Thursday, April 23, 2015

An election fought on migration?

The Grapes of Wrath- Large scale waves migration is a recurring phenomenon within  the capitalist system.
Europe’s shame fills the headlines today. The shame of our politicians who treat some lives as more important than others. The shame of a Tory government firefighting against UKIP and constantly embarrassed by its own inability to reduce migration during its last term. The shame of Labour’s decision to engage with this anti-immigration rhetoric at its own sordid level.

Now more than 800 migrants – otherwise known as human beings – have died, less than a hundred miles from Europe and following swiftly on the EU’s reprehensible decision not to finance a continuation of Mare Nostrum, Italy’s search and rescue policy. Italy is in the spotlight, having scaled down its operations considerably after Mare Nostrum was abandoned. But everyone is guilty. In particular Germany and the UK’s callous and illogical claim that migrants were encouraged to continue coming by search-and-rescue missions has led, directly, inevitably, horribly to these deaths.  (see Parliamentarydebate from 30th October 2014)

So why do they keep coming? Maybe I have an unusual perspective: I grew up in an area where as much as 84% of the population comes from a migrant background, and has done so for all my life. The last census revealed that 53% of Newham is foreign-born, yet according to some estimates (based on school attendance) as many as one person in four in Newham is undocumented. However migration and its effects over the last twenty, fifty, two hundred years have become increasingly visible in every remote pocket of the country. There were 2.8 million foreign-born people in London in 2013, almost a third of the city’s population.

What is a migrant?
There are several ways to define a migrant, and in this article I will refer only to ‘migrant’ – a person born without UK citizenship rights outside of the UK – and person from a migrant background –anyone who has a parent, grandparent, great-grandparent who is/was a migrant. A migrant’s status can change in many ways and many migrants according to my classification now have full citizenship and are as British as chips and pitta. Of course these terms are obviously loaded and simplistic, but I chose a simple definition in order to navigate a complex issue. Probably you fall into one of the categories.

I’m not a migrant: I’m an ‘expat’. You’re an ‘expat’ if you’re white, if English is your mother-tongue, if you move from a rich country to a poorer one, particularly for financial gain, if you hold a British passport or any other near the top of this list helpfully devised by Arton Capital.

But even as an ‘expat’, (I know, it’s a horrible word, conjuring up gin and tonics brought by a brown-coloured boy on a silver platter in the Raj) the thing I hear most often when I say where I live is ‘You’re so brave! I would love to do something like that but I wouldn’t dare!’ Yes, I’m brave enough to borrow £700 I will never pay back from my financially-secure parents to buy flights for a guaranteed job in a country (Italy) where 29 percent of the population speaks English. I’m brave enough to take a year’s contract on a furnished flat exactly an hour and a half and £30 from home by Easyjet. I’m not saying it’s always easy, but come on! 

What would it take for you to migrate?
There are migrants of every social class, level of education with every kind of financial means, linguistic capacities and family background. (The Movement Against Xenophobia has recently hammered this point home through a well-meaning if rather reductive poster campaign, crowdfunded and currently to be seen on a bus near you). Let’s take a look through an imaginary spectrum.

1.         Would you migrate after suffering torture?
2.       Would you migrate after your country had experienced two, five, ten years of war?
3.       Would you migrate after your home and farm had been destroyed by natural disaster?
4.       Would you migrate after your political activity has led to arrest and you have been beaten and mistreated by the police?
5.       Would you migrate because it’s the only way you can enjoy a free and open love life?
6.       Would you migrate because people of your sexual or gender identity are routinely attacked or beaten up in the place where you live?
7.       Would you migrate because since you left school, there has been no work available in your town and your parents need you to contribute?
8.       Would you migrate because the shack where you grew up has been torn down by developers and no other accommodation has been offered?
9.       Would you migrate because you fear arrest for your political activity?
10.   Would you migrate because you have lost your professional career due to sanctions against people of your gender, your ethnicity, your sexuality?
11.   Would you migrate because you heard about a better place and the people you love offered to pay your passage?
12.   Would you migrate because you need ongoing and vital medical care which simply isn’t available in your country?
13.   Would you migrate because you’re a dreamer and the other country sounds like a fun new challenge? 
14.   Would you migrate because your country is undergoing a rapid transition process and you have excellent skills in your field, but fluency in English might make all the difference?
15.   Would you migrate because your family have been killed?
16.   Would you migrate because, six months after graduating, you haven’t been able to find even a bar job?
17.   Would you migrate in the hope of saving £10,000 to open a shop in your home-town?
18.   Would you migrate to avoid being stuck in a dead-end job for life?
19.   Would you migrate to escape violent crime, gang-warfare, death threats, military oppression, regular searches of your home, addiction, sickness, drought, flood, military regimes, religious intolerance or oppression, homophobia, a poor harvest or any of the other things which might suddenly come to a person- any person- living in this fucked-up world?
20.   Would you migrate to get a better life for your children?
21.   Would you migrate to get a degree generally perceived as better than the educational opportunities available in your country?
22.   Would you migrate to invest in an excellent new business opportunity?
23.   Would you migrate to play as a striker for a top football league?
24.   Would you migrate to try to pay off a huge debt owed by you or a member of your family?

