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Category: International Date: 24 Oct 04


London—a city that assaults the senses with images faster than you can process: a rapidly-fluttering butterfly against century-old walls, timeless and frenetic.


Make what you will of a shop window of a headless mannequin wearing a Marilyn Monroe-type dress being perpetually blown upwards by an invisible fan, of an African girl stepping out of an overcrowded, claustrophobic train during rush hour with an armful of flowers, looking like an oil painting.


You can, if you like, inhabit other people’s lives, recognise how wonderfully crazily multi-lingual-cultural the world has become, as an Indian Kenyan in a photography shop in Tottenham Court Road, looking longingly at a television documentary of Kenya, says to the West Indian and Arab, who share the store with him: “I’m India; never been to India, but love Kenya, yeah?” He then turns to serve the British blonde.


Overhear a few words by a girl on a cellphone; watch her biting her lips in disappointment—it is apparent that the love of her life can’t see her tonight, that she will in the end be dumped.


Use your eyes as camera shutters. Make the backdrop a twilight rush hour in rain, neon signs, a carnival movement of umbrellas, the sounds of a lonely saxophone echoing through a tunnel. Blink at the bold billboards tempting you to see films, exhibitions, plays.


In every corner around Leicester Square, Covent Garden, Piccadilly Circus, there are theatres, opera houses, clubs packed out with people seeking diversion, a fresh thought, perhaps.


You stop to look at the men in black suits and tall hats outside five-star hotels, thinking they will be there for hundreds of years, watch the movement of a green-gold profusion of leaves, remnants of summer, intimation of winter, on the streets.


Then there is the gritty reality that is homogenous, that can leech on to any country in today’s globalised world. People living in the streets are younger, in greater numbers, the elderly neglected, a shocking 21,500 elderly people over 65 died of the cold last winter, just 500 less than the year before.


School children are emerging illiterate after attending years of classes, people die waiting for ambulances, burglars knife people to death, a black teenager is shot in a drive-by shooting in Nottingham, people are becoming more obese then ever, up to 20 per cent of this population is shut out through ignorance and poverty to opportunity, experience, education.


Under Tony Blair’s governance, modern life is defined by uncertainty, and anxiety. One journalist who has voted Labour his entire life (and he’s 61) says, “I feel as if the tide has gone out and I am the only one standing on the shore saying ‘where is everyone?’”


Old values are unrecognisable as this city becomes like so many others worldwide, under threat of terror, overtaken by technology, with fragmented families, isolated individuals, fewer children, an ageing society. All certainties have vanished.


But the one element that will keep the soul of this city, and country, alive is the dialogue. Student queues snake down several streets to listen to a lecture on “the new world society,” the Booker Prize for Literature; and the Turner Prize for Art receive enormous attention—a play with imaginary dialogue featuring Bush and Blair is sold out for months in advance.


Newspapers remain the voice of the people. Whole pages are filled with protests over more British troops being deployed there, with increasing evidence of the facile men who play with the lives of other people’s sons.


So what’s Port-of-Spain like? Asks a friend.


“Oh, very similar to London. We, too, live in terror, our artists too flourish, but our murder rate is four times yours.”


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur