I have written on this blog at length about the impact of technology on our lives. I have always tried to be practical about the use of modern, electronic devices and how they affect our lives for better or worse. Tonight I am introducing a new section that was produced entirely on my mobile phone. As I cycled around London during the summer I had the idea of interviewing people who live or who were born in the city. The encounters were totally unplanned. All I had with me was my mobile phone's built-in mic and camera. The results were an eye-opener. There was a wide variety of opinions and comments. The interviews were not time-limited. Some lasted almost ten minutes like the first one tonight. Others did not go over the five-minute mark. Altogether, they will provide a fascinating portrait of 21st century London, with its various peoples and cultures.
Commentary on this section from me will be minimal. A short introduction will usually be made but other than that, please, listen to the audio because these are our voices and faces of London.
This time London, my London will take you from Ally Pally, where we left
off last time, to a lesser-known spot. Again, we are not focusing on shortcuts
or quick routes, but on culture, history and the never-ending energy that
characterises London. A city that only lives in the past (or off it) becomes dead,
or at least it turns into a zombie. London is the opposite, it is alive and we,
Londoners, born here or not, are the ones who keep it going.
You could say with a narrow margin of error that although London is not
very hilly, as I remarked before, it is mostly hemmed in by elevations north of
the Thames. South of the river, I know there are inclines, but they are fewer
or at least easier to avoid.
The only positive outcome of hills – besides the exercise they provide –
is that once you have exhausted yourself going up one, you will have to come
down at some point and this is exactly what I did as I left Alexandra Palace in
the borough of Haringey and carried on north-western bound. The ride down was
smooth and along tree-lined streets. At the end of Alexandra Park Road I found
myself with the chic barrio of
Muswell Hill on my left. Together with neighbouring Crouch End and Highgate,
this is an area that has become renowned for its arty-creative-type,
middle-class demographic. Independent and – and you could say very – idiosyncratic
shops line up along Colney Hatch Lane leading to Muswell Hill Broadway. If you
happen to be staying in or visiting the area I would strongly recommend a
stroll around some of the shops near the Muswell Hill Broadway roundabout. For those on foot there
is a bus depot near the roundabout with good connections into town. A stone’s
throw away is one of my favourite spots in London, Highgate Wood There is
nothing more satisfying than walking down Muswell Hill Road in autumn until you
reach Highgate Wood. This is a 28-hectare ancient woodland. Plenty of wildlife has made it its home and the woodland trails are picture-perfect. If you are travelling to London with little ones in tow,
they will appreciate your effort. The playground in the park is worth a visit.
For me, the cyclist, the route was simpler although I must I admit I did
get lost. I crossed Colney Hatch Lane and went straight down Page’s Lane. My
goal was to get to Barnet and cycle through Finchley.
A confusing and bizarre trait of London’s urban geography is both its
postcode and its borough demarcation systems. The former, I will go into detail in future posts; the latter is almost comical. I had been only a
few minutes on Creighton Avenue when I realised that I had already crossed the
border from Haringey to the Borough of Barnet. I retraced my steps to double-check and saw the
welcome sign, but it was so inconspicuous that it was easy to miss.
A cycle lane brought me to the other end of Church Road and there I got
lost again. The method I was following was the old-fashioned way. Although I
had a built-in GPS in my mobile, I didn’t want to use it. For me a few scribbled-down
street names on a piece of paper, with arrows indicating in which direction to
turn, was more than enough. I approached a group of women talking outside a
house. Not only did I get my bearings right after their instructions but I also
got a short history lesson on this part of Finchley. The road I was looking for was
East End Road which I had written incorrectly on my piece of paper. The street
was not a mere thoroughfare but it had originally bequeathed the name to this
area before it became East Finchley. The problem was that at the time there was
also an East End in London famous for its deprivation and crime. The residents
of this better-off north-western barrio wanted
nothing to do with their down-on-their-luck fellow Londoners and changed the name to East
I cycled away from the Old White Lion, a 1700s pub that still stood
there on the same century-old spot and found myself speeding down Kingsley Way, through the
middle of Hampstead Garden Suburb, an example of good “domestic architecture”. The
fact that this early-20th-century blueprint for town planning looked
like another world was the result (as I later found out) of a community-focused
and joint co-operative effort by a group of like-minded citizens. Quiet, tree-lined,
wide streets sporting impressive-looking hedges on their front gardens were visual
balm for my tired limbs.
