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Little boys’ love of war, The FT Weekend

Posted on February 11, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘Having a real war going on now, with British soldiers, is a treat.’

“It was good about that bomb in Iraq, wasn’t it Daddy?” said my five-year-old son Benedict brightly. Once again, I explained to him that war was very sad. Once again, he wandered off, disappointed. Puzzled too. He knows his grandpa fought in North Africa and Italy in the Second World War and he knows that this was admirable and brave.

Benedict is an affectionate, thoughtful boy but to him all war is good: Vikings against knights (his little Playmobil figures wielding lances with disconcerting smiles); cowboys against Indians; British against Germans. Having a real war going on now, with British soldiers, is a treat. He studies pictures of soldiers in newspapers and soaks in Iraq news from the radio, relaying it conversationally: “The Queen’s prince joined the army today. He might have to go and fight in Iraq.”

Why do boys like war? And should it be a worry? I ask one of Benedict’s teachers, Lee Murphy, a 16-year primary school veteran. He tells me that the Second World War is taught to Year 6 children (10-11 year olds) but from the perspective of its impact on everyday life, not the battles. Nevertheless, boys’ fascination with fighting finds an outlet. “Say they’ve got a history book and they’re allowed to design the front cover. Then you will find the Messerschmitt there, a tank here and there, a couple of Hitlers and a Churchill. It’s difficult at a school like this, a Catholic school, because our whole emphasis is on peace.”

Younger, Reception Class boys like Benedict are no different. When they play with Lego, says Murphy, “they will make little models, ‘This is my gun!’ So they can go ‘Pkew! Pkew!’ with their friends. Even a piece of paper, if it is long enough, they will pretend is a sword.” Murphy doesn’t think boys are more aggressive than girls, they just express it differently – girls through whispers, boys through wrestling.

Harry Pearson’s entertaining new memoir, Achtung Schweinehund! A Boy’s Own Story of Imaginary Combat, describes his own boyhood war mania. He hung on radio news then, just like Benedict today. “I remember during the Arab-Israeli War in ’67 being disappointed Britain wasn’t involved. I was hugely let down. And the fact that we weren’t in Vietnam either,” he says.

Pearson sees boys’ love of war partly as a love of destruction and he cites the study of boys’ behaviour by Erik Erikson, the eminent Danish psychologist. “He noticed they built piles of bricks and then they knocked them over. And watching them fall, there was this great glee in their eyes. Erikson said, ‘the contemplation of ruins is a masculine speciality.’ War seems to offer that destruction on a grand scale.”

Pearson thinks loving war could be an expression of little boys wanting to be great big boys. Growing up in the 1960s, “the Second World War was something that adults talked about all the time. I thought that unless you could get involved in war somehow, you couldn’t really be grown up.”

Then there is the mechanical paraphernalia of war. “Even if they [boys] are not interested in war, they are interested in tractors and diggers. And tanks are a similar thing on a grand scale. Tanks look like the sort of thing a small boy would invent, like a Tonka Toy, cumbersome, with caterpillar tracks. And nothing can get in. No matter how hard your mum bangs on the roof, you don’t have to open up.”

The BBC’s daily news programme for children, Newsround, has the sensitive job of telling them about Iraq. The programme is cautious with the images shown, says Newsround’s editor Tim Levell, but gives a proper account, bombs and all. Their audience research has produced splendidly archetypal results. “Girls want insight into people and relationships. Boys want anarchic and bizarre stuff they can brag about.”

It’s not that boys are pitiless but Newsround has learnt the need to report Iraq in a way that engages them. “They see the excitement of night vision footage and tanks driving and explosions happening. And then they separately see children who are made to suffer by war. They are outraged by the latter and slightly glued by the former.”

This is certainly true of Benedict. However, something Lee Murphy said made me realise doting parents can overestimate how much five-year-olds really understand. I’d asked Murphy if primary school children comprehend the suffering in war.

“By the top end they do. Lower down I wouldn’t expect them to, because it’s quite sophisticated thinking. If you are watching the television, loads of it is just fantasy. So where do you draw the line between Dr Who and a bomb going off in Iraq? Children below a certain age do not realise what is news and what is not. They are still in the stage where everything is based around fun, play and excitement.”

Hearing my son chatter cheerily about bombs in Iraq disturbs me because I have some idea of the reality. He on the other hand is not yet sure what reality is. When Benedict hears about Prince Harry going to Iraq, he is thinking of a prince as in fairy tales, heading off with a lance and charger like a smiling Playmobil knight.

