Monday, October 29, 2012

Writing Harry

Straight from Pakistan's 7-0 drubbing by Australia at the Olympic Park, still wearing my green Pakistan cricket team t-shirt, I took the tube to King's Cross St. Pancras to catch The British Library's 'Writing Britain' exhibition. I didn't think wearing a particular team's t-shirt right in the thick of Olympic season would be considered any kind of curiosity. But it was. For the first and only time in London I got a lot of pointed glances on the street, mostly amused. I suppose with the racist slur 'Paki' in England, a Pakistan tee becomes an automatic statement, intended or not.

There isn't an English writer I can think of who wasn't represented at the 'Writing Britain' exhibition, except P.G Wodehouse, and that is a notable omission. I took many pictures of the rivetting things on display but was made to delete them all by a rather rude security guard, who I was predisposed to view as racist considering the aforementioned Pakistan t-shirt. So, I have no pictures to share of John Lennon's scribbles or Jane Austen's neat but illegible handwriting.

However, there is this picture of a small portion of the 6th chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone that The British Library made available on its site:

I love the way Rowling has doodled those inverted hearts around the margins in that squiggly, childlike fashion. It is a glum realization that these insights into writers' personalities will no longer be available in the age of the word processor. For me the most fascinating aspect of this particular manuscript was the bits Rowling had crossed out. What made her do so? Also, Hedwig was called Widicombe at this time!
I noted down one chunk of text that Rowling had crossed out, since I found the hows and whys of it so fascinating. Here it is:
"He fixed a piece of paper on the wall with the days left before September the 1st marked on it and he ticked them off every night. On the 31st of August he thought he'd better speak to his uncle about getting to King's Cross next day, so he went down to the living room where the Dursleys were watching a quiz show on television."

The difference between the first and final draft of the first page of Hanif Kureshi's The Budha of Suburbia was a soothing sight for any aspiring writer. The first was horribly amateurish, the final one polished and captivating.

There was so much to see that despite spending nearly 3 hours inside I couldn't really process everything properly, at least not without the aid of pictures to remember it all by, or visiting often to really interact with all it offered. But it was a temporary exhibit so even if I were a permanent London resident I would not have been able to access all of it whenever I pleased. And this all was apparently just a fraction of The British Library's treasures. I have no clue why they keep it all hidden away most times and what the point of this whole proprietorial attitude is.

In any case, just to chronicle it for myself:

  • First edition of Five on Kirrin Island Again by Enid Blyton.
  • A draft of William Blake's 'Tiger' written in his personal journal that originally belonged to his late brother.
  • Manuscript of Persuasion opened to a description of Bath, a passage I clearly recalled from my reading of the novel (so particularly thrilling).
  • Philip Larkin's handwriting. I have written in the notes in my diary that I'm uncomfortable with the notion of author as rockstar. And so I am, but this exhibit turned something that could have been an exercise in mere celebrity-worship to a lesson in history, since it chronicled England's changing landscapes through the writing it showcased.
  • Manuscript of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
  • Arthur Conan Doyle's handwriting (though not a Sherlock manuscript.
  • Virginia Woolf's neat handwriting from a chapter of  'To the Lighthouse'.
  • The manuscript of Thomas Hardy's Tess, a text I read in my MA and I kind of love/hate.
  • The strange, strange manuscript of James Joyce's 'Uleysses', all crossed out in red and blue crayon through which the words were still legible. 
  • Manuscript of George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss turned to the last boat scene. The scene where the author kills Maggie off and reveals her inability to deal with the larger than life female character she had created.
  • There was also something by Dickens that I wasn't able to look at clearly since the menacing bodyguards had called out time.
  • An unbelievably meticulous manuscript of Alice in Wonderland with elaborate cartoony drawings by Lewis Carroll. 

I loved this little line I read at the exhibit. It made me think of all the marginalized:
Berger notes how 'poor and therefore uneasy districts...are pushed in the imagination of those who are prospering, further away than they really are', and thinks 'today's Islington is far closer than it used to be'.
(Islington being a London neighbourhood considered a dump at one time, but now a hip and happening place.)

