We met at the Community Library where we both volunteer as best as we can. He, Ben Aitken, is holding a book In the Blink of an Eye and I am weeding the roses. “Is this your husband?” he asks. “Yes.” I reply. And then he says something else and we chat. It is great to have young people volunteering at the community library. A few days later there is a joint book reading at the library and I go along. Ben discusses and reads from The Marmalade Diaries and Freya Sampson does the same with her book The Last Library. Both authors are well-spoken and while their books touch on many themes, community – in one form or another – is a constant. Later in the summer, the community (there is that word again) library hosts a barbeque party for the volunteers. A little wine is drunk, some sausage rolls and sweets are eaten and I ask Ben if he would talk to me about his book, The Marmalade Diaries for KWMR.org our community radio station in Point Reyes California, and he agreed.
After her husband of 60 years had died, 85-year-old Winnie Carter needed a lodger to live with her at home. Ben became that lodger. And then came Covid and the lockdown. The conversation explores how those Covid Lockdown months impacted all of us, especially the old, those alone, and families. And what Ben learned along the way. How did Covid change us and how did our lives change doing those long months?
“Dear, oh dear” muttered the new King, Charles III, as he greeted Liz Truss at Buckingham Palace only two weeks ago. The double doors were swung open by a liveried equerry announcing “Prime Minister – Your Majesty”. Ms. Truss bobbed forward to shake hands with the King, and said, ”Your Majesty, great to see you again,” the King smiled as he replied “Back again?” – “Well come along then,” he may have continued – but we missed that bit as, like a patient headmaster, he led the not quite settled in new Prime Minister into another room. Last week – as I began to unpack in Rome – she was back. “Oh dear oh dear.” The King may have said – again.
So Liz Truss was out, holding the seat warm for whoever wanted her place. There were only three takers for the open seating plan at Number Ten Downing Street, and they were not sitting in the stalls. Boris Johnson immediately flew back from his holiday in the Caribbean – reportedly booed as he got on the plane. Rishi Sunak got busy on his phone, emails, or in the tea rooms. Only Penny Mordaunt was seen in the halls of Westminster, looking strong, sensible, and even a little tough. She made me wonder what a woman like her could do if the men in Parliament really backed her. But these men are not the backing kind.
The country was in an uproar as the disaster of Truss’s short-stay-to-let was seen but not averted. Clusters of shoppers were shown tut-tutting at the country markets – always the prettiest picture – as parliamentary plotting – all perfectly legal – continued. A candidate had to have at least 100 Conservative votes to make the ballot for the role of Prime Minister and by the deadline of 2 p.m. on Monday Rishi had 182. Penny conceded at 1.58 p.m. Boris, like a cornered bear, threw in his towel, and lumbered away on Sunday night, declaring ‘this is not the right time’. Let us hope history is remembered and it never becomes his right time again. Sunak was educated at Winchester College, not Eton, and like Avis, it can be hoped that he will ‘try harder’.
The autumn temperature drops day by day and the leaves fall from the London trees only just faster than the Conservative cabinet ministers gathering their pens and papers as they scuttle out of their seats.
In our corner of London the cool morning air smells of sweet ripe apples, from a box of them set out by a neighbor when she returns from her country retreat. I make apple sauce that is as perfect as Bramley apples give before we go to Europe: first to Utrecht with family and an end-of-summer outdoor birthday party, then onto Paris to be with friends. Paris sparkles with the first crispness of autumn sunlight and delight, the streets and buildings shine as they brush off the stale air of summer and the lingerings of Covid. People are cautious and sensible as they move through the streets, mindful of the effects of the Ukrainian war on fuel supplies and costs. The city seems hopeful, bordering on contentment. A restaurant owner brings out a jar of truffles he has just acquired and we laugh in happy expectation of his fine omelets. We are here in the autumn of our lives, cherishing it, for we know our winter is near.
And then it is onto Rome for their Film Festival, showing William Kentridge’s ‘Self Portrait as a Coffee Pot’. We are driven from the airport through the back streets into bulging traffic leading to the Tiber River and the city beyond looking weary, beaten down by the effects of the Covid pandemic. A bad garbage strike after the summer’s heat has left the big street bins battered and tainted with pigeon residue. Finally, we reach The Eden Hotel and from our terraced window we look down on a Rome that doesn’t seem so bruised. Lying in the marble bath at dusk I watch the bats wake up and zoom out from under the tile roof just above me to the park below.
It takes a day – and we only had two – to breathe in the air of this city which I had come to terms with 24 years ago when I joined Walter on location. On our last evening, walking with friends after dinner we passed by an alleyway I remembered. Then, in a store window, three or four prepubescent girls sat cross-legged under a single light bulb. Old Persian rugs hung behind the girls, and their heads were bent low over their hands which were busy, stitching, weaving threads through old worn carpets.
The day we leave, our driver is a woman and I am grateful to see this small step forward for equality in Rome. The road she took out of the city twists and turns and we crossed the river three times. The small riverside shrubs of 24 years ago have grown to trees but still the Tiber moves fast. They say a body tossed into the river is never found. As we left the ancients – looking worn in the grey light – we drove up through the graffiti-clad outskirts of the city. The colors were dusty as they lay scrawled over the lower apartments of these almost middle-class neighborhoods, pulling them down as if in anger that the slums cannot rise but only spread.
