Saturday, 3 October 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

Let us start with the obvious truth. Most human beings are happy with the place in which they are born. Many might go to live in other provinces, states or countries but very rarely stay there for good. Why? Call it the “comfort zone” human gene. When people question the motivations of the hundreds of thousands of Cuban rafters who have left my homeland for the last five decades and counting, my answer is usually the same: “so, what would you do if/when…?”. I am still waiting for a satisfactory response. I know that if conditions had been appropriate those rafters would have stayed behind in what they know, their "comfort zone".

That is why I think that maybe Germany got it right. Perhaps the Teutons realised that utilising and maximising the skills of the refugees to whom they have given succour in recent months will eventually result in a further strengthening of their economy. Many of these arrivals are highly skilled professionals. I know that the drawbridge has been raised and the flow has been halted somehow, but still, taking in hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers calls for the sort of leadership that, sadly, is missing from the UK nowadays. Where Merkel was decisive, Cameron dithered.

Ask any Syrian escapee if they would rather stay in their country of origin without Assad or migrate to a different nation with an almost alien culture and they will choose the former. Time and time again I have seen the interviews on the BBC and other channels with recent arrivals in the UK and other European countries and the reply is usually the same: I never wanted to leave. I was forced to.

I think that we need to look at the reasons why people flee realistically. If you, as a government, are in the arms trade you will create refugees. If you once had an empire where the sun never set, those ex-colonies at some point will come back to haunt you. If you subsidise cheap exports that impoverish local economies in developing nations, you are encouraging exodus. Where does an African or Asian farmer go when they cannot sell their crops because they cannot compete with the free-flowing, inexpensive imports from Europe? First, they will go to the big cities. But if they are not lucky there, they will move further and one day they will be knocking on your door. You can call them “swarms” or “cockroaches” but they are human beings who had a life back home. If you prop up dictators abroad, the population subjected to their control must/will find a way out. Some of the people on boats or crossing Hungary on foot are escaping from theocracies. The irony is that it has been the ever-more-secular West that has supported the increasingly-religious Middle East. Iraq, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the list is never-ending.

Human beings, not "swarms"

The only way to understand the refugee crisis is to don the refugees’ clothes, to wear their shoes, to imagine what it is like having a stable life and to lose that stability the next minute. Not only that, but that standard of life (and we’re talking basic here) has been replaced by the worst nightmare you can possibly imagine. If you have children, look at them now: what is it like to bury them after a bomb has been dropped on you and your family? Do not answer immediately. Let that question sink and then ask yourself another one: what if that becomes your way of life? Would you get used to it?

It might come as a surprise for some but I am in favour of immigration controls. Not because I think that we are being swamped. I am an immigrant after all and I carry that badge with honour. The reason why I think we need controls and timelines is because I know that most migrants and refugees (two different categories, please, do not get them mixed up) want to go back home when the time is right. However, why should a human being return to bomb-hit places with the possibility of more calamities to happen? It is human to have the right to a decent life. The arms industry, unfortunately, ensures that this right remains a chimera. The habit of meddling in other countries’ domestic affairs makes losers of the more vulnerable. Supporting corrupt tyrants of whatever political hue not only interferes with democracy but also undermines local efforts to restore order.

Back to my earlier point. Perhaps Germany got it right. I read in The Economist recently that Frau Merkel has accepted the sudden influx of refugees with the proviso that as soon as conditions in their countries of origin improve they ought to return. Meanwhile, whatever monetary value we attach to the asylum seeker question should be overruled by the human value these victims of misfortune have. After all, some of their problems were caused by those barring their entry now.

© 2015

Next Post: “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 7th October at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

London, my London (Ally Pally)

It is time to bring back one of my favourite sections on this blog. I started this regular love-letter to London as soon as this space kicked off more than eight years ago but inconsistency got the better of me over time and it has been a while since I shared one of my “discoveries” with you.

That is bound to change for the next few months. One positive outcome of having had builders and decorators in my kitchen during the summer as detailed in a previous post was that it gave me the perfect excuse to leave the house as often as possible. Not only did I leave the house but I went out on my bike and rode around Londontown (and walked, too, when the rain became too much to bear), the way I had always dreamt about. The result of these – chiefly cycle-driven – jaunts will hopefully provide an interesting insight, at least from an immigrant’s perspective, into what London is like today, in the 21st century.

After all, this is a big, expansive city of roughly eight million (and counting) inhabitants. The sheer size of it is enough to give you a headache. Driving or cycling around it will surely leave you with one. London is also a magical place. The magic is provided by a rich combination of people, history and modernity. Its parks, museums and old houses continue to be an attraction. At the same time with approximately 300 languages spoken in the British capital, its multicultural nature is coming to the fore more and more. It has been recognised as one of the main features of The Smoke that throughout its century-old history it has sucked immigrants from almost every corner of the planet. Far from remaining idle the new arrivals have usually brought with them new ideas and their own personal stories.

The series of posts to come have been written based on routes that I have either researched and followed because someone else came up with them before, or created myself. These routes are random, thought up by interest more than convenience. Instead of trying to get from A to B quicker, I chose to get to know better the city in which I have lived for close to twenty years.

One peculiarity I came across when cycling around London was how flat a lot of the city is. From east to west, north to south there is not a lot of elevation. There are hills, of course, some of them quite steep, but on the whole, it felt as if I were cycling through a plateau most of the time.  However, when an incline appeared, it made my journey difficult. Which is what happened at beginning of one of my rides in Alexandra Palace (or Ally Pally, as most people call it) in Haringey.

Photo taken from

This Victorian-era building towers over north London like a sentinel watching over its troops. A short puff up its mighty hilly road will leave you breathless and in the case of yours truly, wheeling my bike for only the second time in my life (the first one was in Havana when I was in my early 20s. My only excuse then, looking back, is that the bike in question was a Russian fixie with a back-pedal brake, low gear and high sprocket; worst combination ever to brave a hill). Yet, the prize of reaching the top is well worth it. What a view! From where I stood I had north London in front of me, part of northwest London to my left and northeast and east London to my right. The high-rises of Edmonton and its controversial incinerator almost straight ahead seemed to tickle the belly of the grey, imposing sky. To my left lay the - mostly - flatlands of Barnet and Finchley where I would be headed later on. To my right modern architecture was represented by the Shard and the Walkie-Talkie in the distance.

Two fires have not been able to destroy Ally Pally and what it means to Londoners and non-Londoners alike. On the day I went visitors milled about and all the various amenities on offer were choc-a-bloc with punters. There was the Boating Lake for starters, a snip at £4.95 per adult for a chance to go rowing. Perhaps the most famous activity Alexandra Palace is known for is the all-year-round ice rink where you can even be coached by professional ice-skaters for as little as a tenner for fifteen minutes. For the more adventurous there is always the skate park where you can bring your own skateboard and indulge in all sorts of stunts on the ramps and half-pipes. Another event that takes place at Ally Pally is the fireworks display on Guy Fawkes’ night every 5th of November. Fancy of a bit of history? Here's a curious fact for you: the world's first regular television service was launched from this jewel of north London by the BBC eighty years ago.

If you are in town, Alexandra Palace is a must-visit tourist attraction, perhaps a bit off the beaten path but worth the effort, even if like me you have to cycle to it. After getting some relief coming down the same mighty hill I had puffed my way up moments before, I turned left onto Alexandra Park Road and carried on northwest-bound. The next stage of my bike ride would take me to a very iconic crossing…

© 2015

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 3rd October at 6pm (GMT)


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