Letter from London: 9 Songs (with apologies to Michael Winterbottom)

Photograph Source: Rogers & Cowan Inc.; Distributed by EMI America – Public Domain

1. David Bowie: ‘We’ve got five years, stuck on my eyes / Five years, what a surprise / We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot / Five years, that’s all we’ve got…’ Our son, as it happened, was first in the neighbourhood to vote at our local polling station on who will run this country for the next five years. (‘Just can’t be bloody stopped,’ he joked.) The artist put on make-up for her vote. ‘I look like Beethoven,’ she said. (Not a Bach?) Our daughter, ever alert, voted next. Others hovered as we passed a residential property once outed to me by a European journalist as a North Korean spy den, at which point one of democracy’s ambulances screamed past. Of course, not everyone expected Labour to win with as many as 412 seats. A bigger surprise though was reformist former heart surgeon Masoud Pezeshkian stunning Iranians with his victory, given his resentment of internet restrictions and belief it should be women who choose to wear a hijab or not. (Let’s see how he gets on with Iran’s supreme leader.)

2. Fleet Foxes: ‘The world is alive now, in and outside our home / You run through the forest settled before the sun…’ Unfortunately we were all laid low with flu. Our daughter first, followed by the artist and me, followed by our son. We were out for the count, did a Covid test, which was negative, followed by lashings of ginger and lemon and honey and news. The new health secretary Wes Streeting announced meetings with striking junior doctors. Liberal Democrats with 71 seats had prioritised health and care in their campaign. They were not that much less than the Tories on 121 seats. Jeremy Corbyn won as an independent this time: ‘We are a movement for Palestine, and we are never, ever going away.’

3, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: ‘It’s like a jungle sometimes, makes me wonder how I keep from going under…’ Due to sickness I had to cancel one meeting about my African Project but at least managed a virtual one. I tried going to bed but just wanted to get back up again. My new definition of optimism is that a flu virus provides far stronger immunity than a flu shot. At least lying low made it easier to return to my book and re-live 80s New York with a Gogol-reading female actor in a midtown hotel. Plus hopefully air-tight words on air-sea rescue helicopters by Europe’s largest bird sanctuary. Then off to Bora Bora mountains and caves. I particularly enjoyed leaping into the front seat of Lucian Freud’s low-slung Bentley outside the French House on Dean Street. (‘It was like being psychoanalysed by the wrong Freud.’)

4. The Clash: ‘Some is rich and some is poor / And that’s the way the world is / But I don’t believe in laying back / Sayin’ how bad your luck is…’ Many now await a barrage of election losers claiming liberal thinking responsible for the world’s excesses. A small number seem convinced Starmer is a stormtrooper. I observe Peter Hitchens, brother of Christopher Hitchens, already saying the last 14 years of Tory rule will seem ‘quite civilised and intelligent’ compared to Starmer. As for the UK’s very own Trumpette Nigel Farage, so British he didn’t dare visit Scotland, people are suggesting Labour take him head on, not play with him or pretend he’s not there. He and the four other Reform UK MPs have been planning on entering the House of Commons Reservoir Dogs-style.

5. Talking Heads: ‘You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife / You may ask yourself, Well, how did I get here?’ Last week I could tell our largely right-wing UK press was already confused by the absence of a Tory government for the first time in 14 years. But I also noted what grown-up David Aaronovitch said: ‘Time for the policy specialists to step up and the political correspondents to retreat. We need to understand what’s being proposed and whether it’ll work, not endlessly opine on whether Labour will face threats in 2029.’ It was even noticeable on BBC’s Question Time how much less bitter and contentious the post-election audience was.

6. Elvis Costello: ‘Don’t get cute, it’s just like watching the detectives…’ Former MI6 chief — in the informed shape and striped tie of Sir Alex Younger — fired off some fresh Brexit truths. He said: ‘Putin would’ve been absolutely delighted by our decision [to leave the EU] and so would Xi.’ He said: ‘Particularly since I’ve left office and I’ve travelled around Europe, I’m profoundly depressed,’ adding: ‘Just nobody mentions the UK. We’ve made ourselves irrelevant. And this is extraordinary. The beginning part of this century, we were the dominant force. France has effectively eclipsed us and you just don’t hear a discussion of us.’ The saddest line of all? ‘Brexit has marginalised us. It was kind of intended to do exactly that.’ This will be why the new Labour government is already working with Germany in particular — this was the choice for David Lammy’s first trip as foreign secretary — to see how it can work more closely with the EU. The EU definitely wants to work more closely on UK-EU relations, according to Irish Taoiseach Simon Harris. As senior former BBC commentator Andrew Marr said on the aforementioned Question Time, money could still — with a volatile France and possibly disruptive US — return to the UK.

7. Kendrick Lamar: ‘I’m way more polished than 99 percent of the scholars you thought had graduated…’ Radek Sikorski said last week Brexit actually helped the EU. To most he is the straight-backed Polish foreign minister. To me, he was the young Oxbridge Pole I first heard about in private circles after my time alone with the mujahideen in Afghanistan. (Pakol hats off to him: Sikorski got in a few years later.) Today he is married to Pulitzer-prize winner Anne Appelbaum who as foreign editor of The Spectator once criticised me for using a sentence without a verb in it. (Honoured.) She didn’t run the article.

8. Neil Young: ‘They were hiding behind hay bales  / They were planting in the full moon  / They had given all they had  / For something new…’ Appelbaum’s husband credits Brexit with ending the UK’s tiresomely consistent vetoing of the EU defense budget, or European Peace Facility, €7 billion of which has most recently been spent on arms for Ukraine. He also believed the departed UK proved to other members they too were sovereign. Finally, he was now welcoming back approximately 300,000 of the one million Poles who moved here. ‘We want our Poles back,’ he wrote, verb and all.

9. Joy Division: ‘It’s just second nature, it’s what we’ve been shown / We’re living by your rules, that’s all that we’ve known…’ I received a message from a music-loving Hollywood scriptwriter friend: ‘Congratulations on your election. I have a feeling that we’re not gonna have such luck.’ Music lovers here know that Keir Starmer was a highly musical child who won a scholarship to study the flute briefly at the Guildhall School of Music. He was a big indie fan of Edinburgh band Orange Juice and learned the violin — he plays piano and guitar too — with Norman Cook of The Housemartins and later Fatboy Slim. (‘Check it out now, the funk soul brother…’) Starmer has since been in Washington DC where any musical common ground with Biden or Trump will be left unreported. (Or was it down to guitarist Tony Blinken, despite maybe not being to Starmer’s musical taste?) Back here, Starmer will soon be hosting European leaders at the European Political Community summit at Blenheim Palace. He may not be to everyone’s liking but he himself will be pleased to know Bowie-loving Soft Cell recently played there too. Let all the children boogie.


Peter Bach lives in London.