And if you were to migrate, and just imagining your parents didn’t have a roomy cellar and a big car to help you with your boxes, how far would you go to do it? Would you sell everything you had and give most of the money to people-smugglers and desert guides? Would you be prepared to arrive in a strange place where you don’t speak the language with little more than the clothes you’re wearing? Would you risk deportation, deceit, danger, death? Before the outbreak of civil war in Syria, a typical route was by land through Turkey. Now the migrants- the human beings- waiting in lawless Libya for a hazardous fishing boat trip across 300km of dark, unpredictable sea, have come from as far afield as Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, although many are from Sub-Saharan Africa, or victims of the Syrian conflict. They are coming, whether we save their lives or not- that’s the clearest evidence possible of the strength of their reasons for coming.  

The above list has been compiled from personal stories told directly to me, newspaper articles, interviews and academic papers. 

A migrant is a person. What would you do?

Further reading:
Jeremy Harding painted a terrifying picture in his investigation of undocumented migrants crossing the desert to the US from Mexico.Of great interest is the number of repeat attempts to cross, including by people born in the US without citizenship. Here, too, is the rhetoric of ‘If you help them to survive you will encourage them to come’, this time as attacks on church groups who leave water in the desert. Now the excellent Patrick Kingsley has begun a similar journalistic project in Libya and Egypt, including fascinating interviews with North African people smugglers .

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Got it maid

My first job was as a 'room attendant' (cleaner) in a large London hotel firm. Rooms cost (in 2001) upwards of £300 per night. I was the only British born person I ever met working there. The rates were £2 per room and I used to clean around 14 rooms per day, although some amazing women did up to 30. I guess nine out of ten colleagues were women. I would start work at 5 am and finish when I finished, usually in the early afternoon. I just came across this blog (thanks Leo Doran) and it took me back- every detail is exactly the same- the triangular point on the end of the toilet roll, the toxic blue powders which caught in your throat, the way we were constantly told to wear gloves but as everyone including the supervisors knew, gloves would slow us down to the point where we would lose money we couldn't afford to lose.
One day, there was a fire alarm in the hotel. We had not been trained or warned in any way for this, but I followed the women around me, pushed my heavy linen trolley against a wall, walked out down the grey service stairs to the smoking area to be counted. The fire brigade (it was a test) checked the corridors and found that the woman working next to me had left her trolley blocking the passage. We were both called into the office for an explanation. She was in her forties, maybe Lithuanian.
Two fire officers asked us what had happened. They were surprised by my shrill middle class tones. The woman tried to speak and began to cry. A supervisor called another member of staff to empty her locker (our lockers didn't lock). There was a sense that the woman had embarrassed the company. She was being asked to leave the building immediately. I said 'It was an accident, she didn't know.' The supervisor (who was not English) said 'You want to work in England, you got to speak English. No English, no job.' The woman's remaining rooms were divided among her neighbours to be cleaned, so I finished very late that day.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Guest music post from / about iRate

