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

The School Bus Project, Calais

One of the beautiful things about this bike ride is that we can connect places to places and people to people. In Whitstable we spoke to Shernaz, an active organiser of support going from that part of the world to Calais and beyond. She told us that, while in Calais, we must visit Kate McAllister, who works on an educational project there. So two days of cycling later, that’s exactly what we did.
Continue reading The School Bus Project, Calais

Grande-Synthe & Calais: Compare and Contrast

The Grande-Synthe migrant camp in Dunkirk is to the Calais jungle as Milton Keynes is to London. Where Calais is only now having order imposed on a meandering medieval street plan, Grande-Synthe has been ordered from conception to execution. The result is that the two migrant communities could not feel more different. Continue reading Grande-Synthe & Calais: Compare and Contrast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re a voyeur.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re a do-gooder.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re a megalomaniac!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on Saving the World

The other day, someone accused me of “trying to save the world” through my activities in Calais, the English teaching, the UKHIP cricket match, the bike ride.

I’m not, I can’t and I don’t want to try to “save the world”. I don’t even want to try to change the world. Changing the world is not something that you can approach directly. Like happiness, any direct approach only ends in disappointment.

So my only aim, both in words and in actions, is to help people think about the world. That’s it.

I can’t change what people think, I can only invite them to think about the world.

Sneaking up on change

The best form of thought is experience. Words (like these) are good, but never enough. To think about the world deeply, you have to seep yourself in the reality, the physical reality. One experience of Calais, one connection, will always be much stronger than any news story or blog post. Words can be a catalyst, but that’s it.

So I invite people to join a cricket match or a bike ride. My sole aim is to lower the barriers to action and try to make the experience rewarding.

If that invitation is accepted, then I’m happy, because as soon as someone does something, their reality changes and that change inspires change in their ideas, thoughts and future actions.

In turn, that change in the individual will create ripples throughout their social groups, as they talk to their friends and share their ideas and actions. Eventually, in enough numbers, those ripples might influence change in our wider society. And, maybe, just maybe, that’s when the world changes.

It’s a long road, but it’s approachable, one invitation at a time. My method is certainly not saving the world, and neither is it changing the world directly. At best, I’m sneaking up on change, hoping to take it by surprise.

Process, not results

For me, none of my trips to Calais have been about what the migrants “need”. The trips haven’t been humanitarian missions or any form of charity. They have always been about forming solidarity and connections between different people, between people in this country as well as with people from Sudan, Afghanistan, Eritrea – wherever.

The Critical Mass bike trip was the grandest expedition that I’ve ever had the pleasure of participating in. Dozens of strangers came together and formed strong bonds of solidarity, helping each other, sharing their knowledge, skills and optimism. Even close friends discovered new sides to each other during the journey. Before we’d even left the country, the “bike ride” was already a success: it had already galvanised people to exchange and connect.

Before we’d gone one mile, I was already delighted. A healthy and happy process is always much more important than achieving what we’re tempted to think of as “results” – how many bikes distributed or how much aid delivered. My favourite results are almost immeasurable and I have to take them largely on faith: sharing, smiles, stories. These three Ss are what cause ripples in society.

Be there

The primary importance of process stems from the idea that, in my opinion, no one can say what any other human being “needs”. What do I need? I’m not even sure I know myself.

The people who live in Calais are hugely resourceful; one more tent here or there is far, far less important than the smiles and stories that one more human connection can provide – on both sides of the interaction.

Whenever I have gone to Calais, I have always learnt and discovered far more about the world and myself than I feel I have contributed – yes, even when we brought over a huge van full of tents and sleeping bags.

Everyone who I have seen go to Calais has come back inspired, their lives altered, sometimes dramatically. Many have gone on to encourage their friends to go over and bear witness for themselves. At the very least, everyone has returned with a more nuanced impression of Calais, of migration in general and with deep memories of the people they met in particular.

Those impressions and memories will hold far stronger than a whole barrage of bigoted media coverage. Nothing beats being there, planting yourself in the kinaesthetics of the reality that, to some, is just another news story.

Whatever you do, be there.

The message

So my message is very simple: go over and see for yourself. That’s all.

Go and see for yourself, try to understand, exchange stories, find out why these people are coming here and what they want. I don’t mind if you go there and decide for yourself that you still want borders and immigration controls – as long as you hold that view from a position of knowledge.

