The first time I visited London, in 1965, I was wildly excited. As the plane followed the Thames River on its approach to Heathrow Airport, the Houses of Parliament rose up like giant sand sculptures in the pink light of early morning. Nearing the runway, I glanced Windsor Castle from my window. Breathless with anticipation, I grinned my way through customs, found my Bayswater Bed'n'Breakfast, and plotted how I would spend the next five days of my first European tour.
I still remember the thrill of seeing the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, hearing Big Ben's booming chime, strolling along Oxford Street, shopping at the China Reject Shoppe, and the awe I felt at the National Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Covent Garden was a market where Eliza Doolittle might be selling roses, pubs -- despite having rooms prohibiting women -- were friendly places, and taking the underground home from a West End theatre at night posed no threat.
But what I remember most about London is the people: the elderly gentleman selling china at Selfridge's, the museum guard who helped me find a particular painting, the women who chatted me up in the tube and the folks who gave a solitary American young woman cheery directions and considered advice.
I've been returning to London, and England, regularly since that first sojourn. Over the years I've seen first-hand how it's changed. It's become dirtier, more crowded, harder to navigate, and certainly more diverse. On Oxford Street now English schoolgirls in straw hats and neckties seem an anomaly in a sea of chador-covered Muslim women. More likely than not, the Heathrow customs official will be a Sikh from India or a West Indian. The women cleaning the looes will probably be wearing kalwar shameez and those serving in shops and restaurants will as likely be from Africa as from Aberdeen. This is not a bad thing; it simply points to the changed nature of a country in a time of global mobility and migration.
But change can bring problems wrought from difference, from crowding a small country with people of vastly different cultures, from ghettoized marginalization, from thwarted dreams. It should not be altogether surprising that in a world where immigrants are often seen as the enemy and where the chasm between rich and poor grows ever wider roses are replaced with riots.
Nonetheless, it's hard for me to imagine the chaotic violence that has gripped English cities recently. I can't wrap my brain around London burning or children destroying property and attacking police or young people who were students and social workers one day being looters the next. Such behavior smacks of troubling times for all of us as large numbers of people face uncertain, seemingly hopeless, frightening futures, economically and socially. What happened in London is not likely to stay in London; it is quite likely to spread to Larchmont and Ludlow as jobs are lost and social programs cut.
There is, of course, no condoning the actions of unruly, dangerous, destructive mobs in any context. But I have to wonder what Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron was thinking when he uttered his Thatcher-like condemnations without even a nod to proposed massive cuts to social programs. Why was he shocked at the subsequent poverty-related actions of a melting pot on the brink of boiling over? How could he possibly threaten to shut down certain social media, especially after what we've been witnessing in repressive regimes during the so-called Arab Spring? And coming from England of all places, so often touted as the birthplace of democracy!
Mr. Cameron apparently returned from vacationing at a Tuscan villa to deliver his message to "hooligans" who were responsible for the havoc wreaked. He might have remembered that these hooligans are people for whom a villa is nothing short of Cinderella's castle and Tuscany might as well be on the moon for them. His rhetoric showed a complete lack of grasp of the reality that caused this kind of behavior among frustrated, impulsive youth who see the rich getting richer while they can't find enough work to buy fish "n' chips. Surely to deal effectively with social unrest governments must understand underlying causes and address them in a way that doesn't further fuel animosity. Such strategies, I suggest, do not include water cannons and rubber bullets.