City Of Ghosts

A couple  of  evenings  ago  I went  to  see  a  film  called   ‘City  Of  Ghosts.’ It  is  the  story  of  the  city  of  Raqqa, in  Syria, and  its  takeover  by  ISIS. The  city  has  been  practically  destroyed ,  not  just  by  ISIS  but  also  by  the  Syrian ,  Russian  and  US governments  who  have  all been  having  a  pop.

A group  of  ‘ordinary  ‘ people ,  from  this  carnage ,  got  together  to  form  the  group   Raqqa  Is Being  Slaughtered  Silently   (RBSS). Together  they  risk ,  and  some  have  lost,  their  lives  to  get  information  out  to  the  world ,  the  truth  of  what  is  happening ,  what  the  media  is  not  telling  the  world .  Together  they  are  fighting the  propaganda  put  out  by  ISIS and  at  significant  cost  to  themselves  and  their  loved  ones .  Their  courage  and  determination  is  hard  to  put  into  words . As one  member  of  the  group  said ,  ‘I’ve  started  to  look  forward  to  dying  of  natural  causes.’

The  messages  from  the  film  are  stark ,  brutal  and many.  A sentence  that  stuck  with  me  was  an  observation  by  one  member ,  ‘Things  can  fall  to  chaos  much  quicker  than  anyone  can  believe . ‘  These  heroic  people  document  the  decline  into  chaos  and  brutality ,  essentially  since  2011 when  the  Arab  Spring  reached  Syria. Of  course  there  would  have  been  rumblings  and  less  than  ideal  life  leading  up  to when the  resistence  began , but  nothing  like  that  of  the  subsequent  experiences  of  this  beautiful  nation  of  people .  How  quickly  this  country  has  fallen  into  chaos ,  much  quicker than  it  would  have  been  possible  to  believe  and  I  wish  we  could  say  that  there  is  an  end  in  sight .

Another  thing  that  struck  me was  one  man  saying ,  ‘It  is  not  enough  to  get  rid  of  ISIS ,  to  get  rid  of  Assad. We  have  to  create  a  government  that  speaks  for  its  people.’ It  was/is a pervading  ideology  that  has  allowed  ISIS  to  flourish. It  was  the  world  turning  a  blind  eye  that  has  allowed  ISIS, and  the  pervading  ideology ,  to  flourish .  ISIS has  now  become  a  problem  for  the  world .

And  us? What  are  we  doing ?  Increasing  the  narrative  of  fear  and  division  that  fuels  the  very  ideology  that  we  are  running  from .  We  are  feeding  the  beast  with  its  favourite  and  most  nourishing  fodder. We  have  allowed  a  government  to  flourish  that  does  not  speak  for  its  people .  In  a  short  time  we  have  become  a  nation  divided  such  as  I  have  never  experienced  before .  I  am  not  saying  that  what  we  are  living  is ,  in  any  way ,  comparable  to  that  of  the  Syrian people  but  the  words  ‘things  can  fall  to  chaos  much  quicker than  anyone  can  believe,’ should  heed  as  a  warning  to  each  and  every  one  of  us.

In  a  short  time  we  now  have ,  apparently ,  the  most  right  wing  government  in  our  history .  In  the  past  year,  our government  is  being  taken  to  court  by  the  UN over  its  abuse  of  human  rights  to  the  disabled  people  of  our  country .  A law  has  been  passed  that  requires  a  woman  to  prove  that  any  third  or  subsequent  child  was  born  of  rape should  she  need  any  support .  Living  with  the  rapist  automatically  disqualifies  any  claim. The  government  is  being  taken  to  court   (again) over  breaking  the  law  with  regards  to  its  legal  duties to  safeguard  young  people .  Doesn’t  exactly  fill  you  with  confidence  does  it ?  It  requires  remaining  healthy ,  wealthy ,  not  young, old or  disabled .  Don’t  go  under  a  bus, don’t  get  divorced  and  hang  on  to  your  ovaries !  It  would  appear  that  they  are  no  longer  our  own .

We live  in  a  country  where  I  am  able  to  rant  and  rave  about  what  is  happening, publish  it  and  not  get  my  head chopped  off .  This  is  no  small  thing. Please  let’s  keep  it  this  way. As  anyone ,  with  half  an  eyeball  open,  will  have  noticed,  nobody  is  immune  to  anything .  Freedom  is  not  something  that  happens  by  chance .  It  is  hard  fought  by  ‘ordinary’ people  and  not  just  gifted. Definitely  not  gifted  by  a  government  who  is  telling  you  how  many  eggs  you’re  allowed  to  use  in  your  ovarian  lifetime .

