Category Archives: behind the scenes

Not Only a Refugee Crisis

Adapted from a blog written by Aphrodite Vati Mariola (hotel proprietor, Lesvos)

It’s about the impact on the island and people of Lesvos of the ‘refugee crisis’. They’ve got it good, compared with those fleeing war zones, but the story of the Lesvos locals still deserves to be heard.

Half a million men, women and children arrived on the island of Lesvos in the last year. By the time they reach my doorstep, these people have survived war and terrorism, exploitation by traffickers, and a perilous journey across the Aegean. No photographs can depict the emotional seesaw experienced each time a boat reaches land.

Expressions of fear and relief on the boat people’s faces as they step onto our rocky shore turn to shame for having ‘burdened’ us, mixed with hope, resolving into gratitude. We give what small practical assistance we can, we offer a few brief moments of humanity. The journey is still long ahead of them. Often, as they leave the shore to continue that journey, we hear “Thank you, thank you. Sorry. Good luck!” We wish them luck too. Often now, as it sinks in that this crisis may have no end, a knot tightens in my stomach as I watch the flow of people arrive and go. I can’t help but wonder, who will need that luck more – them or us?

The majority of people on Lesvos make a living from tourism, farming or fishing. We hear that the refugee crisis has had a positive impact on our economy, because shops and hotels that would usually be closed in the winter now have volunteer and refugee customers. In fact, the businesses flourishing in the crisis – a handful of car rental firms, taxis, restaurants – are clustered into just a few corners of our island. The hoteliers providing rooms to volunteers at cut-price rates this winter won’t be able to sustain themselves for long on those deals, and the refugees are on the conveyor belt to get registered and onto a ferry towards the mainland and northern Europe, so those who do have money aren’t spending it here.

Many local people are questioning whether they will be able to keep their small businesses afloat if the early warning signs of a tourism collapse prove true. Those small businesses support whole families, enable us to eat and put roofs over our heads and maintain a healthy, independent existence. Holiday bookings are down 80% for the coming summer season. Tour operators are cancelling packages to Lesvos, they tell us media coverage of refugee boats and people dying means tourists don’t want to come on holiday here any more. Our island is scrambling to deal with this refugee crisis, the local people are caring and giving and saving lives, but we’re afraid there’s going to be a devastating impact on our own lives.

Our fishing industry has been seriously affected by the migration from Turkey. Fishermen are often unable to lay out their nets, for fear they might capsize the refugees’ dinghies. They worry about how the sea will be affected by this tremendous increase in traffic; about the pollution caused by sunken boats; about the petroleum leaking from the ships and the debris caused by shipwrecks. Mountains of detritus, including tens of thousands of fake ‘life jackets’, have been left on our coastlines. This is not only detrimental to the future of tourism and fishing; it threatens our quality of life, our health, our eco-systems.

My family lives on the north coast of Lesvos. We enjoy gorgeous views of the sea and the Turkish coastline; misty mountains rise above the shimmering Aegean in picture postcard scenes. Our personal lives are dictated by the schedules of Turkish traffickers, by the flimsy, overladen boats they send across six miles of surprisingly capricious sea. We spend countless hours on the beach in front of our hotel, providing clothes, snacks, water, medical aid and transportation. Then we clean up the trail of debris left behind, and then we prepare for the next arrivals. We must always be prepared, lest a life be lost on our watch.

For the last few years we Greeks have been coping with difficult political and economic situations in our country, suffering under austerity measures imposed by richer EU nations, watching our public services suffer while youth unemployment rises. This is the backdrop on which we’ve seen sewn inadequate responses from the Greek government and the EU to a refugee crisis that has left islanders to deal as best we can with a situation none of us have adequate preparation or resources for.

In the void left by government, independent volunteers from around the globe began appearing in our ports and airports towards the end of 2015. These volunteers came with such a variety of skills, languages and expectations that at times we feared the lack of control and co-ordination would lead to carnage. The dedication and compassion of these volunteers has been invaluable to refugees and local people alike, and yet there have been occasions when the volunteer invasion has felt more intrusive than the flow of refugees. Increased traffic, and fast driving on country roads, has put our free range sheep and goats (and our free range children) at risk, affecting farmers and countryfolk far from the sea.

Meanwhile, our fishermen continue to rescue people from death by drowning and our villagers quietly give: digging into their own kid’s closets to offer clothes to the children pulled from the sea (according to UNHCR figures, over 30% of recent arrivals have been children); donating merchandise that went unsold in summer; driving refugees from the coast to transit camps inland. Simultaneously, we try to run our businesses, raise our children, take care of our households and relationships. We’re not here on a month-long stint, we won’t be packing up and leaving once we have completed our ‘mission’; our daily reality has changed, we’re coping with death on an almost daily basis while reeling from the impact of lost livelihoods and fears for the future.

I don’t want to complain – my family has so much compared with those fleeing terror – but I would like the voices of local people to be heard and for our government, and the EU, to do their jobs rather than ignore us. I would like everyone on Lesvos to respect each other – the refugees, volunteers, NGOs, locals, local authorities – and to respect our land, our environment and our humanity. I would like procedures to be established which apply to everyone, aimed at protecting the future, safety and integrity of the refugees, and of the locals who will be left to deal with the aftermath when this crisis dissolves or evolves.

I often think about the people who have passed by our beach and wonder how they have fared on their journeys, whether they have found hope and new homes, and I think about the souls unjustly claimed by the Aegean. I feel we will be failing the new arrivals, our children and ourselves if we cannot find a humane solution to this human migration. Intolerance, power and greed must not win this battle. When I voice a cry for help for local businesses, I worry that greed is what people will hear, when in fact it’s the survival of our communities, of our generous natures, of our compassion that’s at stake.

Many of these fleeing human beings who stop momentarily on my doorstep are leaving behind memories so awful as to be almost unimaginable to us; they never wanted to leave their homes and are now in a state of limbo, without a country, without a safe haven, as the domino effect of borders closing resonates like the clanging of cell doors along the trail. Yes, on Lesvos we are luckier than many, but this crisis affects every community through which the refugees are forced to pass and we are all yearning and hoping for the same things: freedom, peace, education, work, dignity, safety, a home, love.

Unless the causes of this crisis can be solved, I fear a tsunami of human pain will build and sweep our island away, leaving in its wake a trail of economic, psychological, environmental and sociological disarray. Fractures appear when families are torn between self-preservation and generosity, when one village appears to benefit from the crisis while another’s businesses fail, when a neighbour fears that your helping hand will be their downfall.

While governments try to find solutions military and political, on Lesvos we say to the rest of Europe – don’t abandon us. We have an extraordinarily beautiful island with a remarkably long coastline; there’s room here for refugees to pass through, for volunteers to aid our rescue efforts, and for holidaymakers to support our economy while enjoying themselves too. We need everyone to recognise the precariousness of the situation and act accordingly.

A journalist asked me, soon after the attacks in Paris, whether I was afraid I might be helping terrorists. My answer: “If a person with hatred in their hearts steps from one of these boats, the only thing I can do to change their mind is show them kindness.”

If we can find a way to survive through this crisis, we can bring up our next generation as humanitarians rather than racists. If we are given the chance to keep being kind, we can avoid stoking terror.

I invite you to support our island.

A few notes from me:

On days when the weather is wild and few refugees arrive on Lesvos, local people, volunteers and NGO groups are busy cleaning the seas and beaches. Beauty is abundant on the island. You can sunbathe, hike, cycle, marvel at the petrified forest, feast in seaside tavernas, bathe in hot springs, visit the women’s co-operative in Molyvos, explore hill top castles and churches, buy local produce and have a laugh in friendly bars and coffee shops.

Lesvos is a really good place for a holiday.

You could holiday there without seeing anything of the refugee crisis if you chose, especially in the south-west of the island. Or you could combine your relaxation with joining an environmental team to help clean some hidden rocky coves where boat debris has washed ashore, and go home knowing you’ve left the place in better condition than when you arrived. Either way, you’ll have helped the local economy, which means helping local families and communities.

More about Lesvos, the holiday island: The Other Aegean

UNHCR reports and statistics

Greek Island to Halifax Hospital

A week ago I was working with the Dirty Girls of Lesvos Island, laundering refugees’ discarded clothes for redistribution.

Now I’m sitting in the back of a van in a hospital carpark in Yorkshire, UK. My breath is steam. There’s ice on the inside of the windows. The cold woke me frequently last night, even though I was wrapped in two sleeping bags. In fitful bouts of sleep I dreamed of the refugees in camp Moria on Lesvos, outside with barely a blanket per family as temperatures there also dropped below freezing.

I was in Lesvos when the text came. Someone I love is ill, very ill. How ill? Hospital ill. Hospital doesn’t know what’s wrong with them and starts a battery of scary tests – that kind of ill.

I wasn’t due back in the UK for a week. I don’t usually fly. For environmental reasons, I skip across Europe overland. Coach from Manchester to Budapest, sleeper trains across eastern Europe to Greece, then ferry to the islands. It costs £150-£250, Leeds to Lesvos; not bad for five days travel including ‘accommodation’ on board.

But someone I love is ill. How rigid are my principles? At 8pm I text back: “Let’s see what the doctor says tomorrow. I’ll decide then.” I receive no response. At 10pm I text again: “Shall I just book a flight?” I receive no response. At midnight: “I’ve booked a flight. I’ll be there 11pm tomorrow.”

‘Tomorrow’ is New Year’s Eve. It’s not a direct flight – I have to change planes in Brussels. My UK family tells me a terrorist attack is expected in Brussels on New Year’s Eve.

Opposite the airport in Mytilene in the south of Lesvos there’s a tiny church on the shore. I take a stroll while waiting to board, and try the church door. It opens. There are candles burning and candles unlit by the door. I put a couple of euros in the donation box, light a candle for my loved one, light another for Marwas and all the refugees fleeing war and terror.

As I board, the air stewardess hands me a pomegranate wrapped in cellophane. “Happy New Year,” she says. “In Greece, pomegranate, for luck.”

Good. I need luck.

In the airport in Brussels everyone has to take off their shoes to get through passport control.

I’m in the hospital in Yorkshire by the time fireworks explode to mark the turning of the year. I’ve never been that big on New Year’s Eve and right now it feels like a farce. What does it matter what numbers are on the calendar, if I’m going to lose the person I love? I can’t see the fireworks through the hospital window from where I’m sitting beside his bed, I can only hear them; they could be distant gunfire.

I think it was the right decision, to fly here. Sitting beside this bed is a bit like standing on the beach at Skala Sykamineas. I’m here to pour love and negate fear, and nothing feels more important than that right now.

I know the NHS is desperately strapped for cash, starved by politics, degraded by the Tories, short of staff. I know nurses are undervalued and underpaid, junior doctors are exhausted and ready to strike, hospitals are rundown.

I’m expecting unkempt wards, neglected patients, uncaring staff, skimpy inedible food.

I’m shocked.

This National Health Service, despite the battering it’s been given, is miraculous. The nurses are efficient yet gentle, and genuinely care about their patients. The food is reasonable, and regular. Every patient has a water jug, frequently replenished, and orange juice with meals; a tea trolley circulates several times a day. Each bed has a buzzer, and when a patient buzzes, a nurse nearly always appears within a minute.

All this is free, for every person rich or poor.

In a nearby bed lies a 93 year old Latvian who arrived in the UK as a refugee when he was a young man, having walked across Europe. He thanks the nurses profusely in a weak voice with a trace of eastern European accent, every time they take his blood pressure, stick a needle in his arm to test his blood or hold the urine bottle for him.

We must fight for this miraculous NHS. Don’t be conned into believing it’s so broken that only privatisation can save it.

