Day off in London

24 10 2011

It’s at this time of year that I love London the most. Crisp autumnal-come-wintery air. Clear blue skies, into which the wind-weathered stonework and glistening glass architecture blends seamlessly; as if the designers had exactly this kind of hue in mind as the perfect backdrop for their creations. An early morning trip to queue up for theatre tickets. Then a quick detour through Chinatown, the streets lined with delivery vans containing exotic foods, odd shaped and mysterious-looking.

An espresso in a quirky little bar: single origin, Costa Rican – Las Lajas Perla Negra. Probably the oddest flavoured, most tongue-boggling coffee I’ve tasted in a while. The flavour lingers on, the liquorice bitterness enhanced and renewed by waves of fresh air as I breathe deeply, strolling over a bridge across the Thames.

Booksellers huddle up under Waterloo bridge, their cheeks a light red from the subtle sting of the wind. Tourists photograph skateboarders, BMXers and graffiti artists, honing their skills on the Southbank.

I’m sitting in the National Theatre, a great place to think and write. To my right I can see down into the foyer below; the drama students reading texts on the lurid green and orange sofas, like a giant cubist fruitbowl. The looks on their faces give away that they’re daydreaming of reading these lines on one of the stages just metres away. To my left I can see out onto the Southbank. Families enjoying the half term, kicking a football around; a strange flotilla of kick-scooters all lined up by the railings. Quite how, when and why they returned into fashion I have no idea!

And I’m just writing. It’s silent here, and light, and pleasant. And I have nothing in particular to do; I make a few tweaks to a talk I’m to give in a week or so, I jot down a few thoughts like these, and I just wrote the final chapter of my first book. Well, I say that with my tongue loosely lodged in my cheek. I have written no other chapters, nor do I know what such a book might be about. But if this little chapter would come anywhere in anything, it would most certainly be at the end. And so I, like the drama students downstairs, adopt a day-dreaming face and imagine giving a public reading on the little stage in the foyer. Nobody’s looking… what’s stopping me?

A young mother, trying to impress her son and reclaim her youth just fell off a scooter. She’s not hurt. She’s laughing. To be honest, she was doing quite well until she came off; scooting around whilst kicking a football. Multitasking.

I used to find London tiring; bustling, busy, impatient, heaving. And yes, it is all those things. But the fast pace just makes me appreciate the slow days all the more. Today I find it energising. There’s nothing nicer than just sitting, observing, writing, caffeinating and reflecting whilst the world rushes past. In just a few minutes, you can trip seamlessly from one world into another. Such beauty and diversity around every corner: representatives from every nation, each bringing a little thread of their own into the patchwork of our city: their foods, their art, their languages.

I wouldn’t swap it for the world. Why would I need to? The whole world is already here…

Riots, Looting and the Myth of Redemptive Violence

8 08 2011

London is in shreds. Rioting has begun to spread: First in Tottenham, then Enfield, and now many other places, including my neighbourhood, Brixton. It’s shocking and saddening when you hear the reports and see the footage of buildings you pass by every day, with bricks through windows and flames tearing their hearts out. Each shop represents a staff of dozens; people’s livelihoods. Each person injured is a son, or a daughter, or father or mother. Each person arrested is a needless waste of human liberty.

I’m not in London at the moment. I’m on holiday outside the city for a few days, and my news is coming from TV reports, online newspapers and twitter searches. It’s strange watching the whole raft of people commenting on the various riots; some in proud approval, some showing off their haul from various shops (a few seemingly oblivious to the inherent stupidity of posting a photograph of your own face next to a stolen plasma screen!), some in shock or fear. Every time I hit refresh there’s a new threat, a new rumour, a new precaution. People speculate about how it’s all been organised and where will be hit next. Who knows how far this will spread?

It’s hard to know if any of the protests were legitimately warranted, even in their nascent form. It’s not yet clear whether Mark Duggan’s death was due to police malpractice, or whether he shot first, and I dare not speculate.

