DAY 235: Happy?

December 24th, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

I suppose very year everywhere in the past, there have been people who resented the enforced happiness of Christmas – when they had no reason to be happy. Whether because they were lonely or impoverished; or had lost someone they loved, or they were in hospital or a war zone.. the list is unending. In 1972, Nixon ordered the notorious ‘Christmas bombing’ of North Vietnam:

In just one night, more than 2,000 homes were destroyed around Kham Thien, a busy shopping street in Hanoi. About 280 people were killed and at least as many again injured. Ha Mi  who was 10 years old at the time and remembers sheltering under the stairs of her family home with her sister, listening to the bombers overhead). had a friend, whose house was hit.


“There were a few houses still standing, but most of it was just rubble, flattened on the ground – or even just a big hole. Houses were just gone, it was horrible. I remember seeing people just standing there looking at it – but there was nothing there. Everything was just gone.”

This year, I’d like you to turn your thoughts, however briefly, to the Tamimi family, many of whom will be in jail:

[From Al Jazeera] Bethlehem, occupied West Bank - Ahed Tamimi,


a prominent 16-year-old Palestinian activist, has been detained during a pre-dawn raid on her home by the Israeli army and border police in the occupied West Bank. Ahed’s mother, Nariman, was also arrested on Tuesday afternoon during a visit to Ahed at an Israeli police station.

What other examples could I come up with? The misery goes on from year to year – and it’s so various. How do we have the nerve to speak of good cheer, and listen – not by choice of course –  to Bing Crosby and Bono as we fight our way through Tesco’s searching for Christmas wrapping paper and (for God’s sake) Christmas sellotape. How many this Christmas will be homeless or in danger of losing their homes? (One in 25 people in the London Borough of Newham is homeless – the highest in Britain  That’s 13,607 people. And, as you might expect, you don’t count as homeless just by not having a home, you have to fill in forms at the town hall. And they’ll check on your immigration status. The best thing you can hope for is company in your misery. No, we have to accept a glaring disconnect between a number of things:

1) the birth of a child in an impoverished one-parent family (sort of) in occupied Palestine 2000 years ago

2) a church and (by association) state holiday which is therefore naturally

3) an excuse for a great deal of eating and drinking together with

4) an ideology which identifies all this with peace and goodwill

5) stockings

6) presents

It’s all a bit much to take on board.


The word humbug is hovering on the edge of my keyboard.

I hope you have a great time.




DAY 234: Anniversaries

December 21st, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

What an amazing end to the year! Although it’s inevitably steeped in gloom and desperation for those of you who don’t inhabit the small bubble where I live but are forced to pass their time in, say, Bethlehem (seasonal) or Myanmar or, as I said recently, Eritrea, or Texas – although all that, here because of my slightly manic accumulation of voluntary ‘work’, I’ve been out to no less than four parties in rapid succession, all I suppose celebrating the birthday of Jesus rrrrEthiopian_nativity_fabric_previewwhich happens to fall close to my own. All are grateful for the pitifully small amount of work I put in, and celebrate my success in managing to live so long without getting some terminal disease or becoming a rabid Islamophobe or frankly losing interest in the whole


human circus. ‘Phone credit for Refugees’, easily the most excitable of my occupations, (whose members I’d never met irl, but who communicate online 24/7 in arcane references, pseudonyms, technical jargon, and a mixture of languages) followed their tradition of getting up a collection for my birthday – for them, not for me, of course; which led to delightful wishes (to me) from at least sixty people who I’d never met as they donated their tenner (to the cause). And threw a party – for Jesus, I suppose rather than me – in a posh place in WC2 and poured me into a taxi at the end. Haringey Migrants’ Support Centre, to whom I owe much more than I could possibly repay since they offer me a share of a room and company and are prepared to pretend that I’m some kind of low-grade lawyer, are throwing a drinks party. I feel amazingly lucky to be at the centre of all this


La dolce vita

activity when as we  know in the streets of Tottenham, never mind Beirut or Asmara or Brussels huge numbers are suffering, even freezing to death as a direct result of the actions of governments – any governments, the whole wretched lot of them – run by the rich at the expense of the poor.

But you must be used to hearing these rants, and not only from me. Let’s join in hoping (as we always misguidedly do) that the future will be no worse than the past… What are the angels up to? My mother was a particular aficionada of the carol ‘It Came upon the Midnight Clear’, written says Wikipedia by a Methodist pastor ‘at a time of revolution in Europe’ and looking forward clearly to the triumphant arrival of the angels to overthrow the bosses. It didn’t happen then and it’s even less looking like happening now. What blind faith, what foolish optimism keeps us trying to resist, keeping our eyes fixed, not on the angels but on the cold and misery all around us in the hopes that by raising money,making phone calls, selling t-shirts or tote bags, we can make any difference? Have we not just about run out of rhetorical questions? I rest my case, and wish you all as much rest as you can squeeze out of the season. Don’t give up, brothers and sisters, you are not alone – we are many, they are few! Why doesn’t it feel like that?

1. It came upon the midnight clear,
that glorious song of old,
from angels bending near the earth
to touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
from heaven’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
to hear the angels sing.

