Lament for Michael Kilburn (Part I)

Apr 4, 2008 by

ANYONE who regularly reads an English-language newspaper in a former British colony-where there are inevitably large numbers of English expats and tourists-will on occasion encounter the phrase ‘whinging Brit’ in the Letters to the Editor section.  Since ‘whinging’ is a British variant on ‘whining,’ the phrase is invariably used, often with ironic self-disparagement, by the British about the British: generally from expats mortified at those compatriots of theirs who seem to spend their entire vacation abroad complaining about the host country and making unfavorable, imperious comparisons with the motherland.  Of course, this notion begets another sub-category of those who do little else but whinge about whinging Brits.  In short, there is plenty of complaining to go around, some justified, most of it tedious banter. 

That is why I was initially resistant about writing an essay that amounts, behind whatever literary veneer, to little more than an extended whinge, just with the sights turned 180 degrees onto the UK.  While culture-bashing may be palatable and even laudably dissident on home soil, there is something inherently disagreeable about swinging at national piñatas abroad. 

I didn’t nurture any misgivings for long.  In reflecting back on my time in the newsroom of the English-language daily Cyprus Mail, the many British expat grievances over Cypriot corruption, lawlessness, failure to comply with EU directives, and so on, that I would listen to and then relay to the next day’s primarily British readers now leave me feeling that there is a kind of Hammurabic justice, or at least aptness, in my furthering the intercultural dialogue and cross-fertilization of ideas-to use the darling rhetoric of arts and academia bureaucrats-by being a whinging Cypriot. 

Not that this is purely a petty act of eye-for-an-eye.  Ironically, my initiation over the last six months into the British zeitgeist of rules and regulations-the source of my whinge-has made it possible for me to more fully empathize with those British tourists and expats in Cyprus whose fulminations I was putting into print despite a growing sense that in doing so I was only stoking a fire that could use some smothering.  No wonder they were so outraged that laws and regulations in Cyprus mostly exist for show and tell presentations to the EU headmasters rather than for implementation in the classroom.  I have even grown to feel an unlikely solidarity with them in terms of our mutual indignation, even if our woes are of a polar opposite variety, like what one might expect if a nudist were relocated to a nunnery and a nun to a nudist colony. 

One also cannot deny that the hyper-civilized adherence of the UK authorities and public to rules and regulations makes daily affairs on the whole proceed more smoothly and efficiently while minimizing hazards and fraud. Consider the orderliness of the queues in the UK; in even the lengthiest ones it is rare to encounter complaining or signs of frustration: the loud sighing, the rolling eyes, the headshaking, the lips pursing at the wristwatch.  It is as if everyone in queue shares the tacit understanding that they are in the best of all possible worlds and that the only other option would be to savage one another in a free-for-all dash to the front, which aside from obvious unpleasantries would only gum up the process.

This respect for order and organization finds its apotheosis in the British Library.  The staff is unyielding when it comes to the rules-whether that involves providing the requisite documentation for acquiring a Reader’s Pass, complying with UK copyright legislation for photocopying books, or adhering to the no-bags policy in the reading rooms (the nearby men’s bathrooms are among the few places where you can see men urinating with a laptop tucked under their armpit)-but far from being oppressively bureaucratic, these rules somehow seem essential to the successful functioning of one of the finest research libraries in the world.

Nevertheless, smoothly as the ordered society may function, one of the inevitable by-products of a thriving rules and regulations culture is a suffocating sense that you can never stray from the straight and narrow path.  This is markedly the case when it comes to Health and Safety provisions (the capitalization advertises the commitment to protecting the public) where the end result seems to be that the entire population is protected not only from most every hazard but also from ever doing anything. 

I recently came across a 2004 BBC article online that described how a council in east London had imposed a ban stating that table dancers and customers at strip clubs must be separated by a ’36-inch no flesh zone.’  The judge, however, ruled against their request to ban nudity, claiming that wearing a G-string or nothing at all made no difference for “preventing of crime or preserving public order.”  The three-foot security barrier of flesh-free space, on the other hand, presumably (and mysteriously) made for safer streets.  If it were true that physical contact leads to disorder and violence, then one might expect nightly mass killings and looting in every city in Cyprus considering the innumerable Eastern Europeans and Filipinas who are pimped out in ‘cabarets,’ which like restaurants feature take-away and in-house dining (except that in cabarets take-away costs more). 

