One bitterly cold afternoon this week I received a visit from K, a Lithuanian woman in her early sixties who’s lived in New York for some twenty years. K had made the long bus journey from North Queens to uptown Manhattan to collect a package I’d brought over from the Lithuanian angel, R, who is the linchpin of our transatlantic life, looking after house, dogs and twenty somethings back in Wimbledon.
K refused my first two offers to come up to the apartment for a cup of tea, but finally relented. During the forty minutes we spend together, I learned that K and R are old friends who both left Lithuania in 1996, crossing great expanses of water in search of better lives. K ended up in New York, where she met her American husband in a dance hall in Brooklyn. (When she told me this I couldn’t help picturing the dance hall scenes in Colm Toibin’s beautiful novel, Brooklyn). The husband died eighteen months ago, and K said she was still trying to work out how to live without him.
“Trouble is,” she said, “ New York is not very friendly place. People do not want to know.”
She said there wasn’t a big Lithuanian community she could rely on because most Lithuanians who came to America ended up in Chicago. She went on to talk about her life here, the types of jobs she’d had over the years, how many of the people she’d worked for had looked down on her, turning up their noses at her thick accent.
“Sometimes they shout at me, say they cannot understand me, like it is my fault and I am somehow less intelligent,” she said. “Even though I speak four languages and they only speak one. Even though I have seen all kinds of countries in the world, and many of them have never been out of state. Sixty percent of Americans never even left the state. Can you imagine! And they say America best country in the world. Always this arrogance. The best! The best! How do they know this? When they never leave the place.”
Then she said she felt that things had got worse for immigrants since the 2016 election, that the atmosphere was somehow more hostile, less welcoming. “And anyway, as woman alone, it is difficult to go out. I cannot go to film or restaurant by myself. And so I stay in and watch the news. All day, all evening, sometimes until three o’clock in the morning. Always MSNBC or CNN, not that Fox rubbish. I think I am addicted.”
It turned out that although K missed her husband, life with him had been no picnic. He was a Republican, she a Democrat. He watched Fox News, which she couldn’t abide. “Those crazy people, shouting nonsense and not listening. Eventually we get two TV’s, one in bedroom and one in sitting room, and we watch separately.”
She said it would have been okay if she and her husband could have debated like civilised people. But he had refused to hear her point of view, or to explain his. And this, she felt, was the problem with modern politics. People shouting rather than debating, people turning their backs on opinions they didn’t like, refusing to budge, refusing, even, to discuss.
‘I wish,” she lamented, “That someone had warned me when I came to this country. I wish someone had said, before you choose your husband, make sure you check his politics first. But I didn’t know anything about American politics. I didn’t know what a Republican was, and I didn’t know to ask. ”
After K went back out into the cold (leaving behind a box of chocolates that has since had disastrous consequences), I thought about how everything she’d said was so apposite in light of the week’s events: Trump rejecting a bipartisan agreement to protect DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an immigration bill to give protection to the children of illegal immigrants who entered the country before 2007), while mouthing off about immigrants from ****hole countries and then lying about it. Prominent Republicans shamelessly defending him and lying on his behalf. No wonder the atmosphere feels hostile and unwelcoming to people like K. It feels pretty hostile to most reasonable people.
The DACA crisis, arriving hot on the heels of a year in politics that might accurately be described as a continuous assault on equality, democracy, justice and truth, means that there was plenty to protest about during Saturday’s Women’s March. The march isn’t meant to be anti-Trump, exactly, but it is anti everything Trump stands for – against the de-funding of planned parenthood, racism, climate change deniers, and those who think sexual assault can be spun as a joke.
During the run up to Saturday, I thought hard about what would I be marching for, and what message I would put on my placard. At one point I settled on this as my slogan: ****HOLE OR ****HOUSE – IT’S ALL THE SAME KIND OF WRONG FROM A PRESIDENT WHO KNOWS NO RIGHT. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to walk around with those ugly, negative words all over my placard, even if they were simply repeats of the words Trump had denied saying.
I decided, instead, to focus on the thing that seems to underlie all of the issues for which people are marching, and all that is wrong with political discourse today. A failure of truth. People in power telling lies. And other people telling lies to support the original liars.
This failure of truth isn’t unique to Trump’s presidency and American politics. There’s the stench of untruth in the UK air too. SPEAK THE TRUTH, is something I’d love to have the opportunity to say to the likes of Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnel, Teresa May, Boris Johnson, the hard Brexiteers, and the revoltingly smug Emily Thornberry. Especially Emily Thornberry.
