South London, Woolwich and the Problem with Joe

When I switch on the news in our B&B in Dublin, we are packing our bags. Dominating the left hand side of the screen is a tall black man in a black coat, and I’m trying to figure out whether his hands are covered with blood, or it’s just a bad iPhone image.

The scene is confusing. The man’s speech – the fact that he is speaking to a camera at all – and his tone and accent, don’t fit… Crime. It’s a London accent, and he’s standing in what is clearly a London street – dark brick stained with rain, green grass soaked with it – and though I’m sure there are, often enough, hands are covered with blood in London – in the middle of the daytime, and on prime time television? He’s smiling, and talking to the camera easily – not even with the fervor that would seem to fit it being blood, there, like a second skin, on his palms. Then I see that there is something in his hand. It sits there, and its shape, the black point, tells me it’s a knife. That means it’s probably blood – but it’s still unbelievable, and incongruous with the scene. He’s still smiling. And not just smiling – he has the body language and the facial expression of a guy in a shop telling you to ‘be easy, chill out, man,’ when he sees that you’re a nervous person by nature. He looks like he’s putting you at ease.

However at ease he is, they both are, I realise later, when I know what’s happened, he is still holding his knife down, in a position that doesn’t make it obvious that he has it. He seems, at that moment, to be downplaying his act, hiding the knife. It seems to be the unintentionally apologetic body language of a man who thinks he’s in control, but still understands that what he’s done, shouldn’t have been done. He’s hiding it.

Then I see the long, black figure, the legs of a man, unmoving on the bitumen, in the street. It’s real.

Then a woman in a light blue parka, with a shopping trolley, walks past the film within a meter of the man, without any concern whatsoever. So I’m back to thinking that this is all a mock up, if a weird one, and that nothing has happened.

After the first few seconds, I look back at the body, and read the ticker and the bottom of the screen, and everything becomes more clear – but still sickly unbelievable.

When I turn on the TV, we are packing up our things and are heading to London. To south London – south east, rather than south west. The London borough of Southwark, in which we are staying, in Camberwell, is I think the next one over from Woolwich, and in London terms not really close. But in real terms, it is close. Camberwell is, as Woolwich was described in the Guardian yesterday, a medley of races and cultures. Julia, whose house we are staying at, says that here it’s mostly African – she didn’t say which countries in particular. From what I see, it’s a lot of Nigerian and some Carribean. Nigerian kids kick a football in the street and grin at us. Turn a corner, and everyone’s white.

The man with the blood on his hands, Michael Adebolajo, was described as a Londoner from Woolwich, raised by a Christian family of Nigerian descent, whose parents moved him out of Woolwich when it became clear that he had joined a gang and was roaming the streets with twenty other young men, stealing phones. It was when he came back to London for university that he converted to Islam – the papers say that he was taught by Omar Bakri Mohammud, who was banned from the UK because of his links with al-Qa’ida. Mohammed claimed to have converted Adebolajo, they say. Instead of taking the name Muhammad, Adebolajo responded to the name Mujahid, or ‘fighter for Islam.’ Islamic groups, along with British groups, have denounced the men’s actions as unacceptable terrorist acts. British groups against Islam have thrown rocks into Islamic buildings and protest on the streets. I think, these acts are the acts of a murderer – whatever his religion.

As we walk the last leg of our trip from Dublin to London, from the overground train station at Peckham Rye to our house, we pass an Islamic mosque. On the ferry to London I’ve read about the murderers, and what they did to the Drummer Lee Rigby, and how the people in the street reacted. The latter seemed to be as confused as I was. Women gently confronted the men as the attack happened, not really knowing what was going on. In the 20 or so minutes before the police came and shot the attackers – who are both still alive and in separate hospitals, so it seems – people were confused, and milling. Women with prams stopped to see what was happening. One woman thought it best that she was in the line of fire (they brandished guns, as well as knives) instead of the children, and spoke with one of them, tried CPR on the mangled body. No one seems to have been running, and the killers weren’t shooting anybody, but asking to be filmed. They seemed to be being polite to everybody in the street – apart from the one person they ran over, then hacked to death, trying to take his head off with an axe, and, according to witnesses, acting as if they were trying to take out his organs.

The most unsettling thing is the normalcy of it all – not the normalcy of the act, but the way in which it was acted out. It makes walking the street seem like a thing of danger, and yet I don’t feel in danger. I feel out of place, and a little uncomfortable, a little unreal.

As we walked away from our house, on the way to the Women’s Champions’ League Final, we passed the mosque again.

‘It feels wrong,’ I say to Andrew, ‘that groups of people, who think a certain way and want to kill people, are…’ I don’t know what to say, but I want to say, that the groups of people, this time claiming to be Islamists, and that want to hurt people, are allowed to exist, or something like that. I know that he won’t think I mean Muslims in general, and I don’t. Andrew has his hands in his pockets. ‘It feels… odd’ I say, trying to figure out what I mean. ‘There are thousands of horrible people who murder people on their own.’ I refer to the three separate reports I’ve read out to him of white, British men who have killed their own children, one of them slitting the throats of his own son and daughter; the man, out on parole this week, who killed three children he was babysitting while a guest at the house. ‘There are those people, and they’re… evil too. In the same way. But it feels different when it’s a group of people who have these thoughts,’ I say.

