Where scholars become workers

Peter Maurin’s vision of scholars and workers written for the spring issue of the London Catholic Worker. The outbreak of COVID – 19 delayed the mail out of the newsletter so I am posting this editorial here. 

Peter Maurin

For this issue of the London Catholic Worker there is a theme: the work of our hands, or, indeed, just plain work. Peter Maurin, founder of the movement, had much to say about work and workers. Dorothy Day describes him as a ‘workingman’. One of 24 children, raised in a peasant family in France, he had tried homesteading in Canada, and joined work gangs in America before they met.

In Easy Essays, the series of declamatory poems he published over and over in the Catholic Worker newspaper, Maurin describes his vision of ‘scholars and workers’ living together and learning from each other, in farming communes and ‘outdoor universities’. The scholars would learn to use their hands and become ‘dynamic’ and a ‘driving force’ while the workers would learn — it’s not so clear what the workers would learn. Although he repeats this pairing many times, it takes a bit of imagination and further reading, to see who these scholars and workers might be and the work they’ll be doing.

Dorothy Day writes in her introduction that Maurin was wary of ‘class consciousness’ and didn’t like the use of the word ‘worker’ in ‘Catholic Worker’. He saw the houses of hospitality and farms as communities, that would build ‘a new society in the shell of the old’, a vision of equality that would benefit everyone. The scholars and workers will join communities, along with ‘down-and-out’ businessmen, academics, college professors. Perhaps in nineteen thirties New York these were the people who weren’t used to mopping the floor. ‘In the Catholic Worker/ people learn to use their hands/ as well as their heads.’ (See left hand column)

Day writes also that Maurin was ‘literal’. Through ‘daily practice of the works of mercy’, the scholars will become workers. They will be feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, literally by hand. Scholars will do the manual work and learn from the manual work. This remains the main business of a Catholic Worker house.

These days in London, the scholar and the worker could easily be one person. Scholars take menial jobs. Everyone’s a worker one way or another. College lecturers and pizza delivery drivers, catering staff and cleaners all struggle to get by on a zero hours contract. Employees forced to work such long hours they are unable to care for themselves, can install an app. that will summon a cleaner, a driver, a nutritious meal even someone to buy a birthday present, which creates even more precarious jobs.

At the London Catholic Worker, at least, this working with the hands and the head person is one and the same. When Urban Table first started, I remember a certain volunteer. He reminded me of a character out of Absolute Beginners, with a slightly greying quif and cigarette trousers. He did the manual work of the soup kitchen as if it was nothing, tossing the tables and chairs around, washing up and wiping down, all the while keeping up a stream of jokes, film sound tracks, and celebrity gossip. Being new to volunteering, I thought: here is someone who really knows how to make light work.

Over ten years later, all sorts of PhD students and businessmen come and volunteer at Urban Table. A few make heavy weather of chopping onions or avoid the washing up. But I’ve heard some say they learn something new every week: that carrots can be black or yellow, as well as orange, that potatoes are not a staple and that a meal is not a meal without rice. Nothing focuses the mind like hearing one of the guests outline his budget for the next two weeks under Universal Credit.

The ‘daily practice of the works of mercy’ is not just humanitarian work. Here I encourage you, the reader, to reflect on your own experience of working with your hands. In this newsletter there are several examples. Ghazal Tipu, an office worker, interviews an activist cobbler. Margriet Bos ‘looks into the kitchen’ at Giuseppe Conlon House and sees cleaning, fixing and building. While mending sleeping bags, Anne M. Jones, is faced with the injustice and cruelty of the refugees’ situation in Calais. Johannes and Nora both talk of the effects of this work on their own mental health.

For myself, waking in the small hours at the local night shelter, I discover fears I haven’t been attending to: fear of intimacy, of cultural misunderstandings, of humiliation – I’m sometimes treated like a servant – and awkwardness at my own house – owning privilege.

Dorothy Day writes, ‘Love casts out fear, but we have to get over the fear in order to get close enough to love them.’

The first Easy Essay is called, ‘Blowing the dynamite’. Maurin says, accusingly, that the ‘scholars’  – yes them again – have placed the message of the Church, ‘in an hermetically sealed container and sat on the lid.’

The next work for the works of mercy, then, is to teach us to love.

