Friday, 30 October 2009

Notes On A Man About To Die

Once in a while, an event occurs which makes everyone sit up and take notice, question the very basis on which reality is built. Some events are so momentous that, upon hearing of them we wonder if the person informing us is, in fact, recounting a scene from some outlandish film.
This is how I felt a few weeks ago when one of my colleagues asked me, a propos of nothing much, if I'd heard the news about Akmal.
“No, what news?”, I queried.
He told me that Akmal had been sentenced to be shot by firing squad for drug trafficking in China. The execution was imminent, barring a last-minute reprieve being granted by The Court of Appeal.
   I bent over the office computer, and typed the name Akmal Shaikh into the search engine. Straight away, Google poured out a list of pages and articles about the death sentence. I was shocked, but not entirely surprised. I had been well aware that this man was a massive risk-taker, a person who would leap without a second glance either to his left or to his right. How could he have come to this?..
   I had been a self-employed leaflet deliverer--- a sort of private postman who went from door to door shoving cards, menus, and leaflets through people's letterboxes. Because of the low fees which I charged all my clients, I was seldom without work, and I enjoyed the freedom which it gave me. The solitary nature of the job gave me a lot of time in which to think, and to organise my creative ideas. In good times, I would combine two types of leaflet from different firms, thereby doubling my wages for the same distance walked.
It was through this line of work that I came into contact with Teksi, a fairly-successful cab firm in Kentish Town, North-West London. The owner of the firm was a short, squeaky- voiced chap called Akmal Shaikh, a Pakistan-born Briton.
    He had a kind of wariness about him whenever I went into his office. Was it unfriendliness, disdain? I didn't care, since I was my own boss, a freelance who chose his own working hours. I would be in there for, at most, twenty or thirty minutes at a time. He was at his most cagey whenever his female employee was in the office.
    She was a homely young Polish woman, wholly devoted and protective of her boss. It soon became plain to me that, although he was married, he and the Polish secretary/ telephonist were more than colleagues. There were times when I would see her sitting on his lap as I entered the office. One day, right out of the blue, he announced that they were now married! Several months previously, he had begun to call her by a Muslim name which he had given her. She soon left the firm, went back to Poland after the birth of their first child---his fifth.
    She was now living full-time in Poland, while he ran his business from London. He would go over for weeks at a time to be with his now-Muslim new wife. Since she left there was a vacancy for a telephonist. He employed a succession of pretty young ladies, mostly Poles, who were glad of the chance to work here. Their country had only recently emerged from Communist rule, and membership of the-then European Economic Community (now The European Union) was several years away.
During his return trips to London, it is rumoured that he had affairs with a succession of the young girls in his employ. Some claim that he set up home with one of them. When she left to continue travelling , he sought a replacement.
    By this time, I had long since stopped working for him, having taken up a sedentary job as a controller with a rival firm. After a year or so, my new employer closed his doors, apparently because Akmal did not want a rival to be based only a hundred yards away from him; he claimed that Akmal had made numerous complaints about our drivers' noise-making to the local council, in which he had some influential friends.
I moved on, having secured a controller's post with yet another firm, this time about a mile away. I kept bumping into old colleagues from Akmal's office. None of them had a good word to say about him. There were constant rumours of unpaid wages, monies being unfairly held on to...One night he made a phone call to my employer ( a former employee of his with whom he had had a falling- out). He wanted him to know that he was selling up, quoted him a price, and demanded an answer there and then. Upon hearing this, I advised my employer not to have anything to do with it---I could smell a rat.
    A few months later, we realised what had caused his hasty departure....The local newspaper had a shocking report of a mini-cab boss who had been charged with sexual harassment of a female employee. On the third page, there was Akmal's photo for all to see. He was fined a large sum of money by an Industrial Tribunal, after he lost the case which had been brought by the young woman. His loss of face was complete. He fled to Poland.
     The next time I heard about him, it was claimed that he had split up with his wife ( the devoted Catholic who loved him so much that she had changed her religion for him), other rumours had him being arrested for I don't know what...Out of the blue, one ex-colleague had me in stitches by saying that Akmal had been sending him emails inviting him to “ do jihad “ with him! I almost fell off my chair laughing...
    The newspaper articles all talk of a trip from Warsaw to a remote part of China. Upon searching his luggage, Customs found a quantity of heroin. Some say it was four kilos, others, seven. He claimed no knowledge of the drug's existence, claiming that he went to make a pop record about world peace. It is also claimed that he was homeless at the time, and had befriended a shadowy figure who claimed to have contacts in the music industry.
    Newspaper reports say that the judges at his trial laughed openly at some of his claims, his testimony is said to have been rambling and incoherent. He bombarded the British Embassy with long letters. The rights group, Reprieve, claim that he suffers from bi-polar disease and is delusional. The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has been persuaded to make representations, all to no avail, it would seem.
    He may already have been shot. China, after all,  is one of the governments which is most ready to execute prisoners. Even if he were to be released tomorrow, his life is in tatters. I pity his children. They were polite and pleasant young people whose lives are forever tarnished. Their ambitious father---he once visited the Dassault factory in Toulouse saying he wanted to buy an aeroplane with which to start an airline ---he is gone from them, even if he were to be released and pardoned.
    I am not in favour of the death penalty, not even for mass – murderers. After all, did Jesus of Nazareth not tell us to spare the sinner, or cast the first stone if we have never sinned? The Chinese authorities take a different view; after all, did the British and French imperialists not seek to weaken their society by selling them hard drugs not so long ago? The memory of the opium trade may still be fresh in the minds of their officials.
I find it a pity that a man who may have been mentally-imbalanced is being made to pay the price of those past wrongs.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

On the South Bank of the Thames

The South Bank of the River Thames houses one of the great collections of cultural and artistic meeting- places in London. The complex consists of The National Theatre, The Royal Festival Hall, The Hayward Gallery, The Queen Elizabeth Hall, and the Purcell Room.

A trip to the South Bank Centre is best approached on foot across the Waterloo Bridge.The view from the bridge is absolutely spectacular; on one side, there is the Palace of Westminster, wherein are The Houses of Parliament, as well as the world-famous London Wheel.
The Royal Festival Hall , one of London's premier concert venues, has been in existence since 1951.Like the rest of the South Bank complex, the building is in the style of the-then-fashionable "brutalist architecture" of the post-war period.Opinions are divided as to its aesthetic worth, but I believe it is now a listed building.
During the day, it is common to see buskers and other street musicians around the concourse .Around the side of the building, there is a large bronze bust of Nelson Mandela, as well as various cafes and eating places.There are plenty of seats and benches on which to sit , and drink, and to watch people go by...In fact, it would be possible to spend an entire day in the Complex--starting at a contemporary art exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, the visitor could then go to sit and eat at one of the cafes or restaurants. Those who enjoy a spot of reading can pop into a bookshop  or the Poetry Library( Level Five of the Festival Hall)...

There are often free recitals of classical music , as well as photographic exhibitions in the foyer of the Festival Hall. During the summer, there is a great book market along the river bank, with a large number of vendors with their stalls in front of them.

After visting the art gallery, the free concerts , and other attractions, the visitor might like to end their visit by attending the National Theatre to take in one of their productions.This is the home of some of the most-acclaimed heavyweights of British theatre.

A visit to the South Bank is a" must-do" for the visitor to London.It is a family-friendly and relaxed day out, especially in view of the pedestrianised nature of the complex, and the picturesque backdrop of the River Thames.There is bound to be something there for everyone.