“How are things with you?” asked my friend as we chatted recently. “Oh you know…OK…” I said. “But I’m finding it ever so difficult to write my blog. I’d really like to do one for February but the truth is I’m stuck.”
“Why don’t you write a blog about it being hard to write a blog?” she said. That bit of encouragement got me thinking. I played with ideas ranging from boredom to persimmons, and from a self-help treatment for insomnia to a curious conversation overheard on a cliff. But I couldn’t make any of it work. It’s hard to engage with the small topics when the news is full of weighty issues like global warming, the fall-out from the pandemic, Government incompetence, and the energy crisis. And then this week a nightmare was unleashed with Putin’s attack on Ukraine—war in Europe on a scale we have not seen for 75 years and hoped never to see again.
My son has lived in Latvia for the past nine years and through him our family has been reminded often of how much the current Russian leadership is feared in the former Soviet Bloc states. In the past few days we’ve kept in close touch via our WhatsApp family group and he is profoundly angry. “Make no mistake,” he says, “Ukraine may not be a perfect state but this is an entirely unprovoked attack. Ukraine is fighting for the civilised world.” He is full of admiration for the bravery currently being shown in Ukraine. Yesterday morning he shared a video of the President, Prime Minister and other cabinet members staring earnestly in what looked like an amateur recording, telling their people from a city under bombardment that they were still there and would continue to fight for freedom. The direct gaze of these men facing out such horrific events brought me and no doubt millions of others to tears. Tears for their commitment and for what they and others will suffer.
We’re only just starting to come out of a pandemic that has rocked the world and while this has been a time of turmoil and suffering, this week’s bad news stories are completely different. Covid was—give or take the important arguments about it arising from mankind’s encroachment into the animal world—an unplanned phenomenon. The invasion of Ukraine is a calculated act of human evil. There were things that we could do to feel useful in the pandemic and precautions we could take—maybe you have memories from the early days of offering help to neighbours through the many hastily-assembled community groups and of wiping supermarket delivery items with disinfectant and putting the mail into isolation for several days. With the Ukrainian violations, ordinary people can only watch as events unfold. It’s awful to feel so angry and yet so helpless.
As it happened, we were in London yesterday following a birthday theatre trip with my younger daughter on Thursday, and a day of DIY and hall painting with my elder daughter on Friday. It was easy to get a number 88 bus from Clapham Common to Downing Street and so that’s what we did. We joined the demonstration in support of Ukraine taking place under the penetrating gaze of General Montgomery’s statue in Whitehall.
The crowd grew rapidly from noon onwards with great splashes of blue and yellow. People wrapped themselves in Ukrainian flags and many had cheeks daubed with face paint. The colours of the Ukrainian flag represent blue skies above the yellow fields of grain, a reminder of two essentials of a good life—freedom and bread. There was no raised podium and I heard snatches of impromptu speeches in English but couldn’t make out much of what was being said. And I heard other speeches in what I assume was Ukrainian. I understood none of the words. But the sentiments were clear. We were all there for one reason. There was sadness, outrage, desperation.
“Save Ukraine,” shouted a man we could not see, and the crowd volleyed it back in a rally of support, over and over again. There was also plenty of “Putin Out Putin Out” and “Cancel SWIFT Cancel SWIFT.” A police officer told me that Johnson was at work in Downing Street, just a matter of yards away.
I saw a young woman carrying a placard that read, “I’m Russian. I’m against the war.’ She looked drawn and tense. “May I take your photo?” I asked. “Of course,” she said, standing still to pose. “I am so sorry,” she said sadly. “So sorry about Russia.”
We have to hope that Putin has miscalculated. And we have to hope that the protests of Russians at home will gather momentum. My elder daughter went on from Whitehall to see a play at the Bridge Theatre and reported that at the end, after the cast took their bow, they made an announcement, sharing the statement made by the director of the Moscow State Theatre who has resigned her post saying she can no longer take a salary from a murderer. She’s a courageous woman who will probably lose her career and possibly much more. Anyone who protests in Russia is very brave. They risk being beaten by the police to the point of brain damage or death. Many Russians of all ages are innocent victims as Keir Starmer said this week. Young conscripts are fighting. They have been lied to and if they knew the truth their reaction would be horror and bafflement. Countless young people say that their generation does not want this war. They know it is immoral and that it will ultimately harm their own country—quite simply they are not in tune with Putin’s ambitions to turn the clock back. Media organisations are being silenced but on the positive side, it is near impossible to stop social media and Putin who is famously technophobic may well have underestimated the potential that it has to undermine propaganda and promote cohesion.
Whitehall was busy yesterday with the usual parade of buses passing through, mostly in regular London-red. But I looked up just as a couple of non-conformist buses went past. One was white with adverts all over for GoPuff which offers home deliveries of thousands of items including food, medicines, cleaning materials, electronics and baby essentials, in as little as fifteen minutes. The next bus was blue, and advertising a different company offering much the same service. We’ve become used to getting what we want, more and more quickly. We love to feel that we are in control of our lives. But one thing we cannot summon up with a phone app is peace and rational leaders. This week’s monstrous events have brought a powerful and terrifying reminder of that.
At the demonstration Mike and I stood close to a sturdy middle-aged man who was holding a guitar. He strummed it vigorously for about five seconds, then stopped only for the Ukrainian national anthem to take over, blaring from a hidden speaker in his clothing, distorted and crackly. It was followed by We’ll Meet Again. Although the significance of the Ukrainian anthem was obvious I wasn’t so sure about Vera Lynn. But as the words boomed out, familiar and clear despite the crackling, I changed my mind. It’s about people being separated from those they love by events outside their control. Just what so many of the Ukrainian families I was standing alongside must be experiencing. Fundamentally it’s about the important things—family, love, people, hope and justice. For months now I’ve had a hand scribbled note pinned above my desk—Choose to be kind. Needless to say that’s a work in progress but now more than ever when so much else feels out of control it seems worth striving towards in all kinds of day-to-day small-scale situations.
Being at the demonstration of support did a little to assuage my total feeling of helplessness, even though it was infinitesimally infinitesimal. It was good to stand with others, like-minded on this issue, and to remember that most people are good. Also to know that my son was in a similar demonstration hundreds of miles away outside the Russian Embassy in Riga—family, love, people, hope, justice.
This post has been outside my comfort zone. I’m much more used to writing about the boredom, persimmons, insomnia, overheard conversation kinds of things that I mentioned in the first paragraph. But I can’t ignore this and hope I’ve struck the right tone. Much more importantly, with demonstrations taking place in cities around the world I hope that news of the deluge of support reaches the Ukrainian people. They need to know they are not alone.* They need to know that we know they are fighting for the civilised world.
*Donations are a solid way to offer support. Until this week I never expected to be donating money to an army but this website has reliable suggestions.