Where scholars become workers

Conjunctions kill people

That day I turned off Vassall Road, onto a heavily shaded side road, between a graffitied shop front, and the rear wall of a LCC housing block. A man and woman walked past, carrying two small children. I caught the usual whiff of weed, wishing I hadn’t. After a newly landscaped park, I came upon two small terraced houses on the corner. Chubby letters, painted straight onto the brickwork read, ‘This is a Private Residence. Keep Out.’ Next to the spacious new housing development, with its ostentatiously carved street names, the two cottages looked mean and cramped.

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‘Private Residence Please Keep Off Thank You’ Houses on Normandy Road, Brixton

A line from the soundtrack of Jackie Brown popped into my head. First I remembered ‘That day’ then ‘Audrey’. Or was it ‘Aubrey’. Then in a slow gravelly American acting voice, ‘wet deck.’ Because I kept cycling past the same house, the same line kept repeating itself again and again, engraving itself onto a part of my brain, reminding me to look it up.

When the children were still children, we used to play the Jackie Brownsound track in the car.

–Is it something to do with boxing? I asked Dom, when I got home. Now that there’s only two of us.
–It’s Beaumont, the guy in the boot.
–I don’t think it’s part of the script. It’s a quote.
–Is it?
–But what’s the wet deck?
–You know, it’s set in California, where they all have decks
–I thought it was to do with boxing, like hit the deck.
–Why would a boxing ring be wet?
–You know, I think there’s a boxing match playing in the background when the Bridget Fonda character says her ambition is to get high..
— and watch TV!
–Or it might be a threat – as in you might slip.

The day the World Cup started, I stayed in the kitchen, Dom moved upstairs, to watch the match. I looked up ‘Aubrey, Audrey, wet deck, that day, Jackie Brown.’ It took me a few goes. Then I shouted up the stairs, ‘Found it!’. At half time..

–It’s a quote from another film. A boss offers his employee a turn with a prostitute.
–Is the prostitute Aubrey Hale Clayton?
–No. The boss.
–Stop saying No like that.
–No.
–So what’s the wet deck?
–Is it the prostitute?
–Hmm. Is that really what it means?

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Audrey Hale Clayton is a character in Detroit 9000. I was given this Spanish version DVD for my birthday

‘That’ll be the day, the day that I die,’ I sang as I set out again next morning. According to the brief set by my employers, the students should be able to use conjunctions. I waited at the lights thinking this line, that’s from Jackie Brown, but not in the script.

‘The day I follow Aubrey Hale Clayton on a wet deck, that day, I slit my throat.’

Finsbury Square was streaming with men and women in lightweight suits, nothing too shiny, nothing too blue. They walked heads down, briefcases held close to their sides at the end of their arms.

The main clause, ‘I slit my throat’ could be present tense or past; they sound the same, but in this case means an impossible future. The first clause is a compound or a conditional clause – perhaps you can help me here. Not suitable for an English lesson at any rate.  Instead – ‘Conjunctions are very strong words,’ -I told the students. The shyest student, who often wouldn’t say anything except laugh with her friend in Spanish, loved the work on conjunctions. The other students teased her, saying her hair would catch fire.

After the class, still planning my lesson, since conjunctions were going to take a few goes, I cycled north through Vauxhall. The corner where the Blaxploitation line popped into my head, I stopped once more to take a photo. This time I read the blue plaque on the wall:

Cherry Dorothy Groce
1948 – 2011
innocently shot in this house
by police which sparked the
1985 Brixton uprising

Barely pausing to wonder what that ‘innocently’ meant or who it referred to I cycled over the Vauxhall Bridge, through Pimlico to the Home Office. In front of hand painted banners, women from Iraq, Congo, Eritrea, read out their testimonies.

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Women’s groups protest outside the Home Office during Refugee Week

Meanwhile the Guardian reported on the deaths of three Eritrean youngsters, who after finally making it to England, took their own lives.

The day I arrive in England, that day…

The day the Groce family get justice, that day….

–Complete these sentences, I told Dom.

–That’s sick.

In the dot dot dot, sat closure, shame, death, starting a new life.

— You have to take risks, to finish the sentence. But at the same time the grammar forces you to finish it.
–So you end up saying something stupid, like ‘I’ll eat my hat’ or ‘I’ll kill myself.’
–‘The day I slit my throat’ I told Dom, is meant to be ironic.
–You don’t say
–Martin Amis wrote something like irony withers in the face of Islamism.