These  brave  people  of  ‘Raqqa  Is Being  Slaughtered  Silently’ offered  up  words  of  wisdom  in  how  we  can  all  help  towards  a  better  world, how  we  can  defeat  terrorism  and  oppression  – ‘We  have  to  use  the  power  of  good  that  is  in  people  to  overcome  evil.’ Wise  words  indeed. We  can  all  do  this  – good  manners, always ,  whether  to  family,  friends,  strangers,  face to face, on social media, good  manners. Generosity and help where you can, share what you have with those that have not.  Use your voice.  It  is  not  enough  to  say  ‘Isn’t  it  awful.’ Tell  the  governments  what  you  think .  At  a  recent  gathering  I  met   Shirley  Williams ,  a  long  standing  voice  of  the  people ,  and  she  said  ‘You  have  no  idea  how  much  power  you  have  as  a  people .  You  have  to  use  your  voice.’ Advice  from  a  woman  that  knows.

With our silence, we all play a part in evil being able to flourish.

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Nice is easier…

I’ve just got back from Ireland having a dream time riding a horse across the mountains and ending up at the seas of Donegal. It was way way beyond what I could ever have hoped for and very lucky I am indeed on many levels.

Apart from the stunning landscapes, the rolling hills and weather that changes every time you blink, I was blown away but just how nice everybody was. Not slimy nice but just genuinely nice. Bus journeys across the country were hilarious with a 6 hour journey lasting seconds when accompanied with the chatter and laughter of travel companions only just met. Perhaps prompted also by my delayed understanding of what a Donegal greeting ‘How you doing?’ means. It simply means hello and not actually ‘How you doing?’ needing a long and drawn out answer. It was a week before this finally twigged and then people were spared my ten minute answers which should have actually just been ‘good thanks.’ Hey ho. Pretty much every single person waved and smiled, especially when we were trugging along on the horses. But even without a horse, the very standard behaviour is just be nice. The general feeling is that everyone wishes the best for one another. The enormity of how simply beautiful this is stopped me in my tracks.

What I very quickly noticed is the sheer relief at being surrounded by niceness. There is a whole level of fear that is instantly removed when you are immersed in a mentality where the standard is just to be polite and nice to those around you. A whole level of fear that comes from being unsure as to what response your very presence may elicit from others, what mood they may be in, how your breathing in and out might piss someone off for some reason. It is instant all round happy and less stressful.

And here’s the thing… Being nice is way way easier than being shitty to people. Studies have been done on what it means to be nice although it is slightly sad that a study has to actually be done. Anyway, studies have shown that being nice helps you live longer, makes you happier and stress levels are way down. Being nice causes our brain to release endorphins which are the chemicals that give us the feel good factor. Doing something nice for someone also gives the brain a serotonin boost (anti depressant), another chemical that gives us a feeling of well-being. It seems mad that everyone doesn’t just sign up to being nice, the benefits are for everyone and it is so gloriously simple. Smile. It’s free, it’s catching, it’s really really good for you.

Yesterday I went to help my son do his amazing work clearing up at festivals. The place looked like tens of thousands of people had been sucked up into the air leaving more debris than the brain can actually imagine. I take my hat off to him and bow, what he is doing is hard graft and he’s in it for the long haul. I turned up to find dozens of cars driving onto the site. Out of the cars poured people of every size, shape, age and background, all coming to help clear up. In the space of a just a few hours we had half filled a 7.5 tonne truck with sleeping bags and people were cheering at the thought that they would go to people who needed them. It was wall to wall nice people. Genuine people who were brimming to the gills with their give a shit.

So being nice not only gave us a whole load of exercise, smiles and laughter but we all got to hang out with people that we wouldn’t normally hang out with. The star of the show was 6 year old Oliver who stacked sleeping bags in the truck for 3 hours solid and never once stopped smiling. It was impossible for any of us to grumble in his shiny presence.

So be nice. Nice is easier. It feels so unpredictable sometimes whether someone will be nice or not and I find that really unsettling. What changes could be made in this world if we were all just simply nice? It doesn’t have to be complicated or saintly or gushing or idiotic. Just nice. Perhaps one of the most underrated words in our languages. I leave you with a shining example of two really fabulously nice humans…

 

Living The Dream

Most people have dreams, it’s the most natural human thing to have. Having a dream signifies a future, hope, excitement, ambition, potential, safety, love, innovation, the list goes on and on. Without the dreams of people we would be without many of the things we have today, some of them good, some of them bad.

Dreams are also thought of as a night time thing but, in the traditional sense, living the dream basically means doing what you want to do or living the type of life you want to live. It means achieving  goals that you might set for yourself and living the joys that your hard work has brought you. For some people this is easier than it is for others for a whole raft of reasons. Health, mental health, wealth, personal capacity, family, support, circumstances in general can either help or hinder the path towards dreams becoming a reality. Some people seem to be able to achieve their dreams despite the most improbable of blocks put in their way and who knows why that might be.

The other evening Gulwali Passarley who is from Afghanistan, now aged 24 and originally came to the UK as a refugee aged 14, came to Saffron Walden to give a talk about his book and his life. He was utterly inspirational in talking about his dreams and his dogged determination to achieve those dreams. He has gone above and beyond what the average human might be able to achieve and I would recommend reading his book, ‘The Lightless Sky,’ as a window into his world. It is his story but it is also representative of many people who make a gruelling journey to reach their dreams, or to escape their nightmares.

