Monday, April 24, 2017

The first time I met Jeremy Corbyn

On the 24th of November 2010, we were demonstrating against a raise in student fees from £3000 to £9000. Following the demonstration at Millbank, the Tory HQ (10.11.10), the police were particularly nasty on those demos, and much of the marches were taken up with cat-and-mouse attempts to kettle us.

That day around 20,000 marched, and in the end several thousand of us ended up trapped from 1pm in the Westminster end of Whitehall from just past the Cenotaph. It was bitterly cold: hovering around zero all day, and we quickly ran out of water and food. There were no toilets and nowhere to sit apart from the freezing ground.

The hours were spent trying to convince blank faced cops in riot gear to let the younger kids out of the kettle. It was the time when they were facing losing their EMA, (now long gone) and a lot of young people had come to the demo from London sixth forms. The police were apparently letting people who were under 16 out: it was a struggle to make this happen in reality.

I ran out of filter tips, and spent a lot of time wandering around trying to borrow some. Once it got dark around 4pm we had to move to stay warm. People burned placards and danced to portable sound systems.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Rhizom and blues

We’re waiting for the asparagus, my sister and I. We have to wait three years for the roots of these slender green plants to become strong and densely networked enough to produce the delicious asparagus shoots. Every year for three years we have watched the straight green stalks sprout up directly towards the sky, and then turn into a waving, ferny forest of feathery leaves across the asparagus bed.

When can we eat them? I asked.

The root systems have to grow for another year.

I knew that.

But we can watch the leaves grow, and remember they are sending power to the roots.

I’m no biologist but this was interesting, and vaguely familiar.

People often invoke the metaphor of a plant putting down roots, or uprooted, or with roots spreading over the globe, to describe a migrant experience. We know you need roots to grow leaves. But I had forgotten that you also need new leaves to grow roots. Without the fresh green shoots photosynthesising like crazy, no solid stable base can survive, let alone expand. We praise the values which we impose onto roots: immobility, duration, strength, inter-connectedness, community, history. But we forget to praise the fronds and the tendrils which channel the sun’s energy back to them.


Without mobility, and novelty, and adventure and development and movement, no roots will be strong enough to keep the plant alive on their own. The roots and the shoots are inter-reliant. The roots keep the rainwater, but the stems and leaves reach, capture and transform the rays of sunshine.  

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Labour, migration and a divided country

The 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott successfully fought a racist bar on Black and Asian workers by the Bristol Omnibus Company
Over the last couple of months, a series of public statements has muddied the Labour Party’s position on free movement in the EU after Brexit, and its wider position on migration to the UK. The wider reaction to these conflicting messages is a shambles, with the right criticising Labour’s alleged commitment to FOM while the Green Party take them to task for abandoning it. This is an updated and edited version of the letter I sent to the Labour leader before the first Article 50 vote. 

Since the election of Jeremy Corbyn, a large part of the mainstream media has been obsessively biased and vindictive in its representation of the Labour Party leader. He is under great pressure from outside and inside the party to change his line on freedom of movement and migration, in order to pander to an inevitably racist attempt at populism. If the Labour Party is going to succeed in future elections, it is crucial that Corbyn stands firm and sticks to the anti-racist, migration-friendly approach that has characterised his 30 years in Parliament. Labour's loss in Copeland, and the embarrassing scramble of much of the shadow cabinet to gain a secure foothold somewhere between the will of Party members and the urges of the PLP before the next, inevitable coup, put even more pressure on the Corbyn camp. But for thirty years Corbyn kept our respect (and was continuously re-elected) by doing the right thing over the popular thing. Is he going to fail now, after so long?

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Underground Imaginaries

Harriet Tubman's birthplace on the Eastern Shore of Maryland: https://www.flickr.com/photos/10349297@N00/89963262
"A Grandmother Has Been Deported With Just £12 In Her Pocket Despite Living In Britain For The Past 30 Years. Irene Clennell was put on a flight to Singapore on Sunday before she had the chance to speak to her lawyer, or see her British husband to say goodbye." - from Buzzfeed 
As a child, my overactive imagination was captured by some story in one of those 'True Histories' books about the Underground Railroad, the network of friendly allies, safe houses and known routes which helped a small number of enslaved people escape the Southern states to Canada and the Northern USA in the first half of the 19th century. It was a straightforward story, of good versus evil, and of the strong helping the 'weak'. A story about the heroism of Harriet Tubman and hundreds like her, and one which of course chimed with my nascent guilt about my own privilege. 
There is a good article by Kathryn Shulz in the New Yorker which describes how the Underground Railway was reported and mythologised, how history has placed a misleading focus onto white allies, particularly religious people such as Quakers, while not always highlighting the far greater risk faced by black people, particularly former slaves, who worked around the network. It doesn't shy away from exploring the complex reasons which make someone in safety help someone in danger, and the range of emotions, some perhaps more worthy than others, which draw us to the story today.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