But what is clear is this: responding with violence will achieve little. Violence has a nasty habit of escalating. We could cite hundreds of examples, but one leaps immediately to my mind.

In the Bible, the book of Judges chapter 15, Samson’s father-in-law gives Samson’s wife away to someone else; perhaps a legitimate reason for him to be somewhat irked! Samson responds aggressively, the Philistines up the ante, and the whole thing spirals out of control:

‘Samson said, “This time I have a right to get even with the Philistines; I will really harm them.” So he went out and caught three hundred foxes and tied them tail to tail in pairs. He then fastened a torch to every pair of tails, lit the torches and let the foxes loose in the standing grain of the Philistines. He burned up the shocks and standing grain, together with the vineyards and olive groves.

When the Philistines asked, “Who did this?” they were told, “Samson, the Timnite’s son-in-law, because his wife was given to his companion.”

So the Philistines went up and burned her and her father to death.  Samson said to them, “Since you’ve acted like this, I swear that I won’t stop until I get my revenge on you.” He attacked them viciously and slaughtered many of them. Then he went down and stayed in a cave in the rock of Etam.

The Philistines went up and camped in Judah, spreading out near Lehi. The people of Judah asked, “Why have you come to fight us?”

“We have come to take Samson prisoner,” they answered, “to do to him as he did to us.”

Then three thousand men from Judah went down to the cave in the rock of Etam and said to Samson, “Don’t you realize that the Philistines are rulers over us? What have you done to us?”

He answered, “I merely did to them what they did to me.”’
(Judges 15:3-11)

What is striking about this scenario is the futility of it all. Things so quickly leap from the actions of one person, to the burning of crops, to murder, to mass murder, until over 3,000 men are involved, and 1,000 Philistines get pummelled to death with a donkey’s jawbone!

How quickly too the threats, excuses and defences leap to the tongue:

“I have a right to get even” (v3)
“Since you’ve acted like this, I swear that I won’t stop until I get my revenge on you” (v7)
“We have come […] to do to him as he did to us” (v10)
“I merely did to them what they did to me” (v11)

Humans have an uncanny ability to legitimate their actions and defend the indefensible, at least in their own minds. Even if Duggan was the victim of police malpractice, a violent retort is hardly the answer. How does burning buildings to the ground establish justice? How does robbing a shop, or decimating a bus?

But let’s be clear: most of what has been done this weekend is in no way related to the Duggan incident. I don’t know what motivated the hundreds of youths to smash, maim, burn, destroy and steal, but I doubt that for many of them it was a passion for justice.

Just this week I’ve been thinking about a talk I’m due to give in a month or so. It’s on the latter chapters of the book of Esther, and at this point in the story, the Jewish people are facing extermination. The Persian King Xerxes permitted the Jews to defend themselves, to kill their attackers and ‘to plunder the property of their enemies’ (Esther 8:22) and yet three times we are told that ‘they did not lay their hands on the plunder’ (Esther 9:10, 15, 16). I don’t know why they refused to take the plunder, even when the King had permitted them to. I assume it was to show something of their character: they were not in this for selfish motives, to make money at others’ expense; rather they were trying to establish justice. So they protested strongly, they fought, but they refused to cross over into greed.

Looting would only have undermined their cause, but they demonstrated the purity of their motives by refusing to plunder their enemies.

Of course, at other points the people of God did take spoils from war, so I’m hardly holding them up as a shining example! But for all the questions this passage does raise about the legitimacy of war or self-defence, it tells us one thing: In standing up against injustice, you don’t have to go to extremes. You have a choice. You can draw a line; saying ‘this far and no further.’ You are able to go as far as is necessary to protect yourself, to prove a point, and yet still resist greed and selfish motives. You have a choice about how you conduct yourself.

There is nothing honourable about the way in which people have conducted themselves these last few days. This kind of mindless looting is immoral, and it undermines the original cause: the pursuit of truth and justice. The higher the injury toll goes, the harder it will be to gain sympathy for the cause, and the death of Mark Duggan, innocent or not, will very soon be irretrievably buried under hatred, pain, bitterness and cynicism.

