Monday, October 17, 2005

diary of a stone monkey vol lxxii

Dear All,

It’s Black History Month in England. I visit the British Museum and I’m directed to the obsidian bust of Caesar with disconcerting white irises, brought back from the Sudan.

Yes, I know. It’s become a cliché, how I soliloquize on the strange transculturalism of the world, but who needs to know that about London, of all places, where less than 50% of residents are white and censuses state that over 300 languages are spoken in homes, behind closed doors? The churches, the Anglicans and Catholics and Protestants of other flavours, are jumping on the bandwagon with their evangel, offering Soho services in Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, French. It’s the homeless people who’re white here, trodden down by class and Thatcherite politics; the Johnny-and-Jahan-come-latelies of colour have more of a chance to hop the escalator of upward mobility, freed from the shackles of history.

And history runs so deep here; runnels and trickles itself into every cobblestone and microcircuit. Their faces and fingerprints on every corner: Victoria, Elizabeth, the six wives of Henry VIII, on video, on fingerpuppetry, on the cold rush of air that sweeps beneath the antique bridges into the neon signage of Leceister Square. The portraits of the National Gallery stare down at us and paint their names.

And against migration, somehow English culture still holds itself together, sells Cornish pasties and scampi and chips at the same teashop where you get doner kebabs and curry on your jacket potatoes. You wander into the Tube, and everyone’s *reading*. Noses buried in newspapers and bestsellers or doing su doku, which is even more English than crossword puzzles in its unlingual reserve. When you hear someone talking it’s often tourists from an American high school, discussing the benefits of a lowered drinking age. And then the children in those ridiculous uniforms outside my flat, grey sweaters and vests and miniature ties like a toy recreation of an Edwardian wonderland. Their mothers come to greet them in their afros and hejabs at the ice cream truck for choccy wafer.

History and globality, smashing each other like violent lovers. Pausing to avoid each other’s bruises, a space of compromise. The guide at Cleopatra’s Needle explains that on Hadrian’s Wall, records exist of the Syrian craftsmen brought in for the masonry, so even today, amidst the rubble of Scots and the giftshops, some blokes have surnames from Syria. A book from the Globe Theatre explains how Shakespeare’s three-dimensional treatment of Othello was probably influenced by the fact that several thousand Africans were living in London at the time of his height. They were musicians, servant-girls, ironmongers, grand and luxurious courtesans. His Dark Lady, Emilia Lanier, was an Italian Jewess who wrote odes to Cleopatra.

The world came together, came so many times that they shut their eyes and stopped counting.

Yesterday, incidentally was also the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. Co-ed brass bands in uniform on parade. The guide explains how British nature demands a celebration whenever England really kicks France’s arse. We all need walls, don’t we? But channels run both ways. They sell biographies of Nelson and Napoleon in every bookstore, advertising them on the subway, and their faces are so close in profile it seems as though they kiss.

The first time I went to Trafalgar Square, it was night, after the Waterloo Gay Youth Group meeting. I’d spent the night gorging myself on chocolate digestives and clementines, flirting with a scruffy-haired stripling named Keith with green eyes and a misspelt e-mail address, and arguing with a teenage black bi-girl named P2, who claimed that the Internet was Evil for promoting gay promiscuity in spite of its dramatic success, I asserted, in connecting otherwise remote members of an invisible community. She said the dirty old men and young men should all die and I call her Mrs Thatcher. Then out across the Millennium Bridge, yapping in our teenage way, gawping at heterosexuals holding hands, and into an arena of Jacobite architecture lit from below in tinted lights, all neoclassical heroes and Corinthian capitals, and I said, Gawd, this is like CGI, this is like Myst.

When they hoisted Nelson onto his column they did so in a bucket rigged to a pulley elevator. The night before, twelve men who had engineered the statue ate roast pheasant on the top of the column, attended by waiters and French wine. In recent years the pigeons shat on the statues so corrosively that authorities were obliged to buy off fthe licence from the bird feed man in return for a hefty pension, and to hire a falconer to let loose an eagle twice a week from his little white van. All the birds reckon there’s a natural predator and stay away, the eagle returns to her master who can feed her Sainsbury’s organic squab, and everyone’s happy and humanely dealt with. The plinth left empty by a bankrupt William IV is now open to a rotating cycle of modern sculpture. There’s currently a rather unremarkable portrait cast of the artist Alison Lapper, born without arms and with shortened legs; the next body up will be that of Nelson Mandela.

