Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Devil in Arsenal

This morning, as I was leaving home, a woman approached me. She said she was very troubled about the rising violence and killings lately, and wanted to know what I thought. I said something about the social breakdown of late capitalism. 'But who is behind all this?' she asked, taking a book out of her handbag, and opening on one of the pages of the Revelation. It mentioned the dragon, the serpent, and the devil. 'He is responsible', she said. I said I did not believe in the devil, declined to take her reading material, and cycled off.

But then I saw him. He was walking on Gillespie Road, coming from Arsenal Tube station. A middle aged man wearing a black bowler hat, and three heavy necklaces, and carrying a Tesco plastic bag. He seemed deep in thought.

* * *

This summer of moving house every four weeks gives me an opportunity to familiarise myself with areas in London I never knew before. Arsenal is the latest: it's a pleasant, nondescript lower-middle class neighbourhood in north London. If you never lived in London, it would look exactly like any other neighbourhood: the terrace houses, the occasional council estate, the park. But between them there is a big football stadium: this is Arsenal, home of the football club, a household name for millions of people around the world. The stadium lives up to the club's reputation. It carries the logo of the Emirates airline and its slick glass and steel design is how I imagine Dubai. But arriving there is a sort of an accident, tucked away as it is between the community nature park and the housing development. Nothing much prepares you to it, and once you passed it you are back in north London.

I am no football fan but even for me the name Arsenal carries some meaning. Reconciling the global trademark with the London reality is a confusing experience, but one that is an integral part of living here. So much of our modern mythology came out of London. The estranging effect of placing the myths back into their pecularly local birthplaces is one of the reasons I like living in this city.

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