Thursday, July 14, 2005

Cor Blimey Guv'nor I'm a Cockney sparra pt2

union bowler

Over the last couple of days I’ve written a few posts about the nature of London and why the bombings last week cannot be viewed in the same way, or will generate the same response, as 9/11 in New York. In particular, I’ve made reference to the fact that London is heavily populated by people from other countries, quite a few of them from Muslim countries. I’ve also expressed my belief that all that bullshit about the London Blitz spirit is just so much nonsense.

Let’s be honest here. The majority of people went back to work on Friday not because they were infused with any heroic qualities. They went to work so they would be paid. They were scared but played the odds that an attack wouldn’t be repeated the following day. There’s nothing wrong with that but eulogising people for coming in by train to update their spreadsheets or do some cold calling is pushing the envelope a little.

Hang on though. Maybe I’m being too harsh. After all, the US Air Force instructed its UK based personal not to travel through or to London in the days after the attacks. So, it would seem that London office workers were facing risks that the US military weren’t prepared to expose their bomber pilots to.

Hmmm, for some lateral reason that reminds me of that old joke that gets resurrected every time we go to war next to America and the USAF is involved:

Q. What’s the difference between an Iraqi tank and a British tank?

A. The British tank doesn’t usually fire back when you bomb it

Anyway, back to the point. There are many more people in this city with direct experience of 3rd world hurricanes, earthquakes and famines than German bombing 65 years ago. And many of the people currently living in London haven’t been here long enough to be in any way imbued with the ‘traditional London spirit’, be it real or imagined.

London is the World. I, and some others, mourn the passing of the old London and its people but it’s gone now and we have to live with it.

As it happens, we’ve done surprisingly well. Admittedly, the majority of people in this city still live unenviable lives by the standards of the comfortable middle class people who prattle on about London’s vibrancy and diversity, whilst living a safe distance away from it. However, compared to any other place on Earth I can think of, London has done a remarkable job of accommodating a baffling array of people from different religions and cultures, without too much in the way of racial or cultural tension. I'm not saying 'no' tension, just 'surprisingly little' given the speed and diversity of the change we've experienced.

Not that you could tell from some of the coverage in our media. As I mentioned previously, two of the bombs exploded in exceptionally Muslim parts of town. You would not have noticed from the skin colour of people being interviewed at the scenes. And, in the days since then, Muslim Londoners have been treated in the media as if they are somehow incidental to London life and not integral, as they really are. Many of the supposedly ordinary Londoners actually being interviewed are not Londoners in any meaningful sense of the word. They come from the suburbs and beyond. They're the peripheral ones - buffered as they are from much of the daily reality of the city, as they commute in from the furthest reaches of the underground or mainline railways.

What’s my point?

London itself is an astonishingly diverse place, recently made to look deceptively whiter and more Anglo-Saxon by selective media coverage. Most of the people here in this city are not my kin or even kin to each other. They share little racial, cultural or religious background. If there’s any one thing that unites them, it’s the fact that the majority accept, to one degree or another, that they will be sharing a city with people with whom they have little in common.

A consequence of all of this is that half of us are more culturally aware because we come from another culture and the other half of us are more culturally aware because we’ve got accustomed to having so many different people in our faces all the time.

And that’s the biggest difference between 911 and 77. Our first reaction was not to lash out and nuke a few A-rabs or ragheads. Many of us are Muslim and many of the rest have at least some idea of what Muslims are all about. Sadly, the bombings probably will enable our government to steal more of our rights and liberties but there are limits to what they can get away with, in this city anyway. Maybe if we’d lost as many people as died on 911 things would be different, but even then I don’t think war would have been your average 'Londoner’s' first reaction.


We saw a truly remarkable two-minute silence today. Most of the city and much of the country stood still and quiet with an impressive intensity.

And hats off to our mayor, Ken Livingstone. Ordinarily, I find it difficult to consider him any more than one seriously slimy son of a bitch. However, I believe the emotion that he has shown over the last week to be genuine and the words he has spoken in defiance of those who would set different races at each other’s throats well-placed. I expect no such sensitivity or restraint from Blair or Bush. They’ll attempt to hijack today’s expression of solidarity and defiance in support of their own revolting agenda as soon as they think they can get away with it, and not one second later.