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Lighter Side of London

England exerts a hold over the imagination of many a youth as the mythical land of tea and scones, where children frolic in and out of enchanted woods, men in funny costumes march on stage sprouting unintelligible English, criminals run amok in lamp-lit streets ready to be nabbed by the most famous detective in the world, and polite gentlemen in coats and ties applaud crisp cover drives on the lush green fields of Lord’s.

With so many stimuli to pique one’s fancy, who with the capacity to recognise the English alphabet (and some with even less) can resist the thought of visiting the land of our ex-colonial masters?

I am no exception to this desire. A desire thwarted not too long ago by the British embassy’s childish refusal to recognise my brown memness (the female equivalent of the brown sahib in case you didn’t know) and refusing me a visa. This year, though, in due recognition of my services as guardian of English language and literature in an Allah-forsaken commonwealth state, the British Embassy, nudged along by the British Council, sent me back a duly stamped passport in time to avail my scholarship for a short course at the King’s College, London.

And thus I ended up there for six weeks this summer.

The British Summer
The first, most pressing and inescapable fact, about London is its weather, which is more unpredictable than Prince Harry. No wonder the British seem obsessed with it. Many outdoor events announce themselves with the caveat, “subject to weather.” My first three weeks there were marked by persistent rainfall, not the kind that in Lahore prompts children to splash in puddles and dance and sing in the streets, but a slow, constant presence that permanently weaves itself into the fabric of everyday life.

In London, necessity, not fashion dictates the carrying of a large bag at all times, with umbrella, sun cream, cardigan, sunglasses and other such seemingly disparate accoutrements to brave the notorious four-seasons-in-one-day weather of the city. I watched ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ production at Regent’s Park Theatre in cold conditions under an intermittently pouring sky, but the rain wasn’t considered heavy enough to cancel the show. The dauntless actors went on prancing and lying flat on the wet stage in their skimpy garments, spewing mouthfuls of Early Modern English without missing a beat. I came to realise that they brave the rain the same way we deal with long summers filled with loadshedding, after a while no matter what the conditions, you just have to get on with it.

One of the things you want to do most when you are in the land of The Beatles and the bard is to soak up the culture. West-End musicals cost an arm and a leg but not one to be daunted by difficulties, I decided to attend at least one for the experience. I bought my tickets online for 30 pounds, a steep amount for one who earns in Pak rupees, but managed to soothe myself with thoughts of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Well, it did turn out to be one.

Image taken off the net by some lucky people close to the stage
I found myself gasping for oxygen on the top tiers of a theatre as high as a football stadium with one pound worth of rental binoculars next to every seat. Along with the distance from the stage the dividing bar in front of me assured that I had to crane my neck to catch the little dots on the stage singing and dancing with what I am sure must have been great gusto. Thankfully, the acoustics of the hall did not discriminate against the poverty stricken. The toe tapping numbers of Franki Valli and The Four Seasons and the lively electronic backdrops made for an enjoyable experience overall.

Shakespeare's Globe before the start of a performance
I had slightly better luck at Shakespeare’s Globe where you can buy ‘groundling’ tickets for five pounds apiece at the added physical cost of standing for the whole length of the performance. But at least it means that you are right in the middle of the action. Due to no fault of the impeccable Richard III production, I felt I needed to rest my tired feet after the first hour of non-stop standing. I hadn’t even managed to make myself fully comfortable before an elderly woman, who bore too strong a resemblance to my convent school teacher, came rushing out of the stands to haul me back to my feet.

Apparently modern groundlings aren’t allowed to rest their legs in pursuit of Shakespearean entertainment. Rather unfair when you compare it with the privileges their 16th century counterparts enjoyed who were at liberty to hurl shoes and tomatoes at the stage if the bard failed to live up to their expectations.

When one thinks of London, its architectural wonders always figure alongside, and celebrated marvels like St. Paul’s Cathedral, Big Ben and The Tower Bridge are worth every bit of their global hype. Only problem is you have to squint very very hard to blur the ugly backdrop of utilitarian tower blocks from the 1960s and 1970s against which these architectural icons stand today. Atop these unsightly office blocks reside cranes permanently frozen at grizzly angles, suggesting that post World War II Britain’s aesthetics also plummeted with its fortunes.