2. Still through the cloven skies they come
with peaceful wings unfurled,
and still their heavenly music floats
o’er all the weary world;
above its sad and lowly plains,
they bend on hovering wing,
and ever o’er its Babel sounds
the blessed angels sing.

3. And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow,
look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
and hear the angels sing!

4. For lo! the days are hastening on,
by prophet seen of old,
when with the ever-circling years
shall come the time foretold
when peace shall over all the earth
its ancient splendors fling,
and the whole world send back the song
which now the angels sing.

ugh rest

DAY 233: ርሑስ በዓል ልደትን ሓድሽ ዓመትን።

December 11th, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

[PS I can't make Tigrinya characters come out on my phone except as question marks. I imagine people whose language actually is Tigrinya must have a workaround, and I wonder if they could share it.]

Hoping as I always do to expand our horizons beyond the narrow confines 0f Western Europe, I’m posting an early Christmas greeting in Tigrinya which I expect you know is one of the two main languages in Eritrea, as well as being spoken by quite a few people in Ethiopia, particularly Eritrean refugees. I know, and some pedant is sure to tell me, that in both the Orthodox and Ge’ez calendars Christmas is some way away, but you might as well start practising your greetings, particularly if you’ve been invited to any


Eritrean Christmas parties. (Even worse if your Eritrean friends are Pentecostal or Jehovah’s Witnesses and so should be persecuted, and have a right to asylum which you can bet they won’t get.) Reader, I feel, as so often, appallingly ignorant. I thought the ‘refugee crisis’ was limited to the one at my back door, where 1.3 million refugees (roughly) – Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and others arrived in Europe in 2015 and made us feel generous and warm or besieged and hostile depending on our attitude to the Other. What I didn’t know was that a comparable number of Eritreans had already been making their way, via UNHCR’s  camps in Ethiopia, to Europe two years or more before.

Their situation – already in 2013 – was described in a UNHCR report as follows: ‘Eritrean refugees cross into Ethiopia through 16 entry points from which they are collected and brought to a reception station for screening and registration. Before departure from the reception centre, the refugees are issued with basic assistance items, including sleeping mats, blankets, jerry cans, water buckets, soap and mosquito nets. They are also provided with tents and food rations once they get to the new camp.

As of the end of May, Ethiopia is hosting 71,833 Eritrean refugees in four camps in Tigray region and two others in the Afar region in north-eastern Ethiopia. Transfers to the new camp are taking place every second day.’ All these thousands, four camps (now five)  of whom I knew nothing; the refugees had to arrive on our doorstep to become a ‘problem’ which I had to worry about.

The huge number of Eritreans were driven not by war but by an


authoritarian regime and particularly the forced conscription described in the Amnesty report ‘Just Deserters‘ and elsewhere. They have often survived – as you might expect – appalling dangers in Sudan, Libya and Egypt; they have sometimes arrived ironically in the ‘safety’ of Tel Aviv to be treated, naturally, as  dangerous black strangers.  They, like all other refugees, want in the long term to go home; looking out at the sleet driving past the window I felt sure that for an Eritrean something warmer would be preferable.

Their popular poet Keesom Haile, writing in Tigrinya, has been thinking – as I hope we all do. And why not start with Marx and Lenin?

Learning from History

We learned from Marx and Lenin:
To be equal trim your feet
For one-size-fits-all shoes.
We made their mistakes, too.

Equally, we all make mistakes.
The evil is in not being corrected
Aren’t we known
By what we do, undo and do again?


DAY 232: Incredible

December 7th, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

Ages ago, I started getting fascinated by the law, reading textbooks on tort and cases and so on; and (I was helping a friend with exams) studying old exam papers; in which things happened like:

‘On 31 December 2014, Jez was delivering some boxes of dental equipment to various addresses in Midshire. He was accompanied by his 18-year-old nephew, Lionel, who sometimes used to join Jez on his days off from college to keep him company. It was getting late in the afternoon, and Jez still had two deliveries to make. Lionel was keen to get home in order to go out that evening to a party. He, therefore, suggested to Jez that he use a short-cut, which involved driving down a short length of road restricted to use by buses and taxis only. Jez at first hesitated but, encouraged by Lionel, Jez agreed to do so. Halfway along the road Jez, who was driving too fast, lost control


of the van and collided with a bus coming the opposite way. Lionel, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was thrown forward into the windscreen, which shattered. He suffered serious cuts to his face and now wishes to bring an action to recover damages for his injuries.’

What fun! Which cases did you have to remember were involved so as to decide whether Jez and Lionel could somehow escape the consequences of their folly and negligence, and carry on delivering dental equipment in Midshire without being banned as they deserved? I loved studying it; and I loved it even more ten years later when, getting serious, I took a course in Refugee Law, watching the Home Secretary getting clobbered for her failure to observe the Refugee Convention as it applied to A.H. or M.M. and trying to see how it might apply to P.Q. Needless to say, readers, I passed with flying colours (you can read some of my works from the period in the margin if you can be bothered).

