I was in Vienna for a few days last month and kept seeing the stumbling stones, brass cobbles with the names and dates of death of the Jews and other victims of Nazism who had been dragged out of nearby buildings. I thought of my mother, who was in MI6 and was sent there after the Anschluss on 12 March 1938. Her job was deciding who was to get a visa, because Britain had its quotas and criteria (then, as now, the rich and useful were top of the list). We never knew whether the almost certain fate of the people she turned down weighed on her, but this episode in her life suddenly seemed particularly relevant. What will happen to the hundreds of Afghans who worked for us but whom we’ve left behind, largely because couldn’t decide early enough to say, “We’ll take them all”? Last month, Pope Francis emphasised how we should view refugees and immigrants in a positive light: “The Holy Spirit enables us to embrace everyone… In encountering the diversity of foreigners, migrants and refugees, and in the intercultural dialogue that can emerge from this encounter, we have an opportunity to grow as Church and to enrich one another.”
The pope is spot-on with most of his messages and the snare of media addiction has not escaped him. Back in Lent he said that we should free ourselves of everything “that weighs us down, like consumerism or an excess of information, whether true or false, in order to open the doors of our hearts”. But two apps kept me reaching for my iPhone because the shutter came down on Afghanistan with such shocking speed and they gave me an extraordinary if fragmentary sense of connection. Radio Garden shows you the radio stations all over the world and I can tell you that three weeks after the 15 August fall of Kabul, music was still being transmitted out of the capital and the towns of Sheberghan and Khost, despite the Taliban denouncing it as un-Islamic, and there were still women presenters. What I’d like to know is how Kabul could still be pumping out Western pop music and cheery British banter on BFBS; even their own spokesperson seemed rather puzzled by this. It must have really got up the noses of the Taliban. Perhaps that was the point. By mid-September, BFBS, local music and women’s voices were gone.
Flightradar24 is my other addiction. With little yellow planes moving around on the world map, it shows what’s in the air, with the type of aircraft, airline, number, altitude, speed, airports of origin and destination. I watched the huge Boeing Globemasters of the US forces and the RAF fly in and out, their destinations given as “n/a”. Then nothing after 30 August; for days Afghanistan became the only country in the world with apparently no flights in or out or overflights. Imagine my geeky excitement when I saw Ariana Afghan Airlines flight BM215 take off on Saturday 4 September from Mazar-i-Sharif in the north-east of the country, destination “n/a”, head for Tajikistan and suddenly disappear off the map. On Tuesday 7 September, I saw the return flight, BM216, landing at Mazar-i-Sharif, on a trajectory that seemed to connect with Kabul, which had just reopened its airport, but without radar or navigation systems, so the pilots were flying by sight alone.
Like most English people with houses in Italy, I am trying to make a garden. This is difficult because Enzo, my humorous, ingenious help has touching but different priorities: “Enzo, why is there a bramble growing in the rosemary clump?” “Because there is a leveret hiding there and I don’t want to frighten it.” “Enzo, the herbaceous border is as dry as a bone; is the automatic watering system broken?” “No, but I have turned it down because water is so expensive that I didn’t want you to have a shock.” “Enzo, there is an oak sapling growing among the roses, please could you remove it?” “Poor thing.” The English like rounded disorder, “Nature improved”, as they called it in the 18th century, while Italians like geometric gardens, so my hellebores have been planted in a row, like carrots. Italians also love pruning and shaping, and this is where Enzo has come into his own. The corner of the garden used to be filled with a pointless, 15ft-high clump of laurel. Now I can sit under it because he spontaneously cut away all the side branches so that it has become a huge, shady umbrella. We’ll get there together, eventually.
Anna Somers Cocks is a journalist, former museum curator and founder of the Art Newspaper
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