We need you to trespass

We have been banned from our land for too long.

Tomorrow is the 89th anniversary of the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932, when three coordinated groups of ramblers converged on the Peak District’s highest point to protest the exclusion of the common people from the common land.

Although walkers’ right to roam on common land and uncultivated upland was not legally protected until the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000, the mass trespass on Kinder Scout became a potent legend that showed avaricious landowners that they wouldn’t have it all their own way.

Today, in 2021, we need trespass more than ever.

Criminalising the countryside

As I have written about in previous newsletters (here and here), the government is currently trying to force through legislation that will make trespass a criminal instead of a civil offence.

Outside of the landowners and their cronies in government, it is hard to find anyone in favour of this new law. Not even the police are in favour of powers that would have made TS Eliot liable for a prison sentence.

My MP assures me that this will not affect white middle class ramblers (he didn’t use those exact words, but he didn’t have to) and is only designed to exclude and incarcerate poor people who choose to live their lives closer to nature: Travellers.

The key word there is ‘designed’. Laws have a nasty habit of getting used for the convenience of those in power. Designed to imprison Travellers, used to imprison protestors. Why not?

What’s so depressing about this law is that the ruling minority even feel like they need the open threat of violence to keep us in our place. The vast majority of the land—our land—is already off limits.

Law breakers are law makers

92 percent of the countryside—our countryside—is already shut away behind PRIVATE KEEP OUT signs and, when I see one of those signs, personally, I keep out. Whoever put that sign up is clearly a bit of a dick so why would I want to risk bumping into them?

But access to the countryside is an inalienable right for all. Not only for the few who can afford to buy country estates or who have inherited titles thanks to ancestors who slaughtered peasants.

White middle class ramblers should stand up to support the Travellers who are rightly fighting to defend their livelihoods, but we should also take this moment to open up on all fronts.

As we’ve all found over the last year, that last scrap of land, that 8 percent, is not enough for us. We are not only a few, we are tens of millions. We want more and, to get what we want, we are going to trespass and trespass and trespass until the law collapses under its own weight. Law breakers are law makers.

It’s not even that we ask for much. We only ask that the Countryside and Rights of Way act be extended to include the right to roam on private land. This is already the law in Scotland. Scotland!

The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 (which came into force in 2005) gives everyone rights of access over land and inland water throughout Scotland, subject to specific exclusions set out in the Act and as long as they behave responsibly.

Our land, our law

To mark tomorrow’s anniversary of the Kinder Trespass, Extinction Rebellion is calling on every citizen to trespass ‘wherever and however they can’. I hope you will join them. Whether you join the trespass or not, Right To Roam and Extinction Rebellion have created some very useful materials that I think are important for us all to read.

  • Trespasser’s Guide

    Many land workers report abuse from ramblers, people who are expressing frustration at the iniquity of the landownership system towards the people who also labour under it.

  • Everybody Welcome sign to paste over PRIVATE KEEP OUT signs

    As long as you respect that this is Mother Nature’s home: feel free to wander; you have the Right to Roam.

  • Letter to Landowners

    For our environment to survive, for our society to thrive, our countryside cannot simply be the preserve of those fortunate enough to own it. We want to be a part of the countryside; we urgently need to reconnect to nature. And until we can have a conversation about how best to make this happen, respectfully, we will keep coming back.

Will I be taking part tomorrow?

In a beautiful coincidence, I’ll be spending tomorrow out in the countryside, helping a group of young people take some of their first steps in the great outdoors.

As this is a professional engagement, I certainly won’t be encouraging my students to trespass, but I will ask them to help me count the number of PRIVATE KEEP OUT signs we see that seem to bar us from land ripe for roaming.

Our young people, no less than ourselves, need the natural world for the sake of their physical and mental health, but also—I learned this week—we need access to nature for the sake of our continuing existence on planet earth.

Individuals with greater nature relatedness are more likely to adopt a sustainable lifestyle and have greater well-being. … This result implies that by nurturing nature relatedness, societies will achieve the double dividend of well-being and sustainability.

These were the findings of a Spanish study published earlier this month. Spending time in nature is the keystone of a healthy society and, in England and Wales at least, there is not enough nature to go around.

For the sake of our future and the future of our children, we need you to trespass and win back our inalienable right to nature.

Trespass with us

I think it’s fitting to end with the final words of this video posted by Nick Hayes, one of the minds behind Right To Roam:

We want a deeper relationship with nature and each other.
We don’t want to break the law. We want to change it.

The Great Whatsapp Stink: Q&A

The Great Whatsapp Stink inspired many excellent questions from readers. As they roll in, I’ll post my responses here. Special thanks to F.R. for an inspiring email exchange.

My Whatsapp contacts already have my number and all my old messages, how does that affect my privacy after I leave?

On Whatsapp you have to trust that all your contacts don’t share your messages – just as you would have to on Signal. Neither Whatsapp nor Signal have access to the content of your messages.

In that regard, nothing changes and there is no difference between the apps – it’s only a difference in how they implement the security. (And all the research I’ve done says that Whatsapp’s implementation is fundamentally less secure.)

If you delete your account, then I believe that – yes – your Whatsapp contacts would still be able to download your messages, unless you delete them, either individually or: WhatsApp Settings > Chats > Delete All Chats.

I haven’t done this yet, so would have to check how much sender’s data remains on the device of the recipient. Hopefully nothing but downloaded media – photos, videos, voice notes, etc.

If I delete Whatsapp, but my contacts don’t or can’t, will I still suffer indirect surveillance? If so, is my leaving the system worthwhile when the system never leaves me?

You’re right: you can leave the system, but the system never leaves you. Unfortunately, this is true even of people who have never ever had a Whatsapp or Facebook account, but who are still touched by Facebook’s web surveillance: pages with like buttons, for example.

There is no escape from that level of data collection – except by using a technique like browser isolation, which makes the data functionally useless (you could even generate deliberately misleading data if you’ve got loads of time on your hands!).

Will we be vulnerable to indirect surveillance after we’ve left Whatsapp? I don’t know exactly. I would also guess, given that no one seems to be able to find a definitive answer online, that no one knows exactly!

It’s worth repeating that Whatsapp only collects our metadata (so far as we know). Furthermore, for those of us who live in the EU, UK or other territories with half-decent privacy laws, that metadata is not matched with our Facebook profile data.

Regardless of what happens to the data held by your contacts after you delete Whatsapp, the biggest benefit of deleting the platform is that you will no longer be adding to that data the corporation hold on you. I think this is an important point, perhaps overlooked.

For example: if you’ve been regularly messaging from a device located in Berlin, then Whatsapp could make a guess that you live in Berlin – and they will continue to hold that data even after you delete the platform. But if, one day, you move to Brussels, then that old data will become as good as useless. No (further) harm done.

My view is that taking even one conversation out of Whatsapp and over to Signal is worthwhile progress. A tiny chip in the wall, maybe, but still worthwhile.

What do I gain from leaving Whatsapp?

This depends whether you think your metadata is a fair exchange for a ‘free’ messaging app. Do you mind Whatsapp having access to your metadata and using that to sell stuff to you and your contacts? Especially bearing in mind that this is part of a long-term business plan for Whatsapp.

At the moment, Whatsapp is not profitable for Facebook: they simply have to earn more money from Whatsapp and they will do that by selling user data. Both the original founders of Whatsapp quit (in 2017 and 2018) because of concerns over privacy, security, advertising and the sale of user data by Facebook.

This is the direction Whatsapp is going and I don’t want to stay with it to find out what happens next. So my answer to this question is that our metadata is clearly not a fair exchange for a messaging app, given that an excellent alternative exists.

Signal was setup by one of the original Whatsapp founders as a direct repost to what he saw as a betrayal of the app’s values. Signal is a not-for-profit, open source organisation and can never be bought by a capitalist engine like Facebook.

Everyone is already on Whatsapp so shouldn’t we should concentrate on better privacy regulation?

I accept that there are many users on Whatsapp – 2 billion worldwide – but I don’t accept that this means we shouldn’t all install Signal (as well as Whatsapp if need be). That’s like arguing that, because there are over a billion fossil fuel cars worldwide, we shouldn’t install charging points for electric cars.

It’s not an either/or problem. Yes, we should legally prevent corporations from exploiting our data AND yes, we should install and use platforms that don’t (and can’t) exploit our data.

Aren’t you forgetting all the people who need Whatsapp for important, even life-saving, services?

Firstly, I have no problem with people keeping their Whatsapp accounts, whether that’s because they need it to communicate with their doctors or because they simply love the app. I’d just like to help more people understand the Facebook business model and, based on that understanding, install an alternative that opens up the space. Every conversation switched onto a secure platform is a win.

For many people, Whatsapp and Signal will work in tandem, exactly as Brian Acton, founder of both companies, himself imagines:

I have no desire to do all the things that WhatsApp does. My desire is to give people a choice. It’s not strictly a winner take-all scenario.

I also have no problem with installing and drifting between several messaging apps. I’ve got 89 apps installed on my smartphone; another one doesn’t make any difference to me. For some overwhelmed people, I’m sure, one more app feels like one too many. I’d still like to convince them otherwise, but they have every right to tell me to shut up!

I’m also lucky that I’m not tightly bound to Whatsapp. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen a lot of my contacts switching to Signal, enough to make me believe that, for me, leaving Whatsapp permanently is an option. I’m surprised, gratified – and certain that I’m far from typical.

Even with 80 percent of my contacts on Signal, I’m still not sure that I’ll delete Whatsapp. My life might not depend on Whatsapp, but some of my volunteering work does. Naturally, I see no reason why these volunteering groups shouldn’t also migrate, either to Signal or to some other more appropriate, non-surveillance tool, but I’m aware that the migration won’t be easy. It will depend on people like me making a strong case for privacy and that case may well fail. But it must be made.

These conversations and conversions might be uncomfortable, but they are impossible unless we take that first step to install Signal or other alternatives. The transition away from the surveillance economy will be a lengthy process, especially when we consider the legal fight for stronger privacy regulation, but I believe that we now have momentum.

Switching apps is egotistical!

This misses the point. My argument is that mass migration away from Whatsapp isn’t merely good for the individual (I’m not actually convinced that it makes a huge difference for most individuals, depending on how they use the app and which country they live in), but it is good for the entire user base and – given that the user base makes up a quarter of the planet – also good for our societies as a whole.

Quick aside: how it could all go horribly wrong

No one in China uses Whatsapp. Access is totally blocked. The popular equivalent is an app called WeChat. Where surveillance at Whatsapp is covert, WeChat is subject to overt censorship. Dan Wang, an expert on technology in China, recently wrote:

WeChat blocks sensitive keywords, which today includes ‘decoupling’ and ‘sanctions’. It’s now pretty inconvenient to use the app for professional conversations, and I’ve been pretty insistent to my contacts to use Signal instead.

I’m not saying that this is the direction that Whatsapp is going in, but why should we even leave that roadmap on the table?

Back to the question

Fundamentally, the question is: why wouldn’t you install Signal, if only to offer a non-capitalist, non-surveillance alternative to those of your friends and contacts who prefer – or need – that approach for their communication?

For those of us lucky enough to live in countries protected by decent (ish) privacy laws, we are (seemingly) safe from further exploitation of our Whatsapp metadata by the rest of the Facebook corporation. But, by not installing Signal, we are exposing our unprotected contacts in the rest of the world to an unsafe platform for their communication with us.

Or we are ignoring them altogether. China is not the only country where Whatsapp is banned: North Korea, Syria, Qatar, Iran and United Arab Emirates have also blocked access to the app. We need alternatives.

Sticking rigidly to one platform: now that sounds egotistical to me.

~

What do you think? Send me your questions or comments. Thank you for reading!

The Great Whatsapp Stink

If you’re one of the two billion people who use Whatsapp, then you have probably noticed the new terms of service. You might already have accepted them. You might also have heard that these new terms of service consolidate and extend Whatsapp’s surveillance of your behaviour. You might be worried.

I think you’re right to be.

This article is primarily focussed on Whatsapp and Facebook, but many of the observations apply equally to other tech corporations who profit from surveillance of our data, especially Google. This article is also pretty thorough and might take you a while to work through at 2,800 words. But it’s split into four parts so please feel free to skip around:

  1. What do these new terms of service mean for you?
  2. Understanding surveillance capitalism
  3. Is there any hope?
  4. Four things you can do now

Right, let’s go!

What do these new terms of service mean for you?

There’s been one hell of a stink about Whatsapp since the announcement that the corporation will delete our accounts if we don’t accept these new terms of service.

First, to avoid any confusion, there’s one thing that the new terms of service are not: Facebook cannot now exploit the content of your messages. They are still encrypted. Everything else about your usage of the app, however, is up for grabs.

Despite this popular confusion, I think the great media stink has been very useful because I don’t think any of us should be using Whatsapp—or any Facebook product, for that matter. But I also think that we should temper our shock—not because Whatsapp isn’t a stinking rotten app, but because, since its acquisition by Facebook in 2014, it has always been a stinking rotten app.

Forbes cybersecurity correspondent Zak Doffman puts it well:

This isn’t about WhatsApp sharing any more of your general data with Facebook than it does already, this is about using your data and your engagement with its platform to enable shopping and other business services, to provide a platform where businesses can communicate with you and sell to you, all for a price they will pay to WhatsApp.

What the stink has usefully done is confront us with some important questions that we must answer before moving on with our lives:

  1. Do you want the Facebook corporation scraping the metadata from your Whatsapp messages to sell to their business partners who will then use that data to reach you, your contacts and other people like you inside Whatsapp?
  2. In other words: are you happy to participate in the development of the Whatsapp marketplace, where you and your data are the commodity, sold by Facebook to third-party businesses?
  3. Is that a fair price to pay for a service that offers ‘free’ messaging? HINT: No, it’s not. Not when actually free and secure alternative messaging services exist.

This great stink has brought Whatsapp’s corrupt business model to broader public awareness, so let’s take a look.

Surveillance capitalism

Whatsapp is part of the biggest surveillance operation the world has ever known: the Facebook corporation collects more data about its users than even the most dystopian science fiction writers ever imagined. The new Whatsapp terms of service will permit the sharing of your metadata—that is data about your messages, but not the content of your messages—across the Facebook corporation.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that metadata is unimportant: your device ID, your user ID, your contacts, your purchase history and financial activity within Whatsapp and your location is more than enough data to build a detailed consumer profile and connect you to you—even if you don’t subscribe to the open surveillance of a Facebook account.

The change in the terms of service is to facilitate the encroachment of third party businesses into your private messaging. It’s classic surveillance capitalism: the Facebook corporation collects and sells your data for profit. That’s why their apps are ‘free’; our data is their business model.

They’re not alone, of course. Surveillance capitalism is a popular business model for many tech companies, including other social networks like Twitter and LinkedIn, but also Amazon, Apple and even Pokémon Go. But only two corporations have the far-reaching scale of surveillance to use our data to manipulate entire democracies: Facebook and Google.

In a group chat on Whatsapp, a friend asked whether as individuals we had anything to fear from mass surveillance capitalism. Another friend replied, saying:

I guess it depends who makes the laws? At the moment we’re not in much danger, but if we lived in Russia, for example, and wrote an article critical of the government, we’d be in more danger if our data wasn’t secure. And we do keep unexpectedly electing dictator-y people…

I love that last sentence. For decades our only defence against the dangers of mass surveillance has been ‘Yes, but that could never happen here!’ I wonder how many people still believe that.

But even if we stay relatively safe on an individual level, there is also a much broader societal risk. As another friend in the group put it:

At a national level, there are implications for private companies knowing more about a population than even the government, e.g. Facebook / Cambridge Analytica / Brexit.

Starting in 2014, and with the complicity of the Facebook corporation, Cambridge Analytica harvested the data of millions of Facebook users and analysed behavioural patterns in order to find, target and ‘infect’ the most susceptible demographics with a particular political ideology, and from there spread the contagion to the rest of the population.

Cambridge Analytica were used by both Donald Trump’s first presidential bid and the Vote Leave campaign during the UK’s referendum on membership of the European Union in 2016. Both campaigns, you’ll have noticed, were successful—an odd word to use given the four years of shit-fuckery that have ensued.

If you’re anything like me, even as an individual, the unregulated interference into and destabilisation of our democracies is a huge price to pay.

Side note: The aforementioned Whatsapp group, I’m pleased to report, has now migrated to the non-Facebook and genuinely secure messaging platform Signal—but more on that later…

Is there any hope?

That’s enough depressing content for now. The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal broke years ago—hasn’t anything changed? Isn’t there any hope on the horizon?

Well, not really, no. But there are three points that offer Whatsapp users not so much hope as doubt that could easily be confused with hope and keep us wedded to a fundamentally unwell platform.

Firstly, in the European Union, GDPR law means that, legally, Facebook aren’t allowed to connect the dots between Whatsapp and the rest of the corporation. Despite leaving the EU, the same GDPR regulations apply in UK law—although the UK now has the independence to change those regulations.

However, as a friend keen on digital privacy commented:

Facebook will do what they want and pay the fine later. They are not on the side of good. IMHO.

In 2019, Facebook were ordered to pay a fine of $5 billion for privacy violations after the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data breach. This sounds like a lot of money, but the fine was described by observers as ‘a favour … a parking ticket’, ‘a mosquito bite’ and ‘a Christmas present five months early’. For scale, between 2016, when the worst effects of the data breach took hold, and 2019, when the fine was announced, Facebook increased their annual revenue by more than $43 billion.

Secondly, a terms of service update in 2016 gave existing users an ‘opt-out’ from the automatic sharing of their Whatsapp metadata with the rest of the Facebook corporation. Of course, this doubt/hope is only relevant if you joined Whatsapp before 2016. If you joined the corporation after 2016, then your metadata is already at the mercy of Facebook’s rapacious appetite.

Side bar: If you want to find out whether you took advantage of this opt-out, then you’ll need to request your account information by going to Settings > Account > Request account info. It takes a few days.

Facebook have said that they will continue to ‘honour’ this 2016 opt-out. But what does that mean? And can we trust Facebook to act on honour? Not if history is any guide: in 2018, when GDPR law came into effect in the EU, the corporation simply moved 1.5 billion non-EU Facebook accounts to servers outside the new privacy law’s jurisdiction. Facebook aren’t the only surveillance corporation to do this, by the way: LinkedIn did the same.

Thirdly, on 8 December last year, the US Federal Trade Commission and 46 of the US states launched an antitrust lawsuit arguing that Facebook’s acquisition of Whatsapp and Instagram has created a monopoly in social networking. The plaintiffs hope to force the Facebook corporation to break up again into smaller companies. This, they say, will be for the good of consumer choice—not, you’ll note, for the good of consumer privacy. The business model of selling our data is not under threat.

But how long will that lawsuit take? And, even if it’s successful, why would an independent Instagram and Whatsapp take any less of a surveillance capitalist attitude to our data? If you want to learn more about this lawsuit, BBC Sounds Briefing Room has a 28 minute discussion of Facebook’s ‘monopoly problem’.

Things you can do now

I think that’s enough exploration of the terrain. What can we do right now?

1. Delete Whatsapp, obviously

A lot of people, including me, have been trying alternative messaging apps recently. Signal has been the primary beneficiary of the great Whatsapp stink, becoming at times the second most downloaded app on the Apple App Store.

Signal is everything that we fooled ourselves into believing Whatsapp was: a totally secure messaging app with no ifs, no buts. Signal has all the features of Whatsapp—groups, video calling, voice notes—without any of the leaky surveillance data.

Simply put: none of us need Whatsapp and we should all leave today.

Of course, it’s not as easy as that. A messaging app is only as good as its user base—but that’s exactly why we should all install Signal, even if we continue to use Whatsapp during the transition.

I appreciate that, for some people, deleting Whatsapp is akin to having a surgical lobotomy and removing half a decade of memories. Luckily, we can save these memories. There are two steps to archiving your entire Whatsapp history:

  1. Save all of your downloaded Whatsapp photos, video and voice notes in one fell swoop by copying the Whatsapp Media folder from your phone to your computer. (Yeah, I’m amazed how insecure this is too!)
  2. Export the text content of your messages by going to Whatsapp Settings > Chats > Chat History > Export Chat. There’s no need to download the media files again because you did that in step one. However, because the text content is encrypted, you’ll need to do this second step manually for each of the individual or group chats that you want to save.

If you’re struggling with saving your message history, digital human rights organisation Witness wrote an excellent guide: How to export content from WhatsApp. If this process is too laborious for you, then all I can say is that I appreciate it can be hard to let go, but that there is also beauty in ephemera. Let it go.

I know that some people can’t be bothered to run multiple messaging apps. If you find that your friends are split across different platforms, like mine are, then Documentally recommends we embrace the diversity and ‘live in notifications’.

What does that mean? Typically, a message alert appears in your phone’s notification bar and tapping on that alert will automatically open whichever app the message came through. So it shouldn’t matter if you have one messaging app or twenty-seven: you access the messages in the same way, through notifications.

(BONUS: Using your phone in this way should also reduce the number of times you open your apps ‘just in case’ someone’s messaged.)

It’s worth saying here that, if you have a Facebook or Instagram account, then I genuinely don’t know how much you personally will gain from deleting Whatsapp alone. Whatsapp’s metadata merely compounds the surveillance operation led by those two other broad spectrum spying tools.

However, by installing Signal you will certainly be helping your friends who want to divest from the Facebook corporation altogether. And we really appreciate good neighbours!

2. Use different web browsers for different surveillance corporations

This is what security expert Rob Braxman calls ‘browser isolation’. Surveillance corporations collect their data using your unique browser fingerprint, so by using different browsers to isolate the various surveillance corporations, we can restrict the reach of their spying algorithms.