11 May 2007

Earl’s Court life, The Independent On Sunday

Posted on February 11, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

Like the man who walked into St. Jude’s Church while I was voting, looked at the booths and tellers and asked, “Isn’t this Alcoholics Anonymous?”‘

‘To Let Flat, Furnis Room Kichen Bahroom’. ‘Artist urgently requires assistant’. ‘Escort work Foreign Ladies Call James at Bayswater Escorts’. ‘The Most Famous Ad Site In The World’ hangs by a newsagent’s doorway on the Earl’s Court Road. The small-ads pinned to its green baize rub closely together. The small crowd studying them is more withdrawn, avoiding contact. A young Russian woman makes a call from her mobile about a flat, her plump, goateed boyfriend watching intently. A Hispanic man silently edges along the site, scanning the Spanish, English and Polish ads for cleaners, labourers and receptionists.

There’s money in so many foreigners. Opposite the Tube station and up steep stairs (notice: ‘Spitting is Illegal’) Joe The Barber does good business in Sim cards. One wall holds Arsenal posters and a cartoon of a wild, can-wielding man captioned: ‘No drunks – that includes about 50% of Earl’s Court.’ The other wall carries old Mercury signs. Joe says, “People come to Earl’s Court from all over – Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, China. Their mobiles don’t work because of the system. I fit a new card for 25 quid.”

Migrants, backpackers and exiles pour into Earl’s Court and their words stream out. The side roads choke with ramshackle ‘Call Centres’ – ‘Italy 14p’, ‘South Africa 26p’ – and cyber shops, ‘Internet Access 50p’. These dusty-windowed places with their homemade signs carry the melancholy of separation. Like Earl’s Court’s bright battalions of fast-food restaurants, that will feed you from Full English Breakfast to small-hours kebab, they serve people away from their real homes. So do the nylon-curtained bedsits and low star hotels, temporary refuge for asylum seekers: 92 languages are spoken by the pupils of Earl’s Court’s primary schools.

There is another side to this. All summer, jolly Antipodean flags compete on chipped stucco balconies and in the cool dark windows above shops. Groups of Arab men debate on street corners. Cheery armies of day-trippers and sales reps roll out of the huge Exhibition Centre laden with shiny brochures and giveaways.

And the drifting live alongside the settled. The public face of Gay Earl’s Court may be Clone Zone and the darkened windows of the Colherne pub on the Old Brompton Road, but the private one is professional men serving on residents’ committees and making the daily Tube commute. On Penywern Road, off the torrent of Warwick Road and its monoxide-dusted mansion blocks, bedsit hostels sit next to whole, immaculate stucco houses. Around Child’s Place is ‘Kenway Village’ (you know estate agents) whose powder-paint cottages are Chelsea-pretty. It was here a friend found a drunk across the back seat of her car one morning. He’d used it as his bedroom and toilet. (Although against a mother with children to get to school before the bell, he stood little chance.)

The addicted, uprooted and left behind are not entirely alone. Past the ever youthful, beatniky Troubadour restaurant on the Old Brompton Road and across from Brompton Cemetery’s Gothic acres, is the Response Community Centre. Here the thoughtful, wiry-bearded Roy Hiscock organises free computer classes, internet access and homework clubs. Narcotics Anonymous meet in the back room, the computers prudently locked away.

On the street the addicts often appear as much bemused as threatening. Like the man who wandered into St Jude’s Church while I was voting, looked at the booths and tellers and asked, “Isn’t this Alcoholics Anonymous?” Or the woman who swayed up with a can and a clutch of pennies as I was collecting for Marie Curie Cancer Care outside the Tube. She aimed for the collecting tin saying, “Is for the lil’ chilren.” Priggishly I started explaining that actually it was for… “Is for the lil’ chilren” she insisted, giving her money, then weaving slowly away.

2 November 2003

Hidden Dubai, The Independent On Sunday

Posted on February 11, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

Worshipers bring bottles of Jeema and Masafi to have the mineral water sanctified by blessing. The bottles stand on the altar like a tiny congregation.’

The blue-suited Indian stood on the prow of the raised pavement, hair swept back. He seemed aloof from the queue, his Merrill Lynch diary suggesting he wasn’t of the bus-taking classes. Al Ghabiba Station roared around him: buses for the alleys of Al Ras and the warehouses of Al Quoz; seven-seater, shared taxis to Karama’s shops and Rashidiya’s flats; long distance minibuses for Kuwait, Muscat and Doha.

