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.

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

Delegation to Kabul – pre trip anxiety and preparation

Here in London, free to hop on and off buses, run down the street, yell at the top of my voice, I am mostly afraid of being knocked off my bike by a truck or swallowing a poisonous cleaning product.

But over there in Kabul, as an unwelcome foreigner I could be attacked or I could be kidnapped. I could be hit by a suicide blast in a crowded place.

To go over there with a peace delegation I needed to prepare for what would happen in the event of my death or if I was kidnapped. My deepest fear, was what it would be like for my children. Does a peace activist with children do this kind of thing? I was afraid of what my mother would think of me. Why was I going? Why wasn’t I able to explain why I was going? I must be stupid.

Close friends reacted to my plans in various ways according to their own experience and expectations. I found that some were encouraging and even a little jealous, some questioned me at length, while some others couldn’t bring themselves to mention it at all. The anxiety this last group produced in me, as well as my own pre travel nerves, might have been enough to put me off altogether.

As well as being a foreigner I was a Christian and therefore at risk of being perceived as a legitimate target by the Taliban. There was no way I could pretend not to be Christian. However silent I remained on the subject of faith, to the Taliban, anyone western was probably Christian.

In the weeks before setting off, near my workplace, a church building, I suddenly noticed the street signs: the Angel, St. Giles Place, St. Martin’s Lane, Newman Street, Charing Cross. In Kabul these fearful addresses would get me into trouble. But this was wandering into the absurd, I told myself. I even started to grow a little defiant, an emotion I quickly batted away.

A few weeks before we were to depart, Afghan news site, Tolonews, regularly reported suicide bombings and attacks in Kabul. A South African and his two children were killed in an attack on an international aid organization in the same district that we would be visiting. The Taliban had claimed the attack and said the organization was a ‘secret Christian missionary group’.

Still, I reasoned with myself, if there had been a shooting or explosion in Hackney, I wouldn’t discourage friends from visiting. We gathered for a pre-trip Skype call, faltering, in trepidation, wondering if it was a bad time to be go. Maybe we should consider postponing. But as we sat down and listed the positives and the negatives and the positives outweighed the negatives, we decided we should still go ahead with our plans.

Once in Kabul, I learned that as the government doesn’t want to scare the population, some attacks are left unreported. Even if they are reported accounts of the numbers killed are often inaccurate.

Delegation to Kabul – pre trip anxiety and preparation