Friday, March 2, 2012

Utopia on the Thames... or almost... getting there maybe...

What a strange portrait of London the New York Times Magazine presents.

In the current issue's lead piece, entitled "Apocalyptic London," the Norwich-born novelist China Mieville makes much of the fact that a former sewer has been turned into a path into the Olympic Park. Their London expert Mieville is also, you see, a Cambridge-trained semiotician and a professor at Warwick University... in, um, Coventry, one hundred miles away in the West Midlands. For him, the sewer is a metaphor, knowwhatImsayin?, for the whole city and its society.

According to Mieville, Londoners are "wrathful," youths are "uprisen," police are "brutal," the courts are "cruel," the society is seething with racism and inequality. "Islamophobia," according to the NYT writer, has gone mainstream. Hold that thought.

My general rule of thumb is that when Britons speak about race they are ten years behind Americans, and when mainstream American pundits opine about societal cohesion and relations with their  Muslim fellow citizens they are ten years behind in their understanding compared to Britons. To expand upon this, some years ago at a conference in Cambridge I commented, in an aside, that American perception of race was changing and predicted that the US would within ten years elect a black president. I was thinking then of Colin Powell, who at that time if he'd chosen to run might have received endorsement from either US political party. Oddly, in response to this somewhat hopeful statement, the British academics in the audience reacted as if I'd just burnt a cross.

Likewise, American editors seem not to have such a nuanced understanding of Britain's centuries-long and complex engagement with Islam. As it happens, the upper reaches of British society have long been fascinated by Islam, and tend to be Islamophiles, just as many of their counterparts are Anglophiles. Their families have visited and done business with each other for centuries. A few peoples whom they like less: Americans, Israelis, "The French," Germans (or "the Hun," as they might say). They also, by the way, don't watch, and don't like, the TV show "Downton Abbey." Separately from this, on the mean streets of Birmingham, the individual who almost single-handedly held the society together during last summer’s riots was Tariq Jahan, the father of a boy run over by a racist “nutter” in a car. In essence this man prevented the random aspirational looting from turning into a race riot by reminding the country that “We’re all in this together.” I shouldn’t need to point out that it was Tariq Jahan, who happens to be a Muslim, who was the hero of the working class tabloids, and all of British society. (A bow here in his direction.)

That said, Britons, including I would guess Mr. Jahan, do have a very real fear of zealots who mean to advance their causes through acts of mass murder against civilians. On July 7, 2005, bombers killed fifty-two Londoners on mass transport during rush hour, and there are similar plots uncovered here on a weekly basis. There is nothing phobic, or irrational, in fearing those zealots. Note to NYT magazine editors: if your seat-mate rushes an airplane cabin door screaming a war cry, be afraid. If you’re not also angry, there’s something wrong with you. If he pauses while lighting his underwear and you can distract him you might find that such a person has, aside from an irrational fear of the WEST, a phobia against other sects of Islam (ie, that he may be a Shia-phobe, or a Sufi-phobe, or whatever). There’s the chance that he might find it permissible to burn down a building holding ten copies of the Koran if in that building were homosexuals or young women learning arithmetic. If you asked him whether he could quote the Koran he’d say “only the angry bits,” and he would know nothing about it saying that God is merciful, or that he who takes an innocent life it is as if he has killed all humanity. Your seatmate would in other words be just another version of a racist nutter, and yes Londoners are afraid of them.

As for the NYT Magazine’s story, and its depiction of a brutal, cruel, wrathful and Islamophobic society... well, what do you expect? They did hire a member of the Socialist Workers Party to write the piece. Is Mieville’s vision of London representative? Probably not, since before he was a professor Mieville stood as a politician, running on the Socialist Alliance ticket for a seat in the House of Commons, where in 2001 he attracted 459 votes, just 1.2% of his constituency.

London's problems are well-documented in other publications (I recommend to you the work of Theodore Dalrymple), and those problems, especially long-term unemployment, are real. That said, there's another side to this city, which anyone would see who spent a few days here.

People are actually polite on tubes.

The police go unarmed... and they are ABLE to go unarmed. One night in Soho, when I first moved here some years ago, I saw a young woman pick-pocketed by two rough-types, one older and grizzled, the other a young man. I told them, without raising my voice, to give back her wallet. They did. And they looked slightly ashamed.

Citizens here like to stay informed about the wide world, and they buy and read newspapers. Last week when they lost a brave and beloved journalist, my friend (and another transplant from the states) Marie Colvin, who had been covering the Assad regime's brutalization of the Syrian people in Homs, her targeted murder by the Assad regime was the lead story on all news channels. The whole city mourned... mourned a witness and writer.

Londoners buy and read books. Their many newspapers all review those books.

All museums are free to the public.

In pubs, Londoners talk to strangers. Outside of pubs, they try to mind their own business.

You will find all this to be true if you come visit this summer for the Olympics, or anytime.

From the NYT mag you'd never know it, but London is actually the most civilized city in the world, and year after year it is getting better.

Update: I've made a correction, that Warwick university is not, as I thought, in "Warwick," which may not exist, but in Coventry, the West Midlands, 100 miles from London. From what I've read about it Coventry is a dystopian nightmare, but one should be careful about believing such. I understand the town is full of semioticians. Oh wait, maybe...


Anonymous said...

I hate to be picky, but Warwick Uni isn't in Warwick.

Bryan said...

Thanks for the kind words.

If you are ever in London, then the best part is how international it is. Anyone can fit it.

And the British natives are trying to be friendlier too. So as a British Londoner, if you ever visit, then I promise to do my bit and try to smile outside of a pub and even, and this is saying something, make eye contact.

James Scott Linville said...

Dear Anon, Thanks for setting me right. I've updated/corrected, and commented.