I’m not claiming that the attitude of people in London is perfectly culturally aware, far from it. And I’m not criticising the sentiment behind today’s silence but one thought did come to my mind…

Given that, for reasons previously stated, most of the people who died in the bombings were in not my close kin, I feel no more, or less, sorrow for them and their families than, say, those 23 Iraqi children blown to bits in Baghdad yesterday. Iraq endures its own "77" every couple of days. When is the World going to stand in silence in commemoration of all those stolen lives? Would someone like to tell me what the difference is?

For all of London's multicultural correctness, one of 'ours' still seems to be worth more than fifty of 'theirs'.


(PS Someone has come back on this posting and pulled me up for implying that New York is not diverse, or in some way xenophobic. Even though that wasn't the intention that may be coming through - I've been eloquently put in my place by way of comment. The gist of the comment seems to be that New York's very real pain was hijacked by very un New York forces to justify a war. That's clearly true. Of course New York is diverse. However, that diversity was not fully represented in the aftermath of 911. At the moment London's is - I'll take Livingstone's words after '77' over Giuliani's after "911" any day. So even though I feel a little chastened, and rightly so, I'm also gratified that at least one person made it to the end of one of my posts :) )


Anonymous said...

Damn me Stef I agree with you about Ken (extract from my livejournal blog):

8th July 2005
7:01pm: Red Ken
I normally think the Mayor of London (Ken Livingstone) is a bit of a knob, but I was very impressed with his speech...

zenyenta said...

stef, just one question about all that - what gives you the impression that New York City isn't wildly diverse or that there isn't a significant Muslim population here? It is and there is. And a lot of almost everyone else, too.

Stef said...

Oh, please don't misunderstand me on this one. I've visited New York on two extended visits, most recently around 2000. I won't deny that NY is diverse with tons of Muslims, and it's probably second only in diversity to London. But my experience was that it just doesn't have the feel that London does. Have you spent any time over here at all? Has anywhere opened in New York where I can get a decent curry yet?

I saw an article from the Washington Post sometime over the last few days that referred to London as 'Londonistan'. I doubt very much if anyone would talk about New York in those terms.

But, tell you what, I'll look over what I've written tomorrow and probably change it some, because you're right it probably isn't fair enough on New York and I wasn't happy with it when I finished writing it anyway.

best regards


Stef said...

Zenyenta BTW

This is what London's Mayor said on the day of the bombings. It's not like me but I, and pretty much everyone else here, agreed with what he had to say. No 'you're either with us or against us' nonsense in these words - and that's what I'm trying to get at in this possibly flawed post above ...

I want to say one thing specifically to the world today. This was not a terrorist attack against the mighty and the powerful. It was not aimed at Presidents or Prime Ministers. It was aimed at ordinary, working-class Londoners, black and white, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Jew, young and old. It was an indiscriminate attempt to slaughter, irrespective of any considerations for age, for class, for religion, or whatever.

"It is just an indiscriminate attempt at mass murder and we know what the objective is. They seek to divide Londoners. They seek to turn Londoners against each other. . .

"I said yesterday to the International Olympic Committee, that the city of London is the greatest in the world, because everybody lives side by side in harmony. Londoners will not be divided by this cowardly attack. They will stand together in solidarity alongside those who have been injured and those who have been bereaved and that is why I'm proud to be the mayor of that city.

"Finally, I wish to speak directly to those who came to London today to take life.

"I know that you personally do not fear giving up your own life in order to take others - that is why you are so dangerous. But I know you fear that you may fail in your long-term objective to destroy our free society and I can show you why you will fail.

"In the days that follow look at our airports, look at our sea ports and look at our railway stations and, even after your cowardly attack, you will see that people from the rest of Britain, people from around the world will arrive in London to become Londoners and to fulfil their dreams and achieve their potential.

"They choose to come to London, as so many have come before because they come to be free, they come to live the life they choose, they come to be able to be themselves.

"They flee you because you tell them how they should live. They don't want that and nothing you do, however many of us you kill, will stop that flight to our city where freedom is strong and where people can live in harmony with one another. Whatever you do, however many you kill, you will fail.

zenyenta said...