The two major surveillance corporations are Facebook and Google, so for Braxman that would mean we need three different web browsers:

  1. Google Chrome for nothing except our Google apps—Youtube, Gmail, Google Docs, Google Drive and so on. (Incidentally, Braxman suggests using DuckDuckGo for search, rather than Google.)
  2. A completely different browser for nothing but Facebook corporation apps—Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp. (Worth saying: Braxman strongly advises deleting all your Facebook accounts!)
  3. A third browser for everything else—Braxman suggests a clean install of Firefox.

Note that this protection only extends to desktop or laptop computers. Mobile devices, including tablets, are more complicated—not least because most Android devices are locked into Google’s surveillance engine.

3. Get a burner phone to run Whatsapp

Sadly, there are more mobiles in the UK than there are people—I’ve got three phones myself! Use that waste to your advantage: either you or a friend will have an old smartphone or tablet knocking around. Use that old smartphone or tablet to run Whatsapp and Whatsapp only.

Here is where I get a little out of my depth in terms of surveillance knowledge. At the moment, I run Whatsapp on my old smartphone without a SIM card installed. Day to day, I rarely carry my smartphone around—so how much data am I leaking to Whatsapp? But I do also use the Whatsapp Web client on my laptop—how much data does that leak? I don’t know.

Safer perhaps would be to get hold of a cheap SIM card and set up Whatsapp with a dumbphone. Some dumbphones, like the Nokia 2723 or 8110, can even run Whatsapp on the device. But with these you’ll be restricted to the hard-to-type keypad because there’s no way of scanning the QR code needed to launch the Whatsapp Web client on your computer.

You could, however, use an Android emulator like Bluestacks to use Whatsapp on your computer. It’s nowhere near as user friendly as the Whatsapp Web client and, again, I don’t know how much data would leak from your computer.

Is there a clever workaround involving putting your burner SIM card into a smartphone, setting up Whatsapp Web, and then transferring the burner SIM back to the dumbphone? Possibly, but I very much doubt it because the Whatsapp Web client is only a mirror of the Whatsapp app on your phone.

It’s worth saying that Whatsapp regularly drop support for older phones. At the moment, the app won’t work with iPhones 1-4 and Android phones released before 2010, for example.

Again, these burner phone options are only really worth exploring if you don’t have a Facebook or Instagram account. If you have other Facebook corporation products, then Whatsapp is the least of your problems—the tip of your data profit iceberg.

4. Uninstall Whatsapp without deleting your account

This is what I did when I went on my Catswold Way walk before Christmas. Four days of blissful radio silence.

It’s a great option to test leaving the platform and I found it completely pain-free:

  1. Take a backup of your Whatsapp account: Settings > Chats > Chat Backup. You can store the backup either locally on your device or encrypted in the cloud using Google Drive.
  2. Delete the app.
  3. Enjoy an indefinite period of surveillance-free life.

If you want to advise people that you’re going offline, you can—or you can change your profile status to something helpful, like, I dunno, maybe: ‘OH MY GOD WE’RE ALL BEING SPIED ON ALL THE TIME’.

When you’re ready to return, reinstall the app, restore the backup and you’re good to go. Let the surveillance resume!

A couple of warnings if you want to try this. I’m not a huge user of Whatsapp, but after four days of absence I came back to 235 unread messages (although more than half of them were from one group). Also: an unknown number of messages sent during my offline period didn’t get delivered to me afterwards and I don’t know why.

See you on Signal

Phew—I told you this was long! Hopefully you found something useful here. If you have any questions, you can reply to this email or find me on Signal.

Many thanks to the Jolly Rogers, Documentally and B.G. for the creative discussions that inspired this article.

UPDATE: Your questions are answered on The Great Whatsapp Stink Q&A.

The $3 Stories of Mr Aki Ra

A colonnade at Angkor Wat, the City of Temples, in Northwest Cambodia (2001)

Back in the summer of 2001, I spent a week exploring the temple complex at Angkor Wat. It was a short scooter ride from where we stayed in a village on the outskirts of Siem Reap.

Side note: For many years, I treasured an amber ring that my Cambodian scooter-guide had given me as a parting gift to celebrate our ‘marriage’—until a girlfriend accidentally, symbolically, smashed it, more, she protested, in play than in anger.

If you enjoy wandering around ancient ‘rems’ and wondering on the lives of our ancestors, then there is scarcely a better place on earth than the temples of Angkor.

But I’m here to talk about a more modern type of ruin.

Human skulls at the Killing Fields, Cambodia (2001)

All but essential

I was in Cambodia only a year and a half after the final surrender and dissolution of the Khmer Rouge—the party, led by Pol Pot, that perpetrated the genocide of about two million people in the 1970s.

Before I left the safety of Bangkok, my dad suggested that I look at the UK Government guidance on travel to Cambodia. It advised against all but essential travel.

My response was to rig up a DIY money belt, which promptly fell off in the streets of Phnom Penh, leaving me with no money and no credit card. The absurdity of this precaution was made embarrassingly apparent when I returned to Phnom Penh after my tour of the temples, and someone ran up to me in the street and handed back my wallet.

I haven’t paid much attention to UK Government advice ever since.

Nevertheless, the Cambodia I found in 2001 wasn’t exactly a haven of political stability. It was only three years since the death of Pol Pot. Two and half since two former Khmer Rouge generals made a ‘perfunctory’ apology for the genocide. And only two years since the capture of Ta Mok, the last of the unrepentant Khmer Rouge leadership, a man known prettily as The Butcher.

These final death throes of the Khmer Rouge genocidalists were overseen by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who himself only retained his position thanks to a coup d’état in 1997. Incidentally, but perhaps not surprisingly, Hun Sen still holds the reins of power.

In 2001, it was in no way obvious that Cambodia would steer clear of the violence that characterised so much of the history of the region in the twentieth century.

World War II: the forgotten 45 years

Geographically, Cambodia is cradled for over 1,000km by her neighbour, Vietnam. Only 200km separates the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, and Vietnam’s most populous city, Ho Chi Minh City.

The Vietnam War is well remembered in the West because of the tragic invasions and occupations of the French and US militaries between 1946 and 1975.

Cambodia is the forgotten victim here: between 1969 and 1973, the US Airforce dropped at least half a million tons of bombs on the country, making it ‘one of the most heavily-bombarded countries in history’, exceeding the Allied bombardment of Germany during World War Two.

But just because exogenous armies eventually left Vietnam and Cambodia, doesn’t mean that violence in the region was over, merely that what followed is less well remembered—despite this next phase of conflict matching or even exceeding the Vietnam War casualties.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia and launched their systematic genocide. In 1978, the Vietnamese military invaded. A ceasefire was only agreed in 1991—well within the bounds of living memory for this author, and a mere ten years before my visit to the country.

For Southeast Asia, the Second World War didn’t end until Bryan Adams was top of the charts and another four million people had died.

The horror of the conflict is remembered at the Cambodian Landmine Museum, set up on the outskirts of Siem Reap City by a former child soldier, a man who fought on all sides of the war and who now works clearing the mines he once helped to lay: Mr Aki Ra.

Introducing Mr Aki Ra

I confess that I was in Cambodia for ancient history, not bleeding history. But one evening, in the garden of the small guesthouse where I was staying, I got chatting to a young couple, who urged me to take a trip into the more recent past and to visit Mr Aki Ra.

Mr Aki Ra opened his museum in 1999 and filled it with all the military junk that he found while clearing some of Cambodia’s untold millions of landmines.

I had many guns such as AK47s, Kalashnikovs, M16s, M60s, small pistols, machine guns and large rifles. I had rocket launchers, mortars, grenades, gas masks, CS gas canisters, bombs and even uniforms. On one occasion, I found napalm but it was too heavy for me to carry alone so I had to leave it.

Surrounded by his collection of decommissioned weaponry, Mr Aki Ra offers visitors an inconvenient juxtaposition to the peace and tranquillity of the monuments of Angkor.

I have always lived in Siem Reap province in Northwest Cambodia and have spent most of my life surrounded by guns, artillery and most of all, the horrors of the landmine.

Not long ago, he explains, the temples we coo over were live military bases. The Khmer Rouge held the famous jungle-invested Ta Prohm, while the Vietnamese set up in Angkor Wat itself.

The Vietnamese were responsible for destroying many of the precious statues in and around the Angkor Wat area as they used to take potshots at them when they were bored. They looted many ancient and valuable artefacts from the temples and they have never been found.

Suitably chastened, I paid $3 for a stapled-together 17-page pamphlet of Mr Aki Ra’s stories. It’s those stories that I’d like to share with you today, finally fulfilling a promise that I made twenty years ago.

The stories of Mr Aki Ra

The $3 stories of Mr Aki Ra

After both his parents were killed when he was about five years old, Aki Ra was brought up as an orphan soldier of the Khmer Rouge. Everyone lived in a state of ‘virtual starvation’ and Aki Ra remembers sneaking out of camp to catch insects to eat.

It was a midnight feast that not everyone survived.

My friend went to the pig trough and stole some scraps and quickly ate them. The next morning, when the Khmer Rouge were carrying out their usual faeces check, they noticed that one lot was different from the others and asked who it belonged to. My friend said that it was the pigs, but there were tell tale child’s footprints beside it and the Khmer rouge accused the child of lying and killed him.

Villagers were encouraged to betray their neighbours and those accused of any petty crime ‘would have their throats slit very slowly with palm fronds’ while the rest of the village was forced to cheer and clap the murder.

To the Khmer Rouge, life was cheap and they did not care who lived or died during their years of brutality.

Primary education

When he was about ten, the Khmer Rouge gave Aki Ra his first AK47, a weapon almost bigger than he was. He was also taught how to fire rocket launchers, lay mines and make simple bombs.

In a way, these weapons were like toys to us children and we used to play games with them. Some small children were not familiar with guns and the Khmer Rouge would give them loaded guns with the safety pin off. One of my friends shot himself in the head accidentally because he did not understand how the gun worked.

The Khmer Rouge taught Aki Ra only one letter of the Khmer alphabet per week.

They had my innocence in their hands and were able to warp it any way they chose. I thought that the whole world existed like we did and the brutality and hardship, the starvation and all the guns, became my normal world.

At an age when I was making the transition from Primary to Secondary School, Aki Ra was captured at gunpoint by the Vietnamese army and conscripted to fight his former overlords.

Secondary education

By this time, both the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge armies were desperate for recruits and started to treat people better. The Vietnamese promised Aki Ra good food and money, as well as rank and power.

But life with the Vietnamese wasn’t so different: the soldiers were still hungry, constantly scratching around for food. Many times, Aki Ra would have to pee into a bag of rice to soften the grains for eating.

At this point, I still knew nothing of what was going on the outside world and continued to imagine that this kind of life was normal.

When he was fourteen, Aki Ra’s unit found themselves outnumbered by Khmer Rouge fighters and had to run for their lives.

While we were running, we dropped ammunition from the magazines of our AK47s onto the ground. These appeared to be loaded with ammunition. However, we had added poison to the bullets so that when the guns were consequently fired, they would give off a toxic gas. We later returned to find the Khmer Rouge choking on the poisonous fumes and we killed them all.

There were no rules of engagement: each side did whatever they must in order to kill and survive.

I was very lucky during all my time spent with the various different armies and had many lucky escapes.

Learning a trade

In 1993, a United Nations peacekeeping force arrived in Siem Reap and Aki Ra answered their call for people to start clearing the fields of landmines. He remembers his astonishment on visiting Siem Reap city for the first time:

When the UN put a huge cinema screen up in the town, the people came to wonder at the film. When the cars and tanks moved on the screen, many people ran away as they thought that they were going to come right off the screen into the audience.

Landmines were used on both sides of the war in Cambodia and, being small and light, were especially suited for armies of child soldiers.

Many people between the years 1984 and 1990 were killed or injured by landmines. The hospitals were far away and there were few civilians or soldiers who had first-aid knowledge to help.

The quantity of unexploded ordinance left in the country is hard to even estimate. In the first six months of 2020, according to the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, more than 20,000 explosive devices were found and destroyed.

In his stories of landmine explosions, Aki Ra paints a picture of terrifying randomness, tragically paired with desperate corruption.

It was […] common for villages to have to make huge payments to the Vietnamese army, if a family member or their animals stepped on and detonated a mine.

A landmine explosion is usually enough to rip off a leg, but often not enough to kill someone. If the victim survives, then they face a lifetime of torture—not only from the physical wounds, but from the wounds inflicted by society.

Many of the soldiers who were victims of mines were evicted from the army and then left to find badly-paid jobs, such as road cleaning. Many resort to begging to this day.

Making this country safe for its people

Since the 1990s, Mr Aki Ra has had only one ambition in life: to make his country safe for its people.

There are still hundreds of people killed or injured every year by landmines, many of them civilians working in the fields who come across them while clearing the land.

Profits from Aki Ra’s museum go towards funding his landmine clearance NGO and supporting children who, like him, have become orphans.

Despite an ambitious government target for the country to be landmine-free by 2025, Aki Ra thinks it will take 50-100 years to find and clear every single mine.

You can help us by informing people in your country about the problems we face in Cambodia and hopefully we will eventually get enough support to assist us to speed up making this country safe for its people.

In 2018, Mr Aki Ra was arrested and the museum shut down. Despite his protests that the weapons were all perfectly safe, the authorities suspected that he was building a private arsenal.

Luckily, he avoided a conviction and I’m pleased to report that, today, Mr Aki Ra is still out there, clearing landmines.

~

You can read more of Mr Aki Ra’s stories on the website of his NGO: Cambodian Self Help Demining.

The Solidarity Files

It’s December, which means that many people are thinking about making charitable donations. As you’ll know if you’ve been following closely, I really don’t like to call my financial donations ‘charity’. I much prefer the word ‘solidarity’.

This shift in vocabulary leads to an interesting shift in mindset that opens up potentially more impactful uses for my money. Many groups doing great work can’t afford (in money, time, privilege or expertise) to become official charities, but they have as great if not greater need for donations.

1. Cooking On Gas

Wednesday was Khora’s birthday. To celebrate, I bought them a month’s worth of gas.

What the hell am I talking about? Re-e-wind.

This week, Khora Community Kitchen celebrated one whole year of its latest incarnation. The kitchen couldn’t have re-opened at a more critical time and has continued to serve a thousand meals a day to refugees, migrants and people in need living through lockdown in Athens, Greece.

A thousand meals a day doesn’t come for free, of course. Funded by solidarity donations from across the world, Khora gives everyone the chance to contribute by chipping in for cooking oil, vegetables or even a month’s worth of gas—‘You buy the food, we serve the meals.’

You can help Khora by buying them washing up liquid (€4), tea for a day (€10) or bread for a week (€100) in their online ‘store’.

It’s a remarkable project that you can now see for yourself in this epic video of Kareem and the crew preparing Palestinian maqluba (mmm!) for about 950 people. You can also follow them on Instagram or Facebook.

2. Happy Anachistmas!

You might have seen the wonderful Dope magazine being sold by street vendors around the UK. If you haven’t, then it’s basically a better version of The Big Issue (better for readers, better for the vendors), but it’s not a charity—and deliberately so.

Dope is completely free for vendors and the vendors keep all of the £3 cover price. The writing, design, printing and distribution of Dope is funded by solidarity contributions on Patreon and people buying copies of the magazine directly from publisher Dog Section Press.

In contrast, The Big Issue costs vendors £1.25 and they make only £1.25 profit per issue sold. The Big Issue makes a big noise about how their 1500 vendors made £5.5m in profits last year, but that’s only £3,700 for each vendor on average—nowhere near enough money to even begin to think about a life off the streets. And, with a 50/50 profit share, it means that The Big Issue itself made £5.5m in profits.

This is not to say that The Big Issue are necessarily doing bad things with that money—I honestly have no idea—only that they could be helping people much more directly. If Dope had similar distribution and sales, vendors would be making an average of £8,800 each. Now, this is not a fortune for anyone, but it is just enough money for vendors to support themselves, on the streets or off.

Vive la solidarité!

What about you? I’d love to hear of any other non-charity contributions that this little newsletter community makes or would recommend.

What do brains and politics have in common?

According to research from the University of Haifa, the discovery of creative solutions is a collaboration between two very different parts of the brain. One brain region is responsible for original ideas; the other for assessing whether the idea is realistic.

The ability of the brain to operate these two regions in parallel is what results in creativity. It is possible that the most sublime creations of humanity were produced by people who had an especially strong connection between the two regions.

It struck me that the sociopolitical breakdown between supposed ‘idealists’ and ‘realists’ is a tension embedded in our own individual brains.

When there isn’t what the researchers call a ‘strong connection’ between the associative and the conservative regions of our minds, our ideas aren’t as creative as they could be.

Likewise, when the idealist and realist sides of a society aren’t strongly connected, then that society’s political ideas aren’t as creative as they could be. And we all suffer.

~

After fighting on the losing side during the 2016 EU Referendum, political campaigner Eddie Barnes became interested in how we can form stronger, more collaborative connections between people with radically opposed politics.

Politics will always divide people; indeed, division is necessary in a functioning democracy.

Barnes argues that mature democracies divide in ‘mostly civil ways’ because citizens on either side of the chasm have a ‘basic emotional and empathetic grasp of how the other side thinks and feels’.

If that’s the basic requirement for a ‘mature’ democracy, then the UK is definitely a screaming, sulking, stomping adolescent.

~

But Barnes is optimistic that we can find a way back to creative collaboration. He works for Our Scottish Future, a think tank founded by Gordon Brown that was (until Covid-19 intervened) trialling ‘community assemblies’ of citizens with very different political world views.

These assemblies were designed to help people understand each other and move past their differences to find solutions acceptable to everyone.

One element of each assembly involved having to listen to another person for 90 seconds without interrupting. … It was intriguing to see people’s surprise that they shared common priorities and values with each other. We also witnessed groups reaching fresh conclusions about how to navigate some of our thorniest problems.

~

This, of course, all sounds very familiar: the community assembly is a basic unit of anarchist decision-making.

I, like many others, was first taught the principles of anarchist decision-making by creative, collaborative activists from the feminist movement. And I have seen these ideas working in practice everywhere from the streets of Cairo to the steps of Saint Paul’s.

Now—lo and behold—Our Scottish Future have also found that these open assemblies are much better at bridging political divides than either ignoring or shouting at each other.

There is hope—and I couldn’t offer up a more striking image for this hope than asking you to imagine one half of your brain as Gordon Brown and the other half as a band of anarchists.

Creative, collaborative decision-making facilitated by Codepink activists in Cairo, 2009

This piece was written using a process I learned on the Ness Labs Content to Creator course.

Trespassers Welcome

From The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes

The majority of the English countryside is out of bounds for most of its population. 92% of the countryside and 97% of rivers are off limits to the public.

Private Keep Out signs are a personal hatred of mine. In England, we forget that private ownership of the land is an abomination in most of the rest of the world.

Private ownership without allowance for public access is the deoxygenated water in the poisoned pond that we swim in: so ubiquitous that we don’t even know what we’re doing to ourselves.

But there are other ponds. And we can clean our own water. Even in Scotland, public access to private land is a right enshrined in law.

Nick Hayes is an illustrator and writer who has recently published The Book of Trespass, which charts the human stories, history and politics of land enclosure. At its heart is a passionate campaign to extend the Right to Roam in England, currently under threat from the Conservative Party who want to make trespass a criminal offence punishable with imprisonment.

If that happens, then I don’t know how many of our outdoor adventures would end in gaol time, but probably about 92 percent. 97 percent if you like to swim, paddle or kayak.

If, like me, you have found sanctuary in our countryside during the pandemic, then please join the campaign.

During lockdown, perhaps the issue of crowded parks and footpaths was not so much people flouting the rules, but very simply the lack of space available to people taking their daily exercise. Covid-19 has demonstrated that access to space is very visibly, very viscerally, linked to social wellbeing.

The Shock and The Reason

In this postmodern, information age of imagination, the pandemic is a confrontation with realities—both the one we have created over the past fifty years and the one that was always there, bleeding behind the screens.

The reality we simulate

In The Utopia of Rules, David Graeber described an historical shift since the 1970s in the development of technology, away from physical objects and towards simulated projects:

What technological progress we have seen since the seventies has largely been in information technologies—that is, technologies of simulation. They are technologies of what Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco used to call the ‘hyper-real’—the ability to make imitations more realistic than the original.

If you doubt the essential truth of this broad assertion, then consider your life in 2020. Many of your human activities, I’m sure, have been reduced to their simulations:

  • WFH instead of with colleagues in the office
  • Email instead of love letters
  • Dating apps instead of meeting strangers
  • Sport, drama, comedy on television instead of in the crowd
  • Video calls instead of birthday parties
  • Emojis instead of touch

These simulations are only possible because of the development of information technologies. They’re not the real thing, but they’re the best we can do at the moment and I’m sure many of us are very grateful.

But these simulations didn’t come out of nowhere. As Graeber continues:

The technologies that emerged were in almost every case the kind that proved most conducive to surveillance, work discipline, and social control. … Information technology has allowed a financialisation of capital that has driven workers ever more desperately into debt, while, at the same time, allowed employers to create new ‘flexible’ work regimes that have destroyed traditional job security and led to a massive increase in overall working hours for almost all segments of the population.

The evolution of this society has been like boiling the proverbial frog: change has been so gradual that few people notice until it’s too late.

But this year, without warning, the hyper-real dropped the ‘hyper’ and became pretty much the only reality left to us. This abrupt shift to a life entirely mediated through screens has confronted us with what, perhaps, we might otherwise have forgotten.

