On grief, beauty and a lovely literary lunch
Speaking truth, sipping wine and finding joy
Last week, while Russian teenagers were slaughtering Ukrainian children, I had a lovely time. That’s horrible to write, and shocking to read, but it’s true.
I got on a plane to take part in a “gliterary lunch”. I might as well write that I fiddled while Rome burned, or that I ate cake and drank Viognier as I watched a genocide unfold.
And I did. That’s exactly what I did. To be fair – not that I particularly want to be fair – I did put down my phone for a while. I did stop scrolling through the snuff movie that Twitter has become, and the accounts by military experts of why Ukraine was winning/losing/doomed/bound to triumph, depending on their perspective and, let’s be honest, their personality.
Optimists are more likely to think that plucky little David will beat genocidal Goliath. They are more likely, in fact, to think that what they want will happen. It must be nice to live in their heads.
I couldn’t look at my phone while I was in the air, and I also had a book to read for the “gliterary lunch”. So I pushed Ukraine out of my head and watched the city I live in shrink to a toy town and then give way to a green patchwork quilt. I read my book – my brilliant book – and when the flight attendant offered me a cup of coffee and a chocolate brownie I savoured every mouthful and every sip.
The coffee and brownie were free. Well, not exactly, because the flight, I saw from the e-ticket my publisher had sent through, was unbelievably expensive, but they were free to me. It’s such a long time since I’ve been on a flight paid for by someone else, one that offers “complimentary” coffee and cake, or even gin and tonic and crisps, which is what I had on the way back. It’s such a long time since I’ve been on a work trip, and been put up in a fancy hotel. It was like being back in a world I’d forgotten, one where corona was a beer and a virus was a cold.
All of this was treat enough, but then there was the book. It’s by James Runcie. It’s called The Great Passion. It’s set in Leipzig in 1726. It’s written in the voice of Stefan Silbermann, an organ-maker’s son who’s training as a singer in the St Thomas Church Choir. Stefan, who’s eleven, is bullied by his fellow pupils, but his talent is recognised by the choir director, Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach is mourning the loss of his most recent child. He’s also composing a new work: the St Matthew Passion.
At the time he wrote it, Bach had buried four of his children. By the time he died, he had buried 11 of the 20 he had with his two wives. I think it’s fair to say he knew more about grief than most of us, and he poured that into his work. What Runcie has done in The Great Passion is capture that process of artistic creation, born out of anguish and rage.
After it’s performed for the first time, Friedelena, sister of Bach’s late first wife, Maria Barbara, clasps her brother-in-law’s hands. “It is more than we ever thought possible,” she tells him, “the knowledge of grief, the depth to the sorrow. You told one story and yet, at the same time, it seemed that you were telling all the stories that have ever been told.”
That’s what great art does. As Runcie said, when he gave his talk at the “gliterary lunch” at the St George Hotel the next day, the challenge is to “turn grief into beauty”. That’s what Bach did and that’s what Runcie has done in his wonderful novel. It’s what I’ve tried to do in Outside, the Sky is Blue. I have largely failed, of course, because we never fully succeed. We can only, as Beckett said, try to “fail better”.
For the first few weeks after the war in Ukraine started, I couldn’t sleep. I was haunted by the horror and also by the threat of nuclear annihilation, which is more real than it has ever been. This is a battle about the future world order and it isn’t clear who’s going to win. Viktor Orban has just won another term as Prime Minister of Hungary. It seems to be a great time to be a “hard man”. If you rig the media, you can win anything.
So what do we do?
We carry on living. We carry on doing our work, whatever that might be. Those of us who write will try to write truthfully about the world, and try to capture the pain, but also the beauty and joy. And we try to encourage our governments to do the right thing. Yes, to give “lethal aid” to Ukraine, but also to cut the red tape they are deliberately putting in the paths of people trying to flee.
And when they don’t do the right thing, when, for example, they rescue dogs from a country, but not the translators who risked their lives to serve us, we just have to live with the shame.
Last weekend, I went to a fundraising gala: “Poets for Ukraine”. When I say I went, I mean I watched and listened on Zoom. The poets who took part included Jackie Kay, Carol Ann Duffy, Imtiaz Dharker, Andrew Motion, Hannah Lowe and Gillian Clarke. Poet and photographer Anastasia Taylor-Lind, then in Lviv and about to set off for Kyiv, read poems she had written from earlier phases of the war in Ukraine, and showed photographs of mothers standing at their children’s graves.
Harriet Walter read part of Anna Akhmatova’s poem “Requiem”, inspired by the arrest of her common-law husband, Nikolay Punin and then the arrest and trial of her son, Lev.
I’ll never forget: when you kissed me —
The chill of your lips; on your brow —
Cold sweat. Now like wives throughout history,
I’ll stand by the Kremlin and howl.
(Translated by Stephen Capus.)
Akhmatova was born in Odessa, which is currently being shelled from the sea. She howled, she resisted, she stayed, she survived and her work lives on.
I’m doing a number of book events over the next few months. Do come along and say hello if you can!
29th April at 6pm
I’ll be at Tunbridge Wells Literary Festival at 6pm. Details here.
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 here.
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 here.
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.
I continue to be grateful for any kindness towards my book on social media, Amazon, bookshop websites, or that old-fashioned thing: real life. Whatever you think of Jeff Bezos and his monolith, Amazon reviews really do make a difference. You don’t need to have bought your copy on it to leave a review. Here’s how to do it.