Saturday, December 18, 2010

England, an Anthropological Study Part IV


Walking through the city today, London appears as a city under siege. Police in bullet proof vests and riot gear line the streets of Westminster. Vans filled with police idle by curbs and small groups of uniformed men and women stand silently around them; occasionally talking, sometimes listening to the indecipherable fuzz of walkie talkies, sometimes tapping night sticks impatiently but rarely smiling or laughing or appearing cheerful. All these men and women of fancy dress seem to be waiting for something, or someone, but there is nothing, save for the thinning groups of tourists who seem vaguely perturbed by such a ‘military-esque’ presence, and a few youths clutching Wikileaks support pamphlets skittering defiantly between them.

And that’s what today is about: Wikileaks Julian Assange’s final bid for bail. The police presence seems an overestimation for the few hundred or so reporters and paparazzi that await Assange’s appearance, and the relatively small group of protesters that brave the cold. But as Britain still feels the scars of last Thursday’s 30,000 strong violent protest, the government is understandably jittery in the face of some of the greatest unrest since the Iraq war in 2003, and as all large powers do in such circumstances they turn to pomp and show in the form of an oppressive force, so who better than the bobbies? But what the Government either doesn’t understand at all, is willing to ignore, or understands far too keenly that Julian Assange’s supporters, rather like the student protesters, stand for something far larger than Assange himself or tuition fees. They protest because at some point in our lives we must demand better for ourselves and our Comrades (ah, Communism…so much, so little) and really, we must demand information and freedom and all of those things that we grow up believing and slowly forget. In a world where we have placed our hopes and futures in the hands of a powerful few, where we ourselves have bargained our rights and individuality for more money, bigger houses, better jobs and ease of living, then we must demand something of those we entrust, just as they demand us to pay more taxes, buy more records, eat more fast food and work more hours for less.

In the case of Julian Assange, which is sure to be the landmark case of the decade, there is far more at stake than mere journalistic freedom (which is a huge issue, particularly considering the sub par state of Britain’s newspapers); more so, our freedom of information. Surely the common man and woman should have open access to information about their government – who they will invest in and perhaps even die for (remember, it is always the poor, marginalised and misinformed who are the first to go to war) – and should be able to trust that it hasn’t been misleading, skewed, maligned or politicised for other intent?

But one has to ask, rather like TS Eliot, what of our knowledge that is lost in information? Surely in these days of instant communication and information – when everything from the humble pub quiz to journalistic edge is rendered easier, more unreliable and eventually, extinct – we have lost that knowledge that we so admire in those that are clever clogs and have genuinely devoted hours, days, years and even decades to acquiring knowledge, rather than simply processing information from Wikipedia. I’m never quick to take to such things, and though the Internet is steadily being proven as the ultimate tool of freedom of expression and is being persecuted in the fashion which is common from those with a great deal to hide, both morally and politically (surely Assange’s mock trials and rather un-subtle trumping is evidence), I still find myself with doubts. And yes, I too see the oxymoron inherent with one doubting the Internet in a blog without which I would never be able to express myself so clearly or instantly to people from as distant as the Netherlands or as close as Goodwood, but what is a human without hypocrisy?

But I digress, back to England and protesting. Well in fact, to England and protesting which, to be frank, I haven’t even mentioned.

Watching images of youths attacking Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles’ car on Thursday, one cannot describe the radical idealist in me clawing to get out, if only us Aves weren’t in Dublin, glum and exhausted and hundreds of miles away from the action. The students, dressed in their gas masks and bandanas, looking for all the world like kids from another era or country, and with all the righteous anger of those before them, seem heroic to my idealist. Like gazelles gliding upon the water of politics and indiscretion, the students’ rage is elegant, beautiful and unaware of itself. Yes, there are photos of kids grinning by burning benches and young boys and girls giggling and holding placards proclaiming that ‘Tape Man says no,’ but when the grit has set and the politicians dusted, the kids are enraged beyond pose and Mighty Boosh cool-ness. The tuition fees debacle (which, for those who don’t know is the government’s proposed trebling of education costs. Since the protest, Parliament has passed the fees hike and now an entire generation of students will find themselves either in debt or unable to access the knowledge which they deserve) is such a much argued topic not just because it cataclysmically breaks Nick Clegg’s basic promise to make education free, but because it threatens the very core of progress and pushes England back to the early parts of the last century and before, when education was only accessible to those with the money and the influence to afford it. And an uneducated populous means a docile, ill-informed one that is easily manipulated into whichever mold those in power choose for it. The proles, as Orwell may call them, will only protest if they have enough knowledge to do so, otherwise they will blindly follow whoever has the loudest voice, which is usually those with the largest advertising budget, best spin doctors and biggest microphone.

Protesting really isn’t an English thing, and certainly not a past-time like the French or Greeks. It takes quite a deal of hoo-hah to get the British up and into Parliament Square, not least because one has to brave both the public transport and the weather, neither of which seem to run to any type of schedule known to man (or woman, for that matter). But it is true that the English do get up more often than Australians appear to, and in greater numbers, because too often they seem to be treated by their Governments with a great deal of general indifference. Not only that, but whatever ridiculous law or cut that Government wishes to impose is suggested with quite a transparent gloss that seems quite impossible to not see directly through.

