week — with wife and partner Given. One of CC’s recent posts on social media came direct from their boat Wrack: ‘Wake to a strong westerly and an unsettling awareness of being adrift, in every sense.’ I have written about this remarkable couple before. It dawns on me however that it could be everyone else who is remarkable. By this I mean so many of us consider life to be either humdrum or a piece of cake, nothing out of the ordinary, just a series of predicted stops, good and bad, on a long and well-charted course. What CC and Given give us is the experience of life as it truly is — ridiculous, fierce, magical, malevolent, ungiving, unique. They are still calling it out. Even when much of our existence seems to be trying and failing to find the right pitch, our remaining hope must surely be that the waves lashing us strongest cleanse us the best. Fair winds and following seas, Given and Creed.

Peter Bach lives in London.