I have no doubt that the official response in London would be more civilized than that of Rudy Guiliani, not to mention Bush. It's not that. It's the idea that New York City is not hugely diverse that puzzled me. No one in NYC or surrounds even expects that English will be spoken at all everywhere they go in a given day. It was that way even a hundred years or so ago when I was a kid. Only the predominant immigrant groups change with each generation.

At the company where I was working at the time of 911 if there was tension, it wasn't so much between the Muslims and native born Americans that worked at the place, but rather between Muslims and the Hindus that worked there. The whole thing did bring out some divisions in that area, but not for all members of each group.

As to curry, you can get a decent and authentic anything somewhere in the city. There might be a British or otherwise European take on it that we don't have, but curry's widely available. It's more a question of what type of curry you're looking for. Indian, Thai or other?

New York is a lot of things, but on the whole it is not xenophobic. It can't be. It's made up of and run by people from everywhere and it always has been. Of course, a lot of the people who arrive here do so from other parts of this hemisphere, but there's no shortage of Asian and Middle Eastern people either. The people who, as a whole, are most likely to enjoy a good round of bombing brown people are to be found hundreds of miles from the WTC, mostly in places that are not of interest to foreign terrorists. I'm sure there were incidents here. There were more in other areas of the country nowhere near the attacks. In the US, the most fear and loathing comes from those who live in very different areas of the country from NYC.

One thing that might be a little different about 911 was not just in the numbers but in the fact that so many who died were NYC firefighters and police. The result of that was that there was no community within fifty or sixty miles of the city that didn't lose someone. That fact did keep the emotion running high. There wasn't a lot of tolerance for anyone who said that they understood the attacks for a while. Admittedly, it was personal for almost everyone. Despite the fact that the city has 8 million people and the surrounding areas a couple of million each, it was hard to find anyone who didn't know at least one person who perished. We knew at least two ourselves, both firefighters. Funerals were everywhere. For a long time.

But don't let Guiliani's hystrionics or Bush's opportunitic drum beating fool you. New York was used by them for their own purposes and much of New York is bitterly aware of it now. New York was back at work and at play as soon as the infrastructure was sufficiently functional to permit it. My son was in the city the week after, seeing a play downtown, just a little ways from Ground Zero. He said that outside of the smells you really wouldn't have known anything out of the ordinary had happened recently.

I haven't been to London, unfortunately, and I have no doubt the feel is different there if you say it is. It's just hard to imagine something a lot more diverse than New York City. Differently diverse, no doubt.

Stef said...

@Z: How can I disagree with that? And you're right, anything that suggests that New York is not diverse is plain incorrect.

I'm in a bit of a bind now because you've written such an eloquent piece if I change or pull the original post it puts what you've written out of context.


I'll tack something onto the end. And thank you for pulling me up when required.

There's still the issue of our cities' / countries' two different responses.

Is is just a question of the numbers of people killed? I don't think it is. That's not to ignore the huge impact 3,000 deaths would have had on London. That attack last week could have easily killed a family member or a partner of anyone here. We know that. We're not blind to that. But, at the same time, I know few if any people who believed there was any good purpose served by attacking Iraq. If you think people in the States were hijacked, believe me, it was worse here. The only way Blair could deal with dragging us into the War was to put it to the background rather than centre stage at election time. Fortunately for him, his opposition was so poor in other areas that strategy worked.

Since the bombing took place in London I haven't heard a single call for offensive action from anyone, not one. There's been plenty of talk of tightening up things at home but no call for any crusades. It just wouldn't wash.

So, where does that leave the original post?

'Differently diverse' is probably the right way to put it.

I don't know the figures for NY but, as I've mentioned previously, half the current population of London weren't even born in the UK let alone London. If you're going to see any solidarity in this city it's not going to be London or the UK versus some foreign foe, it's going to be something more general than that. If whoever did this was looking to support a war off the back of it they bombed the wrong city.


The curry comment was only half serious based on a evening spent with an Indian friend in new York one night looking for a decent curry AND somewhere that had cricket on TV. NY passed the curry test eventually but failed the cricket test miserably.

zenyenta said...

Yeah, we don't do cricket, it's true. I'd love to follow up on the curry question later, because I suspect it's an interesting difference, but not important enough to get diverted now. I wouldn't want you to pull or change your post. What's so compelling about blogging is a chance to learn about other people's perceptions of...well, anything really.

