Letter from London, Part 1

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(HOST) Commentator Olin Robison was in London during recent turbulent events. Today, he reflects on his impressions of London in the days just before the terrorist strike.

(ROBISON) What an extraordinary couple of weeks it has been for the British people, and especially those who live in the great city of London.

First, on July 2nd, there was the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park, the Make Poverty History big event. Then, a few days later, there was the news from Singapore that London would be the venue of the 2012 Summer Olympics – an announcement that Londoners greet- ed with special happiness since their final competitor for that event had been Paris. Then there was the G8 Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland which – as far as Londoners were concerned – was also their event. And then, of course, shortly afterwards, the horrible bombing of the underground trains and the double-decker bus. It was an extraordinary sequence of events by any standard.

On July 2nd, I was in London and, about noon, had gone from the small hotel where I was staying near Hyde Park Corner over to pick up a ticket at Paddington Station. Then, walking back about 1:30 that day, I encountered the massive flow of humanity headed into the Park for the Live 8 concert. Somewhere between 200 and 300,000 people chattering away in a stunning array of languages. All very orderly. Thousands of happy people with their picnics and water bottles and, disproportionately, teenagers. I wasn’t going to the concert, but I might as well have been. My small hotel was no more than two blocks from the stage and, believe me, it was loud enough to hear everything very clearly.

I thought that day, walking against this massive flow of humanity, “Wow! What a great place this is. No wonder so many people want to come here. It is so open, so free, so inviting to anyone who wants to come.”

And, of course, it is all that and has been for a long, long time. Both London and Paris have welcomed people from practically everywhere else for about 200 years. But, here again, London had traditionally outdone Paris, taking in the most amazing collection of people. In the mid-19th century, for example, London even gave shelter to Karl Marx, the rumpled scribbling academic, when he was thrown out of Paris. One could cite a long list of examples.

But that day, July 2nd, they were doing something else the British are good at, which has long been the ability to rally people to a cause. This time, it was to call attention to the dramatic poverty that still pervades over half of the world. The stated goal was to get the attention of the world leaders who were about to convene in Scotland. Make Poverty History was the theme and, in this in- stance, celebrity musicians were the vehicle to get the message out – and especially up to Scotland.

The starting point, in the minds of the organizers, was to have the rich nations cancel the huge debts which the third world nations owe to first world nations. The point was and is that these poorer nations now spend more on debt service than they do on provid- ing basic services for their own desperately poor populations. It looks like they may have been successful in this, although we will have to wait to see whether, once back home, the politicians will honor their promises. We’ll see.

There is, of course, a downside to all this wonderful openness, and we will deal with that in the second part of these observations from London.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is past president of both the Salzburg Seminar and of Middlebury College. He now lives in Shelburne. Tomorrow morning, he will consider what effect the London bombings may have on future political policies in England.

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