Tuesday, 30 August 2011

An illegal immigrant from Sri Lanka hid in my baggage

And I only spotted him when I got home from work today.

It was 9.30pm.  As I closed the front door behind me, I called out to mum who didn't respond.  She was clearly sleeping upstairs.  Let the poor darling rest, I thought.  She must be jet-lagged from Sri Lanka.

I switched the hallway light on and there he was, standing by my hand luggage, the bag lying unzipped  by the stairs.  He was a giant.  So foreign he didn't even recognise the need to be afraid; he didn't run and hide.  He just stood there sizing me up with his eight eyes, waiting to charge at me with his eight legs.  He must have been four inches across.

"MUM! WAKE UP!....  MUM!  Can you get down here?!"

Eventually mum appeared on the landing, wiping the sleep from her eyes and wrestling her glasses onto her face.  "What's the matter?"

"There is a MASSIVE spider down here. It's the biggest one I've ever seen"

"Don't be ridiculous," she muttered, by now the only sensible woman of the house, descending the stairs in her robe and bare feet.  "How big can a spider be?"

Mum is scared of absolutely no bugs found in the UK.  She grew up with scorpions and cobras, so British creepy crawlies stand no chance of intimidating her.  As a youngster, this had been one of the awesomest things about my mother.  I'd relied on her superpower infinitely during my scaredy-cat childhood (and, frankly, well into my adult life).  

As mum got down to the stairs she stopped and looked at the spider.  I sensed a slight fear in her hesitation. "Wow, that is big."

When she asked where the ridiculous long-armed spider-catching gadgety thing was, I knew we were in trouble.  Because I also knew that gadget was broken and, with my mother's own mother in her sick bed this week, there was no way my buddhist mum was going to kill ANY living thing.

Odd images flashed through my mind.  Could we make it work?  Could the three of us live together in harmony, the spider doing odd jobs around the house?   Maybe we could let the spider have my sister's room?  He could weave us some new crochet table cloths! 

No. I cursed my ridiculous hippy ideas.  Without the gadgety spider catchy, he would have to be killed. Snuffed out by a shoe thrown from a safe distance.

Mum had other plans. With astonishing dexterity for a woman of her age, she threw an upturned tupperware container over the spider.  Then she slid a piece of cardboard below the tupperware and carried the entire "trap" out of the house.

"It doesn't matter where you live now" she said gently as she released the spider into the flower bed, "just don't come back in our house."

Her natural affection for all living things at that moment made me ashamed for even considering killing that thing.  I'd been acting out of a totally irrational fear.  Could anything that passive and small really have hurt an intelligent human adult?  

True, we were not exactly saving the spider's life.  Released into the British summer, our refugee would surely freeze to death in a few days anyway.    Perhaps for the best, if it were poisonous.

But so what?  Mum had done what she could to prolong a life.  

Her conscience is clear.

Monday, 29 August 2011

The difficult side of ex-pat life

Have you survived any natural disasters today?

This is the question I ask Hank now, every time I speak to him.  So far this week: just one hurricane and an earthquake.  But he - and our house - are fortunately still standing.   Hank has dealt with these things on his own, like a trooper.  

As for me, I just got back from a week in Sri Lanka - but not the swaying-palm-trees-pina-colada-on-the-beach kind, sadly.  My grandmother has been ill and my mother was advised to come to pay her last respects.  We, like other ex-pats of my mother's family, flew out the very next day, half expecting bad news by the time we landed.  We stayed with a kind aunt whose daughters plied us with sweet, milky tea and papaya from their garden, and her husband drove us to grandmother's house every day.   Perhaps the sight of so many family members buoyed my grandmother's health; she did perk up a bit for a while.  But we left her with heavy hearts yesterday, knowing she cannot survive much longer.