Last year, 10,000 children went missing in Europe. Children who had made a journey escaping war and poverty and travelling alone and these are the children that we know about. I suspect that the real numbers are a great deal more. 10,000 Madeleine McCanns and hardly a murmer is heard about them. The thought of what will have happened to those children should chill the bones of any decent human being, it keeps me awake. 10,000 children dreaming of reaching safety, of having a future, of having an education. If you speak to any refugee child about their dreams then the answer is pretty much always ‘To go to school.’ The dreams of the parents are that their children should live a safer and better life than they have lived. That is the dream of any parent. We all wish for our children to be safe, to be happy and to be able to live their potential. Why should any other parent be any different?

Our government has taken in  around 350 unaccompanied minors from Europe after having promised to take in up to 3000. A law was passed, the law was ignored. Children promised safety, the very basic of human dreams, are now left as fodder to those that take advantage of anyone who has nobody at their backs. It is a disgrace, it is more than a disgrace it is heartbreaking. It is terrifying that a set of people, whose only job is to speak and act for their people, is so capable of ignoring the wish of their people and actively behaving in a way that causes harm. They are not our responsibility, people may cry out in indignation. Children are everyone’s responsibility. That is an unarguable fact. Wherever there is a child that needs looking after there should be someone to look after them. Full stop. Anyone who has an answer of ‘Yes, but…’ should go and nail their head to the fridge.

Whatever dream a person may have, you could pretty much guarantee that becoming a refugee was not on their list of dreams. Not part of the plan. It’s not on my list of dreams that’s for sure. For whatever reason, a person may be pursuing their dreams of reaching safety, a better life, it is not for us to judge those reasons. Trust me, there are systems in place that are doing the judging for all of us and with knobs on.

Why are some people allowed to dream ‘big’ and others have to keep their dreams in a box? I’ve never understood why some people are more entitled than others, this remains a complete mystery to me. This goes for whole swathes of society. Different nations, different classes, genders, you name it. Something, somewhere, has decided that there are a graded level of dreams that we are allowed to aspire to. The school that I went to did not encourage big dreaming. Secretary if you were a girl (a studious nice girl) and plumber if you were a boy (a studious nice boy) and apart from that, most people at school probably just aspired to stay out of the justice system. Similarly, for refugees, they are encouraged to keep their dreams small, to stay in their box. So much potential, so many dreams, so much brilliance squashed in the name of fear, prejudice and power.

When I was little, my biggest dream was that one day I would be able to have a dog that I loved and that loved me and that he would sleep curled up on my bed. For years, I pretended that it was true and then it did come true when I left home and met my first furry four legged mate. When my dog curls up on my bed, I have a little smile and say to myself ‘I’m living my dream.’ I am living the dream of the younger me. Now I dream that the world would treat one another with humanity, that people would think in terms of humanity rather than money and statistics.  That children were cared for. That people could aspire and achieve their dreams regardless of where they come from and their circumstances or, maybe, especially because of where they come from and their circumstances.

Maybe if we start talking to one another about our dreams. Instead of asking ‘What do you do?’ ‘How big is your house?’ and about careers and cars and money, how about we ask ‘What is your dream?’ Wouldn’t that just feel a whole lot better? And if you question the journey that a refugee might make then just ask yourself, why are you allowed to dream and they are not?

Dear Europe …

Dear Europe,

Where to start? I am going to use the collective royal ‘we’ on behalf of this country although I realise that I am not speaking on behalf of all of the people. I am writing from me but it may voice the views and feelings of more than just me so I’ll use ‘we.’ At the moment, we are a bit embarrassed about what is happening and I just wanted you to know that there are whole rafts of British people who do not want this divorce to go ahead. We have a ridiculous set of people ‘running’ this country who are dashing about making decisions that are making many of us hang our heads in shame and disbelief.

28 years ago, yesterday, I was lucky enough to bring a bonny boy into this world. He was born in Italy where I was living at the time. Technically, my son and I now do not belong to the same nation/continent/call it what you will. Technically, the country has voted to separate me and my son but we are lucky enough to find ways around this and also to not let fear take a grip although it did manage to have a damn good poke at the time. If we listened to all the fear mongering and desperate narrative that is sweeping our nation then we would be living in fear of having to live in different countries. I know that this is a very real thing for many people.

One of the problems that we have in this country is that we have a media that is out of control and, quite frankly, completely bonkers and that is where many people get their information from. I know that you do not have that problem to the degree that we have but I would issue a word of caution to not allow it to reach the stage that we have arrived at. Although we are currently the laughing stock of Europe, please do not think that you are immune to such folly. I have no idea what news is reaching your shores about what our government is doing but whatever is being said will not be representative of all of the people in this country but, as with so many things in this world, we will all be painted with the same brush.

