top of page
  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #143

Yesterday a colleague asked me, “why don’t you take a day off?”. And I replied, “because I love working and I am a workaholic”. Both these things are right. But when I woke up this morning I felt strangely exhausted. No, it wasn’t a hangover or regular fatigue. It was a sense that my brain and body just couldn’t operate together. And I realised that I haven’t had a day off - I have been working seven days a week - for at least the last six weeks. I think the last day off was in Odessa. It was sunny down there, so it must have been early September. I can’t remember. It feels like it was yesterday.

I am staying in this strange Soviet hotel in central Lviv. I eventually moved out from the bedbug palace with the non-functioning elevator and I tramped down the street to a long grey monolith of the building with my massive military rucksack on my bag and of course nobody blinked an eyelid. Seeing people in military garb is absolutely standard in central Lviv. These unreconstructed curiously Soviet hotels are all built in the same style, and any visitor to the former Soviet Union is bound to have stayed in at least one of them. They each have about a thousand rooms and occupy an entire block in the city. They are built in the style of giant air raid shelters and they have long anonymous corridors that you march down relentlessly until you find your room number. They have huge and cavernous restaurants with hundreds of chairs and no customers, and no waiting staff to be seen. They have gargantuan lobbies with no people in them, and just a single receptionist behind the desk. The whole experience is like being on a ghost ship. My room is bluntly functional, with a narrow single bed and a simple desk. As with other similar hotels I have stayed in during my time in Ukraine, it is a study in cheap plywood furnishings of brown and grey. Never mind, I think; I am only here for three nights.

I have a number of things on my mind today. Do I stay in Ukraine? I enjoy my work in helping the Ukrainian people in a variety of ways but as with every foreign worker here, with the exception of a few diplomats locked in their embassies by reason of severe wartime security protocols, I am a volunteer. There is no money in Ukraine except that which is donated by foreign governments and disappears into murky slush funds associated with Ukrainian Armed Forces public procurement. Everyone is scrabbling around for money. I am spending my own funds on this, and I only have limited resources. In this regard I am in just the same position as everybody else. It would be wonderful if I could find a generous benefactor to keep me going here. Then I could take a job at a university in Lviv and continue to support the military kitchen with whose staff I so much enjoy working, and I could keep working to support the NGO community with legal, administrative and logistical assistance: something I find is taking an increasing amount of my time. But there is donor drought, as the world’s attention is diverted to the conflict between Israel and Hamas and everyone in the NGO community knows now that it is exceptionally hard to fundraise for Ukraine. Remaining here indefinitely as a volunteer is not realistic. So I am starting to think whether I can raise my own financing somewhere to keep my work here going - whether or not I remain here physically. If you, dear reader, have any ideas, then please let me know.

What am I going to do with all these diaries? I promised myself I would stop at 120 and now we’re at 143 and there’s no end in sight. The environment is so intensely stimulating that I find myself writing them incessantly because the experience of living through wartime Ukraine is so compelling and absorbing that I feel some sort of permanent record ought to be made of it before my memory fades. Should I translate them into Ukrainian? Should I find a Ukrainian publisher? There’s not much money in books in the course of a war. Again this may cost money. I might start with an English publisher. But I’m not so good at that kind of thing. My mind is creative and energetic, and I find the humdrum tasks of copying and pasting the same text to a dozen different publishing houses very difficult to concentrate on, particularly at my age. I much prefer chopping carrots and lifting 50 kilogram sacks of potatoes from one place to another. I feel mysteriously guilty and sad that I am not doing that at this very moment.

Then there is the question of my love life. I have two wonderful children but I need a new woman in my life. And it’s not easy, because as you get older you get ever pickier and more particular and you are ever less interested in people wasting your time. My colleagues and I at the kitchen laugh and joke over the fact that my match on what I now realise to be puerile mobile ‘phone dating Apps needs to enjoy opera and have a PhD in the fine arts. We’ve only found one such person in Lviv and he’s an older man and a fellow volunteer and so is his wife. So that’s not going to work. But I also need in any woman I fall in love with a rough, harder edge to their personality, because that’s what I have. I am schizophrenic, in the sense of being both a creature of high culture and a natural streetwise street savvy street fighter. Only a person with a First Class degree from the University of Cambridge could come on his own to hike round a war zone supporting the military and distressed civilians and write a crazy series of diaries about it. I suppose I am rather unusual.

So these are the questions that I ponder on this, my self-declared day off. Tonight I am going to the opera - on my own, although some of my colleagues, wonderful people to a man and woman, will be dotted elsewhere in the audience. As always, I will be sitting in the centre of the front row. It is Bizet’s Carmen, a dramatic masterpiece of an opera and I’d better read the synopsis and script online beforehand this time because the Ukrainian surtitles get me nowhere. So if you are that wonderful lady with the aforementioned PhD and those rough edges, and you are at the opera tonight, and you see a handsome English gentleman on the front row wearing a military camouflage jacket and trench boots, then come over and introduce yourself to me. I’d be delighted to meet you.


bottom of page