Is it naïve to think that our leaders and representatives could be persuaded to tell the truth all, or even most of the time? Undoubtedly. Is it wrong to insist that they should be more truthful, and to hope that they might be? I don’t think so.
So here was my original placard: On one side, SPEAK THE TRUTH. And on the other, that well known Desmond Tutu quote (itself a variation on an eighteenth century Edmund Burke quote): IF YOU ARE NEUTRAL IN SITUATIONS OF INJUSTICE, YOU HAVE CHOSEN THE SIDE OF THE OPPRESSOR.
At the last moment, I also found I wanted to say something specific about DACA as well. So I made another placard saying the following: WE DON’T ACCEPT CONTINUAL ASSAULTS ON JUSTICE, DEMOCRACY AND THE TRUTH.
Faced with a choice, L1 advised going with the Desmond Tutu quote. I was worried that it might be unoriginal, but he was adamant:”Who needs original when you’ve got brilliant? It says everything you need to say. It puts the Trump supporters to shame. Go with it.”
In the end, and on the advice of my friend M, a veteran marcher, I went wth a double sided placard, with Desmond Tutu on one side and DACA, justice, democracy and truth on the other. Just before M arrived, I received a text from our middle daughter. Please be careful mum, it said. What are you worried about? I texted back, dismissively. The Women’s March isn’t the type of thing to attract lots of counter protest. It just isn’t that vibe.
Minutes later M arrived. The first thing she did was take a black sharpie from her bag and begin writing on the inside of her forearm. “Best to have an emergency contact number readily available,” she said. “In case it gets ugly and you get trampled or attacked and left at the side of the road or something.”
I duly wrote L1’s mobile number on my own forearm.
M and I set out, placards clasped to our sides, (hers read IMPEACH THE ORANGE) to walk across the park to Central Park West, where the march was supposed to start on seventy second street. And it was a beautiful day for a march – clear blue sky, sunny, mild.
There were so many people already gathered on the West Side that we decided to join the crowd at sixty sixth street, where we waited for almost an hour and a half for the march to actually start marching. During that waiting time there was plenty of good natured chanting, much of it instigated by the fearless and relentlessly upbeat M. What does Democracy Look Like? Democracy looks like this!, and No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here, and later, What time is it? Mueller time! But still, we were anxious to start moving. Holding a placard above your head while stationary is hard on the triceps. We needed momentum to soothe the pain.
But standing still for so long did allow us to appreciate to full brilliance of the signage around us. Such boldness. Such ingenuity. Such humour. I urge you to go online and check them out. I think my favourite signs were the simplest.
SO MANY ISSUES – NOT ENOUGH SIGN.
TRUTH – WE MISS YOU
I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M STILL PROTESTING THIS SHIT
UGH. WHERE DO I EVEN START?
Though this one also had a certain charm.
Finally, we started moving. I don’t know what happened, whether the police removed a few barriers, or some random protester shouted GO!, but suddenly we were putting one step in front of the other and moving along Central Park West to Columbus Circle. Then, non-placard brandishing supporters seemed to appear out of nowhere. People with super powerful hand-held speakers who stood to the side of the crowds, broadcasting rousing tunes by Stevie Wonder, Taylor Swift, the Stones and Aretha Franklin. An amateur marching band, complete with trombones, tubas, flutes and drums. The atmosphere was electric. But despite the enormous range of issues written on placards, the march definitely had one overriding, unmistakeable theme, captured by the chant that erupted as we marched past the giant black and gold edifice that is the Trump Tower at Columbus Circle: Hey ho, hey ho, Donald Trump has got to go! The employees standing on the steps of the building looked utterly miserable. They probably wanted to join us, but knew that their livelihoods depend on their being respectfully silent.
We encountered just one small group of counter protesters. They stood on the north east corner of Columbus Circle shouting Trump for veterans before immigrants, as if anyone had said that the two groups were in opposition, as if it were a zero sum game of either/or. No one paid any attention to them, though I heard a few marchers make comments along the lines of poor them, misguided souls that they are.
But the week wasn’t all about marches, politics and weighty topics like truth and justice. I also went to my very first cocktail party in the city, at the trendy and chic Soho House no less. (I say I, not we, because L1 was attending to client business in Chicago). Naturally, I was worried about what to wear and the fact that my unmanicured nails would almost certainly not be up to snuff. My realtor friend C had this advice on attire: anything so long as it’s black. If you dress down, ramp up the jewellery. If you dress up, then no jewellery. Clint (who saw to it that my hair, at least, would be up to snuff) was broadly in agreement. He thought the Soho House venue meant that I could get away with black jeans, a good blouse and great jewellery if I was feeling brave. Otherwise, a simple black dress or “a pair of those great high waisted palazzo trousers by Balenciaga”. Sorry, didn’t have any of those, but I did have something like them from Zara, which I wore with what I hoped Clint would consider to be a good blouse.
