Friday, October 26, 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

1 comment:

  1. Wow, just to say first that I think this is an excellent piece of writing, full of interesting observations.

    I don’t know if you’re aware, but even by British standards you picked a particularly bad year to visit as regards the weather. It was the worst summer I can remember for rain and lack of sun, and apparently was the 4th wettest since records began in 1727!

    I agree with most of your points, though I have to say I’ve also seen a lot of singing and dancing at British weddings! Also, were you in London during the Notting Hill carnival? There’s as much partying on the streets during that event as I’ve seen anywhere; though it is of course mainly an Afro-Caribbean event, I guess another sign of London’s multiculturalism. I also saw at least one pavement artist in Trafalgar Sq and another one on the South Bank this year. Maybe you were just unlucky? Quite correct though about how attitudes change post alcohol, as anyone who’s travelled late at night on the tube or London buses will know.

    You make an interesting point about the anonymity you had. I’ve travelled a fair amount in Asia and North Africa, so have a very slight insight in how it feels to be an attraction, which can definitely be tiresome when you just want to go about your business, no matter how cheerful you try to be. Reminds me of the line in the Mission Impossible film “anonymity is like a warm blanket“!

    I also think the Olympics had a bigger impact than you say. Maybe though that was just because I was lucky enough to go to a number of events, and a lot of my friends were also very into it. Did you go to any of the mass spectator events? I saw the mens marathon, which had huge crowds and a very nice atmosphere I thought.

    Interesting to see what would have happened if you had started random conversations on the tube! I think most people would have chatted to you quite happily, I just think they feel it impolite to start conversations in case they’re seen as intruding (apart from rush hour when most people are too miserable at the thought of going to work!)

    I’m glad you liked the museums and exhibitions. London has the best in the world imo (and by quite a distance at that) - and the fact most of them are free is incredible I think. Did you get to go to any of the London prom concerts? They’re usually great and very cheap if you’re happy to stand (like your other story of visiting the globe!)

    Anyway, once again, great piece.