Thursday, November 25, 2010

50 UK Days: Week 6

This post could be subtitled “Revolution and Peace.” I’m in London at the moment, where yesterday the city center and other parts of the country were paralyzed by thousands of students protesting with sit-ins and walk-outs of classes because of the planned tuition increases in the UK (photograph: Matt Dunham/AP). When they protested a few weeks ago, it led to some serious violence, so the police were on alert. The latest report from the BBC this morning says that 32 people were in taken into custody yesterday, and while there has been more destruction, in general the protest seems to have been rather stable compared to last time. Whether it will be successful is another story. The fact that the headlines focus on the disorderly conduct of the students certainly diverts attention away from what they are trying to accomplish. I still haven’t figured out exactly how all this works here economically, except to have been told that the plan is to raise tuition fees up to 200% higher than they are now. Apparently the same tuition fees exist regardless of which funded institution one attends. In the US, of course, all of this is more arbitrary, depending on the state you are in, and in many cases the actual institution. That doesn’t take into account private schools like NYU or Columbia, where an undergraduate could pay upward of $40,000 a year now. I think Americans have grown apathetic about all of this, in particular because we see increases every year and have come to expect this, even though no one likes it. The proposed tuition increase is being seen here as a reinforcement of the social class structure, as it will prevent students from getting a university education. In the current economic crisis and job market, that is extremely discouraging. Considering that Scotland has eliminated tuition fees, and that the Liberal party had proposed to do the same thing but reneged after the last election, it is certainly understandable why the students are frustrated and protesting.

Last week, when I wasn’t working in Liverpool, I spent the rest of my week exploring a bit. The Albert Dock area is rather impressive in how the city was able to convert the abandoned former shipyard warehouses into residential, commercial, and retail spaces. In the case of Tate Liverpool, the designers were able to provide viewers with wonderful views of the Mersey River while strolling through the museum. Also on the dock is the Maritime Museum and the Museum of Slavery. On the one day I attempted to visit those museums, thinking I might have a cathartic experience regarding slavery in particular, there were about 3000 school children in the building screaming and running around like hyperactive monkeys in a cage. OK, so maybe there was actually about 300 children, but the way they were carrying on it seemed like there hundreds more. The staff couldn’t keep them under control. Needless to say, 5 minutes of that and I was out of there, having gone through a catharsis of a different kind.

After having enjoyed then tired of the shopping mall experience that is Leeds, I was uncertain if I was glad or sad to see that Liverpool One was yet another new outdoor shopping mall that ran from Albert Dock toward the city center. Capitalism is definitely hard at work in the UK. Its one consolation was the stunning mix of contemporary architectural styles, some of which literally dazzled the eye with enormous display windows, intense multi-colored lighting, diagonal roof projections, and multi-level entrances that quite easily confuse you but somehow still encourage you to keep shopping (capitalism indeed).

Located in the midst of all this, in Chavasse Park, is the John Lennon monument, unveiled on what would have been his 70th birthday on October 9 by his first wife Cynthia and son Julian Lennon. The work is a fun-filled 18-foot polychrome sculpture showing the globe, musical symbols, and stylized white doves, relates to Lennon’s message of world peace. Liverpool has been celebrating Lennon’s birthday all fall with concerts. The Bluecoat was even hosting a reenactment of the bed-in that Lennon did with Yoko Ono on their honeymoon in 1969, which I regret now not having seen (although the video stream is interesting). As for the sculpture, I can appreciate the message behind it, but the work is dwarfed by the props used to announce and explain it. Even worse, the park is presently the site for a holiday village and almost impossible to find the sculpture. One can only hope all of this will go away soon, so that the sculpture will stand on its own in a natural environment with trees and park benches, so as to celebrate the essence of peace that it is meant to commemorate.

And in the spirit of change, revolution/peace, and gratitude, Happy Thanksgiving to my bklynbiblio readers!

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