Somethings have explanations, some things take belief, while others just leave you pondering for a rational reason for them to exist. They capture a moment, like stars when they align. On this damp, chilly September morning in the corner of my kitchen, a corner where the plants do their best to thrive, of all these days, a blooming flower stretches out seeking the sky. It’s the last flower, my father planted before he died on the 3rd March 2017, which is exactly, to the day, 12 months after my mum had passed away. The significance of this solitary flower that blooms on this damp, chilly September morning is what causes the pause, as I make a breakfast tea and say happy birthday to my mum.
Simple acts of generosity and the kindness they embrace can often be overlooked especially in a world where harshness towards compassion is projected by political leaders as a weakness. The collective mass of these simple gestures of kindness, like a stream of water smooths a jagged stone into a pebble, is the ultimate antidote to this political harshness. This happened yesterday.
I was looking out from the ground floor window. It was a damp, rainy morning, overcast and cold. I decided to venture across the road to the local cafe for breakfast. The cafe, managed by a local Chinese lady who is always cheerful, keen to engage her customers to elicit ideas for the menu and on this dull day her cheerfulness will not go amiss. I open the door of the cafe, step from the chill into the warmth. A tame radio is playing, and the Chinese lady welcomes me. Four customers acknowledge my presence by raising their heads, they glare for a moment and quickly return to their food, drink, and chatter. After ordering, I sit quietly, frequently and addictively gaze at my iPhone reading the latest news and social media updates.
The table to my immediate right sits two guys in their late 40s discussing the incidental happenings of the universe. Conversation voids are filled with slurps of teas, munching of a full English. Newspapers laid open on their table generate observations concerning the weather, football, Trump and the ostentatious lifestyle of the rich and famous. They share stories about Valentine’s day. The cards they bought their wives, the meals they enjoyed and the wine they drank. Clicks, clangs, and the fragrance of cooking emerge from the kitchen while the traffic steers through the rain outside. People hurry by the window, collars turn up and hats firmly fixed. The table in front of me sits a man mid-30s and his teenage daughter. It’s like watching two chess players engaged in an enthralling game. They are negotiating about the arrangements for the day. He has care duties, and it’s the school holidays. It transpires that for the teenager her parents have recently separated, and he has just picked her up from home. There is a nervous tone as the pair start the journey of building a new path from the rubble, but shared giggles are heard as they leave the cafe for their day ahead together. He holds the door for his daughter and the young couple entering the cafe.
The young couple, in their mid-20s, entering the cafe, without any eye contact, make haste to the corner table and empty their pockets on the top. The coins clatter, they are sorted and counted. There is a tension, a nervous tension. The young man has a swagger about him, he is heavily tattooed, wears a black baseball cap and refers to his partner as darling with a thick South Bristol accent. The young lady has a tired face, looks exhausted and she calmly nods at her man as he talks through the various options from the menu. He is taking his time, offering options. She confirms he makes the order with the Chinese lady at the counter. The young man turns and walks back to the table, sits opposite his women and reaches out to her. She leans forward slightly, gives an awkward smile and takes his hands. They stare at each intensively, he provides a nod of encouragement, comforting her, “everything is going to be ok, I promise.” There is a muffled cry, her head lowers and he tightens his hold of her hands.
There is tenderness in their exchanges of the ordinary. The proprietor of the cafe, with her small, unimposing Chinese persona, realising there is something not quite right strolls to the table where the young couple sat quietly.“Forgive me for intruding, but I could not help but see you are upset is everything alright?” asks the Chinese lady. An uncomfortable silence, she gently smiles and asks again. The story unfolds. The young couple had recently moved in together against the strong wishes of the young man’s family. This had resulted in tensions and the breakdown in relationships between the young man and his family. He had chosen his love. The young lady had slowly, painfully and successfully weaned herself off a drug addiction. The tortured lines of despair on her face, which amassed around her eyes echoed her determination, but nobody except her boyfriend believed she had the willpower to keep up the fight. As the Chinese lady listened, the young man watched on attentively with a look that could melt icebergs. Due to a small change in personal circumstance, they had just received a letter, which had confirmed their social security benefits had been reduced to the point they could no longer manage to pay the rent for their shared flat. Both young people were without employment.
The young couple now faced the risk of separating. The only feasible option was for the young lady to move back with her parents while he sought a short-term arrangement with friends. The young couple shared their journey of highs, lows and self-inflicted wounds. The Chinese lady waited until the story had unfolded. She paused for a moment and turned her attention to the young man. “I was just about to put an advert in the window for help in the kitchen and serving would you be interested?” Without giving much thought, the young man eagerly replied, “yes, when can I start?” the Chinese lady answered, “No time like the present” The young man and the Chinese lady stand up and walk to the kitchen area. As they approached the counter, the young man reached into his pocket to pay for the breakfast he and his girlfriend had just enjoyed. The Chinese lady said, “No payment required employees get food as part of their job.”
