After a dreary weeekend today was a glorious sunny day, with the added lustre of being the day after my last exam this term. I pecked my English teacher on the cheek as she set off for the salt mines and then, remembering that she’s leaving for Turkey for two weeks tomorrow, I telephoned and offered to escort her in the sunshine. Luckily she hadn’t yet even crossed the road.
As we passed Wimpole Mews I recalled it making a passing but pivotal appearance in a new documentary series on BBC by Andrew Marr on modern British history. It was the home, until he committed suicide (a detail I’d forgotten) of “society osteopath” Dr. Stephen Ward, a central character in the Profumo Affair. A well known story, certainly, but I was entirely unaware that when Mr.Profumo first noticed the lovely Christine Keeler at a party that she was naked.
Marr’s animated telling of the story of how “the chaps” who ran Britain, the old boys of a certain class, came unstuck and were ushered off the stage in the sixties was historic, and must itself become a permanent part of the cultural landscape–I mean “historic” in the sense Michael Winner uses the word in his irritatingly smug and occasionally droll restaurant column in the Sunday Times, which is to say “delicious.”
Mandy Rice Davies‘s famous “He would, wouldn’t he” response in court, when told that Lord Astor denied ever having met her, let alone had an affair with her, mocked and exposed a world of privilege and hypocrisy in a way that changed it forever. As Marr put it, “the chaps lost.” I knew the story, more or less, but not that Ward had lived a stone’s throw away. So, an added landmark of my “urban village,” Marylebone. However, I knew it as a tale of sexual scandal (historically preferred by Members of Parliament) and impropriety, followed less famously by Profumo’s personal redemption. I had never really been aware of it as social watershed moment. But clearly it was. My English teacher recalls that the newspapers in her school were removed from the library to prevent the girls reading about “prostitutes” and shocking goings on they didn’t need to know about, which, naturally, intensified their gleeful curiosity.
I ended up later, after a mooch around Tottenham Court Road (score: one Hauppage digital terrestrial TV receiver), in Starbucks in Oxford Street, for the first time since the day I started this blog. As I paid for my Americano, and as I noticed that there was nowhere to sit upstairs and that all the seats outside in the sun were taken, I was handed a card. It was an invite to a reading by the author Ishmael Beah starting downstairs in, (watch check), four minutes.
A few weeks ago I read a wonderful, moving article in the London Sunday Times about Beah, the book, Starbucks’ promotion of it, and Laura Simms, the American woman who engineered his migration to the US and became his adoptive mother (here’s one in the NY Sunday Times). It was a tale of appalling tragedy, compassion and redemption. I wondered about Starbuck’s motives, briefly, but preferred to reflect on the improbable and inspiring ways that acts of compassion can ripple onwards. Without Simms generosity this story wouldn’t have been told. She is a storyteller. Surely in her wildest dreams she never imagined the consequences. The book has become a publishing phenomenon, and Ishmael a so-called “rock star author”. But all the same, only a few dozen people present in Starbucks stopped to listen. If he wasn’t in a corner physically Beah’s reading didn’t get most of the patrons to stop chatting.
Beah, a boyish 26, was articulate, likeable, sincere and at times funny. His recovery from the past that was inflicted on him showed a degree of resilience that was astonishing and hopeful for the prospects of child soldiers everywhere (from Colombia to Myanmar).
Currently, Tony Blair is on a “farewell tour” that included a brief visit to Sierra Leone and the tour is being derided in the media. Beah was asked about the British military intervention that ended the conflict there. “It happened overnight and was done easily,” Beah replied, “so you have to wonder why it couldn’t have been done earlier when it would have been even easier to achieve a result?”
By chance I ran into Ishmael in the street an hour later. I couldn’t help thinking that he could be taken for any other black Londoner. We chatted briefly and he took off for his next gig, at Amnesty International. I know he is now willingly in the grip of another circus. The media. The Starbucks Corporate and Social Responsibility team. His publishers. Clearly, he reckons, so far, it’s worth it (some of the book proceeds will go to a foundation to help with the rehabilitation of former child soldiers).
Given the cosmopolitan nature of Oxford Street I wonder what stories I have passed by, as I would have passed Ishmael had I not felt like a cup of coffee at noon.