The flight to London was full and it was not until we landed and were ready to go through UK passport control that I stopped to use the facilities. There was a poster on the stall door; a young man’s face peering out from a confusion – of a woman’s hand, a car window, and lights, with the words ’Can you see me?’ ‘Slavery Still Exists’. On the way home, amidst catching the stealth movements of our politicians, I thought of those young girls sitting in the shop window and wondered what became of them in the ancient world that is Rome.
This has been A Letter From A. Broad. Written and read for you by Muriel Murch.
It has barely been three weeks since September 6th, when a rumpled Prime Minister Johnson arrived at the Balmoral Castle gates to hand in his card at 11 a.m. In quick succession, he was followed by the tight-skirted Truss. It was a long morning for our Queen, and for those watching with concern – seeing the Queen holding onto a stick with one hand while smiling and extending the other used and bruised hand, to Liz Truss. The Queen’s head looking large on her diminished frame, her nose pinched – straining for air – while no amount of lipstick covered the cyanosis of her lips. Tuesday was a brave day. Barely 48 hours later the Queen died as she had lived, in service to her nation. The heavens opened, pouring down their tears and we are still grieving.
Accompanied by The Princess Royal and her husband Admiral Sir Tim Laurence, the Queen’s coffin slowly made its way south to London to lie in state at Westminster Hall where over two hundred and fifty thousand people from all walks of life filed past to pay their respects and say ‘Thank you Ma’am for your service’. Did she cover all the bases? One could, if one chose, fault her for some family issues, but not on duty to her country as she saw it; honoring and hosting state and national moments or those small engagements around the country. The late Queen Mary was paraphrased as saying ‘We are the Royal Family and we love Infrastructure.’ We all feel a little stronger and stand a little straighter, when someone else shows interest and gratitude for what we do.
The Saturday after the Queen’s death I wove my way behind Piccadilly through the lines of police vans parked all around St. James’ Square, then down the stairs behind that Palace to enter The Mall that felt like the nave of a giant cathedral. There was a quietness in this crowd, many carrying flowers and leading children, that was to last for days all across the country. People walked along the pavements to Buckingham Palace, sometimes with a pause as King Charles III and the Queen Consort were driven in and out of those palaces, Buckingham and St. James’. They were back and forth all afternoon and one hoped that they got at least 15 minutes for a sit-down cup of tea. The Autumn skies tossed grey and white clouds over the park trees, but the rain stayed hidden behind them.
What does it mean for a young girl to take a vow to follow a life that was chosen for her rather than she chose? It happens in all walks of life, people are lucky if they get to live their dreams. It takes an effort and strong will to turn your given path into your chosen one. The Queen embraced her role until she could relish it and turn it to her desiring.
There are fewer of us alive now who remember Queen Elizabeth’s coronation than who will remember her death and funeral. John Galsworthy wrote in the Forsythe Saga at the death of Queen Victoria. “We shan’t see the like of her again”. But now we have this Elizabeth was our Queen for 70 years. Even in death, the Queen managed something that the government could not – as the Transport Unions and the Royal Mail held off their strikes until next month.
At the announcement of the Queen’s death, all the television stations began airing their programs that they had been building for this moment. Planning for the Queen’s funeral had begun when she turned 79. All the news Broadcasters wore black. Huw Edwards, the senior news anchor man at the BBC – and he a Welshman – allowed himself to show some emotion. Those who wished to see the films, the footage, forever repeated could do so. It was like a huge family album of our family, our Queen, for as she vowed to give her life, be it long or short, to our service, she did – and we claimed her and the family as our own, rejoicing in the good times and fussing at the bad. The television stations played ten full days of coverage, back and forth with all the joys and the horrors replayed over and over again, probing into a life lived in the spotlight of her public, her people. The new King’s state and public greetings and meetings were followed in flashy detail. The pageantry and processions built like gentle love-making to the climax as the coffin was carried from Westminster Hall to Westminster Abbey. Giving his address from the pulpit of the Abbey – Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury – looked down across the nave at the congregation seated below. He spoke of our collective grief, the Queen’s abiding Christian faith, and service to duty, and then let out his zinger: “People of loving service are rare in any walk of life. Leaders of loving service are still rarer.”
The service over, it was on to Wellington Arch where the coffin was transferred to the royal Hearse then driven slowly on through Hyde Park to join the A 30 road to Windsor. Just as she had begun her journey from Balmoral through the countryside of Scotland now she returned to the farms and lanes of Berkshire.
The flags at all the royal residences flew at half-mast until the day after the State Funeral when the official period of public mourning ended. The Royal family and some of us will continue as long as we need.
In our little London garden is a David Austin Queen Elizabeth rose – still blooming in autumn. My mother bought it after my father died when she had to start a new life in her new home. Now it is with us. The same rose was among the flowers on the Queen’s coffin – in remembrance of things past but not forgotten.
This has been A Letter from A. Broad, written and read for you by Muriel Murch.
They took to the stage on all three major television channels; the BBC, ITV, and Sky. Rishi Sunak trots eagerly up to the podium in his Gucci loafers, though sometimes jacket-less, unsuccessfully portraying a working man. Liz Truss walks carefully in her heels with a smug smile and discreet earrings – one day saying one thing and the next day saying another. She is changing statements, but maybe not her mind which appears to be missing in action at the moment. These are the Conservative leadership rivals to be the next Prime Minister clashing on how they will address: high inflation, the rising cost of living, gas prices, Ukraine’s war with Russia, while sidestepping how both of them are looking to kill the National Health Service. But then the broadcasts stop, the candidates and their lies are just too transparent and boring. Now each gets a news moment as Liz changes her earrings to gold stirrups visiting a farm, and Rishi puts his jacket back on to speak at the Royal St. George’s Golf Club.