Hampstead Garden Suburb (photo taken from Flickr)
Upon turning left onto Finchley Road the lyrics of Mor Karbasi’s song, Judía, popped into my head all of a
sudden: Judía será tu nombre/mi frente
besó mi madre cuando nací/un beso de amor me dió mi madre cuando nací. If you
are wondering what the words of a Sephardic Jewish singer are doing in a post
about northwest London, perhaps you are not aware that Golders Green, the
neighbourhood I was cycling through at that moment, has been home to a very diverse Jewish
community for decades. A Jewish community about which I will write in my next post. Or rather in my next love-letter to London, my London.
This post is really a question. A question with an open-ended answer. In fact, this post is an open-ended question with an open-ended answer. It is not a yes-or-no type of column, but rather a what-do-you-think and how-do-you-feel kind of outing.
I have written on this blog at length about the challenges an immigrant faces in their new country of residence. It does not matter whether they are a new arrival or an “oldie”, like me. In my case one subject about which I have always been confused is education. Despite the fact that for the last twelve and a half years I have worked with or, for the last seven, in schools. It is the sheer variety of school types that throws me off. That is why tonight my post will be rather short. I would like you to give me your opinion on the subject I am about to introduce. Especially, if you were born in this country or did your schooling here, I would love to have your input. Whether I agree with your comments or not is not the point, for I am looking for open-ended answers to my open-ended questions.
In a nutshell, schools in England (I use England as in the country or England, not the UK because differences exist between the four home nations; just to make matters more confusing!) can be community schools, which means that they are under the control of the local authority. I work in one and my children attend one. They are what you would call in other countries “state schools”. There are also voluntary aided schools, i.e., “faith schools”. They are run like state schools but are free to teach only about their own religion. Then you have “public schools”, a name that is so confusing that I have had to learn the etymology of the phrase by heart in order to explain it to non-Brits. This type of school is a fee-paying establishment (private) that differs from a "normal" private one in that its main aim is to educate students from low-income backgrounds (the "public" bit). I mentioned “private schools”. Self-explanatory really. You pay a fee as well but this is for the benefit of the owner. Have I not exhausted you yet? Shall I carry on? OK, I'm getting there, don't worry. In recent years we have had academies and free schools. The former do not follow the national curriculum and can set their own term times. They are managed by the government directly, not by the local authority. Free schools are government-funded, not-for-profit entities that can be set up by a charity, or a group of teachers or parents, or a religious organisation.
And then we have grammar schools. Nothing to do with the correct use of the verb “to have” in the third person singular or second person plural. It is all to do with selection. That is how this post came about. I read in the paper a few days ago that the government was planning to open an “extension” to a current grammar school in Kent and my immigrant’s mind was suddenly tickled. The brouhaha this attracted centred chiefly on whether opening grammar schools would entrench inequality or eliminate it. I asked work colleagues, born and raised here, what this meant to them. Some could not give two monkeys about the subject and others were disappointed after hearing the news. A grammar school is run by a local council, foundation or trust, but (and here’s the rub) selects its pupil intake based on an entry exam. How students fare in this exam is down to both academic ability and… means to achieve that academic ability. Without mentioning names, I know of one much-coveted school that applies such criteria and for which parents start preparing their child from Year 4 or 5 before they sit the exam in Year 6. A lot of money goes into hiring private tutors who fine-tune their little ones into the not-so-subtle art of passing an 11-plus test.
Image by Ros Asquith for The Guardian
Is this fair? Of course this question is open to all, wherever you are in the world. But since this blog is visited and read by so many bloggers born on these isles, I would really like to read your opinions. What do you think about this new direction the government is taking in regards to our education system? How do you feel about it? Should we worry?
The photo opportunity was gone as quickly as it had arrived. He stood
there motionless, looking up at one of the signs. The one about banknotes,
cards, medals and coins. There was a beautiful incongruity in his manifest
interest (curiosity?) in this particular shop. On the one hand he was doing his
job diligently on this Victorian-era shop-frontage-filled pedestrian street:
keeping the place clean. On the other hand, for a fleeting instant he allowed
himself to become part of the small group of people venturing out in London’s
West End after a heavy downpour. For that one second he was no longer binman,
or as our more politically correct times dictate, rubbish collection officer or
Cecil Court’s eerie silence was welcomed after an afternoon on which the
only sound had been that of the summer rain. Once again, I was walking down
alleyways, cul-de-sacs and narrow roads. Once again I wanted to “get lost”. Happening
on the “Binman on Cecil Court” (and
would that not be a fantastic name for a picture if I had managed to take it?),
I felt as if I had to capture the innocence on his face as he scanned the displays on
the window. I wondered if he was acquainted with the history of the place. I certainly
Talking to one of the staff at one of the many bookshops lined up along
the pedestrian-only street I found out a little about Dickens, Jewish refugees
and renowned Hambling’s model railway shop.
I came out of the shop looking for “binman” but it was gone. The moment,
that is. The “photo moment” was gone. “Binman” was still there, skipping around
puddles, doing his job diligently: keeping Cecil Court clean.
