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Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Cowardice and the hollowing out of the city

We may enjoy travelling between different places but we've no plans to leave one for the other, no intention of abandoning Handsworth or the city. I deplore the expat grumble, the rural escape, the flight to sugar hill. Anyone who's so frightened of their fellow humans they are prepared to move to a "safer" area and "stay in their car" for fear of urban predators and watch their children constantly to stave off the risk of "stranger dangers", might be referred to as lacking moral fibre (LMF it used to be called in a service record) and contributing to fear in the population - for which there used, in war time, to be penalties. I'm familiar with these fears. I have long struggled with them - not for myself now - but for my children. I recognise them and seek to control them. I haven't moved house from the inner suburb of Handsworth in Birmingham - to the continuing surprise of some traders who imply a mismatch between me and my address. In shops some cashiers say "Handsworth Wood?" when checking my address."Not Handsworth Wood. No! Handsworth'I say with mild asperity at the assumption. (Changes in urban living are fortuitously going to make our choice look prescient - but we're all hostages to fortune.) We used to let our children roam the streets. When young they could stay out after dark. I let them cycle where they wanted after accompanying them on early rides and I am content for them not to make themselves look ridiculous in helmets. Though I did make my daughter wear one up to the age of 12 when on the road. (The research seems to suggest that a helmet can be helpful if one falls over up to that age). They are schooled on the banal menace of speedophiles - prone to hang around schools polluting the air. I shared and share the occasional panics with my wife - and she with me - but did not and do not mention this to our children except to say things like "please please call in if the opportunity arises and you're going to be home late". Mobile phones and phone cards can be a reassurance, but they never stop the fear. The difference between us and the "burb-coward" is we know this is our problem not theirs. I do not want to stop my children knowing fear. Quite the opposite. Fear is part of being human, but I want them to know the real risks of modern life rather than having their imaginations distorted by virtual fears. So yes, I admit to feeling at least momentary terror on behalf of my children almost every day. I can get sucked into the world of the "burb-coward" - so promiscuous are they about circulating their actuarial illiteracy. I, like many others, am at the receiving end of daily propaganda about the lurking dangers that threaten us all - to echo tabloid phrasing. But I have striven to leave my children out of my neuroses about these hazards of peace. I teach them statistics. I commit myself - with temerity at times - to the duties of citizenship in the matter of risk assessment. Thus some of our best shopping trips to London have been after a bomb scare there - when there is much less congestion and the burb-cowards have stayed at home thinking another atrocity in a conurbation of 6 millions stretching across ten or more miles will be aimed at them and their children. DIY is more dangerous than the IRA or Al Quaeda. I learned this after the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974. I was fearful of going into town the next evening to night clubs. My West Indian friend of those times chided me with playing into the hands of terrorists. I fought my temerity and went. If there is a dreadful fate awaiting me or my wife or my children or others I love, it is unlikely to come from the things that motivate the burb-cowards. Isn't the most dangerous place for us all our kitchen - full of knives and relatives? I embrace the fable of an appointment in Samarra*. We have lived in 60 years of peace. I owe it to those who lived through the previous 60 years - and indeed those who suffer terror and deprivation in other parts of the world now - not to be timid. I will not avoid talking to young children in the park or streets for fear of having my motives impugned. I don't deny the presence of paedophiles, rapists, muggers and psychopaths - but I am alert to the minor risk they pose in the context of hazards in the world. This is not Flanders in 1914-18, or the killing fields of Iraq, Cambodia, or Buchenwald and its siblings or the gulags and the endless catalogue of contemporary world horror and injustice to which every first world citizen should have their attention directed as a qualification for citizenship. Fighting one's own tendency to cowardice pays. The coward dies a thousand times and is forever getting stuck in traffic. I feel the fear and grasp that it is my duty to those who face real terror not to succumb to virtual fear; to welcome strangers - with discretion; to embrace the city but watch the road; to enjoy its streets at all hours; to teach children to face the real hazards rather than the inventions of the "burb-cowards".
From: "Mayer Hillman" To: Simon Subject: Re: [Slower Speeds UK] Children playing in the street
Simon, I have just got round to reading your passionate email. The tears are not only metaphorically but actually running down my face. You express my own thoughts so cogently and so fluently ...It's people like you - and there are few of them - that motivate me to think it worthwhile not only to keep up the good fight but to do so with more dedication and diligence. Mayer
*There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

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Simon Baddeley