Like the story of the frog in the hot-tub, the National Health Service is coming to a slow boil. The news has me hold my head with the charts of the numbers of medical staff, doctors, and nurses that have left the Health Service. There are two main reasons for this. Since Brexit, European nurses and doctors are better off regarding pay, hours, and family situations returning home. English-trained nurses and doctors are fleeing abroad to countries that pay more. England is reaching out to poorer countries and importing staff from those that pay even less than England. This migration has gone on since we English, Irish and European nurses flew to America, Canada, and Australia for better living and pay. But nobody talks about Brexit being the cause for this new low, the ridiculous staff-patient ratios, and the non-pay of nurses and doctors. The government counts on the moral inability of nurses and doctors to abandon their patients, and laugh all the way to the locked coffers.
The sky is cloudy and dull, pouting at being left behind in grey England while these two politicians vie for the Conservative leadership. The chambers of the House of Commons sit empty as ministers flee the city, following the example of their old boss Boris Johnson, who took his family off to Greece for the holiday month of August.
There is no rain. The streets are sticky with the detritus of human and animal food ingested and eliminated. Leaves are falling from trees a month ahead of Autumn. They are dry, crisp, and crackle when kicked about on the pavements. There are no conkers on the chestnut trees in the park and those not-so-old trees are dying.
The second heat wave was well underway, and the scheduled train strikes still a day off when I traveled from Waterloo to Hampshire. The South West trains are all new and all air-conditioned which bought a welcome relief from the rising heat. I am meeting three old friends for lunch at the North Hants Golf Club. The youngest of us is only 75 years old. The tables and umbrellas are set out on the veranda overlooking the first and last holes of the course. Though it is hot we can safely gather in the shade. We sort of look great – in our elderly way. We were children together, almost sisters, and though our paths diverged our roots were seeded in the same soil. My friends stayed close to their rootstock and settled deep in rural Hampshire and Wiltshire, each raising champion horses, sheep, and cattle.
The North Hants Club is well over 100 years old but was still young when we were. Within that world, there is the sweetnesses to be found in any close-knit organization that becomes a family. Jackie has been a part of the kitchen staff for 43 years and we have known each other with mutual respect and admiration through all that time. The kitchen, where deep frying remains a specialty, is stellar and provided us four Caesar salads that were not on the menu along with teasers from their small tapas plates. It was grand to be together and share our autumnal news. We spoke of our lives, of families, and thought of old friends, remembering that though now we are four, we used to be six. The relentlessness of life continuing after another’s death has a bite to it that is hard to define.
Returning to London the train stops at Weybridge and ‘all change’ is called out – to anyone who can understand the voice through the microphone. There are no leaves on the line, these tracks have not buckled from the heat but there is a fault with the train and so we are directed to a local one waiting on a side platform. ‘Change at Staines for the fast train to Waterloo.’ But I don’t. I stay seeing the names Virginia Water, Staines, Barnes, East and West, Putney, and Chiswick before Clapham and Vauxhall. I realize this so slow train travels alongside the western A30 road laid down over the old Roman Road and follows the historic London to Land’s End coaching route – a popular place for highwaymen. William Davies, known as the Golden Farmer and robber of coaches traveled across Bagshot Heath and was hanged in 1689 at a gallows at the local gibbet hill between Bagshot and Camberley. The Jolly Farmer pub built close by was in remembrance of him.
The train pulled into Waterloo and the platform exit is beside the newly erected statue tribute to The Windrush Generation immigrants who came from Jamaica and the Caribbean to help England after the Second World War. It is a fine statue, showing hopeful and proud parents and their young daughter. She would grow up to become one among us in nursing school, another sister from another time. Tourists from Africa and America proudly stand beside the statue for their photograph moment.
I was not alone in going out today with a cardigan and umbrella though neither was needed. We, and the earth, are crying for rain – or would be if we could cry. All we can do now is sweat, copiously, as we wait for the bus. An Asian gentleman of about my age is also waiting for the number 274. When it arrives he graciously extends an ‘after you’ gesture to let me board before him. We sit on opposite sides of the bus in the reserved for old people seats. The bus driver is not yet exhausted and the bus almost empty. It is August. Hot, dry, there is no school, and whoever can be – is on holiday. I find myself imagining the cold rainy days of autumn, wishing for them, and having a hard time believing the evidence before me that we are seriously damaging our planet. ‘First, do no Harm’ is the Hippocratic oath and here we are committing murder. The bus goes quickly along its route carrying its few passengers. My gentleman friend gets off at Prince Albert Road. He smiles at me and I at him. It is a moment of grateful recognition but I’m not sure what of.
Now there are hosepipe bans imposed by most of the Water districts, whose own leaks are responsible for almost 30 % of water loss around the country. Then quickly news comes of the other leaks, of sewage from more faulty treatment plants into the local rivers and streams, or to the sea for those low-lying coastal areas. It is too much for the cartoonists who show pictures of Boris Johnson, remember him? the still – but on holiday – Prime Minister, entering the sea somewhere in Greece. Sewage flowing outwards but not yet gone.
This has been a Letter from A. Broad. Written and Read for you by Muriel Murch
It was here, the heat wave, the amber warning turning to red and the temperatures rose to over 101º. Downstairs in our little cottage the bedroom, study and bathrooms are cool – and we are grateful. Upstairs, in the open-spaced living area the curtains are drawn as in my childhood when the temperature first climbed into the 70s and then, in 1976 to the low-80s. My mother’s curtains were heavy, chintz, and lined, a hold-over from black-out curtains used during the last war, with a thickness for keeping heat in during the winter. As we slide into climate change, heavy curtains are now used for cooling.
The heat has also brought raised temperatures and tempers of another kind into the UK Parliament. This month the collective Tory MPs cried out, “Enough,” and called for a vote of No Confidence in Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. With 52 members of the government resigning and MPs of all parties snapping at his heels and shouting “Resign now” Boris gave a ‘well maybe’ speech – complaining of the herd mentality of those who ousted him as head of the Tory Party and thus soon to be no longer Prime Minister. Sir Kier Starmer called across the chamber, “This maybe the one time when the sinking ship abandoned the rat. Ha, Ha, Ha”. “Ho Ho Ho” replied Boris as he stepped sideways, not actually resigning, never saying those words, and instead of attending the emergency COBRA meeting about the heatwave taking himself off to the Farnborough Air Show to whizz about in a state-of-the-art fighter jet giving a thumb and bum up to us all from his clear skies.
Through the heatwave, the government told the country to wherever possible ‘Shut up shop’ and stay at home. Then they took their own advice to heart. Labour’s Lisa Nandy accused Boris Johnson and his ministers of having “clocked off” during the UK’s first red extreme heat warning saying:
“We think the government ought to do a number of things: first is to show up to work”.
But after just days of gossip, resignations by this and that minister with gunpowder plotting, the herd turned, tumbling back and forth along the beach sand as pebbles in a tide change. It was sobering watching the Commons crowded with members of Parliament from all parties there to listen to Johnson’s last speech. The herd, for one more moment his herd, gathered around, cheering and giving him that standing ovation he does not deserve. Only Teresa May, the past Prime Minister that Boris threw under the bus, sat while the others stood. She paid attention, listening to his farewell, shaking her head at the lies that were spoken and the truths that remain hidden. “Hasta La Vista – See you Later – Baby” were his parting words. Like Donald Trump he doesn’t believe his reign is over, and, like Donald Trump we can be sure he is plotting his return.
In the British Isles, which may no longer be plural before I die, the Platinum Jubilee celebrated for our Queen’s 70 years of service are over. The Queen has retired to Windsor Castle, keeping a low profile as befits a 96-year-old Monarch still in service. Younger Princes, Dukes and Earls gather round and fill in – as families do.
Charles and Camilla, the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall, began their three-day visit to the west country, in the seaside town of Mousehole. Here HRH. still in a light grey, silk two-piece suit, took a moment to mop his brow before speaking, ‘As I have been saying for quite some time now,’ about Climate Change. While the temperature has finally dropped into the low 80s in England, the fires continue to blaze across Europe. The firefighters in France and Spain are battling fires equal to those that spread through California in 2018. They are all brave, strong and fueled by the adrenaline that such danger brings. This week the BBC aired a damming documentary about the US and Climate change over the last thirty years. Al Gore and climate scientist spoke, all basically saying ‘we missed our window.’ Even the nay-sayers agreed, blaming mis-information for their more than misplaced decisions.
Meanwhile the Hedgehog Society is reminding people not to forget another neighbour who might be suffering in the heat. A tweet warns that our spiky friends are dying of dehydration, and has suggested people place shallow bowls of water for wildlife in their gardens – with a reminder to pop in a few pebbles to make sure insects that fall in can escape. You have to love this aspect of Our England.
Summer time and the livin’ is easy, but it is not. It would have been beyond churlish to strike while the population was enjoying a four-day weekend courtesy of Her Majesty. Now strike actions on British Rail and the London Underground are coinciding with the school summer holidays. The many cancelations of the cheap and Easy Jets and British Air flights in and out of Europe are combined with a severe shortage of baggage handling staff, (low-paid Europeans went home after Brexit) and now airport runways are melting with the heat while cars and lorries queue for literally miles at the Dover tunnel, waiting for twelve hours and more to make it through the customs checks.
French diplomats, officials and border staff warned last year that delays were inevitable with the post-Brexit border arrangement. New rules require that all passports be checked and stamped. The Port of Dover executives can barely contain their anger that the government turned down a £33m bid to help with upgrades to manage the additional pressures of Brexit. It was given just £33,000, 0.1% of the initial request. The French transport minister, Clément Beaune, is talking with the UKs transport secretary Grant Shapps, which may or may not be helpful, but reminded us that: “France is not responsible for Brexit.”
In their appeal to the conservative party members the two remaining candidates for Prime Minister are blaming a shortage of French border staff for these delays. Former chancellor Rishi Sunak said the French “need to stop blaming Brexit and start getting the staff required to match demand”. Foreign secretary Liz Truss said she was in touch with her French counterparts, blaming a “lack of resources at the border”. It is sobering, again, to see so early in this contest these potential Prime Ministers be so ready to lie and blame the French authorities for this chaos. Sunak and Truss are both moving on though, targeting ‘how they would handle illegal immigration’ neither one with compassion, and those darn taxes, to cut now or later ….
It is hard to pull our heads out of the sand to look at Sri Lanka and watch the hearings from the affairs of January 6 in Washington DC and how close America came to that kind of a Coup.
There is – was – a small win for the United Nations, brokered mostly through Turkey as Russia agreed not to target ships carrying 20 million tons of grain from The Ukraine sailing across the Black Sea to Turkey. This is a huge concession yet already the Ukrainian port of Odesa has been bombed. Russia has said it will not target the grain ships but neither will it disarm the mines that already bob and toss in the dark Black Sea.
“There is a light drizzle on the ground” says a voice from the cockpit of the British airways flight from London to Dublin. We presume it is our captain speaking, but you never know. This it the first time we have breached an airport in eighteen months and we are cautious, as if entering a familiar jungle from long ago but that is now heavily overgrown, and we don’t know what it hides. The young people who work at the airports seem comfortable with their rolls and the stewardess clips up and down the plane isle with a quick British efficiency. As the plane begins its decent through the thick clouds that cover Ireland today – the green fields and blue ocean shine in balance with the farms and small towns that lead us into Dublin.
I don’t remember any of this from October 1964 – 57 years ago. I was just one of a plane full of nurses and physical therapists almost all from England, Ireland, Denmark and The Netherlands. In England we had obtained easy visas from the majestic old American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, so unlike in architecture and ambiance to the Embassy fortress that now sits defended South of the river. The two embassies even speak of the two states of America, then and now. But on that October day we were just young women searching for a new life. There were a few who were traveling together but mostly this plane load of almost all young women, just made friends across the isle of the plane. Some were going to the east coast, some further afield to the mid-west, even the real west as in Los Angeles. We didn’t know it then but we were just another wave of imported cheap labour. It was a dark evening. The plane had taken us from London to Shannon where papers were checked once more before walking across the tarmac back to the prop plane taking off to Halifax, Canada. There we would refuel again before a final destination in New York. The plane landed five hours late but that wasn’t unusual back then.
Today the flight arrives on time and the cheery customs man bids us welcome to Dublin. The light drizzle had turned to a solid shower before fading again into what the Irish call ‘a soft day’ for the rest of the afternoon.
For the moment we have left behind the idiocy of the British parliament.
Boris Johnson and Lord Frost are now tossing the Northern Ireland Brexit agreement into the sea as if an agreement is not really that – an agreement. And on his left, Boris and his other buds are changing their minds at least every week as to what Covid restrictions will stay in place – not too many – if he can help it – as the country relies more heavily on vaccinations. In and out back and forth go the papers, emails and memos and you know that no one is reading or being guided by science any more. The economy is leading the agenda – again. Boris’ breaking of a promise not to raise the national insurance tax has caused mumblings that turned to rumblings from members of his conservative party along with a backlash from the grass roots – whoever they maybe. The Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there should be no new tax rises before the next election. But nobody listens to Javid. He has been bounced around too much by the blue boys establishment for them to pay him any mind. And this is just one week.
But England finally does have something to smile about when on Saturday young Emma Radacanu won the U.S. Open Tennis Championship in Flushing, New York. Emma was born in Canada. Her father is Romanian and her mother Chinese and they immigrated to England when Emma was two. Her young opponent, Leylah Fernandez, is Canadian and these two young ladies not only played some fine tennis they brought a refreshing professionalism back to their sport.
How different it is for them than the young women of Afghanistan now the Taliban are guiding the country. Is it a step forward for the Taliban, or three steps back for the women of Afghanistan? Is it a place that for the moment two ideologies can meet? How little can the Taliban give, how much will the women accept?
And while we are figuring out how to bring the British economy back to life, let the children return to school while protecting our elderly and vulnerable, and cheering young champions, hoping they continue to play with honour in their sport we have turned away from the problems that bubbled up in Hong Kong and Belarus and are no longer listening to the stories they have to tell us. Dissidents are jailed and we don’t know yet when we will hear their voices again.
September mornings, and the sun is finally shining in London. The first flurry of falling leaves are swept up and the pavements look just a little bit fresher, gardens are tidied for winter and their last autumnal blooms wave at us before the summer light fades. Children are back to school and there is a bustle of work, increased traffic on public transport and Boris had some questions to answer in Parliament on Monday afternoon. Which he did, with his hair combed softly – he knew it would be a difficult day – and a promise to fulfill one election pledge by breaking another. Taxes in one form or another must to go up, to pay for the increased health care needs of the country. It is not all the fault of the elderly for living longer – though that could be where to focus some attention. But after the afternoon session in parliament, it is onto the ‘Let’s all have a drink together and get along’ cocktail party hosted by Johnson, and paid for by us, as he tries to keep his friends close and his enemies closer. The Right Honorable Jacob Rees Mogg gave a weak smile before turning his back on the reporters and, with double-vented jacket not showing him to advantage, entering number 10 Downing Street. The Right Honorable Michael Gove may still be in Aberdeen. Luckily Domonic Raab is nowhere to be seen having slipped off to Pakistan trying to find safe passage for those afghans left behind after the British evacuation of Afghanistan. There is no certainty that Raab can return with the needed free pass tickets on his shopping list.