If our health service wasn’t free, the person whose bed I’m sitting beside probably wouldn’t be here responding to treatment; they’d be dying at home instead.

Sometimes it’s obvious there aren’t enough staff, and for sure with a bit more investment the wards could be cleaner and the care even better and the staff could get properly rewarded for the truly amazing work they do. Surely this is where we want our taxes spent, not on bombs to Syria, not subsidising Parliament’s bar?

The sweet Latvian man died last night, but without the NHS he’d likely have died more suddenly, without chance to say goodbye to his daughter, in agony, alone. This way he was provided with end of life care, pain relief, dignity, and a nurse to tell him “everyone loves you, you know” as he slipped away at dawn.

If you are a nurse – thankyou, thankyou.

What part of NO don’t they understand?

There’s so many things to be outraged by at the moment, I’ve almost got outrage-fatigue (is that what the Tories are banking on?). This little story is a long, long way from being the worst of what’s going on in these speeded-up, hopefully end-days of corporate capitalism…

[I’m not sure what the worst is, the people drowning in overloaded boats in the Med, desperate men clinging to the underside of trucks to try and escape the migrant ghettoes of Calais, the subjugation of Gaza, horrific war and violence in Africa and the Middle East, greed-fuelled violation of planetary boundaries by frackers and chemical companies, native peoples being forced from their tribal lands, bankers still flying high while austerity bites and communities are broken up by the bedroom tax and gentrification, the brutal bullying of Greece by well-off European politicians and bureaucrats, or or or —]

So many stories, but this tiny little story is playing out in my own backyard, and feels like a microcosm of the whole.

Hebden Bridge.

This small town relies on its reputation of being one of the most un-cloned towns in Britain, a reputation that keeps its local economy strong and its streets vibrant. It has won plaudits “4th funkiest town in the world”; awards “most independent little shops”; and quirky labels “lesbian capital of Britain”. The town is full of smallscale entrepreneurs, people managing to scrape a living from what they love, people who don’t use many resources, who respect their environment and each other. People like the butcher, the baker, the grocer and the newsagent, as well as the artists and cafe proprietors and guesthouse owners and market traders.

We all spend money with each other, and the tourists come and spend money with us too, because our town is a bit special; it’s different from all those towns filled with chainstores and supermarkets. We have a Co-op. And a One-Stop shop. And an off licence that sells groceries. And that’s enough ‘convenience’ stores.

It works.

Despite local objections, Sainsbury’s put in a planning application. They were turned down by the town council and then by the borough council. They lodged an appeal. They were turned down by the planning inspectorate at government level. Now they want a judicial review…

I don’t like linking to facebook, but have a look at the #SOSHebdenBridge film on this page for a bit of guerilla community graffitti.

Of course, whether our lucky little town gets a supermarket forced onto it isn’t a deal in the big scheme of things. In other little towns across the world people are being forced out of their homes by poverty, or climate change, or people who will enslave or kill them.

But if ordinary people don’t begin to stand up to bullies, this planet may not be around much longer. If we let ourselves be walked over, so that the corporate bosses and elites can increase their profits by a magnitude that is really just noughts on a bank balance… Well, what then?

We have to stand up to the bullies.

UPDATE: We did stand up to Sainsbury’s and WE WON!!! This time, justice was on our side…

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Gone Green

I’ve offered to help raise £800 for the Calderdale Green Party.

In this blog, I’ll have a go at explaining why. If you haven’t time to read it all, have a quick peek at the indiegogo site where I’ve summarised the situation… And please, throw a few coins, a couple of quid, or a kindly folded note into the hat.

The first time I was old enough to vote in a General Election was in 1992. I didn’t vote. I wasn’t registered. If you registered to vote, the poll tax collectors knew where you were. Or maybe it was the bailiffs. I wasn’t quite sure, I just knew that everyone who wanted to change the system was defying the poll tax… and most of us weren’t registered and didn’t vote.

Still, I lay half-awake all night, squished next to my boyfriend in his single bed, listening to the radio between half-dreams. We were sure Labour would win. Everyone hated the Tories so much. Maggie Thatcher had snatched children’s milk and trashed the miners and smashed the peace convoy, and the poll tax was the last straw. Thatcher was gone, this John Major just needed a gentle boot and all would be well.

The next day our dreams were shattered. It was a Conservative win. We couldn’t believe it. But then, we hadn’t voted. Almost everyone we knew hadn’t voted. It was our fault!!!

At the next General Election, I was out of the country. I didn’t manage to do a postal vote, but this time the Tories’ time really was up. Hallelujah! Labour won. Everything would be ok now.

I’ll never forgive them for bombing Afghanistan and then, the Iraq war. I shouted at the TV, shouted at them not to do it, not to be so BLOODY STUPID. Not to be so cruel; and didn’t they know it would only make everything worse?

Not everything they did was awful – tax credits were quite helpful – but they let stupid things happen with the economy, dazzled by the mirage of perpetual growth (how bloody stupid?). They were charmed by the corporations and just loved being best mates with America. They privatised things and forgot to look after the planet, and the people.

In 2005 I didn’t vote. I’d given up on politics. No point, no one to vote for. Labour was a soul-destroying disappointment. I may have written None of The Above or scribbled on my ballot in protest. I can’t remember, it was all despondency.

By the last General Election, Labour was so unpopular it began to look as though the Tories might get in. They had to be stopped, but no way was I voting Labour, so what to vote? Green? Everyone said that’d be a wasted vote. Anyway, the Greens were a bit of a joke – sandal-wearing, yogurt-weaving, lentil-eating… They might have some very sound ideas about the environment but they didn’t have foreign or economic policies, did they?

In the end I voted Lib Dem, a friend I trusted told me it was the tactical thing to do, and I hadn’t a better idea.

Hah! Wrong again! Lib Dems shacked up with the Tories, threw away the chance to have a referendum on proportional representation, screwed over the students… and it was my fault!!!

This year, I’m not voting tactically. I’m voting Green. Caroline Lucas’ arrest at the Balcombe anti-fracking camp made me sit up and take notice, then I went to the Vote for Policies website and was impressed. (Check it out – Vote for Policies.)

The Green Party opposes austerity for the masses while the rich just get richer; opposes kamikaze fracking; and cares about the wonderful things that used to belong to and serve us all – like the NHS, the post office, public spaces and the railways.

The Green Party says it will put people and planet before profit. I’ll vote for that, even though I don’t think the current parliamentary system is fit for purpose. What I’d really like is a bloodless revolution; or to build the compassionate, consensual, co-operative world I want in the cracks of this system, until the cracks are so full of life and love and rich compost that they burst open and… Well, that might take a while, so I’ll adopt diversity of tactics.

If the Greens can get enough votes to influence the way things are run for the next five years, that’s something. Now they’ve teamed up with Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party, even a few MPs in parliament will give them the chance to make a difference. That’s something that feels achievable, and I can help to make it happen without giving up on the bigger picture and more radical dreams.

Which brings me to indiegogo.

Calderdale’s Green Party needs to raise £800 so that we can put a leaflet through every door in my area.

Without those leaflets, people may not know they have a Green candidate, may not know that the Green Party is proposing real alternatives to five more years of austerity, may not know that the yogurt-weaving stereotype is old hat and Green is the humanitarian future that most of us want.

Please, even if you don’t live in Calderdale, help me out if you can. All the parties have a chance to get their leaflets freeposted but there’s a tight deadline and we need to raise this money really fast. The big parties have rich backers; the Greens seek support from ordinary people. Every pound will help.

Thanks.

indiegogo

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The Green Gathering: a festival beyond hedonism | STIR mag

The Green Gathering: 31 July-3 August 2014, Chepstow

I’m helping to organise The Green Gathering this year.

Why put energy into a festival – something temporary, trivial and hedonistic? Well, because… festivals can be so much more. They can be literally transformative; opening eyes, changing lives. I know people who’ve packed in their unsatisfying, exploitative jobs after a festival; at the Northern Green Gathering, a friend was inspired to set up a radical housing co-operative which is going strong over a decade later. Festivals give us space to experiment with alternative forms of community, energy and infrastructure. They’re also good practice for setting up activist camps – festival people tend to know how to set up a kitchen and compost loos in a field, how to pitch a marquee and keep a campfire going. ‘Networking’ sounds too corporate, ‘tribal gathering’ too hippy-dippy… but having a meeting of minds, rediscovering old friends and making new ones, exchanging contact details and sharing information while drinking scrumpy cider, bouncing about to a band or warming up in a wood-fired sauna – this is the joy of festival, and it has repercussions beyond festival.

Here’s a blog, published a few days ago by STIR magazine (well worth a read and subscription), explaining why The Green Gathering is the festival I’ve chosen to put my life and soul into this year.

Beyond Hedonism

More than three decades after the first Green Gathering was held on Glastonbury’s Worthy Farm, this solar and wind powered festival has forged alliances with the Off Grid College – a free education initiative organised by young thinkers and activists involved with the latest wave of eco-festivals. Radical Routes, a network of housing and workers’ co-operatives, will be hosting a Co-operators’ Camp alongside the College.

The Green Gathering is held annually over the first weekend in August, on a wooded former estate near Chepstow, on the South Wales border just 18 miles from Bristol. An award-winning, family friendly camping event, it combines festival entertainment with speakers, skillshares and networking. Themes of community resilience and creative alternatives to both consumerism and austerity pepper the programme.

Following in the footsteps of the Occupy movement’s Tent City University, the Off Grid College takes education out of stuffy establishment buildings into open spaces. As students rail against fee increases and the marketisation of universities, free education becomes ever more radical – and popular. Providing skills and knowledge in a festival environment is a winner. The Green Gathering has always hosted craft and permaculture workshops, debates with key Green speakers and campaign group info-exchange, and will now be hosting Off Grid College courses in low impact development, wild food foraging and renewable techno-wizardry too.

Kaplick b&wDespite the lurid woes of the Co-operative Bank, co-operatives continue to capture the imagination of students, activists and workers across the UK. According to the United Nations, co-ops “improve livelihoods and strengthen the economy”, and provide “a sustainable business model for youth…” . In light of this, The Green Gathering has invited Radical Routes to co-ordinate a Co-ops’ Camp where festival-goers can learn how to enjoy “…housing without landlords, work without bosses, organising without hierarchy and taking financial control away from the banks”.

With spectacular views across the Severn Estuary and Wye Valley, spacious camping fields, eclectic music, solar cinema, organic gardens and ethical markets, The Green Gathering bills itself as a festival “beyond hedonism – where performance meets permaculture”.

The live music line-up includes: Seize The Day, 3 Daft Monkeys, Tarantism, Nik Turner, Billy Rowan, Pagan Love Cult, Rory McLeod and Pikey Beatz. Conscious DJs Libby Lawes and Gary Clail will be on the decks; and there’ll be spoken word performances from John Hegley, Salena Godden, Pete The Temp, Marcus Moore and many more. Activists, campaigners, Green economists and writers – including Molly Scott Cato, Jeremy Leggett, Ewa Jasiewicz, Simon Fairlie and Jamie Kelsey Fry – will be on hand to debate, create and share experiences.

muddy kidThe Green Gathering at Chepstow is the latest incarnation in a long line of Green Gatherings stretching back to early Ecology Party meetings on the Glastonbury Festival site, the Molesworth Peace Camp of 1984, and the Big Green Gatherings of 1994-2007. The BGG grew into a five day event attended by 20,000 people before being unexpectedly cancelled in 2009 after local authorities threatened an injunction – many considered this to be a political act designed to cut funding to activist groups such as Climate Camp, which ran a ‘Last Chance Saloon’ bar at the festival. When police spy Mark Kennedy was outed, Big Green Gathering organisers realised he’d been embedded in the 2009 set-up crew; shocking to discover, and yet perhaps a sign that they were doing something right – that their festival genuinely was raising consciousness, transforming lives and making those in power nervous about what a skilled-up, collaborative bunch of co-creators could do.

In 2011, a Green Gathering phoenix rose, demonstrating the kind of resilience that activists know and need. A Green Gathering Charity was established in 2013, with a remit to promote education for sustainability.

The Green Gathering 2014 runs from Thursday 31st July-Sunday 3rd August.

Festival tickets cost £90 (adults), £50 (youth). Children under 11 years go free. Tickets are available through the GG website (www.greengathering.org.uk) or Bristol Ticket Shop (www.bristolticketshop.co.uk). Booking fees apply.

If you read this far, use this code – EWGG14 – to get a discount of £10 per ticket on up to 6 adult tickets bought through The Green Gathering ticket shop.

For more information about The Green Gathering: www.greengathing.org.uk

Like, Share, Follow: www.facebook.com/GreenGathering.org.uk and @Gathering_Green

email: info@greengathering.org.uk

Photos: I think these were taken by Stone (Kaplick Stage) and Stefan Handy (kid in puddle).

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Wicked witch and teen psyche

I wasn’t one of the people who’d been planning for years to dance on Thatcher’s grave and yet when the news hit, visceral glee was what I felt. After checking it was true – “What, really? Really this time?” – I grinned and skipped and hugged my partner tight and chortled deep in my belly for the next two days, every time I remembered she was dead (which was a lot, what with Twitter).

Of course Maggie’s legacy is still wrapped around us like a bloody, stinking animal skin. Of course getting drunk and singing Ding Dong the Witch is Dead doesn’t help us sort out the current mess. An old lady dying is pretty irrelevant (not a tragedy; she was 87 and had been ill for a long time, of course she was going to die and her time was nigh) but the sense of community that emerged in Brixton, Bristol, Glasgow, Leeds, Bradford and many small towns in the North, in Wales and throughout Scotland on Monday was not irrelevant. People with shared histories and similar mindsets found each other in the streets and pubs of Britain in a spontaneous uprising of anger mixed with joy and it wasn’t sick, it was beautiful. And poignant, and sad.

We remembered the poll tax and the miners, the milk-snatching, 80’s dole queues, the battles of Orgreave and the Beanfield [1], the Falklands, the sell-off of what had been public assets. For many now in their forties and fifties, this is what politicised us. This is why we never believe the police are on our side, why our fury with the Labour party – who were supposed to be on our side – burns so fiercely. This is why Glaswegians ceilidhed in the square, activists in Leeds handed out “Thatcher’s dead cake” (and bedroom tax leaflets), anarchist social centres in Bradford and Brighton threw open their doors and invited allcomers to “grieve responsibly!”. This is why things kicked off in Brixton and Bristol. We all know which areas will ignite, come the revolution.

I was shocked that some ‘on the left’ wanted us to pipe down and behave with decorum. You what??!! Ah, you weren’t there in the eighties. You’re young, or you led a sheltered or privileged life. Or perhaps you’re a Buddhist – ok, I agree, it’s not very Buddhist, this visceral glee. But I don’t care! Even before I realised we have to counter the mainstream media and politicians’ guff if we don’t want to see this vital part of our history blatantly erased and rewritten – even before that, I didn’t care that what I feel isn’t respectful, or dignified.

I agree that Don’t Hate, Donate is a very positive thing, but believe it’s essential that the ‘gloaters’ are not silenced. Between the beers and the cheers we are sharing oral histories. Our blogs and tweets are rooted in memories and experiences that need telling and retelling. They give context to the present. If one teenager, on seeing youtube footage of the Thatcher’s Dead parties, is inspired to dig a little deeper into this country’s history and politics rather than believing the nauseating mainstream eulogies – that’s justification enough.

Just a couple of days earlier, my partner and a friend were merrily slagging off Thatcher when they were challenged by a young activist. She said Thatcher-bashing was generally sexist and that right-to-buy [2] had positive aspects. The two men were left spitting and spluttering. They were in their teens and early twenties in the Thatcher era and grew up in the north of England. The next morning I was harangued for going to bed early; why wasn’t I there to defend Thatcher-bashing from a feminist perspective?

When I saw the banner proclaiming “The Bitch is Dead” hanging from the Brixton Ritz, I better understood the young activist’s stance. “Thatcher’s Dead. Lol” was much more palatable. I also saw a banner – perhaps the same one – with the B covered over and replaced with a W. Good on whoever did that, I thought… but then some people were also upset by the use of “Witch”. I wasn’t. “Ding Dong” and “The witch is dead” resonate just fine with this witch [3]. Then, to help me out of my floundering-in-feminist-angst, came the blog from Emma Pooka of AWOL (Angry Women of Liverpool). It says everything I was feeling and more. HT @RileyDylan, who described it as “brilliant”. It is brilliant. Please read it: A Feminist’s Guide to Celebrating Thatcher’s Demise.

I can’t say I experienced the full impact of Thatcher’s reign, was just 21 when she  resigned, but the images of miners huddled around braziers and the demonisation and destruction of the Travellers’ way of life jumped out of the TV screen and lodged deep in my fourteen year old psyche. I went to school around the corner from where one of the Specials lived, graffitied The Beat on my pencil case and pogoed to The Jam’s Town Called Malice [4]. Then I fell in love with Morrissey [5]. I was grown up in time to resist the poll tax and experience jubilation when we beat it. I’d moved into an old Bedford ambulance by then. I think we drank a lot of cider the day Thatcher resigned (can’t quite remember) and when she died I drank cider in the bath.

Notes:

[1] Coppers morphed from bobbies on the beat to politicised instruments of the State against its citizens under Thatcher:

The Battle of Orgreave, 1984 – Police eventually paid half a million pounds to miners beaten and arrested at the Battle of Orgreave.