'...Living under capitalism sometimes makes it easy to accept one’s own insignificance. But there has always been this thing inside of me – iRate – desperate to come out. That is why iRate is colourful, unapologetic, experimental, uncompromising, psychedelic, strong, unafraid and tackles taboo subjects front on. She is the best side of me and the person I want to be...'
Hi! My name is iRate. I am a feminist electronic musician and writer.
* 'I like hanging out with you' (…/02/i-like-hanging-out-with-you/) is an ambient attempt to capture my feelings of warmth towards all the people around me (it is also apart of a series of compositions/studies which are pre-occupied with the sun). I guess an (anti-romance) love song.
* ‘Bringing You Down’ ( is an aggressive upbeat track about that moment when one says to oneself ‘that’s it …no more…’ – a declaration of one’s humanity in the face of oppression…to put a bit of ‘fire in one's belly’!
* 'Hold On' ( is a music video in which the landscape of Roker Pier (a place I used to visit as a child) morphs in to my dreams and anxieties.
* For a more explicitly political track, listen to 'Tribute to (Occupy) E15 Mothers' (…/…/01/tribute-to-focus-e15-mothers/).
* Check out my recent review of The Resident Evil Film Franchise (…/resident-evil-review-there-is-no-e…/).
* 'Mary? Mary? Quite?' ( is a meditation on my relationship with my ninety (plus) year old Grandmother.
***Coming up?***
I currently working on / planning collaborations with ShareorShelf ( and Glitter Activism ( Get in touch if you like what I am about and/or have an idea for a project / collaboration.
For more information you can visit my website ( or read a recent interview by Street Voice UK (…/irate-interviewed-oct…/).
Any feedback is much appreciated.
In Sisterhood & Solidarity,
Feminist Electronic Musician & Activist
Angry – Anti-Capitalist – Avant-Garde – Awkward – Anxious – Bold - Cold – Compelling – Confronting – Comic – Controversialist – Counter-Culture – Cynical – Cyclical – Dance – Dark – Dead Pan – Depressive – Dysfunctional – Disordered – Dynamic – Eclectic – Electro – Electronic – Emo – Experimental –- Feminist – Fight – Hip – Gritty – House – Humorous – Inappropriate – Innovative – Intersectional – Jazzy – Jealous – Jerky – Life-Affirming – Lonely – Loud – Marxist – Minimalist – Minimal – Moody – Obsessive – Labour – Pain – Personal – Political – Pop – Pounding – Progressive – Queer – Repetitive – Resistance – Rough-and-Ready – Struggle – Stubborn – Synthesised – Unconventional – Unromantic – Weird – Work

Friday, November 14, 2014

Just watched the Sainsburys Christmas advert. (4 million views so far).
The picture above shows the French cemetery at Verdun, where 15,000 French and (French) African soldiers are buried. In the centre of this cemetery is the large building known as the Ossuary, which is literally filled with unidentified bones found on the battlefield (estimated at 130,000 remains but farmers still find bones in the fields each year). Additionally Verdun boasts an American cemetery with 14,000 dead, and several German cemeteries.
Verdun today has a population of 20,000. The Western Front stretched for up to 400 miles.
How DARE Sainsbury's use this massacre to sell groceries? I can't believe this advert is even allowed to air, it's so offensive.
The story of the Christmas truce is sad because
a) Young men fighting on both sides had much more in common with each other than with the people who sent them to fight and in 1914, there were all kinds of temporary truces and fraternisation around the year- not due to the holy magic of Christmas but to basic class solidarity.
b) As the war went on for year after year, most of these 'truces' -Christmas, football, chocolate and all- stopped, perhaps partly due to the devastating effects of new weapons like poison gas, the lessening of hope, the endless pointless deaths.
When you watch this advert as I'm sure you will have to endlessly for the next three months, think about the other 364 days of mindless slaughter. And remember ‪#‎Christmasisforsharing‬ is pointless unless we unite the rest of the time against our real enemies. ‪#‎WW1isforsellingchocolate‬

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The bells of Varese

When I lived in Cairo, on the rare occasions when I went out and got really messed up, I would know when to get up when I heard the Dhuhr prayer at noon, in varying loudspeaker arrangements and at slightly different times from the dozen or so mosques in earshot of my flat. first one, then several voices, seemingly competing to sing louder, truer, more beautifully than the next. (Some were not beautiful but merely enthusiastic).

When my mother visited she woke every day to the Fajr prayer at dawn. (After the first week I hardly noticed it). At first she didn't like it but after returning she spoke of missing it. It gives a collective rhythm to the day. You know everyone, in every flat, can hear the same sound. While I'm sure that (except on Fridays) most Cairenes didn't rush down to the mosque at every call, the prayers symbolised collective social moments: getting up, stopping work for lunch, returning home at sunset, going to bed.

In Varese the town clock goes further than this. Every fifteen minutes, all day and night, the bells ring out. I rarely glance at the clock because I am constantly reminded of the passing of time. There's another church which I can't see and it obstinately remains half a minute behind the church in the town centre, jealously guarding its interpretation of what time it is in a world where hours, seconds, minutes are electronically synchronised and infallibly transmitted.