We hear less from Afghanistan, but the news stories that do come through are of cruelty and despair, such as the pregnant police woman, Banu Negar, killed in front of her family. There will be no ‘good news’ coming from Kabul until the Taliban control the media outlets and feed news to the Western world. How it is that Secunder Kermani and Lyse Doucet can continue to report for the BBC from Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan is hard to fathom. With a new government not yet formed, and young men on the streets all eager to do something, the Taliban’s promise of ‘No grudges, no revenge’ is proving messy to follow. We hear little of how other countries faired getting their personal out during the Taliban take over and may hear even less about how they might return.
But the Taliban and the new Afghanistan leadership need money. Europe recognizes this and Germany appears to be leading by a nose, sniffing out what opportunities there are still in this land-locked country. Where can a foothold be found that will ensure a western presence to plug the hole of a ship-side leak open to the seas of Russian and Chinese advances?
The Taliban say that women and girls will have full rights ‘under Islamic law’ but Islamic law, like any other law, is subject to interpretation and already new rules about dress and education leave many women and their families fearful. Such strict laws preclude many women from the problems that beset women from other countries and, as has been recently seen – states such as Texas.
The new laws in Texas, banning abortion for whatever reason beyond 6 weeks of gestation, brings fear to this generation of fecund women and some hash memories back to those way past their prime. Seeing the protests in Texas of young women dressed in the red cloak of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” was as chilling as anything we have seen in America since the beginning of this year. Margaret Atwood says of her 1985 novel “I didn’t put in anything that we haven’t already done, we’re not already doing, we’re seriously trying to do, coupled with trends that are already in progress… So all of these things are real, and therefore the amount of pure invention is close to nil.” It is as if the men of Texas and beyond have said to themselves, ‘Yeah. This is how it should be.’
And that can be the burping misfiring of art, rather like ‘Apocalypse Now’ conceived as the ultimate antiwar film only ofttimes used as a training tool to those young men and women heading out to the deserts and beyond.
“I tried gin, hot baths, the lot” said my mother recounting her reaction when learning she was pregnant – with me. Not necessarily how one wants to feel welcomed into the world, but no less true because of it. Documented in the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus 1850 BC, ways to prevent an unwanted pregnancy have been sought out and used to various degrees of dissatisfaction, despair, disease and death. Fighting for legal methods of birth control have consumed women, and some men, during the past two centuries, and remains contentious to this day. Those of us who ‘came of age’, in the mid-1960’s still remember the fear of unwanted pregnancies.
For nurses there were various paths open within hospital systems: volunteering to take patients to the X-ray department, before the mandatory introduction of lead aprons was one; a somewhat-drunken date with a maintenance supervisor who was as handy as any Vera Drake in his day another. And then there were Widow Welch’s Pills. Containing high doses of iron, pennyroyal and juniper and advertised as being very effective in curing ‘Female Obstruction’ they were freely obtainable from Boots the Chemists.
And if prayer, that first and last resort, was also tried and failed, there may be a rushed marriage and definitely expulsion from nursing school. For pregnancy and even marriage made one unsuitable for the profession. Meanwhile those impregnating young doctors graduated into their lives carrying only their memories that faded over time.
“Robert Kennedy’s been shot.” In an abrupt wake-up phone call. I don’t know what I replied rolling off the bed from a pre-work nap but I do remember a fogbound realization that this could be the end, and not the start, of a new beginning. In 1968 we knew little of the political games that unfold behind the news that was filtered in and out of the television and radios available to us. If we were lucky some rumor or gossip was gleaned from patients, one of whom was mine at the Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital. In gratitude for her care, the floor nurses were given free tickets to an auction that was happening at the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angles. We could bid on, if not afford, donated items by the rich and famous, along with the not-so, all to raise money for the Democratic party. This is how things were done then. A nurse pal and I went to the sale, and I did successfully get a chest of drawers for the baby and a gorgeous full-length evening coat-dress that was totally over-the-top madness and yet, exquisite.
But now Robert Kennedy was dead, assassinated in that same Ambassador Hotel, and the dreams of the Democratic party at that time died with him. Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic presidential candidate but lost to the Republican, Richard Nixon.
Sirhan Sirhan was tried and convicted of his assassination and has remained in San Quentin prison for the past 50-plus years. Now, aged 77, he is facing his 16th attempt for parole.
In 1998 Maxwell Taylor Kennedy published a slim volume ‘Make Gentle the Life of This World’ in which he had gathered quotes and sayings that his father Robert, and uncles Jack and Edward, would write in a note-book left on a lectern for each other in the White House. It is a sweet and tender book and speaks of a more innocent age. I was still gathering author interviews at KPFA and for some KPFA-specific reason, there was no studio available for us and so we set up a makeshift recording session in the music room. It was clear to see that Max Kennedy was a nervous, high-strung young man still looking for his way through the life he had been given. And so, as I often have done, I prefaced our conversation with the words, “If you feel I am going somewhere too personal or for any reason you would rather not answer, let me know and we will pause.” It was an interesting gentle conversation about the literature, education and political direction of his father and uncles. As our time together came to an end I asked one more question.
“We are close to San Quentin where Sirhan Sirhan is held. The prisoners often can listen to this radio station. If you had something to say to him what would it be?” And it was here that Max asked me to pause the recording. He sat for a long minute, troubled maybe by the concept of the question and, in the end, not really able to come up with an answer. To this day I am not sure how fair a question it was.