We call her "Archi." She has had a long and eventful life.  I enjoyed hearing stories from my relatives about their childhood in a country so far away from where I grew up.  My mother's awesome style of parenting clearly originated in what she learnt about child-rearing from Archi - keep 'em too busy to get into trouble, and always be just a little fearsome.   For my grandmother, a mother of twelve, raising the family was no mean feat.  I learnt how she and her husband had defended their children to the Police after a grumpy neighbour accused them of breaking windows which had simply expanded in the heat, then the same neighbour stole mangos from Archi's prize tree, and jealously put nails, spike-up, in shared parking spaces.  I heard how one of Archi's daughters was asked every Sunday at buddhism school by the monks if she had "performed any good deeds", and she relayed a list of ants she had saved from drowning.  The list became so predictable the exasperated monk soon stopped asking her.  Some would call this aunt cheeky but I think she was great; she -  not one of her brothers -  was the first of her generation to leave Sri Lanka for a job overseas, arriving in the UK in the 60s with a few pounds in her pocket, having never been to the west before.  She was not even 20 years old and had never seen snow.  She knew no-one.  No Lonely Planet guidebooks, no websites to prepare her.  The intrepid audacity of that woman is inspirational.  Now tragically she - and one other sister- are too unwell to travel to Sri Lanka to bid their mother farewell.  I guess in some cruel ways, an international lifestyle punishes the brave.       

Last week, Archi's children held an all-night pirith (blessings chanted by monks for family and friends) and a dhane (chanting and alms giving), to honour the 20th anniversary of my grandfather's death.  One of Archi's sons made a pilgrimage to Anuradhapura. There is little left to do now but keep Archi clean, nourished and close to her family and religion.  This burden falls solely to those in Colombo, to my own mother's great sadness.  I think of these aunts, uncles and cousins with respect and pride; we will be forever indebted to them.

My mum is getting old herself and is afraid of traveling alone.  She therefore returned with me to London when my job dictated.  We've visited Sri Lanka many times but have recently left bigger gaps between trips; this time over seven years.  And this time I really, really did not want to leave there.  It wasn't just because we were sad to leave Archi and our wonderful family.  Colombo has become a truly compelling place.  For years, whenever I went there I struggled to deal with the failing infrastructure - why were the roads in such a state, why didn't the government repair the buildings which had faces blown off by insurgents, and why didn't people have dependable water supplies and proper street cleansing services?  It annoyed me to see paramilitaries policing every municipal building and at regular checkpoints to always to have to show "papers" which I, a war novice, constantly forgot to carry.  I always blamed the war but was never sure it was really the heart of the problem.  I secretly worried that maybe that was just how Sri Lanka was. 

I was wrong.   How long has it been since the war ended?  Maybe three years?  Under a very right-wing, nationalist government [a fact which I'm ignoring for my sanity] the capital city is already unrecognisable.  I'm starting to think that I'm missing out!   The things which drew my mum to the UK in the 60s - the excitement and economic growth of a nation rebuilding itself after a war -  these things are evident in Sri Lanka right now.  It is an appealing environment in which to start a business. 

On my last evening in Colombo, a kind uncle took me in a tuk-tuk to Galle Face beach where kids traditionally fly kites in the sea breeze every summer, parents pack picnics and stalls display fried seafood treats.  It was busy but peaceful, immaculately clean and really magical.  It reminded me of the National Mall in DC, just with browner folks and curlier hair.  It was wonderful to see so many people enjoying themselves.  Were it not for my darling Hank, I believe I could happily move there tomorrow.

As I left Archi's house for the last time, the kind uncle gave me a small gift of 1000 rupees, just totally out of the blue.  To spend next time I come here, he said.  

His gentle and kind message was unspoken: don't leave it so long next time.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Came back on the red-eye from DC this morning after a wonderful weekend with Hank and two UK friends, Jake and Ian, who popped in en route to the Bahamas.

Hank is still so handsome that his face is prohibited under the Public Order Act in 13 states, and he has got decidedly buff from running Tock twice a day and doing chin ups in his spare time.   He has fixed up our home even more, painted walls, hung pictures, constructed raised flower beds on the patio and built me a craft storage cabinet for my cratefuls of art materials aka "macaroni necklaces".  He has been working hard and everything looks amazing.  The dog is behaving really well and is calm and friendly to other dogs now.  Maybe I should go away more often!

No..... Just a few more months and I will be able to join them all stateside.  Poor Hank has been alone for 3.5 months now.  So, I'm just waiting for my current employer to backfill my post before I can move on.  I still have no idea what to do with myself when I finally get out there.   If you have any inspired ideas, please do share ...

Friday, 12 August 2011

Believe in young people

I am leaving London.  Just for the weekend, though.  Gonna try and sneak into DC for a few days to see my lovely Hank.

If I had my way, I'd not be coming back.  But, I will return to the Lord of the Flies streets of London on Wednesday.

Ok, ok, some sanity has returned to the streets of England.  And amongst the middle-class dinner table debates about Broken Britain and how the crack-stunted offspring of single parents are destroying the planet one evil Tweet at a time, Hank sent me this link to an uplifting story about a child changing the world

Half the world is under 25.  I must find ways to keep alive my hopes for the younger generation  And if you are interested in getting younger people to take a more active role in developing the world around them, there are plenty of good causes out there.  Restless Development is pretty popular with my work colleagues right now, because in addition to getting youngsters to develop themselves and each other, the organisation also gets young people to advocate for each other, to spread the message of how poverty is a reality for children all around the world, and to put pressure on politicians and philanthropists to keep investing in development, whatever the economic climate.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Multicultural harmony - now everyone is rioting together!

The Olympic torching of London is now passing from the hands of young black men in the capital city to young men and women of all ethnicities across the UK.  As the situation in town appears to be calming down [GOLDEN RULE: Do NOT, I repeat, NOT, annoy the six bazillion angry coppers have been forced back to work today, with their holidays cancelled] Manchester and Nottingham have found themselves drawn into the mire.

The prime targets remain electrical goods stores, sports clothing outlets and alcohol and booze vendors.  All legitimate political targets because they are ... er ... glass-fronted?

The looters will feel the full weight of the law, Prime Minister Cameron says.  So, they'll be forced to do a whole week of community service.  And even that can only happen if they are thick enough not to say "oh yeah I did have that TV in my hands as I walked out of the shop but I left it at the end of the road when a grown up told me that stealing is illegal ... Someone else must have walked off with it after that."

It's all just good news really!

At least one brave granny had the right idea as looters ran amok in her local high street (and let's forgive her REALLY bad language - she's angry).

Monday, 8 August 2011

Black kids in London need a new hero - the "elegant hardcore"

Holy cow! I'm not in Kansas anymore!  This is London in 2011. 

More than 215 arrests, 27 people charged, and the Mayor and Home Secretary have both cancelled their holidays to deal with the mess in London.

Around the world people are asking where all this craziness has come from?   And what can be done about it? And just how safe WILL it be to visit the London Olympics after those bloody tickets were so hard to get hold of!!!

Here's the Cliff Notes:

According to reports in the press, 29-yr old Mark Duggan, a criminal known to carry a firearm, was shot dead by Met Police officers on Thursday after he opened fire, striking one officer who was saved only because his radio slowed the bullet down.  Officers from a Met unit which specialises in preventing and detecting black-on-black gun crime in London had reportedly had Duggan under surveillance, fearing he was about to avenge the killing of his 23-yr old cousin, rapper Kevin Easton.  

Almost immediately statements started to appear which contradicted early reports about the shooting.  Eye witnesses describe Duggan being dragged out of a vehicle and being shot in the head in the street.  And in recent days, rumours have emerged of a police ballistics report which indicates that Duggan's weapon had not discharged any shots at all on the day he was killed.  Some are even saying the handgun was a replica. 

