Friday, March 03, 2006

the london emails - heat and dust

a series of emails written during the summer of 2004

The most striking aspect of London at the moment is the weather. It is
suffocating and stifling, it is intolerably unbearably detestably damnably
irritatingly fucking hot. The air seems stale, sleep is impossible, and
everyone is slowly going mad.

Will this tropical weather really result in a better football team, and
change people’s social habits? Does Gibreel Farishta walk the streets of
London at night? I don’t know. Who is madder at mid-day, Sikhs or
Englishmen? Maybe Sikh Englishmen?

The word bedlam comes from London, courtesy of the Bethlehem Lunatic Asylum.
This building still exists apparently, though having stepped up in the
world, it currently commemorates and records lunacy on a much grander scale.
It is now the Imperial War Museum.

Greenwich is a few kilometres east of London, and it is here that one finds
the prime meridian line, nicely marked with flashy lights and constantly
being stepped on by satisfied tourists. However, all global navigation now
employs the American GPS system, which bases GMT as being 350 odd feet to
the east of this line.

I remember from many years back The Economist claiming that Britishers were
more interested in books about gardening than about sex. This may be so, but
so far I have not noticed agriculture figuring prominently in the daily
headlines. Sex on the other hand is everywhere. I mentioned the SwissRE
tower previously. It has some connection I am told to the makers of Viagra,
and hence another nickname that clever Londoners have given it: The Crystal

I went on a Jack the Ripper walk. This is basically where groups of people
with clearly a morbid interest pay money to follow a guide and see the
streets where a vicious psychopath walked and killed a century ago. There
seem to be half a dozen tours going on in the neighbourhood at the same
time, led by all sorts of funny characters. Ours was led by a JtR authority,
and he had a whole army of three hundred of us marching around behind him.
The tour itself was not particularly revealing, but what was interesting was
the tourist composition: 90% of them seemed to be Americans. There is a
fascination and awareness that American tourists seem to have for the topic,
and which does not seem matched by the local population. I don’t know the
reason for this, but it is intriguing.

Also, the American tourists were perfectly well behaved and did not talk
loudly to each other, or ask lots of ‘tough’ questions to the guide. And
none of them suggested JtR was French. For the moment, all of this seems
much more mysterious than JtR crimes.

At the museums, the more clichéd Americans reassuringly keep making their
presence felt. They wear shorts, look purposeful and impatient (probably not
enough holiday leave), discuss the exhibits loudly amongst themselves and
question and critically evaluate any claims made by the guides. I like to
think the last is a result of their experience with Dubya. Probably not.

I read Beverley Nichols’ Verdict on India. Basically the guy went to India
in 1940s and found everything was awful. No big deal really, they recently
gave a Nobel Prize to a guy who thought the same. But this man is quite
original. The chapter on Mahatma Gandhi is called ‘Heil Hindu’, and the
Congress party is compared with the Nazis. His chapter on Indian movies is
inadvertently brilliant, and deserves its own telling another time.

He actually complements Churchill rather well. Churchill thought that India
didn’t exist, Nichols thinks that Indians don’t exist. Churchill thinks
there is no Bengal famine, Nichols thinks that the Indians are to blame for
the famine. Churchill was a war time prime minister, Nichols’ main legacy
according to the internet are books on gardening.

Actually he joins Alastair Lamb as that exclusive group of British
‘historians’ whose main reference on the net is by Pakistani websites which
both quote and praise them. Lamb wrote a book on Kashmir whose views found
great resonance in Pakistan, and Nichols called Jinnah ‘the greatest man in
Asia’. And that half a line is about all that keeps his legacy of political
writing alive.

I also read a book about one of the English memsahibs and her ‘adventures’
(sample adventure: our heroine ventures into the kitchen to see what her
cook is doing) in India. It’s interesting in its own way, and much more
irritating. I found myself loudly cheering for untrustworthy servants and
all tropical diseases. How long do wedding cakes last for anyway?? This
woman is going by ship to India and takes a wedding cake along, and then
after getting married in India she and her husband eat it for several months

London reminds me a lot of Delhi. The comparison is not particularly
flattering to either city, and so I won’t go into detail here, but I note it
for my own future reference.

The heat can at least be used to rationalise some of the things one sees.
One odd sight I have seen on some afternoons is white men of various ages,
walking alone through brick lane wearing socks, shoes and their boxers. I
don’t mean shorts, I mean boxers. I am sure there is a crazy explanation for
this, though what it is I don’t know yet. Perhaps it’s just a fashion
disaster and those are meant to be jogging shorts they are wearing. But the
middle-aged guy had a paunch that didn’t know what jogging meant, and he was
wearing formal shoes and socks. Maybe it’s an update of the Masonic
initiation ceremonies. Or maybe it’s just Englishmen out in the noonday sun.

I went recently to see some of the controversial modern art at the Tate
Modern. I don’t get it at all, and am not sure whether I should pretend to
either. There is always that uneasy suspicion in the back of my head: What
if modern art is one of the great hoaxes of the twentieth century, designed
to get easy money out of rich stupid people? One fears contempt, whether
that of brilliant artist or smug hoaxers, so how should one behave? If
everyone else said the emperor is wearing clothes and you couldn’t see them,
what would you say? Of course, you might also see that the earth is flat, so
don’t believe what you see either. There, that should leave everyone

Numbers are wonderfully flexible here, as in the rest of the world. You knew
that of course. The same guide book describes three different markets as
‘the biggest market’ in London. Ten different places claim to be among
London’s five most frequented destinations. The British museum across
various sections displays information about all ten of the seven wonders of
the ancient world. Restaurants advertise prices outside that of course don’t
apply the day you are eating there. My favourite internet café has been
having a ‘one week only’ special on their coffee for the last eight weeks.

The poor in London don’t beg for food by the way. They always ask for fifty
pence to buy a cup of tea. And a popular variation is people better dressed
than you (well me anyway) asking for 30 pence to make a phone call. The
tea-money people tend to be white males, clearly English. The phone-call
cheats include eastern Europeans. I haven’t come across a Desi
beggar or cheat yet. There are gypsy women with children asking for money in
the affluent shopping areas, and I noticed a burqa clad woman begging (in
Arabic) in the Arab area on Edgware Road.

Another thing. The English love their disasters. They seem to have built
more monuments to those than they did to their successes. And what an
attitude! No matter what terrible thing happens, they think it’s great.
Quite literally. The Great Plague. The Great Fire. The Great War. Great Britain. Amazing!

Meanwhile, I trust you are all well and leading lives full of merriment and
purpose. Then again, why should you have it better than me?

Take care

Ps: I would recommend not to take anything I write at face value, and
apologise if I ever cause any offence. I am grossly misinformed, largely
ignorant and don’t check the facts before I make them up. And then there is
this awful heat.

pps: Don't remember if I mentioned it before, but saw this gallery with a
cool name: EATMYHANDBAGBITCH. Brilliant place to work I am sure.