On this trip, I’ve been suffering a non-stop kaleidoscope of hail, snow, sleet and rain, in a rapid, unpredictable succession of squalls and outbursts. The sun only seems to make its rare bait & switch appearances in order to entice you out of doors only to dump its precipitation on you.
London isn’t just expensive when one is translating from pathetic dollars to robust pounds (2 to 1). It’s downright pretentious how much things cost here, in any currency. In fact, prices in pounds echo the same numerical amount as prices in dollars in the States. So if a greeting card there is $2.25, here it is £2.25. Skip the global economy – London’s expensive in and of itself in any context.
The transportation system is mired in gridlock. Despite all the changes the ‘re-elected” Mayor Ken Livingstone made (he was once the radical, daring head of the Greater London Council from 1981-86 when it was abolished) – charging congestion fees for cars entering the center of the city, making the buses cheap and more frequent, raising the price of the Tube (wanna ride? Get a trust fund), using double buses attached by accordion connections instead of double-deckers (supposedly it’s about replacing old stock with more accessible buses) – despite all that, it’s impossible to get around. The buses are in a gridlock, only now there’re more of them not going anywhere.
Here’s one anecdote. I’m on my way to meet the lovely Liz Woodcraft – barrister, award-winning author and celebrated wit. Although she texts me that she is held up in court, I set out to the National Portrait Gallery, one of my favorite free destinations in London, right above Trafalgar Square.
I miss my bus because of the dithering of a Post Office clerk when I pop in for a stamp, but shortly after getting drenched by an unexpected shower-burst, another arrives. I sit in my favorite seat – upstairs in the front – and we crawl at an imbecilic pace through road works and traffic jams. It is useless to stress out so I become immersed in my book of Lillian Hellman essays.
“Out,” a deep voice growls. “End.”
It’s the conductor and I’m startled when I look up to see that I’m the last one left on the bus. “But this bus goes to Trafalgar Square,” I protest, looking out at unfamiliar turf.
“Not today. I was told to stop short.”
“But where am I?”
“Five minutes walk up this road and you’ll be in the Square.”
Anyone who has spent time in Britain knows that “a five-minute walk” translates into American English as, “I was raised rambling across the Yorkshire moors on my way to the pub. I eat miles for breakfast.” In short, a five-minute walk could be, and turned out to be, a rushed 25-minute walk for me.
As I enter the Portrait Gallery panting, I get a call from Liz that she is on her way, nearly there. The photography show I had been longing to see since I was back in Boston turns out to cost ten bloody pounds ($20) and because of the delays, I have little time. We chose instead to check out a (free) exhibit “Brilliant Women: 18th Century Bluestockings” and then rise to the café on top of the Gallery that overlooks the roofs and cupolas of the surrounding buildings. Finally, I have my second scone – I don’t realize that it will be my last.
I swore that I would not gain weight on this trip. Remembering all those fad diets where you only eat one foodstuff: rice or spinach or potatoes, I determined to lose weight by only eating scones (with clotted cream and jam). Unfortunately they don’t seem to be as ubiquitous as in former days and I end up eating well instead.
Pragna and Raju
It’s become a precious tradition that I dine with my friends Pragna and Raju and their daughters on my London visits. Like so many people, they talk about the post-9/11 impact on their work. Pragna is one of the founders 20 years ago of Southall Black Sisters, a remarkable organization of feminists committed to the human rights of women and to supporting Asian and Afro-Caribbean women facing violence.
Raju has a law firm that is famous for confronting police brutality and working around prison issues.
Both of these activists regret the backlash since 9/11 and the attacks in London that have taken race equality issues off the political table. The special needs of ethnic and racial minorities are no longer recognized and services to those communities are being eliminated under the expectation that everyone can use the same sources. Issues of access around language and culture no longer count – although religion is increasingly privileged, they explain. This strengthens those already in power (religious leaders) in the minority communities – never a good development for women.
Instead of the usual talk about multiculturalism, Pragna says, it’s all about “cohesion.” In short, assimilation. It is “difference” which has caused all of Britain’s woes, insist the white majority, some of whom claim to have been neglected too long. Immigrants must prove that they are loyal to “British values” – whatever those are, and American concepts of patriotism, like a pledge of allegiance in schools, are being imported.