Battle of the Beanfield, 1985 – Police found guilty of wrongful arrest, assault and criminal damage. Travellers awarded £24k in damages… but the judge refused to award them legal costs, so the amount actually received was minimal. Few individual officers were disciplined as most were not wearing identifying numbers.

In both cases it took six years of court battles before a verdict was reached – not until after Thatcher had resigned was some kind of paltry justice done.

In the lists of Thatcher’s evil deeds, I haven’t yet seen anyone mentioning the Travellers (except me; I keep banging on about them). Don’t forget the Travellers.

[2] The Right to Buy was seen by many on the left to be A Good Thing. I can think of lots of reasons why it wasn’t. Primarily, because the money raised was not ploughed back into social housing for those who couldn’t afford, or didn’t want, this ‘right’ to be an ‘owner’ of bricks, mortar and land. More on this.

[3] A good explanation of why a cheeky, childish song is radically relevant, according to blogger Adam Jung. (Though I’d prefer not to put money in the coffers of Amazon or iTunes.)

[4] 13 anti-Thatcher songs  ;  UK artists against Thatcher

[5] Morrissey’s take on Thatcher’s death

A few days later, I found this Workingman’s Blues blog on the Thatcher ‘death parties’ and the power of Carnival. Well worth a read.

And this one, Fight for the Right to Party on the Red Pepper mag website.

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A jigsaw with too many pieces

I haven’t written this month. Not because there’s nothing to say; more because there’s too much to say and too much to do.

Should I write about my trip to Cambodia? The torturous internal workings of Occupy in London? The disaster that is UK energy policy? New nuclear? Land issues? Asda boycott? The GM lobby? The wise ramblings of a young guy called Jonathan who lived in the OLSX camp at St Paul’s? Earthian‘s solo peace mission and his indomitable spirit? Cyprus and Greece? The brilliant stuff that’s going on in my sometimes-hometown of Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire?

I’m trying to rebalance a life that was consumed by Occupy. Going off to live at St Paul’s and throwing my all into the Occupied Times for a year fragmented the life I had before October 2011. Now I’m looking at those ragged but valuable fragments alongside the new bits and bobs I’ve picked up and I’m trying to work out how to fit it all together. There are more jigsaw pieces than there used to be and I can’t work out what picture I’m trying to make.

I want to write but perhaps that’s a cop out and I should be doing more? What to do? I’m drawn to working locally and getting my hands dirty. I’d like to play with soil and plant seeds – theoretically. Perhaps I would’ve done some gardening in actuality if there hadn’t been two feet of snow on my tiny garden this last fortnight. I also want to be up a tree preventing pointless road schemes with the Combe Haven Defenders, I want to be at Camp Frack 2 in Lancashire and the Extreme Energy Gathering in Manchester. I’d like to see how the Diggers are getting on at Runnymede and visit the Forest of Dean and Reclaim the Fields. I want to get involved in StopG8 and the Carnival against Capitalism but what about what’s happening on my doorstep?

Developers are seeking planning permission for a supermarket and hotel on a piece of wasteland on the edge of town, in an area called Mytholm. No store or hotel has stepped forward and said they want to use the site but the developers, who bought the land some time ago, want to gain these permissions in order to increase its value. There’s a lot of local opposition to the planning application (and some support). Rather than just saying no, some of those in opposition have come up with an alternative. They’ve formed a group called Incredible Edible Mytholm (part of the Incredible Edible Network that started just up the road in Todmorden and now has branches internationally) and they’ve dreamed up Growing Futures, a permaculture project involving food growing and selling, education, ecotourism and sustainability research. It’s already been dubbed a “mini Eden Project” but there will be a lot of hoops to jump through before the idea can translate into a funded, grounded, viable endeavour.

Never mind the town on my doorstep, the building I work in is undergoing major change at the moment. Hebden Bridge Hostel (where I work) used to be a concert hall adjoining the Birchcliffe Baptist Chapel. The Chapel became the secular Birchcliffe Centre in the 70’s and passed into the care of Pennine Heritage Trust. Part of it has been converted into a rabbit warren of tiny offices, studios, a Zen meditation space, a web designers’ lair and so on. There’s also a ‘zombie tunnel’ which runs from the old baptismal font to the basement, near the caretaker’s cupboard. After being dunked in the font, the newly baptised could preserve their modesty by sneaking down the tunnel to the basement changing rooms, rather than having to do a wet T-shirt walk through the congregation. There are no zombies in the tunnel, but it forms part of my in-case-of-zombie-apocalypse escape plan; I’m hoping it doesn’t get bricked up during the major refurbishments now underway in the listed parts of the building, which are being transformed into some kind of educational resource, historical archive and event venue. The most exciting thing about the revamp, from my perspective, is the overhaul of the archaic heating system which, in a leviathan contortion of belching pipes, links the hostel with the Birchcliffe Centre, leaking heat and spewing carbon in a very embarrassing fashion at every turn.

Experts have been consulted and funding bodies approached. I’m not privy to the meetings of the Pennine Heritage trustees but I’ve heard whispers about biomass boilers and solar panels. I’m not yet sure if they’re talking solar thermal or PV. I’m not impressed that if they go for the biomass boiler I’ll have to give up my shed, woodstore, rhubarb patch and lemon balm thicket. Most of all, I’m horrified by the thought that, in trying to go for an eco option, the trustees might be about to sign a contract with a company that ships in biomass from sterile commercial plantations that are displacing food production and/or biodiverse woodland. If anyone has solid information that could help me steer this energy transition in the right direction, please let me know (quickly).

