Thursday, 26 February 2015

Opinion: We cannot for our comfort ignore the homeless

No woof without a roof
Having suffered the threat of homelessness a number of times, there are deep experiences that recovering from illness and adversity have brought into my life.
I have hoped that the lessons I learnt and continue to learn will make me a better person, a more considerate person, a caring person, a compassionate person and a more understanding person.
Critically, being a more understanding person hopefully helps you appreciate long before you are tempted to judge or be prejudiced.
More than who you see
I have seen homelessness in many cities and it is clear that most homeless people have stories and narratives that are far from the stereotypes of homelessness that we are sometimes fed by the media.
One such example of a homeless person with a story was that of Anne Naysmith whose obituary appeared in literally all the main English newspapers, locally known as the Car Lady of Chiswick, she was once concert pianist and even taught at Trinity College, London.
She lost her home and lived rough in a car for 26 years before she was moved on by the authorities, quite a tale of a life that was. It goes without saying that many others might well have tales of wonder in their past that the present attempts to place into insignificance. We must never be fooled, our humanity is much richer than what meets the eye.
Longing for a caring society
For myself, where I have had the opportunity, I have been blessed to both give and encourage, if I could do more, I would love to. For what many of the homeless need is first the understanding of others and then the opportunity to begin to have options; once those options are there, they can begin to make choices; choice indicates a sense of independence and from the budding of the very basic encouragement in word and in deed, you can watch people rise.
What I long for is, a more caring society, a more considerate humanity and a more engaging community in helping those who lack shelter, resource or opportunity.
Atrocious spikes
It is in this vein that I was utterly, utterly repulsed by the studs Selfridges in Manchester installed on the ledges of their shop window with the excuse that they were to prevent staff from smoking about and around the entrance of the store. [Mancunian Matters]
Whilst the ledge itself was probably not wide enough for people to sleep on, it represented a growing trend first seen in London when Tesco’s installed anti-homeless studs at their Regent Street store and then a luxury apartment complex in London did the same.
For all the excuses and many might be valid for installing the studs just as anti-pigeon pins are installed around public buildings, the broader society could not countenance the deliberate attempt to cleanse our inner cities of the homeless so that we can comfortably assume their being out of sight means we do not have a homelessness problem amongst us.
Our true society
I believe we need to observe the comforts and the discomforts of our communities in plain sight and if at any time the discomforts of homelessness should disappear, it should be as a result of society working to help rather than society actively ostracising and stigmatising those more unfortunate than ourselves.
It is the reason why I signed Change.Org petition started by Professor Cathy Urquhart asking Selfridges in Manchester to remove the anti-homeless spikes from outside their store and I am glad to report that after a well-publicised campaign against this odious and reprehensible conduct, the spikes have been removed.
Still unforgivable
I, however, doubt this episode will be forgiven just as I have not forgiven Tesco’s for thinking up the stinking idea. I would rather see these corporate behemoths of retail excess positively contributing to helping the homeless and the many disadvantaged, get their lives together and find opportunities to thrive in society.
That to me would be real corporate social responsibility, one where those who have been helped with have heart-warming stories of corporate showing a human face, having a human heart passionately and compassionately working for profit for the community and themselves.
Whilst I will thank Selfridges in Manchester for listening, the real truth is it should never have happened in the first place.


Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Between beasts and men that run a country