In my experience, however, people tend to return from Calais inspired to tear down these fictional boundaries between mankind. It is usually obvious, once you’ve experienced the reality, that to militarise and strengthen the border is to put yourself in the same position as the builders of Hadrian’s Wall, the Great Wall of China or the Berlin Wall. Not only will it create more problems than it solves in the short term, but in the long term, sooner or later, the people will be free.

So I urge you to go to Calais and see for yourself. Obviously, don’t go as a tourist, camera clicking – it’s not a zoo. But don’t go as a charity worker or a humanitarian crisis worker either. Go as yourself, be yourself, be curious. Share your stories and your experience and be open to hear the stories and experience of others.

Charity or Solidarity? On my first day here, an Afghan bluntly asked, "Who pays your wages?" I replied that I was not being paid at all. He stared at me in disbelief. "Why are you here, then?"

A tall, thin man spots us and veers towards my companion, his fingers pressed together in supplication. “Madame – ticket, ticket, ticket!”

“I don’t have any tickets with me today. No tickets, no tickets!”

The man turns away, not so much disappointed as empty. Continue reading Charity or Solidarity? On my first day here, an Afghan bluntly asked, “Who pays your wages?” I replied that I was not being paid at all. He stared at me in disbelief. “Why are you here, then?”

Thank-You Letter to the Daily Mail

THANKS FOR ALL YOUR SUPPORT >> FOLLOW BETH and DAVE ON TWITTER!

UPDATE: Now you can watch us thank the Daily Mail in person!

Dear Our New Favourite Newspaper, The Daily Mail:

A thousand thanks for your tireless support for the much-abused Calais migrants! (Or, as they’re also known, “Fellow Human Beings”.)

Some freeloading scroungers might have cynically used your festive promotional offer with P&O Ferries to go over and stock up on cheap continental booze and fags. But we know you meant to launch a D-Day-style flotilla of solidarity with Fellow Human Beings who have fled the blood and torture and killing and more blood and bombs (paid for by the British taxpayer!) in the hope of joining us in El Dorado where you can’t even have a fag indoors any more.

Your courageous humanitarian stance should be saluted – but instead you’re constantly pilloried by the loony left as “anti-immigration”, “anti-welfare” and “anti-freeze”. Everyone should clearly understand your newspaper is cover-to-cover political satire!

For example, we found your ironic article of January 15, “Michelin Chef And Curried Turkey”, to be an absolute hoot! The story was a lampoon of the highest order – imagine “thousands” of Fellow Human Beings being served “three-course meals” by a “three-star Michelin chef”!*

All this frivolity is “partly-funded”, of course, by… the British taxpayer! We love that catchphrase and the comic effect would simply evaporate if you were to list all the funders, the Cypriot, Latvian and Bulgarian taxpayers – in fact, every EU taxpayer. No, the gag wouldn’t have worked in the slightest.

Satirical Daily Mail Calais migrant story alongside hard-hitting news story about a woman wearing see-through pants.
Satirical Daily Mail Calais migrant story alongside hard-hitting news story about a woman wearing see-through pants.

What a shame fact-starved “Cheddarcakes” didn’t see the funny side, commenting on your spoof article, “They eat better than I do! And when they make it here, they will be put in a 4-star hotel.”

Don’t you hate it when a joke falls flat?

Your comically embellished language conjures up images of Fellow Human Beings dining out on British taxpayer’s money, as they whimsically discuss with the starched-shirted waiter the troublesome quandary of whether to have a starter and a main, or a main and a dessert – utterly priceless!

Of course, everyone knows the food at the miles-out-of-town day centre is not enough to feed even a quarter of the Fellow Human Beings in Calais, even once a day. The people we helped, thanks to your generosity, hadn’t had a meal in two days.

Leafy Calais
“Spacious accomodation in a leafy Calais suburb…”

A straight-laced piece of fuddy-duddy “factual” journalism would naturally have mentioned such realities and maybe too the violent harassment by police, pepper spray in the face, daily beatings – we met one chap who’d been chased into barbed wire, slashing open an eyeball or two!

But you played it for laughs and, inspired by your cutting satire, we used the money we saved on the ferry to do a supermarket sweep for “hundreds of smiling migrants”, packed forty to a room in a squalid end-of-terrace, without electricity, running water or heating.

Beth and Me trolley Calais
“Oh, well, if we’re all having starters..!”

On a border where a Fellow Human Being is killed every two weeks trying to cross the Channel, everyone finds the idea that Britain has an “open door” policy on immigration to be absolutely gut-busting.