It has probably been the sleekest PR operation in a long time. No, I am not talking of Volkswagen’s broadsheet-targeted full-page apology in response to the car firm’s caught-with-the-pants-down emissions scandal. Although, God knows they could do with a little bit of celestial help right now. All puns in the previous sentence were intended by the way. Because the public relations stunt to which I referred in my opening sentence concerned the Vatican and its highest-ranking official, Pope Francis.
At some point, during the Pontiff’s whistle-stop tour around Latin and North America, I actually thought that if he had walked on water across the Florida Straits from Cuba to the United States no one would have batted an eyelid. Including yours truly, a self-declared atheist. As performances go, Francis conjured the power of 60s and 70s crotch-thrusting Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, the grooviness of disco pin-up Diana Ross and the soul-stirring consciousness of James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and Gil Scott Heron. I mean, Francis even brought an album out on the back of the tour. It gives a whole new meaning to Zep’s anthem Stairway to Heaven.
Before you label me a cynic, let me do that myself: I am a cynic. But not in a nasty way, at least not on this occasion. I honestly believe that it was hightime someone of Francis’ stature called a spade a spade and addressed some of our more pressing issues. The Pope did just that. He called for a ban on nuclear weapons, highlighted climate change as one of our most immediate challenges and called on international financial agencies to care for the sustainable development of countries. Along the way he even found time to almost convert the current Cuban president, Raúl Castro, back to Catholicism. Maybe the treading-on-water is not too far-fetched. The pontiff has also united – albeit temporarily – two groups that very rarely see eye to eye: believers and sceptics. The latter have had to suspend their pragmatism for the time being in order to gain some ground on their adversaries, usually those on the right side of the political spectrum and somewhat conservative on social issues, with a little help from the guy who might have God’s direct line number. Furthermore, Francis’ stand on economic, political and social matters since he assumed the papacy has been driven by an agenda in favour of gays, women and the poor. No wonder one of the memes circulating online asked the question: is the Pope Catholic?
CEO or man of the people?
To which the answer is: yes, he is. As mentioned before, I welcome Francis’ intervention in discussions about climate change and corporate power (and greed) but ultimately the Pope is employed by Vatican PLC, a firm damaged by decade-old allegations of child sexual, psychological, mental and physical abuse. On same-sex marriage he allegedly agreed with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licences to gay couples on religious grounds. On abortion, the Argentinean pontiff has often sidestepped the topic, focusing more on the need for mercy and goodwill.
Add to this the fact that the Pope has not executive mandate to turn his visions into reality. I welcome his ambassadorial role but I do not think that he would be given the same easy ride if he were an Obama or Cameron. Let us remember that a couple of years ago the latter found himself at the centre of a scandal when he apparently told his aides to “get rid of the green crap” from energy bills. Had it been “Pancho” saying that, he would have not come under so much fire.
This is not to say that what the Pope has done so far is in vain. He is certainly an improvement on Benedict and has set the bar really high for his successor. In being the first Latin American to have been appointed to such high-ranked position, he even makes this hardened humanist-atheist proud of his achievements. Yet, I cannot help see his role as that of a CEO on a damage-limitation exercise. I bet that the head honchos at VW must be praying that Francis soon trades his Fiat 500L for a Volkswagen, the “people’s car”. As I wrote at the beginning of this post: any celestial little helps.
The conversation could not have been more normal. Two work colleagues talking
about their children and their first GCSE year. The only difference was that
the novel I am about to finish now, Die
Mansarde, was lying on the table in the staffroom and my colleague queried
It is German for The Loft, I said.
Oh, that’s a coincidence, my son is doing German GCSE, she replied. And so,
modern foreign languages entered our amiable chat.
It is welcoming news that people’s perceptions of Germany are finally
changing. More important is the fact that the language is becoming popular once
again. Attached to this is the economic success of recent years. Linguistically,
native German-speakers might lie in a distant tenth place, well behind the Chinese,
Anglophones and Hispanics. Yet, they actually rank fourth in the world when you
take into account their economic output (put Germany, Switzerland, Austria,
Luxembourg and Liechtenstein together and you will see. In fact, squeeze part
of Belgium into the equation if you still have some space left).
Wie sagt man "power" auf Deutsch?
There is another factor in this upward trend. German language advocates
do not seem to engage future learners aggressively but adopt a rather laisez-faire attitude to the acquisition
of their lexicon. Where the Academy of the French Language would probably put
its foot down and tut-tut at Anglicisms, German-speakers (from this outsider’s
perspective) assimilate them.
