I think I can’t really listen to the news from Aleppo. Then I think I must listen to the news from Aleppo. I listen to it with my face screwed up. I think: if they can live through it, I can listen to it. I wonder sometimes about the importance of being a witness, of having a witness. Is that what listening to the news does?
I hear the note of exhausted despair in Jeremy Bowen’s voice as he reports for the BBC. He’s been reporting for the BBC from the Middle East since the old Queen died and I don’t think he’s ever been able to say ‘Well, John or Nick or Sarah or Justin or Mishal, the good news is...’ There is a note of bleak resignation in his voice as he tells his story. It is as if he has given up hope that he might ever have a good story to tell.
I listen and then my mind starts moving away, as if it would like to pretend that the unfolding horror is not happening. Can’t think about that, says the mind; it’s too much. And then it circles back and tries, for a moment, to imagine what it must be like for human beings to live in a place where there is no humanity, where everything is destroyed, where there is no sense or reason or end in sight, where nothing works, where the usual rules of civilisation are a joke. What hand-hold is there, for those people? What metaphorical lifebelt is there for them to cling to?
I never know what the answer is to the big questions. I don’t know the answer to slaughter and torture and fundamentalism and natural disasters and refugee camps as big as a county. I don’t know why one set of people hates another set of people because of the colour of their skin or the order of their chromosomes or the nature of their god. My usual remedy, if it can be called a remedy, is to run back to the small things, because the small things are the only ones that make any sense at all. I cling on to the small things with a dogged hope, a stupid optimism, a cussed defiance, as if I can really restore order and equilibrium by staring at a tree or listening to someone who needs to talk.
This kind of works. Only kind of. The big questions still laugh at my puny plan, but the small things are amazingly present and they do pitch up every day and they are oddly reliable. They stack up. They make no grand promises, but they are always there, beavering away like little woodland animals.
And then, in all this thinking, in all this hurly burly, in all this incomprehensible world sadness, I notice the small things that don’t help. These are small in the sense that they are so inconsequential they should not matter. Someone says something pedantic and slightly crushing; someone is disdainful; someone is momentarily rude. Tiny, fleeting things that will be forgotten in a week, in a day perhaps. But I think: why would you do that? I know not every day is Doris Day, I know that all humans cannot always be their best selves, I know that sometimes one wants to shout and stomp and swear and tell everyone to fuck off. I know that skipping around like Polly-bloody-Anna can be absolutely maddening. Yet all the same, I wonder about those little crushers, those moments of bad grace, those careless words that smash down instead of build up.
I think about the quality of restraint. Does everyone have to say the thing they are thinking at the exact moment they think it? Is the great experiment in free expression that is the internet leading to a twisted sense of entitlement? I have visions of people saying to themselves: I’m not being rude, I’m exercising my fundamental human right to free speech.
Speech is precious. Not everyone has it. With rights come responsibilities. You can use words to tear down, or you can use them to lift up. This is in every person’s gift. Everyone has the choice. And I wonder sometimes why people choose the negative rather than the positive.
There was a man on the Today programme this morning who was an absolute bore. He was filled with his own importance, utterly devoid of charm, and carried a whiff of entitlement with him. It was a very unattractive combination. I felt the usual desire to throw heavy objects. I almost sat down to the Twitter and vented my dislike. I was about to type something cheap and bitchy. And then I thought: why? What would it achieve? It would not suddenly turn a rather second-rate human into a shining exemplar of all the virtues. He would not grow an instant sense of humour and some nice humility. And perhaps he had friends and family who might read the cheap shot and feel sad. (I also have a secret entirely improbable dream that when the public figures come on the wireless and bore for Britain they are performing a heroic double bluff. I tell myself that they are absolute pistols in private life, singing show tunes and making people fall about laughing.)
Anyway, I didn’t bitch him up in the end. I went downstairs and took my small friend to see the big horses. ‘Can I feed them?’ she said, gazing in awe and wonder at the gentle mares. ‘They are very big. They are very soft. Oh, she tickled my ear.’
The smaller of the two mares had been rolling, and was covered in mud from the tips of her sweet ears to the end of her dear tail. My tiny friend, who is four, gazed at her for a while and then pronounced. ‘She needs a wash,’ she said.
That’s better, I thought. That’s better than venting my spleen on some hapless stranger. Try and choose the good, I thought, even if that good is so small you need a microscope to see it. Because all the minuscule goods do add up to something, in the end. Something better, lighter, brighter. That is what I hope is true. I remember my EM Forster. ‘We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, and it is no good moving from place to place to save things; because the shadow always follows. Choose a place where you won't do harm - yes, choose a place where you won't do very much harm, and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine.’