What I want to know, is, how are you supposed to feel, when it feels like anyone could kill anyone? This wasn’t the case in Woolwich – the attackers targeted a member of the British armed forces because of their supposed involvement an act of war overseas. Nevertheless, we’re supposed to Keep Calm and Carry On, as it were. I don’t feel good being suspicious – I don’t like to be politically incorrect, but at the same time, I don’t like the concept of political correctness. It’s not political correctness that I admire, as much as trust in people. I like to trust people. I believe that locking your door during the day attracts a lack of trust that leads to the hatred we have for not only the ‘other’, but the neighbor. When I’m at a café, I take my phone into the toilet when I go, but I leave the rest of my stuff on the table, and it’s always there when I get back. I want to breed trust.

As we walk past the mosque, I check for damage to windows, and see none. There are large, military looking protective gates around the front – as opposed to the churches I wandered into in Dublin. There are large, bearded men wearing pants and long skirts (which is kind of pleasant looking). Catering vans pull up and a man gets out and delivers something.

Walking in front of us, I’ve been talking to Butters about my thoughts, without using any identifying nouns, in order to not offend anyone who overhears and misunderstands me. I’m using more pronouns than articles. Then I see a young black man in the same clothing, without the skirt. He’s walking in front of us, but we’re about to overtake him. He’s wearing a chicken-wire padded jacket, black and shiny. He has his hands in his pockets. As we approach, he begins to murmer, or sing untunefully, like someone sure and happy about what they’re singing, who’s just had an epiphany (like I do, sometimes, when I think no one can hear me). He’s singing about Allah. But his singing is halting, and he seems to have started when he heard us approaching him.

I become nervous, despite myself. I don’t become fearful, but in my mind, always in the back of it, is that what some people do doesn’t make sense, and people who get killed don’t see it coming. In normal streets, in normal cities – in which violence and misunderstandings are part of the normality, as much as anything else – things happen that are terrible beyond imagining.

The man follows us to the train station, and then keeps going.

I feel bad for feeling bad, and I feel justified for feeling nervous. I feel like I don’t know what’s going on, and I feel like other people feel like that, too.

That night, I talk to Andrew about loving God, and about how the idea that there is suffering in the world, rather than an argument against God, should be the reason that we all crumble into the foetal position and ask God to protect us from ourselves. God is the only explanation I have for not being fearful – the only reason I have for feeling secure and alive, and still generous.

I am sick and miserable, and London agrees with me. Andrew makes me chicken soup.

The next day it’s 16 and sunny, and I go out and write.

‘Whatever anybody says about Ireland, you do ESCAPE,’ says the man over coffee in a sunny street in Camberwell this morning. ‘It’s cars, and it’s adverts,’ he says. I’m sitting outside the Aneto Café in Camberwell, in the borough of Southark. A man and a woman, both just shy of middle aged and clearly married or together long term, are discussing their daughter. She appears to be estranged in some way, but in the normal manner than 30 somethings are estranged from their parents (even I am, despite desperate efforts not to be and a pathetic adult attachment to my Dad that I wouldn’t end for anything), and not because they’ve disinherited her, or anything sinister. She’s wearing red, dense cotton skinny pants and black heels; he’s wearing nike walking trainers, a faded black tee shirt and a woolen vest, and incredibly modern black and white glasses frames, with long hair, straight but curled at the ends, like Oscar Wilde, and tinged silver. ‘I don’t feel guilty – I feel very good about it,’ he says. He is speaking, and his accent is totes proper – one shade above generic London newsreader, one shade below ‘Toodle pip, I doo saahy erld chap.’ She has one leg crossed over the other under the table, and under her sunglasses looks ahead, just over his shoulder, finishing her eggs and indicating her willingness to hear what he is saying by not disagreeing. She seems to have heard it all before, but the breakfast has put her in a state of numb under-caring, and she stretches as if there will be many more conversations like this, and she doesn’t hate hearing them. ‘But I am cross a bit about it, too. I don’t understand,’ he says. Her face engages slightly, and she climbs up out of her 16 degrees-and-sunny morning stupor, so different from yesterday, and speaks.

‘I don’t understand,’ she says. ‘If she’s know about the thing for several years, why now?’

‘It’s Joe. She’s talked to Joe,’ he says. ‘Every time she calls him up, they… (something).

‘It still begs the question,’ she says. ‘Why’?

It is at this point that end the relating of this conversation under protest. The misuse of the phrase ‘begging the question’ really gets to me. I’m not saying that everyone should know, because critical thinking isn’t exactly a well-trodden area of learning. But it is one. The study of argument is not the study of how to yell the loudest, as my husband would probably believe, but it is the study of the cans and cannots of making an argument. You can state a premise, you can back it up with reasoning, and you can make statements that don’t stand up to reasoning. These can be called logical fallacies. To ‘beg the question’ is a logical fallacy. It means you have answered the question with part of the question – therefore, ‘begging’ the question in order to answer it. Think of ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul.’ If the question is asked, for example, ‘why is the sky always so blue?,’ and to answer you said, ‘because it is blue,’ you’d be begging the question.

My point only is that saying something ‘begs the question’ isn’t an alternative to saying ‘ it makes me wonder’.

‘He says it’s all my fault, because I’m too judgemental,’ says another young girl to her friend, who has been complaining about her staff all morning. I have to agree with whomever he is.

‘The sunshine makes everything better,’ says her milder friend, after offering her a newspaper. I glance up at the half sunny, half overcast sky, and feel pity for Londoners. She’s right – sunshine makes everything better.

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