Wednesday 21 June 2017

Grenfell Tower

The first thing that hit me was the smell as I came to the end of Lancaster Road. Strong, acrid. The second thing I saw was the cordoned-off road, off-limits even to cyclists. The third thing I came up against were the on-lookers. A better definition would be, the vultures. Mobile phone cameras at the ready, snapping away at the blackened husk. Shifting positions to get a better angle. Walking through cul-de-sacs to get a better view. What for, I asked myself? So that in our algorithm-rich world the survivors, two or three years hence, maybe more, would chance upon these images on their Twitter or Facebook feed? Images, I was sure, they would find painful to see? It was then I dared to look up. I remembered it then, from a previous time when I saddle-pushed my two-wheeler the length of Portobello Road and got lost trying to get back to Camden. On that occasion, I went further west by mistake and tried to catch my breath on the grounds of this building, this giant whose hollowed out flats cried out a never-asked-for tragedy. This building around which on-lookers had created their own panopticon. The single point that could be seen from up high in the air or down here on the ground, amongst the vultures.

I cycled on through Verity Close towards Dulford Street and it was then I was aware of another element: silence. Not the normal silence as in absence of noise, but Whitman’s silence: “As I ponder'd in silence/Returning upon my poems, considering, lingering long/A Phantom arose before me, with distrustful aspect.” No matter where you stood or sat, this charred phantom followed you around. I, then, looked up for a second time. I counted the floors and stopped at number 15. There, on that one, I could have been on that one. I retraced my steps. Not my actual steps, but my mental ones. I travelled down memory lane more than sixteen years before, when my daughter had been born. On the 15th floor of a 20-storey-tall high-rise. A water birth in a pool we hired from a Mexican/Irish couple. The joy of bringing a much-desired and thoroughly-planned baby into the world and the thought that it could have been followed by death and destruction.

I came down Mary Place and turned right onto Sirdar Road. A sea of “Missing” posters lined up one side of the road, reaching all the way to St Clement’s Church, one of the emergency relief centres and where I had come to give my support. My offer to help was accepted although they weren’t really taking volunteers. The supply had outnumbered the need. My faith in humanity was momentarily restored.

I helped fold boxes and pack up clothes. At some point I was needed to take some stationery to another centre on Kensal Road. Since the streets nearby were heavily congested, the rational went, a bicycle would have found it less difficult to slalom around the traffic and cut through the back roads. I saddled up and fifteen minutes later I pulled up outside another centre with helpful-looking people outside. More volunteers. Please, go on the council website and register, a lady with a clipboard in hand said, you can then list your skills and wait to be contacted.

I turned around and decided to go back home. I returned to the Regent’s Canal, the same route I had used to get here. Along the way I could not stop thinking of the residents of Grenfell Tower. People with dreams and hopes. People whose lives had been turned upside down forever. And for what? For money. To save an extra £2 per square metre. And why? Because they were worthless. In the eyes of this class-obsessed society that likes to style itself as classless, these people lived on the wrong side of one of the richest boroughs in the country. It might sound strange but Whitman’s phantom pedalled with me all the way back home.

© 2017

Next Post: “London Cycle Diaries”, to be published on Saturday 1st July at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 17 June 2017

London Cycle Diaries (The Surrey Canal Path)

London Cycle Diaries is both a cycle-based and cycle-orientated series aimed at "discovering" hidden spots in London from the saddle of my Raleigh.

© 2017

Next Post: “Grenfell Tower”, to be published on Wednesday 21st June at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 14 June 2017

Urban Diary

If this is still spring, it is one that is thickening into a rich summer texture very fast. Hard to distinguish between the two seasons, really, with the warm days we are having. This park sits in a part of fashionable, hip north London and it is in full election mode, rampant with pro-Corbyn posters, restless with the sort of impromptu psephological chat I first came across 20 years ago on the eve of Blair’s ascension to power.

Scantily-clad sun-seekers form a long and wide human blanket that alternates with nature’s green carpet. I cycle down the path towards the south exit. Along the way I am exposed to blue tooth-powered sound systems blaring out Turkish pop, reggae and mainstream, drivetime American rock. The sunshine swells over the crowds and the fields, providing sunbathers with yet another excuse to peel off another layer of clothing and slap the sun cream on. I am suddenly reminded of Clifford Dyment’s poem, The People:

Thousands and thousands of you there are/entered up by a registrar/sorted, and checked, and written on forms/ready for taxes and war’s alarms.

To me you have no name or place/but only a brief or casual face/I see you with impersonal eyes/as a flux of furs and various ties.

