Can you sleep? Nor can I
Outside, the sky is not blue
Can you sleep? Nor can I. I can a bit, of course. I’m in a comfortable bed. I have a snuggly duvet. I have a roof over my head which is not about to be blown off. But my nights are full of what my days are full of: grief, horror, rage, pity and shame.
I thought I’d got used to shame. I thought we’d all got used to shame, the shame of a government that ducks, dives, lies and dupes as easily as it breathes. But this is a different league of shame. It’s the shame you feel when your government puts together global plans to help the people of a country that has been invaded, but then puts every single bureaucratic block it can think of in its way.
We have a Home Secretary who worked in PR. Now that her policy has been exposed for what it is – breathtakingly cruel and cynical – she has been forced to backtrack. It’s called “reputation management”. It’s what many journalists end up doing when they lose their jobs, as they nearly all do.
Not me. I am not going to “manage” anyone’s reputation, thank you. Let your actions speak. Let your heart be exposed. Let others judge whether you are a force for good. There comes a time when your money, your power and your office, as Roman Abramovich is discovering, cannot hide the truth.
You sup with the devil, you reap the rewards. Well, that’s what we’d like to believe. We would like to believe that a government that supped with many close to Putin, took their cash, stayed at their castles, promised power, policies and peerages, which they often delivered, will be shown for what it is. The trouble is, it might not be.
I’m sorry to say this, because it’s a very unpleasant thing to say, but Boris Johnson has looked happier since the war started than he has done for a long time. I’m not saying he’s pleased the war has started. I wouldn’t want to say that of anyone. But we all know that he has always wanted to be Churchill and he seems to think this is his chance.
In some ways, all of this seems irrelevant, because a country is being destroyed, pregnant women and children are being murdered, families are slaughtered as they try to flee.
This has happened many times in our lifetime. It has happened in Syria for years. People are always suffering, dying and being tortured as we fiddle with our phones and think about whether or not to buy a new sofa.
The difference here is that the man who has launched this war has nuclear weapons and, according to the people who know him best, isn’t bluffing when he threatens to use them.
I never thought I would live through a pandemic. I certainly never thought I would live through World War III. If we’re lucky, we won’t, though some people think it has already started. Fiona Hill, for example, one of America’s top Russia experts, when asked in Politico if we’re “on the brink of World War III”, replied: “we’re already in it”. When asked if Putin would actually carry out his threats to use nuclear weapons, she said: “The thing about Putin is, if he has an instrument, he wants to use it.” When I read the interview, my blood ran cold.
So yes, this is deadly serious and that’s why I can’t sleep. But we still have to live our lives, we still have to do our work, we still have to be good friends, neighbours, parents, brothers, sisters, daughters and sons. We can give money (for example, to the Disasters Emergency Committee) and we can hope, but staring at the news all day long and raging on social media isn’t going to stop Putin. At the moment, it’s not clear what will.
And so I have been thinking a lot about death. I always think a fair bit about death, to be honest, but there’s nothing like a madman waving his nukes to make you think about death more. If Putin pressed the button tomorrow, how would I feel about my life? How would I feel about my work? What would I be most proud of?
When I was diagnosed with cancer for the second time when I was 46, I thought that if the cancer killed me, I would die a failure. That feels like a very harsh assessment now, but it’s honestly how I felt. For all kinds of reasons, I don’t feel that now. Perhaps the main one is that I’ve written the book I’ve always wanted to write. On publication day, 17th February, I had a lovely lunch with my wonderful editor, Imogen Taylor, and my wonderful publicist, Rosie Margesson. I did a lovely event that night at Waterstones Piccadilly. Some of you came to it. Thank you for coming. It made me very happy.
A week later, on the day of my book launch, the war started. Since then, life has been a mix of joy and grief. On the up side, my book has had some wonderful reviews, in The Observer, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, the I paper, The Mirror, The Express and, er, Woman’s Own. On the down side. Well, see above.
Laura Pullman in The Sunday Times said this: “Written with savage honesty about grief and sibling rivalry, this book slices deeply. A memoir about family loyalty and gut-wrenching goodbyes but it serves too as a wise guide from someone who has endured more than her share of life's slings and arrows, and has still come out swinging”
Alex Preston in The Observer said this: “A bracing, heart-lifting read. Patterson is a superb writer - part of the redemptive message of this memoir is that beautiful prose can make almost anything bearable. Outside the Sky is Blue is a lesson in generosity, in accommodation, but most of all it's a lesson in resilience”
Both reviews made me very happy indeed, but Alex Preston’s really made me think. I think he has captured one of my core beliefs, and one I wasn’t even sure I held. Can beautiful prose make almost anything bearable? I don’t know, but it can go a long way. What I do know is that we should cling to art and beauty and love and kindness while we have it.
Speaking of kindness, I would like to ask a favour. Obviously, I would love it if you bought my book. I would also be incredibly grateful if you could leave a review on Amazon if you like it. The world has changed and although reviews in the national press do make a difference to sales, what really makes a difference is reviews on Amazon. You don’t need to have bought your copy on Amazon to leave a review. Here’s how to do it.
It’s hard to know how to talk about what’s happening in the news at the moment, but I’ll continue to try. I’ll be on Sky News tomorrow night (12th March) at 10.30pm and 11.30pm and on The Jeremy Vine Show on Channel 5 on Tuesday (15th March) from 9.15am till 11.15am. I’ll then be back on Sky News on Saturday 26th March, Saturday 2nd April and Saturday 30th April.
I’m doing a number of book events over the next few months. Do come along and say hello if you can!
Monday 21 March at 7pm
I’ll be in conversation with Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK at 7pm. It’s an online event and you can book here.
Thursday 31 March at 12pm
I’ll be at Edinburgh, doing a “Gliterary lunch” with James Runcie at the Intercontinental Hotel. Details here.
29th April at 6pm
I’ll be at Tunbridge Wells Literary Festival at 6pm. Details to follow.
Friday 6th May at 7.30pm
I’ll be at the Swindon Festival of Literature. Details to follow.
Saturday 7th May at 8pm
I’ll be at the Aye Write! literary festival in Glasgow. Details to follow.
Sunday 15th May at 3pm
I’ll be at the Bath literary festival, in conversation with Mark Lawson and my dear friend and fellow memoirist Arifa Akbar. Details to follow.
Thursday 19th May, 12.30pm
I’ll be the guest at the Authors’ Club lunch at the National Liberal Club, London. Details here.
It would be lovely to see you.