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.

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Belgravia to Hackney: it’s Budget day

Life with the Afghan Peace Volunteers

Gallery

Night shelter

So this is where I am today, Friday morning having spent the night at the Hackney Autumn Night Shelter. My fellow overnight volunteer and I divide the hours into two shifts. For the first half I stay up with my knitting in the light from the kitchen door, left ajar. The guests are coughing and spluttering, getting up and bedding down, wandering about in their underpants, swinging the squeaky door to the toilets. Our guests are astonishingly vulnerable: one wets the bed, can barely straighten himself up, can hardly pull himself up the stairs. Then there are the young ones. In the morning we strip the dampish bedding, damp from the night of coughing and spluttering and fevers.

Going to spend the night at the night shelter is like visiting another country. I think oh, how many hours until I can go home to my nice warm bed. But then my bed is at the other end of a cold bike ride. Then at three it’s my turn and I settle into the camp bed, the same flowery duvet and pillow case that all the guests have, thirsty from the roaring heater but soothed by the sound of regular breathing, that gets slower and slower. And we enter the quietest part of the night, around four. Extreme quiet settles over the group.

Angry that so many vulnerable people have only a camp bed in a church hall to sleep on, rickety joints not well, chesty, asthmatic, too young, too elderly and infirm. Just today Cameron proposes no benefits for EU migrants for four years after arrival. Two polish men get up at six, grab a sandwich from the breakfast team, and set off for work. None of these friendly people should be sleeping in a church hall.

It’s unsustainable that’s what it is. Piles of washing, armfuls of volunteers, church hall heating full blast through the night, cooked breakfast, wet socks, wet coats. The health risks from staying out all day in the winter, are a cost, not just physical.

Some of the guests help clear away the folding chairs and tables, swinging them quickly into place, experts at leaving no trace, everything spick and span in the twinkling of an eye. Others sit motionless, watching, waiting for the last possible moment before they will be chucked out.

It’s a terrible violence against the poorest, most vulnerable, infirm. It’s a terrible violence, that someone elderly and infirm is not cared for, getting worse not better. It’s not possible to have any worthy thoughts about any of this. It’s only my own experience, sleeping on the same creaky camp bed, tip toeing to the same freezing church hall loo – someone’s been smoking in the toilets again – that makes me realise sorrow and anger. I don’t have to see anything; I just have to remember that if I’m longing to reach my own warm bed, my own kitchen table, then what must the guests experience night after night.

Night shelter

Green Jersey for all cyclists everywhere

In our house we have been watching the Tour de France. Thanks to a friend’s brilliant description of cycling round Regents’ Park I now know how the peloton works. The peloton is a huge clump of cyclists. Like a swarm of bees, the peloton shifts and groups and regroups and stretches and compresses depending on conditions, which moves by one rider moving up the front by overtaking others and then others dropping back. They are different from the tete de la course who are breakaway riders. But for these riders it’s so tough all by yourself  alone out there that the peloton can come and swallow you up.

Then there’s a sprinter like the Manx himself who is the one who always breaks free in the last few minutes to win the stage because no one else can jump on a bike like he can. Even though he wins the stage he didn’t get the green jersey and he’s 154. And now we have to get onto what the jerseys mean. There’s yellow one and a green one and one for the king of the mountains.

And then you need to know about the mountains. That’s the romantic part. How did it go on the Col du Tourmalet? Could that be a good summer holiday destination for me? The cyclists surrounded by thundering into the unknown through mist and sheep. And we are told horrendous pain. We are told again and again about the terrible pain suffered by the tour but here we are sitting on our sofas. This is the best part, anytime I could leap up from my sofa and go for a bike ride myself, up the col du Manor House.

You see how someone needs to write a book to explain – no not explain that would be too boring – illustrate for ones like me who have to partake of all this stuff. If I didn’t I’d be all on my own of a Sunday tea time and unable to keep up with dinner table conversation. My next topic will be formula one, which really is as deadly as dry. Other topics include golf, snooker, darts, skiing : could be anything when there’s no football.

Green Jersey for all cyclists everywhere