Today I was going to join Treesponsibility on the hills above Todmorden but I didn’t because I was writing this. I probably should’ve gone. Treesponsibility doesn’t just plant trees; it’s an education and resilience project with involvement in The Source which, like Ban the Burn, aims to reduce flooding in the Calder Valley through restoration of the uplands. There’s so much good stuff going on around here. It’s inspiring and a bit overwhelming. Blackbark, for example, is a sustainable woodland management co-operative that produces wood for fuel on a very local scale. Pennine Community Power has a community wind turbine on the moors. People are also looking at micro-hydro. The industrial revolution was born around here and waterwheels were used to power mills and factories; it seems stupid not to use the local geography – steep valleys, where it rains a lot – as our ancestors did. Gibson Mill, which was converted into a visitor centre, cafe and venue in 2005,  is run entirely on renewable energy and is not connected to the mains grid.  Bridge Mill, the oldest building in town, houses about eight small businesses and is already partly converted to renewables (restored water mill, water-source heat pump and solar thermal), with an Archimedes-screw water turbine being added this year.

I like this Red Pepper piece: Power-to-Transform

I’m going to stop now.

I might’ve nearly completed a corner of the jigsaw of my life.

____

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Evict-iversary

It’s a year since we were evicted simultaneously from the OLSX camp outside St Paul’s and from the School of Ideas. We were ragged and emotional and exhausted then, and jubilant, and disoriented. We tried to list what we’d achieved while occupying and did our best to sound confident about future incarnations and plans, but there was genuine grief alongside some genuine relief that Occupy #1 was over. (Here’s Inka’s eviction film for a reminder of that night: http://vimeo.com/38035802)

Last week I saw my dad for the first time in two years. He gave a slight smile as he asked whether I thought Occupy had made a difference and I launched into an attempt to persuade him that it had. He cut me off to tell me that yes, it had made a difference. My dad’s no radical and yet he felt we’d said some things that needed saying and that we’d said them loud enough to be listened to… and that we’d been taken seriously and real things had changed as a result. Wow. I was so surprised to hear him say these things that I let him digress onto another subject without elaborating on exactly what he thought had changed as a result of those cold months of community in the churchyard.

Sometimes it seems that we’re chasing our tails, bogged down in internal squabbles, unable to drum up enough support for our actions to make an impact. Ten years ago millions marched against the Iraq war but Bush and Blair launched the bombs anyway; so even numbers, even mass global popular support, doesn’t necessarily win the day. But… ten or so years before that we won the poll tax battle and now… there are relatively small but significant battles being won again.

Here’s a video showing what happened with that squatted library – Friern Barnet. The ‘polite revolution’ – a collaboration between Occupy and the local community – eventually came good. However, Occupiers at Battersea Adventure Playground had less success. After camping in the snow they were summarily evicted; and very soon the quirky, much-loved playground had been destroyed.

Looking at the bigger picture, Shell has backed away from its Arctic oil drilling venture for now, Cumbria has rejected the idea that nuclear waste should be stored in stunning, geologically unstable Lake District countryside, and the fight against extreme and polluting energy – dash for gas, fracking, tarsands – and against free-for-all genetically-modified farming continues. Increasingly, it becomes apparent that corporations lie and spin, politicians are in their pockets and ‘science’ is twisted to suit the moneymen. Spinwatch blogs on the Mark Lynas affair illustrate this pretty well and EDF Energy’s cynical attempt to quash dissent via means of bankrupting ‘No Dash For Gas’ climate activists shows how low they’re prepared to go.

The usual “ok, that’s what you’re against but what are you for?” question can increasingly often be answered (it seems to me) with some combination of the words ‘community’, ‘co-operation’, ‘mutual aid’, ‘solidarity’, ‘self-organistion’, ‘real food/farming’, ‘local’, ‘permaculture’, ‘organic’ and ‘return of the commons’.

I’m leaning towards an anarchist, rather than socialist, approach… and yet there are things that I’d like to see organised by the state or government via the levy of fair taxes, and a decent National Health service is the first amongst these. It was good to hear a few days ago that the closure of the Accident & Emergency departments at Hammersmith, Charing Cross, Central Middlesex and Ealing Hospitals is to be halted, pending an independent review. As campaign group Save Our Hospitals points out, this temporary reprieve is just the beginning of a long battle.

I wonder whether we couldn’t sort out housing ourselves, without so much government input, if we weren’t strangled by bureaucracy. I’d like to see more co-ops, more co-housing and eco-housing projects that don’t have to get tied up for years jumping through inappropriate planning hoops. It should be made easier, not harder, to build low-impact dwellings on disused land, as the latter-day Diggers have done at Runnymede, and putting disused buildings to use as short-term housing stock or social centres should be seen as regeneration, not criminality. Self-Organised London instigated a whole programme of free educational and social events at Eileen House with the tagline “Reclaim Regeneration”; but within days a possession order was granted by a high court judge. The authorities would rather see neglected buildings filled with empty echoes than the buzz of community camaraderie.

Which brings me to the Occupy squat crew, who’re still going strong and building their own community – the relationships forged in tents have lasted through moves into, and evictions from, about a dozen disused buildings across London during the last eight months.

Meanwhile, Earthian’s journey seeking peace for the Middle East continues and I very much recommend his blog.

If you ever wonder what else ex-Occupiers are up to, the Occupy London fortnightly newsletter is worth a look; it contains a wealth of information and news on a wide range of subjects interesting to those of a radical or Occupy-friendly nature, and future editions can be emailed to you fortnightly if you sign up via the OL website (sign up box is in the right hand column).

For an even more massive range of news and opinions from around the world check the Occupy News Network which recently put out a shout for more material: “Local struggles to international ones, technology to revisiting the simple life, commentaries and first hand experience… all welcome. If there is a burning issue you wish to address, please bash it out and relieve the stress and we will look at publishing it.”