Hard truths
The Week magazine has replaced The Economist as essential weekly reading to catch up on news for me. Whilst it is not as broad as The Economist in its global coverage, news of regions as Africa, South America and parts of Asia not considered in the Western frame of things does sometimes get a mention.
For instance, in the section about the world at a glance, they had a pointer to Ngouboua in Chad where Boko Haram had carried out a raid. However, the very striking piece of information in the snippet was this; “Chad – which has the region’s most competent army – had recently announced that its troops would be joining a multinational force against the militants.” [Quoted from The Week}
Helping Nigeria
The piece ended with; “So far, Chad, Cameroon, Niger, Burundi and Central African Republic have all agreed to help Nigeria fight the extremists.” [Quoted from The Week}
This is a stark narrative on Nigeria, because it shows how we allowed the Boko Haram menace to fester, how we allowed it to grow that it began to threaten and attack neighbouring countries, how despite some victories, Boko Haram has shown gaps in effectiveness, efficiency, competence and ability of the Nigerian military forces and that Nigeria does quite need help in tackling Boko Haram. [Nigeria as covered in the Time magazine.]
Who runs the place?
Another interesting piece I will like to share which I cannot get online is a little box beside the publisher’s details usually written by the founder and editorial director, Jolyon Connell or the Editor-in-chief, Jeremy O’Grady.
The founder writing about a piece in the Sunday Times that had the line, “The best way to understand any political system is to examine what its rulers did in their formative years.” This column written by Adrian Wooldridge in December had the title, “Engineers rule China. Lawyers lead the US. We get bluffers and blaggers.” Alas, this sits behind a paywall and I have not been convinced that the Sunday Times is worth shelling out for.
However, this is what he had to say, “Israel is run by former soldiers (hence the constant warmongering belligerence – my view), the US by lawyers (hence the endless lawsuits), China is run by engineers (hence the indifference to human rights), while Britain’s elite is dominated by people who studied PPE (philosophy, politics and economics) at Oxford.”
Focus lost in the cloud
He goes on to say, regarding this contextual ‘Jack of all trades’ preparation for leadership that allows politicians to have opinions on everything and move effortlessly from one Cabinet post to another; that PPE is “a bluffer’s charter: a dog’s dinner, a mishmash.” For there is no specialism in this generality of study and hence no depth leading to a tendency to “dash off policies at high speed without any serious thought.”
Now, is it any wonder that Great Britain is a mess with the way our economy, health, education, transport, police and business have been overwhelmed with policy initiatives that waste time, cost money, show lots of frenetic activity and offer no particular benefit?
But then
Yet, there is much to be said of those schooled than those without the structure of rigour who have exploited populism and rhetoric to the full like Nigel Farage, who only had a secondary school education, albeit, a public school one or Alex Salmond, who being an economist and academic still has the chops of a reactionary unionist.
Then, one wonders if Nigeria and Russia is run by crooks, spooks or oligarchs, I cannot seem to find another profession doing much in their politics if it does not involve aggrandisement, ostentation, braggadocio and reprehensible conduct projected as power.
Note: Large parts of this blog were quoted verbatim from pieces originally written in The Week Issue 1010 and the Sunday Times.


Monday, 23 February 2015

People on a train of life

Let me sit
The man had splayed himself across two seats when I got on the train and kindly asked him to make room for me. Nothing could have prepared me for one of the most engaging conservations I have had on a train journey in a while.
He appeared to be in workmen’s clothes and I gingerly sat myself beside him just because my trolley bag which is generally heavier and bulkier than a simple rucksack needs more ample space than I can get in the standard seat space.
A conversation triggered
As I settled into my seat, I reached into my bag, grabbed my copy of The Economist’s Intelligent Life magazine and flipped the pages to read, Among the reindeer by Laura Galloway, who left a media consultancy to live amongst the Sami people; Laplanders to you and me, in the Arctic Circle after a DNA test suggested she descended from them.
He saw the page and said, he was on his way up there. Apparently, he is a fisherman who works on a big boat in the seas and oceans within the Arctic Circle.
From then on, for the hour, we talked about fishing, European fishing quotas, fortunes, misfortunes - he once owned a fishing trawler, the cold and how he suffered some of the coldest temperatures ever on one fishing expedition on the Bering Sea.
Fish of a long tale
He had come to Cheshire for a funeral, was travelling to Manchester, and changing trains for a journey all the way to Aberdeen where he would board a helicopter to Wick and then a flight to Reykjavik in Iceland. Quite a convoluted itinerary, I thought, but it must be one of the least travelled routes plied by only those in the know.
He had been a fisherman all his life, manning boats from when he was 10, he being in the fourth generation of fishermen from his family.
One thing I learnt from our conversation was the appearance of a man is no indicator of the wealth of knowledge he might have, how well he might have travelled and what good conversation you might have with the person.
Suffice it to say, I am yet to read the story in the magazine that started off our conversation. At Manchester Piccadilly Station, we shook hands, I gave him directions as to where to board his connecting train and he expected to be in Reykjavik by midnight.
Now, I can see
On another train journey, a mother and child got on and sat in front of me. They were returning from visiting her mother and the son who had glasses on seem to have had a wonderful half-term holiday away.
We engaged in enough small talk for me to discover one amazing miracle of medicine, the son had a very high auditory acuity (heightened sense of hearing) which for a while was sensory compensation for being born blind, but now he could see because he had undergone a penetrating keratoplasty (Corneal transplant).


