Category Archives: culture clash

Going Underground, Pt 1

As 2013 quickly approaches, I’ve decided to write this post in honour of the one day of the year when trains run 24 hours in order to help tired revellers return to their edge of the city. I’ve grown up with both a deep respect and fear of trains. My father was a train conductor and I have many half-remembered memories of gaily swinging around handrails in empty carriages and fearfully following my parents between cars in the New York subway.

There is something that I continue to find completely astounding about these behemoths, their quaintness and continuing technological advancement, the community and alienation that can easily be found in each carriage. It is completely true that Londoners expect a certain level of quiet on the train (though this can be adjusted for area, time of day and closeness to a holiday), and that any acts that stray too far from this generally accepted social contract will cause most in the vicinity to become aggrieved, furiously placing their noses closer to their newspaper of book, or turning their headphones up whilst pointedly looking off into the distance (of course, this changes depending on age or alcohol consumed). Despite this contract of solitude, there are still instances when friendships are forged and love is found. Its interiors act as an extension of the city, a social and historical map, forever being adjusted, improved, forgotten.

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Speaking In Tongues

I am incredibly excited for Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW. To celebrate, here is a link to her talk at the New York Public Library, reading one of my favourite  essays, ‘Speaking in Tongues’. I actually have this clip on my mobile, it is great to listen to while travelling on the train. This essay voices a lot of my thoughts about the creation of personal, social and national narratives, inhabiting and navigating through different worlds, whether it be the duality of the immigrant, or the unsure existence of the educated classes. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I do.

Speaking in Tongues: Zadie Smith.

A Right Royal Knees Up

I’m sure that you’re aware that last weekend was the Diamond Jubilee. Since I  am a staunch Republican (in the anti-monarchist sense, not the Conservative sense), I avoided most of the pomp and ceremony that engulfed the city and did my best to stay grumpy about all the transport delays. That aside, I took a few pictures to record the occasion in my local area . Despite the terrible weather, people did try their best to celebrate Liz, and I’m certain that there were  street parties like this all over the country. It’s quite fun to see street parties, they remind me of grander versions of the block parties I used to enjoy as a child in New York. It is also a rare occasion to see everyone in the local community in one place. It is a perfect example of the sheer variety of people that can be found in London, as well as a continuing and pervasive sense of traditional Britishness that remains whether you are 1st or 10th generation.

The invitation to the street party that arrived two months ago.

The queen taking in the view from a terrace, surrounded by omnipresent bunting.

In a storefront.

The street party stretched all the way down the road, the lane was packed with food, tables, Pimms and other drinks from the local pub. Despite the ominous clouds and rain, people seemed in high spirits.


Hanwell is very much a community that supports the creative endeavors of ‘the youth’. There’s always a band of 12 year old boys at these sort of events, yelping the lyrics of the Buzzcocks and the Ramones, slightly missing the joyfully ramshackle air of both groups with voices that are a bit too proper and a bit too practised.

Now, all I have to dread is the Olympics.

Love in Notting Hill’s Sliding Doors, Actually

(Note: I have been writing this for months!)

England, and London in particular, inspire a certain type of American Anglophile (and I include myself in this) who have learned about the UK through films and old tv shows shown on PBS and BBC America. Whilst I think that things are improving, I have come across many a person- student and non-student- who are horrified that life across the pond does not resemble Downton Abbey, Notting Hill or some other schmaltzy Richard Curtis feature. This then creates issues when they have to live in an area that is completely different economically, culturally and geographically from their home area, which due to misrepresentation through film, exacerbates impending culture shock. I also think it prevents some from actually exploring their neighbourhoods/cities and interacting with locals in a way that will make them feel more engaged with the spaces that they are temporarily inhabiting. Providing a large range of images of the UK goes a long way in helping people find the familiar in other cultures, or at the very least, prevents them from over-romanticising/stereotyping by showing the complex histories that make up British society.

This doesn’t mean indulging only in serious fare, I think comedies and sci-fi do a fantastic job in helping cultural understanding (as evidenced by Doctor Who and others).  So here is a small selection of modern films and shows that show a truer variety of Britishness:

1. Attack the Block– a sci-fi comedy about youths on a council estate that team up with other estate residents to fight marauding aliens. It has a strong cast, with lovely performances by established actors and newcomers alike. Alongside the main plot of protecting their ‘block’, is a realistic portrayal of the class and racial tensions that occur in marginalised areas, as well as the roles and identities that inner-city youth perform in the absence of supportive infrastructures and programmes.