The reality that bleeds

Conspiracy theories notwithstanding, Covid-19 is caused by a virus—a virus with what I’ll call a ‘bleeding reality’.

The virus is no simulation. It is not a threat that leaps out at us from behind a screen, like bankruptcy, trolling or slow broadband. It is a real and present danger of the kind that, in wealthy societies, we are not used to confronting, personally, daily.

The threat of pandemic has shown us our direction of travel, from bleeding to simulated reality. It’s zipped us to the end of the hyper-real and asked, Do you really want this? When bleeding reality is stripped away, what are you left with?

It’s the same discombobulation caused by technological revolution, as described by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto of the Communist Party:

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

It took millennia for physicians to dream the idea that intangible viruses could kill humans. Funny that something we can’t see, smell, taste or touch should be what cuts through the imaginary play of light to show us what is real.

The Shock and The Reason

The pandemic has shown us that bleeding reality still matters deeply, and in a way that the simulated worlds of surveillance capitalism never will.

We hear of a vaccine and realise that real science matters. We read a book and realise that real art matters. We climb a tree or swim a river and realise that real nature matters. We sit alone in our houses and realise that real community matters, and that fairness, justice and equality really do matter too.

Your life isn’t meaningless. It’s not postmodern or ironic. It is real. Your life matters, desperately.

The pandemic has been a shock, but that shock has helped us come to our senses. As Marcel Proust wrote:

Some moments after the shock, my intelligence, which like the sound of thunder travels less rapidly, taught me the reason.

Shankly’s Life and Death Food banks not football

This might look like a story about football, but it’s not. It’s a political parable with a footballing backdrop.

Misquotes

Folkloric Liverpool Football Club manager Bill Shankly once said:

Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.

Except he didn’t. He didn’t say that at all. What he actually said was:

Somebody said that football’s a matter of life and death to you. I said, ‘Listen, it’s more important than that.’

And this line was not—as is so often assumed—a piece of swaggering braggadocio delivered at the height of his championship-winning fame. This was Shankly speaking four months before his death and expressing an intense regret that he’d put football above even his own family.

Watch this short clip for a sense of the man’s passion for football—and the sincerity of his regret he’d allowed it to overwhelm everything else in his life.

Breaking the holy trinity

According to the COVID Symptom Study, the city of Liverpool currently has a COVID-19 incidence rate of about 1.6 percent—about double the rate of southern England, where I’m writing from.

It was bad enough to put Liverpool into tier three local lockdown ten days ago. Pubs and bars are closed and residents must not socialise with others outside their household or support bubble.

There are more important things in life and death than watching live sport, but football fans can’t watch the game in stadiums, they can’t watch on a big screen down the pub and now they can’t even have their mates over to watch Liverpool on the telly.

It’s in this environment that nineteen of the twenty Premier League clubs (credit to Leicester City) decided, together with broadcasters BT Sport and Sky Sports, to start charging additional one-off fees for a total of 150 league matches.

The Pay Per View charge of £14.95 per game comes on top of the cost of television subscription services, on top of the cost of season tickets, on top of the cost of the pandemic and on top of desperate—and pre-COVID—deprivation in Liverpool.

According to a 2018 parliamentary research briefing, nearly 30 percent of children in Liverpool were living in poverty. In 2019, Liverpool was ranked as the third most deprived Local Authority in England.

One neighbourhood is ranked inside the top ten most deprived in England. That neighbourhood is a five minute walk from Anfield, the home of Liverpool Football Club.

Liverpool 019C, according to government statistics, the tenth most deprived neighbourhood in England

The Pay Per View scandal reminds me of one of Bill Shankly’s slightly less famous quotes:

At a football club, there’s a holy trinity—the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don’t come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques.

How times change.

Choosing a different direction

Times might change, but collective action can still dictate its direction.

Last Saturday, Liverpool played a game against Sheffield United. I won’t mention the score, because, as Shankly was trying to say, some things are more important than football.

The match was significant because it was Liverpool’s first that was only legally available on a Pay Per View subscription. But it was a night when fans chose a different direction.

Fans Supporting Food Banks (FSFB) is a joint initiative launched in 2015 by rival fans of the two Premier League clubs in Liverpool, Everton and Liverpool, to fight food poverty in the city. For the past five years, FSFB been responsible for about a quarter of all food bank donations in Liverpool. It’s a story that belies the narrative of the brainless, chauvinistic football fan.

FSFB and Liverpool fan groups, including the Spirit of Shankly Supporters Trust, urged Liverpool fans to divert their Pay Per View subscription to food bank fundraising. Rather than pay £14.95 to watch Saturday’s game on Pay Per View, fans who wanted to support people, not profiteers, helped FSFB raise over £125,000 for food banks in Liverpool.

This isn’t an isolated case. The weekend before, Leeds fans raised £57,000—doubling annual food bank donations in only five days. In protest at the Pay Per View game before that, Newcastle fans raised more than £60,000.

Almost every supporters group in the country has put their voice behind the boycott and so far football fans have raised over £300,000 for desperate people in their communities.

Liverpool Football Club have given me a lot to be meaninglessly proud about, over the last two years in particular; it’s nice to feel proud about something meaningful now too.

Food banks: a Tory problem

Of course, it’s not the responsibility of the Premier League, the football clubs or the supporters to feed people who are struggling due to the erosion of the social fabric of human society. Another organisation already has that job: the government.

According to the Independent Food Bank Study, food banks are a ‘post-2010 phenomenon’. Coincidentally, that is the very year that the Conservative Party first came to power.

A decade after David Cameron first pushed open the door to Number 10, food banks are giving away millions of meals to people who are struggling to support themselves. In many cases this is because of failures in the benefit system—but the primary reason people are referred to food banks is because of low income: they have jobs, but the wages don’t cover their diets.

This is data from 2019, before the pandemic, which, according to Scotland’s independent food banks, has already doubled demand.

So no: it’s not the responsibility of the supporters to help feed their fellow humans, except insofar as the supporters are also citizens, who will take responsibility. That’s what human beings do when they see other people struggling around them, especially after hearing their elected government throw off responsibility, not with excuses, but with insults.

This doesn’t merely belie the popular image of the selfish, loutish football fan; it belies the Conservative death wish that society is best served by individuals and families looking out for themselves. That individualist, familial model doesn’t work. And the strength of its cooperative alternative has been amply demonstrated, in this case, by the most tribal section of modern society: its football fanatics.

Common cause

The government, the Capitalist Media and even the club owners themselves like to forget that football, even the multi-billion pound business of Premier League football, is first and foremost a community event. That’s why the teams have names like Liverpool and Everton (a district of Liverpool) and not names like Standard Chartered FC and Nike FC.

Anfield Stadium is a community building, set in a neighbourhood of ordinary terraced housing on Anfield Road. Look: a middle-aged bald man loads up his van, a white hatchback parks on double yellow lines, someone opens a window to air their living room on a pale spring morning.

This is Anfield. Terraced housing on Anfield Road, neighbouring Liverpool Football Club. (Google Streetview)

Everybody knows that there is a lot of money in football, but most of it is tapped from its millions of supporters. So if the Premier League clubs and broadcasters won’t do the right thing, then football fans must—and will.

In the past couple of days there have been signs that the Premier League and broadcasters might decide to reduce the swingeing price tag of the PPV subscriptions. It’s bad for their image, they say, and the viewing figures have been ‘disastrous’.

I’m sure it’s already too late.

More than most, football fans know what can happen when thousands of people are united behind a common cause—the team wins trophies. Now we have seen what can happen when thousands of people are united behind a common political cause—food banks filled, families fed, governments shamed, politicians held to account and fans radicalised.

Communities taking charge

I said at the top that this might look like a story about football. It’s not, of course. The stage scenery is football, but what we have here is a story of a community taking charge when they have been failed by central government. It’s a story that inspires others to take seize power in their own communities and use the collective will to do the right thing.

Other managers won more trophies, but Bill Shankly, a socialist, holds a special place in Liverpool folklore for building the football club on the solid rock of its community. A football club is only as strong as its supporters; a nation is only as strong as its neighbourhoods.

Together we can do the right thing when our government is wrong; together we can lead when our government is feckless. As Shankly might have said:

Politicians don’t come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques.

Addendum

By the way, I have no problem with footballers making millions of pounds from their short careers. The money is obscene, of course, but I’d start by pointing the finger elsewhere.

According to the 2019 Global Sports Salary Survey, the average annual salary for a Premier League footballer—the best of the best, in other words—is £3.1 million. That’s still less than the average annual salary of the ‘best of the best’ businessmen in the UK—FTSE 100 CEOs—who are paid 117 times more than the average worker earns in their businesses.

And, of course, a top CEO might spend 20 years earning that kind of salary, with another couple of decades at lucrative positions lower down the ladder too. A top footballer is lucky if their entire career, from teenage star to journeyman pro, lasts 15.

Footballers, by and large, are working class men and women who couldn’t afford to buy their way onto the top table. And, unlike the executives who herd into high paying jobs from a place of privilege, Premier League footballers bring joy to millions all over the world.

That football’s highest earners—Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and Trent Alexander-Arnold to name but three—are using their position to lead conversations around social justice shows that they too understand that their strength is the strength of the community.

A message from a refugee stuck in the Napier Barracks

This heart-rending message was written by a young Iranian man I met in Samos last year. I first met Nima when he was volunteering at a restaurant that helped to feed hundreds of other refugees trapped on the Greek island.

Nima already had his travel documents: he could have left Samos any time. But he was prepared to wait months and months for the bureaucracy to approve papers for his best friend, Omid, so that they could travel onwards together.

Omid and Nima were inseparable. Brothers in a world without family.

The day before I left Samos last October, Omid was granted his papers. They celebrated with a dinner party in the restaurant. A moment of hope on an island of despair.

A year passed. Omid and Nima finally reached London, as they’d always promised, together.

It was in London where I was given the freedom and opportunity to feel normal again. After all this time I felt like a human, no different from every other human.

Normality was brief. A few days ago, Nima was thrown into a camp called Napier Barracks.

Alone.

The only thing I asked for was for Omid to come with me. Don’t leave me alone. Please. We made it this far, together. Why wouldn’t we continue together? It’s not my journey. It’s our journey. And doing it without him translates into emptiness. An emptiness that doesn’t fit inside me.

Falling profits for climbing

My local climbing centre, The Project in Poole, is back open—huzzah! There’s only one snag in the celebrations: because of the pandemic, they’re running at an unsustainable loss. Hm.

Government Covid-19 safety guidelines dictate that they can ‘only’ have 155 people climbing in the centre at any one time. Which would be totally fine, but climbing is dangerous enough as it is without adding a high risk of catching and spreading the virus.

Even before Covid-19, the capacity of the centre was ‘only’ around 150 people. I’ve been there when there’s been about 100 people fighting for wall space and I can tell you it is FULL. To be precise: it’s an elbows-out jostling bunfight. Not what you want in a global pandemic.

So, after boggling their minds at the fanciful government guidelines, the team running the centre got together and decided that 60 climbers could sensibly enjoy the walls while preserving a safe distance from others. 60—that’s less than half the government figure!

But this means that The Project is running at about 60 percent of their usual business—poof—there goes their profit margin.

So why are they open at all? The manager shrugs: ‘Well, at least we’re all back climbing, aren’t we?’ And he’s goddamn right: there aren’t many other places still open for people to go and let off steam (and, in my case, dislocate their shoulders).

It made me wonder: how many thousands of small, community-minded businesses like The Project are running at a loss simply because the fabric of society is built on small businesses with small profit margins?

Unless we speak to the people running our favourite places, we might not realise what’s really going on because, superficially, ‘we’re all back climbing again’. But that’s plaster work over foundational cracks.

We need these places more than ever; let’s back them more than ever.

Britain: Dope Capital of the World

Possession of cannabis for personal use is illegal in the United Kingdom—OBVIOUSLY. Our doctors can’t even prescribe it for proven medical use—OBVIOUSLY.

So it’s perhaps surprising to learn that the UK is the world’s biggest producer and exporter of legal cannabis. Say whaat!

Oh yes: we’re not messing around. We are the big boys.

According to the 2020 International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) technical report, the UK produces no less than three quarters of the world’s legal cannabis—289.5 tonnes in 2018, the last year for which we have data. Dopey old Netherlands, by contrast, produced a measly 10.2 tonnes.

We are Steppenwolf’s poetic vision:

You know the dealer, the dealer is a man
With the love grass in his hand

That’s us. We’re dealing a whopping 75 percent of the love grass.

If you’re wondering why Britain grows so much cannabis when we have one of the most restrictive legal structures on its use in the world, then all I can tell you is that, apparently, cannabis seed makes good bird feed.

In 2018, the UK also produced 2.3kg of psilocin—the active compound found in magic mushrooms. The INCB called this ‘the largest quantity of the substance ever manufactured in a given year’.

Needless to say, psilocin—along with all the other psychedelic compounds, including ones that grow in our fields around this time of year—is stupidly illegal. Picking and sharing the wrong kind of mushrooms with your friends is the most illegal thing you can do in this country, short of murder.

If you’re starting to get annoyed that our government is saying one thing to its citizens and then doing the complete opposite behind our backs, well, hold up, soldier. Maybe that’s a good thing.

There are some things that for some reason (I’m looking at you, Daily Mail readers) are ‘politically impossible’ for our governments to achieve. The decriminalisation of cannabis is one such.

The most popular illegal drug in the country was briefly downgraded in illegality from Class B to Class C under a Labour government in 2004—a decision that was labelled a ‘mistake’ and reversed by the same politicians in 2009. This despite the fact that the science and hospital admissions show that, as a compound, cannabis is much less dangerous than alcohol.

So it’s kind of nice to know that, behind the headlines, politicians are secretly doing the ‘politically impossible’ anyway. It’s just a shame that, for a taste of Great British dope, we have to go abroad.

P.S. This week Future Crunch pulled this story out of The New York Times, which illustrates a parallel point. Governments, no matter what they say or feel it is politically expedient to say, are as much in thrall to the tide of history as anyone:

During the first term of the most coal-friendly president in American history, 145 coal-burning units at 75 power plants have been shut down, eliminating 15% percent of the country’s coal-generated capacity. This is the fastest decline in coal capacity in any single presidential term, far greater than the rate during either of President Barack Obama’s terms. #MAGA

Happy Global Day of Climate Action!

This is a takeover! Legendary school strike movement Fridays For Future have declared today a global day of climate action. As Eric Damien from Fridays For Future Kenya says:

The pandemic has shown us that politicians have the power to act quickly and consistent with the best available science. But not even amid a pandemic is the climate crisis on hold. No measures have been taken to lower worldwide greenhouse gas emissions in a sustainable and just manner. The billion-dollar-investments that are now made to tackle the pandemic and its aftermath must be in line with the Paris Agreement.

My action—aside from sending this email, which unhappily costs the planet approximately 1kg in carbon dioxide equivalent emissions—is to spend the week in Dartmoor. I’m training for my Hill and Moorland Leader qualification and need to get some quality walking days done before the winter lockdown sets in.

Watchful in Wistman’s Wood, Dartmoor. Photo by legendary photographer and all round nice guy, Ben Queenborough (his words, not mine)

It might not sound like much of an ACTION, but spending more time in nature and helping others do the same is a significant element of the change we need to make.

Out on Dartmoor, the ‘environment’ isn’t a hypothetical entity beyond your screen. It’s coming at you from all angles, undeniable and awe-inspiring. We protect what we value, but we can only value what we know ourselves, first hand.

Wistful near Devil’s Tor, Dartmoor

Helping teenagers spend a couple of days immersed in nature—especially those who’ve never hauled a backpack into the woods or held a map the right way up before—makes it a little more likely that they’ll be sympathetic to radical economic and ecological change, not only when they grow up, but now.

A 2009 study from the University of Rochester found that exposure to mere photographs of natural landscapes nudged people to value their community and human relationships. On the contrary, exposure to images of man-built cityscapes made people more focussed on wealth and fame.

Focussed on wealth and fame, but also focussed on not falling arse over tit on a massive trip ladder

In an attempt to explain why this should be, study co-author Andrew Przybylski suggested that nature helps us connect to our authentic selves.

Nature in a way strips away the artifices of society that alienate us from one another.

This is worth pondering. What kind of environments, in this fragile moment, should we choose for ourselves and our children? It doesn’t have to be Dartmoor: as the Rochester study showed: images work a little; plants work a little more.

What does your immediate environment look like today? What can you do now to turn your environment into action for the climate?

Plant wisdom in the ancient forest

Maybe we’re doing okayish

In his book There Is No Planet B, Mike Berners-Lee bemoans the ironically glacial pace of international action on climate change:

We have had decades of warning about climate change. But we have wasted that time through our denial, first of the problem itself and then of the nature of the solution that is required, and through the unspeakably clumsy way in which we inch towards the kind of global agreement that might actually help. In the Anthropocene, we can’t rely on every challenge giving us so much warning. We’d better practise our global governance because we might need to respond to something just as intangible as climate change on a far shorter timescale.

This was a funny thing to read in the middle of a global pandemic because it made me reflect that, for the most part, humans are actually doing okay this time around.

Yes, nearly a million people have died from Covid-19. That’s awful. Perhaps millions more will die in the months and years to come. That’s also awful.

But the response, which is what Berners-Lee is talking about, has been rapid, global and, most importantly, cooperative. Given the difficulties—or perhaps because of them—there has been a surprising shortage of denial, clumsiness and ‘inching’.

Of course we can all point to individuals who dig sandpits of denial, others to whom clumsiness is a kind of elegance, and still more whose rulers are still dreamily scored with Imperial Inches.

But if we ignore the bombast of our elected politicians… What have we seen?

  • As individuals, we have all taken part in rapid and compliant social lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus. More importantly: we haven’t torn our social fabric in the process. Indeed, research from 28 countries suggests that people may be feeling slightly less lonely now than they were before the pandemic. Well done us.
  • For all the post-truth opprobrium aimed at the ‘so-called experts’, the response to Covid-19 from the scientific community has been instantly impressive. To take vaccines alone, there are 321 candidates in development, with 39 already going through clinical trials. A process that usually takes years is being compressed into months—despite the difficulties of social distancing in a laboratory. Well done science.
  • Last year, the number of worldwide deaths from AIDS fell to its lowest level since 1993—and incidence of the disease is at its lowest since the epidemic began. (Wait, you’ll see how this is relevant in a second.) The UN estimates that the total amount of money needed for the global response to an AIDS epidemic that will kill another 600,000 people in 2020 is only £22bn. (Okay, here we go.) By July—i.e. only four months into their response to Covid-19—the UK government (alone) had spent £15bn on PPE (alone) for NHS staff (alone). That gives us some idea of the scale of our response to Covid-19.

Two points arising from these three observations:

  1. The AIDS epidemic is much worse than you think and still horribly underfunded. In the last thirty years, we’ve lost 32,000,000 lives to the disease—that’s the population of Australia and Denmark put together. An even larger number are living with AIDS today.
  2. No matter how shit Covid-19 is and no matter how much shitter things get, I don’t think humans should beat themselves up about their response. We can—and we will—do more, but maybe we’re already doing okay.

Finally, this isn’t to undermine Berners-Lee’s point about climate change. Note that he says ‘we might need to respond to something just as intangible as climate change’. Covid-19 is far from being intangible: as I’ve pointed out, human beings are very good at dealing with imminent threats to life.

As Daniel Gilbert wrote in his article ‘If only gay sex caused global warming’:

Like all animals, people are quick to respond to clear and present danger, which is why it takes us just a few milliseconds to duck when a wayward baseball comes speeding toward our eyes. The brain is a beautifully engineered get-out-of-the-way machine that constantly scans the environment for things out of whose way it should right now get.

Sadly, the brain is nigh-on helpless when faced with the inexorable logic of generational climate change. But perhaps Covid-19 is helping us rewire our Neanderthal instincts, showing us how, when the chips are down, we can do this rapid, global cooperation kind of thing.

And that maybe, perhaps, we’ll do okayish.

Death of an anarchist

David Graeber, author of one of the most influential books I’ve ever read—Debt: The First 5,000 Years—died earlier this week.

David Graeber may have been professor of anthropology at Yale, Goldsmiths and finally the London School of Economics, but he was always conscious that his work must not be allowed to stifle in the deoxygenated air of academia.

He was a practical and public intellectual who faced down the big social inequalities of our time and has given thousands of people the tools to build an alternative.

Occupy debt

Graeber came to my attention in 2011 as something of a doorman for the Occupy movement. He opened doors we thought were permanently locked and showed us entire suites of rooms that we never could have imagined were there.

Reading Debt: The First 5,000 Years, I often laughed.

I learned that systems of credit and debt, far from being the pernicious invention of modern capitalists, are how human societies have managed their economic affairs for millennia. But I also learned that we are perhaps the first society to orgy in credit and debt without having in place the checks and balances that protect the poor from catastrophe.

Graeber traces how these checks and balances came into being in ancient Sumer:

In years with bad harvests especially, peasants would start becoming hopelessly indebted to the rich, and would have to surrender their farms and, ultimately, family members, in debt bondage. Gradually, this condition seems to have come to a social crisis—not so much leading to popular uprisings, but to common people abandoning the cities and settling territory entirely and becoming semi-nomadic ‘bandits’ and raiders. It soon became traditional for each new ruler to wipe the slate clean, cancel all debts, and declare a general amnesty or ‘freedom’, so that all bonded labourers could return to their families.

Biblical prophets also formalised this system of ‘Jubilee’ and cancelled all debts every seven years. This was how humans arranged things for centuries: all debts cancelled, every seven years.

Its simplicity and justice still makes me laugh.