Syrian Daniel, 32, said he hadn’t laughed so much in months, not since he was quoted $2000 to cross the Mediterranean in a rusty bucket. He sends his thanks for the morale-boosting laughs – keep up the good work!

In peace and solidarity,

Beth and David

p.s. After running the Daily Mail Big Fact Checker, it was found that this “three-star Michelin chef” had once been a trainee at a one-star restaurant. This is like saying you’re an Oscar winner when you once did an internship with Carlton Television.

p.p.s. Thanks for the free bottle of wine! The perfect way to wind down after a hard day’s solidarity.

Be like Satirical News Journal The Daily Mail and Support Calais Migrants!

1. Book a ferry ticket with P&O by the 1st of February, using code DAILYMAIL4, to take advantage of the Daily Mail’s humanitarian largesse.

2. Pack up a backpack or load up a car with tents, blankets, (men’s) shoes, winter jackets and a couple of sets of dominoes. If you have none of these things, take a warm hug and a friendly smile.

3. Visit the migrant camp at Impasse des Salines or the “Jungle” along Rue des Garennes. If you want to support activists in Calais, contact Calais Migrant Solidarity on +33 75 34 75 159.

4. Enjoy your free bottle of wine, courtesy of our sponsor, The Daily Mail!

p.s. Harkerboy comments that, “We should all go to Calais and demand that we are looked after in this camp”. This picture is for you!

Garder coûte que coûte...
Home, sweet home…

Humanity is Easy: Supporting Migrants in Calais

Over the New Year break, me and some friends went over to visit the Calais migrants. We brought over 200kg of clothes, tents and blankets to distribute around the jungles and squats, where over two thousand people from Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Syria and other conflict zones, live in what can only be described as icy squalor. On the 31st, we used funds we’d raised in the UK to help throw a New Year’s party for around two hundred people – migrants, activists and local Calaisians – in the Galloo squat, with dancing, fireworks and cake.

Beth in the back of the van Calais

Now, though, I want to take this opportunity to inveigle my way into your brain and, using the power of hypnotic suggestion, to cajole you into visiting Calais for yourself. I promise you an experience you cannot – and will not wish to – forget.

“But there’s no point me going over – I wouldn’t know what to do or say!”

You don’t have to do or say anything. We’re all the same, we’re all humans and we could be Calais migrants tomorrow, living on the streets in freezing temperatures without food, shelter or running water. Besides, as much as I try to be useful over in Calais, I feel that I get way more out of every trip than I can ever offer. I hear stories that make my synapses struggle and tales that make my teeth chatter. The least I can do is be a friend.

On New Year’s Eve, we’re chatting to a Syrian guy who was planning to cross the Channel in a dinghy that night. “It’s my last chance,” he says. “It’s the last night of the holidays, there will be less shipping traffic, less security.” The weather is calm too; he can escape before the high winds return. “I grew up next to the Euphrates, where I would swim against the currents, so I’m a strong swimmer,” he says. “And the boat has three chambers, so I have three chances if there is a puncture.”

But he doesn’t have a life jacket. We offer him money to buy one, but he refuses our help. “I used to give money to charity,” he says. “I find it difficult to take charity.” Some activists try to convince him to stay, to wait until he’s got a life jacket, until he’s got a winter wetsuit, until he gets some sea flares, until he’s got a support team who can call the coastguard if – or when – he gets into trouble. As we talk, he tells us his story.

In Syria, he’d been tortured by the regime. He shows us deep burn marks on the fingers of his right hand. “They knew I was an artist,” he explains, “so I couldn’t do my work.” He tells us how they would force him underwater for minutes at a time, but he grew up diving in the Euphrates and could hold his breath for longer. “They couldn’t take my soul,” he says, “because I was a bigger asshole than them!” He laughs – now – and we laugh too.

Living in Damascus, he’d literally looked death in the eye. “I saw the shell coming towards me,” he says. “It was like in the Matrix, you know? When the bullet ripples the air?” We nod. “It landed six metres from me, but only my face was covered in dust.” Another time, he was standing on a hill to get phone reception to call his mother and father in a different part of the city. “I heard the thump, thump of the shells,” he says. “I waited for the whistle – when you hear the whistle, then you know that you are dead.” He looks at us urgently. “I would never wish it on my worst enemy, that feeling when you hear the whistle. I listened. Then I hear the whistle. I know that I am dead.” He survived again, one lucky asshole, and left his country to find another land where he could work without fear and live without death.

