Essay: My shaken London, viewed from the outside

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Posted: Aug 14, 2011 10:02 AM
Essay: My shaken London, viewed from the outside

London neighborhoods on fire. Violence and looting shaking other British cities to the core. On TV, a parade of frightened, angry and deeply unsettled faces. From the outside, it looked as if my nation and its most identifiable city were being ripped asunder.

London will persevere, though. It is the Great Metropolis. And there are hundreds of millions of human beings who feel some kinship to it, whether it be through films and music, fashion or football, pub culture or its millennium-long history or the royal family that presides over it, however nominally.

Like so many of the world's great cities, London is a malleable organism, alive and energetic. And so many have created an individual prism through which they view it _ a prism that recent days' events have both tested and reinforced.

I have my own prism. I am a Londoner, and it's a fundamental part of how I define myself, even after relocating to New York City last year.

I can't help but wonder: To people who have nothing but images from the news or popular culture, how is London viewed now? And how does that view align with the people rampaging through its streets?

It was barely three months ago that another London _ just as real but so very different _ stood in the public consciousness when Prince William married Kate Middleton.

The royal wedding: A more disparate scene from the rioting one could not imagine. The romance, the dress, the fallen princess' son, the commoner bride, that kiss on the balcony. From across the Atlantic Ocean, the day resembled the fairy tale it was choreographed to be. It was also, not incidentally, a reflection of how millions around the world see England: pomp, ceremony, fantasy laced with history and tradition.

That London isn't very real to me, either. Many of my acquaintances didn't share in the vast crowd's delight. And it was hard not to notice the feeling of ill will in various sections of our class-obsessed society _ the notion that such extravagance in times of austerity and unemployment was wrong.

Some who have not visited England are mesmerized by the portrayal of it served up in the Richard Curtis films "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Notting Hill." Through his lens, civility, self-deprecating British humor and buffoonery, posh weddings, trendy dinner parties and happy romantic endings rule the day.

I prefer the hard-hitting films of Ken Loach, which examine the social deprivation and class divides that some say stoked the riots. They are less popular, less soothing, closer to the reality.

London's cutting-edge music scene, too, offers windows into the recent unrest. The classic anti-establishment anthems of my youth _ the Jam's "Going Underground", The Clash's "London Calling" and The Specials' "Ghost Town" _ are the more resonant now. You can't forget, either, that one of the Sex Pistols' most famous songs was called "Anarchy in the U.K."

That music coincided with the initial years of Thatcherism in Britain _ and a sense that, for Londoners, there was a lot to be angry about.

I can't help but draw connections between those days and the London scene that produced Amy Winehouse and the drug-saturated excess that ended her life before she reached 30. She lived, drank and died in the city's chaotic Camden section _ the very place where I worked until I left last year.

Nor can I entirely separate the deep feelings that Londoners harbor toward two of their country's most successful soccer teams, Arsenal and Chelsea. Yes, they are multinational and global _ watched all over the world via cable, satellite and streams. But for Londoners they are local, part of the firmament of people's everyday lives. Not incidentally, they are also distractions from the kinds of economic challenges that have made some of my fellow Londoners so frustrated and angry.

Now we hear about worries over security for the 2012 Olympics. Could those who will flock to London be sitting ducks for "thugs" intent on robbing and beating them? Would they be any more at risk than the millions of tourists who flood London in all seasons to visit Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, the Tower and the London Eye?

On a visit home in July, I took my 5-year-old son to the wax museum Madame Tussaud's in Baker Street _ a place I loved as child in the post-colonial 1970s for its impressive "world leaders room."

It has had to move with the times and focus on A-list celebrity figures, but the hard sell of candy kiosks and custom-made photos (I reluctantly bowed to keychains of my son standing next to the Justin Bieber model, while treasuring the snap I took of him with The Beatles) made the $100, one-hour experience dispiriting.

It made me think about what we've become: the disconnect between fantasy and reality and the obsession with excess and greed, and what they might mean in the city that my London became this past week.

In the end, London _ the real one and the mythical version _ is, like so many of the world's greatest cities, elastic. It is a kaleidoscope to some, a penciled landscape to others, a carnival and playground to others. For still others, it is closer to the scenes of this past week _ a nightmare, a horror where, as the poet William Blake wrote of the city, every face bears "marks of woe."

But one thing unites all these visions. No matter which London you're considering, the city is always, forever, alive. It breathes, it pulsates and it draws you in.

That London _ a combination of all the visions, of the fantasy and the reality and the intersection of the two _ is most familiar. To me, pining from afar during these troubled moments, it will always be home.

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EDITOR'S NOTE _ Tamer L. Fakahany is a deputy managing editor of The Associated Press.