2. Peep Show– Like the other hit show of the early 21st century, The Office, Peep Show unfolds in a spectacularly awkward fashion. Peep Show follows the lives of flatmates Mark and Jez, two late 20-something misfits in Croydon. The characters’ thoughts guide us through their lives, and the point-of-view camera work allows an extra level of realistic embarrassment that allows you to empathise with the two leads,  even as you’re laughing at their pettiness and misfortunes. A masterclass in the awkwardness and general weirdness that can be found in English humour.

3. Phoneshop– a sitcom about the misadventures of phone shop workers on a busy London high street. Phoneshop is not only exceptionally funny, it portrays a range of multicultural, urban voices that normally only feature in youth-based dramas, if at all. It is a surprisingly authentic (for a sitcom), matter of fact and sometimes poetic snapshot of modern London life that isn’t shown nearly as much as it should be.

4. This is England/ A Room for Romeo Brass– Shane Meadows is a master of constructing sympathetic, affecting and sometimes brutal portraits of male coming-of-age stories that allows the audience to witness the geographical and class-based constructions of working class English masculinities. With his use of unknown actors and the constant backdrop of the Midlands, which offers a bleak beauty that grounds all of his films, he has created worlds that offer an anthropological insight into the troubled lives of isolated young men in post-industrial communities.

5. The Inbetweeners– said to be an uncomfortably true and hilarious view of male teenage life by most of the twenty-something men I know. A sitcom of four boys as they progress throughout a suburban high school, it is the complete opposite of similarly themed American and English programming that tend to pop up every year. These boys are awkward, average-looking, tend not to get the girl and end up in situations that manage to be both vile and cackle-inducing in equal measure. This show makes it obvious how hilarious teenage life in a boring town actually is.

Unity in Diversity

There have been a slew of programmes on lately about racial and religious tensions in places like Luton and Bradford fuelled by extremist groups like the English Defence League. So I thought a video by Reza Aslan, an Islamic scholar and one of my favourite public intellectuals, would be appropriate right now.

The Queen’s English

A moment with David Mitchell, one of my favourite comedians:

Of Debates and Diametric Opposition

The hazard of living in a fast-paced urban environment is that sometimes you become a casualty of your surroundings. In this case, I was struck down with gastroenteritis for most of the week. Amidst my fevered napping on the couch, I was able to watch the first televised party leaders’ debates. It’s strange to witness all the conversations, reports and articles that have appeared in its wake only because presidential debates have always existed in my lifetime. I couldn’t imagine the McCain-Obama debate being the first of its kind. It was also interesting (along with humorous and aggravating) to witness three parties instead of two, being represented, especially knowing that there are three or four other known parties lurking in the fringes. Watching the moderator constantly cut off candidates in mid-sentence with a thunderous ”Gordon Brown!”, or a ”Nick Clegg! David Cameron!” made me feel as though I was watching strange version of University Challenge where all the candidates were trying to squeeze in as many answers as they could to show the audience that they were best.

I was in London for the 2005 elections, but it didn’t take centre-stage back then, not like now. You can feel the frustration and anger at the choices that people are left with, another Brown-led government with the disastrous policies and views leftover from the Blair years, or Cameron, who could bring in a reign of Thatcher-lite. Then there is Clegg, he of the perpetually ignored LibDems (the house favourite). During the debates, the party leaders were all as relaxed as could be expected; the PMQs have long since taken away any camera shyness that might have existed. With shades of the Kennedy-Nixon debate (which has been showing constantly in a documentary on the BBC), it has been agreed upon that Clegg won the visual aspect of the debate, while those that heard it thought that Brown or Cameron won. I’ve had a fondness for the LibDems since seeing the confusingly named Sir Menzies (that’s Mingus to you) Campbell on the PMQs, so it was good to see Clegg bring up or refute issues that the other candidates ignored/repeated in order to toe the party line, such as the horrible ID Cards, Trident, immigration policies, or the atrocious new Digital Economy Act. It’s also been good watching all the subsequent news reports and person on the street interviews because they give me a much better understanding of how people think about the election. Note: In case you didn’t know, the British don’t care about personal stories that illustrate broader points. That’s an American thing.

The actual electoral process is nothing short of insane to me. National politics are made small through the election. Citizens vote for Prime Minister by voting for their party locally instead of the individual, so instead of voting for Brown specifically, they vote for the Labour MP. It would be like me voting for Obama by choosing my Senator. It’s a huge disconnect for me because my national votes are usually miles away from my local votes when possible. But it’s also kind of logical in a way because it forces the voter and the parties to consolidate their views in a way. So much to process! The problems (and privileges) that come with being an international citizen!