But when he got to Calais, he found something else. “I used to believe that I was better than the other migrants,” he says. “I used to have respect for the police. I don’t want to run away from them, like the other migrants.” He’s proud of the fact that he’d got from Syria to France without paying the mafia or people traffickers. “I used to think I was better than the other people, but now I see that I am not. We are all the same. The police treat us all the same, with beatings and pepper spray,” he says. “That has changed me. Now I see how the activists have a hug for everyone, no matter who you are. You can be black, white, Arab, Christian, Muslim – it doesn’t matter.”

I lower my head when I hear him say this, some wash of tears in my heart. I’ve done nothing except be there; listening, giving a shit. That’s all that’s needed. Don’t underestimate your power to be there. It’s amazing how much how little is.

“I used to want to get to England, get my papers and start a normal life,” he continues. “But my experience has changed me. Now I want to get to England, get my papers and – insha’allah – come back to Calais and be an activist.” He smiles. “I want to be a pain in the ass for the Queen.”

We do manage to convince him to join the New Year’s Eve party at Galloo. He’ll be trying to cross the Channel again soon – this time with a life jacket, he promises.

Beth and Nahir Tioxide

What can we do now?

If you want to go to Calais, then go! Get in touch with Calais Migrant Solidarity on +33 7 53 47 51 59 or with me directly in the comments below. Tents, sleeping bags and shoes are the best things to take over there right now.

BONUS: The Daily Mail Migrant Solidarity Tour!

This is the funniest shit that has ever happened in history. The Daily Mail are kindly offering to support activists going over to Calais to help migrants. I know, right?! Hilarious. If you go to http://dailym.ai/1HnZmkE, you can get a massive discount on return ferry tickets from Dover to Calais – £1 for foot passengers, £15 for a car and four people or £17 for an overnight return for a car and four passengers. Plus you get a free bottle of wine to share with your new migrant friends!

I’m definitely going to take advantage of the immigrant-hating perversity of The Daily Mail before the offer expires on the 1st of February. Give me a shout if you want to join us!

Happy New Year!

Having Hair

It all started over a pint of peanut butter milkshake. For the twenty-seventh time in seven and a half months, I take the piss out of Mike’s luscious locks of red hair. They reach to his shoulders in opalescent curls and have to be flicked out of his face whenever he laughs, which is often and loud. I know that taking the piss out of a man with long hair is childish and lazy, but I am both of those, so it seemed appropriate.

But there must have been something about that twenty-seventh insult because, instead of brushing it off like so many fallen leaves, he leans in over the milkshakes and says: ‘I’ll be cutting it soon.’

Like a wingey child who instantly regrets his playground cruelty, I shudder in alarm: ‘Why! It’s a part of you, Mikey – you can’t do it! How will I recognise you?’
‘Because,’ he replied, ‘I am making a wig…’
I laugh and start to say, ‘Who would want a curly ginger wig!’
But he cuts me off (pun alert): ‘…For little girls who have cancer.’
Oh. I felt so bad that I vowed there and then to do the same myself.

Little did I realise that my careless promise would involve eighteen months of hard work, as my lazy follicles strain to reach the requisite seven inches of cut-offable hair.

June 2011
June 2011

Now, as I stand on the cusp of returning to the normal world of normal hair, what have I learnt?

There are many phases to growing hair. There is the initial phase where nothing is happening. My hair was just growing, silently. I’d done a one-inch buzz cut a couple of weeks before the fateful promise, so during the first four months it grew to a normal length and nobody noticed.

August 2011
August 2011

Then I started to look like Shaggy from Scooby Doo for another month or so before something extraordinary happened. It poofed. Suddenly, without warning, my hair was cool. It stuck out all over the place and adolescent girls on the street walked past me, shouting things like, ‘Look at that guy’s hair – it’s so cool!’

November 2011
November 2011

It wasn’t to last, of course. Spring brought a growth-spurt, the poof fell in on itself and I was left with serious eye-flop.

May 2012
May 2012

Over the course of the summer it struggled manfully towards Kurt Cobain, defined as the point at which long man hair becomes cool. But Kurt Cobain is dangerous territory. It could, under certain conditions, look awesome. It could also be a total pain in the ass.

November 2012
November 2012

If I managed to eat breakfast without getting beans in my hair, it was a good day. Brushing my teeth took on a new angle: literally. I had to tilt my head to one side – like a GIRL – to flop my hair out of the reach of my toothbrush. It didn’t always work. Last night I dreamt of getting my hair stuck between my teeth, like dental floss – and it was a realistic dream. Any form of exercise had to be undertaken with a Bjorn Borg headband, which looked cool, until it didn’t.

