Saturday, 7 November 2015

Impressions from my Journey to United Kingdom

I have always harbored mixed feelings towards United Kingdom (UK), a country that once subjugated mine and with whom we as a country share a bloody history. At the same time, I also admire greatly its literature, language and arts. I therefore took up the journey to the UK with the same mixed feelings and to see for myself what this erstwhile mighty Empire, where the sun never used to set, is truly like. And after a three week trip to some parts of the country, I must say that I am genuinely struck by its beauty, cleanliness, its love for art, literature and history. I did not find it wanting in any of these and I am sure no one will. However I have also come back with some rather disturbing facts and this blog post is about these troubling issues, as UK’s beauty and magnificence requires no further praise.

Oxford, my first destination. A friend had described Oxford as the paradise for academics and I indeed found it so, with wonderful libraries and museums with free entry. However when I stayed there for over a week, I began to discover the other side of Oxford too. The first revelation came from the tourist guides. Some of the guides were not associated with the Oxford University but possibly with the Oxford town or the nearby country side. These guides were eager to share the historical disputes at Oxford, popularly called Town verses Gown.  The phrase Town vs. Gown was coined due to the historical animosity between the privileged university students who often wear long ceremonious gowns and the rather not so privileged locals (town people). In the past, some of these disputes took the form of riots with bloody deaths on both sides. One of the worst riots in the 13th century is remembered as the St. Scholastica’s Day riot. In fact, these riots are remembered also because the scholars who fled Oxford are said to have later established the University at Cambridge.

Church and Collage buildings at Oxford. Photos: Nandini Oza

Today, while the dispute between the academics and the locals are not bloody as in the past, the disparity and difference between the Town and the Gown continues and is visible. One occasionally comes across some subtle resentment against the plush-with-wealth academic institutions of Oxford University and its students who are understood as being the progeny of very wealthy parents or/and are on elite scholarships or who can afford exorbitant loans. One hears statements like: “This department or college has so much wealth that no one even knows how to count it anymore.” Or “This College where so and so Prime Minister studied has so much land that it touches the outskirts of Cambridge.” Or “The cost of living in such a small town as Oxford has gone up as high as the city of London because of the rich University and its rich students.” Or “Such and such school has been built by such and such arms dealer with his such and such tainted money, but then what money that is flowing here does not have a controversial source/past?” Or “The town’s people ultimately fell in line because the money was with those wearing the gown.” 

Amidst the grandeur of Oxford University and its many awesome buildings, a rather plain looking drab building, situated at the end of the street where I lived, drew my attention each time I walked past it. It drew my attention because it was an odd one out, with high walls and prominent CCTV cameras at its gate. Although the building did not look like a prison exactly, it certainly seemed a place with high security.  One day as I was walking past, I found two harried looking unkempt men standing outside its strong and locked gates. I stopped to ask them what building was it. Instead of answering my question, they in turn asked me if I was in trouble and needed any help. I said I was fine and it was just that I was curious about the building’s high walls and tight security in an otherwise safe town as Oxford. The two men told me that it was a centre for the homeless. This intrigued me even more. Why should such a small town like Oxford with so much affluence and influence, a town that has shaped such powerful leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, David Cameron, Bill Clinton, Tony Abbott, HM King Abdullah of Jordan, Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan, Benazir Bhutto, Indira Gandhi, etc. have homeless people at all? And why should the building be so secured? Some of my friends will say - it is not in spite of, but because of such leaders who have been shaped here that there are people who are homeless and across the World. And I guess it is a point worth reflecting.

Though I was on a holiday, I could not help visiting the centre for the homeless at Oxford the next day. The visit was an eye opener as one of the administrators told me that though the official count of the Oxford town is 26 homeless people; the figure is deceptive because there are many more that are homeless. The reason he gave for the discrepancy was equally disturbing. He said that the administration of the town is not happy that the homeless are seen at all in this town [of such repute] and so they are harassed and driven far away from the main town by the administration and police. Therefore there are many more homeless in Oxford but they are not visible.  

I also got the following information from the centre:

1.  The centre had strict security because people with high substance abuse come to their door often. 

2.   As the homeless walk and live outside in bitterly cold nights, there is a high incidence of injury   to the feet needing immediate medical attention. 

3.  Some of the first few services the centre provides are counseling, a washroom, warm clothes and food. 

4.  There is a high incidence of mental illness among the people who approach the centre in particular and in fact in the society in general.
      5. The centre receives only part of its funding from the council and the rest is raised through charity.

6. There is high pressure from the council that the homeless find work but it is not always possible.  

7. The doors of the centre close in the evening and the homeless have to leave the centre for the night.

It is the last point that I found at odds with the situation in India. The shelter homes for the homeless (where they exist) in India are for the nights too and it is okay if the homeless fend for themselves during the day and remain visible.


A community centre at Oxford for people to just come and feel happy and without spending money.