I pray for peace on my home streets. I pray for the family of Mark Duggan. I pray that justice will be done for all involved. I pray for the police, that they may have wisdom to handle the riots with integrity. I pray for those arrested, that they would be truly repentant. I pray for those who are contemplating rioting tonight; that they would think before throwing away their lives. And I pray that Isaiah 2 will be fulfilled even quicker than expected:

‘God will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.’ (Isaiah 2:2-4)

1 year in London

14 07 2010

River Thames by will_hybrid

I can’t quite believe that a whole year has been and gone since we moved to London. On the one hand it feels like no time at all has passed since we moved, on the other, Canterbury feels a lifetime away!

It only seems appropriate to offer a few thoughts on how my life has changed this past year. Just the first five that come to mind, in no particular order.

Since living in London:

  • I’ve seen more theatre – I’ve felt more creative, as I’ve had a stream of incoming inspiration over the year. I’ve seen 16 shows since I’ve been here (taking full advantage of the £5 tickets for under 26 year olds… sadly no longer applicable!) from great classics, to new writing. Highlights include The Mysteries Yiimimangaliso, The Habit of Art and the McKellan/Rees production of Waiting for Godot. Lowlights include the thoroughly dull Power of Yes (how its author won a knighthood for anything other than sheer sympathy I have no idea!?!) and The Mousetrap which had the most tired, listless and lazy cast known to man. Additionally, we’ve been to see standup comedy, a classical concert and open air street theatre. As a result…
  • I’ve written far more – The benefit of seeing creative material is that it provokes you to be more creative yourself. I’ve seen things this year that have sparked new ideas. I’ve seen things that have honed my opinion of the kind of theatre I want to, and definitely don’t want to, be involved in. And if nothing else, I’ve now got a new goal and impetus to write – if Sir David Hare can get his thoroughly dull scriptwork onto the stage at the National Theatre unchallenged, there’s clearly something lacking in the drama world!
  • I’ve read far more – The tube journey has helped me to get through far more books than in previous years. I’ve learnt to be both more selective about  what I read, and also to read wider. I’ve learnt to read books differently – some slowly to take in every drop of nourishment they have to offer, and some lightly, sifting the wheat from the chaff and gleaning the little of use. I’ve got good at reading standing up, one arm clutched around a pole, trying to stay balanced. The notes in my books have become even less legible.
  • I’ve realised I have a higher work capacity than I knew – Simply having a faster pace of life, and a greater workload has made me realise how much latent potential I never tapped into. I’d always thought I was busy previously, and I was, but now a year on my productivity is far higher. It’s probably a combination of necessity (I have to go up a gear to get through the increased workload) and occasion (I have the opportunity to be stretched in new ways.) It’s also made me aware of my tendency toward workaholism, if not kept in line!!
  • My marriage has improved – You may want to ask my wife for her opinion! But I think being in London has helped my marriage in a number of ways. We no longer work in the same room, 2 feet from one another, which means we actually have something to talk about at the end of the day! Early on we had to get used to spending more time together – we didn’t have our natural friendship groups to fall back on. So we’ve learnt to really enjoy each others’ company again. We’ve been able to do new things together, and to pursue old hobbies to a new level (Helen had never been to a classical concert before, we now have access to new restaurants and exotic foods to cook etc). And it’s the first time we’ve been able to share an adventure together from scratch. Previously we had both lived in Canterbury, both developed friendship groups, ministry roles and habits which we brought together into marriage. Now in London we have started from a clean slate and learnt what suits us both. I think it’s helped immeasurably.

There are many things I could add to this (I haven’t mentioned my job or my church for example) but over-all my feeling toward this past year has been positive and thankful. Leaving Canterbury, my home of 7 years, wasn’t easy, but it was right. And though I miss both the place and the people, I’m glad to be in London… And looking forward to year two!