Sunday, 1 November 2009

London and multiculturalism: a tonic for our time

It was a surprisingly pleasant afternoon in London yesterday, which was just as well since we showed a group of our friends from Strasbourg around the town. St James’s Park, one of the loveliest I know in any city, led us into Whitehall with its wonderful new monument to the seven million women who served or worked in the war – no human shapes or faces, just various a bronze articles of uniform or work clothes hanging on pegs.

From, there we went down to the river and combined a boat trip with a long walk along the banks. The only downside of the boat trip, to the Tower of London, was the running commentary by a man who thought himself funny but wasn’t. He had the gall to ask us to give him a a tip at the end, but we didn’t.

We then walked back up to St Paul’s, across the Millennium Bridge and to the Tate Modern. The latest piece there is an amazing box of darkness (Miroslaw Balka’s This is it), into which you walk with the light behind you so you have the impression of plunging into complete blackness – it’s really extraordinarily eerie – and when you reach the end (which I bumped into, not realising I was there) it comes both as a shock and as a relief to feel the felt-like substance with which it’s covered. It really was a quite haunting way to move from apprehension to reassurance as you walk into the dark. And it’s strange to feel yourself part of a work of art.
So we had a great time, not least because you can walk so far along the Thames these days. When I was a University of London student in the seventies and eighties, there just weren’t the walkways. Rivers can be lovely close to, particularly at sunset on a pleasant day, and opening up access to the Thames as the City has is real progress since my days.

The other change is the increased diversity of people in the streets. When I was a student, London was already cosmopolitan, with many languages spoken in the crowd, and African-Caribbean or South Asian faces, but you seldom heard Slavic languages (their speakers were securely confined behind the Iron Curtain) and saw few Orientals (those you came across were always Japanese, whereas today they’re more likely to be Chinese, if they aren’t Thai, Malay, Korean and so on). That increasing diversity makes the place more vibrant than ever. At the simplest level, we started with a remarkable Japanese meal (in the new Japan Centre in Piccadilly) and ended with our French friends at an Indian Restaurant in Bloomsbury (they were amazed by the kaleidoscope of flavours – and there’s something richly rewarding about seeing French people enjoy cooking in England).

The sheer pleasure of the cultural diversity of the capital made the band of Fascists we saw demonstrating around the Eros monument on Piccadilly Circus a particularly sad sight. They seemed so irrelevant, so out of touch with the reality of life in Britain and what makes it exciting. It was great to see that there were almost as many police as demonstrators.

It’s sad that the country seems to be going through one of its periodic bouts of flirting with the ultra-Right. As well as being brutal, they have views that are so dull, so lifeless, so limited. We need to keep them like they were yesterday, marginal and irrelevant. And enjoying the rich tapestry that is London has to be a great way of dismissing them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am surprised you didn't see/hear any Mauritian!