Did I get a job as a refugee lawyer as a result? Get real, readers. In the first place, I was seventy, and who’d take me on for training? In the second place, there are no jobs anyway, in law as anywhere else. I have to tell you that, after a year’s hard graft and many disappointments, I’ve finally got a place working as a humble volunteer with some really fun lawyers, and I’ve made a couple of discoveries which I can share with you. (More to come, no doubt.) I’d welcome your views.

Law is not about cases. It’s about stationery. You have to deal with an unmanageable pile of papers going back maybe ten years. Most of what’s been said, according to the judges, who should know, is in those papers, and it’s incredible (hence the title of this post in case you were wondering), and you’re supposed to make it sound credible. You have to organise the papers in plastic folders, held by paper clips, oh how can you keep them separate? Get some more folders. Is the photocopier working? Get some coffee and don’t spill it. Why is that document dated 2009, it should be 2012? Why are those tenancy papers in among the leave to remain ones? Get a grip.

There are mysterious people called ‘clients’. By a convenient fiction, they”re supposed to be what it’s all really about (you’re trying to do something for them, to fight their corner); but they don’t turn up for appointments, having no credit on their phone, living in Ealing, having got the flu, not having got your message anyway. The moments of contact between lawyer and client are indeed the ideal which we strive for; but the contact is mostly via the photocopier and the voicemail.

I sort of feel it was different in the days of Atticus Finch.


Anyway, having just, for the first time, met a ‘client’ (I’m professionally bound not to tell you what happened, but it didn’t involve sex or alcohol), I have more of an idea if what ‘it”s about. I expect next time will be different. As Auden pointed out, law isn’t what you expect.

Law, say the gardeners, is the sun,
Law is the one
All gardeners obey
To-morrow, yesterday, to-day.

Law is the wisdom of the old,
The impotent grandfathers feebly scold;
The grandchildren put out a treble tongue,
Law is the senses of the young.

Law, says the priest with a priestly look,
Expounding to an unpriestly people,
Law is the words in my priestly book,
Law is my pulpit and my steeple.

Law, says the judge as he looks down his nose,
Speaking clearly and most severely,
Law is as I’ve told you before,
Law is as you know I suppose,
Law is but let me explain it once more,
Law is The Law.

Yet law-abiding scholars write:
Law is neither wrong nor right,
Law is only crimes
Punished by places and by times,
Law is the clothes men wear
Anytime, anywhere,
Law is Good morning and Good night.

Others say, Law is our Fate;
Others say, Law is our State;
Others say, others say
Law is no more,
Law has gone away.

And always the loud angry crowd,
Very angry and very loud,
Law is We,
And always the soft idiot softly Me.

If we, dear, know we know no more
Than they about the Law,
If I no more than you
Know what we should and should not do
Except that all agree
Gladly or miserably
That the Law is
And that all know this
If therefore thinking it absurd
To identify Law with some other word,
Unlike so many men
I cannot say Law is again,

No more than they can we suppress
The universal wish to guess
Or slip out of our own position
Into an unconcerned condition.
Although I can at least confine
Your vanity and mine
To stating timidly
A timid similarity,
We shall boast anyway:
Like love I say.

Like love we don’t know where or why,
Like love we can’t compel or fly,
Like love we often weep,
Like love we seldom keep.














DAY 231: Ein kurzer goldener Zeit

November 30th, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

We all consider the stream of time, or consciousness, as it flows past us, in different ways, we wouldn’t be different people if we didn’t; and a fine muddle we’d be in if we were the same people. But I’ve started digressing before I’ve even started. My theme today if I can stick to it is how we think about our lives, looking back at them; which I’ve been doing from time to time. Particularly since an exceptionally thoughtful Nablus student
(no, I won’t tell you who), who I was ‘testing for her level of English’ – so as to put her in the ‘right’ conversation class – asked me: ‘What was your most effective experience?’ This immediately turned the tables on who was testing who or whom or for what. After some disentangling, it became clear that she meant ‘experience which had an impact on your life’, and told me a story involving some sort of hallucination or


waking death or one of those things.

I’ve never had any such experience having steered clear for the most part of those substances with which many of my friends used to fuck up their heads (this is not meant in a spirit of criticism; and many of them went on to be professors or barristers or CEOs of indeed drug companies and good luck to them). Oddly, after about four minutes’ thought I concluded – at the age of 77, which I then was, that my most effective experience was that of becoming, with a group of mostly ridiculously young friends, involved in the already desperate situation of the refugees in the Calais jungle, and trying both to understand it (the situation – are you still listening?) – in all its ramifications, and to do something about it. And to watch it as the French and British authorities did everything within their power to make a crisis into a disaster. That is, my most effective experience was about three months back. Had I lived? ObviouslyI had, in spades: I won’t bore you with a list of the amazing people I’ve met, places I’ve been, the highs, the lows, the evenings at the opera in Verona or in intense discussions with tiny left groups,the failed attempts to make crême brûlée or makhlouba, the broken ribs and noses gained while climbing frozen fells under the influence of this or that, the unwritten papers on the shape of the universe, the nights walking up and down trying to get a succession of

migrant-628095children to stop crying,… Maybe my memory had mysteriously lost a large chunk; but maybe the most recent events had become for whatever reason hugely more significant.. And I cling to the belief that this is because they are; what is happening now is of huge importance and, however horrible it may be, we have to keep our eyes focused on it.

