Just Above Sunset
October 30, 2005 - On Mob Rule, Smoking, and George Galloway M.P.

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Our Man in London is Mike McCahill. Note: Mike McCahill was born in Warwickshire, England in 1978. He currently works as a film critic for The Scotsman, The Sunday Telegraph and the BBC, while trying to string together novels, screenplays and travel guides for places he's never actually been to. Mike divides his time between the Midlands and London, where professional duty requires he spend at least the first part of every week sitting in small dark rooms. With a couple of exceptions, he is open to offers.

Allow me, if you will, to quote my own column from two weeks ago. In the middle of our conversation about the state of America, Mark Avery spoke the following words:


Every city I've been to in the US is divided - almost along Apartheid lines.  The racial divide is all-pervasive. In the universities, the black students sit in one corner of the dinner hall, the Hispanics in another, the Asians in another etc, etc. Everyone talks about the melting pot idea as a positive thing, and it is to a certain degree, but you still can't just bracket people from different cultures together and automatically expect everything to be hunky dory.


It seems this sentiment can be applied just as easily to the UK as it does to the US. Last weekend, there were riots in the Lozells area of Birmingham, the UK's second city. Civic unrest in areas of social deprivation is by no means a new development in this country: Lozells sits adjacent to Handsworth, a neighbourhood ripped apart by similar tensions in the mid-1980s. (If you can track down a copy, John Akomfrah's 1986 documentary Handsworth Songs is a remarkable study of the grim paranoia that so gripped Margaret Thatcher's Britain.)


What was new about this riot was the manner in which it all began. Violence apparently broke out at a community meeting held to discuss a troubling rumour which had been circulating in the area. The rumour - as yet unsubstantiated - goes that a young Afro-Caribbean girl had been caught shoplifting in a local newsagent's. The Pakistani owner of the newsagent's, rather than calling the police, had - the rumour alleged - taken the girl into a back room, where she was gang-raped by several Asian men.


Tensions between the area's Afro-Caribbean and Pakistani residents had been steadily mounting for months, over which of these groups controlled local cosmetic and clothing outlets. And there's a further wrinkle in the detail of this story: the girl in the rumour was said to be an illegal immigrant, which would, in theory, explain why the crime wouldn't have been reported to authorities by the victim or her relatives. (The investigation is ongoing, but the police have admitted they have nothing much more to go on.)


Yet the actual outbreak of full-scale, murderous violence over such a rumour - however hideous the allegations may have been - struck me as reflecting a kind of uninformed (or misinformed) mass hysteria that has seized the UK over the last few weeks. Clearly, emotions have been running high amongst the residents of Lozells. But there's a similar tone to tabloid news reporting of the avian flu outbreak, which finally reached this country last weekend in the form of an imported dead parrot. (Yes, I know: it sounds like the beginnings of a Monty Python sketch.)


Rather than focus on what might potentially happen in the event that the avian flu virus mutates into something that could pass from human to human, the headlines have read like something out of the Doomsday Book: "BIRD FLU: 50,000 WILL DIE". No ifs and buts there, just that definite "will".  Actually, if one reads their words outside the context of a tabloid newspaper, the medical experts are being rather more guarded about what might come to take place should human-to-human transmission come about. Flu vaccines have been stockpiled, and precautionary measures set in place.


The other vital statistic, mostly missing from tabloid reports on the subject, is that - of all the billions of people in Asia, only 60 actually died from avian flu. And they, as far as we can gather, were working in the poultry industry. Yet this still didn't stop certain individuals offering flu vaccines for private bidders on eBay. (The workings of the modern economy are such that bird flu evidently poses little threat for those with enough money.)


The problem with this kind of mass hysteria is that people tend to get badly hurt in the rush to judgment - and that it's almost always the wrong people. A trainee analyst, Isaiah Young-Sam, aged 23, was killed in the Lozells riots. On the afternoon of the stormy community meeting, and the subsequent early evening of violence, Young-Sam had instead gone to the cinema with friends, only to be set upon by a gang while making his way back home. His only crime was, presumably, to be in possession of the wrong skin at the wrong time in the wrong place.




In other UK news this week, the Government finally pushed through something vaguely resembling a total ban on smoking in public places. Kind of. Almost.  (See here for more.)


What has been passed will serve very well as an example of compromised legislation: a definitive ruling that, along its passage from the House of Commons through the House of Lords into the law books, was so frequently edited, reworded and generally pared back - no doubt under the influence of those helpful tobacco barons - that we've basically ended up with just about the most emasculated ban possible.


The legislation, such as it is, is couched in such terminology as "exclusion zones" in pubs and restaurants, to be patrolled by "control officers", the tobacco equivalent of traffic wardens, there to issue on-the-spot fines to any offenders. Smoking is banned in places that serve food, except that crisps and peanuts don't count as food, apparently, so it may still be legal in certain pubs. And pre-packaged sandwiches might also not count as food - the powers-that-be are still making their decision on that - so one might, still, be able to smoke in places selling those particular delicacies. It's enough to make you consider taking up smoking…


Finally, just a word to those American senators who hoped, this week, to leave George Galloway on the back foot by bringing up more alleged links between the MP and Saddam Hussein's oil supplies. Erm, guys: It doesn't seem to be working. No sooner had the Senate made its report on Wednesday, Galloway appeared put in a typically combative display on the UK's Channel 4 News to deny all allegations, followed on Thursday night when the punchy Glaswegian turned up - somewhat unexpectedly - as a celebrity guest on The Frank Skinner Show.


I write "unexpectedly", as the Skinner show is not generally known as a high-level forum for political debate - it's rather more of a vehicle for its stand-up comic host, a purveyor of laddish badinage comparable, I suppose, to your Jimmy Kimmel. Swiftly adapting to this testosterone-heavy environment, Galloway proceeded to speak of his Senate appearance in terms of a boxing contest. Before his testimony back in May, the MP revealed, he told himself "not to be like Tyson, and go out being rude and aggressive right from the start". Instead, he vowed to be more like Rocky Marciano, absorbing any early blows before landing a few punches of his own. With Galloway currently preparing to fly back out to the States to address these latest allegations, shall we now say: seconds out for round two?


Mike McCahill

October 29, 2005.




Copyright 2005 – Mike McCahill

Email the author at mikemccahill@fastmail.fm






Editor's Note: British spelling and punctuation retained here.


Also see this in the US media:


Calling Galloway's Bluff
The Senate uncovers a smoking gun.
Christopher Hitchens
Posted Tuesday, October 25, 2005, at 12:59 PM PT - SLATE.COM


British MP Galloway Faces More Charges in Oil-for-Food Scandal American Daily, OH - Saturday, October 29, 2005


Aziz denies naming British MP in UN oil probe-lawyer ABC News - Reuters) - Saturday, October 29, 2005







Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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