Russell Square

The warmth of the sun and the idle chatter of Spanish transports me, a dog sniffing the ground and people walking, talking, sitting, relaxing, soaking up the sun. Mothers with young children – one fallen flat on her face – the dangers of her scooter are obvious. The fountain blows foaming water. She’s back on the scooter, the Spanish turns faultlessly to English as a friend approaches. Round and round the fountain goes the little girl on the scooter. Another girl joins her, observes the water’s edge, doing nothing but enjoying the movement of the scooter. She pushes, pushes, pushes and then lets it roll – oop – one foot in the water. She goes and parks up next to mother.

A man in a scarf, thick black coat, heeled leather shoes and a black hat walks swiftly by – a swarthy look contrasting to the pink and fuchsia of the little girl.

Opposite, two police officers talk to a man, standing, pointing. Another man sits and the dog plays around them. They are taking details. The man sits and I can see that he is aged, with a flat cap and white beard. The mother bends to take a photo of the child and the dog interrupts, sniffing at whatever that is. He leaves to take a piss. The man talking to the police I can see is holding a can of beer – seems a little early to be enjoying that. Perhaps they are homeless. The mothers are beautiful, well made up and sporting sunglasses and accoutrements of fashion. You can tell the people who were dressed by seven a.m. – they have coats folded over their arms, not expecting the heat of this sun, which has been hidden by the cold winds blowing through town.

The gardener talks to the old woman during a break- he is a Rastafarian – gumboots, green combats, black t-shirt and black hat holding his hair in. He seems to be an engaging man and I’ve frequently seen him in the parks around here. He does a good job and I like to think of him, living with the land, even in the city. His beard and face bear the marks of a life lived. His priorities are obvious: the land comes first. The city would be nothing without the green of the earth and spring. What would the office workers do without the thought of a stroll through the park en-route, or the lunch hour spent lying flat out on the warmed grass? He has a couple of jumpers and a rainbow scarf of some description – a piece of fabric he always wears.

A group of three men sitting on a bench split up to take their leave – the third stands slowly – they are all old, but he is older and moves even more slowly in the same direction, his blue coat having a waterproof complexion.

The Spaniards say goodbye – I say goodbye quietly. Everyone is very casual around here, the circular shape of the centre of the park provides a natural cat walk for the passing people, in a good mood on account of the sun and vaguely smiling because they know they are on show, the runners even more so – not running around the park but bisecting it – cutting a diameter through it.

The Rasta laughs loudly and the old woman’s body shakes quietly. They are talking earnestly and happily. The child wants to play in the water and the fountain doubles in size. The girl lets out a controlled squeel of excitement. The wind catches the water and blows it softly over them, air-conditioning two blonde girls, daughters of two black-haired beauties.

A man walks through the park, head bent low, suit grey and open but head and shoulders still tucked over himself, still in winter stance, a typical Englishman, broken by the weather. The weather which governs our constitution coats, which breaks our necks and our spirit. Heavy clothes which can only weigh us down, lead coats that take us to the bottom of the ocean of drizzle.

The Rasta has gone, the old woman too. The dog plays on the bench between the two old men, the police are gone, the old men stand and drift away, stopping to talk to a woman on a wheelchair motorised, the dog yelps excitedly and jumps up at his master. A woman is making the rounds with a microphone asking questions, getting vox pop (which I suppose is Latin – vox populi – voice of the people). She has red hair.
“If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?” She’s from SOAS radio. She almost vanishes in the sunlight. The girl next to me answers, “Romania, because that’s my home.” I answer, “Vietnam, because my friend’s there.” I don’t tell her that I study at SOAS too.

The man in the grey suit walks back again, the same step, the same stride and the tie flowing over his shoulder. The Romanian’s perfume fills my nostrils. The raven haired mother’s husband arrives – he looks Mediterranean and plays with the girl, lifting her and attacking her with his teeth, burying his face in her side.

An old man, grizzled beard, wearing a woolly grey-blue hat with Tottenham written on the side comes to empty the bins. He is wearing a fluorescent jacket, a marker of his officialdom. The fountain falls to an ambient trickle of water, just a small puff of water surrounded by two rings of six acolytes – twelve, like the apostles. A man comes to the centre of the circle, mutters something and then sprints off in the direction of the tube. The girl splashes in the water, the sunlight sparkling off the surface of the concrete. They are in silhouette and the flakes of sunlight, starlight, jump up and she tries to go deeper, but is drawn back – where did the scooter girl go?

An old man in a wheelchair, thoroughly wrapped up, takes the air, pushed along by his aide. His aide, wearing a mischievous grin, pushes him towards the water, but swerves away at the last. The old man leans up and mutters something to him from inside the folds of his scarf and hat and coat and blanket. The aide beams on.

I could stay here all day, but the family have left in unison and the pigeons go back to their paddling. The Romanian reads, the tourists struggle with a map, the bin-man finds more litter. Two more tourists enter the scene, a man on the phone enters the circle, stands and leaves the way he came. A woman with a puffa jacket and a shoulder-swinging stride goes from left to right and the whole world is a stage, everyone is performing, even the old man, eyes closed, hands folded in his lap, his stick between his legs, relaxed, facing the sun, whispering, “Take me away, take me away.”

Spring in the City

It’s Spring in the city!
But how can you tell?
The concrete’s the same,
And so is the smell.
It’s Spring in the city!
But how would you know?
The bus is still late,
The tube still runs slow.

It’s Spring in the city.
You haven’t a clue.
Your pay is still bad,
Your rent is still due.
Spring in the city.
One hour’s less sleep
Is all that you notice.
Monday morning. BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.

But look! In the parks, the gardens, the squares-
All the accountants have abandoned their chairs,
The stock-brokers have forgotten their shares!
Secretaries, actuaries, bankers, newsanchors-
All the adults have turned six in the sun.
Boys – Frisbee toys radio noise all the joys –
Girls – dancing whorls spinning twirls hair that curls –
Looking sooooooooooooooooooooooooo pretty –
And that’s when we know it’s Spring in the city!

Don’t Feed the Human

It is now illegal to give food to scruffy looking types in two US cities: Las Vegas and Orlando.

Two new ordinances in these cities, passed on the 20th of July in Las Vegas and the 26th of July in Orlando, mean that people on government support cannot eat in a public place for free or a negligible fee. The punishment? Well the recipient stays hungry and homeless (unless he or she can be squeezed into the local jailhouse) and the feeder could get $1000 fine and six months in prison. Now that’s an expensive sandwich by anyone’s standards (although some City delis come pretty close).

But how will this be enforced? How on earth can Marshals know who is on government support when they come across a suspect sandwich transaction? Well luckily the Mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman, has the answer: “Certain truths are self-evident. You know who’s homeless.”

Now he mentions it, I guess they do look a bit different to us don’t they? Skinny, drawn, probably with a beer can in hand and eyes bulging as a result of some kind of substance misuse. Clothes a bit ripped and messed up; hair unkempt and certainly unshaven. And then there’s the smell of course: a vile cocktail of human excrement and alcohol.

Quite apart from the difficulties of policing this new law, just imagine the bourgeois nightmare: you’re just sitting down with Timmy, Gemima and Clarence the dog for your delightful picnic in the park after a splendid morning feeding the ducks (legal). As you unpack the smashing sandwiches that cook prepared from the rems of last night’s charming soiree a down-at-heel type approaches you (note: he has not shaved recently – beware!). You signal calmly to the children who have retreated to cower behind you; brave Clarence sniffs disdainfully. The man (who, you quickly realise, is not wearing the latest style at ALL) removes his beaten cap and asks if he could possibly have a sandwich. What on earth do you DO? Give him a sandwich and risk criminal proceedings (heaven alone knows: he could be an undercover Park Attendant!), or refuse the sandwich and almost certainly risk losing the kids in a brutal daylight kidnapping?

The implications are wide-reaching: there was a famous summer during my schooldays in Reading when both Doritos and Tango were promoting new products simultaneously. They would generously hand out packets of crisps and bottles of drink to all comers in Reading station. It was beautiful: the perfect way to end the day, relaxed, feet up, on the train home with 14 packs of Doritos and a six bottles of Tango Still (it took a lot of nerve and a large bag to pull off, but it was certainly possible). But now, in the light of this legislation, presumably the promotion would only be open to those who could produce a gas bill or some other proof of address. This provokes the troubling thought: would they have accepted one in my Dad’s name?