The 9th February and found me at the annual Summit of Lush Ltd the cosmetics retailer held in the Grade I listed Tobacco Dock Warehouse in the East End of London. The invite had materialised from being involved in a film project exploring food poverty and homelessness in the UK. My engagement with Lush until recently has been one of passive customer occasionally popping into their shops to purchase a gift. To be perfectly honest I have also felt a sense of cynism when a private business adopts a proactive approach towards charity, but then there is a marked difference between charity and charitable causes. Thankfully Lush know the difference. In a time when ‘dumbing down’ is the order of the day not many private companies have taken the courageous position of supporting charitable causes that question, educate and force debate while selling their products. The Lush Summit is a colourful mixture of unadulterated fun, product sales, lectures, workshops on no violent civil disobedience and stalls promoting a whole range of causes and campaigns. The audience is young, by my standard very young. My cynism between the sale of ethical bath bombs and heart-wrenching stories are eased when I quickly discover that through the sales of their products Lush are able to support these stories to be heard. In fact, amongst the many campaigns and causes I visit and speak to during the day it’s the one called Obliterated Families, which brings me to the point of tears. Obliterated Families documents the stories of families during the Isreali government’s 2014 offensive on the Gaza Strip. Anat Shenker-Osorio, a communications expert, and researcher provides a fascinating and very informative talk about how we can change the narrative when discussing immigration. In another room campaigners against airport expansion give workshops on the effective use of non-violent civil disobedience, while in other rooms group’s exchange information across a wide spectrum of issues from human slavery, refugee support, international peace, disabled people against the cuts, animal welfare campaigns, hunt saboteurs, etc. Lush are incubating an eco-system of resistance, which an inclusive political system would normally embrace. Through their work, Lush are helping to challenge the ascending narrative that general ignorance provides political leaders with the legitimacy to denigrate those in need of a little humanity, while at the same time helping to equip our politics with the next generation of progressives. Long may they carry on this good work.
Enjoyed speaking to so many energised people at the ‘People, Places and Spaces conference’ in Bristol, which was organised by Locality. Sharing mistakes, successes and applying knowledge to new challenges is always refreshing. Good feedback too my assessment that we need a rethink of the role, powers and functions of local government now. We need to stop tinkering around the edges and stop continuously managing the crisis as this only leads to managing decline. We should never forget that regardless of the cuts local government will remain an important resource holder and when at its best it can be a great agent for change in local communities, but sadly for many, the behaviours sitting behind their experiences when engaging with local government leaves a lot to be desired.
“Afternoon boss.” I smile, acknowledge the welcome with a slight nod of the head and sit down. There are 2 people before me and the 3 chairs are already occupied. Intermittent silence is broken with idle chat concerning a variety of subjects, cars, football, local curiosity, disputes, and hearsay. Men getting their haircut can be a curious ritual, but one passed down from father to son.
Holding my breath and counting the clouds. Inhale, exhale. The sun slowly descends tonight. I’m standing on the decking at the rear of my house, just watching the city and the skyline. I live here, and I live. The city is talking, and her whispers carry through the air. I sit on the step and just watch, listen and take this photograph.
Journey on the grinding tube station escalator. Through the gates, people skipping to avoid contact, excited conversations, raised voices, smiles, arguments and hugs all exchanged in the theatre that is the ticket hall. Up the steps, two at a time, the heat from the warm sun pierces through the mass of bodies. I reach the summit and surface in Brixton. The street preachers are still wasting their time, the kaleidoscope of scents, some pleasant, some not so. Traffic fumes, spices, flower seller, the trader selling incense sticks whose smoke dances from the sticks and drifts into the bustling street. Then vanishes. The white hipster with his carefully trimmed beard and the elderly Caribbean lady seem to have little common ground. They pass as if divided by continents.
A gentle tap on my back and I turn. An ex-work acquaintance announces her presence. “What are you doing in Brixton stranger?” she asks abruptly. “Enjoying myself and how are you? I reply. There is a pause. “Strange how the familiar seems different when you have an opportunity to look at it from another perspective,” I add. “Things change John, but nothing changes” she presents her dichotomy with a sense of frustration. She looks tired, slightly pale. “It never ends, dealing with angry people, managing decline, not having the resources, long working hours, the habitual restructure, the cycle turns and turns and turns. “ I have little energy reserves, to be brutally honest, to give much sympathy. She reads my eyes. An uncomfortable realisation that I am no longer part of that world and the conversation loses its purpose. A few more stumbled words, a look of resignation, she smiles says goodbye and vanishes into the crowd for another meeting. The trouble I find is that when things relentlessly keep on moving people tend to lose sight of the simple things. The building blocks, which create the foundations for life, community. At this point, I sense a small movement beneath my feet. I look down and realise I am standing on a wobbly paving stone. The ground is moving, but there are no cracks as yet.