A better class of mugger for London streets

John Walsh ON MONDAY
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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE RACE to be Mayor of London is hotting up at last, and a jolly exciting spectacle it is too. Nobody can ever again write off local politics as moribund and dispiriting when it elicits such passionate and clear- minded men and women as candidates for its highest office. Although I couldn't swear to have heard all their promises about how they might transform the metropolis, I've picked up some straws in the wind. Lord Archer, if I understand his position correctly, will do everything in his power to improve the infrastructure of black women in London streets. Stephen Norris will pursue "broadly Thatcherite policies," whatever they may be. Ken Livingstone will go back to his "Fare's Fair" initiative which was such a hit when he was at the GLC. And Glenda Jackson, the former actress and transport minister for London, who regards "totally banning parking at bus stops" as her proudest achievement, explained to a London newspaper last week about her gripping vision of "bringing Londoners together" like some multitude of Israelites in the desert. Poking through this fog of verbiage and non-ideas, the occasional initiative can be glimpsed. It's always something to do with traffic, wider roads, trams, toll gates or Tubes. And it occurs to you to ask: Will there be more to being the new-style Mayor of London than worrying about questions of transport? Of course it's an important issue, as anyone who routinely crawls at 3pm along the Thames Embankment will tell you. But, is there nothing else for the Head Londoner to think or legislate about except the efficacy of gyratory systems, or banning cars with only one occupant? It seems odd that, after all three years of preparing the way for this ass-kicking, American-style municipal appointment, we're still miles away from the kind of mayor who bawled out the police chief in Bullitt. What we surely need is a person with vision, one who is able to confront the major issues and concerns of our time. Which are:

1) He/she must try and introduce a better class of mugger into the London underworld. The people with the Rolex obsession are giving the place a bad name. They must be given a stern talking-to and persuaded to diversify into Patek Philippe, Audemars, Breitling etc.

2) He/she must institute a law banning the use of scaffolding on national monuments and listed buildings in the capital during the months of June, July and August.

3) He/she must institute an immediate ban on lorries that carry those signs with self-incriminating messages such as: "Is this parked outside a cafe? Ring 0850 612369."

4) He/she must subsidise classes in spoken English for staff at the delicatessen counters of London supermarkets, to stop them from saying "Henny-think helse?" when handing over your cheese.

5) He/she must find out what on earth they're doing to Westminster Bridge, every inch of which has been "repaired" a dozen times in the last five years, and persuade them to stop it immediately.

6) He/she must let people ride and/or rent bicycles in all London parks.

7) He will ensure that entry to London's top art galleries is free of charge, except to people who explain to each other about "brushwork," and on whom a swingeing punishment tax will be levied.

8) He/she will extend the licensing hours of London pubs and wine bars until 4am, ban pub television screens that are more than 24 inches wide, and require by law that plates of salt-beef sandwiches (with gherkins and mustard) be available on the bar in huge quantities after midnight.

9) He/she must introduce Perspex litter bins, so that the people who look through their contents in search of discarded fast-food meals and abandoned bottles of beer can see what they're getting.

10) He/she must stop the people in my road playing Mambo No. 5 at nerve- dislocating volume all night long. There's a limit to the number of time even Londoners can endure hearing the line, "A little bit of Monica in my life..."

I WAS rather shocked to hear of the current outbreak of hostilities between Spain and the Philippines. It hasn't amounted to a battle just yet, with rocket-ship helicopters and "ground troops" and saturation media coverage; for the moment it's only a diplomatic incident; but it might turn really nasty.

Full-scale wars have started over lesser pretexts than this. Did you catch it on the weekend news? The Philippine government has protested through official channels about the launch, in Spanish supermarkets, of a biscuit called a "Filipino". They have taken umbrage at the way the identity of this benign and smiling nation has been exploited, and implicitly traduced, in order to market a few million cookies to the lisping bourgeoisie of a southern European kingdom a few thousand miles away.

Nobody quite understands why they should be so upset. Some say it's because the bikkie in question is dark on the outside and creamy in the middle, and that the name suggests a racist slur about people who are secretly, or aspirationally, white; in the same way that "Oreos" (the name of a kind of sultry custard cream) became an insulting term in the USA, for upwardly mobile black politicians who sought to curry favour with the white voters of Georgia. But Filipinos are not blacks, they're Pacific Asians, so it's hardly the same thing.

More to the point is: how many other insulting biscuits lurk undiscovered in our supermarket shelves? Should the French government complain about the packets of Bourbons routinely sold to impressionable British consumers, so long after the Revolution that guillotined the dynasty's top talent? Will Italy try to ban the sale of Garibaldi biscuits, whose horrible, squashed-fly features so inadequately celebrate the architect of the Risorgimento? Should a delegation of bigwigs from Baltimore complain that their lean and healthy state is insulted by its association with high-calorie chocolate- chip cookies? I fear for the future of Jaffa Cakes, once Israeli anti- biscuit fundamentalists discover that the sacred name of Tel Aviv Jafo is being used to flog chocolate sponges with an organgey bit in the middle? And I sympathise with the Foreign Office. They will have their work cut out this week to mediate in a dozen such disputes, as they sit in Whitehall working into the night, buoyed up only by draughts of tea and plates of (aarrgh! Oh no!) pink Vienna wafers.

IT'S BEEN an odd weekend, in which repetition featured strongly. Driving around west London, I kept hearing little snatches of music, on the breeze from the Notting Hill Carnival, an event I used to attend with a certain Dionysiac joy until I realised it left me with a kind of Caribbean tinnitus for 48 hours afterwards - a soca-dub hangover, music once described by Martin Amis as going "bashy-dashy-crashy-mashy-bashy-dashy," round and round the brain, until the will to live finally hands in its notice.

I looked uncomprehendingly at more pictures in the newspapers of yet more teenagers hugging each other and feigning joy about their A-level results (didn't we get all that stuff last week?) and realised they were a different bunch, possibly celebrating their GCSE results or their acceptance by Wilmslow Teacher Training College. On Sunday morning, the omnibus edition of The Archers broadcast the same scenes of al fresco eroticism twice, until you wondered if you were living in Groundhog Day.

But the oddest moment was in the centre of London on Friday lunchtime, when, outside the shop I was standing in, there came a noise of chink- chink- and random bongo drumming, repeated over and over in a sequence I haven't heard for years. In a wave of nostalgia I rushed outside, to find yes! - a small saffron-robed Hare Krishna throng swaying up Oxford Street. Their feet were bare, their heads recently shaven, they smiled beatifically in that I'm-a-little-grasshopper way that makes you long to wallop them on the head with a rolled-up copy of Meditation News, they swayed and bongoed about, demonstrating their transcendent, Nirvana-seeking apartness from their immediate environs, the most worldly street in the western hemisphere. And then their leader turned round, and revealed that he was wearing a headset with microphone attachment, the kind you used to see Madonna or Kate Bush wearing in concert, so that they could gyrate with their hands free. A headset? Since when did the embrace of transcendence and the abandonment of self to the higher knowledge of Lord Krishna involve the purchase of electrical posing equipment from Dixons or Currys? A picture comes into one's head of Guatama Buddha achieving enlightenment sitting under a fifth century Bo tree in southern India. His hands are extended. His eyes are closed. Is he intoning a mantra? No. He is informing his Nokia 5110 that he's had a real bugger of a day and is running two hours late for supper.