Dom pursed his lips as if tasting something mouldy.

–But really, I soldiered on, irony withers in front of injustice, violence, abuse of power
–You don’t have to lecture me. Perhaps we were just young.
–It’s either gallows humour or pretentious. Tarantino, I have no stomach for.

Conjunctions kill people

Pigeoncote

'Iridescent sexual exhibitionists'
Pigeons

Pigeons are the first ‘critter’ guides in Staying with the Trouble, Donna J. Haraway’s exploration  of survival in the time of the chthulucene. [i]Pigeons are her ‘urban neighbours, iridescent sexual exhibitionists.’ They appear in her writing as  creatures of the Empire, spy pigeons, carrier pigeons, pigeons that recognise themselves in the mirror, pigeons that can identify objects from a helicopter.

In Haraway’s story, racing pigeons and their trainers are put to work measuring air pollution in Los Angeles while in Australia artists build nesting towers to help bring pigeon manure to the rewilding of a piece of ancestral land. In Caudry, France, Matali Crasset, an industrial designer, is commissioned by the local authority to design a pigeonnier. Haraway asks how, ‘when the best biologies of the twenty first century cannot do their job’ we can develop ‘response-ability’, back and forth, like a game of cat’s cradle.

Tagging along after Donna, pigeons are to be my guide too. They are nearly my bedfellows after all, building nests yards from my window, importing bird fleas, bringing manure into my garden. I wake to the rattle flap of wings, the pinkish sigh of feathers whiffling the air, throats bubbling like the sound of a coffee pot.

Five, six, twelve, seventeen pigeons are roosting, preening, courting, billing and cooing, turning circles on the corner of the empty cinema next door. On the parapet where the mortar’s worn away, and the bricks look like teeth, they strut up and down, peck at each other. They perch like Batman on the rooftop, head and shoulders against the sky. Or they roost in the blocked up windows, like dollops of grey paint, that also come in cream, mauve, brown. The biggest male makes a train of his tail, jerks his green neck feathers back and forth along the back wall of the disused Savoy Cinema.

A shapeless hangar of a building, it’s not possible to tell how big it is from the outside. Its Art Deco canopy has been destroyed. The foyer is now home to Class barbers and a tattoo and piercing parlour. In the corner, now the Tava Ocakbasi restaurant, a Rasta couple sold reggae records and knitting wool. The basement, variously named the Snooker Lovers Club, the Magnolia Banqueting Suite, Epic Dalston, has been used for club nights, Hindu weddings, Afro-Caribbean wakes, bar mitzvahs, Turkish circumcision parties and a Sunday flea market. To the rear is a flat, home to some Bulgarian Turks, a recording studio, an electricity substation. The last film to be shown, in 1984, was Scarface.

One afternoon, a slight figure in orange duffle coat and striped scarf knocks on our door and introduces himself as Auro. ‘I’ve just got the lease for the old cinema,’ he croons persuasively. ‘We’re talking to all the neighbours.’ He gives me his number and says to text him day or night. ‘If you’re unhappy about anything ….. no trouble at all.’ The local paper reports a budget of several million; the restored venue is to be as big as the Roundhouse.

Auro invites us to an open weekend. A small group of enthusiasts, we climb up and up the emergency stairs, picking our way over drinks crates, spare bar stools, lost umbrellas, arriving at the very top of the balcony.

The smell of pigeons is so overpowering, it even has a colour, a chalk white grey. In the gloom that filters through holes in the plaster ceiling, the original proscenium arch stands oddly truncated, as if flooded by the floor below.

The one empty space left, the largest, is the space for film projection itself. The void left by the projection of heroes, heroines and villains onto the screen has always been unusable, it turns out. The lonely individualist, the hunter gatherer hero, remains trapped in his pyramid of light. The real reason the building has  never been demolished and remains semi derelict, I learn from my partner, is that the owners are a Turkish family trust. Should the building be sold, the funds would be divided into unfeasibly small amounts of cash.

There are thumps in the street, van doors banging. Auro knows how to do things. He books parking spaces. Articulated lorries deliver thick cables, scaffolding tubes, sound equipment. Security men guard the vans. Sound checks begin at three. He boasts to the local press that he has cleared out six hundred pigeons and a sea container load of manure.