Jack Newfield, a young reporter on that fateful 1968 campaign, wrote ‘RFK: a Memoir’ in 1969. He ended this book saying,
“We are the first generation that learned from experience, in our innocent twenties, that things were not really getting better, that we shall not overcome. We felt, by the time we reached thirty, that we had already glimpsed the most compassionate leaders our nation could produce, and they had all been assassinated. And from this time forward, things would get worse: our best political leaders were part of memory now, not hope. The stone was at the bottom of the hill and we were all alone.”
And here, now, in England, the stone sits so solidly at the bottom of the hill. There is no Atlas among our politicians to roll the stone of the world’s troubles back up to a more compassionate civilization.
A letter to the Guardian reminded columnist Paul Faupel of a colleague who had a post-it message – for himself and others –
“te absente stercus flabellum tanguit” and he assured us that it was Latin for “while you were out, the shit ***** hit the fan”.
Faupel writes this could be an appropriate note for Dominic Raab and Boris Johnson after the Taliban took Kabul while the British boys were on their holidays. The Observer reported on Sunday that up to 5,000 emails to the Foreign Office detailing urgent cases of Afghans seeking to escape Kabul remained unread, including those sent by MPs and charities. Now Raab admits it may be hard for people who wish to leave to find a way out. The British and American evacuation from Kabul has ended.
The Bank Holiday weekend is over. Children will return to school, workers to work and maybe even politicians to Westminster, though the Right Honorable Michael Gove (of southern Surrey) has been seen dancing the night away, in a tieless suit, in Scotland’s Aberdeen. Gove like Hancock is now conspicuously absent from the front benches of Parliament. Only Dominic Raab, still oiling his Cretan suntan, stands and sits not two meters away from Boris.
Curzio Malaparte wrote in The Skin in 1949, “It is certainly harder to lose a war than to win one. Everyone wants to win a war, but not everyone is capable of losing one.” As empires crumble America and England have both had some practice. It is time to put that practice to good use.
Walking across Hyde Park from Knightsbridge, clocking in those steps to bring me close to my allotted healthy number, I reached Marble Arch and for a moment couldn’t find it.
Hyde Park is comfortably London, full of geese and people but that is not enough for the hop-on and hop-off tourist busses that wait – not too hopefully – by the roadside at Marble Arch. The Arch, long ago dumped here, has now been squashed by The Mound that has been built beside it and sits like a giant turd making the poor Arch look quite tiny and shabby. Marble Arch was built to be a state entrance to Buckingham Palace but didn’t fit and so was moved to its place at the junction of Edgware Road and Oxford Street, close to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. The the best thing about ‘Marble Arch Mound’ is that it is a temporary ‘pop-up’ though no-one is saying when it will pop-down. Like any pop-up the goal is to encourage the now non-existent tourists to pay up, climb up, look down and empty their pockets in the shops below. The cost to build the mound ballooned from 2.5 million pounds to over six million. “I resign!” said a Westminster City Council deputy minister, but that isn’t going to help The Mound go away.
Does its conception, its construction, speak in a oblique way of England today? Covering something that is not fit for purpose, The Marble Arch itself, that eventually found a happy placement, is now surrounded by detritus and foolishness – rather similar to what we see at the other end of town in Westminster.
Now that everyone has returned from their holidays to watch over the evacuation of foreign nations and afghans from Kabul the Prime Minister has slid off to the G7 Summit leaving the British Ambassador Sir Laurie Bristow to ‘carry on’.
The lucky few, those who can afford it, tripped off to Spain where the sun was scorching and the mosquitoes bit, much like England’s Foreign Minister, Dominic Raab, who was found sunning himself in fashionable Crete and not picking up the brought-to-your-lounger telephone to answer a call from his Afgan counterpart. The quickly put-together photo shoot of Raab behind his big desk, English and Chinese flags flying, one hand gripping the big chair, the other holding his telephone, looking earnestly at the computer screen are fooling no-one.
Ambassador Sir Laurie Bristow was ordered to stay in Kabul while the rest of the UK embassy staff and their families left on Friday night. We see and hear only the English and American struggles but there are other countries whose presence in Afganistan is no longer welcome and they too are trying to get their people out.
“I want my men out of there. Now.” Says Kilgore in Apocalypse Now. Raab is no Kilgore.
The implosion of western forces in Afghanistan, the walk-through of the Taliban takeover of their country’s government, remains a debortle of immense proportions. So many stories of terror render most of us sick with helpless heartache at this moment of suffering caused by each and every one of us. No wonder there was a full house when Boris recalled the government last week. More ruffled than usual – not quite taking in that everyone was really calling for his blood – his bluster could not cover his bemusement. And when the past Prime Minister, Teresa May, stood up to speak she was heard, even as some of us blinked at her dress of bright Conservative Blue caped in Mourning black. But there were others, retired but young military men now serving their country in another way, ashamed of their government. For a moment I felt a glimmer of hope that maybe one of them could step forward and possibly lead this country into some new beginnings.
Where are the hyenas hiding in those benches? But here comes Tony Blair, wearing the wise elder-statesman look with slightly too-long silver hair as he shakes his head smiling ruefully, ‘Why can’t you pull yourselves out of the hole I dug for you?’