Graeber dared us to wonder why our society couldn’t declare regular jubilees, write off all debts and protect the poor against the wealthy? There’s no reason why not. It’s a choice.

As you can imagine, this colour of politics was too much for the fine upstanding Yale University and we were lucky that Graeber decided to move to London—in fact, he joined the university over the road from where I lived: Goldsmiths.

On bullshit jobs

Graeber taught a number of my friends at Goldsmiths and I attended a few of his public seminars, where we got to discuss and share ideas in an atmosphere of open debate. It’s hard to overestimate this guy. He was like a rockstar to me and my friends.

In fact, Graeber’s 2013 article On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs came about after a friend of mine, STRIKE! magazine’s Vyvian Raoul, asked Graeber whether he had ‘anything provocative that no one else would be likely to publish’.

Oh yes he did. It was an idea that would call into question the value of entire industries, let alone jobs—including, perhaps, his own.

This was his original thesis of ‘bullshit jobs’:

Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

The article hit such a nerve that it crashed the magazine’s servers multiple times and was copied and republished (frequently by bullshit companies) across the known world. In 2018, Graeber expanded his ideas and the polemical article became a more carefully researched book.

The bullshitisation of work

In his book, David Graeber details a taxonomy of five varieties of bullshit job, each with its own identifiable features. Before explaining further, Graeber stresses that there can be no objective definition of a bullshit job: if an employee asserts that their job is bullshit, then bullshit it is.

Likewise, however, it’s very hard to argue against someone who believes that their job isn’t bullshit. So don’t be offended if you recognise your job as one of those broadly categorised as bullshit. Maybe it’s not for you.

Nevertheless, the response to Graeber’s book seems to suggest that people know when what they’re doing is worthless—even if they’ve buried that sense deep down inside.

  • Flunkies: people whose only purpose is to make someone else look important. Doormen, concierges, some receptionists and personal assistants.
  • Goons: those people whose job has an aggressive element. The military, but also most lobbyists, PR specialists, telemarketers, and corporate lawyers.
  • Duct tapers: employees whose jobs exist only because of ‘a glitch or fault in the organisation; who are there to solve a problem that ought not to exist’.
  • Box tickers: ‘employees who exist only or primarily to allow an organisation to be able to claim it is doing something that, in fact, it is not doing’. Bureaucrats, in-house magazine writers and the unfortunate authors of unread government commissions.
  • Taskmasters: these employees come in two types. Type 1 Taskmasters are the opposite of Flunkies: ‘unnecessary superiors rather than unnecessary subordinates’. Type 2 Taskmasters are the bullshit generators: those whose ‘primary role is to create bullshit tasks for others to do, to supervise bullshit, or even to create entirely new bullshit jobs’.

Ring any bells? I recognise plenty of my past jobs in this list—and even a few of the ones I force myself do now I’m self-employed. I’m not alone in having thoroughly absorbed the logic of the bullshit economy.

The antidote

As well as describing the boundaries of bullshit, Graeber also suggests an antidote, reasoning that nothing can be called bullshit if it’s concerned with caring.

Now, maybe there are arms dealers who ardently believe that they’re in a caring career, but even so I think we can agree with Graeber that some jobs are more naturally compatible with caring: nurses, cleaners, teachers, mechanics and electricians (of the non-duct-taping variety) to name a few.

By choosing a non-bullshit career as a member of what Graeber calls the ‘caring classes’, you almost certainly won’t be rewarded financially. There is an inbuilt inequality in our society that seems to imply that bullshit jobs are so sociopathically awful that they need to be highly paid otherwise no one but sociopaths would be masochistic enough to take them.

The book summarises the results of a study by the New Economic Foundation that looked at the social return generated by various different jobs. See if you can identify the bullshit ones:

  • City banker – yearly salary c. £5 million – estimated £7 of social value destroyed for every £1 earned
  • Advertising executive – yearly salary c. £500,000 – estimated £11.50 of social value destroyed per £1 paid
  • Tax accountant – yearly salary c. £125,000 – estimated £11.20 of social value destroyed per £1 paid
  • Hospital cleaner – yearly income c. £13,000 (£6.26 per hour) – estimated £10 of social value generated per £1 paid
  • Recycling worker – yearly income c. £12,500 (£6.10 per hour) – estimated £12 in social value generated per £1 paid
  • Nursery worker – salary c. £11,500 – estimated £7 in social value generated per £1 paid

See any injustice there? It was something that was deeply felt at the Occupy protests—indeed, Graeber describes the Occupy movement as the ‘revolt of the caring classes’. He observes that the most common complaint heard at the protests went something along these lines:

“I wanted to do something useful with my life; work that had a positive effect on other people or, at the very least, wasn’t hurting anyone. But the way this economy works, if you spend your working life caring for others, you’ll end up so underpaid and so deeply in debt you won’t be able to care for your own family.”

But of course the Occupy movement wasn’t enough. That’s why Graeber wrote this book: in the hope that it would offer millions more flunkies, box tickers and duct tapers the intellectual courage to quit and join the ranks of dissenters.

Funnily enough, though, the only reason STRIKE! magazine—and Graeber’s original polemic—ever existed at all was thanks to a bullshit job.

Bullshit origins of STRIKE!

Last year, I interviewed Vyvian Raoul for a review of Bullshit Jobs that I never finished writing. He told me how, back in 2013, he’d been working as a communications officer for a big charity in London. A classic bullshit job.

‘It was basically internal PR, jeeing up the troops,’ he explained. ‘People hated us. We should have been spending the money on more nurses.

‘One time I corrected the grammar on a blogpost that the CEO wrote,’ Raoul said. ‘It was the only useful thing I ever did there—and I got a bollocking for it.

‘From that point on, I’m coasting,’ he continued, ‘and I started setting up STRIKE! in my spare time at work.’

Raoul remembers exactly where he was when he first read On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs:

‘I was reading it in Vauxhall Park in the sun when my boss walked past. We reluctantly greeted each other,’ Raoul said. ‘I knew, in that moment, that I was going to leave the job—and maybe jobs full stop.’

The first issue of STRIKE! was paid for out of his redundancy pay from that bullshit job. Graeber’s article was published in the third issue of the magazine and was only posted online as something of an after thought. It went viral: office workers around the world nodding their heads and beating their desks.

‘We got quite a few people emailing in to say thanks for publishing the article and that they’d left their jobs on the basis of it,’ Raoul told me.

I like the circularity of this story. Severance pay from a bullshit job liberated Vyvian Raoul and gave him the independence he needed to start a radical newspaper that published a tract against bullshit jobs, which has itself inspired another generation of bullshit employees to quit and revolt.

Raoul finished our conversation about Bullshit Jobs in a reflective mood: ‘Perhaps liberation is more of a process than a grand, Utopian, revolutionary moment,’ he suggested. ‘And maybe that’s the point of the book?’

~

All I can add is encouragement for us all to continue our process of liberation. All of David Graeber’s books and many articles are available for free online at the Anarchist Library.

Besides his writing, David Graeber was an excellent public speaker and many lectures and discussions will outlive him online:

If you’d like to support the ongoing publication of David’s work then check out Anthropology for All and buy some ‘politically challenging’ books from Anthropology for Kids (content suitable, nay important for all ages).

Above all, please, please make sure that you really give a damn about what you’re doing. Do yourself a favour and care.

I raise my cap to a proper public intellectual. Someone who grappled with politics and ideas in a way that made sense and was immediately useful. Rest in power.

Why do we theorise a conspiracy?

This episode of BBC CrowdScience looks at why people believe conspiracy theories and how empathy is a better approach than argument when trying to understand and talk these people into a different reality.

Even better: the episode also tells how the modern concept of the contemptible ‘conspiracy theorist’ was created by an actual conspiracy of tobacco companies to discredit people who claimed that cigarettes cause cancer. Sometimes they are out to get us!

Similarly, in How to destroy surveillance capitalism, Cory Doctorow offers up this explanation for why outlandish conspiracy theories like QAnon have become so popular:

What if it’s the material circumstances, and not the arguments [of conspiracy theorists]? What if the trauma of living through real conspiracies all around us—conspiracies among wealthy people, their lobbyists, and lawmakers to bury inconvenient facts and evidence of wrongdoing, commonly known as “corruption”—is making people vulnerable?

In a more honest society that looks after all its citizens, perhaps we have fewer people wasting their energy on finding laughably convoluted reasons for why they’re being dicked on.

Why do we theorise a conspiracy? Maybe because there is a conspiracy, but it’s not the one you’ll find in obscure corners of the internet. Like the idea of sucking smoke into your lungs being healthy, this conspiracy is almost depressingly obvious—but the antidote is in our power, from putting a tick in the right box to banners, boats and brass bands. And mass arrests.

Love Litter Or: How corporate litterbugs shamed us into taking the blame

A thought crossed my mind as I walked through town yesterday: I’ve never knowingly littered. Then I doublechecked my thought: it’s completely wrong. I have.

I used to chew gum: Wrigley’s peppermint to be precise (never spearmint—I’m not a monster). When I was in school, I often enjoyed the satisfaction of spitting the gum out and volleying it into the middle distance. Wherever it should so land, there wouldst I litter.

After nearly hitting a bald man directly on the pate, I graduated to flobbing the offending masticatory latex down kerbside drains. Out of sight, out of mind: still littering.

Since the 1960s, chewing gum hasn’t been biodegradable—it’s made of plastic, for heaven’s sake. Did you know that? I had no idea. Thanks to its durability, local councils are estimated to spend £60m a year on cleaning up our spat out gum.

~

Littering is one of those antisocial behaviours that make people furious. Usually furious at the person littering; rarely furious at the companies that make the products most thrown away. This is upside down.

Let’s take as an example the planet’s most littered product: cigarettes. 766,571 metric tons of cigarette butts are thrown away every year—that’s the same weight as more than 60,000 double-decker buses or 4,000 blue whales. In the UK, ‘smoking-related litter’ was the most commonly found detritus in the 2018 Litter in England survey, present at 79 percent of sites.

No one knows how long cigarette butts take to biodegrade, but the filters contain cellulose acetate microplastic so it’s going to be a very long time. Those used butts also contain thousands of chemicals with poisonous effects on humans, other mammals, rodents, birds, insects, fish and even plantlife.

The European ban on single-use plastics will not extend to cigarette filters. Meanwhile, biodegradable filters have been described by the tobacco industry as ‘unmarketable’.

Have you ever thought what responsibility cigarette companies are taking for that environmental damage? I hadn’t.

~

In their superbly titled 2010 study Covering Their Butts, Elizabeth A. Smith and Patricia A. McDaniel from the University of California looked at industry and media data from the past 50 years and concluded:

The tobacco industry has tried and failed to mitigate the impact of cigarette litter.

The researchers also found that tobacco industry anti-littering efforts were motivated by potential restrictions on sales rather than care for the environment:

[T]he industry was concerned about the “potential for anti-smoking groups to seize [the litter] issue to attack cigarettes.” In 1997, Philip Morris (PM) research found that “litter can move ‘neutral’ non-smokers to ‘negative,’” creating more tobacco control supporters.

Indeed, far from being an environmental concern, tobacco bosses sought to take advantage of the ‘litter issue’ in order to ‘undermine clean indoor air laws’. According to Smith and McDaniel:

PM [Philip Morris, the producers of Marlboro cigarettes] explored whether litter, as one of the “dysfunctions of smoking outside,” could be used to convince business owners to maintain or reinstate indoor smoking policies.

Breathtaking. In more ways than one.

~

But even more audacious was how, not only cigarette companies, but capitalism as a whole has successfully foisted the blame for littering onto the citizen.

Using cigarettes as a common example of standard commercial practice here again, Smith and McDaniel found that the tobacco companies’ priority was that they were ‘not held practically or financially responsible for cigarette litter’:

[T]he industry argues that “the responsibility for proper disposal lies with the user of the product.”

This approach resulted in what Smith and McDaniel call ‘industry-acceptable solutions’, including volunteer clean-ups and the installation of ashtrays. Both these focus on what the community to can do to manage litter, instead of preventing the harm caused by production of the litter in the first place.

In the US, the tobacco industry helps fund the nationwide litter-picking campaign Keep America Beautiful. The campaign was made famous by a 1971 television advert, which featured a tearful indigenous American. The campaign slogan left viewers in no doubt where the blame for litter lies:

People Start Pollution. People Can Stop It.

The campaign was and still is a media triumph, with Smith and McDaniel finding that ‘stories that mentioned [Keep America Beautiful] were also more frequently positive toward the tobacco industry.’

Remember that my use of cigarettes here is only one example. If this is how the tobacco industry is treating our environment and our ‘consumer choices’, then imagine how other companies with a vested interest in our throwaway culture are behaving.

~

In the UK, we have Keep Britain Tidy, which was set up in the 1950s by the Women’s Institute and is now what they call an independent charity.

Forgive my cynicism, but ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ is a difficult message to swallow from an organisation that is 35 percent funded by the same companies we find most often littering our streets, parks and beaches: Coca-Cola (Britain’s most dumped), Greggs, Costa, McDonalds, KFC—and, yes, you’ve guessed it: my old chum Wrigley’s chewing gum.

Keep Britain Tidy does good work monitoring littering in the UK and organising litter-picking activities—but a lot more good would be done if these companies stopped creating litter. Otherwise, the campaign smells faintly of corporate ‘greenwashing’.

Bearing in mind the positive media that tobacco companies in the US got from supporting Keep America Beautiful, it’s surprising to see Keep Britain Tidy boasting about how in 2015/16 the campaign generated 4,645 news media articles worth £24.2m in advertising. I wonder: advertising for whom?

Not for the first time, the blame for an environmental disaster has shifted from industry to the citizenry. So, next time you’re on a walk, take a look at what litters the ground. Instead of thinking about the person who dropped it, notice the companies who produced it.

~

This is something you get a lot—god damn little single packets of ketchup. That’s barbeque dip. Someone’s eating barbeque dip from a little plastic coffin. Garbage.

In a walk with Claire Balding, David Sedaris, writer and legendary litter picker, developed his theory that the products most thrown away are the things we’re most ashamed of: takeaway boxes, junk food wrappers, sugary drinks bottles (often filled with piss), cigarette packets, empty vodka bottles, used condoms.

As they pick litter along the verge of a country road in West Sussex, Sedaris speculates what compels people to throw rubbish out of the window of a moving vehicle:

Maybe they’re afraid that they’re doing something they weren’t supposed to be doing, and someone’s going to find evidence of it and they have to get rid of it.

We hide our shame and drive on. Am I ashamed now of my chewing gum littering days? Yes. Was I at the time? Perhaps—but I never would have admitted it. Because we hate talking about our shame, it rarely motivates us to change.

~

Although I stopped spitting my balls of sticky plastic down street drains a long time before, I didn’t stop chewing gum until 2015.

Why did I stop? I noticed that the behaviour wasn’t doing anything for me. It was a dependency and, like all dependencies, it was a little shameful. So, together with my partner at the time, I quit. I quit the chewing and I quit the littering.

I never once thought to blame Wrigley for either my dependency or for my littering. That piece of gum that I almost volleyed onto that man’s bald pate twenty-five years ago? It’s still there, ground into the asphalt of a railway station car park, perhaps less than ten percent through its centuries-long process of decay.

Even in later years, when I managed to find a bin, there are gobbets of my gum in landfill sites all over the country, decomposing no faster.

I’m not saying we should run a civil disobedience mass littering campaign (although that might get some attention), but we should shift the shame away from the users to the producers, away from dependent citizens disgusted at their consumer choices and towards those who should be disgusted: those most guilty of industrial-scale littering, our junk corporations.

Only when we’ve correctly apportioned the blame, can we hope to change the behaviour of our worst corporate litterbugs.

Join us for World Refugee Day

They say that every dog has its day—and some marketing departments take that literally. Next Friday, for example, is Pet Sitters International’s Take Your Dog to Work Day.

A quick scan of the internet tells me that Tuesday was Bloomsday (I’m listening to Ulysses at the moment as it happens). Wednesday, meanwhile, was World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought and yesterday was National Freelancers Day (I took it off work).

Today is World Sickle Cell Day. A sprinkling of sickle cell facts: sickle cell diseases are most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and kill over 100,000 people a year—but the sickle cell trait offers some protection against malaria. An iron fist in a velvet glove.

But tomorrow is World Refugee Day. Ah—that explains my headline!

Why should I care?

If you’ve ever crossed a border without being beaten up, then, in my own personal opinion, you are in credit. The closest I’ve come is a hard stare from a Serbian border guard. I owe it to my passport to care.

There are now nearly 80 million displaced people in the world, including nearly 30 million refugees. That’s a lot of people—but not in a Daily Mail kind of a way. Pretty much zero of those people have come to the UK.

Okay, not zero: precisely 0.43 percent of the world’s refugees have found sanctuary on this ‘sceptred isle’. For comparison, Turkey hosts nearly 13 percent of those humans.

Uganda, a country with a GDP a hundred times smaller than the UK, hosts ten times as many refugees. I don’t know about you, but I did not know Uganda was that poor—or the UK so rich.

I don’t think we’re doing our bit, do you?

Yay, progress! (Except not for people fleeing war, sorry)

You might not believe it from the headlines, but many indicators of global quality of life are improving: the number of people escaping from extreme poverty, for example, or the number of girls accessing education, or child mortality rates.

In fact, take a few minutes to play around with all the good news using the awesome Gapminder tools. It’ll put a smile on your face. Then come back for the bad news…

Things are getting better. Source: Gapminder.

Unfortunately, for refugees, the world is a more hostile place today than it was a decade ago. As the latest UNHCR report states:

Over the last decade, only four million refugees were able to return to their native countries, compared with 10 million the previous decade. Roughly 0.5 per cent of the world’s refugees were offered resettlement in 2019.

0.5 percent?! Wow. We need more than one day to solve this problem. But let’s face it: there are other problems in the world, so…

Seeing as we’ve only got a day—let’s ride our bikes?!

This Saturday, in solidarity with refugees all over the world, Thighs of Steel and Help Refugees are riding their bikes all the way from London to Khora’s home in Athens—about 2,000 miles.

I’m asking—nay begging—for your support. As cyclists, as donors, as megaphones.

If you or your friends would like to join us for the day, then you can set up your own fundraising page here: https://help-refugees.secure.force.com/aroundtheworldsignup

Or you can easily join in without setting up your own page by sending your lovely donors to the main fundraising page here: https://help-refugees.secure.force.com/aroundtheworldmain

The theme for this year’s World Refugee Day is Every Action Counts. Whether you ride 1 mile or 100; whether you raise £1,000 or simply chuck in a tenner from your own pocket, every action really does count.

It’s only one day of the year, but your contribution tomorrow could make a real difference to refugees—people who truly understand the meaning of the trite saying ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’.

What will happen to the money?

We’re fundraising for Help Refugees, a grassroots organisation that grew out of the upsurge of empathy for migrants in 2015. Here’s what they say about how they spend the money raised:

Together, we are supporting hundreds of thousands of people—with access to medical care, sanitation, food, emotional support, and much much more. This isn’t the world we want to live in, and we are working to change it, but while refugees are forced to live like this, we will be there for them. Thank you so much for making this possible.

Thighs of Steel is the major donor to Khora, a voluntary organisation in Athens that exists to support displaced people, refugees, asylum seekers, homeless people and vulnerable groups in general.

During the Covid crisis, Khora volunteers have been preparing and delivering food to around 2,200 vulnerable people every other day. All this extra support costs money—as much as £24,000 per month. This remarkable act of solidarity relies entirely on money given by strangers.

Imagine…

I’ll finish with this little poem from Lemn Sissay, which the legends at Refugee Week are sharing as the jumping off point for the first of eight Simple Acts you can take to stand with refugees.

I will not limit myself
I will not be afraid
If it were not imagined
How else could it be made?

If it can be imagined, it can be made. Another world is possible.

This isn’t the world we want to live in, and we are working to change it, but while refugees are forced to live like this, we will be there for them.

Join us. Thank you.

Giving what we can

This post is 2,000 words long, so here’s a brief summary:

  • Every year I give 10 percent of my gross business income to organisations that I believe promote equality and justice.
  • The Jewish word for financial giving is tzedakah—not ‘charity’, but ‘justice’.
  • Financial giving isn’t virtuous do-gooding; it’s an acknowledgement of what I owe for benefiting from often invisible inequalities.
  • For every hour I work, even modest financial giving could more than double the daily earnings of two people living below the extreme poverty line.
  • By committing to giving 10 percent of my income, tzedakah is not only part of what I earn—but part of why I earn.

Giving what we can

A few weeks ago a friend suggested that I write about financial giving. Although I appreciated her suggestion, I decided that sharing the reasons why I give money to charities and other organisations might really piss people off. No one likes a preacher.

Since then, I’ve been taken aback by astonishing demonstrations of public generosity, as ordinary citizens seek to challenge injustice with their money:

Covid-19 seems to have stirred a spirit of social consciousness. I might still piss people off, but I’ve changed my mind on writing about financial giving.

I’m far from being an expert—and I’m sure that many of you are way ahead of me in both thought and action—but this article is why and how I structure my financial giving to promote equality and justice.

Not charity

I’ve written before about the distinctions between charity and solidarity, so I won’t repeat myself but, quickly, here’s why I don’t like to call financial giving ‘charity’.

‘Charity’ includes giving that does little or nothing to promote equality and justice.

Giving money to a nominally charitable institution like a church so that they can fix their damaged roof is very generous, but I’m not convinced it does much to help those who need support most.

Sometimes registered charities (sometimes even churches) are worthy recipients of cash, but sometimes the world would be better off if we granted that money to community groups, online movements, small businesses, entrepreneurs or simply people we believe in.

