Monday, 30 October 2006
Palaces and Pens
Owen Powell – 30th October 2006
Alex and I met at the gates of Buckingham Palace, and watched the soldiers march up and down. We discussed the possibility of gaining access to the palace to speak to the Queen's husband, a Greek gentleman called Philip, but there were lots of guns being toted and we thought better of it. However, on the assumption that he probably wasn't the only foreign national in the area at the moment, we hit the gift shops in to continue our quest.
There was a disappointing interlude in the official Buckingham Palace shop.
[Alex here: the disappointing interlude was on my watch, it was my turn to ask someone if they were a foreigner and it was me that went reddest when it all went a bit wrong. First, the shop was the wierdest shop I'd ever been to. It sells tea from the colonies, small packs of Turkish delight for £3 and luxury bathroom accessories with a royal theme - it's a silly shop. So after breaking the silence of the silly shop with our own nervous giggles I had to go up to the patient shop attendant (whose name badge said her name was Hirani) and ask if anybody who worked here might possibly have been born overseas. Now, I thought she was probably British but the way I asked and the way she replied I can't help but think she thought I thought she was definitely Indian. I really wasn't presuming she wasn't British just because her surname wasn't Smith and she didn't have freckles but I couldn't really explain all that in a nonsense shop that sells Prince William jigsaws. I just felt very low and smiled and left.]
We had more luck just down the road in the aptly-named 'London Souvenirs', a shop that sold anything from a Charles and Camilla teapot, to a Lady Diana plate. At last, crockery that doesn't take sides in that old wife/mistress debate. Alex began looking at the Big Ben pens, while I introduced myself to the manager.
I began with the usual preamble, got the folder out, and asked, rather awkwardly, "So … are you … from London … I mean, originally?" The man behind the counter, smiling slightly, replied that he wasn't. With the prize nearly within my grasp, I stumbled a little too quickly into the next question. I could have asked a number of things, or found a number of ways to structure the sentence. What I actually found myself saying, to my own bafflement, let alone anyone else's, was, "Great! So … do you know where you're from?" Luckily, he did. He was from Syria.
In his 2002 State of the Union Address, George W Bush introduced a new phrase into the English language. Describing Iran, Iraq and North Korea as potentially rogue states that could at any time unleash untold destruction on anyone they fancied, he referred to them as an "Axis of Evil". This was tremendously exciting. For James Bond fans such as myself, this suddenly took world affairs out of the mundane spheres of economics and geopolitics, and into the realm of SPECTRE, with physically deformed villains stroking cats and pressing big red buttons. For a while, the idea of an "Axis" became very fashionable in international relations. Not long after the original, hardcore, axis had been defined, John Bolton (now US ambassador to the UN) got in on the act as well, pointing out that there were a further three countries who formed a second-string axis, the Championship to the Premiership sides controlled by Khamenei, Hussain and Kim Jong-il. In this new Axis (The Axis Of Quite Bad? The Axis Of Nearly Evil?) were to be found long-time American bugbear Cuba, odd north African state Libya (the only country in the world with a single-colour flag), and, you've guessed it, Syria.
Firas is 32, and has been in London for 5 years. This immediately makes him both the oldest and the longest domiciled of any of the people we've found so far. He was also the first person to be wearing a tie – are these facts connected? More interestingly, and a real plus as far as London's cosmopolitanism is concerned, he's married to a German woman he met in London, and they have kids here, half Syrian, half German, but mainly British. [Brief satire intermission: So, he's someone from a country near the Mediterranean with a German wife, working on Buckingham Palace Road – what are the chances of that?]
I asked him how he found London, whether or not he liked living here. He shrugged, and said, "Less now. It was better five years ago." My brain started racing. This could be fascinating. Just think of what's happened in the last five years – the invasion of Iraq, a growing anti-Muslim sentiment in some parts of the media, the tube bombings in London last July – and here's our first guy from the Middle East, confirming that life has got tougher in London over that time. So what was it in particular, I asked him. Has anything happened that has made things worse? He shrugged again (I was beginning to enjoy his shrugs), and said, "Well, you know, I got married."
London, he went on ruefully, is great for single people, but not when you're married. He doesn't go to clubs any more, he just stays at home in Richmond. In fact, his life is now getting so domesticated he's considering making the big move – to somewhere outside London completely. It looks like we caught him just in time.