There are few greater joys or privileges given to a writer than undertaking research in one of the famous reading rooms of the British Library. Just around the corner from St Pancras and King’s Cross stations, the new and somewhat muscular home of one of the world’s greatest collections of books, periodicals, newspapers, maps and printed music is a magnet for academics, professionals, the curious and those wanting a quiet place to pass the time.
Even though it’s a recent addition to the London skyline, an air of history pervades every corner. Visitors gaining a pass to the reading rooms can’t help but be moved by the shades of those who once browsed these very tomes, and created some of humanity’s most influential works of thought. Lenin, researching under the pseudonym Jacob Richter, envisaged a Russia without a Tsar and a ruling family; Charles Dickens wrote here to influence the public concerning the social degradation of the impoverished and invisible classes in Victorian England; George Bernard Shaw conceived of his pithiest lines as he watched Edwardian ladies and gentleman live their mannered lives; and, most famous of all, Karl Marx imagined a world in which workers could emancipate themselves by casting off their chains.
Taking a break from researching my next book, I took the Tube to Trafalgar Square, intent on visiting the National Gallery, but a group of about 20 or 30 elderly people were sitting on the steps of Nelson’s Column beneath one of his guardian lions, laughing and joking. They immediately engaged me in conversation and told me that they were ex-volunteers from the recently finished 2012 London Olympics, known collectively as Games Makers. Before and during the Olympics, they had been gainfully using their time, knowledge and skills to help the hundreds of thousands of visitors find their way around and enjoy the spectacle. They wore sports uniforms and were among the most greatly appreciated of officials who ran the Olympics. Most were retired, unemployed or in part-time employment, and their few weeks in the sun gave them a sense of purpose which, they told me, had been missing from their lives for years. I told them that exactly the same was experienced by the army of aged volunteers during the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
One of the retirees shared with me a lovely aphorism. He asked me if I knew the difference between knowledge and wisdom. I came up with some clichéd responses, until his mischievous smile demanded that I ask his version. ‘Knowledge,’ he told me, ‘is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not using a tomato in a fruit salad.’ I left as they were roaring with laughter.
One of England’s most prolonged and expensive extradition procedures, against hate-preaching Islamic cleric Abu Hamza and four other terror suspects, all wanted in the US on terrorism charges including kidnapping and supplying the Taleban, has finally come to an end. The High Court in London, after actions begun many years earlier, finally decided that the lawyer’s claims of abuse of human rights, declining health and fear of American prisons were insufficient, and ordered their immediate expulsion. Few commentators spoke up for them. Most people in England had had a gut full of the preacher excoriating the West in general, and England, America and Israel in particular, and were delighted to see him and his fellow suspects go. What disgusted most people, though, was the misuse of the British legal system by Abu Hamza’s lawyers, who used delaying tactics to spin out the extradition proceedings for an obscene amount of time. Even Justice Sir John Thomas, president of the Queen’s Bench division, and Mr Justice Ouseley, who ordered them out, expressed their repugnance at the abuse of the legal system, saying that the proceedings should have taken months, not eight years, and that the process had been ‘disfigured’ by protracted delays. Most Britons seemed to agree.
Children, especially isolated and vulnerable children, seem to be fair game for evil sexual predators in England at the moment. A pretty little girl was abducted and murdered in a tiny Welsh village by a distant relative; the late Sir Jimmy Savile’s activities in his BBC dressing room with underage girls have been filling the front pages; and brothers of Pakistani descent have just been handed long prison sentences for grooming, abducting, raping and abusing young girls. Normally, the racial origins of the criminals shouldn’t be an aspect of a case, but in the court, the prosecution placed great emphasis that it was white English children who were being targeted, as the brothers (and others who are accused of such grooming) specifically rejected such assaults against girls of Pakistani origin. Fortunately, the spotlight is now on the local authorities and the police who knew for years about these crimes, yet turned a blind eye because of ‘cultural sensitivity’.
England, it was said, was built on coal. But the country is now faced with power blackouts within three years because the nation’s ageing power plants have not been replaced quickly enough. Nuclear power stations are on the nose (remember Japan), coal is unbecoming (courtesy of environmentalists), wind has run out of puff, and sea energy has yet to prove itself commercial. And so the answer is… (please write your solution in 25 words or fewer).
Alan Gold is a Sydney-based novelist.