“It’s time to do something” Austrian Migrant Supporter

Back in October I was in Austria, the only open gateway to the EU for migrants and refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East. I took the opportunity to speak to migrants and activists about the current situation.

These are the impressions of a young woman, who describes herself as “just a supporter”. For nearly four weeks, she had been supporting a refugee protest camp outside the police station in Graz. You can hear the story of one of the refugees, Mazin, recorded here.

This Austrian woman spoke passionately about her motivation to action. “This situation is writing history,” she explained. “When in 30 years my children ask me what happened, I don’t want to explain to them why did I just watch, why didn’t I do anything.” She sees action as a moral imperative: “I don’t see it as help,” she says. “I just see it as something you basically have to do now.”

This solidarity imperative means that, rather than becoming an aid worker, she finds herself surrounded by friends. “Everybody I met, they become friends,” she says. “It’s not like they are refugees and I am Austrian and I help them, but we’re doing something together and we become friends. That’s what it should be like.”

Unsurprisingly, she’s not terribly impressed by the governments of the EU. “They could do so much more,” she says. “If it would be about some economical crisis, they would have a solution in days.” Her laugh has real bite. “But now it’s about human beings standing around outside in the cold for hours and hours. They’re not treating people with enough humanity.”

Cycling Home for Christmas

Christmas is a time for overindulgence. For me, that usually means doing something a bit silly in the dark. The evidence: Last night, I left my house at midnight and cycled 70km through the night to get home to my parents’ for Christmas.

There shouldn’t be much more to say than that, but whenever I mentioned my plan to anyone their faces registered a mixture of disbelief, disgust, and a difficult question: “Why?”. (Except one guy who said, “70km? That’s nothing.”)

So before I fall asleep again, I thought I’d answer that question with three good reasons from last night’s silly ride.

The solitude of an unusual and unnecessary physical challenge.

Christmas is a time of year when I reflect on life and I find cycling helps (not as good as walking, but I didn’t have time this year). As my wheels turned over, so did my mind. What have I achieved this year? Who do I have to thank for those achievements? What have I learnt from my experiences? Where can I go from here? And I can only really delve into these questions alone.

The ride, it should be admitted was indeed pointless, even more pointless was the idea of cycling through the night. I could just as well cycled on Christmas Eve morning, in the clear light of day. But traditional rites of passage throughout history include this element of unusual and unnecessary challenge, not only so that people can “prove themselves”, but also to mark a break with the past. In my case, “the past” is 2015.

Without the solitude and without the rite of passage, my year does not feel complete. I am able to emerge from the trial a new (exhausted) person.

Beauty

It would be easy to skip over the fact that I love cycling through the night. Between about 2am and 5am, I had the roads to myself. While we sleep, the night shadows play their cinema. The battlements of a Norman church looming out of the night. Climbing through the woods around Stoke Row. Following an almost full moon that catches the startled eyes of sleepless rabbits. It’s there for us every night, just waiting.

Peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches.

Ingredients:

  • Peanut butter (large dollop)
  • Nutella (large dollop)
  • 1 slice of bread

Method:

  1. Take out bread.
  2. Paste large dollop of peanut butter on the bread.
  3. Slap large dollop of Nutella on top of the peanut butter.
  4. Fold bread over. It should feel infeasibly loaded.
  5. Lick knife clean.

Say no more.

Peanut butter and Nutella sandwich
Why do I not do this every night?

(Oh and the ride itself, I guess!)

For all you crank-heads, enjoy the stats. (p.s. No idea what happened around Sodding Common… Guess tiredness.)

“I always believe in humanity” Mazin Abu Khaled, Migrant from Syria

I’m very pleased to finally be publishing this, the first in a series of audio stories called Voices for Migration. The series will feature the voices of many different people, all talking about their experiences of migration – whether migrants themselves or people who have been touched by the effects of migration.

This first story is from a Syrian man called Mazin Abu Khaled, who I met while in Graz at the Elevate Festival. He is lucky to have made it to Austria, but his journey is far from over. His family are still back in Syria, but he can’t afford to pay the human traffickers who could help them escape, and is scared that they wouldn’t survive the journey in any case. “It is a death journey,” he says.