Twelve o'clock- twelve long gongs. Quarter past- the gongs again and then a single, higher chime for the quarter hour. At half past there are two short chimes.

Additionally there are other chimes, chimes I can't place or understand. Sometimes I wonder if there's a bell-ringing school in the town. Smetimes it's a tune, sometimes a cacophony of overlapping discord, not unpleasant to hear but bewildering. What does it mean? What is everyone in Varese doing right now? Should I be doing it too?

The other strange thing is that if you walk for two minutes down to the main square and look at the clock in the steeple, it shows completely the wrong time. Trust your ears, not your eyes.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Why I Should Never Have Watched ‘Frances Ha’ (or How All the Eccentric Veterans Called Forrest Who Liked Running Probably Felt In 1994)

Warning- I tried not to cross too far over from self-indulgent towards self-pitying, but probably failed. Forgive me.

 A tall blonde woman, awkward, yet beautiful. Running in the street with her best friend Sophie, laughing and shouting. She has found what she’s looking for yet has everything to gain. In the opening moments of the film, every moment is full of joy. 

Living without much money, sharing things, leaving her clothes on the floor. Sophie is tidier, yet it’s no big thing. In the big city where she’s going to make it as an artist, a dancer. Late at night they curl up together in one bed. There’s no reason for her to go and sleep in her own bed. 

Beautiful black-and-white shots of faces, caught in mirrors, laughing, in bars, in shared flats in Brooklyn. A few happy dance steps off-the-cuff in the park. The boyfriend, for there is a boyfriend, wants them to get cats together. In fact he wants them to move in together, together with their cats. ‘I promised Sophie I’d stay through the lease, and she probably wants to renew it.’ I know only too well that feeling that it doesn’t really matter if another man moves on without you. You are never alone and never will be. 

After the break-up she says she is tired and going home. Of course she goes to the party to meet Sophie. Peeing off the platform of the subway. ‘Do I look older than I am? Older than twenty-seven?’ ‘No, but twenty-seven is old though.’ Dinner and the mild irritation of the dinner date can’t touch her. The dance studio cuts down her hours. 

Sophie has something to tell her. Sophie has found a better flat in TriBeCa, one beyond her price range. She’s going to cover her share of the rent until the end of the lease. Sophie is leaving her. She’s getting serious with her boyfriend too. 
‘Have you been dating anyone?’ 
‘Oh Frances.’ 
‘It’s fine!’ 

I’m not sure why I watched this film. I downloaded it ages ago, when it first came out, but I knew the effect it would have on me and put it off. She’s a dancer, not a writer. She’s got longer hair, and a smaller nose, and is three years younger than me, and is a fictional character played by an actor in a fictional film. In New York, not London. 

After a terrible fight with Sophie, drunk, in a bar, Frances takes her credit card and runs away from New York to Europe, to a flat in Paris. There she eats things, watches people, stays in bed. She calls the people she knows – friends- but they don’t reply until she’s on her way home. 

This is a film about growing up and not growing up. It’s a film about the eternal conflict between your love for your best friend and your love for your sexual partner, and the way those conflicting bonds are sometimes elastic and sometimes terribly, terribly rigid, even brittle. It’s about the meaning of success, and what an individualised concept that has become. 

Frances is totally alone at moments. She moves in with artists, but they’re artists from money- loving, caring, funny, and she can smoke in the house, yet… 
‘Lev and I were talking about getting a maid to come once a week. It’s not that expensive, it’s like four hundred bucks a month.’ 
‘Do you know that I’m actually poor?’ 
‘You aren’t poor. There are poor people- you aren’t one of them. It’s offensive to actual poor people.’ The dance studio offers her admin work instead of a place in the permanent company. 

Frances is constantly trying to find alternatives to the shitty deals life makes her. She’s an optimist and she looks for happiness where she can find it. And she doesn’t complain. But she’s mean when she’s drunk, and she’s socially awkward and doesn’t stop talking when people’s jaws begin dropping in horror. Frances isn’t going to win in the big game of hipster artistic success moving from studio flats to lifestyle magazine new-build flats with good schools and coffee table magazine and healthy Saturday brunch, but she’s always moving and generally in the right direction and she’s mostly a nice person… Frances is OK. Anyway, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, the film. It’s a good film. Watch it, especially if you have nothing in common with me. 

If you do have something in common with me, don’t despair. Get in touch if it helps. And even if ‘Frances Ha’ makes you sad, remember that it’s a good thing that we are not alone.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Self-devised employment- a human tragedy

Waiting for work
It's nine am. In the leafy boulevards of 1960s suburb Nasr City, the traffic is moving slowly around the long, narrow green islands in the middle of the road. People are going to work, in cars, taxis or microbuses. The islands fill the middle of every large road, and are well maintained by gardeners who water the flowers and cut the grass. They serve a double function: they prevent the sudden wayward U-turns which would bring traffic to a standstill, forcing drivers to continue to designated turning points. At the same time, they're a crucial green space for those who cannot afford the parks or private clubs. Later in the day, when the sun is overhead, poorer locals will come here to eat their lunch or take a siesta in the shade.
Nasr City, Cairo, in the morning. 
At this time the air is still cool, despite the white sun in the bright blue sky. Sitting in a long row on the low wall between the traffic and the grass, leaning against the railings, are around thirty men. The younger ones are in jeans and short-sleeved check shirts, the older ones in galabeyyas, the long traditional shirt which has come to signify a low income in modern Cairo. All wear flip-flops.They are chatting, laughing, catching up, smoking. Some have bought black tea in grubby glasses from a young boy with a giant thermos flask.

This is the local unofficial labour market. Between 8 and 11 in the morning, contractors, builders and any others who need workers will come and pick up those they want. They will work for the whole day brick-laying, moving concrete or doing odd jobs for anyone who needs them. Some bring their own shovels or tools to increase their chances of selection. 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

An incident

I wanted to go to the fair. It was Sinai Day on Thursday and Friday, and so around the Citadel there was a celebration: just like everywhere; rides, useless merchandise, special food, dancing and music. 

We stopped on the way for coffee with some young men we know who live nearby. With hindsight we shouldn't have done that, because they were instantly concerned and over-protective about an English woman at the fair. They insisted on accompanying us. They're very nice young men and they wanted me to have a good time, but they were worried about my safety in the crowds of celebrating locals. It's funny because there was exactly the same air of jollity and latent danger that you get at the fair on Wanstead Flats in Forest Gate. Fair people have the same air everywhere of cautious friendliness, with a kind of toughness and tension that I guess comes from life on the road. You can feel that they're welcomed but mistrusted. There were the same minor spats between groups of youths that you see in London fairs, the same over-excited youngsters, the same atmosphere of the locals letting their hair down.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Feeling like a 'woman'

Marlene Dietrich- successfully feminine?
I like wearing make-up, even though I can't be bothered to wear it very often, but when I apply it, I always have this strange feeling that I'm failing at something expected of women. This despite my knowledge that judicial application of Maybelline is not much to do with my gender, sexuality or identity. I feel feminine and attractive in a feminine way in general- I never feel ugly by my own standards or by the standards I adopt from the media, but because I'm not very good at applying make-up and spend a lot of time dabbing at black smears with a cotton bud, I feel like I'm inadequate in something I should be able to do.

My mother rarely wears makeup and so no one really taught me- is this something to do with it? Or is it that because I rarely wear it, I'm wearing a costume rather than an every-day ritual/ image?

Women (and everyone else)- what do you think? Do you ever feel like you're failing at some kind of test of your gender identity, and does it make you anxious?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Cairo Time- Standing Still While The City Moves On

'Mark warned me about wandering the streets alone. Men keep following me.’ 
‘You’re a beautiful woman.’ 
Juliette (Patricia Clarkson) is a stressed, middle-aged, married woman from Canada. She edits a magazine while her husband works abroad for long stretches in Gaza. Tareq (Alexander Siddig) is a bourgeois café owner who plays chess, smokes Cleopatras and never recovered from a broken heart in his student days in Damascus. When Juliette comes to Cairo to for a dream holiday with her husband and finds he’s still stuck in Palestine, she turns to her husband’s Egyptian ex-colleague. 
Cairo Time, 2009, dir. Rubba Nada, 2009
Of course there are a million different versions of any big city, and I’m not surprised that this world of luxury Zamalek hotels and tense, hot, autumn-leaves romance is a million miles from the Cairo I know. But this film takes a woman and makes her incapable of facing ‘the Orient’ without a male protector. Juliette wanders the streets for a morning before the sexual harassment drives her to seek out Tareq again, and from then on he becomes her guide, her protector, and inevitably her lover.