On Saturday morning a group of Duggan's friends, family and sympathisers gathered outside Tottenham Police station, demanding answers from the Met.  The latter had reportedly not assigned a Family Liaison Officer to keep the Duggans apprised of developments in the enquiry involving the deceased father or four.  If that is true, it means the Met may have failed to meet their obligations under the Macpherson Report  - and that report was itself commissioned after the callous and unhelpful treatment of the family of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993.  

Faced with police silence, the crowd of Duggan supporters grew angry and attacked two empty patrol vehicles nearby.  And then a rampage began which has led to arson, criminal destruction, looting, muggings and assault;  homes damaged with families inside desperately pleading with the rioters not to destroy their property;  apartment buildings burnt to the ground and others left as charred ruins; five girls were spotted smashing a shop window and walking off with armfuls of designer handbags;  Firemen were attacked while doing their job.  Clearly, none of this can have anything to do with justice.

Overnight the riots spread to other areas of London, including Brixton, scene of the terrible riots of 1981 and 1985

But this is not the 80s!  The riots are an odd throw-back to the Thatcher era, a weird anachronism but with a strangely modern twist; this time the violence has a cutting-edge scapegoat.... Twitter.  

Sound the alarm! Twitter is out there, fueling the riots!  Sure, it's unsurprising that those who turn so readily to violence also prefer to keep their press releases to fewer than 140 characters.  But what is more surprising is that society apparently holds the internet to blame for its own abuse.  Poor old Twitter, once lauded for its role in the Arab Spring, has now taken on a reputation to rival the satellite phones that single-handedly brought an American BlackHawk down in Mogadishu in 1993, no weapons required, right?!! Remember that? 

Today the press proudly declares that Twitter communication brings about evil!  The problem is Twitter.  The problem is not most definitely NOT us.  Repeat after the mass media: what we do NOT need is young people communicating!

[Blackberry's BBN is apparently also to blame.  Part of me finds it amusing to think of the hooded yoof frantically checking their blackberries under fire and cursing their slow Outlook synching connection....  "Really must save my pocket money and upgrade my data package"]  

But mostly, I just find this whole state of unrest WRONG.

The ballistics report will be released tomorrow. It wouldn't surprise me if the Met Police shut down the entire mobile phone network in the riot zones, a quite common public order tactic.  Which will certainly slow Twitter in its evil tracks.  But let's just hope that nobody trapped in a burning building is also trying to get a message to the authorities....

I'm gonna go against the grain here.  What I think London actually needs right now is better and more meaningful communication, and with people who the yoof trust.  And clearly that rules out politicians who have feathered their nests with our taxes and cut education spending;  cops who are selling our phone numbers to journalists at the bottom and wining and dining the most abhorrent power-mongers on the planet at the top;  a Church which has allowed children to be abused; businessmen who have preferred cheap foreign manufacturing to creating jobs for this generation of Brits, and bankers whose collective arrogance has destroyed our economy and our job prospects.  [Oh and Civil Servants might as well just give up and go home.  The yoof ain't interested, bruv - you bastards have got stable jobs!]

Who will the angry mob listen to?

Tell me the truth. Did you stop feeling sympathy for Mark Duggan when I told you his cousin was a murdered rapper?  Did you write him off as a tragic cliche?  I think I've written off some young people because they look up to people I despise, like musicians who produce criminal records faster than hits singles, and artists who promote guns and treat women as cheap objects.  

I've got an awful feeling that those precise role models are the ones who need to be telling rioters to stop - and you and I have no influence over them.  I'm sure that none of us could pull off a command to rioters to retreat as effectively as a respected underground musician could right now.   So, are the popular gangster rappers of today getting together and writing a press release?  Are they broadcasting their grief?  Or are they just laughing at the chaos?  

Frankly, I don't kid myself that role models admired for their anti-social behaviour are ever going to be viable harbingers of peace. 

Well then.  

Of the righteous, who should step up?  

Get ready, you are not going to expect this.....   