There is also the matter of the police’s handling of the protesters, which is like violent cattle. I have nothing in particular against the law except the usual, but a little power can tip a man’s head until all he sees are objects intent on murdering what he stands for. In the UK, police commonly use kettling (in which those in fancy dress limit large groups of protesters, often by sheer force, and does not allow them to leave by any way other than the way they specify or not at all. The idea is that the protesters, frustrated, tired, thirsty and disillusioned will retreat quietly) and surely this demonstrates a lack of human right to freely protest their government.

Though we were unable to join the London protests, Tasman and I joined a smaller protest in Oxford (there is another oxymoron in there somewhere) and found ourselves surrounded by a bunch of fourteen year olds and the King’s horses. Apart from the fact that the kids seemed more entertained by watching others tread in horse poo, I really do think that the middle classes are pretty crap at protesting things.

Another item of contention is the use of violent protest. Does one lose the message and the power when jumping on a burning bench, or smashing bus stop shelters, or battering the Royal Highnesses car? Is a riot rather than a protest ever a better option? Well, the logical (and ultimately, in my deepest of hearts) in me says no, the idealist in me says yes. I prefer the middle ground, which I like to call a kind of militant peace. Personally I’ve never been one to love hippies. I don’t mind their message, but I don’t like their vibe. Sure, free love and drugs is alright for a while, but what happens when everybody has gonorrhea and is bonkers? But I like peace. I like its concept, but I’m not convinced of it yet, and I’m certainly not convinced that long haired flower pushers will make it happen. So aggressive pacifism, that’s my motto.

I’ve never been in London when I’ve felt more unrest, discontent or general unease. This last month has seen an inordinate number of protests across the entire country, and there is a general feeling amongst the English, a kind of bonding of dislike of the government. Even the newspapers feel uneasy, which is quite the effort.

And as always, there’s a lot to protest about: tuition, Assange, unemployment, war, environment, councils, taxes, politicians, hospitals, animal cruelty and so on and so forth. In fact, Parliament Square is lined with semi-permanent tents (called Camp of Democracy, apparently) of those who have literally joined a protest and thought they may as well save on Oyster card costs and just live on the sidewalk (and thus gaining a much sought after postcode for significantly less). I’ve never actually seen anyone enter the tents, or stand around them, and I’m yet to be convinced that they shelter anyone at all, but the placards tied to the fence and slogans painted on the canvas’ serve as a gentle everyday reminder of the atrocities of a far away war. These desolate little rows of tents battle all weather all year round (I’ve no doubt they’re currently battling the blizzard outside) and are evidence of the dedicated few, who find it absolutely crucial to inform as many as they can even if it means losing comforts that we take for granted.

A few weeks ago the Home Secretary announced that the tents and loudhailers will be banned in time for Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding this April. The government has been itching to remove the tents ever since they were set up, and have been searching for loopholes to uproot them for yonks. David Cameron, the PM, said that he couldn't understand why these people are allowed to camp in Parliament Square. I would advise Cameron to read a copy of his nearest citizen rights volume. The ten thing is labeled it a Social Responsibility bill, which seems daft because I can’t think of anything less responsible than turfing out people’s right to protest. And when all those television cameras of the world are trained on London, the world will not see London as it is. It won’t see the dirty sloganed tents, or the towering brown brick estate towers, or the homeless men and women that huddle in doorways overnight, or the rows and rows of shut up shops. Instead they’ll probably have double decked buses and kindly bobbies and black cabs and cheerful cockneys, and all those things that are really nothing like London at all.

To that tragedy, I do protest.

Lucy Campbell

Monday, December 6, 2010

England, an Anthropological Study Part III

Soon, this will stop, I promise.


This has been inspired by a day (plus night) trip to Oxford, in which I have never swung so violently between disgust, amazement and that sort of jealousy that comes from the darkest of places. Oxford itself is a pretty sort of town, a little bit Harry Potter, a little bit C S Lewis and of course a little bit Alice in Wonderland (much celebrated it seems). It’s largely based around the university, and one gets the overwhelming feeling that everybody either studies or works at the university, or is employed by the shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants that seem to exist purely to serve the former. Life appears to revolve around the youthful men and women who are being cultivated to become leading professors, researchers, politicians, philosophers and all that jazz that is associated with the oldest university in the English speaking world. The colleges are grand old places, and the students preen about in neatly pressed street clothes, but always accessorized with a house scarf or jumper or crest, just to confirm their status in the elitist university in the world.

