Tube and Time

It was from my former boss Mark that I heard the news. Mark headed up ACE school in Siem Reap and had moved on, with his family, to London.

If he’d stayed, his kids would likely have studied at the international school that was all over the news during the recent hostage crisis.

Now he’s working an admin job in London, and I can only imagine his thoughts, and those of his friends. Is anywhere on this planet safe? We are all waiting for our friends to check in, to see who is OK. Doubtless there will be comparisons to 9-11. What was once routine commuting has suddenly become something worse. How is it possible for everyday life to segue into something so horrible?

In an attempt to come to grips with the horrors revealed after Auschwitz, critic and essayist George Steiner suggested the distinctions of ‘good time’ and inhuman ‘bad time’. Margaret Drabble applied these terms to Cambodia in her novel ‘ The Gates of Ivory‘. More recently Geoff Ryman‘s 253 utilized the immediacy of a tube train wreck as a structural backdrop to illuminate ordinary life’s fine grain.

Studying Cambodia often shows the incongruous adjacency of ‘good time’ and ‘bad time’. Many of my Khmer friends share my ideas, opinions and outlook, but arrived at them via a radically differerent (and difficult) path through the period labeled ‘the Killing Fields’. I’m amazed and inspired that they can move through and past such experiences to create new lives for themselves. And I’m constantly conscious that even though the Khmer Rouge time is over, poverty, crime and corruption destroy dreams and lives on a daily basis, if you care to look.

My heroes are those who work on the front lines: to protect children, to give sex workers control over their lives, to help people who are trapped in debt to find a way out, to create places where creativity can flourish safe from fear. They build schools and libraries, homes, hospitals, hospices and orphanages. There’s a high burnout rate; they face a daily uphill slog through mountains of paperwork and bureaucracy, encountering indifference and outright opposition. But somehow, they keep moving along, day after day.

Part of our horror at the tube bombings, at the Spanish train bombings, at 9-11 is the realization that ‘good time’ and ‘bad time’ are adjacent and overlapping.

I didn’t really have a personal grip on Trade Center’s destruction until I walked the full circuit around ground zero, one month after the attack. Photos and handwritten testemonials were put up daily: stories and pictures of utterly ordinary people doing utterly ordinary things. A woman playing with a cat. An investment banker on skis. Someone had written the lyrics to a really bad pop song as a eulogy, and it hit me:

That’s too kitsch to be fake.
This person really died.

When you know that horror is just a step away from the humdrum, it’s only human to begin asking questions.
How could such things happen? How could we let them happen? How could we have stopped it?
How do we unravel the chaos of the present back to the malignant seeds sown in the past?

The important thing is to let these questions rise to the surface of our thinking. It’s a good thing to have the curiosity and the courage to examine what is horrible and wrong. Asking why reaffirms our humanity. The threads history is woven of lead to different places, and people often arrive at different answers. What matters most is that we make the attempt. Turning away would make us complicit, to a small degree.

It’s easy to become wrapped up the warp and woof of daily routine; sending email, washing dishes, doing the laundry, commuting to work. Enduring or enjoying little moments that may exasperate or inspire us.

Yet it’s in this often banal sphere that we have the power to push back the ‘banality of evil’. By voting. By writing. By reading. By teaching. By learning. By protesting. By creating. By doing what is right, in your eyes, to repair crimes of the past or to prevent those of the future.

And by doing this work we may find the clouds part from time to time, not to reveal ‘bad time’ but moments of enlightenment and illumination.

Tags: London terrorism Cambodia

3 Responses to “Tube and Time”

  1. Mark says:

    Actually John, Chantria (my youngest) did go to the Siem Reap International School and the person I know who was most affected by yesterdays bombings is a Khmer friend of ours who suffered minor injuries on one of the tubes affected………small world

  2. Jinja says:

    Some people in the states decided to start a sort of ‘solidarity blog’. “London Hurts”.

    Of course English folks signed in and immediately started taking the piss out of it. Worth a ponder – do you laugh or cry?

    Got to admit given IRA bombings and the Blitz, British culture seems to be well adapted to adversity…

  3. Cat says:

    I’m a Brit and these bombings have pissed me and everyone else I know off. The British sense of humour is both our way of dealing and our way of showing defiance. They’ve picked the wrong nation. The majority of people here wanted to pull out of Iraq before the bombings but now are determined to stay just to show the fuckers they haven’t won and will never win.

    The London bombings can be a blessing in disguise in that muslim and non-muslims may be brought closer by the adversity.
    I just hope that British muslims aren’t further alienated by this (especially the press reaction in recent days) or we really will be in the shit. Terrorism whatever, race war oh shit.

    I never want to see Oswald Moseley’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech come to pass.

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