And (this is the significance of my title – for it does have one – that in all this mêlée of my life, the three months which I spent concentrated on the jungle, before it was destroyed, and before (rather earlier) my knees stopped working do stand out as a short golden age – the attentive reader will have picked up the reference to Azdak’s rule in Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Not as an age of justice, no one could claim that in those days – but as a time of friendship. I’m glad and lucky to have lived through that time; and when I meet others who share those memories, and who know how much worse it is now, and will be, and how much still to do, there’s a bond.

And you, reader? Because, obviously, your memories are at least as important as mine and I’d be happy to sit and listen to them if you’d only talk. The problem with a blog – do you have this, my fellow bloggers – is the constant sense that you are talking to yourself.  (What would have happened, I wonder, if the Wedding Guest had broken in on the Ancient Mariner: ”Funny you should say that, I had a similar
albatrossproblem with albatrosses myself..”) Isn’t it often more fun to be a listener? Which was your most effective experience? The protocols, I know, are many these days involving not interfering in others’ trauma, boundaries, and all that stuff. As Bob Dylan memorably said, I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours.

At the Movies

Have I mentioned Sue Clayton’s really good film ‘A Case to Answer’? documenting the destruction of the jungle, and the chaos and dispersal and betrayal of the children who lived there. I saw it for the second time last week, and it improves. I contributed some pitiful amount of money to the funding, and as a result my name’s on the credits which is quite bizarre to me.

I’ve mentioned Bob Dylan; and here in a mood of unashamed nostalgia is his 1963 song ’Bob Dylan’s Dream’ (a riff on the classic Lord Franklin, of course); with its tribute to lost youth and friendship. It seems vaguely fitting.


DAY 230: Last things

November 19th, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

Skipping all these trivia which I’ve been concerned with for oh so long about the state of the world and all the people in it who are constantly being oppressed and dying and that kind of stuff, I realised yesterday on listening to an amazing performance of Die Winterreise interspersed with readings from Derek Jarman’s diaries when he was dying of AIDS that I haven’t spent much time thinking about my approaching end. Try, there’s not much wrong with me apart from epilepsy, rheumatic knees which lead to appallingly slow walking, the occasional incontinence and… in short, nothing you die from. I’m more likely, as all my friends keep pointing out, to get run over if I keep jaywalking at 1 m.p.h. [I'm not alone: An item in Singapore's 'The New Paper', reporting an elderly jaywalker,


adds: 'She was not alone. In just 30 minutes, The New Paper saw at least 10 elderly citizens jaywalking along a stretch on North Bridge Road, resulting in many close shaves.'] Still, you get drawn to wondering about what kind of a send-off you’d like, even if (especially if) you aren’t there to see it. During the longueurs characteristic of Quaker meetings, it’s a distraction to read the section on how to do your funeral in Quaker Faith and Practicealthough if you don’t want a ‘celebration of your life’ as is the fashion – what is there to celebrate? – I’d sooner have one of the cool Anglican lady vicars from St Pancras

Screen Shot 2017-11-19 at 20.13.45

which I’ve started eclectically attending booming ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life’, an unbeatable start. I don’t suppose that my idea of being cremated and having my ashes scattered in the Jungle will get much traction – it would fall foul of either customs or immigration. Can I get Heloise Werner to sing ‘Aperghis’ Recitation N.9 ? Not unless I’d prebooked, and how would I do that?

Anyway, friends, you know what you’ll want to do on that dark day when I stop bothering, and there’s nothing I can do to stop you. You can play a selection of my favourite tracks, or read my favourite poems; though I’ve given you so many of both it would take much too long. You can dance, or run half-marathons to raise money for Phonecredit for Refugees (say) or Haringey Migrants Support Centre. I’ll be past caring, as I keep stressing.

Here’s a track I haven’t given you yet, and it seems relevant;  Purcell’s cheery ‘When I am Laid in Earth’ aka Dido’s lament.

And here’s ‘Le Cimetière Marin’, by Paul Valéry. I’m not asking either for it to be read at the ceremony (it’s pretty long) or for me to be buried in the cemetery at Sète, which Georges Brassens didn’t get (or didn’t want). It’s a cemetery too far.

Ce toit tranquille, où marchent des colombes,
Entre les pins palpite, entre les tombes ;
Midi le juste y compose de feux
La mer, la mer, toujours recommencée !
O récompense après une pensée
Qu’un long regard sur le calme des dieux !

Quel pur travail de fins éclairs consume
Maint diamant d’imperceptible écume,
Et quelle paix semble se concevoir!
Quand sur l’abîme un soleil se repose,
Ouvrages purs d’une éternelle cause,
Le temps scintille et le songe est savoir.

Stable trésor, temple simple à Minerve,
Masse de calme, et visible réserve,
Eau sourcilleuse, Oeil qui gardes en toi
Tant de sommeil sous une voile de flamme,
O mon silence! . . . Édifice dans l’âme,
Mais comble d’or aux mille tuiles, Toit !

Temple du Temps, qu’un seul soupir résume,
À ce point pur je monte et m’accoutume,
Tout entouré de mon regard marin ;
Et comme aux dieux mon offrande suprême,
La scintillation sereine sème
Sur l’altitude un dédain souverain.