All that history, all that currency, washing up into a little circle of brick. Singapore should hold similar walking tours; Singapore should dig into the dirt of its concrete. How can a city so old be so young? But that’s what cities do, because they’re renewable. Europe can manage that; they’ve had time to grow and change sizes while everywhere else just bursts its knickers.

I ride the London Eye and take pictures of Westminster Abbey in the rain; my best shot of the Blue Gherkin is from the balcony of Christopher Wren’s Monument to the Great Fire of 1666. I chew my Krispy Kreme and eat my lentil dhal with rice and photograph the graffiti on the walls in Hebrew and Korean, the ammonite spiral of stairs below me and the yuppies munching their sandwiches in churchyards. I ask Simon Jackson what kind of a Jewish surname Jackson is; he says his grandfather had it changed when his father was four, fleeing their Ashkenazic roots. The father takes me for croissants and chocolatines at Paul’s the best French patisserie in England, and tells me of his boyhood trekking across Spain, his senescence as his retirement plan to manage the tourist office at Stonehenge fell through. They are out of orange juice; I have milk and he has a cappuccino. He rescues children of friends from bad overseas work, but only if they degrees in science or economics. He regards me with pity. I stay in all Thursday and work on my SQ21 book on Singapore queer biographies, only eating once, at the Rose Café, fried bread and fried mushrooms and bacon and black puddings like coal-dark cookies with white chocolate gristle. The waitstaff were Turkish, and the young, pretty lady with the mop approaches me and asks me why I am reading a book about India. So far I’ve ransacked Simon’s house and read Hermann Hesse’s “Siddartha”, “Steppenwolf” and Rabindranath Tagore’s “Gitanjali”. This one is about militant Hinduism in India, I tell her, the cult of Rama despite even Hanuman’s descent into the underworld to retrieve the ring of his master and meeting a thousand, each from a different aspect. Are they are Christians in Turkey, I ask her. It turns out they’re Muslim, but even back home, they will eat pork sausages.

There is no cogent way I can piece together my two weeks here already. No golden thread. My mother gives me her credit card for Hongkong Shanghai Bank of China; they have raised sponsorship for the largest Frida Kahlo exhibition in twenty years at the Tate Modern due to their Mexican connections and are now employing Prince William as an intern. What a master stroke of the colonised, to be boss to the future king of your old slaver! But who holds the chips, and how well do they function as buttons of power?

You know, I somehow remember there being more Asian people than black people in London the last time I was here. Somehow I’m seeing rather few of them outside the restaurants; perhaps it’s an assimilation pattern, or maybe some big boom from the islands happened after I left. P2 is dead against it of course; she says her father had every right to come here because he had a job, but what’s the business of bringing another uncle over? I call her the bloody Baroness of Kesteven.

I’ve clubbed here a couple of nights. It’s a very white gay community, that’s the feeling I’m getting. May be the whitest clubs I’ve ever danced in, and I have been in Frankfurt. A bit of a difference from Asian gay clubs, which will often feature at least the token expat. The ethnopolitics of pleasure. I’m reading Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American”, and chasing a Eurasian boy at Oxford via text message.

I was discussing globalization with Simon the other night. We had good chats, despite his gross neglect, because he is an extremely intelligent man, simply lacking in many social graces. He was wondering how much globalization really takes place in China if no-one moves there for the long run, since even the black and white faces of Shanghai are only there for a business deal or an education or a tour of the Colonial District.

Singapore’s got it, he says. There are some people who come to Singapore and won’t be going home. I tell him I think my Eurotrip is conducting the same kind of runaway odyssey that’s supposed to drive white kids to the Himalayas. He suggests Lourdes, or Santiago de la Compostela. Next door to Simon’s is the Freud House. Here he took refuge from the Nazis with a chau-chau, a Pekinese, a lesbian daughter, his antique array of ushabtis, avatars and bodhisattvas, and a cabinet with a Lutheran inscription of love, writing them all into a theory of the primitive and the unconscious in his ergonomic armchair, his mind was like the meat of a snail, said Salvador Dalí.

In the Egyptian room at the British Museum lies the famous mummy of Ginger, with red hair. What drove that migrant, a head like the phosphorus of matches, to leave his tribe for one of the few first cities? Hunger, probably. Travelers’ tales couldn’t have spread glamour much in those early days. Who knows, he may not have liked it, and only death might have made him decide to stop running.

Need sleep now,

Yi-Sheng
B).

P.S. Am in Oxford now. Bicycle city of gargoyles and subfuscs. Gorgeous Eurasian boy not replying, so am at liberty to make fun of his name, which is Lexus. May hit Canterbury next, and convert to Anglicanism, since it might let me be a priest.

2 comments:

miro said...
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