... It's Grandma

Anyone who had the privilege of an older, black aunty or granny growing up will remember acutely the power of that generation of women, who took absolutely no s@%! from their sons.  In their youth these women had seen their families damaged irreparably by war, then packed up their bags, unbowed, and crossed oceans to start a new life in a hostile nation. They survived racism - REAL, BRUTAL, SHAMELESS RACISM, survived "informal" segregation in the 50s and appalling housing conditions in the 60s. In the 70s they lived through inflation we can't comprehend, on the lowest of wages while their husbands were laid off.  These women are an untapped example of the "elegant hardcore".  We need old, black grannies to get their handbags out and hit adolescent boys with them until those young men feel shame like they did as children.  Proper, old-fashioned SHAME!  Ladies, dust off your switches and show this generation of mothers where we went wrong!  I'm serious!  Because I can only see two, more formative influences if granny doesn't beat these boys into shape : the de-humanising impact of a police water canon or the equally undesirable normalisation of an utterly unacceptable gangster code.  

Friday, 5 August 2011

Gun control v2.0

After the recent killing of more than 70 people in Norway, the debate about gun control has hit Europe again.  Some commentators have suggested that the young Labour Party supporters at the Utoya camp could have been better protected if they - or their security guard - had been permitted to bear arms. 
Weirdly, the subject of firearms then forced its way back into my life a few days ago as I walked home late at night on my own.

A few streets from my house, I noticed a red laser scoping light was being pointed at my head by someone who was hiding themselves out of sight.  I could tell from the angle of projection that they were at a fixed point, probably in the window of one of the upper floor rooms of a nearby house.   They had waited until I had passed in front of them so that they could aim at my head from behind.  

The person targeting me did not have great aim but my first instinct was to dodge out of the line of fire.  Then I remembered I was in the UK.  There was absolutely no way that the person shining that light would have an automatic rifle.  NO WAY.  

So instead of giving some bored teenager with a laser pen the pleasure they clearly coveted of seeing an adult run away in fear, I flipped them the bird over my shoulder and carried on walking.  The light went out as soon as the recipient recognised this universal gesture of good will.   

I continued walking home, both amused and annoyed by what had just occurred.  Then I remembered the young British man who was recently stabbed to death in Greece after he allegedly shone a similar light at a local taxi driver's head in the small hours of the morning.  When I'd first read his story in the news I'd been astonished that a taxi driver could even propose that the shining of a laser light might be a justification for stabbing someone.  Now, walking home in the dark on my own, I found myself wondering if I would have attempted to kill someone if I genuinely thought they had aimed a firearm at my head.  The anger still seething inside me from the recent cowardly, faceless transaction told me very clearly that I would gladly have had a go, given the chance.  

So, thank you Gun Control.  As long as certain brainless members of the population lack a sense of decency, it is very fortunate that these same dullards also lack ready access to firearms.  Fortunate for me - and I think also for them.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

A monkey waiting to find its talents

Say cheese: The monkeys were intrigued by their reflection in the camera lens This macaque monkey stole a tourist's camera and took his own picture with it in a national park in Indonesia.  Perhaps this monkey is in the wrong job? 

Perhaps a lot of us are in the wrong job.

I've been thinking today about something so personal and - frankly-  dark  I find it hard to talk about it in all but the most public of forums.  So it falls to my private online memoirs - this here blog - to explore this in depth.

You see, I've been nursing a growing feeling that I might not actually be very good at things.  

This suspicion stems from several unforced errors I've made in the workplace recently: an e-invite sent to the wrong person here; a phone number mis-transcribed there.  Two or three times a day.  Is it just me who makes mistakes this frequently?

In my new job I send up to 60 emails a day, often completing over 50 transactions, across two computer monitors, and covering up to three team-members' inboxes in addition to my own.  So perhaps that's why I'm making more mistakes.  Perhaps that's all it is: tiredness.


But maybe ... well...  maybe humans aren't supposed to be in a job where we are required to be 100% accurate 100% of the time in such a relentlessly busy role?  Or perhaps only certain humans are.  Like, ones who care...?

Hmmm, this will subject require more thought, monkey features.   Hold that pose!

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