With the disbanding of the Commission for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities Commission (for women), minority and women’s groups are being widely de-funded. Instead the new Commission for Integration and Cohesion is throwing money at religious groups, often the most conservative elements of the community, and in the process, Pragna explains, “destroying secular spaces in Black and minority communities.”
Social issues are now being addressed from a religious perspective instead of a broader ethnic (or feminist) approach. Legal aid, once a pillar of British justice, is being heavily eroded, Raju tells me. Fewer people can qualify and less is being paid to Legal Aid lawyers, most of whom can no longer afford to take such cases.
I also meet up with my political buddy Rayah who, after a productive academic career, has now founded an immigrant day center, following a random meeting on the street with an immigrant woman in dire straits. Rayah and I stroll in the very old Abney Cemetery before hiding from the elements in a modern Turkish restaurant where I eat a delicious mango salad.
Every time I visit London, my “English Friend” Lynne treats me to some sumptuous repast and this year we dine on lamb. Because nearly all of my London friends are “something” – immigrants, Jews, Scots, Irish, people of color – other than the white English rose, Lynne celebrates being the exception. I met her during rehearsals for the first all-women tango performance in 1991 when, mesmerized, I watched her strip off layers of mysterious black lace and velvet undergarments only to replace them with parallel layers in white. My admiration and her delight in being admired turned out to be a solid foundation for a long-term friendship.
Lynne is thriving as a European consultant around mental health issues and policies and as one of those stylish women with quite a unique flair. In the mid 90s Lynne bought a fix-me-up house in the working class neighborhood of Finsbury Park – prices today are stratospheric like everywhere else in London – where she immersed herself in the local community. However, the legacy of 9/11 has touched Finsbury Park, too.
Things have changed, she told me, since the large local Mosque, built with Saudi Arabian royal money, began to be led by the Egyptian cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri. The imam’s message of anti-Semitism and jihad attracted all the kooks and bad guys. After al-Masri’s arrest in 2004 for stirring up racial hatred, among other nefarious past-times, the Mosque came under the control of more mainstream Muslim leaders. He was convicted in 2006 and sentenced to seven years in jail.
As a result the neighborhood has become more polarized and tense and Lynne mourns the loss of its earlier sense of delight among the varied communities that shared the area. They are “still struggling to celebrate the diversity of the human spirit,” she adds.
As I was writing the first draft of this posting, Lynne sent a comment to my previous blog, in which I reported on the earlier part of my trip – thinking that somehow I was leaving her out. Her wry objection, reflecting the highest standards of civilized English literature, is worth reprinting:
Well, you meet her at the bus stop. You escort her safely through the mean streets of Camden. You secure the best table - naturally. You wine and dine her on the finest charcoal grilled lamb chops this side of Beirut; you treat her to a side order of quail. You dazzle her with your political analysis. You tell her all the gossip: the inside stories on the candidates for Mayor of London and what's happened to the more elusive of her ex lovers. In short, you show her the kind of good time this wonderful, chaotic, maddening London of ours can sometimes, by a small miracle, deliver. And what happens? Do you feature in her travelogue? Is there a picture of you in my gorgeous hat, adorning the by-line? Eat worms Sue Katz!
My final fun in London is a return to the Sunday lessons and tea dances that will have been running 20 years in 2009. Partner dancing in a context in which I was permitted to lead and in which I could dance with girls and boys alike had been a life-long dream. These classes were one of the biggest attractions when I was considering the move to Britain.
The Pink dance scene became my main home, my main social experience and my main source of endorphins. Becoming a strong ballroom and latin dance leader was one of my dearest goals and turned out to be a most reliable tool of seduction.
Dancing with Mary and Mike and my teacher Ralf - all incomparably graceful - only proved how rusty I am since moving to Boston where I don’t have regular partners or venues. In dance, if you don’t use it, you unfortunately lose a lot of it and it’s a good thing that anticipated hot sex and overwork on my return to the States, after my visit to Zurich, will keep my mind off my deprivation.
Next stop: Zurich.