I would ask of you to please try and treat us in a way that has always been when we come to Europe. Please do not think of us all as people wanting to separate ourselves from being Europeans, as that is something that a great many of us consider to be a large part of our identity. Try and not laugh in our faces, hard as that may be to do. We are managing to keep our sense of humour intact (just) and I would ask that you do the same. Even if it does not feel it, we are actually all in this together.

One thing that did strike me personally, and I wonder if this is something that might be relevant to people in other countries, is that after the referendum results I realised how little I knew of many parts of our country. I looked at the map of red (leavers) and blue (remainers) and realised that I had spent little time in vast amounts of the red bits on the map. Actually, where I live is a staunch leave/Tory area so that throws that argument out straight away but, generally, it made me think about the many areas of this country about which I have absolutely no idea. We are anything but a United Kingdom it would seem in so many ways. It is no wonder then that the country has become so polarised, maybe it always has been. So many people living in pockets of the country with no clue as to what is happening just down the road for we are, essentially, a small island. Is this true of all countries?

One note of reassurance to people in this country, and perhaps to you, is that the areas with the highest populations of non British people were the ones who mostly voted to remain within Europe. The whole tag line of immigration is a complete myth cooked up by the idiots spinning us vitriolic narratives for those stupid enough to believe them. I still stand firm by the belief that there should be compulsory dna tests which might go some way to busting these ridiculous myths out of the water.

I would ask that you resist the urge to stamp on our heads until we beg for mercy although I can see how that might be tempting. As ever, it will only be us lot who will come off worse. Most of us do not have the ridiculous notion of being a world conquering empire, ready and able to stand alone against the world. Also we seem to be being forced into a nightmare friendship with Trump and, just that alone, should be enough to elicit some sympathy surely?

So, dear Europe, can we still be friends? One thing the people of this country are good at is laughing at ourselves so we will be doing that job for you. There has been a bit of a flap about people making their way on to this island of ours but I’m just worried about how we’re going to get off! When you are busy hanging onto your bellies laughing at the folly and insanity of this nation, please spare a quiet thought for those of us who are sitting head in hands trapped on a small island being run by a bunch of lunatics.

The photo is of a stone that my son carved the word ‘nothing’ onto. Nothing is written in stone. Clever eh.  Nothing is ever written in stone and we can only hope that this time in history sees us all coming out the other end intact. Currently, our government seems to be steering us back into the dark ages so if you see images of us bear baiting and jousting in the streets then that is why. Personally, I would quite like to do some jousting but not all the things that go with it like shoving children up chimneys and having all my teeth fall out because I can’t go to the dentist which is already a reality (the dentist I mean, not the children up chimneys).

So, here’s to nothing being written in stone and here’s to a general civility that hopefully can see us through this whole holy mess.

 

Extreme Gardening

Today is a strange day to put it very mildly. I am very very lucky because whenever the world is strange (and that is quite often), I am able to go out on dear Amos (a horse) and he puts the world straight again. This morning I went out on him to do extreme gardening. This involves going down an overgrown path with a pair of secateurs and trying to clear the path. It is much much easier on foot. I dropped my phone once and the secateurs twice and getting back on is not as easy as it was 20 years ago. Extreme gardening means that you regularly get a face full of brambles while the horse charges onwards and you are engulfed in the debris that you have just cut down. On the way home it is worse as the horse is keen to get home so that anything other than perpetual motion is not an option. This turns more into bramble jousting, trying to aim the secateurs at overhanging brambles while you go past at a pace. The best thing about extreme gardening is that it leaves absolutely no head space for anything else other than the task at hand and today that was sorely needed.

I was major grumpy this morning and Amos, once again, put things into perspective. The thing is, we have quickly arrived at a point that seemed unimaginable only a short time ago. We are battling with extremism, misogyny, racism, disablism (is that a word?), elitism and all kinds of isms and that is just from our own government. This ‘leadership,’ if you will call it that, has given the green light to people to feel that they can say stuff and behave in a way that is abhorrent. As the day has unfolded it appears that we are going from bad to worse and all signs of hope from this morning are fading fast.

BUT DO NOT GIVE UP HOPE!

What has happened is actually brilliant, amazing and fantastic. In the space of a few short weeks, thousands, nay millions, of people have stood up and said ‘bollocks to bad people.’ This is very very inspiring. The dialogue of what constitutes a good leader has actually changed. Previously, it was assumed that any leader was a lying, cheating, egomaniac out for their own gain and can’t be trusted but then along came a man, and many others, who have the actual interests of the people at heart. Think what you will of individuals but actually the amount of people who took themselves off to the polling booths in support of somebody they could actually believe in was thoroughly soul restoring. It would seem that the narrative is actually changing. Sick stories make sick nations and what has happened is that a healthy story is emerging.

Although it may feel as though the voice of the majority is being trampled upon, it’s not true. I think that we should stand up and be proud of what has happened, especially young people. The next generation turned out in their many to cast their vote. It has made a difference. They make a difference. I really hope that they know this and that they are strengthened, rather than disheartened, by what has happened. The young people of today recognise that good has to triumph rather than greed and this has not happened for a while. These past few weeks have seen a swell of people not prepared to accept lies and deceit, not prepared to just drudge about drowning in apathy and feeling unable to do anything about it.