Holes for whole countries are one thing, traps for individuals are another. The Weekend Financial Times newspaper has a weekly column, “Lunch with the FT.” which during COVID has all been virtual. But this weeks interview took place in Warsaw, Poland where journalist Magdalena Miecznicka met with the defected sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya and her husband. Because poison is a weapon of choice for Russian and therefore Belarusian authorities only Magdalena was eating. The story that 24 year-old Krystsina tells is harrowing, from her first realization that someone is trying to remove her from Tokyo and return her to a mental hospital in Minsk. Her grandmother tells her not to return to Belarus and her husband escaped to the Ukraine before Poland. She was escorted from the Olympic Village by a psychiatrist and a Belarusian committee official to Tokyo’s Haneda airport where she was saved by an app on her phone. Typing in ‘I need help they are trying to take me out of the country by force.’ and translating it from Russian to Japanese, she reached an airport policeman who took her to safety. Magdalena’s article is quietly compelling, mixing Borsch soup with Poland and Belarus and all that it means to suddenly leave your country, your home with as many of your family as are able. Krystsina’s parents escaped but what will happen to her grandmother? We go from one story to many as in these Afghan days, another wave of desperate immigration carries fearful repercussions for the families left behind.
“On an extraordinary scale”, said Major Gen Charlie Herbert, who served three tours in Afghanistan between 2007-2018. “It is almost impossible to believe that the Prime Minister departed on holiday on Saturday; he should hang his head in shame.”
Again – I might add, as we continue shaking our heads at the inconceivable conceit of this government while trying to wrap our minds around the suffering, fear and deaths that are taking place in Afganistan this week.
It came quickly, to those who have been diverted from the Middle East by relief at getting through the Tokyo Olympics with some honour, and then the helpless sadness at the latest earthquake destruction in Haiti with the number of dead reaching 1500 and Storm Grace closing in on the country. I think back on the young firemen from California who flew in to help in the last earthquake and pray another wave are willing to take on that relay baton.
Throughout the summer the BBC gives trial runs to hopeful new young newscasters. So on Sunday night a lovely young woman smiles her way through the news from Afganistan before going live to Kabul. But Secunder Kermani, the BBC’s Afganistan correspondent was not there. In his place is a clearly nervous, Malik Mudassir who has a hard time staying focused on the camera. Afganistan is the third most dangerous country for news reporters. The BBC reporter Ahmad Shah, was killed in the province of Khosa, earlier this year on a day which left nearly 40 people dead.
This evacuation remains a withdrawal of shambolic proportions that is ever changing as I write. There is no captain of the ship. No brave president Ashraf Ghani staying until the last. Ghani is gone. The Kabul airport seems to have been allocated an international zone and over 60 countries are operating from makeshift desks and computers at that site. The UK’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Laurie Bristow, is there helping to process visa applications for over 4,000 British nationals and eligible Afghans. Dominic Raab’s office said the evacuation efforts will continue for “as long as we are able to do so and as long as it is safe to do so”. Cordoned off by the US troops this area of the airport is – for the moment – a safe haven for some. There are literally thousands of citizens from countries around the world, each that held a little presence, for their own ‘special interests’ in Afganistan, now clamoring to reach the airport and a plane. Like players on a monopoly board, they are now all ready to sell their stock for a flight out of the country. Except for the Russian and Chinese embassies. They are staying in town for informal chats with the Taliban leaders as they form a new government. Russian’s Presidential envoy to Afganistan, Zamir Kabulov, said that Moscow would decide on recognizing the new Taliban government based “on the conduct of the new authorities.” Vladimir must be chuckling at the debortle that his ‘Lets make a deal’ orange puppet offered last May. Like a patient fisherman he can just keep warm, sitting on the banks of this river of history, watching his line bob and duck under the rippled water that is Afganistan today. History, repeating again, from the Coup of 1953 in Iran through to this moment. With Joe Biden’s stance, can or will America and western countries keep their sticky fingers out of other peoples pies? It is doubtful.
But it is possible that when Boris Johnson said, “There is no military solution to the ‘problems’ in Afganistan’ he may have been saying – finally – a long-overdue truth, in all senses of the word. In August, when the country ‘shuts up shop’ and goes on holiday, there is usually a flurry of silly activity to find the Prime Minister on his or her holiday and, in the best English journalistic way, make a mockery of their chosen hideaway. But this year all was strangely quiet. And now we know why. Both the Prime Minister and the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, popped off for their summer holidays at the same time on Saturday. Johnson to Somerset, and Raab was in Cyprus until Sunday, hours before the fall of Kabul. Neither had showed up for work for over a week. Boris Johnson’s departure on Saturday, despite public warnings the Taliban would be in Kabul within hours, has been soundly criticized as a “dereliction of duty” by former senior military and security figures and may well cost him those deep conservative votes and pockets he counts on.
Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, who served in the Scots Guards, appeared to choke up as he spoke of his regret that “some people won’t get back”.
The Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen called into the BBC, live on air “There will be no revenge on the people of Afghanistan. We are awaiting a peaceful transfer of power. We assure the people of Afghanistan, particularly in the city of Kabul, that their properties, their lives are safe – there will be no revenge on anyone. We are the servants of the people and of this country.”
On the Sunday night news screen, a middle-aged Afganistan woman, a teacher – of girls – spoke with bewilderment at her new reality, “I thought I was doing good, teaching.” On a phone from an empty room she looks about thoughtfully, now unsure what will become of her. And neither are we as posters and billboards depicting women in places of influence are blacked out throughout the cities of Afganistan.