This isn't my London

This is London by Ben Judah
Picador 2016
It's not all so bad: reproduced from https://www.flickr.com/photos/dgeezer/6141438138
I wanted to like Ben Judah’s This Is London, and certainly it’s a book which will stick with me for a long time. Partly undercover, partly through interviews, Judah investigates the hidden lives of migrant London. The haunting beginning sees him spending the dawn hours at Victoria Coach Station, ‘our miserable Ellis Island’, as the buses arrive from across Europe bringing new people to stay and work in the UK’s capital. In the chill grey rain, he follows a group of Roma people until he finds someone who will speak with him. His dedication cannot be understated, and at times, such as when he interviews the addict sex workers of Ilford Lane about the murder of one of their number, I was overwhelmed by his bravery and his honesty.

Judah reports faithfully on the homeless, the destitute, the beggars and addicts and jobseekers of the four corners of the city, from Barking to Shepherd’s Bush, Kensington to Peckham. A sociologist or anthropologist would be horrified by his style: he neither reveals his methods nor investigates his own motivation, after a short and troubling introduction:

I was born in London but I no longer recognise this city. I don’t know if I love the new London or if it frightens me: a city where at least 55 per cent of the people are not ethnically white British, nearly 40 per cent were born abroad, and 5 per cent are living illegally in the shadows. [1]

Monday, June 13, 2016

Drancy: this is not somewhere people choose to be.

Yesterday I went with a friend to Drancy, a Paris banlieue about half an hour from the Gare du Nord to the North-East. Drancy didn't seem to have that much going for it. In the rain, newer and older blocks of social housing, a copy-and-paste French mairie, a street market which seemed busy. We walked around and my friend, an expert in urban planning, told me about the different blocks, some pebble-dashed, some newer ones with bold curves and cheerful two-tone paint. At the end of a block in the main square was a billboard advertising new flats to come. Another, cheerless building reminiscent of lower-budget new build flats in East London was advertised with a drooping banner: 'Dernières Opportunités'. Between run-down businesses were small pavilons, modern and older detached cottages with small, floral gardens. 
Drancy Town Centre with statue of Charles de Gaulle


Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A month in Athens

I'm going to Athens for a month in July, to help build a social centre for migrants in the city, to work with around 30 colleagues and comrades from the university, and to attend a conference on the 'refugee crisis' on the island of Lesvos. There are 15,000 migrants currently stuck in the Greek capital and there's no infrastructure to help them. The government's attitude is rapidly changing and many are being forced into improvised prison camps without even running water or electricity.

We're paying our own fares, but we need to raise some money for general operations while we're there. If you have any extra money lying around, please consider putting a bit into our crowdfunding. Any extra will be given as direct aid. Thanks!

https://crowdfunding.justgiving.com/SoasGoestoathensandbeyond

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Blonds 2

I already knew the man's name was Biondo, because he'd been on the same train as me from Milan, drinking from a 75 cl bottle of Peroni and discoursing to some German Expo workers in English about freedom. When they got off the train they gave him a round of applause, but although the train was full no one else came to sit in the four seats around him.
However he wasn't blond but black, probably from Senegal I guess. He had a small rucksack and looked like he'd been sleeping rough. At Gallarate he stayed around the station, chatting to a couple of Moroccan boys smoking out the front.
'I'm a Musltian,' he said in Italian. 'I'm a Muslim and a Christian and  a Jew. I come from Egypt but one day I will be freed, w'Allah.'
I didn't hear the response but when he got on the ground to pray Muslim-style, calling out to Jesus and Mohammed, they seemed to become a bit uncomfortable and moved off calling back 'Salaam, brother, good night.'

Blonds 1

Gallarate station is not a particularly attractive place at any time,  and after the last train at 12.45 is utterly without charm.
I was waiting for the bus home to Varese, and smoking with two men in their fifties, taxi drivers on their way home from work.
'You shouldn't be waiting here alone. There's a lot of ugly people around  at this time of night.' When people say this to me I always wonder what evidence there could possibly be that THEY are not among the ugly ones.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Luxury: Zero Hours Stories #4


‘How the working life?’ asked my dad that evening. 

‘It’s OK. My boss is really nice.’ 

The agency hadn’t found me another office job although I’d been on their books for six weeks, waiting around to find work every day. Instead I’d eventually been given a Christmas shop assistant job, a few weeks working in the small central London flagship store of a luxury British food brand. For shop work, it was a great gig- the shop hadn’t changed its opening hours for decades, so it was closed at the weekend and every day we were mopping the floor by 4.45, unless a tourist chose to linger among the china, ignoring our practised British hints (up to and including pointedly mopping around their feet). 

‘Frank, no boss is nice. They stop being nice once they become a boss. Whatever they’re giving you, you can be assured they’re getting it back twice over in your labour. That’s what bosses do.’