Thursday, 21 July 2011

A tale of two cities. And two meals. And two friends. And two remarkable women

The last two days have provided me with a couple of good meals out in London.

One was with an old friend from college days and it was great to catch up. I found out about the new exhibition soon to open at the British Museum, which takes as its theme the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. It’s apparently going to be based principally on personal recollections – you know, ‘what I did on Hajj last year’. I’m not sure that the compulsion to go will prove irresistible.

It was London in July, so we ate outdoors and had finished – well practically finished – our main course before being forced indoors by the returning rain.

And yesterday evening I had dinner with a  Ukrainian friend and colleague, on his first to Britain.

‘The people seem, I think, more friendly and more relaxed,’ he told me.

Friendly and relaxed? In London?

Once I'd dropped him off at the end of the evening, after a pleasant stroll through the rain in Regent’s Park, I hopped on a bus where I had one of those experiences that are aboslutely characteristic of our majetic city.

I was in the presence of a woman who had clearly not always been blonde. She was in her forties, overweight with an air of not being happy about it – or much else either. In one hand, she was clutching a cigarette from which she had clearly squeezed the burning tip before clambering onto the bus, intending to light it again at the earliest opportunity, and she was, as we like to say, well lubricated.

In lesser countries than England, accent tells you little more than where someone comes from. But in this great nation it gives you a pretty good indication of their social class, or at least social pretensions, as well as their education. When it came to this woman, perhaps I’ll just say that in this country you can leave school voluntarily at 16 and if she didn’t, I would rather suspect that she was pushed out by way of recognition of her achievements to that point.

Nothing she was saying undermined that assessment. Next to me was a tall young man I’d have said came from sub-Saharan Africa. He had one of those white caps that Moslem men wear there. He was talking quietly into a mobile phone.

No doubt reinforced by the liberality with which she'd applied her dose of alcoholic protection against the bitterness of everyday life, the pseudo-blonde had decided to make a contribution to the on-going and vital debate between the West and the world of Islam.

‘Why don’t you fuck off back to Afghanistan?’ she was saying, repeatedly, and with only minor variations in the words. I assume that geography hadn’t been one of the subjects that might have persuaded her teachers to keep her on at school. Or history either. The target of her advice simply kept talking into his phone.

Friendly? Relaxed? Oh well, perhaps an exception only proves the rule. In any case, my Ukrainian friend was no doubt comparing London with the US cities he knows, where life is indeed a tad more frenetic, and with his own Kharkov where anxiety perhaps takes the edge off even the sunniest disposition (though I’m not sure we have much less to worry about in this country).

In any case, at dinner we didn’t just speak about England.

‘How’s Yulia Tymoshenko’s trial going?’ I asked at one point.

‘I don’t really follow it,’ he said. I must have looked surprised - a former president on trial, one feels, might be a tale worth following. ‘There are so many lies,’ he explained.

‘She’s accused of corruption?’

‘Abuse of power,’ he told me, ‘well, it is perfectly true.’

‘But she denies it?’

‘She says it is political.’ He paused. ‘Well, it is also perfectly true.’

‘So both sides are telling the truth?’

‘Yes, but they use so many lies no-one believes them and they do not prove anything.’

I could understand why he didn’t feel inclined to follow the case.

Of course, over here we’re still absorbed by the exciting turns and twists of our own corruption saga. I’m particularly delighted by the  revelation in the Murdoch case, detailed by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian and denied by no-one, that David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, had come close to appointing Guto Harri as his director of communications in 2007. Harri is a former BBC correspondent and enjoys a high reputation for honesty.

Before Cameron finalised the appointment, he was approached by Rebekah Brooks, then Chief Executive of News International, and told to appoint Andy Coulson, her successor as editor of the News of the World, instead. It seems she felt that giving Coulson the job would strengthen the links between News International and the Conservative Party. And Cameron did what he was told.

Coulson later had to resign because of the current phone hacking scandal and has recently been arrested in connection with it.

Isn’t it wonderful that the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition and Prime Minister in waiting felt obliged to follow the instructions of the Chief Executive of News International? And isn’t it splendid that Rebekah Brooks knew she could dictate the actions of a political leader in this way?

Especially as she’s been arrested herself now?

The hairstyles may clash, but in many other ways,
their Yulia has so much in common with our Rebekah
Eat your heart out, Ukrainians. An intelligent and acute countryman of yours finds my London friendlier and more relaxed than his own Kharkov. Meanwhile, I can affirm from personal experience that the standard of public debate here remains as high and edifying as ever. And when it comes to corruption and abuse of power – we’re at least the equals of anything that Ukraine can do.

It makes me proud to be English.


Awoogamuffin said...

"When it came to this woman, perhaps I’ll just say that in this country you can leave school voluntarily at 16 and if she didn’t, I would rather suspect that she was pushed out by way of recognition of her achievements to that point."

That sentence had me acutally laughing out loud, alone in my house, which doesn't usually happen.

David Beeson said...