The next bit, whatever happens, is not going to be easy but the shift has already happened. This morning I woke up thinking that I just want to move away, that I’m fed up of living in an area that will never change but then, with a bit of extreme gardening, I was able to see what was actually happening, what has actually happened and it is very exciting. I truly believe that greed, cultural narcissism and the ‘each man to his own’ narrative is dying a death. We have a new narrative of strength emerging, one that is ready to reach out for the greater good and that this is now the majority rather than the minority.

To all those who have voted for the first time, I would urge you not to get caught up in the ‘ugh I voted and it doesn’t make any difference,’ story. You have made a huge difference and this is just the beginning. What you have done has injected a shed load of hope into a nation that was in desperate need of hope. It may not be the answer that people were looking for but, in the long term, this is exactly what we are looking for and, for that, I thank you deeply.

Smile Like You Mean It

I  Home Flown

So  I’m  up  a  mountain  in  Crete. It’s  idyllic. I’m lucky, I  know  I’m  lucky. I’m  working  hard  and  my  legs  are  turning  into  steel  rods  carrying  things  hither  and  thither  up  and  down  the  hills. I  usually  live  in  one  of  the  flattest  parts  of  England, we’re not  used  to  slopes. But, I’m  lucky.  I’m  with  nice  people, Crete  is  stunningly  beautiful  and  the  sun  is  shining  pretty  much  every  day. I  have  a  passport  that  allowed  me  to  travel   (for  now  anyway  ) effortlessly  on  a  plane  to  get  here  and  I  sailed  through  passport  checks  on  arrival .

When  I  was  younger  I  travelled  quite  a  bit .  I  was  fairly  used  to  not  understanding  the  language of  the  country  I  was  in and  used  to  struggling  to  make  myself  understood .  I  was  pretty  used  to  being  treated  with  disdain  because  I  was  English   (in  the  80’same,  being  English  was  not  cool  and  it’s  rapidly  looking  that  way  again). I  took  it  as  standard  that  being  a  lone ,  female  traveller meant  being  hassled ,  coming  up  against  prejudice  and  having  to  have  my  wits  about  me. But  it’s  been  a  long  time .  Over  the  last  twenty  years  I’ve  only  really  travelled  to  visit  friends  where  a  warm  reception  has  been  guaranteed.

The  Greeks  are  renowned  for  their  hospitality  and  I  have  been  on  the  receiving  end  of  their  welcoming  smiles, friendly  waves and  open  determination  to  try  and  decipher  my  arm  waving  to  describe  things. I  have  been  sent  on  shopping  missions  as  part  of  my  job  here  and  it  is  actually  quite  hard  to  mime  a  lettuce  and  spring  onions . Try  it . .. Olives  are  much  easier  and  paper  napkins  are  a  doddle .  However ,  there  is  one  man  who  stands  resolutely  blank  faced  in  the  face  of  my  miming  and   (very) pigeon  Greek. At  first ,  I  thought  he  was  just  shy  and  maybe  a  bit  frightened  of  my  exuberance .  I  soon  came  to  realise  it  is  because  I  am  foreign .  He’s  a  rare  one  out  here, the  Greeks  are  gloriously  friendly  and  generous  in  my  experience .  What  was, what  I  thought ,  shy  soon  became  mildly  hostile .  I  soon  noticed  how  quickly  this  chipped  away  at  my  confidence .  How  frustrating  it  was  to  not  be  able  to  ask  him  why, to  not  be  able  to  have  a  conversation ,  to  not  be  able  to  tell  him  that  I’m  a  mother ,  a  daughter ,  a  human.

I  am  grateful .  It  is  a  timely  reminder  of  what  my  friends  are  going  through. That  not  being  seen  as  human  quickly  seeps  through  to  create  a  second  layer  of  skin, it  becomes  a  part  of  you. A part  of  you  that  is  difficult  to  shake  off  even  when  amongst  friends ,  in  safe  and  welcome  company .  I  am  reminded  of  the  priceless  value  of  a  friendly  smile from  a  stranger which  can  lift  the  spirits  and  transform  a  day. You  don’t  have  to  go  out  and  perform  miracles ,  save  the  world  and  everyone  in  it. Just  smile .  Just  let  someone  know  that  they  are  so  welcome  to  share  the  same  bit  of  earth  that  belongs  to  none  of  us. We  are  all  only  here  for  a  short  while  so  smile  like  you  mean  it. None  of  us  has  any  more  right  than  the  next  person  to  be  walking  this  beautiful  planet  of  ours.

Last in, First out

Last in, First out is, apparently an accounting term and is something to do with data but it is more commonly thought of as the last one in is the first to leave. It’s known in the work place as the most recent to arrive are the most likely to lose their job and such like.