Several months on and the six hundred pigeons are living on the outside, at the mercy of cats, crows, passing seagulls, nesting kestrels. There have been sightings of a peregrine falcon. Wing claps like a carpet beating, a call to order. The flock takes off, circles the nearby blocks, swoops back up again, onto the parapet, onto the roof.

Except for the bookings that were already booked before he cleared out the pigeons, nothing much has happened in the disused but by no means empty Savoy cinema. Online Auro laments: gentrification means no more spaces for creatives like him to be creative in. He calls out the ‘municipalities’.

Faced with the nightmarish Doomsday narrative, beloved of climate change activists, where technology can’t help us and God won’t save us, I look for other narratives. In my reading I hunt for signs of hope. Donna looks for what she calls SF, string figures, ‘scientific fabulations’ to sustain and guide us into not ‘posthuman’ but ‘compost’. Instead of a doomsday narrative, we will become part of the ‘oddkin’. Stories of the chthulucene invoke the multi species ‘becoming-with’, creating stuff, breaking bread together, necessary for survival.

[i]Chthulucene, an impossible to spell made up word of two parts, chthonos meaning ‘of the earth’ and ‘kainos’ meaning time. We are nearing the end of the ‘anthropocene’ and the ‘capitalocene’.

Pigeoncote

‘Christians found NOT GUILTY following DSEI protest’

This post was written for the March issue of the North West Justice and Peace e-bulletin. Since then the Crown has applied to state a case for an appeal to the High Court. On reflection, I realise the court process forces the narrative to take on an unduly official tone, when for me personally there were many other aspects of the protest, to do with my faith, history, current conflicts . Hearing what the Crown has to say in regard to my actions, helps me not a bit in reflecting on the subject of the protest, the arms fair and the lethal trade that means we, as tax payers and beneficiaries of say the NHS, are complicit in civilian casualties and destruction of facilities essential for life, such as fields, food factories and warehouses, fuel supplies and hospitals.

In February I was among eight members of Put Down the Sword and London Catholic Worker found not guilty of willful obstruction of the highway following our nonviolent direct action outside the Excel centre in East London, during the setting up of the DSEI arms fair.

For me, this was a dizzying turn of events, since up to now, in similar trials, no matter how sympathetic the judge, I have been found guilty. Considering eight of us did really block the highway, and at least one car really did have to turn around, it seemed miraculous that the charges were dismissed.

But the law is more complicated than a policeman just telling you you’ve prevented a vehicle from moving freely. As the trials continued, several others were found not guilty, and, at the time of writing, most further trials have been dismissed.

The Defense and Security Equipment International exhibition (DSEI), one of the largest arms fairs in the world, is a government sponsored trade exhibition. Here arms companies display not only conventional handguns, tanks and missiles, but also, most sinisterly, equipment used for creating hard borders and for policing civilian demonstrations. Leaders and military personnel attend from up to fifty countries, some of which, Pakistan, Turkey, Bahrain, are on the FCO’s own watch list. Others are currently engaged in conflict: Saudi Arabia leads the bombing campaign in Yemen, where many thousands of civilians have been killed since hostilities began and air strikes on civilian facilities have led to a humanitarian crisis.

With Nora Ziegler, Jo Frew, Chris Cole, Nick Cooper, Tom Franklin, Louis Durton, Sam Donaldson, I was involved in direct action on the No Faith In War day of protest. This was the second day in a week of protests, organised under the umbrella of Stop the Arms Fair, intended to draw attention to the depravity of profiting from war and the humanitarian costs of conflict.

The site chosen for our direct action was a dual carriageway that leads to the eastern entrance of the Excel Centre and several associated hotels, to the north of Royal Victoria Dock.

The four of us arrived by car and scrambled out onto the road, where we lay with our arms in ‘lock-on’ boxes. We were placed under arrest almost immediately, but there followed a period of about ninety minutes, while police operatives cut us out. A bit later the other four suspended themselves over the same road, using climbing equipment. Throughout the day members of Pax Christi, Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, Quakers and other groups prayed, sang, and staged a dramatic ‘wedding’ of death and the arms trade.

The intention was to transform the road from a highway carrying weapons, into a place of prayer and peace. It was to reclaim the space from the mundane business of transporting weapons for hearing the word of God. I thought of the way sites of suffering are often places for churches, such as Tyburn convent at Marble Arch.

