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!

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.'

Biondo disappeared for a few minutes and when he came back he had a new bottle of beer. He stood in the middle of the road and shouted in English. 'Africa is coming back! Africa! Europe you be careful, one day you will pay for what you did to Africa!'

He walked in furious circles, trying to catch people's eyes. An Italian teenager waiting for a bus put his arm around his young girlfriend and drew her to him protectively.

'Curses on Libya!' cried Biondo. 'Libya is the devil's nation. Six months I wait in Libya.'

Next to me the taxi drivers were saying we should throw them all in prison for six months before sending them back to Africa.

'Europe you are racist!' Now he was speaking Italian again. 'But Italians are the most racist of all. You are all racists but Africa is coming back to you!'

Across the road from Gallarate station is a late night café/bar. The manager, a tall man of Egyptian origin, came out and called to Biondo, telling him. to calm down, to go home. I had the feeling this was not the first time this had happened.

Biondo hurled a stream of obscenity in Egyptian Arabic at the man. Everyone is the square watches them. This continued for a while but Biondo must have gone too far in calling the bar manager's mother a whore, and suddenly the Egyptian began chasing him furiously around the square. Biondo was laughing, running, dodging, hiding behind clusters of kids on their way home.

Finally a couple of other guys from the bar succeeded in calming the tall Egyptian down, taking him back across the road. Biondo picked up his beer again, laughing and shouting, now in a language I didn't  know.

The bar manager turned back from the doorstep. 'You know what's wrong with you, Biondo? TU NON RISPETTI LE REGOLE!'

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.

We talked about the bus schedule. Why,  I asked, did the night bus need to leave 45 minutes after the last train? 'Well, you see, the bus before leaves at 12.30, and if this one was any earlier it wouldn't have time to get back from Varese.'

The other man looked me up and down in the dim streetlight. 'Say, do you have blonde hair or white hair?'

'Something between the two, I guess.'

'Because it's like an illness with me. I'm like a crazy man. I love- tanti, tanti, tantissimo- anche con la faccia bruta - I love women with white hair.'

(Even with an ugly face- Gwen there's a good example of a backhanded compliment)

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.’ 

I’ve often thought about those words, and they’ve proved strangely comforting over the years, but in fact my boss was nice, an older Yorkshire-woman with a tight perm who liked to make me blush by asking me about boys but assumed an air of perfect genteel professionalism in front of customers. I had two other colleagues, all women, all at least thirty years older than me, and they all treated me like I was their daughter, ribbing me, making me mop the floor even when it wasn’t my turn. I loved the girls’ club atmosphere, with smutty jokes and lots of giggling, even though I was the butt of most of the jokes. 

During the day, I took products down off the shelf, cleaning the wood, restacking the products in reverse date order. I weighed dry food into bags and advised customers on the ideal present to take home to Japan, to Switzerland, to Indiana. We had regulars: famous people some of them, although I didn’t have a TV at home so I didn’t recognise the newsreaders or the politicians. I tidied up the cellar, a damp, narrow corridor stacked with thousands of boxes of products, and I sorted out orders for our one-woman mail-order operation. There was a lot of dusting. 

I was quite happy there, I think. I had a little money in my pocket after I paid my parents the rent, which I spent on drinks for my cash-strapped friends studying at Sixth Form. It was around that time that Rhiannon and I drank six pints each in the Shakespeare’s Head and I was sick all over the last train from Liverpool Street. I was smoking B&H Silver and going out every night trying to get laid, but I recognised that my new colleagues needed me to be the nice girl I resembled in my beige H&M linen skirt, so I did what I was told and kept my mouth shut. Occasionally we went for a drink on a Friday evening, and my colleagues had a white wine and complained about their feet and how rude Italian tourists were. I stuck to Coke and kept smiling. 

The business had been family-run for more than three hundred years, and lets-call-him Mr P. Junior occasionally brought in clients for meetings in our back room. I had to make the tea, in a white porcelain service with a gold rim kept especially for such occasions. The first time, I had never made tea in a pot before and so I put in five tea-bags, one for each person. Mr P. didn’t say anything about my mistake. He was very posh and vague and always approved of me. ‘Nicely-spoken,’ was the adjective he used. 

There was also Mr P. Senior, a white-haired gentleman with pin-striped waistcoats and a watch-chain. One day when he was affably flirting with my manager she said something nice about me. He turned and looked at me. ‘Well, well, we must give Frances something.’ He reached into his inside breast pocket and handed me a gold pen with the name of the company stamped on the side. I still have it actually. 

As a flagship store for a very successful company, we weren’t slaves to market pressures like most luxury stores. We opened at 9.30 after we had all had our tea, and when sometimes, after locking the doors a few minutes early, we saw the noses of disappointed tourists pressed up against the door, we cheerfully ignored them. My manager was lovely but occasionally would lose her temper with a particularly obnoxious customer and then they wouldn’t get served no matter what. Weekend opening was unheard of. 

Now those colleagues have moved on. The shop opens at 9 on the dot and closes at 7.30 pm, including at weekends. The team is younger and more proactive and trained to please the customer, no matter how difficult or demanding. I went in a few months back and didn’t recognise anyone. The days I spent trying every single one of the products ‘so I understood the range’ seemed pretty far off. I wonder if they actually make more money now- I would assume not particularly. 

After Christmas, which included shutting the shop for a week (unpaid of course- remember I was still working for the agency at £4 an hour) I did a couple more weeks, but the manager eventually called me into the office. ‘You know we love you Frances, and you’ve been fantastic-’ I can still hear the exact Yorkshire intonation of Fran-ces and fan-tas-tic – ‘But Mr P wants to get in a trained professional. We need someone with years of experience in luxury food retail. The new woman’s coming to us from Fortnum and Mason.’ 

The agency weren’t pleased to see me back.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Office Worker - Zero Hours Stories #3

This was 2000, in the days before London’s employment agencies decided to deck out their premises with garish colours and wall-length photos of happy workers like a cross between Foxtons and the first class lounge at Heathrow Terminal Five, and even though this was a well-known international employment agency the waiting area was shabby, like a national health dentist’s office, with potted plants and stacked plastic in-trays.

I was waiting in the Strand branch, sitting uneasily on a plastic chair as people rushed busily past me. People still had smoking areas in offices then. It was 8 am on a Monday morning and the agency was busy supplying emergency cover for receptions and telephones across London. They forgot about me pretty soon.

I’d been at home since I left the hotel job. I’d been writing (the novel is still on a floppy disk somewhere, where it can stay forever as far as I’m concerned) and every day around 11am when the Evening Standard was delivered to the Woodgrange News around the corner, I would get 30p off my dad and go and buy it to look at the ads section, circling everything that seemed likely with a highlighter. I’d applied for every job I was half-qualified to do but got nothing other than interviews in a few seedy warehouses with even seedier bosses. ‘We’re really looking for someone more experienced,’ was better than ‘What do you want a job for with grades like that?’

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Zero Hours Stories: Introduction

In my working life of 16 years I've done 36 jobs. (Lots of overlapping/ working three jobs at the same time so not as bad as it seems).
Of these jobs, 6 were abroad. For all of those I had a contract.
Of the remaining 30, two were freelance.
Of the remaining 28, 21 were Zero Hours. So 3 out of 4 jobs I've done in London at every level, from working at Greggs as a teenager to teaching in an exclusive private school, offered absolutely no guarantee of hours or pay and no security whatsoever.

'Hungry' - Zero Hours Stories #2

I left the hotel when I became unable to go to sleep at night. I would lie in bed watching the red numerals of the alarm clock dripping slowly towards another day and finally drift off to dreams of bathroom sinks and hospital corners when I knew it was already too late to get a full night.

Another morning getting up at 3.45, making coffee and then slipping unshowered (no point in washing if you’re doing a cleaning job) onto my bike and slogging the 8 kilometres through the summer dawn to the City. Many colleagues got in early to avail themselves of the free breakfast in the staff canteen but I rarely made it. It was as much as I could do to get in to the break room, change out of my shorts into my green polyester pinny, the pockets still full of miniature toiletries, cleaning cloths and used tissues from the day before. My nose ran all that summer, and I had headaches all day at work.

Dressed and ready to go, I would join the 5am queue for printed sheets of our days’ rooms. If you hadn’t worked fast enough the day before or a manager had asked you to do a room over, you would get fewer rooms to clean that day. The printer was old and beige and ran faint green print over that old kind of paper with spool holes on each side. Towards the end I often came in last in the morning queue, with 10 or 12 rooms to do while other women had 25 or 30. Ten rooms was £20 before tax. A good-looking Italian couple, only five or six years older than me, who were living in London for the summer and had the rather more prestigious job of cleaning the corridors and the lobby, told me it was because I wasn’t ‘hungry’.

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.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Got it maid - Zero Hours Stories #1

My first job was as a 'room attendant' (cleaner) in a large London hotel firm. Rooms cost (in 2000) 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.