Sunday, 22 February 2015

For people and things that went before



Online to off-world
The Internet, borne of my curiosity to learn, to know and to be sure has recently been the bearer of sad news. The sad news of people I once knew who have unfortunately departed this world.
In one month, three stories have hit me, of the people cut down in the prime of their lives, their creativity or their foresight. Each reading or sighting of the reality of the information has both shaken and shocked me. All unexpected, yet real.
Losses too difficult
The first came via email, he had died at home just before Christmas, but I did not learn of the passing until a month after. Probably, the most prepared of the three, he had set his house in order and had forewarned me he did not have a year left.
He barely completed two months after our chat, it was the cancer that had returned a few times and now exhausted him at 71. He was in the prime of his foresight, so many thoughts flood my mind about too many things that I cease to function in the things I normally do, as I adjust to the situation.
The second came in the process of an Internet search just to corroborate some facts I was about to include in my blog. One of those situations where you think, where are they now? I did find out, she had died 4 years before, in had to be cancer at the age of 53, in the prime of her creativity and also of her life.
She left a legacy of three young aspiring children and the memories of times so far gone, that one can barely remember, but for the nostalgic feeling that is the most effective time machine, having the ability to take you back and keep you here in time, simultaneously.
He created a community
However, the third was the most intriguing and the one that has bothered me the most because for the first two, with enough curiosity and inquiry, one can ascertain circumstances and situation in which things happened. The mind bombarding you with questions you might eventually get the answers to.
Our secret lives were shared in the community of people who had interests as adults would have to explore and interact. He provided the forum and means for brief and long encounters of the debauched, yet pleasurable kind. Like, I have always said, we all have needs as humans and much more.
There was a time, I was offered a proposal to get involved in the project as domains of operation started to adopt Puritanical legislation that had wider nets for unintended consequences.
A certificate expired
The first sign that something was amiss was when the security certificate to the site expired. Not something he would have allowed to happen, I thought – something was wrong. Biding my time, I made the adjustments to my browser to access the site and left it at that, but there was unfinished business, I did not know and I had to know.
Next, I searched for his profile, it was not even deactivated, it had disappeared, yet, that of his partner remained. Now, that really got me thinking, but I did nothing else for another week.
A few days ago, I decided to fully understand the situation. After a few searches, the plot thickened, then after obtained his full name and other interesting research projects he was involved in, from Google+ I landed on the page of his partner and all was there in plain sight. His certificate to life had expired.
No ordinary people
A chapel, a large portrait, lots of flowers, some prominent wreaths, one more from his partner of over a decade with a very short note of endearment and an urn. He had been returned to ashes and this was a ceremony to return him to dust. He was young, he was intelligent, he was friendly and I had met him a few times with his partner when I visited Berlin and they came up to party. He was only 44.
I liked them a lot and we got on well. Though our last meeting was almost a decade ago, we kept in relatively good contact over the years along with the many missed opportunities that are becoming the story of my life to visit people and my leaving it too late until nothing can be done.
That was why the website had run into problems, he had died in August, but in what circumstances, I could not tell.
The questions are many
Was it due to complications of a plague that scythed in harvest young souls and brought a cloud of unremitting sorrow upon a generation? Was it a sudden event? The last picture he posted on his Facebook page taken a few months before did show some changes like he had bulked up a bit, probably from some medication – I could not tell.
Was due to some pre-existing condition or was it some other accident? One cannot tell and that is one of the problems with the Internet. It provides a wealth of information, but never in the depth or breath that will satisfy ones curiosity and by that, you may gain some information and yet be bereft of knowledge from which to develop some wisdom.
The goodbyes left unsaid
Therein in the recesses of my mind, I bring up the memories of the many goodbyes I never got to say, out of affinity, out of respect, out of reverence, out of friendship and out of love.
The past few days have been a blur, one of considering the readiness for things, the preparedness for things and the legacy one might leave behind. Obviously, I would hate for this wonderful project he started some 13 years ago to die off in a matter of months after his death, I think we in that community owe him that much.
Yet, I must reflect upon a life cut short in its prime and a resting place with a memorial, flowers that bloomed on the day but will die away, a hole in which the ashes were poured, returning him to Mother nature and a beautiful tombstone that sums up the history of many gone before. A name, the date of birth, a hyphen, the day he died, some words and life goes on.
To John, to Tola, to Heiko, to lovers and friends, I loved you in different ways, many I cannot explain, may your gentle, loving, amazing and wonderful souls – Rest in perfect peace. Thank you for the things you brought into my life.