I have been thinking about this since my trucking trip in February and what happens in group situations. Discussions came up around sibling groups and who was where in the pecking order (another not particularly complimentary turn of phrase unless you are at the head of the pecking order) and how, where we sat in the sibling order impacted on our behaviour in a group. It’s interesting, it’s not a new thing but it’s interesting all the same. I am the youngest in the family and there was a general feeling among the youngest siblings that we were ‘last in, first out,’ not as in first to leave home but in a different way. The feeling was that you arrive into an already formed family and that you are an add on, additional, expendable almost (very very general sweeping statement but this was the conversation) and that you have to carve out your place in some way.

As the last to arrive it is necessary to try and think up something that hasn’t been done before, either you are very quiet, or very noisy, or very clever, or very something. It’s not alright to just jog along in a mediocre way as there always lies the risk that you could be out, as you were the last in. You are not a necessary component of the already existing set up. This wasn’t a conversation about how woe is us but about behaviour and then translating this to the wider population i.e. the refugees that we had travelled across Europe to take stuff to. People who arrive in another country are rarely permitted to be just mediocre, they have to be very very at something or other. They have to gain a place rather than it being just awarded to them because they are. Last in, First out. Newly arrived people are judged on their merits, what they can offer and how they can add to a situation, generally economically.

And to bring this round to what is happening in this bat shit crazy world, it all seems to come down to economics. It feels as though the humanity in discussions seems to have left the scene. All talks of bombs landing are reducing deaths to statistics and how much a bomb costs and how that money could be spent elsewhere. Just don’t drop bombs I say but apparently that is too simplistic. Maybe it is. All talk of the Euro referendum has been reduced to finances and single markets and amounts written on the side of buses rather than the distress it is causing to many families because of the uncertainty that lies ahead. And now another election and there will be more statistics bandied around, finances and, within that, the real discussions of real people just get reduced to background noise. When people are not heard, they shout louder and louder until they are heard and sometimes have to change what they’re shouting about in order to get heard.

Of course money comes into stuff but not half as much as we are led to believe. There is plenty to go round, it just needs distributing a bit more evenly. You offer homes to people because it’s the right thing to do, it really is that simple. The prime minister spoke today that she thinks that the whole country is pulling together. I’m not sure when she last stepped outside her front door or whether someone is feeding her porkies cos that’s not what the rest of us are seeing. There will be much talk of the ‘common good’ over the next few weeks but without any conversation about the fact that there is increasingly no longer a common good. All talks are serving to divide people. It feels like pitchforks at dawn rather than pulling together. I do hope that something good comes out of all of this but feelings are running high and those feelings are generally ones of fear. Fear that we and our loved ones are next on the hit list. That we might be considered the last ones in, in some way, and the first ones out, in whatever cookie way is going to be thought up next.

Please remember to be kind. Kindness is massively underrated. Just because the government is behaving like a bunch of toddlers fighting over the last ice cream, doesn’t mean that we all have to follow suit. There are many people who are very worried about their safety, about their future and the future of their children. Please do not use them as bargaining chips. Please do not expect them to perform extraordinary feats, split the atom all over again, in order to awarded a place of safety. It is enough just to be human.

p.s the photo is of Tom dog staring out at a seal in the sea. It is of no significance whatsoever other than I like the photo and I am now not going to see Tom for a month and I miss him already!

50 and (trying to be) Not Out

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This is more of a personal post and I am going to try and not rant but can’t promise anything…

In 2013, 4 years ago, I gave up my full time job, sold the house and set off on an unknown journey of storytelling and writing. A few months earlier I had gone to Nepal with my son and we had walked for a month up to a height of over 5600 metres. It was at the very top end of what I could do physically and it was a life changing experience in many ways, not least because we went in monsoon season so were clambering over land slides and we didn’t die but it came pretty close. Nearly dying makes you look at life differently. I also realised that our physical health, although we can help it along, involves a great deal of good fortune. I returned to work and the popular refrain, found in many offices, of ‘When I retire I’m going to…’ suddenly rang a bit hollow. It made me wonder what exactly I was waiting for. Did I really have to wait another 20 years to do what I really wanted to do even though I did also enjoy my work? I was 47 years old at that time.

I decided to take my own fate into my hands and throw the cards up in the air (let’s see how many cliches I can fit in here). I decided that, having experienced how amazing it was to have a functioning body, it was too risky to wait until retirement to do stuff. What if my body packed in earlier than that and I never got to do anything? I also decided that, at the age of 47, I was young enough to take some time out of, so called, normal life, and then be able to get back into employment a few years later. Wrong!

Blindly I set off into the sunset in my old post office van with my trusty lurcher by my side. No job, no house and happy as happy can be. I studied storytelling and started telling stories hither and thither and this opened up a whole new world that I had never known existed. I wrote, and had published, two books, something that I had always wanted to do. I became involved in volunteering with refugees, another life changing experience. The money was trickling in but it was flowing out because that is what money seems to do. A time had come to go back to work but with a whole set of new things that I had learnt along the way and, in theory, finding work should not be a problem but it has not turned out that way.

It would seem that at 47 it is true that you can pack your job in and find another job but past the age of 50, this is no longer true. I had heard all the statistics and rumours that women over the age of 50 struggle to find work but I didn’t listen or, rather, I didn’t believe it. Over the past year or so I have applied for jobs, been for a couple of interviews, although most applications don’t get as far as the interview stage, and nothing. I have applied for jobs for which I am definitely qualified and a million other reasons why there should be no reason why I shouldn’t get the job. Apart from my age. So, I set about asking people of their experiences and asking various employers of their opinions and, yes, it is definitely true. Women over the age of 50 are way less likely to be employed. In fact, statistically they are the least likely people to be employed. Men over the age of 50 also do not get a great deal but it’s not as bad as women. It has, naively or not, come as a bit of a shock.

I have searched articles and statistics and forums and blogs to find out why. There are many articles about the fact that this phenomena exists but there is no actual reason why. I am none the wiser. There are soooo many people saying that this is, indeed, the reality but no reason why. I would dearly love someone to enlighten us all, brutal honesty and all. In theory, women over the age of 50 should be good to have around. Years of experience, generally no young family around and dramas reduce dramatically as the years go by. I have spoken to women who, also, are not even getting to the interview stage even though they are ideally placed for the job and, at the age of 50, there are at least 15 years of work left to do before getting to this mythical retiring age which is rapidly disappearing into the horizon anyway.

What is going on?? There is loads of evidence that points to age being the only factor for not getting an interview and how come I didn’t know any of this? Have I been living in a vacuum? Does everyone else know this? Will someone enlighten me please?

Also if anyone is able to offer an old codger a job that would be great too…

Hurry Up And Wait…

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On the Isle of Lesvos there are currently around 65,000 refugees stuck on the island. I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again, mainly for my own benefit to keep trying to get my head round the fact. The winter is, apparently, a particularly harsh one and this has been born out by the recent deaths from hypothermia. Many families have been moved into hotels and there is also a Greek naval ship at the port that houses some 150 men of a whole host of different nationalities. Everyone is waiting and waiting for a response to their asylum claim, for a response to anything really that will mean that they can move on with their lives. The naval ship sits in the water tantalisingly close to the ferry that leaves daily bound for Athens, where they would love to be able to go but can’t. Just wait.

While we were there we managed to do a distribution to the men on the ship. A joint effort between Hope and Aid Direct, The Truck Shop, Help Refugees and I’ve probably missed out some vital other people. One truck was kitted out with rails and coats were sorted and sized and hung up. Same with sweatshirts that were boxed up into different sizes and packs with hat, scarf, gloves and socks were prepared. It sounds easy but it takes hours and manpower and humour. Another truck was kitted out with stock to replace the rails as they emptied. The whole point was for people to be able to take their time and choose what they wanted, try it on and maintain some dignity and humanity in this whole sorry mess. We were not allowed to board the ship and doing distributions is not hugely popular so we parked round the corner and did what was meant to be a covert operation but was very busy.

As there was so much waiting to be had and it was cold, a member of the team, Bernie, had the genius idea of taking a burner down and some pots and making tea for people as they waited. This not only warmed people up and gave everyone a chance to chat but also took some of the angst out of waiting. The whole thing about having nothing means that when something is being offered there is an added tinge of desperation in case said offerings run out before you get to them. As we all drank tea together it meant that the angst melted somewhat and people then went on to choose some stuff with a more cheery and relaxed air. The atmosphere in general was one of laughter, chat and people’s stories that never ever fail to leave me utterly flabbergasted and humbled.

One young lad talked about his journey to turkey through Lebanon and he then walked across Syria. His travel friend was shot and killed as they went through Syria and he mimed having to duck and run as he made his journey. He is 20 years old. Two young men showed their injuries from the police. It seems to be an international sport at the moment, having a physical and every other manner of pop at the vulnerable. Each a story of resilience and courage, the very same resilience and courage that is normally applauded but that the media are telling us to fear. Every single person was courteous and funny and there was laughter ringing in the air despite the bitter cold of the night. It also showed that putting in an amount of preparation paid off in being able to offer a distribution that was organised and dignified. One young man said that it was the first nice thing that someone had done for him since starting his journey. It was a joyous evening that left everyone feeling as though we had managed to do something positive and that the aid had got to those who really needed it.

The stories were also shared with a level of resignation as each person told how long they had been stuck on the island – 3 months, 5 months, 9 months and with no solution in sight. Just wait. Waiting has been a feature of this trip. Hurry up and Wait. Quick rush to the border, scrabble about for documents and wait, sometimes really really wait. Quick hurry up and get everything to the warehouse and wait. Load up the trucks in a hurry and wait. Unload the trucks in a hurry and wait. A massively diluted version of what our friends from so many different countries are having to do. Hurry up and leave their homes and then wait. Hurry up and register and wait.

