Battle in your soul


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Category: Reflections Date: 17 Sep 98

‘We spend too much time making fun of people to be able to have fun ourselves.’


‘Sometimes, even if we can’t eat cake, it doesn’t mean we don’t like looking at it.’


In London these days, David Hore, arguably Britain’s “most important” playwright, stands under the bright lights in a vintage theatre in Lescester Square and ends his two-hour polemic on his visit to Israel with words to the effect that it doesn’t matter where you live - what’s truly important is the battle in your soul. That may be true. But I think a change of address helps.


The scene on the streets of a depressed pocket of London, made up largely of immigrant communities and unemployed people:  Here men spit and teenagers swear on the streets. Angry, frustrated mothers smoke in their children’s faces. Women hitch their bags over their shoulders and walk home, alert, tense, ready for potential assailants. Loud music drowns reflection. Television blocks conversation. The effects of poverty and unemployment are as present in this city of immigrants as they are at home. They dream of escape.


A happy set of coincidences and generous friends, shifted me from a dreary North London house in a community like this, to leafy Chiswick, a crisp suburb with smart shops and a renovated underground. Walking to the Chiswick flat after a late night out, along a lonely boulevard, trees swishing eerily with a chilly night breeze, fallen autumn leaves crackling underfoot, I heard heavy footsteps behind me. The shadow got longer. Then huge. I looked back quickly to see a tall male dressed in all black and heavy boots. I must have started when a gentle voice said, “I’m sorry if I startled you,” and walked on.


In those few minutes during that little exchange, I had to acknowledge a world which I thought was swallowed up in the pursuit of the in-your-face ambition. That of a middle-class which is liberal, kind, funny and generous. It’s a difficult admission to make. Firstly, it is not politically correct to like the middle-class and even if one is a middle-class journalist, one must always take up the cause of the underlings and underdogs which is a noble aspiration, although not always entirely subjective. Secondly, I suppose it is an undeniably economic fact that the middle-class only got that way because they or their ancestors were in a position to exploit someone.


I wrote a piece on England a few years ago - all about sybaritic picnics and clotted cream in Devon and the Cotswolds - so syrupy and blinkered that rightly, a highly respected journalist in Trinidad told me point blank that he “didn’t like it” - I suppose he was too polite to say its sweetness made him nauseous.


But now I have documented the other side of England, the alienated and the depressed, I feel free to write about another, entirely exhilarating side to this city - to many cynical, nineties professionals of my generation from Trinidad to New York, exhilaration is passe. We spend too much time making fun of people to be able to have fun ourselves. We are brittle, jittery, competitive products of a world which is collapsing around us - be it currency speculation, collapsing economies, natural disasters which leave hundreds dead or a dropping price of oil.


But some parts of the world, unbelievably, are still safe from the momentous changes around us. Oxford, which I visited over the weekend, is one of these. Fourteenth century buildings, reading rooms with gilded aged books the size of a table, cobbled streets, coffee shops in cathedrals, bookshops, students on bikes, gardens and vines. That was all the same. But I also had the privilege of meeting the Whitbread prize winner for best biography. His subject: “Balzac”. The 19th century French writer.


I took the train to Oxford with two fellow journalists, roughly equal to me in their ignorance of Balzac. One was an Aussie writer who had just published his book in London so we clung to that for a semblance of respectability. The other was like me. A puppy writer. Confused and eager to learn.


But I had forgotten what strange and endearing creatures academics and scholars are. Three of us stood about in the nippy cold, jackets flapping about, for about 45 minutes deciding what to do, and making half finished sentences where nobody said anything in particular. The winner of the Whitbread prize for his “Balzac” had no sense of direction, he kept leading us to ugly car parks and shifted uncomfortably when we asked him what was a good place to have lunch. “I don’t know. I hardly ever eat in places where I pay for food,” came the reply.


Finally, we followed the whiff of greasy chips and landed up in a charming old pub where the three of us, writers and journalists, did a collective angst over having to decide what to eat as we hurtled ahead in the queue, intimidated by the confident and loud young man behind the counter. We got told off by the loud young man who asked in his best cockney, “What are you laufin at then?” as the Whitbread prize winner snivelled and giggled nervously at the sausages and mash. The talk later was about the hopelessness of publishers, marketing of books, accompanied by a lot of self-deprecating jokes, helpless and increasingly drunken giggles.


All this sounds weird I know. I suppose what I am trying to say is that the absence of the hard edge, of loud confidence that seems to be our gift from America, was a relief. It is pleasant to be among people who are bright enough to know that no matter how much they’ve achieved, that there are huge mountains of ignorance in all of us, that it is this recognition that makes us learn, humble, self-deprecating.


Back in London. Walk with me: We stroll by compact houses yielding variations of English gardens, with obligatory mammoth size roses in yellow, white, vermilion and pink. Open curtains reveal bookshelves, bowls of fruit, a single lamp at dusk. In a park, four girls in their late teens dressed in pastel shades of Shalvaar khameez swing their scarves whipping around them, cheeks flushed with movement.


We have turned onto a main street: In a coffee shop, a woman sits, writing a journal or letter, her expression altering from anxiety to dreamy half-smiles. In a restaurant, an elderly man sits back upright, solitary, but bravely waiting for his meal and drinking a glass of white wine. These scenes can take place anywhere. But the appeal of large cities is anonymity. You can feel part of a crowd without feeling invaded or intruded.


Somehow I got invited to a high-brow dinner in an Edwardian home in Ladbroke Grove, where the frighteningly influential and talented writers, publishers, poets and literary critics, and their hanger-ons, absentmindedly eat half-cooked food with champagne. They are so self-consciously elite that they are easily made fun off. But listening to the composer play on his grand piano after “supper”, surrounded with books and pictures, with the taste of strawberries and champagne on my lips, is the closest I’ve come to glimpsing heaven.


I have only read about this life and glad for their sakes that they were privileged enough to have access to this. Somebody’s got to have it all. Sometimes, even if we can’t eat cake, it doesn’t mean we don’t like looking at it. Here at work - at this Gemini News Service - I have found a dying institution. An NGO, which for the last 20 years has been operating as a wire feature service for the largely forgotten people of the world.


Covering stories from Zambia to Bangkok, while the Western media concentrate on what Bill Clinton did with a cigar, this place, a training ground for many young journalists, examines the implication of the horrendous flooding in Bangladesh. It is refreshing to be amongst people who believe what they write matters and still do it so meticulously and well.


As a visitor I can only take single, one-dimensional snapshots of London. But I have to start where I left off. The battle of the soul: grappling with huge questions like love, death, life and destiny take place wherever you are, but a refreshing shower can’t harm it either.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur