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“Shave Your Beard Off”

The Olympics kick off today. Also, I’m growing a beard.

That second part isn’t news for most people, except for perhaps my most ardent stalkers. I’ve only really grown one once before and it was around this time seven years ago so I figured it was time to go again.

Seven years ago, I was in Spain with Ben, a friend from school. We were taking three weeks off – me to write and seemingly cultivate said beard, him to get away from some personal stuff for a while. I think it’s fair to say that we weren’t the best of friends, but we ended up on this great trip together, in this one place for three weeks, which was both intense and unlike anything I’d ever done before. We drank a lot of absinthe to pass the time. Any excuse, we drank absinthe, magnitude was not a consideration. Scrambled eggs? Absinthe. Managed to not get washed out to sea while trying to row to Africa in our rubber dingy? Absinthe. Finished the absinthe? Absinthe.

But one thing happened that was definitely worth the absinthe, the black ninety percent stuff, and that was when we heard on the sixth of July that London had won the bid to host the Olympics. We were absolutely chuffed. Both of us love(d) the city to bits and being nineteen at the time, it seemed wrapped up in the glorious future ahead. The spectacle of a life time was coming to our home! And so, friends – absinthe.

The next morning, a beeping sound cut through my hangover. I reached over for my phone and found a message from my Dad. It simply said “shave your beard off”. This was pre-3G and all that, so I just thought he was being his usual forceful self. I staggered to the Internet café in the noon sun, intent on checking my emails, but once I hit the BBC front page that didn’t seem so urgent anymore. A few phone calls later and thankfully everyone I knew was fine, but I was anxious to get back, and it wasn’t too long after that we returned. I shaved my beard off before I got on the plane.

London was a moody place. In Plumstead, Sikh kids were getting the shit kicked out of them because they looked so obviously other. A Sikh friend of my Dad’s apparently screamed “But I’m not a Muslim!” as his head cracked the ground and he got a boot through his face. People would look at you funny when you stepped onto the Tube. They wouldn’t sit next to you. Hell, they’d move out of their seats. Sales of see through backpacks boomed. As someone who felt both angry and empathetic, I didn’t resent that, I understood and I internalised that feeling. I was more than eager to let my bag get searched. I wanted to scream “Look, not all brown people want to blow things up!” The beard stayed off. But, quite remarkably, for all the international fall out, London was back to her usual self within a couple of months. Sometimes brusque, but no longer so suspicious, and so she’s remained, the odd individual let down aside. No doubt that some anti-Islam sentiment remains, but it exists within an overwhelming sense, from all communities, that the events of 7/7 were the actions of maniacs, not martyrs. The man on the street be he bearded, turnbaned, cruxific bearing or yes, friends, even red trousered, is more likely to want to be your friend than your enemy.

So I’m taking the chance to grow a beard now, knowing that we’ve healed, celebrating that our distrust was short-lived and look forward to a wonderful two weeks of epic sporting ahead, mere metres from my front door. The forecast says rain. What could be more London than that?

I leave you with then Mayor Ken Livingstone’s speech from after the bombings, that talks of the hope of the seven years to come and the character of the London public, and also one from his successor that’s a bit jingo but hey, it’s pumping.

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