Hurry up and wait is also what we all have to do in the world at the moment. Hurry up and do something about the madness that is so very quickly surrounding us all. Hurry up and make our voices heard that the cruelty being carried out is not in our names. Hurry up and be super kind to our fellow humans and then wait to see what pans out. It doesn’t feel as though we have a great deal of time to mess about to just stand by and watch the circus that ‘leaders’ around the world are creating.

We left the island the next day and, as we were boarding the ferry, a number of the young men came out to wave us goodbye. They waved their thanks and I think that I speak for everyone involved on the convoy when I say that it was an incredibly moving moment. At least it was one hurry up and wait that had been a resounding success. The whole evening, and indeed the whole trip and movements happening across the world, can be summed up by the words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

 

 

Puppies and Madness

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We have been on the Isle of Lesvos for a few days now, sorting out aid, unloading and loading and unloading and loading, distributing aid and generally doing what needs to be doing. A contact had managed to find a warehouse to rent for a while and all of the stuff is piled high in there in categories that make things easy to find and easy to distribute. All of this takes time. There are some people who, as ever, are the ones who are very quietly just ever present in these situations. People doing the incredibly unglamorous work of manning a dusty warehouse in the middle of an industrial estate that could be anywhere rather than on a beautiful Greek island. These people do this all unseen and unheard, young people who have given up whatever they were doing and have chosen to man dusty warehouses to their bit for the world.

The situation in Lesvos, and Greece in general, changes by the hour. These people are pawns in the game of someone and are at the whim of rules that make no sense and can change like the weather. As it has been so cold many families have been housed in hotels and homes for the duration of the cold period. Apparently it is a particularly hard winter. There is, however, a camp called Moria Camp, the conditions of which defy belief or it should do anyway. I realise that my threshold of shock has been raised somewhat over the past couple of years.

The Moria Camp was an old prison and still has fences and razor wire to remind everyone that they are in a prison and some brand new razor wire and fences thrown in for good measure. People are LOCKED IN to this place and the conditions are less than savoury. Some are in the prison accommodation which is a Greek prison that has lain disused for some time so it doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to picture the level of luxury. Many are on the outside in tents. I know I’ve gone on about the cold but it really is cold and people are quite literally freezing to death. Yesterday we heard that there had been another death at the Moria Camp. I went there with some others and was talking to one young man who is stuck there. He was saying how frightened he and the others in there are. How terrifying it is to be treated so inhumanely, to know that they are now in the hands of a Europe that does not care about them. In the last week two young men, previously fit and healthy young men, have died of the cold. Actually and quite literally frozen to death in a small tent designed to be slept in on a balmy summer weekend with friends and family. Not for someone to live in in these bitterly cold conditions and especially not someone who is seeking a place of safety. Suspend all judgements and imagine that it was your child/brother/father/cousin/best friend who has frozen to death because the relative authorities are too busy booting the political football about to give a damn about whether they live or die. Only two large NGO’s are allowed inside this camp and the authorities, i.e. the NGO’s allow them just one blanket. One blanket in this cold! A tent in this cold! I can very well imagine not being able to survive in this. It is shocking.

Yesterday morning another 4 young men died inside the razor wire fences of the camp. Apparently asphyxiated from a some kind of heater trying to stay warm. I don’t know whether that is a gas heater or from burning plastic or what, it’s hard to know what is what. Tensions are rising understandably and the authorities are rapidly trying to find places for people to be. Places miraculously materialising where previously there were none. The conditions defy belief or I wish they did at least. I have begun to realise that there are no depths to which the ‘authorities’ will not sink. Just the actions of Trump within one week of being ‘in charge’ is an indication of what is possible.

Yesterday 3 of us went to a hotel where there are 100 children with their families and we did some face painting which was chaos but at least the children were laughing for a bit and it made me feel better anyway. The parents got a little bit of a break. I see a change, though, in the eyes of the people. Before people were desperate but there was hope. Some of these people have been here for a year waiting and waiting for their fate to be revealed to them by an inefficient and inhumane system. People waiting to be reunited with loved ones, to start their lives, children waiting to go to school. I don’t ask people where they are going anymore because it is almost unbearable to see the quiet shrug of shoulders that is the reply. A reply that before would have been full of enthusiasm for a potential life that lay ahead. Now what I see is lack of hope and that kills people more than any other thing because it kills from the inside out. Without hope there is nothing. Even the darkest story has to have a thread of hope running through it. I’m starting to lose hope about all of this.

It is hard to remain buoyant in all of this. It is hard to feel that we are making a difference and are not part of the problem. I guess we are all part of the problem. It is hard to know where to vent all this stuff and what could be better than being buried under a pile of puppies. There are 9 puppies at the warehouse from different litters who were found by the side of the road without a mum. They are bouncy, very very cute and need lots of cuddles. Being buried under a pile of puppies should be prescribed, I reckon it would cure loads of conditions. The trick now is to not actually take most of them and stick them in the now empty truck and bring them back home…