Comme le fruit se fond en jouissance,
Comme en délice il change son absence
Dans une bouche où sa forme se meurt,
Je hume ici ma future fumée,
Et le ciel chante à l’âme consumée
Le changement des rives en rumeur.

Beau ciel, vrai ciel, regarde-moi qui change !
Après tant d’orgueil, après tant d’étrange
Oisiveté, mais pleine de pouvoir,
Je m’abandonne à ce brillant espace,
Sur les maisons des morts mon ombre passe
Qui m’apprivoise à son frêle mouvoir.

L’âme exposée aux torches du solstice,
Je te soutiens, admirable justice
De la lumière aux armes sans pitié!
Je te tends pure à ta place première :
Regarde-toi! . . . Mais rendre la lumière
Suppose d’ombre une morne moitié.

O pour moi seul, à moi seul, en moi-même,
Auprès d’un coeur, aux sources du poème,
Entre le vide et l’événement pur,
J’attends l’écho de ma grandeur interne,
Amère, sombre, et sonore citerne,
Sonnant dans l’âme un creux toujours futur !

Sais-tu, fausse captive des feuillages,
Golfe mangeur de ces maigres grillages,
Sur mes yeux clos, secrets éblouissants,
Quel corps me traîne à sa fin paresseuse,
Quel front l’attire à cette terre osseuse ?
Une étincelle y pense à mes absents.

Fermé, sacré, plein d’un feu sans matière,
Fragment terrestre offert à la lumière,
Ce lieu me plaît, dominé de flambeaux,
Composé d’or, de pierre et d’arbres sombres,
Où tant de marbre est tremblant sur tant d’ombres ;
La mer fidèle y dort sur mes tombeaux !

Chienne splendide, écarte l’idolâtre !
Quand solitaire au sourire de pâtre,
Je pais longtemps, moutons mystérieux,
Le blanc troupeau de mes tranquilles tombes,
Éloignes-en les prudentes colombes,
Les songes vains, les anges curieux !

Ici venu, l’avenir est paresse.
L’insecte net gratte la sécheresse ;
Tout est brûlé, défait, reçu dans l’air
A je ne sais quelle sévère essence …
La vie est vaste, étant ivre d’absence,
Et l’amertume est douce, et l’esprit clair.

Les morts cachés sont bien dans cette terre
Qui les réchauffe et sèche leur mystère.
Midi là-haut, Midi sans mouvement
En soi se pense et convient à soi-même …
Tête complète et parfait diadème,
Je suis en toi le secret changement.

Tu n’as que moi pour contenir tes craintes !
Mes repentirs, mes doutes, mes contraintes
Sont le défaut de ton grand diamant …
Mais dans leur nuit toute lourde de marbres,
Un peuple vague aux racines des arbres
A pris déjà ton parti lentement.

Ils ont fondu dans une absence épaisse,
L’argile rouge a bu la blanche espèce,
Le don de vivre a passé dans les fleurs !
Où sont des morts les phrases familières,
L’art personnel, les âmes singulières ?
La larve file où se formaient les pleurs.

Les cris aigus des filles chatouillées,
Les yeux, les dents, les paupières mouillées,
Le sein charmant qui joue avec le feu,
Le sang qui brille aux lèvres qui se rendent,
Les derniers dons, les doigts qui les défendent,
Tout va sous terre et rentre dans le jeu !

Et vous, grande âme, espérez-vous un songe
Qui n’aura plus ces couleurs de mensonge
Qu’aux yeux de chair l’onde et l’or font ici ?
Chanterez-vous quand serez vaporeuse ?
Allez! Tout fuit! Ma présence est poreuse,
La sainte impatience meurt aussi !

Maigre immortalité noire et dorée,
Consolatrice affreusement laurée,
Qui de la mort fais un sein maternel,
Le beau mensonge et la pieuse ruse !
Qui ne connaît, et qui ne les refuse,
Ce crâne vide et ce rire éternel !

Pères profonds, têtes inhabitées,
Qui sous le poids de tant de pelletées,
Êtes la terre et confondez nos pas,
Le vrai rongeur, le ver irréfutable
N’est point pour vous qui dormez sous la table,
Il vit de vie, il ne me quitte pas !

Amour, peut-être, ou de moi-même haine ?
Sa dent secrète est de moi si prochaine
Que tous les noms lui peuvent convenir !
Qu’importe! Il voit, il veut, il songe, il touche !
Ma chair lui plaît, et jusque sur ma couche,
À ce vivant je vis d’appartenir !

Zénon! Cruel Zénon ! Zénon d’Êlée!
M’as-tu percé de cette flèche ailée
Qui vibre, vole, et qui ne vole pas !
Le son m’enfante et la flèche me tue !
Ah ! le soleil . . . Quelle ombre de tortue
Pour l’âme, Achille immobile à grands pas !

Non, non ! …. Debout ! Dans l’ère successive
Brisez, mon corps, cette forme pensive !
Buvez, mon sein, la naissance du vent !
Une fraîcheur, de la mer exhalée,
Me rend mon âme . . . O puissance salée !
Courons à l’onde en rejaillir vivant !