The petty practicalities I never quite got the hang of. When to wash hair? How often to wash hair? What do you mean the hair blocks up the drain! It takes two years to dry instead of two seconds? There were times when my hair actually felt uncomfortable to wear after washing. It was dry and brittle and set my skin on edge whenever I touched it. Then someone told me to use conditioner. That helped. But it still looked puffy after washing and I was only happy with it about two days after a wash – by which time it needed washing again.

I had to learn how to brush hair – and that hurts! I learnt that if you hold the hair, then you can stop the hair brush from ripping from the root. I learnt the different in pull between a comb and a hair brush (thanks Cat for the hair brush donation). I learnt that hair gets everywhere, picking it off chairs, books, faces. I learnt about the smell of hair, the smell of grease, hanging down into my face.

Whatever my hair was doing, it wasn’t normal. I had joined an exclusive gentleman’s club of long-haired don’t-give-a-fuck dudes. Look at all those dorks who buzz cut their hair every month and for what? So they can carry on looking like every other dork on the street.

Hair on a man equals rocker, hippie, celeb, hipster – depending on where you are and what else you’re wearing. I am none of these things, so I felt like an imposter, as if I’d had a hair transplant from the eighties. That didn’t stop drunk people shouting at me in the Underground: ‘Look – it’s Allan Carr’s mate!’

Long hair was also most useful for my secret life as an undercover cop, instantly putting multiple disguises at my disposal. Hair up, hair down? Hat hair, bandanna hair? Top knot, pony tail?

I had assumed that I would become a hate figure for street urchins, but the worst came when a Tunisian lad squinted up at my beard and asked, ‘Are you man or woman?’ One of my ex-girlfriends refused to even look at me, demanding that I tie up the offending hair and squash it under a hat: ‘Better.’

More favourably, only last week I drew comparisons to Brad Pitt in the new Chanel adverts. But I still prefer the Kurt Cobain. I remember, when I was twelve years old, my sister telling me that (being blonde) I should grow my hair to emulate the suicidal pop star. I didn’t of course; I wanted to be normal as well back then. Well, she finally got her wish.

Now it is cut. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it next. I did quite enjoy the poof-phase, but it’s not for grown ups. On the other hand, the first comment my hair-dresser makes is, ‘You’re going bald!’ So maybe I will grow it out again, for the comb-over.

Long hair is an identity. I’d never had to identify with my hair like that before. It wasn’t an identity that I had chosen, but society foisted that identity upon me. The long-haired outsider. It was an entertaining eighteen months and maybe I feel like less of a person now I’m back with the short stuff. But then again, as my house-mate says, ‘A hairstyle is not a lifestyle.’

Now, for those of you with more patience than sense, a video of my locks being hacked. Warning: High pitched sqwarking may distress farmyard animals and the nervous of disposition.

Grow your own charitable donation

Last week I found out why a friend of mine has long hair. I’d never thought to ask before. I’d assumed he actually liked his long, luscious locks. Sure he looks like a big girl, but I thought it rude to make disparaging comments. I like to think I’m fairly non-judgemental when it comes to my friends’ hair. At least to their face.

Turns out I should have pointed and laughed, then I would have found out earlier why he has really long hair.

I like to think the conversation would have gone like this:

ME: Ha ha ha! You look like a girl! Ha ha ha!
FRIEND: What? Because I have long hair?
ME: Ha ha ha!
FRIEND: Don’t you like my hair?
ME: Ha ha ha!
FRIEND: What’s wrong with long hair?
ME: Ha ha ha!
FRIEND: Seriously, Dave. I thought you’d be fairly non-judgemental when it came to hair.
ME: Ha ha ha!
FRIEND: At least to my face.
ME: Ha ha ha! Why have you got girl’s hair? It looks so stupid! Ha ha ha!
FRIEND: I’m growing it.
ME: Ha ha ha! Yeah, but WHY, man? You look like a girl!
FRIEND: I’m gonna donate it to kids with cancer.
ME: …
FRIEND: What are you doing for kids with cancer, Dave?

I am leaving civilisation for a few months soon. This seems like the perfect opportunity to grow my hair. I need 6″ of long, luscious locks, about down to my chin, for a decent wig. I currently have about 1″.

If you also want to possess the ultimate put-down response to people who take the piss out of your hair style, then why not join me? Check out http://www.littleprincesses.org.uk/Donate/Hair.aspx for more information.