It’s four years since The Big Green Gathering was cancelled and bankrupted in an apparent attempt to stop grassroots organisers and climate activists enjoying themselves too much in the Mendip Hills. The smaller, phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes Green Gathering will be held on a stunning site just outside Chepstow on the weekend of 1-4 August. Last year Occupy made a big impact in the Speakers’ Forum at the Gathering and there was a great atmosphere throughout the festival all weekend long, but participant numbers were on the low side. I’m hoping this year will be the one that really recaptures the Big Green Gathering spirit. I’m helping look after the Green Gathering twitter account; if you think you might be interested, please follow @Gathering_Green 😉

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Protests for a New Year

It’s feeling more and more like the 90’s all over again (but with fewer smiley-face t-shirts, more Northern Soul, less Acid House). Back then it was poll tax riots, Castlemorton, the Newbury Bypass protest camp, Reclaim the Streets, GM crop trashings and the Global Justice movement (dubbed ‘anti-globalisation’ by the media).

In 2013, it’s like this:

Protesting against the Bexhill-Hastings link road, Combe Haven Defenders are holed up in tunnels and enjoying the views of the valley in sturdy treehouses. There’s a ground-level camp too, a camp-kitchen and compost loo. They’re looking for support, of the live-in and drop-by variety – check the link for background, directions and wishlist.

GM foods are also looking like making a comeback; corporate lobbyists are desperate for the cash and it’s got nothing to do with feeding the needy. Check The Ecologist and GMWatch for details of why GMO’s still aren’t a good idea (and these bits I co-wrote for the OT last year).

Idle No More and the Zapatistas are rising in the Americas.

Info wars are ongoing over tar sands, fracking and nuclear power.

We need sustainable, renewable energy; technology appropriate to weather patterns, geography and demography; lots of community micro-generation; massive investment in wind, solar and hydro; and a total rethink on everyone’s part about consumption.

Infinite growth on a finite planet (still) can’t work.

And then there’s One Billion Rising.

Vandana Shiva said: “Ending violence against women includes moving beyond the violent economy shaped by capitalist patriarchy”. Think she’s right.

The ‘99% and 1%’ rhetoric of the Occupy mic check, the subversive ‘Round Dance Revolution’ of First Nations groups in Canada and the US, the silent march of the Zapatistas – with their “did you hear it?” message and communique, the storming of Delhi’s official buildings by women sick of oppression, and the treehouses of those opposing road building and oil pipelines… It’s all part of the same struggle against a teetering system that we can no longer afford to prop up or ignore.

Indigenous people, women, traditional farmers, environmentalists, and those who love and live on the land – we are the majority. Add in all those struggling to make ends meet because our governments serve corporations and the power-hungry rather than the people… and this is the makings of a global mass movement for real change.

We need more people to get involved. There’s lots to do – check out the links in this and see if you can add your voice or assistance.

2013: The Year of the People

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Changes

For the last year, The Occupied Times – a creative alternative to the mainstream media, born of the OccupyLSX camp – has been my priority. Writing, commissioning, editing, researching, plotting with co-editors and distributing newspapers has occupied me pretty much dusk to dawn and dawn to dusk.  The OT came before my festival and hostel work, pushed friends and family to the sidelines, seemed more important than cooking and sleeping and paltry things like that.

My sojourn in the OT newsroom exercised brain muscles I didn’t know I possessed. I gleefully inserted commas and deleted apostrophes, proof-reading deep into the wee hours as deadlines approached. In the early days, while living in the Occupy camp at St Paul’s, I’d take my netbook to an all-night cafe near Smithfield Market and type through the night, sustained by mugs of stewed tea.

I was drawn to the OT because I love writing and think information dissemination is one of the most vital aspects of a social movement, campaign or protest. I stayed because it was a great learning experience, because creating indymedia seemed a valid and valuable thing to spend my time doing, and because I liked the spiky, funny, rebellious OT crew. In the early days, diversity of perspective and opinion was lapped up and newcomers were encouraged to dive in at the deep end, to question everything and to throw half-formed ideas into the pot at every opportunity.

I quit the OT in the run-up to this Solstice / Apocalypse / Christmas. I’m appreciating the time I now have on my hands … although I can’t call it ‘free’ time, as the things I’ve neglected have greedily swallowed it up.

It has been an inspiring, educational, exhausting journey. In the end, I quit not to get my life back – although that’s a welcome side-effect – but because as time went on I found myself increasingly often on a different ‘page’ to the majority (but not all) of our informal collective. Agreeing-to-disagree could only carry us so far before the necessity of diverging became apparent.

I’m grieving, a little, for the people I worked and laughed and debated intensely with; and for the part of my identity that became tangled up with this OT thing I did. I’m saddened by what I perceive as a narrowing of focus within the OT, although I’ll still be eager to read the first 2013 issue when it comes out.

Everything changes.

This year I think I’ll be focusing on co-operatives, the commons, radical community initiatives, eco-literacy and energy choices and I’ll be trying to convince people of the necessity of moving away from cultures based on capitalism, growth and profit.

I’ll be supporting the Diggers2012, the Combe Haven Defenders road protest camp, Stop Hinkley‘s anti-nuclear blockades and Hebden Bridge’s Ban the Burn actions, and will continue to fight the disaster that is GM crops.

I’ll be helping to spread the word about Radical Routes (a network of co-operatives working towards radical social change) and will probably be involved in The Green Gathering (website under construction).

I’ll be fighting the corporatisation of communities, as people in Barnet, Totnes and Frome are doing (especially my own, in Hebden Bridge, where we’re being threatened with a supermarket); and I’ll be educating myself by listening to people like Kevin Anderson (Rob Hopkins of Transition Network interviewed Anderson and I was inspired).

I’ll continue my involvement with the Occupy movement, which I believe still has power and potential, particularly in its networks of people, affinity groups and communication channels, and in its hands-on experience of organising camps and providing for basic needs in adverse conditions (see Occupy Wall Street activists organising disaster relief after Hurricane Sandy).

I’ll still be writing, and encouraging others to write.

I’ll hopefully have time to grow some fruit and veg this year too, and if Iain Findlay (the OccuPied Piper) is successful with crowdfunding his Whirligro – a simple invention for growing food in urban environments –  I’ll have a bumper salad crop.

Here’s hoping for some breakthroughs in tackling social, economic and environmental injustice and violence this year.

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