Oui! grande mer de délires douée,
Peau de panthère et chlamyde trouée
De mille et mille idoles du soleil,
Hydre absolue, ivre de ta chair bleue,
Qui te remords l’étincelante queue
Dans un tumulte au silence pareil,

Le vent se lève! . . . il faut tenter de vivre !
L’air immense ouvre et referme mon livre,
La vague en poudre ose jaillir des rocs !
Envolez-vous, pages tout éblouies !
Rompez, vagues! Rompez d’eaux réjouies
Ce toit tranquille où picoraient des focs !

DAY 229: The day of the onion

November 16th, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink


So here I was again finally, after, I calculate, about eighteen months, back in the old warehouse; or if you prefer  it, the new warehouse (there are more renovations to come), peeling onions in a group of about a dozen volunteers, with bruised nails and smelly fingers. Calais never stops being Calais in some way; but how dreadfully, how drastically it’s changed


since the barbaric destruction of a year ago! Where the same kitchen and warehouse had served a kind of community, with shops and schools and mosques; now it fed a huddled mass of a
thousand people (including, of course, children), constantly deprived of shelter. The feeding only took place at set distribution points as a result of a successful lawsuit; the vans which took food to the refugees were (are) liable to be stopped by the CRS and have non-food items such as blankets confiscated.

 Under what law are these absurd cruelties being perpetrated, and with what aim? Macron, the newly elected ‘centrist’ president is happy that the north of France, under the ongoing state of emergency, should become a permanent police state. Agamben, thou shouldst be living at this hour! (He is, of course, alive, a sprightly 75; and for all I know is involved in the struggles of refugees to survive in his native Italy.) I got a backache, was found a chair,felt better, and failed to go on a ‘distribution’, the only allowed contact between the kitchen and the actual migrants. I met up with a couple of old friends from two years back – but where are the people I remember from those days? Some have made it to England, some may be dispersed over France; but there’s always the lingering fear of those who may have frozen or been beaten to death. Virginie, Zimako, Liz Clegg, I assume have moved on

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Where to?

A student standing next to me on the onion peeling table asked how old I was, I said 78. (Yes, that’s it, reader, if ere theyou’d forgotten or lost track or I never told you anyway but who cares?) Awesome, she said, as people do; and then turning to the philosophical or historical implications, said: ‘I wonder if I’ll be here peeling onions when I’m 78.’ I find the imagination it takes to ask this question breathtaking, and not surprisingly I was quite at a loss for an answer. I hope this world, rather than destroying itself, will have turned into a decent and humane place where, if people continue to flee wars, they are welcomed. I hope for many things, but what nightmares the next forty years may have in store for my beautiful neighbour (aside from disease, rejection in love, loss of loved ones, poverty, persecution and so on) – I hate to think. That we should continue to peel onions and collect blankets and help those who need them (the onions and the blankets), although far from ideal, is perhaps not a terrible outlook. Jesus said that we’ll always have the poor with us, and you have to assume he knows.



DAY 228: Viral

November 7th, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

It’s been a one-off celebration in the life of this blog. one when the possibility of a huge virtual audience could be glimpsed. First, just before lunch, came an admission from a near-stranger, that she admired one of the previous posts (it was the unusually well-crafted one in which I wove together Calais (of course), Lesvos and Bethlehem and added a bit of Sappho to show that the world was not always as ruthless as it is now; there were times when one could spend one’s time going into one’s feelings about how godlike, nay frenzied, it felt to be close to a significant other person. And then when I mentioned this fact to another friend, she owned up to being a secret admirer too. Maybe all this ranting has not been words thrown at the wind. If I’ve gained two unknown readers in a day, why not 2K? Let me not go berserk.

But the first contact led to more: a commission to write about ‘any aspect of my experience (as a volunteer) which I wished to share’. Where to start? Setting aside the five volunteer roles which I’m rather incompetently filling at the moment, I’d go back to a couple of days in September 2015 when I strolled down to ‘The Hive’ in Dalston where a newly formed organisation called CalAid was collecting donations for the jungle. I joined in and sorted shoes, not for the last time, with twentyish volunteers; and had the opportunity to observe the formation of an NGO. Little CalAid already, it was clear, had two levels of membership – the leaders, who talked loudly to the press (they’d turned up, in Dalston, in September 2015, to observe this new phenomenon) about their ideals and their mission; and the rank and file e.g. me who sorted shoes, socks, blankets et al. and put them in bags. (I later met several people who shared memories of the sorting experience, though I never met any of the leaders again.)

Calaid unfortunately mushroomed, moved to Slough or somewhere unreachable, and transferred most of its  operations to Greece. I started taking trips to Calais and volunteering in the warehouse;

warehousewhich had the same hierarchy with different coloured hi-viz but no self-important leaders speaking to the press. It became a community in which I felt at home. It couldn’t last.

