Robert Peston: What will survive of us is love

BBC Business Editor Robert Peston explores the question "what makes us human" in the light of the tragic loss of his wife.

This is an online extract from this week’s New Statesman magazine, published on Thursday 3 October. To read the rest of the articles in our “What makes us human?” series, in collaboration with Radio 2, click here.

What is it to be human? Since the death of my wife, Sian Busby, about a year ago, I have been thinking a good deal about this. How could I not, having been wrenched savagely from the person with whom I have been in love for the best part of my life? It is a version of “what’s it all about?”

It is immediately clear to me that a small part of the answer is taking pride in the achievements of those to whom we feel closest, since I feel obliged at this juncture to tell you that Sian was a brilliant writer, wonderful mum, devoted sister and all-weather friend. And she was my soul mate.

Her last years demonstrated another quality of many humans: bravery. She was much braver than me, and her courage during five years of lung cancer was exceptional. Sian hoped for the best and was never pessimistic; she only ever revealed to me her fears and anxieties, protecting our children and friends, so that life could be as normal as possible; she rarely complained when wracked with acute pain. If she occasionally remarked that, as a non-smoker, rare drinker and healthy-living person, it seemed a bit unfair that she was afflicted with a disease more normally associated with a life of indulgence, would that be so terrible and shameful?

Sian was not a saint. She could be intolerant and damning of those she considered vain and stupid. But she was the best human I will ever know. 

What I really want to explore however is the link between the social – our connections with people – and the essence of being human. Sian built her life around mutually supportive, intimate friendships, which were often artistic collaborations. These connections for her were largely in the private sphere. In this sense, we were a “Jack Spratt” couple, because she did not enjoy public life, whereas I revel in trying to reach out to a wider audience – both through my work as a journalist, and through founding an education charity, Speakers for Schools.

One motive for setting up Speakers for Schools was a conviction that everything works better, the economy, communities, society in the broadest sense, when we are connected to as many varied people as possible. And the connection has to go both ways. It is a two-way pipe.

Life is dull and poor for those with limited knowledge and a narrow outlook. There are fewer opportunities to create wealth – material and spiritual – in the absence of challenging conversations. It is other people who help us both to see more of the world as it is, and to understand more about ourselves.

That is why I often think the eminences who go into state schools under our scheme derive as much benefit as the students whose ambitions they are trying to spark, because they are asked challenging questions that their entourages would never put to them, and they are taken out of their cossetting monied ghettos.

But the kernel of my reflections on humanness are about what it means to lose the physical presence of the person to whom you feel closest. What happens to the connection to the one you love when he or she dies? As you will have gathered, in an important way I feel lucky – because, for all my recent trauma and heartache, with Sian I had the kind of bond that for years I thought impossible. And just because Sian isn’t sitting next to me, that does not mean the bond or connection has gone.

Of course, there are really important things that I miss, beyond what words can convey. She was beautiful in every way, and just entering a room to be with her made me feel happy. The loss of physical intimacy is brutal, horrible.

But we also had an unusually deep intellectual and spiritual connection. That intangible connection cannot be destroyed; it is manifest in a continuing internal dialogue with Sian in my heart and head, and through the warmth that memories generate. 

We were always confident of the connection between us, not possessive of each other, or jealous of each other. This does not mean we were similar people or agreed about everything. She was (is) a Celtic artist; I am a Jewish hack. She kept my ugly vanity in check, and I helped her become more ambitious in her art and writing.

We were more as a couple than we could be apart. And more than anything I do not want to be made smaller by her departure; I will not allow myself to lose her wisdom and guidance.

Even when Sian was acutely ill, all I could see was the two of us growing old together. We knew intellectually that there was a high statistical probability that the lung cancer would kill her, but that was not a prognosis we accepted in an emotional sense. Neither of us was ready for or reconciled to her death.

Throughout our time together, we would often talk of being together forever – which may have been the unremarkable endearments of lovers, but there is, for me, an important truth in them. So here is another thing about being human. Many of us put a search for the eternal at the centre of our lives. As a Jew by birth and an agnostic through choice, I do not look for immutable truth in conventional religion. But I found something that transcends physical existence in my connection with Sian, my love for her.

That is what defines me, as a human.

Robert Peston is the BBC’s business editor

I found something that transcends physical existence in my connection with Sian. Image: Getty
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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt