Connect

This was my thought as I left for work that morning.

‘If there is not enough good in the world, you can’t bemoan it, or despair, instead you have to try to do something about it. You have to increase the amount of good there is.’

There was a reason that I thought this. But it is not one that I can elaborate upon. The day before I had received some extremely shocking, painful news that left me very concerned for people I care about. I had done what little I could, had got angry, shed a few tears, gone into a type of resourceful shock that is familiar to me. A place from which I can find solutions, actions, before (perhaps instead of) processing the emotional impact of things.

At work, apart from this worry sitting on my shoulders like a pair of remorseless Buzzards, it was a normal day, I was ploughing through my inbox, but then, at about 11.30 a friend tweeted me, it was an aside to say that a man I barely knew at all, a man who only existed on the very fringes of my own existence, had died.

That man was named Horace White, and he was a person whom I saw occasionally pushing his trolley along the streets of East Finchley, where he lived. The only words he ever said to me, that I recall, were ‘best of luck’, the greeting and parting wish he gave to all he met.

He died, aged 54, two days ago. People, young people mainly, would sometimes mock him, taunt him with the name ‘Stanley’, which he hated and which would lead him to erupt into harmless but profane outbursts, I have seen this happen on a bus, and been partly concerned and then politely amused.

He would spend time sitting outside McDonalds and Barclays on Finchley High St, drawing colourful pictures with his crayons and giving them to those who asked for them. I read one story on his tribute Facebook page that he used to keep all of his crayon drawings in his suitcase but then one night left it outside the Post Office, the bomb squad were called and blew it up.

There were some tears in my eyes as I watched a video on youtube of him saying ‘best of luck’ to the camera. He seemed confused, lost, gentle, kind. Childlike. Even in the other unpleasant videos on the site in which he was provoked into shouting, there was no threat to his behaviour, it was childish, a tantrum.

And some of the tears were for The Situation I was worrying about, which – in a way that I couldn’t explain well even if I felt able to write freely about it – correlated with this man’s death.

I don’t mean to be frustratingly enigmatic, but I feel that even without the specifics what I have to write, to put out from within me to here, still holds true, has meaning.

At lunchtime I bought some Monkfish (special offer, for dinner that evening) from a supermarket and then I found myself wandering to Tavistock Square, where I stood before the statue of Gandhi looking at the messages and objects people had left there in the alcove beneath where he sits.

The pain of The Situation was raw, raw and confusing enough to me that I wished I believed in the God’s of man, but I don’t. I looked at the quote from the bible that someone had placed in the shrine, Matthew something or other, I looked at another quote, it was a Hindi quote about the universe coming from the deathless self. I saw a pack of self-help cards that someone had left, seemingly for someone in need to take.

None of these objects were of any use to me, but the motive behind them was. That people genuinely want to help others, that matters. That reached me.

I cannot tell you what my expression was as I walked on from Gandhi’s statue. I was absorbed in thoughts of what I could possibly do to help the people involved most directly in The Situation. I was wondering about the phone calls I should make, of what I should say, what I could do…

And then a voice called out to me. Quietly.

It was a man, a homeless man, his trolley and his possessions scattered about him on his bench. He was grimy and his fingernails were horribly long, he had a white and ginger beard, he may have been in his 50s, or his 40s, perhaps even, like me, in his 30s.

He pointed at my supermarket bag.

‘Can I have a sandwich?’

‘I don’t have any sandwiches, this is fish’ I explained.

We looked at each other.

‘Do you want some money for a sandwich?’ I said, reaching into my pocket for some change. I was being dismissive.

‘I can’t walk anywhere’, he said to me, and he lifted up his trouser leg to show the sores on his leg.

‘I’ll get you a sandwich’, I resolved, ‘what do you like?’

‘Anything’, he said.

So I walked back the way I had come, I looked at some options, trying to decide upon what would be the most robust and well balanced option, eventually settling on a large roast beef and salad bloomer on brown bread. It may have been my own hunger dictating the choice.

I walked back to him with the sandwich, and he asked me to open it for him (his hands clumsy and dirty, his extremely long fingernails handicapping him) I did so and he took it gratefully.

‘God bless you’, he said.

I stood in front of him.

‘Do you have anyone looking after you?’

‘No, not really’

‘Do you visit the NHS?’ my question came out clumsily, but he answered it with a ‘no’.

I stood there for a moment longer, wondering what I should do. And in the end I just walked off, leaving him eating the sandwich.

I walked off because I am not a saint, I am not even a good person. I am just a normal, lost person, like all of us, and I was still hungry, and I had phone calls to make, and I did not have the time to spare in my lunch break to do any more than give a man a sandwich.

All of us is lost because not one of us has any idea truly of why we exist, we come into the world full of bright possibility and hope, and then the whittling away at our innocence begins, the strange chaos of events, of other people’s pain and sadness and confusion and love and joy and cruelty touches us in ways we can’t ever know or forget, but underneath the isolation we strive to fashion for ourselves, the ‘I’, to protect us from the confusion of others, we are all connected in ways we can’t even see, by a filament of being.

What was the story that led this man to be homeless on this bench, what cruelty, or love, or chaos had he known? What cruelty or love or chaos has led me to be where I am? What cruelty, love and chaos am I responsible for?

I phoned the person who had contacted me the previous day hoping that I could help them with The Situation. They were far closer to it than me, and more terribly upset. As the phone rang I could see the chap eating the sandwich, he seemed happy enough, and I felt heartened a little by that simple fact.

When I got through and I spoke to them, I tried to offer love and support and whatever practical help I could. I think I may have done some little good.

We, all of us, affect all those around us. We all of us make a difference to people’s lives, even if we aren’t aware of it. This is a platitude, yes, but it is true.

Horace White simply used to say ‘best of luck’ to the people he saw. That is not much, you might think, but it is infinitely more than silence.

 

Thoughts.

These are just my thoughts, I make no attempt to order them. This is a repository. Rather than a craft.

Dec 3 2009.

Mortality is keenly on my mind. We live as if it death is a far and distant thing. But it is everywhere. Close to us. Our shadow.

This evening I walked past a motorbike accident. The police and medics kneeling over the felled and quiet rider.

The idiocy – some of it well meaning – of the passers by struck me. One man had parked his car by the side of the road so that it blocked the passage of traffic, yet he had taken to standing by the police car, and making the gestures of a traffic policeman in order to usher the traffic along.

A policeman got out of his vehicle and, rather than praising the gentlemen in the manner he might have been expecting, asked him in a scolding tone to move his car out of the way. The man continued his helpful gestures even as he listened to the policeman admonish him.

A small group of people stood on a traffic island by the injured party – one of them, a balding man with white beard, made half hearted traffic policeman gestures too, I think shyness kept the gusto of his gestures down. I saw one driver slow down and crane his neck to try to get a clear scope of the horror.

I walked fairly briskly past, I did not crane and I did not peer. I was satisfied to see that a motionless motorbike rider was being tended to by the police and a medic or two, there was nothing useful I could do, two people were already guiding the traffic along, and anyway I had just come from my Grandmother’s house, and though I was thinking about how foolish it was that I felt I had to hide my tears from people passing me by, how foolish it is to be ashamed of love, even so, I did not want people to see me, people I did not know, with tears in my eyes.

She is ill. How serious remains to be seen, a specialist’s scrutiny approaches. We know, from the symptoms that it could be terrible. She is scared. I go and see her and help her with practical things. When she leaves the room where we sit together, to get a letter or paper or something, I well up – stinging tears, but I know she finds comfort in me, and so I stifle them, recall the calm and strength of love, and find light and amusing things to say and talk to her about the things that she wants to talk about. If she saw that I was terribly upset, it would upset her.

I owe her my strength. I want to allay her fear, to give her comfort. And I know that I have always been able to make her smile. When I was a little boy she used to sing a song ‘you are my sunshine’, to me, and this was a comfort to me in difficult and confusing times. And I was to some extent a lightness to a terribly hard life that she had endured. But to me, how can I qualify what she is? She is the person who showed me what love is. True, kind, love.

So she writes to me to tell me now, by email, on the computer I got her, that she loves me, and that I am a lovely person. She says my visit has exhilirated her enough to log on to the computer and check her emails.

I write back to tell her that I love her very much, and that if I am a decent person, it is largely because of the love she has given me throughout my life.

Last Friday night she was very ill, breathless, frightened. I went to her and we got a doctor to come over. In the time while we waited we talked about a meeting she had with Lord Joffe, a friend of hers from South Africa. They met on the way up some stairs to a meeting of the fatalistic lobbying society for assisted death that she has long been a fan and active member of.

They both had been friends of Bram Fischer, the South African Lawyer who was arrested by the authorities, detained, humiliated, later to die of Cancer.

My Gran loves to talk of Bram, she admired him deeply. The authorities would not let her visit him, even when he was dying. They were cruel. They hated him most because he was one of them, a white Afrikaner – from a ‘good’ family. His treachery was absolute in their eyes. They kept him in isolation and from hospital as long as they could.

She spoke of how she had been too tired to ascend the steps to the meeting all in one go, and how Lord Joffe had stopped and sat with her on the steps. He was speaking at the meeting.

She told how when he gave his speech to the assembled crowd he said how glad he was to be speaking there, and how glad he was to have met an old friend on the way in, Margaret. He called out to her in the crowd and she waved back to him.

The Doctor came and I stayed in the other room, letting my tears brim and pass in silence, unseen.

My Grandmother is a good woman. And goodness is a rare and wonderful quality. Not to my Gran. She sees good in everyone.

Until recently she belonged to an ANC support group for the old guard, they would meet up and talk. Some of the more set in their ways would insist on discussing revolution.

The young ANC, the young blacks of the new South Africa have formed a new group – to which this ancient vanguard is able to join, but which is clearly distinct from them. They call themselves ‘the special branch’, which my Gran finds amusing – ‘they are too young to remember’. She and her comrades lived in bitter fear of the special branch – the people who would send letter bombs; Assassinate; torture.

Her old support group will remain only as a creche service to look after the children of the young new ANC. I am not too clear on the details. What is clear is that the young ANC, like all the young, wants to distance itself from the old. Finds the talk of revolution embarrassing, outdated. Sees a different world.

Of course, the different world they see came about because of the sacrifices of the old, I think they do respect that, but they are hungry to make the world their own.

My Gran sent the new ‘special branch’ some money to buy Champagne, with a letter wishing them well and sending her fondest regards. They bought Champagne and read her letter out, and they toasted her, she tells me. She is made happy by this. She was never much good at meetings, she never had much to say, she says.

She held her tongue in prison. She left South Africa rather than testify against her friend, Joe Qgabi. Though in time he was assassinated by ‘the special branch’ of apartheid South Africa.

My Gran is an old woman, who has lived and fought with great sadness for much of her life. Terrible things have been. I see her now before the shadow. She is the kind hearted woman who took me to the zoo, who encouraged and listened to me when I was a hurt little boy, she is the woman who, without affectation, gives to those who need. She is what love means to me.

[Update 2012: She is still going strong, in hospital again currently, but doing well. ‘Old age is not for sissies’, she tells me]

Street life

Big foot, captured at last…

Today I saw this project – a collection of fascinating Google Street View scenes, some poignant, some funny, some beautiful, some sad.

And it reminded me that I am immortalised in Google’s remorseless digital memory, like a modern day Big Foot, slinking blurrily off into the wildsGoogle street view image of me walking by

Childish things

This is a photo of me, my grandmother and my friend Manu.

You have to love the child you were, and recognise them in the person you are: Because underneath the constructs of age and experience, that vulnerable, playful, beautiful soul is with you for all your life and will always need love.

Happy new year

Happy New Year! is the hopeful refrain, the mantra we repeat each time the planet revolves around the burning star.  This past year has been instructive, but generally very difficult for me, but I have learned at least something worth taking on into the next year.

It is extraordinary (but mundane, of course, really) that a decade has come to an end.  This time last decade (1999) I was painted silver, (unwisely using car paint) and sporting papier mache angel wings, at a friend’s ‘futuristic’ themed house party, surrounded by people I cared about.  I am still friends with a lot of those good people, but sadly some I have lost touch with. In some instances it was fate, in others, my own efforts. So it goes.

Regrets are inevitable in a life filled with decisions, this decade has given me deep regrets, but also great and profound experiences.  I met and connected with some wonderful people. I know that I made the wrong decisions in some instances, but I could not have done otherwise.  Hindsight is never there when you need it, by definition.

I fell in love and I fucked it up, I worked hard doing things I believed in, tried to do some good. Had some seriously close shaves.  Realised that I had a lot of things that had happened to me in my life that I hadn’t ever sorted out. Took steps to sort them out. I gave up smoking.  Learned to like food.  Got fatter.  Got fitter.  Played some music. Essentially, lots of things happened. good and bad.

With the year ahead I hope to make better choices, I hope to be happier, I hope.  That is what we do.

Happy new year! I hope that it is a good one for you.

 

Aswim

Aswim

One such summer I

sun of nothing

took your hand in mine

we

upon the smoothed pebbles

journeyed

down to the sea

Naked

and we slipped

steady

In

Shedding our clothes

our accumulated selves

I loved you

I loved you

That I

was free

Like blood from a vein

Flowing, pulsing with life

and inevitably

Lost.

Slack history

Gandhi, was he divine, or was he human, and as such did he display human tendencies, such as racism, in his time in South Africa?

I was suprised upon viewing Newham Council’s website that they had chosen to promote ‘Black history month’ with an image of many notable black icons…and Gandhi.

Apparently:

‘Newham’s libraries are holding a series of free events throughout October to celebrate Black History Month.

Highlights include…an exhibition on the life of Gandhi which is touring Stratford Library, East Ham Library and The Gate, Forest Gate throughout October.’

Gandi is an interesting choice for Black History Month. Most obviously because he was not black.

But perhaps more pertinently because in his time in South Africa he appeared to be actively racist with regard to black people. He used the term ‘kaffir’ to refer to them and directed his efforts solely at the plight of the Indians there. He is quoted as saying, for instance:

“Ours is on continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life of indolence and nakedness.”

Source: Guardian

Of course, Gandhi was a great freedom fighter and an heroic practitioner of non-violent protest.

He also absolutely refuted any divinity attributed to him and refused to be called Mahatma. He acknowledged that he was just a man, and he was very honest about his flaws – in his autobiography he reflected that in his youth he was flawed, he beat his wife for instance.

It is other people who have attributed to him a saintliness and perfection that simply is unrealistic. He has become symbolic rather than real and as such the facts of history have been obscured.

The overtly racist caste system of the Hindu faith, where (to simplify) the blacker you are the more lowly you are (the untouchables) and the whiter you are the more divine (Brahmins) was bravely defied by Gandhi, who went on hunger strike to demand its abolition. But Gandhi’s contemporary B.R. Ambedkar points out that the truth is more complicated than this in his book ‘what congress and Ghandi have done to the untouchables’, here Gandhi is quoted as supporting the caste system in 1921, then proposing subtle changes to it, in 1925.

Others, such as Mark Linley show that Gandhi’s ideas developed over time and that he came to see the need to destroy the caste system through intermarriage.

My opinion is that Gandhi was a noble and brave man who did much good. That in his youth and life he was imperfect is no suprise and should not detract from his inspiring actions. But I think there is more value in knowing about him in his entirety rather than reducing him to a saintly charicature. He was a human being, human beings are complex, it is foolish and trite to blind yourself for the sake of simplicity or facility. History is more than just black and white.

Gandhi was a great man, who unified Muslim and Hindu India through his non-violent efforts. I think he was more great for his own acknowledgement of his flaws, which was part of his practising of Ahimsa (do no harm).  That level of honesty is more brave than the clumsy beatification of well meaning ignorance.