This hodgepodge of architecture makes for an incongruous city with flourishes of ornate beauty amid clusters of Soviet-style functionality. The 21st century architectural contributions include the phallic Gherkin and the all glass and steel Shard, built with Qatari money. If your premier cultural city looks to the Middle East for aesthetic inspiration, you don’t really need the stock market to indicate your downfall.

London’s architectural incongruity is symbolic of the city which is, by no means, some quaint bastion of Englishness today. It is a huge metropolis where people of all types exist alongside in a cacophony of cultures, languages, races, orientations and religions.

Nowhere is this more obvious than on the London underground, London’s complicated and sprawling subway system, where you often run into mixed race, mixed orientation couples from a range of ethnicities; or occasionally catch Asian women wearing garish saris, or shalwar kameez full of bling, probably off to some formal function or wedding, with not a person in their vicinity batting an eyelid. I remember being particularly in thrall on the tube one day when I came across a woman in a hijab bent over her little Quran, muttering its verses fairly audibly under her breath as the one on her right nonchalantly flipped through her copy of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’.

All fantasies that are fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to collide with reality are bound to adjust and change shape, and so my experience of the living, breathing London both diminished and enriched the land of my romantic imagination. Dr. Johnson said about London, “Tired of London, tired of life.” I am glad to report that my six weeks there proved that for all their rough patches, I am tired of neither.


A version of this piece was published in The News on Sunday on 9th September 2012

London via Lahore

I didn’t heart London. Not immediately at least. Quite a betrayal of the expectations that decades of literary Anglophilia and jetsetting friends had raised. In my nebulous imaginings London had figured as the quaint antidote to the impersonal Big-City ala New York; a big city, of course, but with a small-town feel and a traditional heart. The six weeks of summer I spent in the living, breathing London both undermined and reinforced these distant stereotypes of the land of my romantic imaginings.

The first three weeks I spent attending a course called Shakespeare in London and the next three soaking up the rain in 'the cultural capital of the world'.

London lacks one grand all-encompassing view that could define the city for outsiders, something akin to the New York skyline that you can take in in one sweeping gaze from across the Hudson. The muddy Thames, a glorified BRB canal to my Lahori eyes, flows in a long stream instead, cut across at regular intervals by bridges that allow views of the city in pockets. The fairytale architecture of Tower Bridge, the colossal St. Paul’s Cathedral dominating a mass of ugly office towers sprouting cranes, and the spectacular contiguity of the Parliament Buildings and Big Ben calling out time to this most historic yet modern of cities. Ugly 20th Century structures built post WWII jostle against intricate Victorian arches, while recent contributions like the phallic Gherkin and the towering Qatari-built Shard weave the 21st Century into this city’s ever-evolving fabric. However soul sucking its fast-shut glass ‘windows’ and its anxious Dubaian obsession with height, there is a certain fascination in beholding the Shard rent London’s clouds asunder, like a triumphant reverse cultural strike into the heart of colonialism. All this combines to make London a dreamlike mish-mash of architectural influences not immediately aesthetic or congruous, but stimulating in their diversity.

And that is a good metaphor for London in general. To one used to the monochromatic culture of Lahore the sheer scale of London’s diversity is staggering. Mixed race and mixed orientation couples on the tube, punks in Camden, dhoti-clad Hindu priests in Leicester Square chanting and drumming in a circle, and bearded group of men called ‘Team Islam’ sloganeering in the middle of Bond Street, all make London. 

Yet for such a diverse city there is something remarkably subdued in its make-up. People are famously polite but not friendly; culture thrives but there is little spontaneous show of it. There is so much going on simultaneously that it is impossible to catch it all; even then there is a curious surface sterility that clings to the clouds that perpetually overhang London’s air. Excitement and enthusiasm rarely spill over to its streets, remaining confined within pubs, bars, clubs and theatres, occasionally managing to break free with the help of weekend alcohol. This inability to have fun without being inebriated struck my middle class Lahori sensibilities as particularly odd, raised as I have been on unfettered dancing and singing at weddings, fuelled only by months and years of unchannelized sexual energy more potent than tequila shots.  

