Monthly Archives: July 2015

The invisible man … and Cecil of course

Cecil. I wouldn’t mind betting that in a game of word association, ‘lion’ would follow. It feels like a nice irony, the beast being named after the founding father of one of the last bastions of British colonialism. I’m not the best at colonial history, but I do remember my mother attempting to explain UDI to me. Ian Smith’s last gasp. I was about eleven years old. I didn’t understand how he had the right. I still don’t get it now.

Back in those days, I used to gobble up historical fiction. Jean Plaidy was a particular favourite. I don’t doubt her accounts of the lives of Tudor royalty were as fictional as her name. Even so, I imbibed along with the stories a strong sense of the fallibility of those who considered themselves our natural rulers. Take Queen Mary. She’s far from the worst example of her ilk, but she’s the one I need right now. Unhappily married. Depressed. Faking pregnancy in a vain attempt to continue her own bloodline. Come to think of it, Cecil’s bloodline’s also likely to be wiped out by his rivals in the struggle for power. To cut a long story short, Mary was the monarch who finally ceded Calais, England’s last colonial outpost in France. “When I am dead, you will find … Calais engraved upon my heart” she said. Maybe it ought to be engraved upon a few more hearts right now.

I’m gobsmacked at the impact of Cecil. Don’t get me wrong. I have no truck with the idea of killing for entertainment. But the death of one lion with a highly inappropriate name seems to have swept aside all the rest of the suffering on the planet. I did a fair bit of reading before I started to write this. So far I’ve been completely unable to discover the name of the man who died in Calais yesterday. It seems he’s invisible. At least as a human being. Anonymous to all but those who were with him when he died. Assuming anyone was. I imagine he has friends and a family back in Sudan. I did at least manage to find out where he came from. I also imagine they have no idea he’s dead. After all he was only a ‘migrant’. An inconvenience rather than a person. A malfunctioning cog in the world order. A casualty of economic and political structures we hold more sacred than human life. Of war, greed and the lust for power. And yes, of colonialism. British colonialism.

You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know” William Wilberforce was spot on. We choose to look the other way. The label ‘migrant’ successfully obscures the humanity of the people we don’t want to see. They’ve been turned out of their homes. Robbed. Starved. Beaten. Raped. Dispossessed. We pull up the drawbridge of our island fortress. Stick our fingers in our ears. How dare those ‘migrants’ upset our holiday plans. The smooth running of our road freight system. David Cameron talks about ‘swarms’. Katie Hopkins compares them to cockroaches. Thus we dehumanise ‘them’. Make them ‘other’. For if we once allowed ourselves to believe that migrants are people just like us, who knows what chaos we might unleash? With fear as its firewall our government imprisons, abuses and humiliates migrants with impunity. People whose only crime is to have fled war, persecution or torture in their home countries are demonised. Separated from their families. Quietly deported without due process. Subjected by us to the very things they came here to escape.

It seems the man who died in Calais yesterday has become invisible amidst all the rhetoric around migration. Nonetheless, he was a flesh-and-blood human being. He had hopes, dreams and aspirations. He also had energy and motivation. He’d travelled half way around the world who-knows-how. He’d laid everything on the line in search of a future free from suffering. Instead, he’d found himself trapped in the ‘jungle’ of Calais. Yesterday he paid the ultimate price for having the audacity to believe his life was worth more than that. And we won’t even give him the dignity of a name.

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Picture Perfect

The beach is almost deserted. We pass by a man painting a beach hut. Ahead, there’s an abandoned deckchair. Otherwise we have the place to ourselves. The dogs run with the wind. Or at least, Poppy does. Millie prefers to sit on the stones, her ears streaming out behind her like a scene from Wuthering Heights. The sea’s intense blue-green. Aquamarine. Slashed with white. Ever-changing. Glittering against the sun. My parents once had a painting of the sea. It was just this colour. So long ago now. The Isle of Wight, off to the left, is hazed but you can see the Needles quite well today. And as for the sky, it fair takes your breath away. Picture perfect.

The waves curl up the beach. Dropping pebbles. Seaweed. Cuttlefish bones. Poppy’s ball. She’s learned to wait for precisely the right moment to dart in and retrieve it. The sea sucks back whatever it chooses. It holds so many secrets. Scientists still have no idea how many undiscovered species live out their lives in the safety of its depths. Strange fish. Flowers and forests. Subaquatic cities. Who knows? The vast majority of the depths of the ocean remain uncharted to this day. Forever inaccessible, despite all our sophisticated technology. We know so little about this planet we’re hell bent on destroying.

Some of the sea’s secrets are less alluring. There are wrecks by the thousand. The bodies of who-knows-how-many sailors and fishermen resting in watery graves. Refuse heaved over the sides of passing ships. Sewage. So much that many beaches are unsafe for swimmers and surfers. Detritus from two World Wars has been washed up right where I’m sitting now. And nobody knows how much waste plastic is floating round out there. It’s estimated that around eight million tonnes of plastic ends up in the sea every year, but no-one’s sure how much has already sunk to the seabed. We do know that the amount is set to increase tenfold by 2020. The sea has become a dumping ground for anything we want to get rid of. It takes the flack. Keeps our dirty secrets and looks pretty. Picture perfect.

We love picture perfect. Fashion. Face lifts. Fake tan. Effortless beauty. It’s never been so easy to look like a model. A Barbie clone. We want to attract our ideal mate. Live happily ever after in a fantasy world, photoshopped to perfection. International corporations are only to happy to help us on our way, by selling us ever-increasing mountains of stuff. After all,the resulting mess can be swept under the carpet. Washed out to sea. Or maybe wrapped in a duvet and dumped in a lake. Like Samantha Henderson.

I’m in a different part of the country from usual, but the local news is depressingly similar. The same the world over. In fact, I once knew someone who’d have done exactly as Samantha Henderson’s killer did. Having finally beaten Samantha to death, he wrapped and weighted her body. He drove to the shores of the nearest lake and threw her in. Well, don’t we all bin stuff we have no further use for? Out of sight, out of mind. Then he called the police the morning after to report her missing. He left messages on her voicemail, pleading with her to come home. If I know anything at all about abusers, he was more than half convinced by his own lies. When the police caught up with him, he turned on the waterworks. Drama. Hysteria. Stabbing himself with pencils. Anything for sympathy. Any way he could find to deny the truth. Charlie used to burn his arms. If only the body had remained at the bottom of the lake, wrapped in a Hello Kitty duvet of all things, this man might have spent the rest of his life playing victim. The poor, hard-done-by, abandoned single father. Look what she did to me. Left me all on my own. Four kids to look after. Bitch. The truth is Samantha’s life didn’t matter a spit to him. He felt entitled to her services. If she didn’t come up to scratch he had every right to beat the crap out of her. In fact it was her own fault she died. If you can’t take the heat, get back in the kitchen. If you’re not picture perfect, you don’t deserve to live.

Every week in this country two women die at the hands of their lovers. One woman in three will experience abuse at some point in her life. The statistics haven’t changed much down the years. Back in the day, you didn’t talk about it, of course. The police might be called if a ‘domestic’ got out of hand. They’d likely do nothing. To tell anyone your husband wouldn’t stop shouting at you was disloyal. It spoiled the picture. You must’ve done something to deserve it after all. So you put up and shut up. You’d made your bed, so you lay in it. Like the sea.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not playing a blame game. I don’t think any woman is a saint. I don’t imagine any abuser’s life’s been a bed of roses. Charlie’s was anything but. The baton’s handed down the generations. But ultimately no-one has the right to snuff out someone else’s life on a whim. Nor does anyone have the right to make a living hell for someone else. No matter how much shit’s been thrown at them.

I scuff through the stones as we walk away from the sea. Millions of them. No two the same. Their colours blend to a glorious harmony of gold against the azure of the sea. Here and there a note jars. A blue plastic bottle-top. The mechanism from a soap dispenser. The cracks in the façade. They remind me all is never as it seems. There were days when I couldn’t hold the tears. No matter how disloyal. I look at the scar on my finger. We live in a world full of dirty little secrets. Bruises concealed by immaculate make-up. Bodies wrapped in Hello Kitty duvets. Mountains of indestructible rubbish below the surface of the sea. We think we’re entitled to take what we please in this world. Just so long as we don’t have to face the consequences. If I can’t see the monster, it’s not really there. Picture perfect.


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Holiday snaps

Sunday morning. Sunshine and near-silence. Somewhere in the distance the melody of a familiar hymn stretches all the way back to my childhood. I’m on holiday. And for me, at last, a holiday has become a time to breathe. A time for hills. Trees. Butterflies. Bullrushes. Sun, sea and stony beaches. Stillness.

It wasn’t always like this. The annual holidays of my childhood were a double-edged sword. They meant so much to my parents. My father especially. And I loved them too. But somehow, along with the welter of wellies and waterproofs, we always managed to squeeze the Protestant work ethic into the battered leather suitcases. Thus, as we stepped out of the car and stretched our legs, surrounded by all the glory of the Lake District or Snowdonia, my mother would scurry indoors to inspect the kitchen of our self-catering holiday cottage. She’d declare that every last item must be thoroughly washed before we could so much as make a cup of tea. I was the eldest, and the only girl, so it fell to my lot to scrub dishes while my younger brothers splashed about in the stream at the bottom of the garden. This done, all meals had to be be prepared to the usual standard, regardless of the facilities available. In this, Mum made a rod wholly for her own back. She reigned supreme in the kitchen. No-one else was allowed to do anything more creative than potato-peeling. I think she probably went home more exhausted than when we arrived. Small wonder she insisted that dad take her to hotels once the three of us had grown up and gone.

When all the work was done properly there were mountains to be walked up. Walking up mountains was a Good Thing. Even if we hated it. It’s not that I hate mountains, you understand. Quite the contrary. I don’t even hate walking up them. It’s simply that the 1960s approach was depressingly utilitarian. Get to the top as fast as possible. Admire the view. If the fog hadn’t got there first. Have a picnic. That was the best part. Then walk back down to the car. I simply wasn’t good at the ‘get to the top as fast as possible’ bit. I liked to take my time. Watch the butterflies. Examine the lichens on a rock or tree trunk. Most of all, I liked to breathe. To fill my lungs with enough oxygen to avoid near-death sensations. Instead, I was nagged to walk faster. Try harder. To me, ‘try harder’ meant tense every muscle in my body. Pull my shoulders up to my ears. Draw in a deep breath and hold it. I suppose near death experiences were the inevitable result.

How we love that ol’ Protestant work ethic. Try harder. Work harder. Make more money. Forget those lazy, hazy, crazy dreams … What you really want is a new iPhone. A bigger house. A 60-inch flat-screen telly will make you truly happy. We’re sold the myth that work is virtuous in and of itself. Just so long as it makes money. The government has a mantra for it nowadays. ‘Hard-working families’. I remember a time, back in the 80s, when they told us we wouldn’t need to work so much in the future. Whatever happened to that one? Instead, it’s everyone for themselves. A never-ending pitched battle to be the hardest-working, longest-suffering, most hard-done-by on your street. Then to get rich enough to move to a better street. Just so long as you’re not poor. Poor is wrong. Poor is evil. Poor proves you’re not-hard-working. Not-hard-working is the worst sin in the world.

Sin. Now there’s an idea. Or ‘ideal’, as we Bristolians might say. I’d love to go out on the street one day and ask for random people’s ideas of their ideal ‘sins’. Sex would be right up there of course. Christians have made a lot of fuss about sex down the centuries. If the people involved have the same number of x and y chromosomes it’s even worse. Murder. Robbery. Rape. Yep. Can’t argue with those. Poverty … Not-working-hard … Going against the status quo … Most of us are not ready to rank them alongside murder just yet. But I’d be willing to bet there are more people who’d call them ‘sins’ than there were a generation ago.

Which makes it all the more odd that our government lays claim to Christian values. The man Christians say they follow certainly wouldn’t recognise wealth creation or accepting the status quo as Christian values. It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven … Woe to you who are rich now … Sell your possessions and give to the poor … You have heard that it was said, but I tell you … Just a small selection of quotes from his teachings.

It seems to me Jesus was all about going against the flow. I think that’s what I like best about him. He jacked in a secure job in the family carpentry business in his early thirties and became an itinerant preacher. He drew huge crowds with his alternative philosophy. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you …You can’t serve God and money … Blessed are the peacemakers … He was homeless, owning nothing but the clothes on his back. When accused of not paying his taxes he produced a coin from the mouth of a fish and paid up, even though he owed nothing. A far cry from the tax-dodging billionaires who preach austerity to the rest of us today.

Human nature hasn’t changed a lot in two-thousand-plus years. Turns out the crowds who flocked to Jesus were looking for a magical solution. A formula. The one quick fix that would sort things out for all time. What good thing must I do to get eternal life? Sell your possessions and give to the poor … follow me. What? You must be joking. Jesus never sugared the pill. Never offered compromise. Small wonder the crowd turned on him in the end. He just wasn’t giving them what they wanted.

We all want instant answers. There are more quick fixes today, of course. Email. Text messages. Online shopping. Why wait? Why not make myself feel better right now? I deserve it don’t I? Why shouldn’t I pay money I don’t have to someone who already has more than me, for another trinket that will make people envy me? In a Wonga-loan society I’m free to mortgage my soul to the point of no escape. To mortgage the earth. To steal it from my children and my grandchildren. A debt I have absolutely no hope of repaying. Eternal life or not. In the past forty years, the earth has lost more than half its vertebrate wildlife. At this rate, the butterflies and bullrushes will be gone by the time my grandsons are old enough to appreciate them. Greed’s the great untalked-about ‘sin’. The one that’s going to get us all. We need to start upsetting the status quo. Going against the flow. Making peace. Loving our enemies. Selling our possessions. Giving to the poor.

This week I’ve been walking. Along the beach.  On the wild and windy cliff top. I’ve walked here every summer for five years now. Nothing changed much from one year to the next, until now. The beach looks significantly different from the way it did last summer. The rising sea level is beginning to erode the shoreline. Warning notices have appeared. The coast is less safe than it was, even twelve months ago.

Jesus walked too. He walked up mountains to find quiet space to pray, away from the crowds. I imagine him taking his time. Examining lichens on rocks. Watching a butterfly on the breeze. Gasping at the swoop of an eagle. I’ve had the privilege of doing all these things, and I’m thankful. I’d love to leave the world in a better state than it was when I arrived. I want my grandchildren, and their grandchildren too, to be able to marvel at creation the way I have. But I’m old enough and ugly enough to know there’s no quick fix. If I really want to change anything, I’m going to have to start with myself. That’s going to be the hardest part.


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