Sunday, August 21, 2011

Back in Blighty

The last time I was in the United Kingdom, it was shortly before Christmas, and London's Hyde Park was ablaze with decorations and holiday lights. Re-vsiting London this month, I came back to find the city ablaze - this time with arson fires. It was no holiday, except for the gang members and hangers-on who looted, burned, assaulted innocent passers-by and ran amok for three days before finally submitting to a belated beefing-up in the number of police.

My London-born wife arrived several days before me. She said she never felt threatened but was depressed by the scenes of destruction in South London precincts she knew well as a young person - Battersea and Clapham Junction. By the time I arrived, it was all over and the post-mortem of self-examination, anger and courtroom confrontation had begun.

I have traveled to the U.K. maybe 40 times. I know it fairly well but am keenly aware I am an outsider there. Moreover, I come from the United States, which has seen its share of civil strife and violence, so I am reluctant to pass judgment on what is still a fascinating - and, now, safe once again - place to visit.

That said, the U.K. seems to be suffering a social meltdown. It has raised a generation of feral youth with no stake in the system and no belief in the future. Youth unemployment is rampant, many kids have grown up in households where an adult has never held a job, and class and racial barriers to social harmony are formidible. Add to this, the ruling class's amoral materialism and lack of ethics in the phone hacking scandal that has shaken Rupert Murdoch's media empire and forced out top officials at Scotland Yard - London's once-esteemed Metropolitan Police Force - and you have a society facing serious challenges.

And yet, and yet ... Britain, especially England, and its great capital, London, remain marvelous places to visit. Tourists largely escaped the chaos of last week, and when I walked the streets of the capital with my wife and our English friends, I felt perfectly safe. Londoners had already started displaying the resiliance for which they are well-known. Plans for next year's Olympics and Paralympics are continuing apace, and neighborhood broom brigades were already cleaning up the mess.

Serious underlying problems remain, not least the burning anger of working-class and middle-class Brits - some of whom were terrorized in their beds by hooded, masked thugs who invaded their homes, demanding money and jewelry. The call for stiff sentences for convicted rioters are being heard, and the anger behind them is justified. Whether strong prison sentences, coming at a time of severe cuts in social services prompted by global financial weakness, will create conditions for full recovery remains to be seen. It is bound to be a tough go.

As a friend and fan of the Brits, I wish them well. I am a watchful traveler, but I don't plan to drop the U.K. from my travel plans. There will always be an England, and there will always be a London. London has survived the Conquest of 1066, the Great Fire of 1666, a civil war, the Blitz of World War II, the terror campaign of the Irish Republican Army, the subway and bus bombing by jihadists on 7/7 (July 7, 2005) and more. It will survive this.

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