This weekend was a great London weekend – and I’d been longing for one for a while. Few things beat this town’s diversity. It’s international and yet so British. It’s full of unexpected encounters. I’ll share three of them. They made me think.
On Friday night I was walking home. It was just after eleven. People who live here know that this is a dangerous time to walk about. It’s the time pubs close – or rather the time they used to have to close, and most still do. After closing time it’s common to see guys too drunk to stand on their feet, and girls unable to manoeuvre their platform shoes.
From afar I could hear the noise of the karaoke bar around the corner of my flat. It was the sound of breaking glass accompanied by the screams of teenage girls. When I came closer, the fight erupted in full. About ten teenage boys were taking turns to smash up one guy, until he managed to escape. He ran straight onto the high street where he was nearly run over by a car. Dazed and blinded, he staggered back into the arms of his attackers. The whole bar had gathered outside to watch the fight. No one intervened.
So I rang 999 for the first time in my life. My stomach was weak and my voice trembled as I saw one of the gang kick in the head of the boy. These kids seemed to operate in some sort of lawless video game. A police officer at the station told me the next day that the usual thing happened when they arrived at the bar. No one had seen anything. ‘It’s a gang fight, that’s what happens,’ the officer said. ‘We’re powerless.’
So I cycled on to Chelsea for a pedicure. The beautician turned out to be a lovely young woman from Sri Lanka. When she came to London about ten years ago, her Sinhalese boss was not intending to pay her any wages. She and some of her colleagues successfully sued him. She now works full time to support her one-year-old baby girl and stay at-home-husband, and is all smiles and sweetness.
The girl was a perfect nightmare during the first three months. She tried to force her into a rhythm and all the girl did was cry. After reading a child psychology book, she made the girl trust she was in a safe environment where food and sleep were guaranteed. It’s been perfect harmony ever since with everything happening at regular intervals.
She also shared her thoughts on the situation in Sri Lanka and how the Sinhalese people have taken preconception seriously. ‘Yet,’ she said, ‘I don’t know whether this is for the best because it means that we don’t grow as fast as India. We don’t have the population size and it’s the Tamils on the island who still have large families.’ I said, ‘Yes, you can see the same thing in many countries, such as Israel, Turkey and also in Western Europe.’ The question is whether moderate modernity catches up with the new generations in time.
On Sunday, I met an elderly English lady at church. She had a Lady Thatcher hairdo and said she wouldn’t attend the feminist reading group because she doesn’t consider herself a feminist. I said, ‘I wouldn’t either, but I’m sometimes shocked at the lack of progress made in breaking the glass ceiling. So very few women make it to the top in firms like mine and there are hardly any role models. It seems very difficult to combine a career with being a mother.’
She responded, ‘Yes, that’s true, it’s very hard. That’s why I decided not to have children. I wanted to be the best school headmistress I could be.’ I don’t think she realised how exceptional it is to hear her say that and how few people in my generation accept that as a legitimate choice.