The red and white Number 8 arrived. A bearded young man with the tucked up head-dress and belted dish dash of a desert Arab stood back to let my two small daughters clamber aboard before him. They sat unnecessarily, but excitedly, in the seats ‘Reserved for Ladies’ at the front with Filipino girls, a saried Indian, an Arab woman in a black abaya. Most of the male passengers were ‘bachelors’ from the Indian Subcontinent: dozing labourers, crisp-shirted office workers, salwar kameez-wearing men with hennaed hair.

Bachelors come here, often living in sub-let rooms, because they can earn more than at home. Money is sent back to their families; family letters reach them via a Players Gold Leaf PO Box. Dubai’s growth, from 50,000 people to one million in 50 years, has outstripped home postal deliveries or even a recognized address system. (Flats in The Gulf News classifieds are described as ‘Karama, behind Lulu supermarket’, ‘Al Riqqa, Automatic Cafeteria building’.) The PO Boxes appear in shops, barbers or even fixed to alley walls, the hollow, Players Gold Leaf roundel with its bearded Jack Tar, stuffed with letters for sifting by hopeful bachelors.

If it’s a lonely life at least the food is good, and cheap. The Vandana Restaurant sits on the thronging, neoned main square of Satwa, Dubai’s unofficial hub for Subcontinentals. Past Bride of Nomadism Furniture and opposite the dainty, turquoise-tipped minarets of Satwa’s main mosque, the restaurant is a narrow, modest place. Food arrives at the formica tables on stainless steel plates: long rice pancakes around tasty chopped vegetables; tissue-fine chapattis; delicate curries served in five small dishes topped up as soon as you empty them. Bachelors buy a month of meals in advance. The price? 70p per meal.

There is more to Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi life than bachelors. Indian merchant families have lived here, in what was called Trucial Oman, for over 100 years. In fact only about a quarter of Dubai’s population are local Arabs. They live in districts like the boulevarded Hamriya, on the northern side of the creek that curves like a calligraphic flourish through Dubai. And along the Beach Road Arab villages interrupt the Western expatriate homes of Jumeira and Um Suqaim. The villagers often own bachelor-crewed fishing boats. In the harbours, hefty wooden fishing dhows sit beside pointy fibreglass launches that zip along the shore, a man standing unruffled on the tip looking for net markers.

Walk through the village lanes of modern compound houses at dawn and the air is sweet with the smell of fresh pastries delivered by the beeping vans of the Modern Bakery. At night, men chat on scruffy sofas outside tiny, strip-lit tailors’ shops, breaking off to return your passing “As-salamu aleikum” with “Wa aleikum as-salam” (“Peace be upon you”, “On you be peace”). The Arab lads in the sandy playgrounds may play football in AC Milan and Real Madrid shirts or tear around on quad bikes, but the villages are traditional places.

Grocery shops sell the small-bowled local pipes alongside Marlboro and 555. In Ramadan, tents appear on empty lots, an electric cable snaking out. Rugs or plastic matting cover the floor, cushions lean against the walls under bare bulbs. After sunset friends visit to break the day-long fast while lads let off fireworks as cautiously as they ride quad bikes.

Every 200 yards or so, the minarets of neighbourhood mosques act like axles for days that revolve around the five Calls to Prayer: Fajr, Dhuhur, Asr, Maghrib and Isha. The muezzins never start together and as you walk, different voices singing different phrases from different minarets float superbly about you.

But Arab and Muslim are not synonymous. In a side chapel of St Mary’s Catholic Church, Lebanese and Syrians, Egyptians and Jordanians, Palestinians and Iraqis celebrate three Arabic masses a week. Glamorous young couples kneel next to skirt suited matriarchs. A few bachelors and Filipino maids stand apart, silently following the international rhythms of mass.

The service is Catholic but includes Maronite, Byzantine and Syrian songs from the mezze of Arab Christian liturgies. There are surprises. Glazed buns are handed out at a memorial service to help those who eat them remember the deceased in their prayers. Worshipers bring bottles of Jeema and Masafi mineral water to have the water sanctified by blessing. The bottles stand on the altar like a tiny congregation.

After mass a young Lebanese woman in a chic cardigan walks to the front and stands by the electric organ. She begins to sing  Ya Ouma Allah (O Mother of God). It is breathtaking. Her beseeching, almost unearthly voice lifts and falls, straight from the soul, echoing the music of Jewish cantors and the Call to Prayer.

1 Feb 2004

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