At the time I didn’t feel all that prayerful lying in the road. Staring up at the sky hurt my eyes. I felt uncomfortable and cold, with my arm trapped inside a piece of plastic drain pipe. I dreaded being cut out and began to curse the friend who had made such a thorough job of the lock-on tube, with its layers of cement and chicken wire. It felt a bit like being at the dentist.

Several months on and it was time for us to represent ourselves in court. Only one of us four who ‘locked on’ had representation from a lawyer who reminded us it was not for the police to tell us how to protest. I had no argument with the the facts of the case, although this didn’t stop the prosecution, in her cross examination, wondering why our prayer space needed to involve ‘concrete’. I intended just to say how I felt and my motivations for taking the action I did.

I explained that as a Christian I was strongly opposed to the arms trade, and the arms fair as its most visible aspect. Any organisation that designs, makes, sells weapons intended to kill and maim is committing murder. Our government’s involvement in the arms trade is making murderers of us all. Pope Francis has spoken out repeatedly against the arms trade, for instance, saying in June 2017, ‘It is an absurd contradiction to speak of peace, to negotiate peace, and at the same time promote or permit the arms trade.’

All of us spoke in court of how our experiences had inspired our actions; Jo Frew and Nora Ziegler talked of living with asylum seekers who have fled the very conflicts that are fuelled by the arms trade. Jo Frew spoke of the fact the arms trade profits from the refugee crisis twice, once in selling arms to the countries that the refugees are fleeing from and then selling security equipment to border police and those creating ‘hard borders’. Some spoke of the ‘democratic deficit’ that means the arms fair continues to be supported despite questions in parliament, all party parliamentary groups, letters to local MPs. Even Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London has said he is opposed to the arms fair but in his current position has no power to stop it taking place.

The judge told us he would give his verdict the next week, so that weekend, being the fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time, we heard from St. Paul, [1 Corinthians 9 vv 16 – 19], ‘Do you know what my reward is? It is this: in my preaching, to be able to offer the Good News free, and not insist on the rights which the gospel gives me.’ As people asked me what I wanted to happen, what I hoped for the verdict, this seemed like a very good reminder of the reasons for our protest on No Faith in War day.

In giving his verdict, the district judge, Angus Hamilton said a protest can be ‘tiresome and inconvenient’, but this doesn’t mean it’s unreasonable. The judge said that the police hadn’t respected our rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, described by articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention. He said our action was the ‘epitome of peaceful protest.’

With the charges dismissed, I walked out of the court reinvigorated for the task ahead, that is to make sure in 2019 there is no arms fair. As many trials have been discontinued and many more groups have been found not guilty, for various different reasons, it is vital we continue to call out the arms trade for what it is, in whatever way we can.

‘Christians found NOT GUILTY following DSEI protest’

‘It’s not about you’

Calais diary part 1

Just back from two weeks at Maria Skobtsova House, my head is still ringing with the Taize songs we sang three times a day for Advent, and the sounds of conversations in French, that I half understood, and the conversation in Dutch, Tigrinya, Amharic that I didn’t understand at all.

I still have in my head the mezmur, [hymns] the young guests at Maria Skobtsova House sung every evening at night prayer. Sung in low voices, the hymns begin as a kind of soft hum, then increase in intensity. One young man shouts out the words which others pick up in canon. One drummer taps gently to start with, then there’s a barely detectable crescendo, until everyone is swaying and clapping. Even though I’m tired and looking forward to bed, I find it impossible not to join in the complicated clapping and swaying pattern.

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The chapel at Maria Skobtsova House; blankets folded and ready for use at evening Orthodox prayer

Each day we meet at Maria Skobtsova House for prayers at 8:00. There’s supposed to be silence until then, but with seventeen young men in one family sized house, I suspect there’s been plenty going on in the night. After prayers and breakfast, it’s washing the floor, picking out the recycling, cleaning the one toilet, sweeping the stairs, sorting the washing. If you’re not quick enough with the floor the young men are already in the kitchen and making breakfast. Outside in the yard is a rack of freezing trainers, with crispy socks. There is a fridge. There’s a lean-to with an outsize washing machine and extra supplies of tins.

There’s a corner the boys have made into a barber shop. S. is the barber. He says he has been a barber since he was a child, even in Sudan, en route. Getting a new hair cut is a chief pastime. To get the desired effect he takes the blade out of a disposable razor, holds it against the teeth of a comb. J. also likes to hang out in the yard, behind a curtain rigged up between a shower cubicle, not yet in use, and the fridge for extra privacy.

