Just Above Sunset
August 7, 2005 - Crashes and Bangs
This coming Friday sees the UK release of the film Crash, the American sleeper hit in which the residents of Los Angeles are suddenly confronted by their racial prejudices. A cynical PR man might say the timing couldn't be any better. After the Olympic race and the race to catch the suicide bombers, this week has seen Britain more concerned than usual with the thorny issue of race relations.
As in Crash, this has been the result of a pile-up of events, some coincidental, but more often than not connected in some way. Statistics released this week showed that race-hate crime reported during the month of July in the UK had witnessed a steep increase, from 40 such reported attacks in 2004 to 269 in 2005. Tabloid reports of attacks on mosques in the wake of the July 7 and July 21 incidents in London start to form something of a pattern, less isolated (and less dismissible) than one might like.
Then, as if to counter the suggestion these attacks were isolated bursts of aggression aimed against Muslim communities, no more than treatable supremacist tantrums, there's the big news story of the week: the murder of a black schoolboy, Anthony Walker, apparently killed for no greater crime than walking around a park with his white girlfriend. (Two white men have since been taken into custody in connection with the attack.)
Here's Ken Livingstone, the socialist Mayor of London, in an extended piece in the Guardian newspaper, extending a hand of friendship and respect to Muslim communities and, in particular, their visiting leaders. Tony Blair, on the other hand, takes a leaf out of the Bush book, in extending further the existing anti-terror legislation to now stop anyone seeking to enter the country on the grounds of preaching religious or political dissent.
Opposition leader-elect David Davis, sticking his head round the door in a bid for attention, has dismissed Labour's "outdated" policies on multiculturalism, stressing the need to work towards a "unique" Britain. That's singular language which chimes just a little too much for this columnist's liking with the policies on multi-culturalism proposed by the far-right British National Party, who used images of the destroyed Tavistock Square bus on recruiting pamphlets.
Wherever you travel, and however you travel, in Britain these days, it's almost impossible not to get tied up in issues of race. I mentioned last week that travelling on the Underground has become a somewhat different experience in recent weeks. Police are more evident, above and below ground. Signs encouraging increased vigilance now stand at the entrance and exit of each station.
And so I've found myself bothered by my fellow travellers in ways that, in all probability, I wouldn't have before the 7th of July. Why is that Chinese fellow playing with his phone? What are those foreigners doing, laughing in such an un-British fashion at the end of the carriage? And how uncomfortable must it be, for that young Muslim woman in full ceremonial dress, sitting in a packed and now greatly more suspicious train in the middle of a London rush hour?
In the course of my travels, I occasionally have need to carry a ridiculously large holdall around with me - a holdall which has been, quite understandably, searched twice by officials in the past couple of weeks. In both cases, the officials concerned found nothing more explosive (or exciting) than the books and towels that go to make up my overnight stays in the capital.
But here's the thing: this holdall just gets the most suspicious looks from my fellow travellers. A colleague of mine, spying the bag unattended before a film screening last Friday afternoon, confessed to feeling very jittery indeed. I told her the bag was mine. She jokingly replied that she now felt even more jittery. (Fair point: there were books, towels and changes of underwear in the bag at that very instant.)
Well, that's as maybe. I should also point out that I am - seasonal tan notwithstanding - about as white as it is possible to be. I quite like the music of Level 42. I get confused when offered more than one type of bread in restaurants. I don't (can't? won't?) dance. The very fact that people regard me as a potential suicide bomber - perhaps from some radical milquetoast splinter cell, miffed by the score in the cricket - suggests how heightened, possibly absurd, London sensibilities have become (have had to become?) over the last weeks.
The most interesting writing on recent events has displayed some sense of connection between small occurrences and wider happenings, between muffled tremors and bangs; in other words, to connect the Underground to what's happening up above, and Britain to the world at large. That's what makes the Livingstone Guardian piece so fascinating as a snapshot of current British political thought.
Blair, in the weeks following the attacks on London, has maintained more or less the same "deeply saddened" front he displayed after the death of Princess Diana or 9/11. Meanwhile, Livingstone - whose standing amongst Londoners has perhaps never been higher, much as Giuliani's was amongst New Yorkers after September 11th - appeared genuinely pissed off by developments.
Defiance must come naturally to a man who has repeatedly served as the thorn in New Labour's side. Yet Livingstone, in his sober moments, shares with Michael Moore, and other prominent figures of the Left on either side of the Atlantic, a certain gift for joined-up thinking. His article does, at least, recognise the fact that if Britain gives another nation a bum deal, or tries to hold an issue at arm's length, chances are that that policy is going to come back sooner or later and bite us in the, well, "ass".
As an undoubtedly topical movie, Crash doesn't ultimately tell us anything new, but it does say something similar on the subject of post-9/11 race relations, and demonstrates a commendable desire to tie up loose ends, however difficult or disparate they may first seem. After the rips and tears our social fabric has suffered in the last month, it won't do Britain any harm, one feels, to see a little more of exactly this kind of stitching together.
August 6, 2005
Copyright © 2005 – Mike McCahill
Email the author at email@example.com
Editor's note: The Ken Livingston item can be found here.
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