Thursday, 19 February 2015

Thought Picnic: A taxi ride and the things money cannot buy

Not for all the money
The taxi ride from the station to my place of work is not a long one, maybe about 10 minutes. I have gravitated towards a company that appears to live up to its name, but that is beside the point.
Now, farmers who own their own land in England are in a different class, they are somewhat in a way the residue of what we nostalgically refer to as the English or more broadly British values. This taxi firm belongs to a farming family.
This matter is quite a difficult subject for some of my friends and much as I understand the push towards a more egalitarian society, there is some things in which we will never be equal. Those things come down to things money will not and cannot buy, as manners, morals, respect, character, common sense, trust, patience, class, integrity and love. [Found on Facebook and littered around the Internet.]
Front seat interaction
The people who pick me up are all retired professionals, people who have had interesting and varied careers before they settled down to occasional chauffeur duties on call, yet not full time.
Regretfully, one of such gentlemen, and there are ladies too, who had picked me up and few times and even taken me on longer journeys died on Christmas Day, he was Geoff Pullar. I did not know much about his career, but there is enough in the conversations we had to know that he had had a very interesting life.
Suffice it to say that if the cab is a saloon car, there are drivers with whom it is best to sit in the back seat and there are others with whom there is a lot to learn sitting in the front seat.
Of drivers at this company, the front seat was always the place for conversation with former academics, sportsmen, services personnel, bankers, doctors and many of that cadre. Knowledgeable, well-spoken, dignified and funny, many a story told and an intelligent conversation had.
A different mindset
In many ways, these drivers were not in it for the money, whilst the money might be handy, there was a greater air of bearing and comportment about them. Every once in a while, I was regaled with stories of meeting up with old colleagues or being invited to functions where for work or activities they have done before meant they were honoured and revered guests, understated, yet exuding class, is all I could say about them.
I noticed one such division when as I got off the train, a fellow passenger found that his previously booked taxi had not arrived, my driver was helpful in trying to find out what might have happened to the booking whilst at the same time, without restraint one of the cab drivers waiting in the ranks was about the poach the passenger.
A values proposition
Much as it would have been convenient for the passenger, it was very bad behaviour on the part of that driver. Immediately, my driver told him off whilst threatening to report him too.
Obviously, I cannot fail to notice the differences between these drivers in dressing and attitude too, that the ones I felt most comfortable with, looked the most professional, formally dressed and rarely quibbled about competition and costs.
Yes, they were slightly more expensive, but for the pleasure of the ride, their company, the conversation and good old-fashioned values that money cannot buy, they were worth every penny and more. Never miss the opportunity to ride in a taxi with someone whose life’s experiences will enrich yours considerably, it is about the person, not about the job they do. I guess money may sometimes buy you access to good conversation, it is however, not guaranteed.