It would be unfair to accuse the British authorities of exercising undemocratic favoritism in enforcing the rules. According to an AFP article, the actor Daniel Craig was forced to wear a lifejacket as he traveled down the Thames during his October 2005 press unveiling as the new James Bond.  The not-so-tough-guy image that this presented of him was often later invoked by hysteric James Bond ‘purists’ to discredit Craig, who had brought to the role an emotional depth unrivalled by earlier Bonds (in their fanatical witch hunt, they even established a “Boycott Casino Royale” website).  They claimed that the life-vested actor bore little in common with Ian Fleming’s wooden-spoken, comically-suave literary creation (thankfully, they were right).  It was an unfair slander: it’s just that in the UK, not even James Bond is above the Health and Safety law.    

Alongside hardness of breathing and nausea, yet another adverse side effect of a heavy handed rules and regulation empire is an excess of bureaucracy.  There is of course a case to be made for bureaucracy, which ostensibly exists to minimize corruption by establishing proper legal channels through which business must be conducted.  But when you wriggle through one legal channel only to find yourself staring headlong into another one, and then another, seemingly ad infinitum, you sometimes wish you could just slip some crooked bastard a ten-pound note and get on with things. 

Several months ago, while in a filmmaking workshop at University College London, I tried to secure permission to film in the Waterloo train station and along London’s South Bank-the promenade flanking the southern shores of the Thames.  I had been surprised when I first heard I needed any such authorization, especially for the South Bank.  I was sure that those hordes of tourists milling every weekend along the Thames with camcorders hanging around their necks had not contacted any officials or filled any forms.  But apparently the bulkier semi-pro video cameras we were using would make us an obvious target for security guards.

I first called the train station.  After a few requests by phone, which in retrospect could have been worded differently (“Yes, I’d like permission to do some shooting in Waterloo”), a government officer phoned me back telling me in a cordial but nonnegotiable tone that filming in Waterloo that Saturday would not be possible due to the short notice (it was Thursday).  They still needed risk assessment forms, university insurance forms, and other paperwork, which still had to make the rounds before approval was finalized.  Two days obviously wasn’t enough for such a multi-tiered operation. 

I then tried securing permission for the South Bank.  This proved far easier and within an hour or so my request was approved.  But upon closer examination of the notification email sent to me-which involved a detailed map of the South Bank divided into cross-sections-I saw that I had only been granted permission for a small part of the Bank, the one-kilometer stretch falling within their zone of responsibility.  To film along most of the southern promenade in Central London, which had been the plan, I would have to go through this process another five or six times. 

In our hyper-tech era, which has even made television retro, writers can often feel more commonality with archaeologists, or with the things archaeologists dig up, than with artists more in step with the times like filmmakers. But as I gazed upon that South Bank map-with its grid of cross-sections and names of the relevant Councils, each of which I would have to contact and request permission from-being a fossil didn’t seem all that bad after all. 

It is of course easy to complain about legislation and fall back on predictable condemnations about the “nanny state,” a phrase bandied about mostly within the wealthier strata of society by individuals who themselves were often nannied as children and who take offense that a fraction of their privileges might be extended to the masses (in denouncing the nanny state, they also proclaim the virtues of ‘free market’ economies, the word ‘free’ being an abbreviated codeword for “free for thee but not for me,” where the underclass must contend with market discipline while the corporate overlords unfussily accept the generous taxpayer subsidies and bailouts that are masqueraded as necessary economic stimulus measures).  But in fact an essay of whinging grossly misrepresents my impressions of London, a city which blends internationalism with local culture and big city vibrancy with small town affability better than any other place I have been. 

The unswerving devotion to law and order may have occasionally provoked allergic outbreaks in me, primarily due to the change of climate from Cyprus, but it was nothing to warrant a Fourth Night whinge.  Not, that is, until the evening of March 24th, when I met Mr. Michael Kilburn.          

The second part of Lament for Michael Kilburn is the May posting.

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