A couple of days later, while I was reading a news paper at a restaurant in Oxford, one particular news item caught my attention. The headlines in the Oxford Mail said, “Freshly cooked food off the menu as community hospital kitchens close.”[1] On following up the matter further, I found that earlier kitchens provided freshly cooked food to the patients admitted in the hospitals. However as a cost cutting measure these kitchens were closed down. With this move, not only were the patients going to be deprived of fresh food but this was to lead to loss of jobs in an already tight/saturated job market. Moreover this was going to have ripple effect. The local community that was supplying locally produced fresh material to these kitchens too would be adversely affected in favour of packaged food industry. [2] While this news concerned the community hospitals in Oxfordshire, there was news about the National Health Service (NHS) of UK itself facing many problems! NHS is a State owned health care system that still continues to function on the principle of universal health care. Some other essential services have been privatised including the famous British railway, which I found terribly costly as compared to other modes of transport within UK itself. 

While the problem of the homeless and community hospitals at a place like Oxford bothered me, I was really jolted out of the peace and tranquility that prevailed at Oxford when I randomly picked up a local newspaper at one of the super markets one day. I was shocked to read about the death of two young men from the British Air Force base at Oxfordshire killed in what was reported as a Helicopter Crash in Afghanistan.[3]This news came soon after the news of US air strikes having killed the staff of the hospital run by Doctors without Borders in Afghanistan. Although things at Oxford went about as usual and there was no sign of any apparent turmoil even with the news of the death of the two young men of Oxfordshire, it was difficult to keep under wraps that UK is very much at war in the Middle East and that Oxfordshire had paid a price too. Even the corporate media empire (BTW, Rupert Murdoch too studied at Oxford) has not been able to gloss over the war and its peril as coffins come home and so do the civilian asylum seekers, persecuted in what is cleverly termed ‘collateral damage’ in the war. That UK is feeling the brunt of the war was clear as even Tony Blair issued a “qualified apology” for the Iraq war.[4]

While I thought of all this during my stay at Oxford, I wondered how much of these social and political issues both local as well as global concern the University of Oxford, a university that takes pride in being ranked as one of the top universities in the World. 

London, my next destination: I have a special connect with London. My parents lived and studied in London in the early fifties and I grew up with stories and photographs of London of that time. Out of the many photographs taken sixty years ago, one particular photograph of my mother with hundreds of pigeons at Trafalgar Square was the one I was very fond of as a child. Therefore when I visited Trafalgar Square I wondered where all the pigeons had gone as there were none. We concluded that the pre Diwali celebrations organised for the Indian diaspora at the square that day must have driven them away.  For me, a visit to Trafalgar Square minus the pigeons was an incomplete frame and so I made one more trip the next day and yet the pigeons were absent! Looking up the web, I learnt that a deliberate effort had been undertaken to eliminate the pigeons from Trafalgar Square at a great financial cost to the city of London.[5] While I do not wish to go into the merits or the demerits of eliminating pigeons here, Trafalgar Square is not the same without the pigeons at least as far as I am concerned.

I must also say that the National Gallery at London and the London sky line from the banks of river Thames overwhelmed me, though the London Eye I thought was a bit of an eyesore. I was overjoyed to see the beautiful paintings of my favorite artists at the very well maintained National  Gallery. However the joy of seeing the authentic sketch of one of my favorite authors, Jane Austen, and the many original masterpieces of great artists like  Vincent Van Gogh was somewhat dampened by the din and crowds of London. And among the many sights in London, three frames in particular will remain etched in my memory forever. One frame is that of the Trafalgar Square minus its pigeons and the other two are as follows:

1. The pompous change of guard ceremony at the very imposing Buckingham Palace that continued to remind me of England’s colonial past as well as the fact that Britain continues to follow monarchy even if with limited powers.

2. And in contrast, the many who struggle to make two ends meet on the streets of London, not far away from the palace. 

Add caption

Some of the regiments at Buckingham palace during change of guard ceremony. Photos: Nandini Oza.

One of the many street artists at Trafalgar Square, struggling to make ends meet. The image taking shape here was that of an Injured and wronged Christ. Photo: Nandini Oza.

And I must also mention that along with the above frames, the sound of deafening sirens of ambulances rushing about in London that made me jump in fright a couple of times will also remain in my memory. When I casually mentioned to a friend about the sirens that could turn someone deaf, he said many of these ambulances must be rushing people with alcohol poisoning particularly on Saturday nights. This term of alcohol poisoning is not very commonly used in India and it had not really registered in my mind in spite of having read about the high profile case of Amy Winehouse. But binge drinking seems to be a problem among people of all age groups in UK.[6]

Scotland, my third destination: Scotland was breathtakingly beautiful. I particularly enjoyed the small town of Peebles and the capital city of Edinburgh for more reasons than one. No words or pictures can do justice to the landscape or the crystal clear streams and lakes of Scotland. I would recommend all those who visit UK, to not miss Scotland. I myself hope to visit it again and take some of its walking tours. 