The London authorities’ compulsive need to contain culture within designated boxes means that street musicians have officially been consigned to busking spots like tube stations, and coves underneath bridges, lending a very British regimentation to a spontaneous and romantic European activity. Musicians play as commuters rush past them, with the more benevolent checking their pace to drop a coin along the way. Spaces where you can sit and enjoy music, like West End theatres and concert halls, are prohibitively expensive, although I did attend a marvelous collaboration between The London Symphony Orchestra and the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra at The Royal Festival Hall at a fairly cheap price. The most enthralling aspect of London’s music scene is the classical music recitals at prominent churches; the delicious thrill of experiencing a place of worship come alive with the sound of secular music. While high art is readily and freely accessible in the city’s magnificent art galleries and museums, screevers (pavement artists) captured so vividly in Mary Poppins and George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London have disappeared completely. Their place has been taken by high profile graffiti artists like the subversive Banksy and the dubious Mr. Brainwash whose glamorous mural of The Beatles currently graces a corner of Holborn. Next to it is a giant graffiti portrait of the queen carrying a paintbrush and pot. The paint from the paintbrush reads: God Save the People. Ye olde British irony lives on.

Less flags, more medal tables, please
The scale of London’s subcultures, neighbourhoods and commercialism make it impossible to collect the city under one banner, even if that banner is as big as The Olympics. Perhaps why being in the city during the event wasn’t half as exciting or glamorous as many on the outside may have imagined it. Walking around Central London I was often hard pressed to tell that the world’s biggest sporting event was taking place in the same city. Pubs and bars had dedicated screens relaying the Olympics and they were often full with people catching the day’s action; newspapers and television channels devoted a great chunk of space to the games, but outside on the streets London went on as usual, hardly any different from before. There were no big screens in central squares relaying major events live—the two there were anxiously tucked away from all sight, one somewhere within the sprawling belly of Hyde Park, the other on a nondescript patch of grass next to Tower Bridge, possibly hidden away in fearful anticipation of Olympic scrooges who might accuse the government of letting the event interfere with their daily lives. Not an altogether unexpected reaction in a city where the word ‘tourist’ is used as a pejorative. No central square carried electronic or manual boards updating medal tallies, or anything really to alert the casual passerby to the monumental presence of London2012. It was impossible not to compare it to the drumbeats, music, dancing and Mall-road celebrations accompanying even live screenings of cricket matches in Lahore.

But then again, it is also impossible not to compare the sexual harassment my friends and I have always experienced at the Gaddafi Stadium to the polite indifference of London streets. On my second day in the city I spent a night all alone amongst a sea of tents in Wimbledon. Camping overnight is the modus operandi for scoring tickets to the world’s premier tennis event, if you are not royalty or particularly well connected, that is. Lying alone under the clouds in a strange city I spent a chilly night contemplating the difficulties of being able to feel so free in my own country. Another day on Westminster Bridge, balancing my bag and maps as I paused to consider where I wanted to go next, I suddenly caught myself marveling at the ease with which I stood there, just stood there as waves of men and women passed me by without a word or wink in my direction.

This state of marvelous non-intrusiveness, however, cannot be achieved without sacrificing warmth at the altar of privacy, creating a catch-22 of sorts— a lack of opportunity to strike spontaneous friendships even as it provides safe passage to the single woman exploring the city alone. There’s a whiff of 18th Century hierarchical propriety about social interaction that dictates maintaining a distance from anyone you haven’t been properly introduced to; as opposed to the random-person-on-the-street-is-equal-to-uncle-aunty culture I’ve grown up around. There’s nothing like a safe distance from your own culture to develop quite the romantic feeling for it. Some days on the tube, frustrated by the sight of yet another person plugged into earphones staring into the middle distance, my Punjabiness would goad me into thigh-slapping the nearest and asking her salary, husband, number of children or reasons for lack thereof.

Vicky, the amazing tour guide 
If an opportunity does arise to communicate with any of the locals in a ‘propah’ setting, the wonderfully understated British sense of humour can liven up the dreariest of English days. On a trip to Oxford and Windsor our very British tour guide, a middle-aged, kindly looking lady regaled a busload of students with a wicked stream of hilariously irreverent commentary on the history of England, shocking my Pak-Studies/Islamyat nurtured sensibilities to the core. Whether it took a self deprecatory, humorous turn or an academically researched one in museum exhibits I often encountered a willingness to acknowledge England’s historical atrocities, an awe inspiring experience for citizens from a country that has yet to to grasp this form of patriotism. I recall coming upon several admissions of the English persecution of Catholics at the British Museum’s Shakespeare Exhibition and The British Library’s Writing Britain exhibit. I read the following in the Merchant of Venice portion of the Shakespeare exhibition:

‘Venice fascinated the English as a fashionable city, and an open society with a multicultural population. It was also open to criticism, and by defining what was foreign, the English began to know themselves.’

Aah, the exhibitions. The only thing in London that made me feel like I was from a third world backwaters were the museum exhibitions I attended. Nothing else made me feel so completely at loss for a corresponding home-grown experience. Not Shakespeare at The Globe for I had seen Omair Rana’s world class Hamlet in Lahore; not the rousing rendition of Ode to Joy that almost made me do bhangra in the aisles at The Royal Festival Hall, for in Lahore I had seen the sun rise to the strains of the sitar at The All Pakistan Music Conference. London’s parks have no match but at least the picturesque Lawrence Gardens provided a point of reference. The decade of international fringe theatre the Rafi Peer Theatre Festival had exposed me to, the Mamma Mia I spurned because I had already seen a production back home. The human prop I spotted in Midsummer Night’s Dream at Regent’s Park because I had already seen that trick in Shah Sharahbeel’s Phantom of the Opera. I held an earphone to my ear at The British library to hear a professional actor recite The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales in exactly the same Middle-English accent that my university teacher, Sir Khalid Masood Siddiqui had so assiduously acquired and recited to enthralled students from urban and rural Punjab at the Punjab University. But when it came to the British Design exhibit at Victoria & Albert Museum or Writing Britain at The British Library, all attempts at drawing a Pakistani parallel came up empty handed. All of my grand cultural experiences in Lahore, I realized, were results of tremendous personal efforts, unlike London, where governmental patronage and interest gives museums unprecedented scale and resources.
Shakespeare exhibition at The British Museum

I went to The Shakespeare Exhibit at The British Museum as a sort of pedagogical duty. I came out many hours later, senses abuzz, to collapse on the front steps of the museum, staggered by the scale and depth of all I had just seen. This was no dull academic lecture or a redundant book of literary criticism, this was literary history as it ought to be, made to sing through a skillful amalgam of technology, art, history, design and human interest stories. At The British Library exhibit, themed around British landscapes over the centuries, I strolled through a who’s who of great British writing celebrated in manuscripts ranging from T.S Eliot, R.L Stevenson and William Blake to John Lennon, Hanif Kureshi and J.K Rowling, while at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s British Design exhibit a sequined David Bowie jumpsuit winked at me next to a mash-up of iconic British videos and pop art. 

Wherever I went, I carried Lahore around with me. Why is the Lahore Museum as decayed as its artefacts, I wondered. Why hasn’t anyone at the Quaid-e-Azam Library thought of fusing manuscripts with recitations and graphics to showcase the shifting landscapes of Lahore? Where is our Museum of Culture that dynamically chronicles our musical heritage from Noor Jehan to Junoon? In a country beset with poverty and terrorism these might seem like disingenuous questions, but surely warrant greater thought than futile Guinness records that restrict identity to jingoism alone. The Empire is nearly 70 years in the past now, leaving behind a debris of easy, feel-good nationalism that requires no hard work, no research, no spirit of intellectual inquiry to arrive at a secure, confident identity.

London made me rue what Lahore could have, should have been. I didn’t want to stay there forever; I just experienced a subtler, more helpless desire to transpose all I loved about it back home.


A version of this was published in The Friday Times on 26th October 2012