The word charity also excludes the possibility that we actually owe this money to others.

Giving as repayment on debt

Charity, caritas, is one of the seven virtues of Christianity, but Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas had in mind a definition closer to universal love than to financial largesse.

Unfortunately, the sense of virtue has stuck to charity’s modern definition. But the story of slave trader Edward Colston, whose statue was recently torn down by Black Lives Matter protestors in Bristol, reminds us that charitable giving is far from a guarantee of ethical good standing.

In his career as a dealer in the lives of humanity, Colston was a member of the Royal African Company and, over the course of twelve bloody years, played his part in trading 84,000 African men, women and children. It’s estimated that 19,000 of these people died on their journey to the Americas.

Colston made a lot of money from this business, which he later gave away to found various charitable institutions in Bristol. But Colston’s financial giving had nothing to do with virtue or universal love; it was a debt that he owed—and one he could never fully repay.

So it seems to me quite right that Colston’s statue was torn down: debtors aren’t usually celebrated in bronze. (Otherwise, where are the millions of plinths dedicated to payday loan victims and university students?)

Invisible debt

I’m optimistic that I don’t have quite as much blood on my hands as Colston, but living as I do in a highly developed country, I still owe some sort of debt for my position.

My quality of life is founded on almost invisible inequalities and injustices that existed long before I was born.

The seductive invisibility of these inequalities makes me vulnerable to self-flattery, giving myself far too much credit for my good fortune. I’m not alone: this is a well-studied psychological phenomenon called the attribution bias.

To me, it felt like I worked hard to do well at university. It felt like opportunities came my way only after years of hard work for little or no reward. It feels like I work hard for the money I now earn.

The most I’ll concede is that there has been an element of luck.

But it’s not luck: it’s inequality and injustice.

The truth is that other people in my local neighbourhood, my country or elsewhere in the world simply didn’t, don’t and never will have the same opportunity to be rewarded so richly for their hard work.

Side story: cacao farmers in Cameroon

In my work for the Center for International Forestry Research, I’m lucky enough to speak to people all over the world about their lives.

I’m currently working on a piece about ecology and socio-economics in forest villages in Cameroon. One of the indicators that the researchers collected is called the Household Food Insecurity Access Scale.

Despite great success growing cacao as a cash crop for international markets, only 21 percent of households in the Cameroonian village of Bokito were considered food secure. In the poorer village of Talba, that figure dropped to 12 percent.

Four families out of five in these villages said yes to questions like: Did you or any household members go to sleep at night hungry because there was not enough food?

Despite working long hours on cacao plantations, these families are unable to feed their children, with all the knock-on effects that has on health, education and life opportunities.

All of a sudden, it doesn’t feel like I worked particularly hard.

30 percent of all people in Cameroon live in extreme poverty. If they lived in the United States, that means they’d be surviving on less than $1.90 per day.

Coincidentally, that’s about how much I’d spend on a quality bar of the chocolate the people of Bokito and Talba help grow. Something to think about the next time I bite into a bar of Green & Blacks.

Here’s something else: in Judaism, charitable giving is called tzedakah, a word that better translates as ‘justice’. I really like that translation. Financial giving is not virtuous charity, it’s an attempt to balance the books of justice.

Giving as politics

When someone sets up a charity, community project or social enterprise, they’re saying: I believe the world can be a better place in this specific, measurable way.

The enterprise doesn’t work unless they bring people along with them: the founders must become politicians for their vision. Donors and volunteers are their citizenry, who vote with their money or their time.

Together, these third sector politicians and citizens can change the world. Last month, a small charity that didn’t exist three years ago won a high court challenge to a vile government policy that prevented working migrants from accessing welfare support during Covid-19.

I’m not saying that governments can’t do much more to make the world a fairer place. Economist Joseph Stiglitz makes a strong case that politicians could do a lot more to fight inequality by forcing multinational companies to pay tax at a global minimum rate, for example.

But when governments fail us or when we disagree with the general drift of our politicians, it’s amazing that enterprising citizens stand up and say: no, we believe the world should be more like this.

And we, operating independently of our politicians and the state, can give money and say: yes, we’re behind you.

As we’ve seen so strongly over the past few months, we can’t rely entirely on the state to balance the books of justice. We all give tzedakah. The only remaining question is how and how much.

Quick reminder…

In this article I’m only talking about financial giving, but there are of course many other ways that we all try to promote equality and justice.

  • Voluntary service, including advocacy
  • Political action
  • Paid work
  • Work in kind
  • Raising and educating the next generation

Our giving in these different areas naturally fluctuates over our lifespan. For many, many years, I didn’t do much financial giving. I’m not beating myself up about that fact.

With that said, here is what I do now, along with the resources that inspired me.

Taking the pledge

In July 2017, I took the Giving What We Can pledge to donate 1 percent of my earnings that year to effective charitable organisations. I promptly forgot all about this pledge and have, instead, donated 10 percent of my earnings every year since.

The 1 percent pledge, it turned out, was a classic ‘foot in the door’ sales tactic. Once I’d made the decision that I was the sort of person who would give in a structured way every year, 1 percent felt insignificant.

I don’t have any dependents, I live in a country with a more or less functioning welfare system that includes free healthcare, and I come from a home-owning family. All this means that I feel more comfortable committing to 10 percent.

For clarity: that means 10 percent of my business income before deductions:

  • Before tax
  • Before National Insurance
  • Before business expenses
  • Before living expenses

This detail is important to me. When I formalised my financial giving in 2017, I wasn’t earning a huge amount of money and calculating from my business profit would have meant years of zero contributions.

Social problems like inequality and injustice get exponentially worse and harder to fix as time move on. I wanted to start giving immediately and, more importantly, get into good giving habits on the off-chance that I do one day start earning millions.

Working from gross income is also a lot less complicated to administer.

The mechanics

I’m freelance so I have a separate bank account for my business income. At the end of the financial year, I siphon 10 percent of the balance into another bank account dedicated exclusively to financial giving.

This creates a fund from which I give over the course of the next financial year. If there’s anything left in the account from the year before, I usually grant that money out after doing my tax return—or it rolls forward to the next year.

What difference could I make?

Median income in the UK is £18,630. I fall some way below that, but globally I’m in the top 11 percent of all earners. Even after giving away 10 percent of my income, I’m still in the global top 12 percent.

Yep: we live in a very unequal world.

Apologies for the excessive use of italics, but I find it hard to get my head around the following fact:

My 10 percent giving is enough that, for every hour I work, I could more than double the daily earnings of two people living below the extreme poverty line—perhaps two of those cacao farmers I’m writing about.

That shows what could be done with whatever sum a citizen in a wealthy country can afford to give.

Working for justice

By committing to structured giving, I can almost always say yes when friends ask me to donate to social causes that they believe in.

If I’m paid £300 for a writing job, then I already know that £30 will go toward promoting equality and justice.

This is a huge relief: no more awkward moments, worried I can’t spare another twenty quid. I know I can afford to give because it’s baked into every penny I earn.

Financial giving is part of what I earn—but it’s also part of why I earn.

As a writer, working in the highly theoretical field of abstract thought can make me feel disconnected from the injustice of daily life for farmers on cacao plantations in Cameroon.

Without overplaying my modest contribution, my work feels more meaningful now I know that a sliver of justice is served every time I sit down to write.

~

My contribution, however modest, only began when I stumbled across the Giving What We Can pledge in July 2017.

Much of what I’ve written here has been said more eloquently and with more academic rigour by the philosopher Peter Singer, one of the foremost thinkers on financial giving.

Singer’s book, The Life You Can Save, helped create the Effective Altruism movement behind the Giving What We Can pledge. In a new edition for 2019, The Life You Can Save is available as a free audiobook download.

Finally, thanks to TD and DRL for conversations that inspired this piece!

Border Breakdown

As you may have heard, Turkey has opened their border with the EU, giving refugees the chance to try their luck at crossing.

This has very little to do with humanity; it’s a power game Turkish President Erdogan is playing, trying to leverage either more money or more support for his military manoeuvres in Syria.

But humanity will out, just as the 2016 EU-Turkey deal never will.

The EU was supposed to give Turkey loads of money and ease restrictions on free movement for Turkish people. In exchange, Turkey would accept returns of ‘irregular migrants’ and enforce the EU border in Turkey.

In the meantime, those who break the line of defence will find their journeys stopped in the five ‘hotspot’ islands of the Aegean: Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Kos and Leros, where their asylum claims will be processed (interminably slowly), like as not destined to be returned to Turkey.

The deal has trapped millions of refugees fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond.

This was never going to work really, was it?

1) There’s no amount of money you can throw at a problem like this.

The only solution is to flip the script and give refugees the right to work for money themselves from Day 1.

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees accords refugees the right to work — but most countries don’t fully honour this commitment. It’s insane.

People are working to have this absurdity overthrown in the UK. You can join the campaign here.

2) Hard borders are unenforceable.

Even the Iron Curtain was permeable. The folly of a hard border demands a Turkish coastguard that is omniscient and omnipresent. It’s not. So boats get through to the island hotspots in Greece, inside the EU.

A hard border also demands that the Greek island communities repulse the new arrivals. But humans don’t do that. We have too much in common; too much solidarity.

As mushy-minded flimsy fools, we are too touched by the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have done unto you. Despite reports of black-clad militants in speedboats, Greek volunteers rush the boats with water and warmth.

The xenia of welcome can’t be sustained, of course. Conditions in the island camps are sickening and, see point one: there is still no amount of money you can throw at a problem like this. Let people work.

We’re leaving the EU, not Europe. In theory, we could use our new status outside the supranational bloc to opt out of the collective punishment of border brutality and welcome refugees directly.

I’ve got to say, though: that seems unlikely to happen.

More likely is that we can continue to show faith in humanity. Sign a petition. Or…

Let’s tackle it together / AKA: Why I’m cycling 3,000km+ this summer

With Thighs of Steel this summer I’ll be cycling 3,000km, across the Carpathian mountains, through Transylvania and the Balkans, from Bratislava to Athens.

It’s an odd way to remember that our borders are trapping millions of people in intolerable conditions. But it’s my way.

Today, there are more than 42,000 people living in horrifying camps on the Aegean Islands — stuck there until such a time as we collectively choose compassion over nationalism.

Read this story, told by a woman living in Vial camp on Chios, to find out what life is really like in a Greek refugee camp.

And, of course, that figure of 42,000 is dwarfed by the 3,500,000+ Syrian refugees trapped in Turkey.

It’s easy to feel hopeless, but I think we can make a difference.

That’s why I ride with Thighs of Steel and why, as part of the core team this year, I’m doing all I can to help the other 100+ cyclists raise tonnes of cash for Help Refugees.

The main beneficiary of the money we raise will be Khora, a grassroots community centre in Athens that offers displaced people hot food, legal support and friendship. The centre is run entirely by volunteers on solidarity and donations.

I visited Khora last year and met a wonderful bunch of people who are already making a difference. The work they do is of immense practical and psychological support to actual human beings every day.

Alee is a long-term volunteer and refugee from Pakistan who found Khora after the factory where he worked was shut down in 2016.

‘I didn’t come here to volunteer,’ Alee told me. ‘When I came here, I was homeless, I was jobless, I was penniless — even hopeless, to some extent.

‘I was at the verge of mental collapse,’ he says. ‘I mean, I could have been suicidal. I could jump from the fifth floor. The Khora volunteers kept me alive. Honestly, I’m telling you, they kept me alive.’

Fluent in multiple languages, including Greek, Alee started volunteering as a translator on the Khora info desk, during refugee hospital visits and with the legal team.

Now Alee spends most of his volunteer time at the Khora Free Shop, where refugees and others can pick up clothes, shoes, toiletries, books, toys and other things they might not be able to afford.

‘Khora is about giving hope as well as help,’ Alee says.

If you think that helping refugees is a generally good idea, then there’s loads you can do.

  • If cycling is your cup of tea, join us! We are three-quarters full, but there’s still space for you. It’s a great bunch of people, passionate about making change happen.
  • If you can afford to donate to the Thighs 2020 appeal, then I promise you that even the most modest gift will do things that simply wouldn’t happen without your contribution. Honestly. Like paying the motorway tolls so that a library van can get out of Athens to the refugee camp in Corinth. Without that handful of Euros, the van doesn’t go and the kids in the camp kick cans in the dust instead.

Thank you.

The Perils of Perception

Wandering the aisles of my local food shopping emporium the other day, I happened upon a misfortunate newspaper stand.

Before I could divert my hapless footwear in the direction of the sundried tomatoes and other preserves, I was revulsed by a series of headlines, all screaming something or other about immigration and Australia.

At first I thought that Boris Johnson might have re-requisitioned the earth’s largest island as a penal colony for The Crown. Then I remembered that it only feels like we’ve gone back to the eighteenth century.

The 2020 version of history could be recalled as bitterly, if we allow it.

The thing is, I can’t help feeling like the whole ‘pulling up the drawbridge’ immigration strategy is based on a gross misperception of who immigrants are and what they do when they get here.

To illustrate those misperceptions, we’re going to have a fun little quiz — YAY! — excised from The Perils of Perception by Bobby Duffy, the managing director of social research company Ipsos MORI.

Okay: ready?

What proportion of the UK population are immigrants?

If you said 25 percent, then congratulations! You have matched the average answer given by UK residents in a recent Ipsos MORI poll.

You’re also factually wrong by a remarkable 12 percentage points!

On average, we Brits think that a quarter of the UK population is an immigrant. That’s insane. The true answer is about half that figure: 13 percent.

In our heads, we’ve more or less doubled the number of foreign-born nationals in this country. Wow.

Okay, now our heads are a little tidier, here’s question two:

What proportion of immigrants to the UK are refugees and asylum seekers?

About a third? Bingo! That’s exactly what most people said, well done!

Yep: on average, people in the UK think that there are more refugees and asylum seekers than any other category of immigrant: more than those who came here for work, to study or to join their family.

Yep: we are wildly wrong.

Refugees and asylum seekers make up around 10 percent of the immigrant population — fewer in number than any of those other three categories. Cool.

Now onto the final question:

If you got question one wrong by 10 percentage points or more (and most people did), why do you think that was?

Think about this one carefully now — and be honest.

Almost half of everyone asked this question replied:

People come into the country illegally so aren’t counted.

Ah-ha — the figures aren’t accurate! That is true: there was something in the news about it.

But, sadly for The Daily Mail, all those lorry-loads of illegal immigrants couldn’t make up for our absurdly inaccurate guesses.

Even the most lurid estimates of illegal immigration, from a group campaigning for greater immigration control (Migration Watch UK), would add only 1.5 percentage points to the immigrants’ share of our population. Not 10 or more.

Never mind — press on — it doesn’t matter anyway because a gallant 45 percent of us, when challenged on our reasoning, added:

I still think the proportion is much higher.

Q.E.D.

Okay, we’re wrong about the tidal wave of immigration — but what is to be done?

In 1963, Dervla Murphy cycled from Dunkirk to Delhi. The book she wrote about her journey, Full Tilt, is full of stories of hospitality, from the Pathan tribesman who helped her fix a puncture, to the nameless Pakistani women who gave her unbidden deep tissue massages at the end of every day’s riding, and the Indian family who nursed her while she spent a few days enjoying good, old fashioned dysentery.

Towards the end of her journey, high in the Karakoram Mountains of Kashmir, she is beckoned over by an old man to help him dig an enormous thorn out of his foot.

After so many months owing her life to the generosity of strangers, Dervla pulls out her knife and spend a quarter of an hour in surgery.

She then reflects on the contrast between the baked-in hospitality of Afghanistan and Pakistan with how people behave back home in Europe:

Here [in Kashmir] one is merely another human being … and it’s taken for granted that one will help if necessary just as when one needs help it is unfailingly given without anyone stopping to consider inconvenience or cost.

When, I wonder, did we forget to be mere human beings?

It’s a numbers problem

When we talk about ‘immigrants’, ‘refugees’ or ‘asylum seekers’ our brains collapse and die. Statistically speaking, we can’t get our heads around the numbers.

By 2018, there were roughly 361,000 people living in the UK who had originally come here as asylum seekers. That’s a huge number.

But it’s only 0.6 percent of the total population of the UK — and nearly two-thirds of them had, by 2018, lived in this country for more than 15 years.

In other words, most successful asylum seekers have been in this country longer than our 11.5 million children under 15. How ‘foreign’ are these asylum seekers, really?

I could squirt these massive numbers into your eyeballs all day, but it wouldn’t make a jot of difference: they are all stratospherically incomprehensible. We simply can’t empathise when populations get that big.

Another question:

What’s the largest population size our puny brain can empathise with before it starts to struggle?

Congratulations to those of you who said one (1).

Yes: one whole human being. For populations in excess of one, we start to struggle.

This has been empirically tested by Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon. In a series of experiments, Slovic and his team looked at how much money people were willing to donate to help starving children in Africa.

Slovic summarises the outcome:

Donations to aid a starving 7-year-old child in Africa declined sharply when her image was accompanied by a statistical summary of the millions of needy children like her in other African countries. The numbers appeared to interfere with people’s feelings of compassion toward the young victim.

One starving child = pity. Millions of starving children = brain-melt.

Slovic calls this effect ‘psychic numbing’: the sheer scale of tragedy drives us to apathy.

And, as Slovic discovered in a follow-up study, psychic numbing begins at the vast number of just two human beings:

Feelings of compassion and donations of aid were smaller for a pair of victims than for either individual alone.

One starving child = pity. Two starving children = not so much.

No wonder we’re pulling up the drawbridge: our brains, if not our borders, are being swamped in statistics.

Wait — optimism coming up!

Remember Alan Kurdi? Of course you do. That’s the point: one human being.

Kurdi’s death was the story of one human being, tragically drowned while escaping to Kos — emphatically not the multitude of stories about the 7,000 or more nameless refugees who have landed (alive, thankfully) on Kos in the past two years alone.

The widespread media reports of Alan Kurdi’s death in September 2015 broke the dam on our natural instincts for hospitality, generosity and compassion — so apparent to Dervla Murphy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In fact, Thighs of Steel cyclists raise money for one of the appeals set up in that compassionate summer of 2015. Help Refugees is still going strong, although donations are harder to come by in recent years — a symptom of growing apathy around support for refugees.

I argue that this apathy is not because we have forgotten how to be mere human beings, but because our puny brains have been swamped by hundreds, thousands, millions and, occasionally, bazillions of — not immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees — but numbers themselves.

We need to go back to one.

When faced with one ‘mere human being’ in crisis, we respond with compassion and generosity. We do, we all do — yes, even the Daily Mail readers among us.

Think of the hoary line of the racist: ‘I just think people should go back where they came from — oh, I don’t mean you, Mr Melaku, you’re alright!’

In our ones, we’re all alright. So let’s not think then of the millions, but think of the one. Think of Dervla Murphy’s ‘mere human being’.

The old proverb more or less agrees: look after the ones and the millions will look after themselves.

~

Thanks to M.G. and F.M. for the reading suggestions. If you know a great book I should read, chuck it onto the Books Make Books thread.

If you’d like to get your head round more misperceptions, I encourage you to browse the Ipsos MORI Perils of Perception data archive.

First they came for the squatters…

It must sound like I do hardly any work at all, but — outside the hammock — I’ve been rather busy. Secret signups for Thighs of Steel are going really well. The list is now over two-thirds full so if you’re umming and ahhing, don’t wait too long!

Beth and I have also been working on a new project about vans. We spent yesterday evening at a meeting for van dwellers in Stokes Croft, partially for research, partially because I’m genuinely interested in buying a van in which to dwell.

It turns out that van dwellers are a community under attack.

Campaign group Friends, Families and Travellers explain:

On 5 November 2019, the Government launched a consultation to strengthen police powers against roadside Travellers.

This includes van dwellers of all stripes — yes, even the ones looking great on Instagram.

The governmentour government says:

We would like to consult on measures to criminalise the act of trespassing when setting up an unauthorised encampment in England and Wales.

An ‘unauthorised encampment’ could mean just two vehicles — your car and your trailer or caravan, for example. Criminalise.

The police have already said that they are against any changes to the current law — and that the real problem is the lack of site provision for Travellers.

This ‘consultation’ is driven, once more, by a government eager to stamp out alternative — both desperate and creative — solutions to a housing crisis of their own making, and instead to protect the property investments of their friends.

It’s also worth saying that most Travellers — over 95 percent according to some estimates — live on land they either own or have rights to, like my friend who lives in a yard under the wonderfully named ‘Showman’s License’.

This ugly witch hunt reminds me of the 2011 Conservative anti-squatting ‘consultation’, which received little support from the general public and vehement opposition from those who would have to enforce the unfair, punitive laws: both lawyers and, again, the police.

Despite this, the harshest imaginable anti-squatting laws were passed.

When peoples’ only choice is criminalised, the legality of the law itself is discredited.

— Professor Danny Dorling, Oxford University

If you’d like to have your say on the consultation, Friends, Families and Travellers have an excellent shortcut form that took me less than ten seconds to fill in.

First they came for the squatters, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a squatter.

Then they came for the Gypsies, Travellers and van dwellers…

Do we need a belligerent military?

When invited to volunteer doing DIY for a paramilitary youth organisation last week, I politely declined.

‘Paramilitary youth organisation’ is a deliberately precise way of describing the Sea Cadets, but I’ve had enough of euphemisms in the service of killing people.

From Wikipedia:

A paramilitary is a semi-militarised force whose organisational structure, tactics, training, subculture, and (often) function are similar to those of a professional military, but is not formally part of a country’s armed forces.

Okay, so the Sea Cadets might not be issued arms, but they do train young people in target shooting and ‘follow a similar ethos, training plan, and ranks, to the Royal Navy, and are recognised by the UK Ministry of Defence’.

There’s another euphemism: ‘defence’.

The United Kingdom has an incredibly violent history and it’s almost impossible to justify any of our killing sprees with the word ‘defence’.

In the century from 1910 to 2010, I counted that the British military were involved in at least 34 conflicts, lasting a total of around 200 years.

The biggest threat to UK citizens since the end of the Second World War has come from terrorist activities on British soil: the IRA in the 1970-1990s and the so-called Islamists since the British-American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003.

One important thing to note is that, although this terrorist activity on British soil has represented a real threat to our lives and livelihood, the defence of our citizens was largely performed by the police and other emergency services, not the military.

Terrorist activity is not a justification for the military. In fact, as I have rather clumsily intimated, I would argue that it was the activity of the British military that fomented these terrorist attacks, both from the IRA and so-called Islamists.

~

What most annoys me is that so many of my fellow citizens believe that a belligerent military is necessary for a flourishing society.

In 1947, Japan voluntarily surrendered its right of belligerency in Article 9 of their constitution.

ARTICLE 9

(1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

(2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

The Japanese don’t seem to have suffered for the decision. From the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan grew to become the second biggest economy in the world (now third, blown away like the rest of the world by the rise of China), and one of its most technologically advanced, leaving the UK in its dust.

Please can we all give up on the idea that belligerence is somehow necessary for our flourishing as a society?

* Important Note: Since the first Gulf War in Iraq, and despite ridiculous levels of development between 1947 and 1989, successive Japanese governments have extended the scope of its now euphemistically titled Self Defence Forces. The nationalist government of Shinzo Abe are currently doing their damnedest to revise Article 9 as well. These militarising decisions seem to be based more on gaining ‘international respect’ and getting a seat as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council than on supporting the health and flourishing of their citizens.

~

Notice that I’m talking about belligerence, not violence in all forms. I’m not a Buddhist and nor am I a pacifist. In fact, I’m not much of any kind of an -ist.

Categorical decision-making can tie you up in knots and I’d rather judge situations on their merits.

I concede that, perhaps, when human beings have really fucked things up good and proper, it’s just conceivable that violence is our only recourse for genuine defence.

But this is not the same ‘last resort’ rhetoric that is wheeled out with such alacrity by our politicians at the first whiff of oil. Human beings have to make decades of poor decisions before violence might become a necessity.

Whenever I argue against the existence of (for example) paramilitary youth organisations, people often bring up the Second World War. Wouldn’t I support – even participate in – military action to stop Hitler?

Not only is this incredibly disrespectful to the people who fought and died in such misery, but it also ignores the history that led to the awful violence.

The Second World War didn’t come out of nowhere; it resulted from decades of horrific mismanagement of international affairs.

Diplomats failed, economists failed, politicians failed. In the decades leading up to the start of the Second World War, including the First World War and its aftermath, human beings failed, time and time again, to cooperate harmoniously.

Then the worst thing that could possibly happen, happened.

Defenders of ‘defence’ seem to forget that war is the worst thing that can possibly happen to anyone. They seem to see ‘defence’ as something that happens a long way away, to other people. And, growing up as we have in a time of domestic peace, they’d be absolutely correct.

British ‘defence’ drops bombs and wrecks homes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Serbia. Each bomb is a testament to decades of shocking failure. But there is no doubt in my mind, having met quite a number of refugees from our conflicts, that war is the worst thing that can possibly happen to a human being.

Isolated and insulated, our military takes action too quickly, as if to justify their existence. So much can happen before violence breaks out: we should remember that side of history, not the reckless moment we start firing rockets.

~

But they do good things!

Humanitarian missions, disaster relief, ‘peacekeeping’ (another euphemism) – our soldiers do good work!

I wouldn’t even bother trying to argue over the value of our military’s humanitarian work. Only to say that there are, obviously, other ways of providing this relief through organisations that don’t rest on a fundamentally violent basis.

I believe that the fate of humanity is best served by cooperation between equals and that everyone is responsible for ensuring knowledge and power is shared equally.

This philosophical and ethical position is the diametric opposite of military organisation, where power is concentrated in the higher levels of the hierarchy, orders cascade down from above, and intelligence is shared on a ‘need to know’ basis.

If there is a kicker to this polemic, it’s this: in 2017, Panorama revealed that the Ministry of Defence had paid out more than £2 million to former Sea Cadets who were sexually abused.

As one of the victims said:

You are trained to follow orders and you are trained to respect the officers and do as they tell you. That includes having to lie on the floor on a dirty blanket and just lie there and… take it like a man.

According to the BBC, the Marine Society and Sea Cadets apologised unreservedly and promised that it wouldn’t happen again. Because that’s how power works, right?

I’ll leave the final word to a man who knew about military power and the paramount importance of both the unquestionable hierarchy and silencing those who strive for non-military solutions:

Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? …

But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship. …

The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

~ Hermann Göring, in an interview with psychologist Gustave Gilbert during the Nuremburg Trials

Factfulness

A dear friend of mine is currently reading Factfulness, an optimistic book about facts written by development darling Hans Rosling and his able collaborators.

The book opens with an absolute minefield of a multiple choice general knowledge quiz, which you can take here.

I’ll wait.

As you may have noticed, the quiz is intended to blow your mind with how much better life in our global village is today than most people (including experts) believe.

Less people live in extreme poverty than we think, more young women have access to education than we think, and global life expectancy is higher than we think.

In 2017, Hans Rosling’s Gapminder Foundation asked nearly 12,000 people in 14 countries to answer these questions. They scored on average just two correct answers out of the first 12. No one got full marks, and just one person (in Sweden) got 11 out of 12. Fifteen percent scored zero.

In fact, chimpanzees would have outscored the 80 percent of humans who did worse than random chance when they took the quiz.

There are two reasons I like this book, despite not having read it:

  1. The disparity between how well humans did – 2 out of 12 correct answers – and how well we should do if we simply picked one answer at random from the three given – 4 out of 12 correct answers – shows that our sources of information (AKA the news media) is systematically biased against reality and in favour of negativity. Newsless since 2017, I have long been an advocate of the No News is Good News information diet. Now I have some evidence that I might also be better informed.
  2. Although the general drift of the book is that things are, in general, getting better, the authors don’t argue that this is a result of anything other than decades of extremely hard work. Nor do they make the argument that everything is rosy in our planetary garden. As Rosling mega-fan Bill Gates puts it: ‘the world can be both bad and better’.

But one thing that immediately struck me as I was discussing the quiz with my dear friend was the absence of any questions about displaced persons.

And, as the 2019 Aegean Boat Report reminded me earlier this week, the world can also be both bad and worse.

At the end of 2018 – the latest year for which UNHCR have data – there were 74.79 million ‘persons of concern’ across the world, including refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons and stateless persons.

Ten years earlier there were ‘only’ 34.46 million such persons of concern. The number of human beings suffering has more than doubled.

Bad and worse.

UNHCR only have solid data going back to 1951, but, for reference, Wikipedia states that World War II created 11 million displaced people.

The last big surge in refugee numbers was after the break up of the Soviet Union. In 1992, there were 17.83 million refugees according to UNHCR figures.

At the end of 2018 there were 20.36 million – and this excludes the 5.5 million registered Palestinian refugees cared for under the auspices of a different UN agency.

Bad and worse.

Raw refugee numbers have doubled in the last decade, but the biggest single reason for the twenty-first century surge in UN persons of concern is down to a huge increase in the number of those displaced within the state they used to call their own.

In 2012 there were 17.67 million internally displaced persons in the world. At the end of 2018, there were 41.43 million.

This figure includes those driven from their homes in Syria, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ukraine and Colombia. They don’t meet the technical definition of ‘refugee’, but when you’re fleeing for your life it doesn’t much matter where you draw the border lines.

I’m a huge fan of Hans Rosling’s factfulness because it reminds us where we should be putting our efforts. The problem of displaced people – whether we call them refugees or not – is bad and getting worse. It deserves our attention.

If the mixing of peoples was the order of empires and the ‘unmixing of peoples’ the order of nation-states, what’s on the horizon?
Kapka Kassabova, Border (2017)

Merry Thighsmas!

We are thrilled to announce that together this year Thighs of Steel have raised a staggering £87,184.40 for grassroots refugee organisations.

A big thank you to everyone who donated – it means a lot!

Guided by expert advice from Help Refugees, that money has been granted to five organisations we believe will do justice to your hard earned cash.

Picking projects to fund is a tough job, and of course we wish we could support every project with everything they need, but we’ve tried to cover a wide range of refugee needs, including emergency aid, legal assistance, social integration and human dignity.

Here is a pretty pie chart showing where the money’s gone:

You can learn more about all these projects, exactly what we’re funding and why by reading The Reason page on the Thighs of Steel website. Thanks again.

‘Homelessness is a policy choice’ Jon Sparkes at Crisis Christmas Carols

My first Crisis shift is on Monday. I usually do two shifts at the end of the holiday, when everyone is clean and refreshed – but apprehensive about leaving the warmth of the converted school for the freezing loneliness of the streets. This year, I’m looking forward to greeting the guests as they come in from the cold on day one.

I know I’ve written about Crisis umpteen times on this newsletter, but last Saturday evening I sung my heart out at the Crisis carol service at Southwark Cathedral. Between the carols and tidings of goodwill, we heard three heart-rending stories from Crisis members, before Jon Sparkes, the charity’s chief executive, took to the pulpit.

He did a very diplomatic job of welcoming the new Conservative government.

‘Homelessness is a policy choice,’ Jon said, before outlining the plans to end homelessness that the Scottish government already has in place, and that the Welsh government are currently piecing together, in close consultation with Crisis.

The government of England has no such plan, nor any plans for such a plan.

Responding to the Conservative manifesto before the election, Jon said: ‘It’s deeply disappointing to see the Conservative manifesto fall short of the mark when it comes to ending homelessness, in all its forms, once and for all.’

Crisis is instead working with local authorities to implement their own plans, helping them take control where national leadership is lacking. Newcastle, for example, has pledged to end homelessness within the next ten years.

This Christmas, about 4,500 homeless guests – or ‘fellow citizens’ as Jon called them – will join 12,000 volunteers at the ten Crisis centres around London.

12,000 volunteers! This is an incredible show of support for our marginalised fellow citizens, whose population has grown so vertiginously over the past ten years.

But what’s even more incredible is that we are all still living in a society beholden to the pernicious Vagrancy Act of 1824 that makes rough sleeping a criminal offence.

Crisis are currently running a campaign to scrap the act, but isn’t it incredible that they should have to campaign at all?

Yet here we are. In England, at least, we fall further and further every year from our goal of ending homelessness, in all its forms, once and for all. The United Kingdom is the sixth biggest economy on the planet. Shame.

Rather than leave you on such a downer, I want to say again that we are each of us tiny slivers of society. Yes, life would be so much easier if we had the backing of the government and that enormous economy, but we can each participate, with our time, money, anger, or simply with a kind word on the street.

The election that brought us together

This will be remembered as the election that brought us closer together.

Bear with me on this one.

For me, like many, this election was the first where I was an active participant beyond casting my vote. I wish I could find numbers to support this comment, but all I have is anecdote.

On Monday night I went to canvass in the Kensington constituency, but went home without knocking once – there were more than 200 volunteers and only so many doors.

But my canvassing in Bournemouth West and Reading West meant that for the first time in my life I was purposefully engaging complete strangers in conversation about everything we humans hold most dear: our health, wealth, families and futures.

How could such meaningful conversations fail to bring us closer together?

Perhaps half of the people I spoke to weren’t remotely interested in holding an unsolicited conversation on their doorsteps. They’d convey this in a manner either polite or abrupt – I hold short of saying ‘rude’ because who knows from what I interrupted them?

But half of my answered knocks ended up with a profitable conversation of some sort. Of course, some of those conversations were with people intending to vote for the Conservative Party. Of course, we started from opposite poles of opinion. But did those conversations drive us apart? No.

The original sense of the word ‘conversation’ is to ‘live with’, rather than to ‘talk with’. For these brief moments, facing each other across a threshold, we tried to find ways of living together, squaring the sympathetic human before us with the antipathetic opinions they espoused.

It wasn’t always easy, but I always walked away feeling like I understood a little better and had lived a little fuller.

From brief glimpses, I guessed that the lives I interrupted were trimmed from the same cloth as the one I returned to after the door closed softly: a mother and son watching the football on TV, a woman washing the dishes before going out, one man drinking a beer after work, another taking the dog out for a walk.

So, for me at least, this will be remembered as the election that brought us closer together.

What do we do now?

Today, though, everyone is asking, ‘What do we do now?’

I’ve done the research. France sounds good – citizenship in two years if I enrol on a masters degree and don’t develop any ‘assimilation defects’.

Italy is a viable option too, assuming I can find someone – anyone – willing to marry a jobbing writer in his late thirties.

Quitting the country aside, what do we do now?

Last night’s election results have made me think more carefully about what I’m already doing, and to measure that against the yardstick of my ideal future society.

It’s not a complicated calibration – am I pushing in the right direction? – and I think this election gives us all a moment’s grace to tap the barometer and take a reading of our purpose.

If we decide that what we were doing yesterday is helping to create our own vision of society, then we should double down and use the vacant impotence of the general election results to motivate ourselves to work harder and faster toward our goals.

If we decide that what we were doing yesterday doesn’t align with our vision, then we must change. We must do whatever we can to change whatever we can in our lives today so that we are always working towards a more promising community.

Life is too short to stay indoors, praying for rain.

~

So I spent the morning working on Thighs of Steel, a project that creates the kinds of communities that I want to participate in.

This year, for example, the 90 cyclists raised over £87,000 for grassroots refugee organisations that I know have a uplifting influence on the lives of the dispossessed in our society.

So what can I do? I can use the energy of this election to work even harder on next year’s ride to make sure that it’s as successful as it possibly can be. That’s what I can do.

In just over a week, I will be volunteering with Crisis at Christmas. This year I’m doing three shifts instead of my usual two. It’s not a huge amount of work, but it’s the kind of response that I can make to the crisis of five more years of Conservative government.

We know that homelessness will increase again during this parliament.

Since the Conservatives first came to power in 2010, the number of households in temporary accommodation in England has risen by 60 percent (2017 figures; it’s got even worse since then) and the number of homeless people being treated in A&E has tripled (2018 figures). That’s astonishing.

I cast my vote for a party that promised to end rough sleeping within five years. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a priority for most of my fellow voters.

So what can I do? I can, in some small way, stand in solidarity with rough sleepers and homeless people by volunteering my time over Christmas. That’s what I can do.

~

Reading that back, it sounds like I’m virtue signalling, wanging my holier-than-thou altruistic tittery around like a politician before his scandal hits the newsstands. Sorry – that’s not what I meant.

I’m trying to say that everything we do is political because everything we do contributes to the future society that we’re building together.

So how does that society feel to you? And how can we use the energy and momentum of this election – however you voted – to deepen the ways we live with each other?

‘You can’t teach stupid’ Doorstep Politics General Election 2019

On Wednesday afternoon, I canvassed the streets of Westbourne on behalf of the Labour Party.

People jump to conclusions when you wander around wearing a very large, bright red rosette on your jacket – I would too if someone knocked on my door saying, ‘Hello, I’m canvassing for the Labour Party.’

What’s important is what happens after we’ve all jumped to our conclusions. Do you shut the door in my face? Or do we have a conversation and try to understand each other? Continue reading ‘You can’t teach stupid’ Doorstep Politics General Election 2019

Official Secrets

I watched a film last week. I don’t watch many – perhaps two or three in a busy year – so the ones that I do see tend to linger in the memory, especially when they are as personal as this one.

Official Secrets is based on the true story of GCHQ translator Katharine Gun, who in 2003 was sent an NSA memo that requested GCHQ’s help in spying on members of the UN Security Council to find leverage so that Britain and the US could get the votes needed for a second UN resolution to approve the invasion of Iraq. Pretty corrupt.

Gun leaked the document to the Observer newspaper, caused an international incident, confessed her crime and was charged with a breach of the Official Secrets Act.

When her lawyer decided to use Gun’s time in court to put the legality of Tony Blair’s Iraq war on trial, the government withdrew the prosecution.

The invasion went ahead, despite the largest protest event in human history and still without the approval of the UN Security Council.

Hundreds of thousands of people died, millions of refugees fled their homes – and are still in exile – and, in all likelihood, Tony Blair will never be prosecuted for war crimes.

“I work for the British people. I do not gather intelligence so the government can lie to the British people.”
~Katharine Gun

For more, read this interview with Katharine Gun in the Observer.

Photos taken by me at the Stop the War march, 15 February 2003. That kid can probably vote at this election.

 

‘Here is no work; there is war’: Refugees in İzmir

In Europe, we think we have a refugee crisis.

According to Full Fact, 17,205 people were granted asylum in the UK in 2018. Over the same period, Germany granted asylum to 139,555 people.

Meanwhile, there are nearly 100,000 refugees living in Greece, including over 35,000 on the Greek islands, in conditions that have been described as a humanitarian disaster.

But let’s have a little perspective, shall we? In Turkey, there are over 3,600,000 Syrian refugees, living with the limited legal rights granted under ‘temporary protection’, in the shadow of a war zone.

So, while on Samos, I had to take a couple of days out to visit İzmir, one of the most important transit cities for refugees crossing from Turkey to Greece.

İzmir is positioned with easy access to the strip of coastline that faces Lesvos, Chios and Samos, three of the Greek island ‘hotspots’ where refugees can register for asylum in Europe.

Syrians have been coming to İzmir for decades: easily evidenced by the dozens of established cafes and restaurants doing quick business around Basmane railway station in the city centre.

After a hearty lunch of fuul and khubz in a canteen overflowing with Syrians – young and old, male and female, refugee and resident – I asked around for someone who spoke English and was directed to a young guy we’ll call Ahmed.

Ahmed told me that he’d only been in Turkey for 20 days – and had spent 15 of those in prison. He’d already tried to cross to Samos twice and both times he’d been picked up by the Turkish coastguard after helicopters spotted his boat.

According to Aegean Boat Report, the Turkish coastguard have stopped 2,699 boats like Ahmed’s from crossing to Europe this year. Only about a third of the refugees who leave Turkey on boats arrive in Greece.

~

Ahmed tells me that he’s got a brother in Athens who crossed the Aegean to Greece before the 2016 EU-Turkey refugee agreement that has made the coastguard so vigilant.

In the 2016 deal, the EU promised Turkey €6 billion in financial aid as well as visa-free travel through Europe for Turkish citizens. In return, Turkey would better patrol the European border and re-admit refugees who reached Greece illegally.

In reality, the Greek leftist Syriza government, in power until this summer, proved reluctant to send refugees back to conditions where their human rights would not be respected.

The new Greek conservative government has promised to make far greater use of the returns agreement, but it is yet to be seen whether such a course of action is feasible, let alone defensible.

~

After being picked up by the coastguard, Ahmed and the others in his boat were taken to a detention centre. He told me that he was beaten up by the police and that the detainees shared living quarters the size of a basketball court with as many as 1,500 others.

Ahmed spent five days in detention before being deported back to the border with Syria. But he – and all the friends he made in the detention centre – came straight back to İzmir to try to cross again. ‘Here is no work; there is war,’ he says. ‘What can we do?’

~

Ahmed isn’t even supposed to be in İzmir: he doesn’t have the right papers. He’s supposed to stay in the province bordering Syria where he first arrived in Turkey.

Throughout our conversation, Ahmed’s eyes were darting around, looking over my shoulder for the police who often sweep through Basmane checking people’s papers.

Earlier that day, I’d spoken to Onur, the head of an official refugee support NGO in the city. Over a glass of tea in his office, Onur politely apologised. He was sorry, but he couldn’t tell me much about the situation for refugees in Turkey without getting the approval of the Directorate General of Migration Management.

But Onur was able to tell me that there were around 180,000 Syrians in İzmir – significantly more than the official figure because of irregular migration between provinces by refugees like Ahmed.

Onur told me that refugees can change their papers when they move to a different province, but Ahmed explains that this is not the case for İzmir, Istanbul, Ankara or any of the other few places where you might be able to live – or escape to Greece.

~

Here in İzmir, Ahmed shares a room in a hotel with his new friends. Despite splitting the single room between five people, one of their jobs today is to find somewhere cheaper.

The whole area around Basmane is a maze of cheap hotels, fast food joints, shoe sellers and cigarette pushers. The hotels are mostly full of Africans, who stay for one or two nights and then move on. Syrian refugees tend to stay in run-down houses, scarcely fit for human habitation, infested with mice and cockroaches – but at least they’re cheap.

Life here is hard. Ahmed has only one friend who can speak Turkish and he has to do all the translating for the group. Ahmed speaks great English, but that’s not much use here. He studied English in school for eight years, but since then he’s lived through seven years of war.

‘I’m 25,’ he tells me. ‘If I don’t go to Europe, I have no future anywhere.’

~

Samos Update: There are now 400 more refugees on Samos than there were when I arrived – up to 6,492 according to Aegean Boat Report. That’s despite the transfer of more than 700 people to the mainland a couple of weeks ago.

‘Here is nothing special’: Snippets from Samos

Two weeks is a long time on such a fevered island as Samos. The sights, sounds and stories could each fill a book, I’m sure, but I’ll have to content myself with reporting these snippets that I don’t have time to do justice to.

~

After I left Samos, a friend sent me a short text message concerning the distribution of open cards that saw 700 people transferred to the mainland. ‘Did you know that during the big transfer they actually broke up families?’ she asked me, rhetorically. ‘Half the family would be on the list and have five minutes to pack. If the dad was on the list and he wasn’t there, they just left him.’

~

I met a young man – let’s call him Aarash – a 17 year-old from Afghanistan who grew up in Iran. He came to Samos alone and was excited to show me the ‘house’ that he had just finished building with the help of resourceful friends made at the camp. It was a wood-frame shelter stapled with tarpaulins.

Minors aren’t given any money to survive, so rely on kindness and solidarity. He was given a sleeping bag by an NGO and a mattress by the camp. Older refugees who’d taken care of him used some of their money to buy tarpaulins and wood.

Four people will sleep on that mattress, but it’s a significant upgrade from the flimsy tent they had been living in for the past few weeks.

Aarash goes to an NGO-run school in the town and learns English, Greek and German. They feed him breakfast and lunch, so he doesn’t need to rely too much on the revolting food handed out at the end of a long queue by the camp authorities.

~

There is one doctor for 6000 refugees on Samos – medical, not psychological. Not everyone has flesh wounds; most of the scarring is on the inside.

~

One founder of an NGO on Samos told me that, while grassroots organisations like his ‘want to go out of business’, the big, transnational NGOs are already planning their budget for 2021 – ‘they need to stay in business’, he says with disgust.

~

I met a 27 year-old man whose ‘Greek age’ is 17. It’s a calculated gamble on his part: if at his interview they accept that he is indeed only 17, then he is will be classified as an unaccompanied minor and put on the priority list for transfer to Athens.

Without giving away too many details, this man’s home country is in Africa; he stands little chance of getting refugee status if the authorities discover his real age.

In the meantime, however, as a 17 year-old, this man does not get the financial support that older asylum-seekers receive; he lives by volunteering for the Samos NGOs and gets food in return. He has chosen short-term penury in the hope of longer-term advantage.

He looks 27.

~

‘Here is nothing special’ – the words of an Ethiopian woman, looking around at the disgusting camp and reflecting on why she bothered coming to Europe.

The Oldest Warzone

The two most shocking stories I heard while travelling came as a pair, one from each side of the Aegean border.

The first I heard from a Turkish volunteer in Izmir. This was her friend’s story and she prefaced the whole by saying that she was only repeating the otherwise unbelievable – and barbaric – tale because she trusts her friend absolutely.

The two friends volunteer for a small organisation in Izmir that tries to help refugees integrate into Turkish society. It started as a place where refugees and locals could come together to cook and eat a meal. Now they also distribute warm clothes during winter and help refugees navigate Turkish bureaucracy. Just last week, for example, the volunteers helped a Syrian boy enrol in a local schools, something that his parents couldn’t have done alone.

Recently, the friend accompanied a pregnant Syrian woman when she went to hospital to give birth. The birth was a success, but afterwards she was presented with a piece of paper to sign. The new mother couldn’t read the paper written in Turkish, of course, but she was pressured to sign anyway.

It was a medical consent form for the surgeons to strip her ovaries and render her infertile.

After repeating this story, and repeating her incredulity that it could possibly be true, my Turkish friend averred that the hospital’s reported behaviour was totally unethical. But she also said that it was understandable, from both a financial and moral stand point.

Turkey isn’t a rich country and childbirth costs a lot of money that the government cannot recoup from penniless refugees. But my friend also told me that many refugees in Izmir live on the streets, or in hotels and apartments that are barely inhabitable. There is little enough money to feed themselves, let alone extra mouths. It’s irresponsible to have kids in this situation, my friend cried. It is not right.

It was my time to repeat a story I’d heard a few days before in Samos. There might be other reasons that a refugee needs pregnancy and childbirth.

Two months pregnant and travelling alone, a Syrian woman arrived on Samos and was taken to the hospital for a check up. At the hospital, it was discovered that this woman had been raped during her journey to Europe. The doctor told her that, because of the rape, she was entitled to have an abortion.

The woman refused. Thanks to her pregnancy, she explained, she would be placed on the ‘vulnerable persons’ list and given priority for transfer away from Samos to the mainland. No one wants to stay for long in the filth of Samos. Pregnancy is the closest a human being here can get to a free ticket out of the camp.

These rules are made with the noblest of intentions, I’m sure, but their side effects are barbaric.

As a topper to this story, I was told a third by an Ethiopian woman in the Samos camp. She had a friend who had been transferred to Athens because she was pregnant. Tragically, after she arrived in Athens, she had a miscarriage. With no baby, the authorities tried to transfer her back to Samos.

I should say that these stories are uncorroborated, but they raised little more than an eyebrow when retold to local volunteers who have heard too many, too similar.

Women’s bodies are history’s oldest warzone: a millennia-old war fought between state and self over who has the right to new life – in all senses.

Fire on Samos: Engineered Catastrophe (AYS Special)

It’s said that the Greek islands are where time stands still. The waves and the shore, the sun in the sky, old men in the plateía, the stars. Well, time certainly doesn’t stand still on Samos any longer.

Over the past two weeks, refugees, activists, volunteers and townsfolk alike have been rocked by a series of convulsions that have created what one long-term volunteer described to me as, “the toughest conditions I’ve ever seen on Samos”.

Samos is one of five designated refugee ‘hotspots’ across the East Aegean, the liquid border between Turkey and the European Union. These hotspots, which also include the islands of Lesvos, Chios, Kos and Leros, were created in 2016 as holding pens for people wishing to claim asylum in Europe.

The hotspot system means that refugees arriving on Samos are stuck here until their claims have been assessed — a process that often takes a couple of years. But, with more people arriving on the island than leaving, the system is heading inexorably for failure.

The official 2011 census put the population of Samos Town at 6,251. The most recent figures from Aegean Boat Report for the town’s refugee population is 6,458 — with 599 arriving in the last week alone. Meanwhile, the official capacity for the refugee camp is just 648 (yes, that’s not a typo — six hundred and forty-eight).

With a camp almost ten times overcapacity and a refugee population to match the town itself, life in Samos is tense. Everyone is fed up.

The Camp

The official refugee camp and the informal ‘jungle’ shelters that surround it are pitched precariously on the steep slopes above the town. Conditions are predictably awful; a pattern for refugee accommodation repeated so often across Europe that it’s at risk of sounding ‘normal’.

There aren’t enough tents to go around, there aren’t sufficient toilets, showers and sanitation, there isn’t electricity or lighting, there are no kitchens or cooking facilities, and nowhere near enough drinking water taps. Normal.

Over winter, Samos gets more than twice the rainfall that London does. The downpour turns the hillside camp into a mudslide. Worse. Outside of the official camp, there are few (if any) toilets: 6,000 people with little choice but to shit and piss wherever they can. Every winter, the refugees’ cheap tents are washed away on a tide of mud and piss and shit.

The recently elected mayor of Eastern Samos, Giorgos Stantzos well knows these problems. But the people I spoke to in the town were far from certain that their leader was helping to solve them. In fact, some thought he was creating conditions that would lead to catastrophe.

The Attack on NGOs

On Samos, there are a dozen or so refugee support organisations who do almost all the work necessary to give refugees some hope of a future on planet earth, let alone in Europe.

There are organisations that offer legal advice, others that hold language classes in Greek, English, German, French, Farsi and Arabic; some that cook and serve food (the less said about the food provided by the camp the better), others that put on fitness classes for kids and adults.

These solo volunteers, grassroots organisations and larger NGOs exist only so long as the local Greek authorities, led by Mayor Stantzos, turn a blind eye.

At 9.30am on Friday 11 October, representatives of every branch of local government — the mayor’s office, the police, the health service, the fire department, building regulators and the tax office — marched en masse into the offices, kitchens, warehouses and schoolrooms of the various refugee support organisations on the island.

Do you have this certificate? Do you have that invoice? Where are this man’s papers?

These organisations, funded by hundreds of small-time donors like you and me, face the threat of gargantuan fines upwards of €10,000 for the slightest infraction — a missing invoice for tomatoes or a building certificate they didn’t realise was (or has mysteriously become) necessary.

Needless to say, the cost of such fines would be unbearable. Then who will teach Greek, English or German? Who will show a path through the asylum labyrinth? Who will feed the hungry?

It was an overwhelming display of power. Not, you’d have thought, the actions of an administration that wants the best possible care for the refugees in their fiefdom.

The Catastrophe

Then, last Monday 14 October, a fight broke out in the queue for food at the camp. The usual story: frustration exploding into violence over long waits and crappy meals. Three Syrian men were stabbed in the fight and taken to hospital.

That night, Afghan and Arab refugees started throwing improvised ‘gas bombs’ at each other. The fire department were called, but, according to eyewitnesses, stood idly by as the fire ripped through the camp, turning tents and shelters into ash and making hundreds homeless — even more homeless, if it is possible, than they were before.

The police told refugees to abandon the camp and go down into the town, where they were looked after by — who else? — the NGOs who’d been the subject of such official hostility only days before.

And the Mayor? His response was to close the schools in the town. One Samos resident I spoke to was furious at his actions: ‘What message does that send to people? “Be scared!”’

Mayor Stantzos didn’t start the fight and he didn’t start the fire. He only inherited this Herculean, Sisyphean and certainly thankless task in June, just as refugee arrivals were rising again.

The Mayor is very careful to point the finger of blame for the disaster at the Greek government and the European Union. But by shutting down the schools and launching a bureaucratic assault on grassroots refugee support NGOs, he is at least contributing to an atmosphere of catastrophe.

And perhaps, when neither Athens nor Brussels will listen to anything but the most lurid headlines, a catastrophe was exactly what the island needed.

Everyone saw how last month’s deadly fire on Lesvos resulted in quick transfers to the mainland. Is it any surprise that some might see chaos as their only chance for peace?

The Hunger Strike — and Open Cards

In the days after the fire, refugees from Africa started blockading the food distribution in the camp in protest at — well, in protest at just about everything.

On Saturday, the blockade was broken when the camp authorities started handing out the precious ‘open cards’ that would allow some refugees — mainly single women and families — to leave Samos and travel to Athens and the mainland.

Grimly, the catastrophe has ‘worked’.

The distribution of ‘open cards’ — they’re actually just stamps on refugee documents — is a step forward. Migration ministry secretary Manos Logothetis has said that, by the end of this week, 1,000 people will have been transferred off the island. On Monday, 700 refugees did indeed leave Samos — but on the same day 200 arrived on boats from Turkey.

This is what passes for good news on Samos. The reality is that even the transfer of as many as 1,000 people only rolls conditions back to how they were in March, beyond the point when aid groups were already warning of a “humanitarian disaster”.

The reality is that life on the mainland is rarely much of an improvement for most.

Every time I visit the margins of the union we’ve created, my opinion becomes ever more certain: there can be no resolution to this crisis until Europe implements a sensible policy of open borders and freedom for all to work.

Samos: Open Cards and Protests

Listen on Substack.

It used to be said that the Greek islands were a place where time stands still.

The waves and the shore, the sun in the sky, old men in the plateía, the stars.

Well, time certainly doesn’t stand still on Samos any more. It’s only 24 hours since my last audio from the island, and already I have news.

After a food blockade that lasted since the fire on Monday night, this afternoon the authorities started handing out the precious ‘open cards’ that would allow some refugees – mainly single women and families, mainly African by all accounts – to leave Samos and travel to Athens and the mainland.

Meanwhile, at the seafront, a group of Arabs are now protesting: where are their ‘open cards’?

An hour ago, I went down to have a look. A thin line of police stood in front of a banner the Arabs had unfurled.

We demand the European Union and the United Nations save our children.

The sun sank into the sea. I took some photos and started to record audio.

Then I was pulled away by police. They asked for my passport and told me to delete the photos, not only from the photo gallery, but also from the ‘recycle bin’.

(Luckily, my phone is old and slow so I was able to restore them minutes later.)

The distribution of ‘open cards’ – they’re actually just stamps on refugee documents – is a step forward. The news is going around that by next week 2,000 people will have been transferred off the island.

And this is what passes for good news on Samos. The reality is that even the transfer of as many as 2,000 people only rolls conditions back to how they were in February when aid groups were already warning of a “humanitarian disaster”.

Weirdly, the photos that I later took of the Frontex banner were self-censored by my phone. Who knew Sony were so left-leaning?

Audio: Samos Refugee Protest

You can now listen to my first audio update on Substack.

I wish this first edition could be more fun, but this morning I was at a demonstration led by hundreds of refugees from Africa and Afghanistan.

They were protesting the deplorable conditions at the Samos Vathí refugee ‘camp’ and in particular at the injustice of being trapped on the island.

All everyone wants to do is leave. But instead we have politics.

Thank you for listening – please do let me know what you think. Do you like audio? Would you like more? Should I stop saying ‘and, erm’ all the time?

Much love,
dc:

As Predicted: Fire on Samos

A week is a long time in politics, especially when that politics is throwing gas bombs at your tent in a refugee camp.

On Monday morning, I wrote an email to The Guardian.

I thought they might be interested in the news that I shared with you last Friday: that the mayor of Samos seemed to be engineering the conditions for a catastrophe by putting unbearable pressure on the international organisations who are supporting refugees with food, shelter, clothes, education, entertainment and legal advice.

The final line of my email to the International Desk was:

While refugees on Lesvos have at least the sympathy and support of the island, on Samos the mayor is bent on pushing the situation to catastrophe: a riot, a fire – anything to make Athens and the EU take notice and do something.

That night, after an earlier dispute in the long queue for food, Afghan and Arab refugees started chucking gas bombs at each other. A huge fire ripped through the camp, turning tents and shelters into ash and making hundreds homeless – even more homeless, if it is possible, than they were before.

I couldn’t help but send what was admittedly a pretty snarky follow-up email to the heretofore silent International Desk:

Huge fire in Samos refugee ‘jungle’ tonight, hundreds evacuated and homeless. Maybe someone will take notice now!

Silence at the International Desk. Well, I guess no one died and something kind of similar happened a few weeks ago on Lesvos, so…

~

Correction: On Wednesday, The Guardian published this piece about the Turkish military ‘push’ into Syria, which contained the following brief mention of the fire on Samos:

On Monday a fire broke out at an overcrowded camp above Vathy, the port town of Samos, after inter-ethnic clashes.

‘Inter-ethnic clashes’. Really?

Factually not inaccurate, but this throw-away line does no justice to the events of the past two weeks.

Worse, this kind of journalism perpetuates the narrative that political decisions – international, national, local – have no effect on how human beings like you and I behave.

This ‘no effect’ narrative is easy. It’s easy to simply put the fire down to ‘inter-ethnic clashes’. Far too easy. Lazy you could almost say.

~

In October 1963, Bob Dylan wrote a song about a boxer who died as a result of injuries sustained during a bout earlier that year.

‘Who killed Davey Moore? Why and what’s the reason for?’ Dylan asks, as the referee, the angry crowd, his manager and the gambling man shrug their shoulders and pass the blame.

The last to pass the blame is ‘the boxing writer’, who points the finger squarely at Davey Moore’s opponent.

An easy narrative. It’s easy to simply pin the blame on a foreign boxer who ‘came here from Cuba’s door’. Far too easy. Lazy you could almost say.

~

What is my narrative, then?

Who can blame refugees for fighting over food when the food always runs out before the whole of the two-hour queue has been served?

Who can even blame the mayor for cooking up the conditions for catastrophe, when nothing else has convinced the EU to put an end to this barbarism?

There is only one practical solution to this crisis: open the borders and let these people work.

In 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel saw that this was the only practical solution. She was not supported by the rest of the EU, and now has been compelled to fall in line with our other so-called ‘leaders’ and join them in refusing these people justice.

Which is all a bit of a shame because a recent report found that the million or so refugees who came to Germany in 2015 have been ‘integrating’ into society faster than expected: around 400,000 are already employed. This is better than past migrations, such as after the Balkan conflict in the early 90s, and particularly impressive given how difficult it is for Arabic speakers to learn German, let alone start a new life in the country.

But the ‘open borders’ narrative is not so easy. It makes it hard to answer the question I’m often asked: ‘What can we do?’

In short: we can give our time and/or money, either directly to the grassroots refugee organisations who are supporting people on the ground, like those here in Samos; or we can use our elevated European status to advocate for the only just political solution: open borders.

Samos: Tales of Shutdown

ABOUT SAMOS: Samos is an island ruled by legend and beauty. Everything around the virgin landscape is made of colour and light. Each step one takes is a revelation. [Visit Greece]

ALSO: Samos is one of five designated refugee ‘hotspots’ across the East Aegean, the liquid border between the Middle East and the European Union.

These ‘hotspots’, which also include the islands of Lesvos, Chios, Kos and Leros, were created in 2016 as holding pens for people wishing to claim asylum in Europe. This means that refugees arriving in Samos are stuck here until their claims have been assessed – a process that often takes a couple of years.

RESIDENT POPULATION OF SAMOS TOWN: 6,251 (2011 Census)
REFUGEE POPULATION OF SAMOS: 6,085 (Aegean Boat Report, 11 October 2019)

Refugee population numbers are always difficult to get right: the Aegean Boat Report figures are slightly higher than the official UNHCR count. Local NGOs estimate the figure to be even higher, with perhaps as many as 7,000 refugees on the island.

The difficulty comes because, when refugees receive a second refusal to their asylum application, they dare not renew their protection documents in case they are picked up by the police, and so they are missed in official counts.

But they are still here. And still they arrive.

Last month alone, 2,124 more people arrived on Samos from Turkey. The numbers of new arrivals have more than doubled compared to September last year. [UNHCR]

MAXIMUM CAPACITY OF SAMOS REFUGEE CAMP: 648 (six hundred and forty-eight, IOM)

~

The refugees on Samos predominantly live in and around the refugee camp, on the hillside that overlooks the island’s main town. A few are able to rent accommodation in the town, but most live in shelters and tents pitched on the steep slopes.

The steep slopes.

As I write this email to you, the sun is shining on another bright October day. Like me, you probably have a strong image in your mind of the Greek islands in summer: vast blue skies and a sun that bakes. In summer.

The Samian winter – which runs from the end of October until mid-April – is perhaps mild by British standards (although British standards do tend to assume a house and central heating).

But the rain.

We had the first sighting last Friday. A storm broke while I was leaving Ikaría. The wind blew, the rain gushed, local Greeks ran for cover, children screamed, and the power cut out for several hours.

Over winter, Samos gets more than twice the rainfall that London does. The downpour turns the panoramic refugee camp into a mudslide. Worse. Outside of the official camp (population 700), there are few (if any) toilets: 6,000 people with little choice but to shit and piss wherever they can.

Their cheap tents are washed away every winter on a tidal wave of mud and piss and shit.

~

On Samos, there are a dozen or so refugee support organisations who do almost all the work necessary to give these people some hope of a future on planet earth, let alone in Europe.

There are organisations that offer legal advice; others that hold language classes in Greek, English, German, French, Farsi and Arabic; some that cook and serve food (the less said about the food provided by the camp the better); others that put on fitness classes for kids and adults.

These solo volunteers, grassroots organisations and larger NGOs exist only so long as the Greek authorities, including the camp administration, shrug their shoulders or turn a blind eye.

I won’t repeat what has been said to me, but I haven’t yet heard a single good word said about the leader of the camp administration. It is fair to say that none of the grassroots organisations have any kind of a relationship with the people that run the camp.

When I arrived last week, all the volunteers I spoke to told me that the local authorities were trying to shut down all the refugee support NGOs, harassing them with spot-checks from the mayor’s office, the police, the health service, the fire department, the building regulators and the tax office.

Today it happened.

Starting at 9.30am this morning, representatives of every branch of local government marched en masse into the offices, kitchens, warehouses and schoolrooms of all the refugee support organisations on the island. It was an overwhelming display of power.

Do you have this certificate? Do you have that invoice? Where are this man’s papers?

~

I will have to leave you on a cliff-hanger, I’m afraid. As I write, an emergency meeting of NGO coordinators is taking place. Right now, people who are only trying their best to help are licking their wounds and comparing the size of their fines.

These tiny organisations, funded by dozens – hundreds – of small-time donors like you and me, are under threat of gargantuan fines up to €10,000 for the slightest infraction – a missing invoice for tomatoes or a building certificate they didn’t realise was (or has mysteriously become) necessary.

Needless to say, the cost of such fines would be unbearable. Then who will teach Greek, English or German? Who will show a path through the asylum labyrinth? Who will feed the hungry?

For the past two months, volunteers at one community restaurant have fed around 550 refugees every day, serving a free lunch to the camp’s most vulnerable residents, including the elderly, disabled, and pregnant and breast-feeding women.

But with the authorities seemingly determined to shut these NGOs down, how long can this restaurant survive? The restaurant founders spent four months getting all the right certificates and licenses to run a kitchen above board. But if the shut-down is not successful today, then what about tomorrow? Tomorrow’s tomorrow?

Then everyone will have to go back to standing in line from two in the morning to get a breakfast of one plastic-coated croissant and a carton of juice.

After today’s assault, perhaps some of the NGOs here on Samos will have to end their operations. Perhaps the crack-down was also intimidation, a message to the EU from a Greek government that has had enough. Perhaps, to some extent, life will go on as before.

This is Greece; we don’t know.

Athens: Where the baby never stopped crying

There is an organisation here in Athens called Kids Klub who – among other things – help construct playgrounds in the squats that house refugees.

SIDE BAR: Why are refugees still living in squats? Indeed – why are they still living on the streets? That’s a question you’d have to ask the Athenian municipality.

Constructing playgrounds for refugee children seems like a marvellous idea, and when I found out about the project I was delighted. But not everyone – not even everyone who supports a state-free world and No Borders – sees it quite that way.

The disagreement orbits the essential question faced at some point or another by everyone who comes here wanting to support refugees:

Should we try to satisfy the immediate material needs of people in a shitty situation; or should we instead focus on the massive, long-term, systemic political or bureaucratic action that might just lift people out of their shitty situation, permanently?

~

Over the past few weeks, at least five squats in the Exarchia area of Athens have been evicted, the playgrounds torn up, destroyed.

Understandably, the volunteers who’d helped build the playgrounds were utterly distraught at seeing their work undone and hundreds of their friends rounded up, loaded onto buses and driven to a detention centre in Corinth that doesn’t even have beds, let alone toilets.

But this wanton act of violence – when viewed from the other side of Alice’s looking glass – was entirely predictable.

~

I had a conversation with a friend grown tired of the whole unhappy cycle of emergency aid and eviction. Their fatigued conclusion was that perhaps the last few years of volunteer efforts (including their own) have been misplaced and that the current complaints about the government and police action are more self-righteous than justified.

Clearly the police response was (and continues to be) barbaric – no one on earth deserves to have all their worldly possessions thrown into a rubbish truck and driven out of the city to be incinerated – but it was not unforeseeable. As a permanent living situation, the squats were completely unsustainable: a humanitarian, but illegal response to an emergency without end.

It is an unfortunate circumstance that we live in a world where one can’t simply appropriate an empty building to house destitute people. This is bullshit, of course, but it’s the bullshit in which we haplessly wallow. The squats were always going to be evicted, if not yesterday, then today.

My friend, a staunch supporter of refugee freedom who lives as they preach, couldn’t help but wonder whether the majority of the last four years of tireless volunteer action, spent on slightly improving the day-to-day lives of refugees in unsustainable accommodation, had in fact been squandered.

The squats have now been evicted and what do the refugees have to show for all their work? Almost nothing.

Yet what might have been possible if all those volunteers had thrown themselves with equal vigour into political advocacy?

Perhaps the painful sacrifice of day-to-day humanitarian support (and playgrounds) would have been offset by a significant concession from the government to make refugees’ lives in Greece more sustainable in the long term (or at least got them out of the country).

Perhaps more work on refugee integration might have reduced rather than exacerbated the local Greek resentment that has proven fertile ground for the new right-wing government.

These remarks are enough to earn you plenty of cold shoulders, by the way. They represent a voice not often heard among the volunteers of Athens.

~

Chatting to another friend on one of the regular protest marches through the city, I heard the other, blunter, side of the argument.

‘It’s all very well saying that political action should take precedence over humanitarian action, but a lot of the people in the squats are friends or relatives of people outside.

‘What would you do if a friend of yours couldn’t afford food and has a crying baby? Tell them that first we need to talk politics? No. You say, okay let’s get you some food, and then we’ll talk politics after your baby has stopped crying.’

The problem is that, in Greece, the baby has never stopped crying. You may not be hearing so much in the news, but last week around 1,600 refugees arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos alone.

~

Of course, I’ve only been in Athens for two weeks. Emma Musty, a long term volunteer with Khora, has written about the recent squat evictions on her blog: Athens Evictions: How many homes can one person lose?

There will be no resolution to the problem posed in this article. Sorry. There is, of course, urgent need for both emergency humanitarian support and long-term political change.

One organisation that at least tries to balance the two is Khora – one of the projects funded by Thighs of Steel. They run both a Free Shop that provides refugees’ immediate needs and an asylum support team that aims to lift refugees out of their shitty situation for good.

I have spent today interviewing the unheard voices of long term Khora volunteers. It’s been a fascinating day and I hope to share some of those conversations with you next week.

In the meantime, if you want to do something today to remind a refugee that they are not alone in this nasty world, then you could do a lot worse than to record a charity record with some really famous people, film a video of you and your buddies wandering around some desolate sand dunes, pump loads of money into promo, get it to Christmas number one, hit Top of the Pops, give a speech at the BAFTAS in which you cry (mainly because you accidentally poked yourself in the eye with the wrong end of a cocktail umbrella), before FINALLY transferring the proceeds (after agent fees) to a massive international charity who promptly misappropriate the funds on schmoozing pop stars for next year’s charity record…

OR you could just donate to Thighs of Steel. 😀

Why Mahmoud wears cologne

The incidental benefits of cycle touring are well known: fitness, tan-lines, an insatiable appetite. But I think I can say without fear of contradiction that cycle touring isn’t particularly famous for its promotion of good personal hygiene.

This year, I am proud to be a part of the Thighs of Steel core team for the glory run to Athens. During those last three weeks of riding, I’ll probably have only 8 showers and wash my clothes twice. Most days, I’ll wake up in the sweat I accumulated the day before, and step into the clothes still encrusted with grime from yesterday’s riding.

Most days, our only chance to scrub will be in rivers, lakes and perhaps under a bucket. Shampoo, perfume and pomade are, for most of us, redundant.

But not for all of us.

~

Mahmoud couldn’t actually cycle, but joined the van team for two weeks from Paris to the Pyrenees. He couldn’t ride because of a long-term knee injury sustained during the Syrian war. He now lives in Germany.

One thing you should know about Mahmoud is that he is very particular about his personal hygiene. Every morning, he combs wax through his styled hair. He applies perfume to neck and wrists, and coats himself in a layer of antiperspirant.

Where most of us have perhaps one change, Mahmoud seems to have a bottomless wardrobe of crisp, clean clothes. He refuses to swim in our wonderfully wild rivers and lakes because the water is dirty. It’s a fair point, and one that he emphasises with good old soap and tap water.

He does everything he can to hold back the inevitable tides of sweat and grime that two weeks’ camping set down. His careful preening is a good-humoured joke. Good-humoured because he wears his fashion lightly; a joke because, standing next to us cyclists, he looks superb.

~

‘I had days where I slept with the blood of other people on my body,’ Mahmoud says. ‘Because you sleep when you are tired, you don’t care about yourself. You can’t imagine the dirt – sometimes I slept in some shit.’

We’re sitting on an artful block of concrete on the banks of the Garonne in Bordeaux and Mahmoud is explaining why he is such a stickler for cleanliness.

‘Because of this trauma – why do I have to be dirty? Why do I have to smell?’ His voice rises in incredulity that anyone would choose dirt.

‘Everything is in my hands now. I don’t want to go back to those days. I have a developed nose and any smell could bring me flashback – I don’t want any flashback.’

~

‘I feel like cleanliness makes me trust myself more,’ Mahmoud explains. ‘If somebody smells in front of me, I take a step back.’

As a refugee, Mahmoud feels like ‘the whole society has taken a step back from me already.’ He doesn’t need to add bad hygiene to the repulsion.

Mahmoud met Harri and Annie, two of the brains behind Thighs of Steel, at a grassroots community centre in Athens. ‘At Khora, everyone was lovely,’ Mahmoud says. ‘Fucking amazing lovely people. But Khora was a small world, really.’

The small world of fucking amazing lovely people doesn’t care whether you’re a refugee, whether you’re dirty or smell bad, or are dressed in cheap clothes. But the big world does.

~

‘The big world really doesn’t like you, really doesn’t want you, and doesn’t accept you,’ Mahmoud says. ‘So I have to do what other Syrians do. They spend money to wear Adidas, to wear Gucci – why? To fit into the society, so people know they have money, so people stop judging them. You cannot afford Gucci if you are not working.’

‘I could lie to myself and say everyone is nice – no. People smile in front of your face, but they don’t like you. They smile in front of your face for the society. Do you think that everyone talks to me nicely?’

‘For me, to look good and to be clean could help me in front of society. People might accept me.’

~

Thighs of Steel is Europe’s biggest charity relay bike ride, taking 9 weeks to cover the 6,000km from London to Athens, with a frankly silly detour via the Pyrenees to make it more than 90,000m climbing over three of the continent’s toughest mountain ranges.

Over the past four years, Thighs of Steel supporters have raised more than a quarter of a million pounds for grassroots refugee organisations like Khora. Already this year we’ve raised more than £50,000.

If you want to help…

If you have any trouble donating, let me know – the website isn’t always the friendliest. Thanks!

Talk Migration: Help Refugees

Last Sunday morning, more than 40 people crammed into a wide circle to ‘talk migration’ under the wooden beams of Impact Hub in Kings Cross.

Talk Migration was a day of talks and discussion around the topics of migration, borders and refugee rights, organised by Thighs of Steel.

Every year, Thighs of Steel cyclists come together to fundraise for grassroots refugee organisations around Europe. In 2019 they are aiming to raise £100,000 with their legendary London to Athens relay ride.

A bicycle bell called us to order and the smiles rang out…


We started the day with a talk by Philly, one of the founders of refugee support charity Help Refugees.

Help Refugees started as nothing more than a heartfelt response to the growing humanitarian crisis in Calais in the summer of 2015. A few friends and a crowdfunder aiming to raise £1000.

A week later, they’d raised over £50,000, and were receiving 7,000 donations a day – tents, sleeping bags, clothes, toiletries. They rented a warehouse in London, another in Calais, and Help Refugees was born.

Almost 4 years later, Help Refugees are now supporting more than 80 grassroots projects in 12 countries.

This year, 120 Thighs of Steel cyclists are aiming to raise £100,000 for Help Refugees. The funds will be split between grassroots organisations along the Thighs of Steel London to Athens cycle route.

Campaigns Help Refugees support in the UK


Thank you to Thighs of Steel for putting on Talk Migration, a day of talks and discussion around the topics of migration, borders and refugee rights.

If you want to support Help Refugees, then you could do a lot worse than donate to my Thighs of Steel fundraising page 😀

Talk Migration: The 21st Century Slaves of Indefinite Detention

Last Sunday morning, more than 40 people crammed into a wide circle to ‘talk migration’ under the wooden beams of Impact Hub in Kings Cross.

Talk Migration was a day of talks and discussion around the topics of migration, borders and refugee rights, organised by Thighs of Steel.

Every year, Thighs of Steel cyclists come together to fundraise for grassroots refugee organisations around Europe. In 2019 they are aiming to raise £100,000 with their legendary London to Athens relay ride.

A bicycle bell called us to order and the smiles rang out…


Our second speaker was Michael Darko, part of Detention Action’s out-reach programme Freed Voices.

Freed Voices are a group of ‘experts-by-experience’ whose mission is to increase awareness of the grim day-to-day reality of life in detention.

Michael’s story

Michael Darko was born ‘on his grandmother’s lap’ in Ghana. He spent just 4 years in Ghana, before travelling with his family to Nigeria and the Ivory Coast, finally settling in London when Michael was 12.

At no stage in the journey did Michael have any identity papers – no birth certificate, no passport, no visas, nothing.

When Michael was 15 his father abandoned the family, leaving them to fend for themselves. As the oldest, Michael dropped out of school to look for a job. Because he had no papers, Michael could only pick up casual work in Hackney Market, but at least it was enough to support him and his 4 siblings.

A year later, however, social services found out about the unusual family structure. Michael was still just a kid and, with bills piling up, the family lost their home.

Forced into a corner, and still head of the household, Michael fell in with a gang on the streets of Hackney. Unable to stomach the violence, he ran away and ended up in Northampton. There, he got a legitimate job at a logistics company – but only by using another man’s identity.

Being a smart guy, Michael rose through the ranks until he was earning £40,000 a year as a team manager. Then his luck ran out.

The man whose identity Michael had stolen made a claim for benefits – the computer threw up an error, and Michael was tracked down, prosecuted for fraud, and sentenced to 20 months imprisonment.

Michael accepts the punishment for his crime: he stole another man’s identity and deserved his sentence.

But what happened next was out of order.

Into detention

The day before he was due to be released from prison, Michael’s immigration status was investigated. Having no papers, he was told that he wasn’t going to be released after all.

Not only that, but because he was uncooperative with the investigation, Michael was transferred immediately to a high security prison. He languished there for another 12 months until his sentence was completed.

At this point, Michael had paid his debt to society and, if he’d been a British citizen, he would have been justly released. Instead, the Home Office transferred him to a detention centre – for an indefinite length of time.

Michael ended up staying there for another two and a half years.

Inside detention

During those years, Michael had plenty of time to study and he became an expert on immigration law. He helped 48 fellow detainees avoid deportation by writing their judicial review applications. In response, he was threatened with prosecution.

The irony is that Michael only ever wanted to work to earn a living. This right was denied to him in free society, but inside detention, compliant asylum seekers are allowed to work – for the princely wage of £1 per hour.

Almost all detention centres in the UK are now run by private companies, who run their business for a profit.

Over the past few years, the Home Office has reduced the amount they pay these businesses to £86 per detainee – and now these private companies need to find alternative streams of income to keep up their 20-30% profit margin.

One way they can do this, of course, is by exploiting these 21st century slaves.

Released

Michael appealed for bail 15 times and was finally released in December 2014 after taking charge of his own legal defence and making a request for his Home Office file.

In those papers, Michael found out that the Home Office knew that the Ghanaian authorities had no record of his existence and would not accept his return.

Rather than dropping the deportation, the Home Office was keeping Michael in detention, waiting for… What?

The day before his arrest for fraud, Michael was a high-earning, tax-paying member of British society. By the time he became a free man once again, his detention had cost the tax-payer around £100,000.

And for what?

‘My story is not an isolated case,’ Michael says, ‘and it shouldn’t shock you. It is a fraction, a fraction.’

The system

Michael doesn’t disagree that immigrants who have committed a crime should be deported. It’s the interminable wait that he feels is unjust.

Why does the deportation process only begin at the end of a custodial sentence? ‘The wait is mental torture,’ Michael says.

In fact, the whole asylum system is designed to work against the people it is supposed to protect. During Talk Migration, we discussed two such ways: the denial of the right to work and the denial of the right to healthcare.

Since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act of 2013, access to legal aid has been made increasingly difficult. This means asylum seekers are often faced with expensive legal fees that they can’t pay without looking for paid work – in contravention of the limited rights granted to them.

If they are caught, their asylum application can be rejected out-of-hand and they can be sent into detention. A vicious cycle.

That’s not the only way that the deck is stacked against asylum seekers.

Until they are granted indefinite leave to remain, asylum seekers have no recourse to public funds. This means that they can’t use the NHS for anything other than emergency care – and even then they will be expected to foot the bill.

One very common reason why an asylum seeker might need to use the NHS is during childbirth. On their journey, it’s not uncommon for female asylum seekers to be the victims of rape. The pregnancy comes to term in the UK – so what can they do?

Childbirth is primary care, but any pre-natal check-ups are not. This means that female asylum seekers come to hospital (if at all) at the last minute. This, of course, leads to poorer health outcomes for mother and baby.

But there is worse to come. A routine birth costs the NHS around £6,000, and asylum seekers are expected to pay 150% of the costs, so are hit with a bill for about £9,000.

Of course, there is no way that most asylum seekers can afford to pay these bills. You might be wondering why the NHS bothers to chase them at all. Well, it’s got nothing to do with covering their costs.

If a person makes a claim for asylum and they owe more than £500 to the NHS, then their claim can be thrown out without further consideration. These bills are an easy way for the Home Office to strip people of their refugee convention rights and deport them back to the country they fled from.

Our health service is being used for political ends to punish vulnerable refugees. Hats off to the healthcare professionals who do what they can to push back against the system and end the sharing of patient data between hospitals and the Home Office. You know who you are!

What happens after detention?

The strange thing is that most detainees are never deported: more than half are eventually released back into the community. Back to where they started, but with one crucial difference – they are traumatised through their detention ordeal.

Up until the moment of their incarceration, most detainees are simply trying to make a new life under extremely difficult circumstances. But if anything is going to traumatise, criminalise and radicalise, it’s the dehumanising conditions of detention.

This psychological trauma is not treated by the Home Office, of course. It falls on the community to absorb the damage. So if you think that you aren’t doing enough, take heart from Michael’s assertion that, ‘any little thing you do makes a big difference’.

How can that possibly be true?

The perception of detainees from the inside of a detention centre is that the whole country hates you. This is desperate.

Remember when you felt like everyone in your class hated you for letting in a goal on sports day? Now imagine that, but it’s not just 30 classmates, but 66 million.

This makes even the smallest gesture of support incredibly powerful to a detainee because it shows them at a single stroke that not everyone hates them. And if one person doesn’t hate them, then perhaps there are dozens, hundreds, millions of people out there who, in fact, support them.

Detention Action are currently recruiting for volunteers, particularly listeners with language skills. They are also fighting for a 28-day time limit on detention.

This limit would end the uncertainty, and reduce the trauma caused by detention. So far the campaign has the support of around 70 MPs.

Find out more

Watch and read Michael’s story on Detention Action, on The Guardian.

On life in detention: Working Illegally (28 minutes, 2015)

On life in Brooks House detention centre: BBC Panorama Undercover: Britain’s Immigration Secrets (60 minutes, 2017) on BBC iPlayer [Not currently available], or HDDocumentary.com


Thank you to Thighs of Steel for putting on Talk Migration, a day of talks and discussion around the topics of migration, borders and refugee rights.

oh merde it’s a FUNDRAISING LAUNCH!!

Click here to cut the crap and go straight to my Help Refugees donation page…

This summer I’ll be cycling ~1,800km from Rome to Athens because I vehemently believe that borders are really dumb.

Everyone should be able to roam the earth freely and that’s why I support the work that Help Refugees are doing to help stateless human beings get a foothold in life.

As one of the lucky, lucky people on earth who haven’t had their home village bombed to pieces, I like to do what I can to support those who aren’t so fortunate. If that involves cycling an awfully long way in 35 degree heat, then so be it.

If you think that helping refugees is a generally good idea, then I’d be super grateful if you could donate whatever you can afford.

Click this link to make that happen.

Having visited projects supported by Help Refugees all over Europe, I can reassure you that the work they do is of immense practical support to actual human beings every day. (I’ve published a lot of these stories on my blog – drop me a line if you want a direct link.)

Thank you in advance for being so generous! And stay tuned because your donation will get you free entry to a very exciting thingy that we’re planning for the start of July….

Oh now you’re interested! (Donate by card or Paypal…)


+++ There’s still time to join this year’s ride. Maybe London to Paris, or Milan to Venice? If you want to ride with yours truly, then sign up for Rome-Bari or Corfu-Athens!

Subvertisers for London

This short film from Dog Section Films tells the behind-the-scenes story of subvertising, past and present.

Subvertising is the subversion of advertising, in which artists and activists take over public advertising spaces, usually to make political counter-arguments to the consumerist message.

Needless to say, it’s required viewing. Continue reading Subvertisers for London

Crossing the Border

If the wind changes direction, this man is in deep trouble. His mouth is so firmly down-turned that I wonder how he feeds himself.

He shoves out his hands, and I take two steps back. He stares at me, my little wine-red book on his counter.

The muscles in his face are drawn taught, toughness without any sign of strain. Only his eyes move: up and down, up and down, up and down, up and down. Matching photo to face, face to photo.

He flicks through the document, then slides it into a machine and stares expressionless at his monitor.

He returns to my face and my photograph. Except for his eyeballs, his face is completely frozen – do they teach that in border control school? Continue reading Crossing the Border

Diavata Camp, Thessaloniki

Before driving to Diavata camp, we had to pick up our interpreter. Being all-smiles Syrian, he was first compelled to cook up huge plates of falafel, mutabbel and hummus, and feed us until we could take no more.

Then we drove out to the camp.

Diavata is hidden away in the warehouse suburbs of industrial Thessaloniki. No one could come across these people if they didn’t know they were here – it’s a long way from the polished waterfront and expensive international chain coffee. Weatherbeaten old gypsies are on their haunches outside, selling vegetables and huge watermelons laid out on tarpaulins. Continue reading Diavata Camp, Thessaloniki

From Chios to Crisis

I’m writing this from Chios, hoping that my phone reception doesn’t flip into Turkish and I get charged £12.50 per megabyte. First world problems, I suppose.

Where I am now is less than 5 miles from Turkey: the mountains of Anatolia rise easily over the horizon. It’s the tantalising gap between Asia and Europe, between fear and safety for refugees from the wars in Syria and beyond. Continue reading From Chios to Crisis

Things I Have Learnt About Khora

The generously observant among you will have realised by now that I’m raising money for a community centre for refugees in Athens called Khora.

I promised you all that I’d do my best to find out where our money is going, and that I have done. Thanks to sunset on Strefi. Continue reading Things I Have Learnt About Khora

Options for Dealing with Squatting: A Mockumentary Radio Play

My radio play, Options for Dealing with Squatting, is now out! The Narrativist is a unique podcast that splices a conventional interview with an original radio play on the same theme. My episode is about squatting. No: not weightlifting, but the nefarious art of appropriating unused buildings for shelter. Continue reading Options for Dealing with Squatting: A Mockumentary Radio Play

After the Christmas, the Crisis

After the Christmas, the crisis. Or Crisis. I’ve been helping out at the Harris Academy Bermondsey, where volunteers have transformed a school into a week-long refuge for homeless people.

Crisis at Christmas is a brilliant idea that started 50 years as a publicity stunt. It’s been going every year since and thousands of homeless guests come through the doors for the good food, companionship and advice offered by more than 11,000 volunteers across 13 sites in London and beyond. Continue reading After the Christmas, the Crisis

Learning Arabic from a Syrian wanted by ISIS

I just spent an invigorating hour with M., a refugee language teacher from Syria. I found him through Chatterbox, a social enterprise that matches refugees with a talent for teaching with language students like me. Fantastic idea.

I haven’t spoken Arabic properly since the last time I was in Egypt in January 2010. That’s a heck of a long time for a language to lie dormant, but I was surprised by how easily some of came back to me, and M. was amazed – ‘You’re half Egyptian,’ he very much joked. Continue reading Learning Arabic from a Syrian wanted by ISIS