My last experience of ‘Calais’, still jungly, was in May 2016 when an event called The Big Cleanup’ was being staged; I went, with Leo, Hala, Matt, Liz, to dredge some pretty repellent not to say dangerous ditches (rats on the macroscopic level and who knows what on the microscopic.) To add to the drama, I went on a stroll, fell over (again!), and recovered over a generous cup of tea with some Syrians; we chatted, and my host, since escaped to the U.K., is now a friend, has leave to remain, and is enrolled on a degree

What exciting times we live in! At the age of 79, I wasn’t really prepared to live in them; but nor, I expect, was anyone else. I spend Tuesdays worrying about asylum claims, which is a pleasure if they aren’t your own. As Right to Remain reports, for example, last year’s case ‘MST and Others (national service – risk categories (CG)’ shook up the rules on Eritrea  ‘The judgment is long (459 paragraphs) but if the country guidance case could be useful in your case or that of someone you are supporting it’s a good idea to try and read it all!’ What sort of advice is that to the gritty-eyed asylum lawyer? And when I start on the said MST, looking for guidance, I find sentences like:

‘However, since there are viable, albeit still limited, categories of lawful exit especially for those of draft age for national service, the position remains as it was in MO, namely that a person whose asylum claim has not been found credible cannot be assumed to haveeritrea left illegally.’

My brain starts spinning – surely there are too many negatives here?  What can be assumed if my claim has not been found incredible? I’d rather cut the assumptions and just leave, credibly or not.

But I’ve strayed much too far from my original narrative of life as a volunteer in Calais. And it’s an ongoing life, as is yours, reader, until that one of the Fates who holds the scissors decides to give it a


merciful snip.

Where next on this adventurous textual journey? What further horrors does 2017 have in store for us, recalling that it still has nearly two probably bloodstained months to run?


How long is it since we had a bit of Bach? (Not long enough, I hear from the admirers of Nat ‘King’ Cole and Tansy Davies; but you can’t please everybody), so here, strictly to please myself, is the cantata ’Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen’, BWV51. My friend Sharif has come up with a poem, so I’ll add that in with permission [and as Sharif and I are both volunteers on the phone credit programme, this brings us back to 'my life as a volunteer'.]

Sharif Hasrat
At the desert of my heart
You came from unknown
You rise from nothing
You lush like a rose
From the dust
I rise to you the sun of my soul to grow you up
I watered you with the midst of my lips and years to quench your thirst
you had no shade
And the shade that you had
Was made from my being
To you
If I were not there
You would not be
You came to me
For God created me and then all things to me
The shining sun made you dry
The passing nights made you grey
Your beauty fade away
But the love that you earned from my heart
Grew day by day
You forgot all
For the time made you pride in the mirror of selfish
so one day when I needed shade
you went away
with a passing caravan
We all alone we all die alone
None is for anyone
Thanks for reminder



DAY 227: Anniversaries

October 26th, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

I find myself summoned to perform the worthy task of lecturing a diverse audience (mainly, I think, refugees, a project of a group at the University of East London which stems from their teaching

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in the jungle) on the dreary subject of statistics. Which I’ve perhaps misguidedly tried to make relevant by bringing in – why not ? – the numerous statistics of deaths  at sea which surround us. Today, I can think of almost any number of things I’d rather be doing, particularly as explaining statistical reasoning (have you tried, reader?) tends to get you tied in knots. I’d like to reproduce Izzy Tomico Ellis’ moving epitaph for Souda camp; but it seems I have to try to coerce my poor old head into making hypothesis testing a) understandable and b) relevant, preferably (why not?) with reference to deaths at sea.

And I’d like to meditate on two broken British government promises whose anniversaries fall today, or near enough. First, one year ago (25th October 2016) the Calais jungle was demolished, in a confusion of fires, police violence and sheer bewilderment. A number of children were successfully passed through checks to be – eventually – reunited with their families. This was the face-saving operation which made it possible for the British and French governments to claim ‘success’. It was clear from the start that they hadn’t nearly dealt with the full number of asylum claims, under ‘Dublin’ or ‘Dubs’, for children to be evacuated safely to Britain. The following things were also clear to any intelligent analyst of what was going on:

1. The intention was that the new centres for housing

refugees were meant to be strictly short-term, and the French authorities had no serious plans for how to deal with them in six months’ time.

2. The Calais/Dunkerque region would continue to draw refugees simply from its geographical position, some who had abandoned the new ‘centres’, others who were new arrivals.

And so it is; but the outcome is, as I and others have been pointing out, still more horrendous; since the coastal strip has become the scene of large-scale semi-military repression. Terrified refugees including children hide in the woods, their tents are slashed nearly every night with knives and sprayed with toxic gas to make them uninhabitable. Volunteers, in a ludicrous to-and-fro, then have to collect donations for new tents for the police to destroy again. Where is the logic, never mind the humanity?

I and so many of you, my friends, have become exhausted from repeating these obvious points, from reiterating the human rights violations along the coastal strip – and elsewhere in France, notably in Paris. On this dismal anniversary, all we have to celebrate are:

1. The survival, generosity and persistence of the refugees who continue for whatever reason to place their faith in a community which will welcome them, and to fight for the acceptance which is their due;

2. The strong and continuing spirit of an organised movement which rejects borders, boundaries and racism and is prepared to combat them – whether by raising impressive sums to keep the still thriving Refugee Community Kitchen going; or by assuring that those who are separated from their families can keep in phone contact via the admirable Phone Credit for Refugees; or by providing networks of help in Britain (education, health, legal, housing, you name it) for new arrivals.