I sleep in an empty apartment, in an old house by the canal. There is a chapel, a kitchen, a bedroom and study and a shower. Every morning I walk quickly to be at Maria Skobtsova House in time for morning prayer. We sing hymns, recite psalms and listen to a prose passage from lives of the saints or written by a saint, morning, noon and evening. At night there is another prayer with the guests.

I get to drive the community’s van home so I can bring back the donated patisserie in the morning: loaves of bread and miniature croissants, pain au raisin, pain au chocolat. Piles of donated food and clothes gradually build up along the walls of the corridor. Visitors from England bring cereal, tea bags, fresh milk. This afternoon, a group comes with a van of donations from Tower Hamlets. One of the girls has never left the U.K. before. Fresh fruit and vegetables are scarce, except for a wholesalers van that comes twice a week. When it’s my turn to receive the delivery I choose the vegetables I crave, like radishes. But of course it’s not about me. When I offer the radishes to the young men, one eats it politely but another one makes comedy show of spitting it into his hand, grimacing. We take the grapes and clementines.

Everyday there is a delivery of stew from the Refugee Community Kitchen, in a large oblong tin. One end of a warehouse has been turned into a commercial sized kitchen. Volunteers, dressed in black chefs shirts and caps, chop vegetables to the sound of heavy techno. I looked enviously at the crates of pumpkins and cabbages, which lead me to wonder why, by the time it reaches us, the food isn’t all that nice. The smell follows me around on my skin.

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Refugees are sleeping out in this

Today it’s raining very hard. Rain is making rivers along the pavement. We run more errands, to the hospital, back to the kitchen to return the empty pans, to LIDLS. Rain is bouncing off the tarmac surface of the LIDLs carpark. Under Br Johannes’ direction, we stock up on milk, eggs, sugar, diet coke. Although there is a cooked meal every night, these are the staples of the house larder.

Another essential is ‘berberis’ , a large jar filled with a mixture of chilli, paprika and curry powder that comes out every night. Guests in small groups cook themselves tomato sauce mixed with ‘berberis’ heated in the microwave, eaten by dipping pieces of bread into the shared bowl.

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Communal Eritrean dish made of grilled flour, spicy tomato sauce and yoghurt

On the way back from LIDLS we see many refugees at the ‘Belgian parking’ for that is its name, gathering to try and get on the lorries. With the deteriorating weather, it seems that people are ever more desperate to ‘try’. When I get home I read this article in the Huffington Post: people are afraid more than anything of dying of cold.

Each evening, in twos and three, the refugee guests come home, having been outside all day ‘trying’. ‘No chance’ they say. Some prefer to stay out all night. Some prefer the morning.

Almost sooner than I’ve learnt all the boys’ names, I have learnt a bit about their favourite characteristics and foibles. One likes to sit outside. One is the barber of the group. One speaks very good English. One prefers French. One has an infection in his foot and we have to take him to the hospital everyday. Often they come back from ‘trying’ with injuries, cut hands, sore backs. I heard about a broken hip, a broken foot. A few have given up going out.

In the evening there are missing empty places at the dinner table. There is a gloomy and nervous atmosphere. Br Johannes won’t start the meal until all are present. No one is allowed to stay in bed. J. who usually sits by himself in a corner to eat, today joins us. He says in English ‘maybe they’re in Engerland, but they’re asleep’ then continues in his own language, causing everyone to laugh. Even his face makes them all laugh.

Yesterday two come home with cut hands, saying a lorry driver attacked them with an iron bar. The soaking coats and hoodies, hats, gloves, all go into the wash and then the drier, sometimes they say the coats have been tear gassed, so need to be washed. The drier is on at least 12 hours a day, filling up with water and fluff from the soaking wet towels and coats, hoodies, scarves and hats.

The smell in the yard could be tear gas or it could be the rotting food. I look up smell of tear gas on my phone. It’s difficult to tell.

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Refugees try to keep warm round a fire under one of the city’s bridges

 

 

 

‘It’s not about you’

Belgravia to Hackney: it’s Budget day

Yesterday I made a short return journey, barely half an hour, from Dalston, Hackney to Belgrave Square, for a vigil outside the Bahrain embassy. The vigil was to show solidarity with Nabeel Rajab and with Bahraini activists who are being harassed, even here in the UK.

