As usual, I arrive at the party halfway through the conversation. I was hanging around outside having Facebook conversations…
Today, for those of you who can possibly have escaped the debates, is local elections day, and the London populace is being asked to consider its choices for Mayor of this city. It does, alas, come down to a choice between a rock and a hard place. When it all started up in earnest I realised sadly that the sensation I was experiencing was, in fact, a sinking feeling. At the thought of Ken Livingstone being mayor again.
Now, I’m not knocking Ken: he did get lots more 277s on the road just when I needed them badly, and back in his GLC days in the 80s he was necessary. But there is more to life than buses (I know: just forget I said that), and what we needed in the eighties isn’t what we need now. ‘Red Ken’ is no longer a deep enough concept. Post-Blair, the old oppositional party-politics model appears (to me, okay, and what do I know: I’m a flipping poet) to miss some of the important points, which we may have forgotten since the crash. I’m thinking of the big anti-Iraq-War coalition of lefties and hardline Islamists.
So the talk of the past few weeks has been about how ‘Ken lost the Jewish vote’. He did this by being ‘anti-Semitic’. Tits and tats fly as people discuss whether this or that jibe was serious evidence of ‘anti-semitism’ or was it just something he said. Articles have been written. Jewish friends are either not voting for him, or not not-voting for him.
But the thing is, right? A few weeks ago, I had a bit of a shock, when Ken decided to go spread the word of his Muslim-friendliness, not to some nice moderate mosque of multi-cultural human-rights-campaigning Muslim families, but to the Finsbury Park Mosque, of Abu Hamza fame, a notorious nexus of hate-filled Islamist teaching, right next to where I get on the tube.
What follows is one woman’s personal story.
Back in the day, when I was working on a local regeneration programme in Stepney, I had a shock. Well, the whole thing was great, I loved the job, I loved the place: I spent seven years in Tower Hamlets and only left because I was made redundant, and I was really, really gutted. I loved it not only because the East End is so vivid and vibrant and full of history and big characters and great buildings, but partly because of the shocks, of which there were so many. I learned there how the world really works. Not our little world, but Big World.
The pro-Bin Laden posters over the shops, for example. It was early 2002 when I started there. That summer I told a colleague, a prominent young Bengali guy, I’d be away visiting my family for three weeks, and when I answered his pleasant, smiling, ‘Oh, that’s nice, where are you going?’ with an equally pleasant ‘New York’, he was struck dumb – literally – he was covered with confusion. He stuttered, and mumbled, and said, ‘Oh. Sorry.’
One day maybe a year or so after that, I was was on an empty 25 bus going back to the office, and outside the Whitechapel Mosque the bus filled up with young men and boys. All in long white robes, all with little white crocheted prayer caps, and all came up the stairs, sat down, and opened up a magazine, all to the same page. Along the bus, up and down, were eager young people, all clustered over this page, repeated up and down the bus like a funfair mirror, whose two-inch high headline ran, in bold block caps: WHY HATE AMERICA?
I’m the only woman on the bus. I’m the only non-Bengali. I’m from America. I’m from NEW YORK. Er, and I have just as much of a right to be there as they do?
When I got back to the office I mentioned it to my next-desk colleague, a very jolly fellow. ‘Oh GOOD!’ he said, beaming. ‘They’re reading it!’ Then he goes, seeing my confusion, ‘That’s the magazine I was telling you about, that I edit’.
Now, this fellow was also overjoyed, a year later, the day after Ken met with Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. ‘Do you remember that great teacher I was telling you about, we were all so excited he was coming to London? Did you see him on the news last night with Ken, at City Hall? This is great news’, etc etc. Total political validation. (The preacher is banned, for instance, from France. Don’t get me wrong. I really liked my deskmate, he was a warm, funny, very bright, personable guy. I’m sure he can’t really be a fan of female genital mutilation and some of the other things al-Qaradawi has advocated.) (Mind you, when we finally got an equalities officer in, he and the other Bengali managers were at huge pains to tell her there are no gay people among Bengalis. None. So she wasn’t going to have to do anything for them, see? No mental health service link-ups or information campaigns or counselling.)
So then, a year after that, in July 2005, Ken issues a message to the tube bombers: ‘Whatever you do, however many you kill, you will fail’. That’s fine; and a few weeks after that, asked how he squares recent events in London with his ealier ‘hoodie-hug’ of al-Qaradawi, who has endorsed suicide bombers in Palestine and elsewhere (though not explicitly in London; hasn’t Ken ever seen a Shakespeare play?) Ken explains that, ‘while Israel had fighter jets and tanks, the Palestinians “only have their bodies” and no other way to “fight back”.’
I don’t know about you – but to me, that looks unclear thinking supporting an ideological position.
I’m not sure that will help us to foster a vibrant, world-class, multicultural city. As London Mayor, why is it even his issue? Isn’t his responsibility to the Jews, Palestinians, other Muslims, moderate Muslims, Muslim intellectuals and activists who are fighting for human rights, homosexuals, women, and indeed everyone else, even including Israelis, who lives in London?
So, unfortunately, when Ken chose to deliver his message of friendship direct to the Finsbury Park mosque, something in the hairs on my back did snap. For days afterwards, people were attempting to interpret the meaning of his message about Mohammed’s last speech, and detecting possible traces of irony or a hidden message, etc etc. But really? In an election campaign?
I think you can tell a lot about someone by who they want to play with.
Boris, on the other hand, I’ve been assuming would one day burst his carapace and reveal horribly that, although he has looked human all along, he is really an intergalactic Doctor Who baddy with scales on his back, horrible slobber, a burning need to Destroy London, and an old school tie.
Beyond the buffoon level, I warmed to Boris early on when he wanted to get something going in London along the lines of El Sistema – the Venezuelan children’s orchestra – where poor schoolchildren are taught real, stretching, world-class classical music and how to play an instrument and be in an orchestra. I thought that was much more egalitarian than inner-city rap and graffiti-art programmes. It is, in fact, radical. (Mind you, it didn’t happen.)
But then Cameron came in, the Big Disaster, and you can’t help worrying that ‘Race will Out’. But yesterday I read this fascinating (though quite long) article by Nick Cohen, and I saw that Nick may well be right. Later in the evening, I was talking to Mlle B about it, and when I mentioned the Doctor Who baddy to her, she said: ‘No, no. You’re wrong. There’s nothing underneath. I really think that with Boris what you see is all there is’.
I’m not saying I could bring myself to vote for a Tory, under whatever circumstances; and also, the one thing Boris & Ken probably share is that it’s their ambition that’s important to them, rather than us. So we can’t, by definition, rely on either of them.
What I am saying is that, where Ken is concerned, I think we’re all Jewish.
Welcome to the Mayor Day party! Dinner is served.