At which point, you might think, enough had been said about the duplicity, hardheartedness and treachery of the British Government, of the May-Rudd axis. But there’s another anniversary coming up, equally shameful, and which many are preparing to celebrate: the centenary of the Balfour Declaration of 1917. A moment when Britain, afraid of losing the First World War and anxious to attract allies by any means, made contradictory promises to three different parties about how it would dispose of


Palestine (which of course didn’t belong to it in the first place). The dreadful duplicity involved here, and the terrible consequences for the Palestinian land and people, are too much for this post; I refer you to the recent authoritative work by Jonathan Schneer.

We have to place hope in the land and people of Palestine, constantly generous and surprising, and as such the opposite of the British ruling class.



DAY 226: Destitute

October 12th, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time.  Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; 20f33aff85hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

Always the keen learner, i’ve found myself enrolled (sort of) for a course in being destitute; and what the Scrooges of the present government believe should be done about it. Not that I’m even near it, myself; I can still keep myself in gruel and lentils, and I’m cared for by friends, family and odd corners of the surviving state. But I’ve learned its importance in the state’s thinking, by way of a vicious institution called NRPF.

Oh no not another acronym, I hear you groan, btw, lol. Yes, and the story is this. If you’re lucky, fleeing from persecution somewhere, or even coming as a student, you may have asked some bit of the state if there was a chance you could stay a while and contribute your skills (or company, or conversation) to this island, which probably needs them. The state becomes frightened in case you and your squalling brat,or brats, may become that dreadful thing – a Burden on the Taxpayer. They are happy to take your taxes while you’re working, but they can’t bear the thought of paying anything back; a natural point of view if ungenerous.

So it’s decided that you (and family) may stay here on condition that you have No Recourse to Public Funds, or NRPF as it’s called in the trade. You may enjoy thebeans view, or even the food, on condition you don’t expect us taxpayers to subsidise your lifestyle. You accept this condition, although it seems rather mean; get a job, marry, have children,… and then WHAM! the day comes when you lose your job, or your partner, or become disabled, or all of them. Naturally, you wish you could access some of those benefits you carelessly signed away. If you could get (say) housing benefit, you might be able to deal with the £3000 back rent, and they’re planning to evict you in ten  days.

I’ve learned – this is the real point of this post – that the Scrooges of the Home Office will ‘lift’ the NRPF condition and allow you some pitiful benefits if you or your lawyer can convince them that you’re destitute, as in DESTITUTE, no money at all; out of college, money spent, see no future, pay no rent (cf the Abbey Road song ‘You Never give me Your Money‘). Alternatively, that while only ‘nearly’ destitute you don’t have enough to support both yourself and the child/children; since if the Home Office allowed your children to starve they’d run afoul of Article 8 of the ECHR (‘Right to Family Life’ -a particular bugbear of Theresa May, I believe). You therefore only need to tell them exactly what you need to spend, and on what. They need to see ANNOTATED bank statements for the last six months – I’ve seen a  letter for the HO turning down an application because there were only four months’ statements and they weren’t annotated. And all your receipts from Lidl or the corner shop, or the butcher, baker and candlestick maker. And are you claiming that you can’t work, and so can’t earn? Better produce a doctor’s certificate.

This mass of paper has to be  topped up with an eloquent letter explaining how desperate your state is, and how you can survive and become a hardworking and useful subject (nay, a taxpayer) if, and only if, the H.O. will lift the NRPF condition. You do your best – but what a mountain of resistance you’re up against. It will take three months for the Home Office to give you a positive answer. By which time you may have had all your possessions seized by the bailiffs, your children may be near death because of your appalling housing conditions.  William Blake, as so often, knew how hard is the life of destitution,

‘NOUGHT loves another as itself,
Nor venerates another so,
Nor is it possible to Thought
A greater than itself to know:

‘And, Father, how can I love you
Or any of my brothers more?
I love you like the little bird
That picks up crumbs around the door.’


The Priest sat by and heard the child,
In trembling zeal he seiz’d his hair:
He led him by his little coat,
And all admir’d the priestly care.

And standing on the altar high,
Lo! what a fiend is here,’ said he,
‘One who sets reason up for judge
Of our most holy Mystery.’

The weeping child could not be heard,
The weeping parents wept in vain;
They stripp’d him to his little shirt,
And bound him in an iron chain;

And burn’d him in a holy place,
Where many had been burn’d before:
The weeping parents wept in vain.
Are such things done on Albion’s shore?’


never mind proving that you’re destitute and need a few crumbs of support. I suppose the lawyers really do work for their money, particularly if they’re pro bono and it’s only a pittance anyway.

So here is Meredith Monk’s ‘Walking Song‘; the lady’s 75th birthday is coming up, I believe, and the admirable vocalists of ‘Juice’ were belting out a selection of her oeuvre in St John St last Tuesday. Anything to make our lives less miserable, in the current climate. Still more cheering is the news of the Supreme Court’s decision that torture by non-state actors is still torture, whatever the Home Secretary says.  La latte continue!