I Know Him So Well
Hello dear reader
A lot - A Lot - has happened since I last wrote to you. The news has, shall we say, been exceptionally newsy of late, and there have been many occasions where my little fingers have made their eager way to a keyboard only for the news to outnews itself so swiftly that your correspondent has to put them back in their pockets to wait another day.
This is not to say that today is especially auspicious. It’s just that quite soon I am afraid I will have to bother you with the cold dead hand of commerce as I have sunk a shed load of money into making my latest album and it’s probably a good idea if somebody bought a copy. String orchestras do not come cheap and neither do I. I’m of the go hard or go home school of thought: and - even though I’m not sure what it is anymore - art matters. (The less charitable among you might be thinking she’s getting ahead of herself and you may well be right, but there is both harp and flute on these new recordings, and they automatically qualify as highfalutin.)
With that out of the way, let us this pleasant (where I am) Saturday afternoon explore chess, US geostrategy in Central Asia and hairspray consumption of the mid to late 1980s.
To begin, we must go back to my childhood and the early days of my marriage. (There was a good twenty years in between before you fret that I was a child bride. Not at all. Like a much loved, one-lady-owner Y reg Mercedes, they’d enjoyed a few adventures but my ovaries were still in good working order as I stood at the altar.)
We were on holiday in Nantes, in the sort of posh French hotel that doesn’t bother with tellies in the room. The sort of place filled with the sort of people I fantasise that I might be one day - cigarillo smoking, single malt drinking, furrowed brow deep in concentration reading a leather bound first edition of The Second Sex and actually understanding it kind of people.
Given that it was early on in our marriage, my husband had not yet discovered that I am more stupid than I look, and neither had I, more’s the pity.
‘Do you like chess?’ He said, spying a chessboard laid out on a table overlooking the bay at night.
‘Oh I’m amazing at chess,’ I said. ‘Honestly! My father and I used to have games that went on forever when I was a kid and I’d always beat him in the end. I wouldn’t want to embarrass you.’
‘It’s alright. I’m sure I could take it.’
Reader, he checkmated me in five moves the first time, and in four the second.
Being really good at singing both parts of I Know Him So Well did not automatically make me a Grand Master, I realised. And either my Dad was really bad at chess, or he’d been letting me win all that time.
My husband - or as I later found out, Jersey Under 11s Chess Champion 1983 - has been trying to get me to read The Grand Chessboard by Zbigniew Brzezinski for ages. Whenever I airily announced how nice it was that we were friends with the Russians now or why on earth would we ever need an EU army or what even is NATO for anymore, he would tell me to read the book.
‘Don’t be silly, Putin will never invade,’ I told him last month, the way one might speak to the simple of mind.
‘Read the bloody book woman!’ This time he threw it at me.
Well. I have read it now.
Brzezinski was a Polish-American political scientist and advisor to the US government during the Cold War and, later, the Glasnost era. More pertinently, he was a major advocate for a strong and independent Ukraine being a bulwark against future Soviet expansion and geopolitical instability.
In the book, a chapter on Ukraine is entitled ‘The Black Hole’.
It makes for sobering reading.
This Godawful tragedy unfolding in Ukraine has brought with it nostalgia of the worst possible kind. When we children of the 80s were using enough aerosol-propelled hair products to single handedly erase the ozone layer, it bothered us, but not as much as the idea of Brezhnev pressing the big red button of goodbye. Ours was a generation brought up on death. Many of us spent a lot of our childhoods thinking we were going to die of AIDS, and if AIDS didn't get us, a nuke would. No wonder we were so obsessed with big hair. When death doesn’t seem that remote a possibility, you need superficial distractions.
Chess is a preposterous musical really. But it was either this or one about the Cuban Missile Crisis that Tim Rice had also been fermenting. A wise move in retrospect as with Khrushchev being bald the opportunities for big hair moments would have been severely reduced. One also struggles to see how to introduce the requisite romantic intrigue required - I dunno know about you, but my libido goes right down the pan any time I contemplate how many megatons it would take to level London (1) and how many feet of earth do I need between me and a Gamma ray to survive (3) and how many bags of compost would I need to order from the garden centre as a result (181).
You see I am - in the words of Destiny’s Child and my own number 61 hit from 2001 - a survivor. It’s hereditary. I was raised by a man who kept a seed store for the apocalypse and is never knowingly without three thousand tins of SPAM in his pantry at any given time. A man whose earliest memories are being a refugee while the Nazis occupied his home, and who was so worried by the whole Bay of Pigs episode he started stockpiling and never really stopped.
So, I want to live. And mercifully so do most people - even despots. People fight or people flee but always for the same reason - they want to live. They even want their pets to live too, and will clutch cats, dogs, ferrets, hamsters - you name it - with the same resolve as they do their children while they make their way through terrifying conditions to safety.
‘Life’s longing for itself’, Gibran says so beautifully. Or, dare I say it, as Sting sings in Russians:
‘I'm sure the Russians love their children too.’
Nobody knows what comes next. But while the news continues to news on a minute by minute basis, remember: we are more connected than we have ever been, more aware of our universal human condition and the need for empathy (the remarkable fund-raising in recent days bears testament to that) and the next generations will not be kept down by corrupt old war hungry men for much longer. On any side.
In the meantime, what can we do but appreciate each moment as it comes? Every single stupid moment. Opening a tap and having water come straight out of it. Waiting bleary eyed for the kettle to boil first thing in the morning. Stationery traffic at Junction 16 of the M25. Standing in the rain at the Under 9’s Football on a Sunday morning with a hangover. Sitting at a desk in the early spring sunshine. Apple turnovers. A dog moving their legs in their dream. Two magpies arriving unannounced outside your window. The smell of freshly cut lawns. Bin day.
Take ‘em all, I say. A moment is a moment is a moment.
Stay well and stay lucky my friend,