Wednesday 29 April 2015

Urban Diary

The grey glass, like a telly that has been switched off, returns my reflection. The shop’s dark interior cries out emptiness and oblivion. My hands are shoved deep in my pockets. Perhaps it is the only position in which to be as I stand in silent contemplation of this landscape of urban desolation. The sign inviting would-be entrepreneurs to rent does not reveal the ugly truth: you are the next victim, not the next Bill Gates. Look around you, every two shops it is a similar scenario. Vacant lots waiting to swallow their unsuspecting and ever-so-optimistic prey.

Boarded-up Britain

My urban patch in London never pretended to be anything else. No fancy gentrification here, no, working-class to the core, it has always been deprived. But the small-business-friendly development I saw taking over ten or twelve years ago has halted somewhat in the last lustrum. Five years are a long time in the life of, say, a child. From crying your lungs out because your nappy is soiled to running in the local park, everything looks up. Five years can, however, be life-changing for a shop-keeper. And so they proved to be for the shoe shop in the recently-refurbished shopping centre. It closed down. I bought my children’s first shoes there. I even still wear a pair of boots I purchased at this shop in 2003. Yes, twelve years ago and they are still with me and I still wear them. The shoe shop run by the Asian couple (Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani? I never asked them but they were always so friendly to their loyal customers)

Now that shop is gone. And others. The in-shops went last year and in their place yet another branch of another impersonal, big bank stands. The walk around my area feels sometimes like a walk through a tunnel of mirrors. Grey mirror-like shop windows that return my reflection as their empty interiors keep crying out their oblivion.

© 2015

Next Post: Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On, to be posted on Saturday 2nd May at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 25 April 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

So, apparently there are 104 billionaires in the UK and a fifth of those are Jewish. Jews are also likely to be three times top managers in FTSE companies compared to other groups. Finally, Jews are four times as likely to be non-executive directors in banking.

So what? You might be asking yourself. That was exactly the question I posed to myself when I finished watching Trevor Phillips’ recent documentary Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True.

I really do not mind provocative material, be it films, books or plays. Bring it on, I say. Freedom of speech is a right to be cherished and one I feel very strong about. But I do mind thoughtless, provocative theses. I do not like half-baked, eager-to-please arguments either. I believe that Trevor Phillips’ documentary erred on the side of controversy for the sake of controversy.

Provocative? No. Naïve reporting? Maybe
First of all, back to the Jews. This was the first group Phillips focused on to back up his thesis of race as a hard-to-approach subject in today’s UK. What complicates matters somewhat is that many Jews do not and will not acknowledge themselves as Jews. I should know, I work with some of them. You see their surnames, you make an assumption, you ask them about their Jewishness and they shrug their shoulders at best or say that they are not religious at all. To these people their Jewish surnames are just that, Jewish surnames. They could be Spanish or Igbo for all they care; they see themselves as secular first and as many other things after. Trevor does not, at any point during the film, say whether he asked this fifth of the UK’s 104 billionaires whether they kept kosher or not. Presumably these well-heeled Jews do not live in Stamford Hill, so access to them might be a tad difficult. Why, then, assume that just because their surnames are Jewish, they consider themselves to be Jewish?

That is the main problem with Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True. In his desire to provoke, Phillips leaves massive gaps behind. Holes big enough that you could drive a lorry through. Take the way he tackles the sex scandal in Rochdale few years ago in which several girls were groomed by gangs of predatory men. Trevor, quite rightly, focuses on the fact that many of these men, Asian, and mainly of Pakistani origin, were not stopped. One reason, as he clearly explains, might have been fear of being culturally insensitive towards this particular community. I agree with Trevor. But why does he not apply the same brush to the dozens of sexual abuse cases that have come to light in recent years (at the moment of writing this post it is Lord Janner’s alleged sexual assault on children and young people that is being talked about) in which the majority of the accused are middle-aged, middle-class, white men? If we can point the finger at one minority community and flag it up as an example of sexual practices that leave a lot to be desired, would it not be fair to do the same to another one?

The issue is that Trevor leaves far too many loose ends. Grooming and sexual abuse do not happen only in certain communities. They are not carried out by a particular cultural group nor are they related to individuals of a specific age group. They are the sad manifestation of a society that is sick. They are the result of the increasingly sexualisation of our youth, especially girls. They are also the sad outcome of a sexist, misogynistic society. I agree that culture, religion and other factors might have an aggravating influence but overall, we (journalistic “we”) have created the problem and now we cannot solve it. A country in which it is still OK to ogle at the breasts of a teenager on the third page of a tabloid, is a country that provides fertile soil for the likes of Jimmy Saviles and Shabir Ahmeds to grow and thrive.

I was disappointed in Trevor. There was such a hype surrounding the programme (I watched it on catch-up once the initial furore died down somewhat) and yet I felt short-changed. Phillips probably thought himself to be “daddy cool” for using the c-word (yes, that c-word!) preceded by the adjective “black” in reference to the incident involving the Chelsea captain John Terry and the QPR defender Anton Ferdinand. To me it was mere posturing. In my opinion the real Trevor came out at the end of the programme when he transformed himself into a giggling adolescent whilst interviewing former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Instead of pressing Tony on his ill-thought decision to invade Iraq which had the unfortunate side-effect of rolling back years of good and positive work with the Muslim community, Trevor committed the ultimate act of hara-kiri whilst a beaming Blair asked his former charge not to be too hard on himself. To say that the scene reminded me of the relationship between a slave-master and his servant would be apt. It was also rather uncomfortable.

There are many things to say about race. The issue is not whether they are true or not, but to explore the factors behind them. Trevor had the chance to give us a smidgen of that but in the end he, too, preferred to sacrifice good analysis for sensationalism. The irony is that the only victim was truth itself.

© 2015

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 29th April at 11:59pm (GMT)


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