Even in Austria, Mazin is struggling. He has been waiting for his papers for months. Until his asylum claim is processed, he is not allowed to work or contribute to Austrian society, even as a volunteer. “We want to help,” he says. “We can do many things with them.” That is why he and other migrants set up a protest camp outside the police building in Graz.

Mazin’s sympathy, however, lies with less fortunate migrants, who are leaving Syria in their thousands, to be met in the EU with near indifference. The governments of the EU are not taking the problem seriously. “There is no food, no blankets, nothing,” he says. “I can’t understand it.”

So I hope you enjoy listening, and please share Mazin’s powerful story with your friends.

 

I’m a voyeur, a do-gooder, a megalomaniac!

“You’re a voyeur, a do-gooder, a megalomaniac.”

I’ve been called many things since I first started “getting involved” with Calais back in the summer of 2014. Rather than dismissing these accusations hurled as insults, I would rather examine them to discover from where they derive their power. Because power they have: I do feel, at times, a voyeur, a do-gooder and a megalomaniac.

I don’t think many people enjoy acknowleging these aspects of themselves, but I think it’s important to do so. Hopefully I’ll show you how listening to your feelings of voyeurism, do-gooding and megalomania can make you, not just a better activist, but a better person altogether.

“You’re a voyeur.”

This accusation is founded on the idea that the migrant camp in Calais represents a vision of the world so radically different to mine that I must be taking some kind of perverse pleasure in the encounter. My favourite term for this kind of activist tourism is, rather than solidarity, holidarity.

It’s true: my warm home in London couldn’t be more different to the waterlogged shanty tents of Calais. It’s also true that my life as a middle class white Englishman couldn’t be more different to the experience of a six year-old Syrian boy, alone in an unwelcoming foreign land with not much more than the shirt on his back.

The accusation of voyeurism hits the mark. The misery and squalor of Calais is horrifying. It does, sometimes, make me stare uncomprehendingly, and thank my lucky stars that I don’t have to live through this reality indefinitely.

But this is my reality. Calais is as much a part of my life as the streets of New Cross, and we are all part of a world crowded with camps as horrifying as Calais (and many much more so). Should we airbrush places like Calais from our pretty picture? I don’t think so. The only question that remains, then, is how we should act in such a world.

Here is where we get our first insight: the feeling of being a voyeur only hits me when I restrict myself to being an outside observer. This actually happens very rarely. When I’m in Calais, I usually spend most of my time talking to people, trying to teach English, sharing food, or playing cricket. The moment I take action, the feeling of voyeurism dissolves in a shared connection with real people who react and respond themselves.

It’s simple. We can’t deny that voyeurism is part of the spectrum of human feeling, but I see voyeurism as a timely reminder that we are not here on Earth merely to observe; we are here to connect.

“You’re a do-gooder.”

The sense of “do-gooding” is undoubtedy pejorative. Do-gooders are earnest, naive, impractical, patronising, relentlessly foisting their well-intentioned, but ill-conceived ideas of betterment on people who have asked for nothing.

I won’t repeat the unfavourable comparison I’ve made before between charity and solidarity, but I do feel that the difference is hierarchy and intention. (Please note that I’m not talking about all insitutional charities necessarily, but the fundamental concept.)

Charities are classically and intentionally hierarchical: a material need is identified and filled by an outside group. The power resides in the charity. Clothes, food, or bikes are handed out from those who have to those who have not. At its best, this is nothing more than resource re-distribution; at its worst, however, the recipient is turned into a beggar for aid.

The concept of solidarity is very different in structure and intention. Solidarity recognises the natural and fundamental equality of humanity. The intention is simply to stand side by side with your brothers and sisters, in the good times, as well as the bad. What is yours is theirs, and vice-versa. It is similar to a friendship bond, rather than an institutional or paterfamilias bond.

I have always left Calais feeling like I was an equal beneficiary from whatever exchange of humanity took place between me and the people I met there.

So when you are accused of being a do-gooder, it’s a signal that perhaps you have assumed more power than you should in an equal relationship. The solution is simple: check your privilege, and surrender any top-down control you have.

“You’re a megalomaniac!”

A megalomaniac is a pathological egotist, conceited, self-obsessed, with an exaggerated sense of their own importance. What has this to do with activism and Calais, you might wonder. Well, there are a couple of ways a megalomaniac might become involved.

A pre-existing megalomaniac might see in Calais and the migration crisis an opportunity for his own self-aggrandisement and fame. I’m not going to talk about those kinds of people; they have a lot more work to do than I can help with here.

What I will talk about, however, are the heady megalomaniacal feelings that an activist might get when they get media or popular attention, when they are part of something awesome, or when they start to feel possession over “their” action.

Since the middle of 2015, there has been a lot of attention on Calais, not just in the media, but on the street too. Back in 2014, no one was particularly interested in what I did in Calais. One mention of “migrants” and all I’d get was a dirty look. This autumn, however, those same dirty lookers were clamouring for tips on how to “get involved”.

My small part in the success of the Calais Critical Mass over the August Bank Holiday also meant that I ended up speaking to all sorts of national and international media, in print and on TV. A couple of things I’ve written about Calais on this site have gone viral, sending thousands of people to a blog that usually gets about 50 visits a day.

At times, it’s been hard to come down from the megalomaniacal high.

When I get this kind of attention and appreciation, my heart rate rises, I feel light-headed, and my voice goes all squeaky. It’s a pretty great feeling and it would be tempting, indeed understandable, to chase that megalomaniacal high. But I know that it is not a productive emotion to indulge.

I call these feelings “megalomania”, and not something more positive like “enthusiasm” or “ecstasy”, because they always result in me turning inwards, chasing the feeling, not the results that I would like to see in the world. The antidote to megalomania is modesty.

As we rode down to Calais in an eighty-strong mass last August, I kept telling myself (and anyone who’d listen) of the modesty of what we were trying to achieve. This was not a grandiose expedition, I kept telling myself. It would be a success if just one person made just one other person smile across the battlelines of our border.

Whenever I felt myself being carried along by incipient feelings of megalomania – “This is the beginning of the borderless revolution, and I made it happen!” – I would refocus on that one little smile, and give thanks that I was able to be a tiny part of a much greater positive force.

Megalomania is another useful signal, telling me that success is making me turn inwards. The solution is to appreciate our smallest imaginable achievement, and give thanks to all the others who make this possible. Megalomania is a call to acknowledge the higher purpose we share with the rest of the planet.

Yes, I am a voyeaur, a do-gooder, a megalomaniac (sometimes)

Occasionally feeling like a voyeur, a do-gooder, or a megalomaniac is an inescapable part of being an activist (by which I mean “human”). I’m only human; I’m bound to get swept away sometimes by feelings of horror and power, fame and pride.

I see these feelings, not as enemies or insults, but as signals, important reminders to reconnect with the real reasons for why I’m doing what I do.

  • When I feel like a voyeur, I must remember to stop being an outside observer, and to connect.
  • When I feel like a do-gooder, I must remember to check my privilege, and surrender my top-down control.
  • When I feel like a megalomaniac, I must give thanks to others, and acknowledge my small role in our shared higher purpose.

As activists, we must learn to take our own temperatures (or rely on a trusted friend). When you feel yourself getting too hot, dial the temperature down by refocussing on what exactly makes you feel good about what you do. What makes me feel good is the community, being able to make a personal connection with people from Sudan, Eritrea or Syria. That’s what’s important to me.

If you can’t find any good in that moment, then it’s time to take a step back altogether. Relax, go home, clear yourself out.

Christmas Bonanza: £5 off, Xmas cards & free books!

Happy Christmas and welcome to my Christmas bonanza!

As you know, I’m publishing my book You Are What You Don’t with Unbound, the publisher where YOU decide what gets written. We’re in the crowdfunding stage at the moment, trying to raise ~£10,000 so that this book can see the light of day. We’ve already raised 16% of the target, but there is a long way yet to go.

So, to nudge you all into pledging, I’m entering into the Christmas spirit and turning You Are What You Don’t into this season’s must have gift. (Well, it sure beats Tickle Me Elmo and a botox anyway.)

If you gift the book to your friends, family, binmen or newsagent, I will:

  1. Write them a handwritten, personalised Christmas card.
  2. Give them a highly sought after You Are What You Don’t badge.
  3. Give YOU £5 off your generous Christmas pledge.

Furthermore, if you pledge for a very special signed first edition hardback (only £30 with the discount), then I will also send you a signed copy of one of my already published books.

And, of course, in Spring 2017, your friend will receive a surprise parcel in the mail – their very own beautiful edition of You Are What You Don’t, with their name in the credits.

Read on for more details on what I think will be a lovely little Christmas present, but first…


How to Give

It’s super simple.

  1. Pledge, using the code xmas5 for a £5 discount (don’t use this if you want the full £5 to go towards the target!)
  2. Change the name in the back of the book to the name of the person you’re giving the book to.
  3. Send me an email through my website with the name and address to send the card, badge and book (either to you so you can present the person with it, or their address for a lovely Christmas surprise).

For the UK, the deadline is Thursday 17 of December to catch the post. Contact me ASAP for international orders. Any questions, likewise: contact me.


So, what’s included in this lovely little Christmas pledge?

A handwritten, personalised Christmas card message from The Author.

I will write your friend / family member / binman / newsagent a personalised Christmas card, including a little story of one of my positive constraints and a tiny challenge for them to try on Christmas Day.

The card will be designed by one of three artist friends, see these pictures for a taster:

Real Design cards (with boggly eyes and glitter)
Real Design Christmas cards (with boggly eyes and glitter)
Amazingness cards
Anna Hillman Christmas cards (Amazingness.com)

Your choice of You Are What You Don’t badge.

These badges went like hot cakes during our launch event a couple of weeks ago. All the cool kids in London are wearing them now!

You Are What You Don't badges
Pretty You Are What You Don’t badges

Which one does your friend need?

  • You Are What You Don’t (in pink and yellow or blue and yellow)
  • No Borders (red and black, only one left!)
  • No Walking (purple and yellow)
  • No Clothes (red and black)
  • No Phone (red and black)
  • No Toilet Paper (blue and yellow)
  • No Money (pink and yellow)
  • No Planes (red and black)
  • No Facebook (red and black)

Remember to tell me in your email which badge you’d like. Otherwise, I’ll just pick a random one myself.

For you, £5 off your very generous Christmas pledge

Thank you for pledging! I know this is probably a great big leap into the darkness. I appreciate it, I really do.

£5 off makes the hardback edition only £15, and the special signed hardback edition, with personalised positive constraint challenge only £30. Postage and packing, I should warn you, is £4.

Go on and pledge using the code xmas5. You deserve it 😉

+ Free book for pledges over £30

If you pledge for the special signed hardback edition, then I’ll send you a free copy of one of my other books to give to your friend on Christmas Day. (Or keep for yourself!)

  • The Soles of My Shoes. The story of my hitch-hike from London to Ben Nevis and back, with pathetic love story and a hitch-hiking how to guide. 170 pages.
  • How to Cycle 4,000 Miles When You Hate Lycra. A short book that will inspire the hapless bicyclist to get off their ass and out on tour. 50 pages.
  • Elevate #10. A collection of essays on political ideas, including answers to many baffling questions including: What is “surveillance capitalism” and how can we cook it? Are artificial volcanoes going to stop global warming? 179 pages.

Be sure to mention this in your email – despite continuing experiments, I’m still not psychic. 🙁

Most excitingly, in Spring 2017, your friend will get a beautiful edition of You Are What You Don’t with their name printed in the back.

Worried about the wait? Don’t be – it’s a good thing! Did you know that we get more pleasure from the anticipation of a thing, than from the thing itself? Guinness were almost right: “Good things come to those who anticipate.”

++ UNEXPECTED SCROOGE BONUS

If the book isn’t funded (BLACKMAIL ALERT: it won’t be if you don’t buy a copy), then you get your money back – cheapest Christmas present ever! 🙂


How to Give

It’s still super simple.

  1. Pledge, using the code xmas5 for a £5 discount (don’t use this if you want the full £5 to go towards the target!)
  2. Change the name in the back of the book to the name of the person you’re giving the book to.
  3. Send me an email through my website with the name and address to send the card, badge and book (either to you so you can present the person with it, or their address for a lovely Christmas surprise).

For the UK, the deadline is Thursday 17 of December to catch the post. Contact me ASAP for international orders. Any questions, likewise: contact me.


Thanks everyone! This will happen with your support. Sorry if it all comes across as the hard sell, but I’m really excited about this book – it’s going to be well worth the wait, I promise. Every day, I hear of more and more people joining in and changing their lives in exciting and creative ways.

Onward!

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