And this brings me to the nature of privilege in Britain. I’ve talked about it before, and I’ll bring it up again, because it’s what startles me the most about Britain. Why, just the other day one of David Cameron’s new peers, the absurdly titled Lord Flight (who as far as I can see has done little except become a millionaire banker and therefore, a bit of a wanker) said to the Evening Standard that the welfare changes, in which wealthy families would be stripped of child support benefits, will “encourage the poor to breed.” It seems unfathomable that such a view may still exist, and one can only hope that the poor will breed so that tossers like Lord Flight will not be able exist in his horrible little vacuum of 1860. But it seems possible, as I wander Oxford, how people like Lord Flight and his cronies could exist. In London, amongst the multicultural shopping strips and high street mish-mashes it feels virtually impossible to imagine Lord Flight’s world, but amongst the spires and libraries and halls of Oxford it’s entirely feasible.

You must see that privilege is a fact of life in England that we never truly see in Australia. Yes, there are classes in Australia, but one always feels that one can maneuver between them as long as one is prepared to put in the hard yards and get some dough. Easier said than done, yes, and it’s true that a few of the archaic traditions inherited from Britain exist in Australia today, but the most important point of difference here is the distinction between money and blood. In Australia, classes are a financial meter, and in Britain they are a birthright.

We go to a pub in the evening, a joint called the Turf which is down a small catacomb of laneways and bits between buildings and we would never have found it if not for our new Latvian friend, met during an eccentric conversation at the hostel. When I thought about the Turf before I entered it, I imagined a surf-themed bar, like one of those awful Walkabout monstrosities, but it eventuates to be one of those small low pubs filled with chattering students. It does have an Australian connection: Bob Hawke made Guinness World Record when he drank two and a half pints in eleven seconds as an Oxford student in 1955. It is now when one begins to understand that note of sympathy that Britons employ when they hear of your terrible Australian-ness.

But, for most of the evening I listen to a boy and a girl on the table beside us, the girl nods and smiles and mostly listens as the boy blathers on in the dullest way possible, his perfect Oxford accent (by which I mean that one has never heard ‘posh’ until they’ve been to Oxford) piping up in tones that suggests vague disappointment at the world, the university, his Daddy, and the girl herself, who he seems to regard inferior to his blossoming loveliness: “Oh it really just peeves me how Professors can’t just give one an assignment and that’s that. Why must we go through all this other palaver? I mean, obviously I don’t cheat. What a jolly twat.” His wide face screws up in disgust as he thinks about it, and perfect white teeth bite down on rosy lip as if to demonstrate his academic pain that such a genius be required to complete a plagiarism form.

A professor nearby (well, I assume him to be one, he wears brown corduroy trousers and has a head of grey frizzy hair and spectacles half down his nose, so I can’t imagine him functioning in any other way) overhears and chuckles into his Financial Times.

In my mind I imagine Oxford University to remain unchanged by time, where existence hasn’t been swayed by the threats of Google, iPhones and modern thinking on the concepts of women, race or religion. My mind’s eye imagines tweed boys sweating over large dusty volumes in the school library, racing up to the common room to listen to Peter Cook and Dudley Moore on the wireless, and bemusedly collecting Beatles records whilst turning a disparaging nose up to the wham bam of the Who. This is the Oxford where Albert Einstein once lectured, and Oscar Wilde developed his wit, and JRR Tolkien created his Hobbits and Bertie Wooster, fictional as he was, became my yard-stick for dithering British pomposity. Really, it exists as a rather romantic notion fed by my endless fascination with Evelyn Waugh and Thomas De Quincey, and can’t seem to possibly function outside of a whimsical Stephen Fry-esque world.

Though I’m sure WIFI and degrees of feminism now permeate the hallowed halls (afterall, Kate Beckinsale is now a graduate) one can’t help but imagine these young men and women as anything other than relics of tradition and conservatism.

In the other corner of the Turf, three bearded, bespectacled men hunch over pints, and a part of me wishes I could be them, and look so clever and intellectual (in a way that one could never do at Adelaide Uni or Flinders, because ‘intellectual students’ just look like a bunch of posers in plastic glasses and skinny jeans. Being a hipster isn’t the same as being clever, and when faced with a university that produced Albert Einstein, one can see the Exeter preeners in all their glorious Technicolour). And another, far stronger, part of me feels like tapping them on the shoulder and mentioning that some bloke has already figured out E=MC2, and not to bother writing that book about the world in the back of the wardrobe, and not to begin on the Dagenham Dialogues, because everything here seems straight out of an age we’ve already passed yonks ago.

But I’m sure, I’m sure that contemporary Oxford students are more understanding, modern and aware than their halls and colleges and Churches and choirs suggest. Afterall, some of the greatest modern thought has been produced here. Moreover, some of the greatest anti-selective-education sentiments have been uttered by its alumni. Surely Oxford is in fact one of the most progressive schools in Britain?

I stand at the bar in an attempt to buy the cheapest drink possible (student deals in Oxford are suspiciously un-student prices) and a pale faced redhead and his curly haired friend stand behind me, watching as the bar staff struggle with the demands of students (and they are demands too, please and thank-you are not in a vocabulary that is too privileged to understand them). The redhead scoffs as a young woman in an Oxford scarf barks at the bar man. “Hah,” says the boy triumphantly to his friend, smirking. “That’s right dickhead. Do your fucking job properly, you’re lucky to have one.”

The Oxford spirit is still strong, then.

Regards, Lucy.