A few days ago I praised on this blog the efforts of Angela Merkel
during the current refugee crisis and how her attitude contrasted with that of
our Prime Minister. Merkel, more than anyone else, understands that if a
country is to become a magnet for investors, it needs an influx of young blood.
One of the ways to attract this kind of attention is to stand out. That is
exactly what she has been doing since she came to power, in a rather inconspicuous
way some would say. By the way there is no sycophancy in my words. Politically speaking
Frau Merkel’s domestic agenda is not one I would follow and her party is not one
I would vote for. Yet I have to admit that she has placed Germany and by
default, German-speaking nations in an advantageous position. When news channel
prefer to use subtitles instead of dubbing her speeches, you know something is
What this means in practical terms is that newcomers to the language
forget how difficult it is and focus more on the benefits of either living in
Germany, Austria or Switzerland or
working there temporarily.
As for me, my reply to my colleague was, your son is very clever. Not only
is he thinking of his academic future, but also his professional one.
It was National Poetry Day on Thursday 8th October and my Twitter feed filled up quickly with a wide variety of contributions. There were examples of slam poetry and sonnets, or whatever you could cram into 140 characters. There were also several links to websites and blogs that convinced me that poetry was never dead as some doomsayers keep on claiming; it was simply taking a breather.
It also showed me that culture comes in different guises and shapes. A message that our current culture secretary, John Whittingdale, ought to heed. This is the person whose job is to decide upon the future of our British Broadcasting Corporation. He is the government minister in charge of a panel that will work on the renewal of the BBC’s royal charter. The problem here is that Mr Whittingdale has very fixed ideas about our publicly-funded broadcaster.
One of the criticisms hurled at the Beeb is that it has become a ratings-chasing machine in the last few years. It is not true, in my opinion. The BBC has to compete in a commercial market with money from the public purse. In order to justify this spending it has to be seen to cater to all tastes and that is hard to do. That is exactly what programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing and the Great British Bake-Off offer. I might not be a fan of either, especially the former, but when I hear of millions of people tuning in on a weeknight to watch three people compete for the top prize in a cake-baking competition, my Cuban-made, London-moulded heart skips a beat with excitement.
At the centre of this discussion is the very visible pachyderm in the lounge: culture and our definition(s) of it. Sometimes it seems to me that we cannot agree on the brow position and whether it should be really high or very low. For centuries it was the elite, both political and social who decided what was considered culture and was not. But the last sixty-odd years have democratised culture somewhat. Radio, television, pop and rock and roll, the VCR and then the DVD, the internet, the Walkman and then the smartphone have levelled the playing field. Youth tribes are not as sharply divided as they were forty years ago. The person who listens to classical music is also likely to listen to A Tribe Called Quest. Even our Chancellor, George Osborne, wants to get in on the act, declaring a hitherto-hidden love for the music of NWA.
NWA: waxing lyrical for the pleasure of her Majesty's Chancellor
Because of this diversification it is futile to ask the BBC to be more “highbrow” when it comes to culture. “Auntie” is already highbrow enough but even this very definition of “highbrow” contradicts the nature of a broadcaster whose licence fee is paid by most members of British society, from a librarian to a Tesco shelf-stacker. What if the latter likes Puccini and the former Akram Khan? Should they both not be served equally?
It is clear to me that what is at stake in the BBC’s royal charter renewal is not its role in British life but on what side of the political spectrum the corporation is. The Beeb has always been seen as too left-wing even if it gave Cameron and co. an easy ride in the lead-up to the general election. Its independence is a thorn on the side for those in government who would like to see it working, Murdoch-style, for the Tories. I have my own gripes with the BBC: too much money is wasted on “consultants” and “middle-managers” (or "bureaucrats" as I prefer to call them), it lacks a dedicated arts channel like Sky Arts and exposure to its daytime television programming might make a very ill person want to get back to work the next day even if they are on a full-body cast and have spent the night before retching their guts out. However, despite these petty grievances, every month I pay my licence fee with pleasure, knowing that there are not that many broadcasters that boast shows such as Have I Got News for You, Jools Holland and Never Mind the Buzzcocks and countless well-researched and expertly-presented nature and travel documentaries.
On National Poetry Day it was BBC Radio Four Twitter feed that gave me some of the better laughs. The biggest winner, I imagine, was culture, neither highbrow nor lowbrow, but rich.
When it comes to music Killer Opening Songs is usually wary
of hype. Big up an artist and call them “the next big thing” and our Regular
Section of Introductory Tracks with Homicidal Tendencies will probably be
heading in the opposite direction. It is chiefly to do with the fact that when
it comes to art, and more specifically, music, K.O.S. likes to do its
discoveries by itself, at its own pace and in its own time with no pressure
from anybody. Sometimes, though, the hype surrounding an artist is well
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.