I just don't want anyone to confuse New York City with the United States. It's not the same thing. In fact, I don't think it's going too far to say that there is no United States of America now. It's more like the Divided States and it's even more complicated than that, but we'd have to change all those USA logos...

If it was up to NYC we'd never have invaded Iraq. There was support for invading Afghanistan, but that was then and it was theoretically to get bin Laden. And kicking the Taliban out seemed like a good idea, too. We'd been hearing stories out of there for years and frankly, in NYC and similar areas we knew we as a nation were at least partially. responsible for that mess.

Right after 911, what Bush laid out sounded like a mostly sensible plan. Try to get Bin Laden, and go after terrorist networks through their funding, etc. They didn't do it that way. He didn't start with Iraq for a while after that and that's when it became impossible to pull together as a united nation.

Remember, when the Republicans held their 2004 convention in NY, they were greated by what was probably the largest demonstration since the Vietnam days. There had to at least half a million people out on the street that day. People who were there said even a lot of the cops were sympathetic to the anti-Bush cause.

Stef said...

@z: my concern was that you thought I was implying that NY was not diverse. I'm not a great fan of ignorance particularly if it looks like it's me displaying it.

I did follow the 2004 NY Convention with much glee.

As it happens I've spent a LOT more time in the Southern States than your part of the World, probably more time than the majority of Northerners and I'd be the last person to mix the two up or believe that America is in any way united. I'm a great fan of the South in many ways but many of the folks down there have a VERY peculiar view of the World.

BTW Remind me to mention some time just how big a difference there was in how many Americans viewed me, as an Englishman, before and after the attack on Iraq.

I'll still maintain that London's approach to its diversity and consequent view of the World is different to NY but I have taken on board all you have said. It is both reasonable and consistent on what I already knew from personal experience.

New Yorkers do pick the most peculiar mayors though.

Anyway, the proof of my belief that London is exceptionally sensitive to other cultures is undergoing its strongest test in my memory. The bulk of media and the government have pulled out all the stops in trying to demonise British Muslims. It's really quite scary to watch.

My hope is that over the next few days and weeks people here will vomit it back all over those who seek advantage through hate and fear. I really don't know which way this will all go though

Jay.Mac said...

I don't know what British media you've been following but all of the reports I've seen on the BBc and ITV have gone to great lengths- every night since 7/7- to insist that the Muslim community had nothing to do with the attacks and that the theological basis of the terrorists is incompatible with the form of Islam practiced by the vast majority of Muslims.

How on Earth do you get demonised from that?

Stef said...

You're kidding right?

Some time over the next couple of days I'll put up some of my 'favourite' quotes

We're slap bang back into the days of 'Well, if it's not him it's someone like him', only this time it's Muslims rather than Irish Catholics.

Yesterday, we were treated to The Head of the Met lecturing all Muslim leaders that they were in denial and responsible for their communities harbouring and nurturing fanatics and extremnists

Every major news organ has farted on with pieces like 'has multiculturalism failed?' more or less every day

The BBC has managed to work in pieces about the murder of Theo Van Gogh every night for the last 3 or 4 nights

Tony Blair and all his cronies could barely restrain themselves in attributing this to atrocity Islam, whilst the bodies were still warm and there was no way of knowing from the bomb sites

The message throughout of this is that every Muslim out there is responsible for the bombings, if not by action then by omission of action and being stupid enough to follow some medieval religion

But that's OK because the people doing this put a little rider in there somewhere about it being blah blah blah a small minority

If White, Black or Jewish communities were being treated this way there would have been an outcry. Muslims ARE the new Jews

Try a little empathic thinking and imagine what it would have been like to be a regular, everyday Muslim reading the papers or watch television over the last few days.

The most offensive manifestation of this 'demonisation' is the way people immediately accepted the notion that those four blokes committed suicide and slaughtered all those innocent people. The evidence is ambivalent at best but, no, everyone knows that they did it and knows why they did it. We know this not because of any evidence but because we 'know' what those wacky Muslims are all about

Can you think of any other group where we would all uncritically accept such a scenario?

Utter nonsense. Wicked. divisive, and dangerous nonsense