Wednesday, 25 November 2015

London, my London

This post is about that crossing. But before we get to that crossing, let me take you by the hand and give you a mini-tour of a very peculiar corner of north-west London.

Golders Green is a recent, 19th century development with a Jewish-rich history. If Hackney’s Stamford Hill is better known for its Orthodox Jews, then, Golders Green’s “people of the book” are more representative of the middle-class families who settled in the area after Golders Green tube station opened. From Ashkenazims to Sephardims, it is thought that by the late 50s a quarter of the population in this area was Jewish.

Cycling on Finchley Road is one of the ways to discover this lesser-known London gem. Just a little curious fact: when you hear the word “avenue”, do not think of a wide, big, long road, but very often, think of a small, narrow one. Finchley Road would be called an “avenue” in any other city, including Havana, but here it is merely a “road”, or at most, a “high road”.

If this post were about the usually impressive-looking British countryside, I would be using terms such as hedgerow trees, pastoral land and woodland. Instead, I must resort, dear reader, to urban adjectives such as gentrification, young professionals and café culture. The well-kept tarmac made for a smooth surface on which to cycle. At some point I felt almost as if I were gliding. This coupled with the fact that Finchley Road is long and slopy made for interesting double-takes of little shops and businesses. In fact, Finchley Road felt like a preamble to West Hampstead. At the traffic lights with Fortune Green Road on my right, I recognised the area I was in immediately. I used to work here.

West End Lane has changed beyond recognition. It had already changed drastically by the time I joined the travel agency where I spent five and a half years of my life as a tour-operator. Still, one landmark remained almost intact amongst the Nando’s and Japanese eateries: West End Lane Books. This was one of my favourite stops after work on the way to the train station. I still remember the musty smell inside and on this day I could not resist saying hello to this old friend. I strolled into the building and it felt as if every shelf in the bookshop had leant forward to acknowledge my presence. That of an erstwhile regular who has not been in for almost twelve and a half years. West End Lane Books is in a league of its own. At any point the visitor will have access to approximately 10,000 titles in stock. The staff are still knowledgeable and polite.

The nostalgic-tinted encounter with the bookshop gave me the special oomph I needed to complete my journey and that I did. Straight down district-splitting West End Lane I carried on. On one side the blurred boundary with still-Irish stronghold Kilburn where the Tricycle Theatre has provided a fertile ground for up-and-coming left-of-field playwrights.

A distinctive element of London’s urban geography is its confusing and bizarre postcode system, as I mentioned in a previous post. After turning right from West End Lane onto Compayne Gardens, I cycled alternatively between NW6 and NW8. Of course, part of the reason was that, as I explained at the beginning of this series, I was focusing more on the discovery of what to me London’s hidden gems were (not necessarily landmarks or tourist sites). Culture and history over fame. Even with a little bit of architecture thrown in for good measure. All in all, the journey along these mainly deserted roads with picturesque houses and flats was an enjoyable experience. So much so, that all of a sudden, that crossing appeared and… Well, I shall stop my narration here as I leave you pondering who made that crossing as renowned as it has been for many decades. And if you do not know the answer to that question then, well… I cannot help you, reader. You are on your own.

© 2015

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 28th November at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

A few years ago a fellow blogger sent me an e-mail with a link in it asking me if I was interested in joining some kind of online protest. I cannot recall all the details but it was something to do with turning my blog into some kind of virtual Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner. The soap-box, sadly, was not included.

My answer at the time is the same answer I would give now to anyone asking me the same question: I do not normally use my blog for those purposes. Whatever is going on in the world, I let it sink in first and then, if I can add something constructive to the online debate, I will do so. There have been a few exceptions, but overall that has been a rule of mine to follow all these years as a blogger. The reason for this is that too often I find a knee-jerk reaction to events that call for a thorough analysis and that includes my own gut reaction. For a second, or a minute or a day, I stop thinking like a normal human being and become a vindictive monster hell-bent on revenge.

The terrorist acts in Beirut and Paris last week, and Mali only yesterday attest to this. The reactions have been of the binary kind: on the one hand, we have had plenty of well-meaning displays of solidarity, chiefly with the people murdered in the French capital. I, too, have joined those for the last seven days both on Twitter and Facebook. On the other hand there has been the usual crass response to the terrorist crisis, such as Donald Trump’s comments that he would give Muslims “a special form of identification that noted their religion”. Just in case you have been hiding under a rock all this time, Donald Trump aspires to be the president of the United States of America.

When I hear or read comments like that, my first question is: why do we adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to terrorism when this scourge is a multi-layered issue? If the solution were bombing the little buggers out of their miserable existence, that would have been done long time ago. It would have taken years but at least governments would have concentrated on just that one solution. But the sort of terrorism that we have come across for the last fourteen years is of a different kind with its very specific cycle of life, or death, as it has shown itself to be.

