I marvelled, at first, at the scale of the room, the way it seems to speak in firm stone-coloured tones, articulating divine words. ‘Gathered here is the knowledge of the world,’ maybe, or, ‘Here grows the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,’ or, ‘Here is the temple of your ancestry: your Grecian urns, totem poles, looms, and spears”.
Those two Chinese statues have stuck in mind. How clown-like and pathetic they looked standing there, guarding nothing.
I felt a tiny seed of grief, displaced over generations, and multiple journeys by sea. I thought of some temple or grave or family home perhaps razed to the ground generations ago, some patch of land given to an invasion of evil spirits, sleeping ghosts left unguarded.
What do these statues guard now? Into whose service have they been impelled? They’ve been turned into decoration. Like the nearby Totem pole taken from the Haida nation in Canada, a towering wooden record of myth, story, and wisdom, turned into a plastic Tiki-pole in the middle of the Great Court’s £4-coffee cafeteria.
I am brought to a show and a dinner by an older gentleman. The play is Talk Radio by Eric Bogosian, one of those sweaty-armpitted American plays with a butch macho male anti-hero given license to spout egregious hateful bullshit by the collective will of our empathetic engagement. The show leaves, me at the end of its two hour traffic, with a sulphurous tang in the mouth. I feel like I’ve spent the past two hours helping a badly written character discover the emptiness of his life. The last ten minutes are spent with him weeping in a corner.
“How do you live without an Ah Ma,” my companion later says at dinner. “That’s what my cousin asked herself when she moved back here from Singapore.” I’m being told stories about his life in Singapore in the 80s, with digressions to the well-meaning auntie who cheekily teases him about his live-in Singapore army boyfriend (“what do you mean how do we know each other? I fuck him every night!”); his colonial-minded cousin in Singapore on her husband’s military rotation; and his collection of gaysian buddies.
One white wine in, I begin to realise there’s a game being played, the rules of which are unclear to me. I politely coo and marvel at his connections in the theatre, his apparent former life as a theatre critic, his stories of gaysians in his employ (and visa sponsorship), his ambitions for a ballet on gay themes.
It’s a very strange evening. At one point, we get to discussing empire. It starts with the politics of playing jingoistic military music during an audio tour moment of the Tate’s Artist and Empire, around the statue of Queen Victoria.
I tell him about the Chinese statues. We start talking about museums and their shady acquisition methods. I talk about how my experience of modernity was colonized before the fact of my birth. I talk about London’s Canary Wharf, a direct photocopy of Singapore’s CBD. I point out the curious ebb and flow of visions of modernity, passed around like candy from one mouth to another. I feel in this moment like I’m pushing too hard, and I enjoy it.
I see from his face that I’ve somehow ruined the game, proved either too smart or too stupid. When I reach in for a hug instead of a double kiss on the cheek as we part, another game badly played.
Star Trek Discovery is out on Netflix. I enjoy it for a whole range of reasons– its woman of colour lead, Michelle Yeo’s Wayang Kulit puppet decor, its amazing special effects, and deep space fantasy. You can tell quite early that it’s offering some kind of commentary on a Trump and post-Brexit world, little nods to intolerance, war-mongering, the installation of fiery demagogues into positions of power.
But the Klingons are such a racist caricature. They’re dark-skinned, hyper-aggressive, chest-beating, tribal space orcs. They speak in a throaty desert language, galvanised by their war-mongering religion, and always up to no good. They bury their dead in space. They rally around ancient stone carvings. And of course they want nothing more than the utter destruction of the benevolent, peace-loving, science-and-reason motivated Federation, never mind diverse casting.
The show claims the Klingons are a stand-in for Trump supporters, but really, Trump supporters could watch the same show and draw a very clear line to any number of communities: Muslims, black people, refugees, immigrants. The klingons are so hateful.
I wonder why culture inevitably ends up trafficking in these sorts of images.
We suggest who we think they are in the politest of ways. After the Parson’s Green incident, Kishan and I watch the BBC on the TV in his hostel. The BBC have chosen two Muslim anchors to front the reports, each one echoing over and over again the need to keep calm and carry on, the story of the stoic Londoner, the unfazed Londoner. Sadiq Khan appears and makes a reassuring statement. The picture is this: three brown people telling London to stay calm.
I realise, now more than ever, that I feel a profound sense of calm when I am surrounded by brown and black people. Right after the attack, I’m at the market in Brixton where my Airbnb is. Brixton is home to a large Afro-Caribbean population. In the market I see soursoup, bittergourd, chilies, dark leafy greens, yams, and Halal butchers. The floor is wet with washing-water, the smells are bloody, pungent, vegetal. The images are familiar, but this raucous, fuss-free market energy, not yet surrendered to artisanal jams and sourdough bread, reminded me of 9am at the cheap-but-good wet market back home, squeezing vegetables alongside hawk-eyed aunties. It felt in that moment that this market, surrounded as I was by these distant cousins, was the safest place I could be in the city.