The Ministry of Stories

Dave Eggers and 826 Valencia

In 2002, Dave Eggers (the writer) set up a pirate supply store. And that’s why, on Monday, I spent an evening writing a story about a fish called Bob, who was distressed by the colour of his tail.

826 Valencia was Eggers’ stab at creating a literacy program for kids. As you can imagine, from the mind of the man who wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, this was never going to be a normal after-school homework club.

The idea (once you’ve got past the pirate supply store frontage) is that kids come to 826 for story-writing workshops, mentoring, cartooning, ‘zine creation, homeworking, poeming – anything really. And the idea has been wildly successful. As a result, six other chapters opened up in the States. But, now, most excitingly, London has its very own: The Ministry of Stories.

The Ministry of Stories

As soon as I heard about it, I cancelled any plans I had for emigrating to the US to join Dave, and instead I emailed the Chief Minister at The Ministry of Stories. To my delight, he invited me for a training session, which is where I found myself on Monday night, pretending to be an eight year-old, writing a story about Bob the fish with the blue stripe on his tail.

My kind of (volunteer) job!

The Ministry of Stories was set up in November 2010. They take about three field-trips a week from local (and not so local) schools and also have two one-to-one mentoring sessions a week to help young writers (8-18) work on their stories.

Plus you can buy the finest human snot at the monster supply store, while you’re there.

Minister in Training

So, hot-tail, hip-top excited, along I went, down Hoxton way, to meet Ben and Anne, two of the Chief Minister’s aides, for an evening’s hard training.

To start off, we pretended to be eight year-olds and wrote a story together.

  • First we made a list of things that go into a story. Things like villains and danger and feelings, but also words and punctuation. 
  • Then we had to decide who we wanted our main character to be. We shouted a few things and then had an anonymous (and blind) vote. By democratic decision, it would be Bob the fish with the blue stripe on his tail
  • Then we did the same thing for a second character: Archimedes, Bob’s hairdresser
  • Then we chose Bob’s dream in the same way: to wear jumpers; and Bob’s greatest fear: that he would turn completely blue
  • Finally, we chose a location for the story: a pub.

Then, together, we wrote the first page and a bit, trying to build up to a cliff-hanger. The gist of the story was that Bob really wanted a jumper to cover up his embarrassing blue tail. Archimedes offered to make him one (out of Bob’s hair) – but it would cost him. The problem was that Bob didn’t have any money. So Archimedes suggested that Bob go and ask the elephant in the room for a job. And that’s where we had our cliff-hanger: “But isn’t he…?”

At this point we all split up into mentors and writers and we finished the story on our own, with the help of the mentors. Frighteningly good fun.

The Fish’s Arms

Here, for your edification, is my (unedited) story. See if you can spot the logical inconsistencies; editing is a wonderful thing…

“But isn’t he…?”
Archimedes stopped cutting Bob’s hair and touched him on the shoulder. “Listen. Finish your pint and just go over to him. I’m sure he’s not as mean as the stories say.”

Bob gulped and looked over at the elephant from the corner of his goggles. The stories were horrible.

Archimedes reached over and took the pint from Bob’s fin. “Go on.”

Bob vomited a little bit in his mouth. “But they say his trunk can strangle a shark!” Bob said in a small voice.

“That’s true,” Archimedes said. “I’ve seen him do it.”
Then he saw Bob retch again. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Bob shivered and watched the muscles in the elephant’s back as he sucked up an entire gallon of brine. “I can’t do it!”

Archimedes shook his head at his old friend, picked up his scissors and said, nonchalantly, “Your tail’s looking very blue today…”

Suddenly, Bob shot out of his chair, spilling the rest of his whelk juice all over the elephant’s foot.

There was a rumble and the whole pub started to shake. Bob quivered and whimpered as the big fat elephant turned slowly around and bellowed in Bob’s face. “You! Blue-buttocks! Are you looking for a snorting?”

Bob could hardly move for his quivering and shook his head scarcely. There was a tinkle as the scissors fell from Archimedes’ hand and Bob felt his friend creep away…

Chapter Two to follow!

(Perhaps.)

The Contract

And so I signed the Ministry contract:

YOUR RESPECT
YOUR COURAGE
YOUR IMAGINATION
WILL BRING YOU VICTORY

Huzzah! Can’t wait to get my first ministry appointment.


You can watch Dave talk about 826 Valencia – and the network of similar ventures it has spawned – here: