Europe in Sepia - Excerpt
“Jumping off the Bridge”
I was glued to reports on the recent riots in the London boroughs of Tottenham, Hackney, and Brixton, stunned by the images of seething youth smashing shop windows and making their grab for street wear and electronics. Expensive mobile phones apparently topped their consumer desires, a detail that disappointed many commentators (If only they’d stolen bread and milk, we’d understand!). I became fixated on something else though: a Waterstones’ bookstore the kids passed by might as well have been an undertaker’s. But they didn’t miss a beat in cleaning out the backpack of another dazed and confused kid who obviously needed medical attention, leaving him bloodied and lost in the street. On our television screens, we shocked viewers saw what we were given to see. Each of us projected our own fears onto the Rorscharchian stain of the London riots.
Around the same time, the beginning of August 2011, a Serbian news portal carried a witty article about the opening of a new bridge. In Belgrade, the capital, there’s an old bridge called Branko’s Bridge. Although named after the Serbian poet Branko Radi-cˇevic´, it’s better known for the fact that another Branko jumped from it, Branko C´opic´, a fellow writer. The author of the article noted that among terminally morose Serbian writers, the opening of the new bridge had been greeted with rare delight, and that a kind of competition was on to see who’d christen the bridge with a jump, thus winning naming rights. The bookies were already taking bets on the next writer-suicide. Among the many comments on the article, someone made an appeal that these things not be joked about; someone else observed that others might also like to think about jumping (Why only writers? What about single mothers?); a third person suggested that politicians should take a jump (Jump, Tadic´! We’ll call it Boris’s Bridge, for sure!); a fourth person remarked that a lot of people in Serbia seemed to unfortunately have no idea who Branko C´opic´ was; a fifth suggested that a list of candidates for pushing be prepared.
Why did I single out this particular episode? Because I could have equally mentioned Anders Breivik, the Norwegian “anti-Islamic crusader,” who just a few days previously had killed seventy-seven people, the majority teenagers. Or the band of thieves who robbed a handful of people in a Budapest suburb and then buried them alive in a nearby forest. Or the story of a pack of Zagreb yobs who bashed a pair of French tourists simply because the pair refused to buy them a round of drinks. I could have mentioned falls on the stock exchange, the soaring Swiss franc, the global recession, and the bankers impunibly running the show. I could have brought up the numerous demonstrations against “the swine of capitalism,” the messages of which haven’t reached the pudgy ears of those with their snouts deepest in the trough. Because all of this, and a lot of other stuff too, happened more or less within the same timeframe.
The devastating fact is that the majority of the young English rioters were barely literate. The research and the terrifying statistics are there. The reading ability of sixty-three percent of fourteen-year-old boys from the white working class, and more than fifty percent of their Afro-Caribbean peers, is at the level of the average seven-year-old. The majority of these kids leave school and continue their education on the streets. “Other kids go from school to university. We go from school to prison,” said one of them. Their “girlfriends” get pregnant early. In comparison with other European countries, Great Britain has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy. At best semi-literate, left to their own devices, and with few chances of finding any kind of job, these kids form an angry, disenfranchised mass whose futures have been stolen. They have absolutely no reason to believe in social institutions, vandalism the only means of articulating their fury. “I didn’t want this kind of life. It just happened to me,” said one boy.
The image of the life they desired is one that their society served them up as desirable (I want to be rich, I want lots of money / I don’t care about clever, I don’t care about funny). In an ideological package such as this, the system of values in operation in everyday life doesn’t assume literacy, education, responsibility, or work (Life’s about film stars and less about mothers / It’s all about fast cars and cussing each other). That’s why confronting one’s own loser status is, for all intents and purposes, just another form of self-deceit (But it doesn’t matter ’cause I’m packing plastic / And that’s what makes my life so fucking fantastic), in exactly the same way that vandalism is a mute form of conceding one’s own defeat (And I am a weapon of massive consumption / And it’s not my fault it’s how I’m programmed to function).
[. . .]
And while day and night I flagellate myself with the news, while my heart pounds like a beat-up dog cowering against a wall, I extinguish my fears with fantasies about them, about the kids who will soon (yes, soon!) in their millions crawl from their ghettoes, and fists raised descend on Wall Street, or wherever they’re needed. My fantasies, however, don’t hold out for long, and soon burst like a polychrome bunch of birthday balloons. (Forget about guns and forget ammunition / ’Cause I’m killing them all on my own little mission / Now I’m not a saint but I’m not a sinner / Now everything’s cool as long as I’m getting thinner).
And as far as jumping off the bridge goes, good taste keeps me from being so predictable. I’m not going jump, no way! Unless it makes me thinner. And if it does, then it’s goodbye, Weight Watchers! And hello, Revolution!