Lesley Garner
Lesley Garner
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Everything I've ever
Learned about Change
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The Times of Our Lives

Everything I've Ever Learned About Change

May You Live in Interesting Times

When you are young and life seems slow and boring and
you moan that nothing ever changes around here, you long for
excitement and revolution. The first time you hear the Chinese
curse ‘May you live in interesting times,’ you can’t understand
why that would be a curse. What could be more fun?

In the spring of 1978 I was living in Afghanistan with my
husband and our six-month-old daughter. It was a great time to
be there. The country was peaceful, ancient and extremely beautiful.
Our windows looked out over rows of poplar trees to the snowcapped
mountains that surrounded Kabul. During the week my
husband worked as a doctor for Save the Children, training
Afghan doctors and nurses in rural health care. On Thursday
afternoons we left our modern house on the edge of the city and
drove round the feet of the mountains and their encrustations of
flat-topped houses to do our shopping in the bazaars.

I loved the bazaars of Kabul. In a warren of narrow streets
and alleyways you could change money, examine carpets, get
clothes made to measure, buy melons, huge pomegranates and
delicious grapes, try on heavy silver necklaces and find pots and
pans. There was a timelessness to the activity of the bazaars, even
when there were anachronistic details like the calculators of the
cross-legged money-changers or the red jewel that turned out to
be a chunk of reflector from a car light.

On the afternoon of 25 April my husband arrived home
and announced that the presidential palace was surrounded by
tanks. Nobody knew why. At the end of our side street we found
that there were tanks in the main road too. There were also buses
and bicycles and taxis and horses and carts and plenty of people
on foot. Life appeared to be normal, given a tank or two, so we
drove on.

It was very quiet as we did our shopping and something
made us decide to head home early. As we drove through the
streets there was a series of sudden explosions close by and the
Land Rover seemed to leap into the air. Home suddenly seemed
very far away.

During our anxious drive through an increasingly empty
city, past roadblocks that had sprung up, we saw that a pair of jet
fighters had appeared in the skies and seemed to be circling overhead.

Back home we locked our garden gate carefully and set
about our normal routine of unpacking our shopping, preparing
supper and bathing the baby. At one point we stood, damp baby
in arms, staring out of the back window of our house towards the
city centre, through the V-shape of the mountains, while the jets
spectacularly divebombed the area of the presidential palace. In the meantime the long avenue off which we lived was preparing to be the scene of an all-night tank battle.

Nothing can be more interesting than finding yourself
caught in a fast-moving moment of change, be it war, crime or natural
disaster. It’s terrifying maybe, baffling possibly, but interesting
absolutely. That night in Kabul when the history of the country
shifted on its axis was one of the most interesting nights of my
life. At first we phoned friends in other parts of town to find out
what was going on and nobody knew. My husband even thought
of going off for his regular game of squash until he phoned his
squash partner and was told that he was sheltering from shelling
under his kitchen table. Then the phone lines went dead.
Whatever was happening, we were on our own.

And it went on being interesting. We could hear the sounds of shelling, bombing and machine-gun fire. I sat writing
an over-excited letter home to my parents, not knowing when
they would get it. The journalist in me was thrilled even though –
maybe because – I knew we were in a dangerous situation.

Excitement and fear are inseparable companions. They are
both fuelled by large amounts of adrenaline. The mind races. The
body is alert. Excitement is pleasurable because you feel so alive.
In Afghanistan, as a journalist I knew that I was living in the middle
of the biggest story of my life and yet, as is often the way when
you are in the very middle of fast-changing events, I didn’t have
the slightest clue what was going on around me. Then, even as I
was writing my letter home, an explosion went off so close to the
house that the plate-glass windows rattled. My husband and I
leaped straight up the stairs, grabbed our sleeping baby from her
cot and ran back down to the kitchen, where we barricaded oureielac selves in with mattresses and tuned into the BBC World Service to
hear if somebody out there could tell us what was happening to
Afghanistan. That was how we passed the night.

As day dawned the machine-gun fire, shelling and bombing
stopped. Everything went quiet. The baby woke up, peered over
the edge of her carry-cot to see her parents lying on the kitchen
floor and crowed with delight. Something made me decide to
hard boil all the eggs in case the electricity was cut.

Gradually our neighbours emerged from hiding with their
own stories of the night. One family had been lined up against the
wall by gunmen and had had to talk themselves out of being shot.
Another neighbour had been blown off his feet by a shell which
had come through the window of his house. He and his family
had spent the night in the garden and found dead bodies on the doorstep in the morning.

We began to go out onto the streets and found bulletmarked
walls and broken glass everywhere. And still nobody had
an explanation for what had happened.

In time we learned that there had been a Russian-backed
coup d’état and the President and all his family had been shot.
Within weeks Russian advisers had moved into the ministries and
the many Western aid schemes had become paralysed. By the end
of that year the new American ambassador had been shot in a
botched kidnap rescue attempt and most Westerners, including
us, had left the country. A year later the Red Army rumbled in, to
be followed, in due course, by the growth of the Northern
Alliance, the rise of the Taliban, Al Quaida and the American-led
bombing of the country.

Interesting times are interesting because they are always
times of change. You have to pay extreme attention to understand
what is going on. What is at stake is the way things are and the
way they are going to be. The status quo, whether of a country or
a marriage or a way of thinking, is shifting fast. You can’t afford
to fall asleep.

The Chinese are right, though. Interesting times are far too
unsettling to live in. Even if your life is not at stake, your way of
life might be. And who can be alert all the time? We all deserve
space in which we can rest, even if we are only preparing for the
next attack of interestingness.
I offer a blessing instead of a curse. May you survive
interesting times and live to enjoy a little restful boredom.

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