Listening to Refugee Tales

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Rave in the nave, Kingston-on-Thames

I’m in a church in Kingston-on-Thames, dancing to the joyful sound of a steel band playing Bob Marley. The group I’m with laughs and claps, snaking in a conga-line around a politely-seated audience. I met these people only two days ago. How did I get here?

My story is simple: six months ago I saw a tweet about something called Refugee Tales. It sounded interesting; I went to the website and signed up. I more or less forgot about it until it was time to head for Runnymede (site of the signing of the Magna Carta) for the start of a winding walk along the Thames to Westminster.

For many of my fellow-walkers, this walk was part of a much longer journey, which started much further away, on other continents. Many of them had been through barely-imaginable hardships and dangers, and carried with them the grief of losing country, family, friends, the future they had planned. Their treatment on arrival in the UK was in some cases soul-destroying.

Except their souls had not been destroyed. Indeed, their souls were in fine shape, as witnessed by the laughter, singing and dancing all around me in that Kingston church.

Refugee Tales is a walk in solidarity with those held in indefinite detention by UK immigration services, while seeking refuge in this country.

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Reflecting in a garden in Walton-on-Thames

It’s a profound and simple way of offering a welcome and perhaps forging a path through what has become hostile territory, creating our own welcome for those who have been denied that basic human dignity. Some of the walkers were detention visitors; some were people who had themselves been held in detention. Some were supporters of the cause, or people like me who’d simply heard about the event and liked the sound of it.

We walked together along the river Thames, getting to know each other, hearing each others’ stories, enjoying the tranquil surroundings, the freedom that comes from making our way unimpeded, on foot, to our destination. We ate together, and after the evening’s events, unrolled sleeping bags to fall asleep together in church halls offering hospitality.

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Blue-shirted Refugee Walkers on the move

Patron of the charity, writer Ali Smith (one of my favourite authors) puts it beautifully, when she says: “The telling of stories is an act of profound hospitality.” She describes storytelling as an “ancient form of generosity” – and to emphasise the point, when she met us en-route, she read from the Odyssey, one of the oldest of old tales, describing how the lost and weary traveller was met with hospitality when shipwrecked on an island. There are many people shipwrecked on islands these days, including our own. The welcome is not always so generous.

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Ali Smith reads from The Odyssey

One of the many things I learned on the walk was that the UK is the only country in Europe to hold those seeking refuge in indefinite, arbitrary detention. It’s a flagrant denial of their humanity, and one that directly contravenes the rights set out in the 13th century Magna Carta, let alone the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Refugee Tales project is an offshoot of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, a tireless and dogged charity that visits, supports and campaigns on behalf of people being held at in detention at Gatwick by the immigration service.

As well as organising the walk, Refugee Tales engages writers including Ali Smith, Jackie Kay, Helen Macdonald and Neel Mukherjee to work with detainees to write stories based on their experiences. The stories are collected in two volumes and are wonderful. They are even more electrifying when read aloud, by the writers or by actors, as they were during the evening events.

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Dinner over, time to chat

In Kingston, I had a chat over dinner with a gentle and courteous young man whose story was being told that evening. Later I tried to imagine how he had survived the shocking experiences relayed in his tale, and remained so gentle. The previous night, an amazing young man told us his harrowing life story directly.

Both of these men wanted, above all, to finish their studies and be able to work – one as a social worker, the other as a doctor. The UK is lucky to have people of this calibre in our country. It’s about time we stopped treating them like criminals.

The first step in recognising someone as a human being is to listen to their story. The second, perhaps, is to share your own. Stories break down the barriers between ‘them’ and ‘us’. Before you know it, you’re all part of the same gang, on the same journey.

If anything can save the human world, I think it will be stories.

To find out more about how you can help, see the website http://refugeetales.org/getinvolved/

 

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Take five

January passed in a blur of protests, marches, outrage, petitions and emails. Time to regroup for five bars’ rest, before returning to the fray. Here are five things I’m going to do in February to keep me fresh.

  1. Plant some vegetable seeds. Nothing says “hope” like tomato seedlings growing on the windowsill.P1040212.JPG
  2. Go book-shopping, in an independent book shop. I’m working my way through the excellent long-list for the Wellcome Book Prize, always stuffed with thought-provoking literature.G Heywood Hill window
  3. Explore the vibrant art of the belle of Bloomsbury. Dulwich Picture Gallery hosts the first major retrospective of Vanessa Bell, a pioneer in life and in art. Starts 8 February.
  4. Bake some cake. I’ve had the builders in, re-making the kitchen, since the middle of December, and I’m craving the warm, delicious smell of a cake baking in the oven. Which one? I think I’ll see which page falls open first in my well-used copy of Pam Corbin’s River Cottage Handbook: Cakes.img_02135: Walk by the sea. For a clear head, wide horizon and lungful of breathable air, I’m heading out of polluted old London and down to the Kent coast.
    Dunes

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Why I’m marching (so many reasons)

p1040312It’s been a while since I marched. Back in student days, a demo on a weekend was a regular occurrence – I’ve marched against war, nukes, poll tax; for reproductive rights, to reclaim the streets, to support human rights defenders. On Saturday I’m joining the Women’s March on London. The need for this march has been questioned by some. So, here’s why I’m marching:

  • Because every woman I know has walked in fear, worried about footsteps behind her on an unlit street
  • Because  two women a week are murdered by a partner or former partner
  • Because I was first “flashed” at when I was a schoolgirl, and I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t experienced this intimidating form of assault
  • Because men still get off rape charges after their victim’s sexual history is raked over in court
  • Because the world’s most powerful country has just elected a self-proclaimed sexual assaulter of women as president
  • Because some men think it’s OK to threaten women with rape and murder for saying things they disagree with
  • Because an inspirational MP was murdered, and one of our biggest-circulation newspapers didn’t think that important enough to put on the front page
  • Because I am sick and tired of feeling afraid, and keeping quiet, and hoping nothing bad happens to me
  • Because of all the women in the world with less power and privilege than me, who can’t speak out or take to the streets.

There are more reasons than that, more than I can count. Equal pay. Access to reproductive healthcare. A refusal to accept the politics of hatred and division. And before anyone starts with ‘not all men’ – I know. Of course I know. The one I’m married to is marching with me, for a start.

But the man who takes the highest office in America today thinks women are pieces of meat, and I’m angry as hell about that. The question isn’t why women are marching – it’s why we ever stopped.

 

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No more cakes and ale: Emma Rice to leave Shakespeare’s Globe

Dream“Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

Shakespeare’s barb, aimed at the puritan Malvolio in Twelfth Night, seems an apposite response to the stuffed shirts at Shakespeare’s Globe. They have got rid of Emma Rice, the theatre’s first female director, for the crime of using lighting and sound effects, rather than sticking to their po-faced agenda of ‘authenticity’.

I’ve loved The Globe from its opening back in the nineties, when the equally exciting and innovative Mark Rylance launched the theatre. The fear was always that it would be a museum of Shakespeare, somewhere that tourists and bored school kids were taken while ‘doing’ our national poet. Rylance’s passion made it a thrilling venue, where you were never sure what you would see next. His experiments with authentic lighting, costumes and minimal staging felt new and radical at the time.

Dominic Dromgoole was a ‘safe pair of hands’ successor, although some of the Globe To Globe productions – inviting theatre troupes from around the world to perform the plays in their own language – were exciting, if perhaps less commercially successful. But it had been a while since I’d had such a vibrant theatrical experience as Emma Rice’s first production at The Globe, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (reviewed here).

I felt like I did the first time I fell in love with theatre. I laughed aloud, clapped till my hands hurt, hung on every word, cheered at the end. I was with a friend who had never seen Shakespeare before. She’d expected a difficult, maybe boring night out. We had a riot. This, I told her exuberantly, was why I love Shakespeare. He can take all the 21st century can throw at him, its carnival and excess and multiculturalism, and emerge all the better for it.

Well, he can. The audiences, which loved the play and packed the theatre, can too. Sadly, the Shakespeare’s Globe board can’t. It released a mealy-mouthed statement which acknowledged Rice’s enormous success – then added: “Following much deliberation and discussion, the Globe Board has concluded that from April 2018, the theatre programming should be structured around ‘shared light’ productions without designed sound and light rigging, which characterised a large body of The Globe’s work prior to Emma’s appointment.”

Confusingly, they continue: “As Emma has already so brilliantly and inventively demonstrated, the Globe remains committed to delighting audiences and engaging them in both Shakespeare’s work and the playhouse for which he wrote.” Delighting and engaging us by sacking the brilliant, inventive director who delighted and engaged us? Pull the other one.

The crazy thing about this is that Shakespeare was an innovator, an inventor of language who forged new types of drama, played in new types of theatre. Does anyone seriously think the man who wrote The Tempest would have chucked out the lighting rig, if he’d had access to one? He even wrote a speech (in Hamlet) criticising old-fashioned acting methods. If Shakespeare walked among us now, I bet you he’d be working with Emma Rice, not with the Globe’s board.

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Is everything copy? Women in Journalism discuss.

photo-1455904254851-58c6069237f7.jpegThere’s one comfort that keeps writers going when everything is going to hell and there’s no handcart in sight. ‘I’ll write about this one day,’ we mutter, surveying the wreckage of our lives.

But should we? Is everything really copy, or are there limits that we can and should set to protect ourselves or other people? Women In Journalism staged a debate on Tuesday in the St Bride’s Institute off Fleet Street, featuring four doyennes of personal journalism: Louise Chunn, Bryony Gordon, Kathryn Flett and Rebecca Armstrong. These women have regaled the world with tales of infidelity, marriage breakdown, mental health problems, serious illness and funny things kids say – whether from their own experience or as editors, encouraging others to ‘spill their guts’.

Louise Chunn, who as Guardian women’s page editor published the story of Jilly Cooper’s husband’s lover’s account of their affair (as well as an article I wrote on smear tests that I still get emails about), says that she’s changed her views over the years, not least because ‘everything lives forever online’. ‘I have had times when it’s really blown up in my face,’ she says. ‘Telling stories really does help other people, but sometimes people doing the writing are not as careful with themselves as they might be,’ she said.

Kathryn Flett talked of how a travel piece, to Bruges on Valentine’s Day, became her first ‘confessional’ piece when her husband announced he was leaving her, the day before they went. The resulting piece, which she wrote in one  draft and entitled “By Waterloo Station I sat down and wept,” made her name. She went on to write a blow-by-blow account of the end of the marriage, and says she felt no need to protect her husband: ‘You married a writer: deal with it’. Spouses of writers, beware.

Bryony Gordon, the daughter of a journalist who wrote about her kids, now ‘gets her own back’ on her mum Jayne in a two-part column they write for the Telegraph. She shared memories of posing for a photoshoot at her mother’s request as a teenager, only for it to appear under the strapline: “Is this the worst teenager in Britain?” Now a mother herself, she says she’s conscious that ‘I don’t want it to hurt anyone else.’ She defends personal journalism (she hates the ‘confessional’ tag), saying it takes bravery and strength to share your life honestly. ‘Men do it, and it’s art.’

The last panellist, Rebecca Armstrong, began writing about her life with her husband Nick after a terrible accident left him in a coma. She said she talked to his parents and his ex-wife before deciding to start writing about him, as she couldn’t ask Nick himself – although she spoke to him all the time. He’s now out of the coma and, she says, is thrilled that she writes a column, and sometimes contributes a few words to it. However, she said, she does hold back on some details, to protect his dignity.

The evening was thought-provoking, raising questions of where to draw the line to protect oneself, while sharing experiences that might just help someone else. It’s tempting to put it all out there – but do you want any future children or employers to read all about it?

Image: Tran Mau Tri Tam, via Unsplash.

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