April 03, 2005
By Raffique Shah
WHEN I was a boy in primary school, I read a poem that went something like this: "Oh England is a pleasant place, for him that's rich and high; but England is a cruel place for such poor folks as I." During my late teens, I would go on to live and study in England, and there I saw those contradictions reveal themselves from time to time. As fate would have it, I attended an institution, The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, that catered for the elite of British society, the "officer class", special in most countries, but none more so than in the UK. So it was only during field exercises in the deep countryside that we'd occasionally come across the "poor folks", or on visits to the seedier districts in London.
But we are talking 40 years on, so one would expect the one-time seat of the "empire on which the sun never sets" to have advanced, to have capitalised on wealth it first plundered from its colonies, and later exploited by fair or foul means. In other words, if any country on earth should have moved close to the paradise for which we all yearn, it would have been Britain, not the USA, not Canada or anywhere else in Europe. How disappointing it was, therefore, for me, during an all-too-brief visit to London, to see just how polarised that society has become. How the wealthy have grown filthy rich, the middle classes remain fighting for "leftovers", and the poor well, they are little different to what we see depicted as defining images of underdeveloped countries.
On Oxford Street, of all places, within one block, my colleagues and I (three of us were on a business mission) were accosted by three young women, one of whom carried a baby. They were all begging yes, begging "for a pound, please, Sir!" Young women whom I would later learn were either Gypsies (they didn't look it) or migrants from the former East Europe. Then a trip to South London, closer to Brixton and sections of the city that are home to migrants and their descendants, proved to be even more revealing. There were scores of "hustlers", no different to what we encounter in parts of Port of Spain or Kingston. There were drug addicts and alcoholics aplenty, and that was mid-morning. One can only imagine what the scene must be like later, during the evenings and late nights.
In fact, the defining image for me was one I came face to face with in a small market off Elephant and Castle underground station. I stood there chatting with a Trini friend who lives there and runs a stall in the market. We observed an Indian man, age and country of origin difficult to determine, standing not far away looking in our direction. He would eventually muster the courage to come up to us: "Can you please spare me two pounds, Sirs?" he asked, in his best-if-slurred English. My friend, who knows the area and its people all too well, told him we had nothing to offer and asked him to move on. As he moved, my friend said to me: "Raf, look at where that fella was standing." I did..and there were small puddles of seemed to be water. "Do you realise he was peeing right there?"
Well, I could have been blown off my feet. Since I was a boy, I've heard the expression "pi**ing drunk", but never actually seen it. There, in the heart of the most expensive metropolis in the world, live and alive, I witnessed it. And I stood in my shoes and wondered. Is this a country that's spending hundreds of millions of pounds in invading and occupying Iraq, but which cannot eliminate poverty, drug addiction and alcoholism within its limited confines? In fact, what I did not see was worse than what I did. Pubs, those peculiarly British "institutions" where men and women go to unwind or get drunk, now have the option to apply for 24-hour licenses.
Few do, partly because of increased costs they would face, but mostly because they believe the country has an alcohol problem that is already beyond control. "Binge drinking" by young people has become epidemic in Britain. And recent reports on the education system speak of a degeneration that is akin to what's happening in the USA. In other words, Britain is now competing with the USA for having a very uninformed, if not uneducated, generation.
Let me hasten to add that there are many positives to a city I grew to like during my student years. Flying into Heathrow, for example, one sees the many patches of green-lovely parks on the ground-lots of small lakes and ponds, and many trees. It's not a concrete jungle, not even on the grimy ground. But it's a wealthy country that has proved, starting with "Thatcherism" in the 1980s, just how easy it is for unthinking politicians, in the name of "progress", to turn a potential paradise into a mire of stagnation, or worse, a haven for "pi**ing drunks".