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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear