Category Archives: London Life

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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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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Caught by the River Thames

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The Thames from Putney Bridge

The first Caught by the River Thames festival at Fulham Palace was conceived as “a cross between a vicar’s tea party and an Anti-Nazi League gig,” according to one of the organisers. So what washed up on the river bank?

There was a strong literary/nature writing theme to the weekend. Some of my favourite authors, including Iain Sinclair and Melissa Harrison, talked waterways, wilderness and seasons.

Sinclair spoke of the choice Londoners face between following the river upstream, to the riparian villages of Cookham and Swan Upping, or downriver to the ‘Heart of Darkness’ in the estuary. Conrad or Jerome K Jerome – two impossibly different visions of the Thames.

I loved Harrison’s description of how seasons in a temperate country like the UK help us understand and keep track of time – ‘The seasons are to time as a metronome is to music.’ The rhythm of the year, blackberries to bare branches, cherry blossom to courgette flowers, provides some reassurance of our place in the dizzying march of time.

More potential dizzying from Andy Hamilton, who kicked off Sunday with a masterclass in creating booze for free, talking us through his experiments in infusing, brewing and making alcoholic concoctions from the most amazing ingredients. I’m planning to have a go at his 18-botanical gin, made in half an hour during his talk, although I may give the kelp martini a miss.

Chill-out time meant a retreat to snooze under an apple tree in the bosky and beautiful  Walled Garden, complete with impressive vegetable patch, bee hives and spectacular dahlias.

There was music, as befits a festival, from the trippy North African Imarhan, to the final stomping session from headliners Super Furry Animals. I loved both of these, as well as the impressively funky Llareggub Brass Band and Ramones-wannabees Temples. I’m not a Beth Orton fan, though, and Saturday night’s doom rockers Low were not a high point for me either. My main disappointment was being unable to see poet/rapper Kate Tempest perform, as she’d been scheduled for a room far too small for the numbers who wanted to see her.

The unexpected highlight was watching music journalist Lauren Laverne interview the wildlife broadcaster and campaigner Chris Packham on the main stage, while we sat and basked in the blazing sunshine. The interview was surprisingly personal, given that several hundred people were watching, with Chris describing how his Asperger’s syndrome affected the way he perceived the natural world. He described his early forays into natural history, his forthright methods of getting a job at the BBC, and encouraged us not to run away if faced by a predator. I’ll remember that, next time I’m set upon by a baboon.

He also had a ‘rant’ about the plight of the hen harrier, asking us all to sign a petition to prompt a parliamentary debate about the detrimental effect of driven grouse moors on the numbers of these birds of prey. I’ll finish with a link to the petition – I signed when I got home. I hope you will consider doing so too: Ban Driven Grouse Shooting.

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Bees enjoying the dahlias

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Melissa Harrison

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Iain Sinclair

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Flaneurserie at the London Review Bookshop

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Flaneuse in Cecil Court. Does it count if you’re playing Pokemon Go?

I’ve yet to meet a writer who doesn’t appreciate the pleasures of a leisurely stroll through a city. Overheard snatches of conversation, relationships being negotiated, the press of a rush hour crowd, hidden courtyards and quiet parks, provide rich fodder for the imagination.

I’ve long aspired to the status of flâneur, the observer who sets himself (usually) aside from the crowd to take pleasure in watching. Exploring cities on foot is a favourite pasttime, from the Manchester of my student years, to Paris, New York, Florence, Madrid – and of course my home town, London. So I was intrigued to find out more about the female experience, from Lauren Elkin, author of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City, in conversation with Brian Dillon at the London Review Bookshop in Bloomsbury.

A flâneuse, Elkin tells us, is ‘a determined resourceful woman keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk’. I’ll take that.

Paris spawned the notion of the flâneur. Self-consciously dressing up their wanderings in a frock-coat of literary intent, writers like Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin claimed the streets and cafès as their own. It’s always been harder for women. Writer Georges Sands famously borrowed her brother’s boots and breeches for her own perambulations through Paris, delighting in being able to disappear into the crowd.

The difficulty comes, as Elkin said, with the male gaze. Much as women might like to go unnoticed while walking alone in the city, ‘it’s the gaze of the flâneur that makes us so conspicuous.’ There’s an queasy connection between a woman walking the streets, and a street-walker. Why has this woman left her home to go gadding about the city, if not for business or pleasure, or the business of pleasure?

The problem has by no means disappeared. I was threatened with sexual violence as a student walking home through Manchester late at night. When I wanted to stroll in Madrid, where I lived in my early 30s, I’d choose a nondescript outfit that would not result in the hisses and shouts of ‘Rubia!’ (Blondie) that followed me if I dared to wear a short skirt. Now that I’m older, I can walk London with impunity. It’s a relief, but I feel sad that I had to look dull. Why shouldn’t the flâneuse adopt her own flamboyant, dandy style? It’s not about being invisible, I realise, just about being comfortable.

Bloomsbury seemed a good place to consider the flâneuse. It’s a fine place to wander, through the squares and gardens. Bloomsbury doyenne Virginia Woolf wrote one of the finest novels of walking the city, in Mrs Dalloway, whose footsteps you can trace around town. Clarissa Dalloway, of course, wasn’t merely wandering, but out to buy the flowers. Shopping is an acceptable excuse for women walking alone. Only Peter Walsh, her former admirer, is able to be ‘completely free’ in his wanderings, to the extent of following a woman through the streets, wondering whether she is ‘respectable’.

Respectability seems a great hindrance for a flâneuse. Some of my favourite writing comes in the novels of Sarah Waters, who gives us transgressive women – feminists, lesbians, cross-dressers, thieves – walking the streets for pleasure or profit, or simply for something to do. Her description in The Night Watch of walking the bombed streets of the city during the black-out has a particularly hallucinatory power.

I’m looking forward to learning more about artistic flâneuse through Elkin’s book, including the film-maker Agnes Varda and photographer Sophie Calle. Both did interesting things with the female gaze, not least turning it on men. Neither of them sound in the least bit respectable, and I’m delighted to make their acquaintance.

Flâneuse is published by Penguin.

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