Edinburgh. Photo: Nandini Oza.

During the trip, I also came across some signs of the recent referendum conducted to know if the people of Scotland wanted to break away from UK and be independent. Naturally this reminded me that even Scotland shared a bloody history with English people in the past and that sentiments to break away still run high for several reasons. However what I wish to share here is about the Highlands of Scotland where we made a day trip. 

While I found the Scottish Highlands stunning and spectacular, a friend living in Scotland described them as an ecological disaster! The Highlands were once well forested with diverse flora and fauna. The Industrial Revolution and then the World Wars turned large tracks of this mountainous land barren, and much of the dense tree growth that is seen today is mostly industrial plantations, our friend explained. 

The stunning Highlands. Photo: Nandini Oza

On reading about it further, I found that several factors have been put forth for the highlands having lost substantially its native tree and forest cover. Some of these factors are the growth of agriculture, sheep rearing, wars, industrial revolution, rise in deer population for sporting, climate change, natural phenomenon, etc.[7] What is more disturbing is that fast growing trees for industrial use have replaced the native species on a large scale. Sights similar to the photograph below do mar somewhat the beauty of the Highlands. Lately, many trusts and organisations have been making efforts to replant native species and regenerate the natural ecology of the Highlands. However it seemed to me like a drop in the ocean as Industrial logging as well as consumerism seems to be on a rise. We ourselves generated more garbage during our stay in UK in a week as compared to what we generate in over a month in India. And this, after we cooked at least one meal during the day and mostly did not eat take away/packed/ready to eat foods. And yet, while we see garbage anywhere and everywhere in India, UK has cleverly managed to keep its mind-boggling waste/garbage out of sight too. While some is recycled and some goes into landfills within UK, some even leaves UK for distant and “poorer” shores.[8]


While the above issues are mostly region specific, there were some issues that are general which I wish to share here. One morning, at Oxford, while I was sitting at a restaurant, a young woman approached my table and asked me if she could do some belly dancing for me. I did not know what to say and did not want to insult her either. So she did some dancing for me, sat at my table and abused the Government for having messed up the lives of the common people, declaring people of unsound mind, over prescribing medicines, and so on. She also said she dropped out and could not complete her PhD because she could not afford it. She abused the State on several other issues for half an hour without taking a pause and then suddenly left. After she left, the restaurant manager came to me to apologize for the young lady’s behavior. However I felt that though the woman clearly was in some sort of distress or under the influence of some substance; she was talking a lot of sense. On one another occasion, at a bus stop in London one morning, I found a group of four young people not only drunk out of their minds but also egging me. I ignored them of course but it did make me feel ill at ease. I was also stopped several times, both in Oxford and in London, by young people, sometimes dressed well, asking me to give them a pound. 

While I ignored these incidents as being unimportant, it was only when a friend and her young daughter told me the following that I grasped the seriousness of the challenges that the youth in UK face today:

1. The biggest pressure on the youth in UK is the high cost of education. Many simply cannot afford it. Many drop out of the system. Many who take education loans are stressed out further. The jobs they get do not commensurate with the high cost of education.

2.   The next big problem among the youth is clubbing and substance abuse. Drugs are available easily. Drinking is rampant even among those as young as 15 to 16 years of age. When girls go clubbing, they are told not to leave their drink unattended even for a minute as it could get spiked. Spiked drinks, people fear, lead to sexual assaults and even rape. Many young people have to be rushed to the hospital as alcohol has to be pumped out of their stomach due to excessive drinking. 

3.  The third challenge that young girls face is that a very large percentage of them simply cannot go out of their homes without make up. In fact, becoming a makeup artist has become common.

Some of these concerns were shared by other young friends we met in UK too.  Some other problems that were shared with us were lack of good jobs, rise in cost of living, broken homes, etc. It was while I was traveling in the London tube, I overheard a conversation between a set of two parents (P-1 and P-2) which I think sums up the life of youth in UK today:

P-1: We are going on a holiday with our daughter to Austria.

P-2: Oh! That is very nice. We are returning home after taking admission for our daughter at the University here.

P-1: Is not the youth of today lucky?

P-2: Yes, but only if they have both the parents...

P-1: Agree, but only if the parents are rich...Ha! Ha!

After a three week thoroughly enjoyable and relaxing trip to UK, a trip to a country worth visiting at least once if not more, when I returned to India, I was once again hit very hard by the many problems my country faces. But then, India’s problems are there for all to see, document, film and report. Where as in UK it is only when one scratches the surface that some of the skeletons tumble out. Otherwise everything in UK looks beautiful,pristine, orderly and peaceful. I therefore conclude that while the sun is still shining brightly over Great Britain, it has certainly set over many of its people. And I cannot help wondering - has the sun set over far more people in UK than what is seen on the outside and therefore the rise of the labor leader Jeremy Corbyn?

Nandini Oza
October 2015-11-07

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