I see you thus, and yet you go/about my body, to and fro/treading the pavement of my mind/goes the procession of mankind.

© 2017

Next Post: “One-Minute Cycle Diaries”, to be published on Saturday 17th June at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 10 June 2017

Thoughts in Progress

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post in which I encouraged people to choose life, love and, amongst other things, empathy. I have always seen empathy as one of the more difficult human traits to show, and to feel as well. It requires a sort of trade-off and giving up. But when it works, empathy enhances the human experience.

When it works…

A few days after I wrote that post I read an interview in the magazine New Humanist. The interview was conducted by writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik. The interviewee was Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University. The subject? Paul’s latest book, Against Empathy. Oh, dear.

The capacity to imagine ourselves in another person’s place and understand their feelings is a powerful tool for social and political change. What could be wrong with that?

A lot, if the intentions are not clear. Paul Bloom dispels some of the myths surrounding empathy and in the process produces a cogent argument as to why this very human trait is somewhat overrated. The empathy in Paul’s sights is not the general type, like identifying oneself with another person’s plight. His beef is rather with those who believe they are feeling what other people are feeling.

The extensive checklist Paul presents as evidence to back up his thinking starts with the Syrian child washed up ashore in 2015 and whose photo caused much anger and revulsion around the world. However, despite this outpouring of grief, the situation for refugees arriving in Europe has not improved. In fact, it has actually got worse. The reason, according to Mr Bloom, is that while we can empathise with an innocent child caught up in a deadly conflict like the Syrian one, we show less compassion towards an adult who, in our view, can fend for her or himself.

This leads us to Paul’s second conclusion: empathy is biased. Once I got over my initial shock, I was able to see his point and I found myself nodding in agreement. Because it is almost nigh on impossible to empathise with every single person in the world, We discriminate against those who deserve our empathy and those who do not. Into that selection go our prejudices and judgments.

I must stress at this point that although the tone of Paul Bloom’s theory might come across as negative, the examples he gives are not. Like many human traits, empathy is triggered off unconsciously and spontaneously. It is also influenced by external factors such as, culture, upbringing and education.

When Bob “give us yer f*****g money” Geldoff organised the first Live Aid concert to raise funds for the African famine in Ethiopia he did not invite any African musicians. He managed to rope in the likes of Queen and Status Quo but there was no Miriam Makeba or Hugh Masekela. Personally I have no problem with him empathising with the plight of that African nation; it is the lack of rational thinking that made me cross. You sit at a table to plan out the concert and you decide to leave African musicians out of a concert on behalf of an African nation? This approach to what I would call “selective empathy” is what makes us feel more compassionate towards victims of terrorism in a European nation than towards those killed by a suicide bomber in a packed market in Bagdad or Kabul.

One of the reasons why this happens is that many western countries still operate with a colonial mindset. I have had the misfortune of being at the receiving end of this most annoying behaviour. Whether you sit on the left or the right of the political spectrum the odds are that your empathy-led charitable act will be rooted in attitudes that have long preceded you and which you might not even recognise as yours at all.

Solidarity campaigns, fund-raising initiatives. These are all well-intentioned, practical ways to support those in distress. However, it is not ungrateful to ask for some long-term vision. Who will benefit more from that project, the person you are trying to help or you? Many times programmes aimed at alleviating the suffering of a particular community in a war-torn country backfire because the focus is on areas where resources are not really needed. Yet, because empathy is the main driver in the project we tend to stop using our brain and start using our heart instead. Just to clarify, there is nothing wrong with using our heart when it comes to supporting those most in need. But our brain also is a fundamental part in the process. So, I will rephrase what I wrote two weeks ago: choose empathy, but also choose using your brain.

© 2017

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 14th June at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 7 June 2017

Let's Talk About

the English language. Specifically, how it has suffered throughout this dire and needless election campaign.

Do not be surprised if on Friday 9th June a battered, bruised and heavily swollen amorphous figure turns up at the Royal Courts of Justice, on the Strand, central London to sue all the major political parties, except for the Greens. That figure, my dear readers and fellow bloggers, will be the English language.

Where to start? Enough has been said! Actually, that is a good place to begin, “enough”. Was it used as an adjective a few days ago, describing adequacy and sufficiency, or as an adverb, meaning “fully” or “quite”? Or perhaps it was deployed as an interjection? Enough is enough!

But the truth is that enough has been enough for quite a long time. What the speaker forgot to add was that when it comes to cutting police numbers to the bare minimum, thus, putting the UK population at risk of terrorist attacks, enough is enough. That on the subject of stripping the education budget to the bones, leaving headteachers holding a begging bowl instead of a book, enough is enough. That when it comes to privatising our free healthcare, one of this nation’s proudest achievements and leaving it under-resourced with overworked staff, enough is enough. There, I sussed it for ya.

If you happen to be a businessperson and you are desperate to close a deal, especially one where you have not got the upper hand at all and you are at the mercy of the other party, how can a “no deal” be better than “a bad deal”? Especially, if your livelihood and that of your tribe depend on it. English language, I beseech thee, pray, tell me, is the world going mad or is a transaction that can always be improved in the future  not a better option than one where there is no transaction at all and no bargaining possibility?

Sometimes the best answer is honesty. Of course, I am not saying that every time an interviewer asks a question, the interviewee should answer: “Honesty”. What I mean is that if you don’t know the answer, please, just say “I don’t know”. You see? That’s easy. Or, “I don’t know the answer to that question now. I do have the figures you asked me about but I am going to have to check them and come back to you.” Fluffing your lines, being seen checking your iPad and mobile, doesn’t cut it. And the worst thing? That amorphous figure on the corner. It has just been decked once again.

I am aware that in the world of fake news we all suffer, including language. I am just hoping that the English language can mount a challenge, a counter-attack against those who have mistreated it so much recently. Perhaps we could help. After all, enough is enough.

© 2017

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 10th June at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 3 June 2017

Thoughts in Progress

I recently screened the 1978 movie version of Watership Down to my film club. Strange as it might sound, as I sat at the back of the room, I was the one being affected once again by the conflict in which Fiver, Hazel, Bigwig et al find themselves.

Watership Down is the sort of story that invites multiple readings. This is the tale of nervous rabbit Fiver’s vision of destruction and horror. He manages to convince his brother Hazel and others to leave their warren in order to find a safer home. Their journey is nothing but a peril-ridden adventure. Some of my young charges found a few scenes pretty upsetting.

To me, watching the movie now as an adult, Watership Down symbolises the loss of an identity, human rather than leporid. Roughly half an hour into the film the rabbits are offered shelter in a warren ruled by upper-class-sounding Cowslip. By way of thanking their hosts for their hospitality, Hazel prompts his friend Dandelion to tell a story. The latter chooses the tale of smart El-ahrairah and how he tricks the King Darzin into handing over his lettuce. In the film version the story is never told. Instead Cowslip’s response to Dandelion’s offer is blunt and rather rude, in stark contrast with his earlier politeness. El-ahrairah means nothing to him and his fellow rabbits. He goes on to recite a poem whose main message is that of passivity and being led.

It is clear that for Cowslip the old stories do not matter much. I see parallels between the rabbit’s attitude and the lives we live now. Our human existence has long been underpinned by a system of strong moral values, common to all, regardless of nationality, gender, race, creed or any other identity marker. When they work, these values serve as stable road signs, guiding us through the equivalent of a complicated and labyrinthine traffic grid. When we ignore or misread the signs, we collide with one another, causing damage to others and ourselves in the process.

We are shaped not only by our individual characteristics but also by the communities in which we live. When we lose the power to tell our common story we also lose part of what defines us as humans. No matter to what degree our communities evolve – and they have done a lot, throughout the centuries – at the centre of them there should still be a common shared story.

This is the tale that Dandelion wants to tell but he is not allowed to. Cowslip’s warren, like many others, has lost their common shared story. Their individuality has given way to individualism, a pernicious off-shoot of our complex personalities.

Of course, watching Watership Down also made me think of the current political scene in the UK. Not that Richard Adams would have wanted his creation to be seen as a political allegory. But, we do have a general election next week, Thursday 8th June. Much has been said about the current state of British politics and how it has bred apathy and disengagement. But there is a clear choice for the electorate in my view: on the one hand, that of our common shared story (a free NHS, fair funding for schools and opportunities for small and medium business) and on the other hand, unfettered individualism, the loss of community and the abandonment of our common human story. While Cowslip is askingWhere are you going, stream?” and wants to be taken by it “away in the starlight”, Hazel and co. are already in the process of making a better life for the whole warren. All the time, they are still telling the story of El-ahrairah and how he tricked King Darzin into handing over his lettuce. This is the strong and stable narrative I crave as a human being. Not the robotic, predictable, lifeless and dull individualism that presents itself as the future. Any future we build will still need stories to be told.

© 2017

Next Post: “Let’s Talk About…”, to be published on Wednesday 7th June at 6pm (GMT)


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