Do not get me wrong. To me, fighting Daesh is still a priority, even going the military way. At the same time, I would like our governments to think more creatively even if in the long run some of the financial rewards they have enjoyed so far fade into oblivion. Human life is more important than exports in my humble opinion.

First of all, consider the enemy. In normal warfare, no matter how hard, long-running or dirty the war is, your opponent will want to go back home in one piece. There have been heroic acts of immolation in history but most of the time soldiers on both sides have always wanted to stay alive. When it comes to fundamentalists, they do not care whether they are killed in what they call combat or if they are not. In fact, martyrdom renders them superheroes to other wannabe-terrorists. My suggestion is that we stop using words such as “battlefield” when talking about a massacre like the one at the Bataclan theatre. That was murder. Murder in cold blood. The people who murdered the concert-goers were murderers, killers. They were not, at least for me, soldiers. Because Daesh is not an army, it is a loose association of idiots guided by a twisted ideology based on the wrong interpretation of a sacred text.

Not Paris, but Beirut

Secondly, cut the supply. This will be the hardest measure to implement. Cut the supply of weapons, for instance. As far as I know Daesh is not a weapons manufacturer, nor do they have weapon-manufacturing facilities. This means that they are getting their guns from various sources: direct sale from trustworthy companies or individuals, theft and bribe. Direct sale should be easy to stop as it leaves a paper trail behind it. In this time and age with NSA and GCHQ knowing what goes on in almost every single household in Britain and the US, their intelligence could come in handy to follow the clues from warehouse to buyer. When it comes to theft, the west has to get its act together. For too long the arms industry has enjoyed a challenge-free existence because very rarely the weapons it has sold to rogue states and dictatorships affected their own citizens. Not anymore. The guns, submachine guns and other heavy artillery used by Daesh in their military drills and skirmishes can be traced back to the arsenal sold to countries in the Middle East and Asia, including, surprise, surprise!, Syria. This is the windfall to which I referred before and which has caused untold misery. Cut the supply of weapons and where will that leave Daesh? It is not the same to practice with the latest state-of-the-art automatic gun, stolen from a dead American, Afghan or Iraqi soldier in Afghanistan or Iraq, than to carry out exercises using only knives and pretend weapons. Knives can still kill, but they will not kill as many as those who were murdered in Beirut or at the Bataclan in Paris. It goes without saying that a radical measure like this one, a ban on all weapons sales, would be opposed by almost every single arms manufacturer in the world. The question is: what do we value more, arms exports or human lives?

The third element to take into consideration is the make-up of Daesh, especially the young people joining this terrorist organisation. That is another supply we ought to cut, nip it in the bud, so to speak. Why are some of our young people, especially Muslims, attracted to this gallery of cartoonish characters called Daesh? Maybe if we stopped laughing at Donald Trump et al and we started listening to their poisonous message and accepting it for what it is, a message said in earnest without any hint of irony, we could start making some progress towards engaging some of our young Muslim population in a productive dialogue. Two important disclaimers here: the first one if that this is not an attack on free speech. Donald Trump can say what he wants to as long as he can justify it. Same with British politicians, especially those who are pointing their finger at the refugee crisis and calling it a Trojan horse (oh, no, sorry, that was Donald again!). Just a little reminder: the 7/7 bombers did not come to the UK as refugees; neither did the perpetrators of 9/11. I could carry on. The second disclaimer is that not all young Muslims want to join Daesh. I know I am stating he bleeding truth but sometimes the bleeding truth must be stated to avoid confusion and misinterpretation.

The fourth element is the way the media deals with terrorism, mainly the new fundamentalism. If I am honest, I only found out about Beirut through Paris. Paris got much of the coverage. The sad outcome of this is that resentment will grow in a community that already feels beleaguered. By focusing on Beirut, Mali, Nigeria and other places where Daesh or a similar terrorist cell has struck, we begin to see the people in that part of the world as equals and not as AN OTHER.

I could list more elements that I believe would eventually deal effectively with this terrorist crisis. I think that the two most important factors are the arms industry and the disaffection of the youth. Prioritise human lives over the arms trade and work on the young, their aspirations and frustrations. This will not eliminate Daesh, but it will cut the supply of weaponry and personnel from which they are benefitting at the moment. I admit it is not a perfect solution and that it will take time, but then again this new kind of terrorism is not black and white but rather grey with blood stains on it.

© 2015

Next Post: “London, my London”, to be published on Wednesday 25th November at 6pm (GMT)


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