Allen Lichtenstein, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney puts it another way: “So the only people who get to eat are those who have enough money? Those who get (government) assistance can’t eat at your picnic?” Surely this is madness!

Luckily, Las Vegas councilman Steve Wolfson raised this exact point with the city attorney Brad Jerbic. Wolfson was understandably worried that a hypothetical kind-hearted individual would be prevented from giving some homeless guy a hypothetical bite to eat. Jerbic clarified the matter for him: “If you bought a couple of burgers and wanted to give them out, you technically would be in violation, but you wouldn’t be cited.” Great! The Las Vegas ordinance was passed unanimously.

I guess they’re just after the big boys then; the people who go out and just hand out burgers to ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred, a thousand, no, maybe five thousand hungry people!

This certainly appears to be the case with Orlando’s apparently less extreme ordinance. The City Council voted to prohibit serving meals to groups of 25 or more people in parks and other public property within two miles of City Hall without a special permit. The reason given (according to WFTV) was that “transients gathering for weekly meals create safety and sanitary problems for businesses”. Well, of course, the smelly buggers, coming here with their wee and poo and beards – yuk! Banish them! Two miles should do it… No wonder that negotiations between the city council and the American Civil Liberties Union ended badly due to a suspicion of bad faith.

***

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is some kind of crazy US social fuckup; remember that what happens over there will happen over here sooner or later. Sorry, that is a terrible generalisation and a frankly exhausted tabloid cliché: ignore me – but just ponder the following:

A couple of weeks ago Westminster City Council criticised soup kitchens: “We appreciate they are trying to help but all they are doing is helping to sustain people on the streets.” The BBC reported that “a spokesman for Westminster City Council said soup runs fail to reduce the number of homeless people and can disturb residents in surrounding areas.” This seems to echo the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude expressed by the city councils of Las Vegas and Orlando.

With withering simplicity, Mr Samson, director of Shelter, pointed out “It is not lack of soup that causes homelessness”. Wise words.

***

The French, meanwhile, have been busy closing down soup kitchens for other reasons.

Soup kitchens run by right wing groups, serving soup somewhat provocatively made with smoked bacon, pigs’ ears, pigs’ feet, pigs’ tails and sausages, were targeted by French authorities last February. This was in response to the growing alienation felt by Muslim groups in France and during a period when the whole of Europe seemed to be in the grip of cartoon-related civil unrest.

The kindly matron of one such soup kitchen in Paris made the point, however, that “Other communities don’t hesitate to help their own, so why can’t we?” – shortly before climbing on top of a car and screaming, “We are all pig eaters! We are all pig eaters!”

And it is true that Islamic and Jewish charities dole out (shock!) halal and kosher food respectively. But it wouldn’t be too hard to argue that these special diet kitchens don’t actually exclude certain social groups. It’s hard to say the same about a soup kitchen who baldly state: “The only condition required for dining with us: eat pork.”

***

It is easy for me; I could happily live a life in which food was not an issue of great social and political importance, but every now and again something nudges me awake.

The Man on the Train

The man on the train leant forward: ‘I did not put my ticket in the machine – is ok? I have not used the train before.’
‘It’s fine, as long as you have a ticket, yeah?’
‘I have’

He is tanned, with a friendly fatty face, roughened by stubble. His eyes and nose bulge disarmingly. Spanish. He complains about the number of stops to Oxford: ‘Is 20 stops!’
‘You going to Oxford then?’
‘No, Hayes. I have never been outside London. Except to Brighton.’
‘London-On-Sea.’
‘Yeah, if London had the sea…’
‘And a beach! Oxford is quite nice though- the river and the…um…forests.’
I’m not too good on conversation.