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Vigil for Nabeel Rajab, political prisoner in Bahrain, outside the Bahrain embassy in Belgrave Square.

This is not the reason I woke up this morning feeling so sick, I could hardly eat my breakfast. But it did set me thinking. On this day, Budget Day, it occurred to me in the kind of elemental way it does first thing, there is plenty to go round. There would be no need for austerity if we could just share all the resources we have. Austerity is not something that effects all of us. Only the poor and the sick. Those who rely on public services. Inequality is damaging us.

I’m at a time of my life thankfully where I barely have to use the NHS. I’m not yet one of those people who can write a glowing report on Facebook on the wonderful overstretched nurses and doctors. Only in our work, as a family, we see the effects of austerity. My husband, an architect who works on school buildings, has seen the amount of work dwindle. I give my time to a soup kitchen, drop in centre and a centre for women refugees, giving English lessons, and the local night shelter; all voluntary services that should be unnecessary in a just society. My daughter’s job is to monitor behavior in a secondary school. The poor behavior of a few pupils is directly caused by poor mental health, poverty and the instability in their lives, by the lack of resources to cope with the petty awkwardnesses school throws at them. Inequality undoubtedly causes poor mental health. It’s something I can see in front of my own eyes.

Poor housing or no housing at all must be one of the highest contributers to mental ill health. We are all the poorer for it. All the people who are suffering from lack of support from government, are prevented from taking a full part in society, from being creative, from being sociable. Instead they are forced to traipse from food bank to drop in to free meal to substandard housing to GP.

In Hackney, and further north in Haringey, there are people forced to live on an industrial estate in converted buildings, just like the one in this video, unable to keep themselves and their possessions safe.

So even more galling it was to think of my journey home yesterday from Belgravia back to Hackney. Some people even think Dalston is a rather smart area. It’s certainly been gentrified for the ones with enough to buy a house, to meet their friends in a café, to go clubbing. And stable enough lives for their children to benefit from the improving schools..

Back towards Victoria station, still an acre of grime and lurid signage, I clicked along spotless, creamy stone pavements, Belgrave Square, Eaton Square, where a school friend of mine had lived, Chester Square where another friend had lived, long ago of course. Every now and then I noticed a state of the art sports car, the like of which I’d never seen, hunkered down in a residents’ parking bay. The buildings all freshly painted in uniform ivory. You could say embassies need to be smart, they have to entertain kings and queens and generals. They have to have clean streets. But even here, not all the houses can be embassies. Anyway wouldn’t we all like to have clean streets.

Usually I breathe a sigh of relief when I reach Dalston, everyone gets off. It’s always been  a busy station, even before gentrification. But this morning when I thought of the beggars in Kingsland High Street, over again I felt sick. There used to be only one beggar, a woman with a gambling addiction. Now there is a new person every hundred yards or so, fifty even. It’s a fairly crazy but also courageous thing to do to resort to begging, to put yourself at the mercy of the passersby, of the street. It means services, both public and voluntary, have failed. Some of the drop-in users tell me the foodbank on Sunday was closed because of a children’s party. But also the motivation to keep going, to access all these services, has left this person. It means family and friends have deserted this person. I’m always shocked every time I see a new person, someone I don’t recognise. Yesterday there was a woman about my own age, she could be someone’s mother, one of my own kid’s school friends’ mothers perhaps or a neighbor. Further on a new spot had been taken up by a young woman, her possessions bundled around her.

So my prayer is that today’s Budget can make life more equal. All of us need to work for a more just society. There are plenty of houses; they’re not properly distributed. There is plenty to go round if you could just choose fairness over greed. We all suffer, from the fact that thousands are forced to send every hour of their day trying to work out where the next meal is coming from, putting all their intellectual energy into negotiating job centre, foodbank, housing benefit, without any time for friends.

Belgravia to Hackney: it’s Budget day

Dirty Protest

Thoughts on the work ethic and the arms trade

During the week before the DSEI arms fair, protests take place on the service road into the back of the Excel Centre, by London’s Royal Victoria Dock. Lumbering up the road, along with the low loaders carrying vehicles and boats, armoured, camouflaged, tied down with net, boats, along with the white vans of caterers, fitters, cleaners, carpet layers, is one huge elephant. That is capital and the work ethic that supports it.

The arms trade is harmful many times over. It makes conflict more likely in areas of the developing world where there is already tension. Poor countries are persuaded to spend millions on weaponry rather than on infrastructure for their own people. Its industry manufactures war and bloodshed.

Being a capitalist enterprise just like any other, the arms trade, and the industry that supports it, causes damage to the climate. It is a wasteful use of natural resources. It poisons the atmosphere and water supplies and lakes and natural habitats. It hoards the technological expertise amongst its employees that could be used in other creative sustaining ways and prevents progress in other areas.

But also, being a capitalist enterprise like any other, the arms industry depends on our wonderfully strong work ethic. In his book S.O.S. Alternatives to Capitalism, Richard Swift points us to William Morris, one of the first socialists to oppose the ecological decay of capitalism and the society based on ‘useless toil’.

He also directs us to Lafargue’s, The right to be lazy. Written in the nineteenth century, by Marx’s son-in-law, this is a satire aimed at the bourgeouisie, who counted work as a religious virtue and the path to salvation. Industrialists encouraged country people away from their ‘hearths’ into the towns, to the severe detriment of the workers’ and their families’ health. Once in the factory they had no time to tend their vegetable plots, which led to malnutrition, or else had to travel long distances to work, leaving no time to look after themselves and their children.

Lafargue describes conditions for factory workers in Alsace, who worked twelve hour days to produce stockings, which they themselves had no use for, and could never afford. The factory owner then had to find new markets for his products, leading to colonialist expansion. Seen in the context of the arms trade this is particularly apt. The arms companies make something far worse than useless; the only product of an arms company is bloodshed and terror. The arms trade constantly must find new markets so the factory can stay open, so the employees can travel to their full time jobs. It must keep the factories open, otherwise there’d be a riot. The employees of the factory must be kept busy. The devil makes work for idle hands.

This discussion often gets glossed over at protests. Disgruntled passersby shout, ‘get a job’, not realising how ironic this is in the circumstances. MPs inevitably do all they can to protect jobs in their own constituency, for their own sake if nothing else. It would be impossible to tell someone to give up their job, when there is a dearth of manufacturing jobs, and when income is tied to work, but also while the work ethic is so a fundamental to our culture. As Kathy Weeks shows in The problem of work, the work ethic extends far beyond the means of survival. Work defines us socially, intellectually, by class, even by race and gender. Where the work ethic is strong, the system of favours, long hours culture, fellowship, the ritual of office parties and outings, work itself becomes morally right. We’ve all experienced jobs where we have complied with dubious practices, and not until afterwards realized that our desire to maintain a positive attitude triumphed over our own integrity.

The work ethic even extends into our children’s education, (teenagers trained to be ‘work ready’) our leisure and holidays. Who hasn’t thought of conveyor belts when we step onto a plane or ferry. But above all the work ethic spreads into our homes. Someone has to be cleaning, whether this is the same person who goes out to work, a partner or someone paid to do it. However you look at modern employment, it relies on carers, cleaners, cooks, mothers, those who care for the elderly, the very young, the sick, the destitute.

Weeks suggests that the discussion around wages for housework, while unhelpful and unsuccessful in the seventies, was a useful way of seeing how our lives are monetised, which parts of a mother’s work is work, that could be paid labour, and which is love. She quotes Federici,

“For our aim is to be priceless, to price ourselves out of the market, for housework and factory work and office work to be ‘uneconomic.’ ”

Or to put it in terms of the Gospel story we are all busy being Martha, but Martha herself has power in the work she does to resist. (Luke 10: 38 – 42)

Arms work depends on housework. An employee of the arms industry, and therefore all of us, works a full day, picks up her children, keeps her house clean, and even does voluntary work at weekends. So I propose a dirty protest! Or even more drastic, a care work protest. Or even a birth work protest. Just when we thought housework was something that stays in the privacy of our own homes, we could refuse housework and smash the arms trade.

Recently in a horrible twist, cleaning products themselves have become a weapon. Not far from Giuseppe Conlon House, two young men on a scooter carried out 5 acid attacks in a single evening. In the discussions in the media afterwards, the pundits questioned the use of strong chemicals in household cleaning.

Swift, R. S.O.S. Alternatives to Capitalism, New Internationalist, Oxford 2016

Weeks, K, The problem with work, Duke University Press, London 2011

Lafargue, P. The right to be lazy, edited and introduced by Bernard Marszalek, AK Press, Chicago 2011

This article was first published in the London Catholic Worker newsletter

Dirty Protest