Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities


Rarely does the sun come out in Edinburgh, when it does, it portends a grand time. It was one such occasion. And the usually empty lanes were suddenly filled with curious tourists and merry locals, gathering around German acrobats, Scottish bagpipers, actors holding Venetian masks, and street dancers, trying to concentrate on one act at a time. The month of the Fringe Festival is eventful, not because it lavishes millions on pomp royal weddings, even a public lavatory is a stage in Edinburgh. Amidst all the revelry, one tends to forget the world beyond the serene hills of Scotland.

Not so far away, in the capital of the Kingdom, London, riots broke out. All one saw on the popular news channels was the photo of a man named Mark Duggan, who was fatally shot by the police, and, of course, videos of angry young men and women, of all colors, looting and vandalizing stores. While debates raged on talk shows regarding the nature of the riots, Mark Duggan’s family disassociated itself from the violence. The public were at the brunt of it, and many shopkeepers, mostly those of Indian origin, even chose to guard their shops with their own weapons. It was chaos.

There were poets who read verses for those who cared to listen, standing atop any ledge which could gather attention. People sat on the unruffled grass of the Meadows, drinking their beers, listening to a man faraway playing his guitar. There was complete pandemonium; one could easily be confused as to what to do with one’s day. Bake sales galore, handcrafted gift articles, African beads, everything one could think of were sold on the roads. And then, there were comedy shows, every hour, everywhere.

With Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations impending, along with an already long list of public protests over the government’s austerity measures and deep cuts in social services, the riots were the last precedent 10 Downing wanted Londoners to set for the rest of the Kingdom. Soon, their fears were realized when the violence spread to Birmingham, Bristol and Nottingham. While most in office refrained from mentioning any particular ethnic group as the cause, one Historian, David Starkey, told BBC’s Newsnight “the whites have become black,” and went on to describe the black culture as “destructive, nihilistic, gangster.”

‘Scottish, not British,’ said a poster on Nicolson Street in Edinburgh. Unlike London, there are no ethno-specific areas there. Although the father of Capitalism, Adam Smith, was Scottish, one hardly finds much of his legacy there. Ironically enough, there is a popular Socialist under-culture in Edinburgh. This is evident when one browses through the books of smaller bookshops, where divergent literature from all around the world is available.

Tottenham, where the riots broke out in London, was a black majority area. This added fuel to the blame-game. Although the mainstream news channels suppressed the root-cause of the trouble for a long time, people’s videos posted on Youtube, shared on Facebook and Twitter, spread fast. The rather jarring video of a young girl being beaten up by the police was not telecast as were those of the looting by news channels. Many claimed that the immediate cause of the riots was this uncivilized handling of a teenage girl. But, the grievances lie much deeper. With rising unemployment, black as well as white youth from impoverished areas grow up with hate toward authority, and not without reason. While the police made it a habit to inspect colored youths impromptu, the media does no less. It was disheartening to watch senior black activists such as Darcus Howe, being treated with no respect by news channel hosts who hardly allowed them to voice their opinion. There was no, or at best, little, patience on the part of the popular media to listen to the poor’s owes; leave alone the blacks. It was the same story, as in the rest of the world. The media and the government cater only to the middle-class.

The weather played spoilt-sport on many of those August days. Everyone had to resort to indoor entertainment, watch plays, sit in coffee shops, visit Museums; it was another wet Edinburgh day. Not to forget, there was a royal wedding in Edinburgh, the Queen’s granddaughter, Zara Philips, got married in Cannongate Kirk. But, as one Scottish cabbie said to me, “Yae kno how we are, we daent care fur it.”

London’s nights are usually glorious. Beautiful nightlights on Bond Street; the fashionable of all races dressed in an enigmatic mishmash of cultures, tasty global gourmet, street music; charming. But, on those nights of violence, the police were at war with the rioters. Spiraling out of control, it was a mutiny of the hungry, of those who could not afford to be a part of the global city’s allure.

The discontent was contained with police power, but the innate grievances remain. Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution happened not more than three hundred years ago. People in poverty and the royalty in riches is not a new phenomenon.

While the Fringe Festival ended in Edinburgh, the London Riots did, too. Festivals happen every year, and so do protests. As Charles Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…” The two cities go on with life, as one retains the festive spirit, the other, tries to forget the fires and ignore the gaping unrest.

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