In the end, my outfit was the least of my problems. Finding the club was the real challenge. The cab driver was too lazy to circumnavigate all the road works on Ninth Avenue, so dropped me off somewhere on the outskirts of Eastern Siberia and instructed me to walk west. In fact, the club was east of where he left me, something I discovered after ten minutes walking in the wrong direction, in what felt like actual Siberian weather. Realising my mistake, and cursing myself for my inability to follow Googlemap instructions (I never seem to know which way I’m facing), I spun around and walked back towards where I’d come from, stopping next to a line of people queuing for entry to something – not sure what, but it wasn’t Soho House. I must have looked dazed, confused and on the verge of freezing to death, because a nice man leapt forward and said “Can I help you? Soho House?” I nodded, not bothering to wonder how he knew where I was headed, and he promptly took me by the elbow and walked me towards the club. Turned out he was a homeless veteran just trying to make a dollar or two by showing kindness to strangers. He was certainly very kind to me. Had he not shown me to the door of the club (which would appear to pride itself on being unidentifiable from the street) I would almost certainly still be wandering aimlessly through the Meatpacking District. So I scrabbled around in my clutch for a few dollars and thrust them into his hands. As I walked into the club he shouted out, “Don’t worry. I know what y’all think. But I won’t drink it.”
After this, the ordeal of having to walk into a cocktail party full of strangers by myself was a doddle. I grabbed a glass of white wine from the first waiter I saw, took a few glugs, and launched myself onto a cluster of guests who’d been chatting quite happily amongst themselves and certainly didn’t need me to start asking them questions about how they knew the hosts and where they were from and all that standard cocktail party chit chat. But needs must. When you’re going solo you have to be bold. It was a lovely party and I met some fine women, who I’ll look forward to seeing again.
The most difficult thing I did this week, by a long shot, was not deciding on the right slogan for my placard, or holding my own at a cocktail party, but beginning work on my new novel. Starting and finishing are definitely the most difficult bits of novel writing. When starting, you have to grapple with the dozens of untidy pages of rambling ideas you’ve been scribbling down for months, and do the hard yards of working out whether they can actually be made into a story with a proper plot. You have to take the characters you’ve been dreaming about in a vague way and give them names and ages and parents and backstories. You have to find out what their voices sound like, what kinds of things they say, how they hold a fork, the way they enter a room. It’s painful and difficult work, and it’s fantastically easy to convince yourself that you’re not yet ready to do it, that you really need to spend a few more weeks dancing around your idea.
And even if you’ve decided that today’s the day you’ll begin (There’s a great Mary Wollstonecraft quote: The beginning is always today. Maybe that should have been on my placard), you have to sit down in front of a blank piece of paper or a blank screen (or in my case, both) and actually begin writing stuff that will give shape and purpose to your imaginary world. When I did so on Wednesday of this week, I felt as though I needed to picture myself bound by thick rope to my chair, because anything, ANYTHING, looked more appealing than deciding things like whether my main character was going to be called Jules or Roberta, and whether the person who would eventually help her out of the fix in which she found herself would be American or Norwegian. I sat, pencil hovering over notebook, willing myself to resist the urge to get up and make another cup of coffee, eat another plate of scrambled eggs, go to the gym, write this blog.
And while I fought the desire to get up from the table, I was trying to close the door of my mind to the devil thoughts that, apparently, plague anyone who writes. Why does anyone need another novel by me? (They don’t) If my agent didn’t like the last four manuscripts I submitted, why would he like this one? (He probably won’t.) Why, for that matter, doesn’t he return my calls and emails? (He’s busy? He’s being cruel to be kind? He’s rude?) My last published novel came out a decade ago – is it possible I’ve forgotten how to do it? (Yup.) And is it also possible that I’ve already used up my allocated share of writers’ good fortune? (Afraid so.)
The devil thoughts buzzed around in my head, noisy and irritating as flies. They will probably continue to do so for the entirety of the time I spend writing this novel. I don’t know what to do except bat them away, swat them with a newspaper if ever I get the chance.
Jules or Roberta. American or Norwegian. I chose Roberta and American. And so it began. Five hundred words one day, another five hundred the next. Only ninety nine thousand to go.