Now I notice his red Ferrari shirt. I am confused. Italian? Surely not; he’s far too engaging. Couldn’t he just be a Spaniard wearing a Ferrari shirt? I begin to doubt myself. Not Italian, not Spanish. Hmm…looks like I’m out of ideas.
‘Where are you from?’
‘Lebanon.’
The wide, idiot smile on my face freezes for a moment as I ponder where I have heard that name recently…Holy shit, I remember: World War III just broke out!
‘Oh…’ I manage, eloquently, as I feel the muscles of my face frantically reconfiguing to register Concern, ‘…Gosh.’
‘Yeah. It is bad.’

At this point I am thrown into shock mode: I follow his monologue with little more than nods, shakes, tuts, buts and ahs.
‘Last night was the worst. My street, I live in South of Beirut, my street is bombed.’
‘Your family!’
He wrings his phone in frustration: ‘I have been trying. I cannot. My sister. They’re not answering.’
He looks pained, ‘No electric, no water- it’s summer, yes? People will die without fan, without water. They forget what is water, what is electric.’
I look down at my bottle of water.

‘South Beirut is like Zone 6 London: all tall houses for all the people, not small houses like this,’ he gestures out the window to a field of warehouses, ‘All tall buildings, all gone. You must understand: all Lebanon is Hizbollah: they are not army, they are not terrorists, they are people. I am Hizbollah, my family is Hizbollah, you are – like you are English – they want to kill everybody. Like Hitler bombed London in 1940, 1945, 1948, I forget these dates, he aims to get everyone. Israel wants to kill everyone.’

He gestures constantly, out the window, at my water, with his phone, up to the sky. His eyes thrust in every direction; my retina burns when I meet his look.

‘When will it stop? They say today it will not stop. It will stop when we give them anything they want. Since Wednesday they are bombing the airport. And there is English, American, French there on holiday, you know? Helicopters come to take them away – what about us? How can Lebanon defend itself? It is big country against small country – like England against London,’ he realises this doesn’t capture the scale, ‘Or Britain against Luxembourg or…’ His eyes light up and a finger punches into his palm: ‘ – Malta.’

‘This morning the Israelis say to the border towns you must leave they want to make it to the ground.’
‘They want to flatten them?’
‘Because they want…’ He stares accusingly at the fields rushing past through the window and slices his hand through the air, palm down, ‘…A clear view.’

‘And all the people in these border towns are poor, not like the people in London, in Oxford – they are all rich more or less, not like in the border towns – they are all poor and the UN says no to these people because you know in 1996 the UN building it gets…’ He punches down through the air.
‘Bombed?’
‘And the UN says no so the people get into trucks you know, trucks that they load with stones and rocks, and the Israelis bomb them.’

‘Newspapers here don’t show anything. You must see these pictures – find an Arabic channel, you’ll see the pictures: a child’s arm, you know,’ he bares his arm and grips his shoulder, ‘Without the body.’
‘A baby’s head,’ he cups his hands together, ‘Smaller than, smaller than,’ he leans forward describing a small sphere in the air with his hands frantically before throwing himself back in his seat, eyes despairing his linguistic failure. ‘Smaller than…a football.’

‘The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Mirror they are all for the Israelis. Hitler did not do so bad to Jews as they say, he didn’t burn them, kill them…anyway that was in World War’ he brings his hands together to indicate global cataclysm. ‘Americans, English, French always with Israelis. We have only god to help us, we forget about these people: we live, we die. Not like here where you live, you enjoy, you die. If we die now, 5 years, 10 years is no matter for us. And then they make a film, Hollywood film, out of our lives and will only show Israelis dying.’

I proffer support: ‘But not everyone is with the Israelis, I mean, the intelligent, none of my friends agree with what the Israelis have done…’
He cuts me off brutally: ‘Well they must do something.’
‘They are meeting now in St Petersburg and Bush says Israel are defending themselves. They must stop this now.’

We both see Hayes and Harlington pull into view.

‘I must get off here – it’s been nice talking to you.’
I shake his hand as he stands; I struggle to my feet and touch him on the shoulder, desperately signing comradeship. But he is not the one in need, he is strong.
‘I hope you’re family are alright.’
‘It is life my friend.’

He is gone. I sit down heavily and gaze hopelessly at the people around me, they seem unaware of our conversation.

I wish I’d asked his name.


This conversation occurred on Sunday the 16th of July 2006 on the 13:48 train from London Paddington to Oxford, between London Paddington and Hayes and Harlington. I spent the rest of the journey writing down everything he said.

Carmen in Seville

All I knew about my host was that she was called Carmen and was ‘looking forward to poisoning me’. At least that’s what my ‘Welcome To Seville’ introductory letter should have said. Perhaps I might have sensed the dark portents of staying with a Carmen in the city of Seville, but I was optimistic and knew absolutely nothing about opera.

So it was that, in the blistering sunlight of high noon, underneath a sky of the deepest, most photogenic blue, I found myself outside an anonymous looking apartment block. Once I circled it- like a matador about his fated prey. Twice I circled it again- as if I were a bailaor caught up in the flamenco of a furious pasión. Thrice and again around- increasingly like a hapless Englishman who couldn’t find the blasted door.

Having eventually located an entrance, I struggled up the stairs in the heat. Carmen kindly made herself known by banging something disturbingly metallic against the door; she was the one in pyjamas. I made my way inside and took a sharp intake of breath. Not from any shock or horror, I just don’t find stale air very comfortable on the lungs. Many florid hand gestures exchanged between us and I assumed I was welcomed to her cosy casa.

Taking refuge in my designated cell, I perused a notice on the back of the door. This was, essentially, a list of benevolent injunctions from my host, such as ‘No food in room’, ‘No TV in room’ and ‘No guests in room’. Added to the list were some, rather disparaging, additions made by previous guests, which Carmen had not been astute enough to delete.

A sharp knock startles me, and my host gurns at me from a round the frame:
‘Would you like some lunch?’ (translation of frantic hand-to-mouth signals).
‘Yes please, that would be lovely’ (international language of cheerful nodding).
She closes the door and the sound of pots and pans being clashed together breaks the quiet, still heat: magnífico! Two minutes elapse before another rap on the door – ah! – she’ll be asking if I want an aperitivo with some deliciously smoked jamón and queso before the speciality paella de la casa –
‘Lunch is ready’ she signs.

I take this opportunity to show-off my advanced Spanish: ‘Qué?!’
I enter the kitchen to see on my plate the culinary equivalent of a multi-lane motorway pile-up: a deep-fried sausage juggernaut has smashed into the twisted wreckage of a microwaved meatball and spilled its load of deep-fried potatoes all over the oil drenched tomato salad. The fact that the emergency services were not immediately called is something that astounds me to this day.
We ate in joint silence in front of the television: mine explained by a mixture of disbelief and nausea; hers by a fascination with the death of the pope. I was prepared for a culture shock, but this was a little hard to swallow.

I spent the afternoon prostrate on a park bench, wallowing in gastric distress: bloated and oozing oil and fat, desperately burping and scraping my tongue in some futile effort to cleanse my palate. When the park attendant began to tire of this display, I dragged myself back to the flat, just in time to witness Carmen deep-fry dinner for herself. Although from this evidence I couldn’t be certain that she lived on a diet of battered offal, as I tossed and turned in my bed that night, bowels a-shudder, I thought of the weeks ahead and decided that I wouldn’t be the sucker who found out.

I rose early and composed a fiendishly ambiguous note in my worst Spanish, which I propped, suggestively, against the poisonous deep fryer. Then, taking one last, ill-advised, lungful of Carmen’s air, I skulked out of the apartment.

I bounded down the stairs, sensing freedom so close, but – alas! – blocking the door to the street with razor-sharp teeth and menacing bark was a fierce dog, hackles raised. Ok, ok- he was the size of a rabbit with a bark that was more of an irritating yap, but the teeth looked sharp alright. I dithered uncertainly, then suddenly strode forward and threw the door wide open! Without so much as a backward glance the dog was away, head down, tail up, flying down the open road. Never before have I shared such a feeling of camaraderie with a canine.

As far as mortal operatic revenge goes, loosing the local dog probably seems a little anticlimactic, but I thought, on balance, that a swift dagger to the breast would have been a bit harsh on old Carmen. So I hitched up my bag and stepped out into the early morning sunlight, which was already tangoing playfully over the surface of the languid Guadalquivir.