Nomads Like Us – part 2

 

I quite often write a blog about people watching and things I have observed. Usually these are humorous, or quirky. Not today.

Yesterday in town, I had a short conversation with a young woman who was selling the Big Issue. I was one of only two people who had bought a Big Issue from this pleasant, polite and half-frozen young woman yesterday. I paid for two copies, that’s £5. Which, quite frankly, means little to me. I spend as much on a coffee and a muffin, which lasts me maybe half an hour. She tried to give it back to me, to talk me out of it. The first thing she did when I left, was to go and buy some food. I watched her as she sat on a bench and ate. People walk past without even a glance, she is more or less invisible, even with her red tabard on. I feel quite angry. Why is this girl on the street all day like this? If one of my children got into difficulties in a foreign country, I’d like to think someone would have compassion. We are all human, all parents or children, and we all find ourselves in difficulties sometimes, and need help.

Now before you roll your eyes and go, ‘OMG not another illegal immigrant trying to sponge off our great nation,’ let me tell you a few things. These are actual human beings we’re talking about. People. Not things. Not disposable objects. But people, living, breathing human beings. With dreams. With grandmas. With kids to worry about. Who came to this country (often undergoing unspeakable danger and difficulty) in search of a better life. And not illegally – this woman is not one of those fly-by-night chancers who drive in from overseas, nick all our copper cables and sell them for a fortune, then drive back again. She—and most of the others—are here with permission. And, to be extra clear, not everyone who sells the Big Issue is here from overseas, plenty of them are home-grown and finding life just as tough.

You can probably tell, issues around immigration, homelessness and poverty are hugely important to me.

You know what? You do not own this land. We all pretend we do, so that estate agents and lawyers and government departments and even home owners can make money from house sales and land purchases. But actually, we all arrived in this country, on this continent as migrants. Scientists have proved that we all came from somewhere else. Yes, I know it all happened millennia ago. But actually the first person who claimed a nice little patch of land in the UK had no real right to do so, they just got there first. We were all migrants. So it’s ludicrous to say, ‘This is mine, you can’t come in.’ Especially when we have not had the same attitude to our own invasion of the lands of others.

Back in the mists of time, before cities were built, before the towns and the offices and the shopping centres, before ports were built to allow boats to dock, before anyone thought of issuing a passport or a visa, there were humans. People. Just people. They spoke all sorts of languages and didn’t always understand one another. Disputes were settled in a variety of ways. I might give you a goat or sheep from my flocks in reparation for any damage you received at my hands. Or I might whack you with a big rock, and possibly face the dire consequences if my actions were discovered and your people didn’t like it. Or I might marry one of your relatives and we would just get over it.

That is what people do. Have always done. Once upon a time, we didn’t understand about borders and governments and territorial rights. We followed the herds. The herds migrated, to find pasture that didn’t die back in winter or get covered by twenty feet of snow, or they migrated to reproduce in more favourable climates, or, who knows, maybe they just got bored.

But wherever the herds went, we went after them. The herds, of any kind of deer or any kind of cattle, or I don’t know, maybe gigantic sweeping herds of emu or ostrich, or chickens the size of buffalo, they were everything to us. They were our food, our tools, our clothing, our lighting, even, later, our status. So we always had to be near the herds, and when they migrated, so did we.

But migrating for both herds and humans took its toll. There was always the potential for disaster, for predators to take advantage of the migrants, for climactic events to cause disruption and problems. For humans, it meant people with children travelling huge distances and arriving in a maybe less fabulous place than expected. sometime there was a terrible storm or hurricane, or there might have been a wildfire, or flooding. The elderly sickened and died, babies were born on the trail, and babies and mothers alike struggled to deal with the demands of the journey.

So one day, a character who was probably a national hero, gifted with foresight, radical and willing to take a huge risk, embracing blue-sky, out-of-the-box thinking, looked at all his or her community members as they packed the moose ready for the journey, and he or she thought to themselves, ‘Stuff that, I’m not going through all that again. Remember last time, when Granny got sick and she almost died? And she was barely 35!’

Or maybe they thought, last year’s place was too far from fresh water, and although the herds were strong, they were hard to catch on that uneven land. This place is nice. The water’s right there a stone’s throw from the tent, I can see for miles over these lovely rolling hills, the hills protect the land, so that summer leaves late and spring arrives early. I’m staying right here.

So they used some of their animal sinews and their flax or plant stem ropes, and they whittled a bunch of stakes, and they roped in some of those herds, and there they stayed. And when everyone came back next spring, lo and behold, there they were still, fat and sleek and healthy, and not totally exhausted from the long journey. So the following year, a few more crazy people decided to follow suit. Their wives and children and old people flourished, their flocks and herds produced young, and numbers multiplied.

I’m not a historian – as you can no doubt tell – and yes, this is probably hopelessly idealised and unrealistic. But my point is this: territorial borders are man-made and arbitrary. We do not – contrary to what many believe – own the land on which we were born or where we live. We are just there. I don’t normally post a political message. And I don’t want to debate endlessly. I just want to point out that in my own view, we are all migrants. We are all nomads. So, please, let’s have some compassion.

A Big Issue costs around £2.50. Seriously, folks, my cappuccino costs more than that. And I probably buy four or five a week. Can we all not make an effort to buy a Big Issue and enable a homeless person in desperate need buy food and shelter for a night? There but for the grace of God…

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My Life in the Criminal Underworld, or, What I saw from the bus…

It’s no secret that I live in a slightly dodgy part of town. In fact there are dodgier areas, but there are also–rumour has it–nice areas where there is little crime and people don’t let their dogs cack on your driveway.

I don’t drive. I passed my test back in the day, when Methuselah was a lad, but that marked both the beginning and the end of my driving career. I’m just doing my bit to keep road fatalities to a minimum. However, this means I use the bus a lot.

This week I was trundling into town, Riverside blaring through my earphones, blissfully drifting away on a happy cloud of bellowed F-words in Artificial Smile, and the bus made a stop in Allenton. For those of you who live outside of the city of Derby, it’s a busy ”low-income” suburb on the route to the city centre. Now I know that 95% of the residents of Allenton are pleasant hard-working people just trying to get by. But some of them are not.

Other writers may witness drug deals ‘going down’, as we hardcore crims say, on a daily basis. I’ve only seen a handful over the years, living in my book- and music-induced sheltered little world. So I was quite surprised that I saw a drug deal take place right before my eyes. I suppose it’s just about possible the guy bought a teeny tiny packet of popping candy or artificial sweetener, or indeed a single teabag. Those are so hard to get if you only want one; you don’t always want a box of 80, do you?

The bus stop at the stop (it’s what they do). No one got on. No one got off. But we were running five minutes ahead of schedule, so the driver had to make up time. So we sat there. Like a bunch of tourists on a not-very-exciting tour.

A scruffy weaselly little bloke was mooching around the stop, but not making for the bus. Then further away, an over-grown kid was doing wheelies on a bike and generally twatting about getting in everyone’s way, for all the world as if he was still a teenager.

Artificial Smile ended, Volte Face started, (I’ve got a number of tracks from different albums on my phone). I was still daydreaming. But the guy on the bike caught my eye, doing his stunts a wee bit too close to the rest of humanity. He’s going to hit someone if he’s not careful, I thought. Suddenly he made a dive for the weaselly guy, they shook hands in a weird way and one of them not-very-secretly gave the other a folded banknote and the other gave him a teeny tiny packet of drugs or a teabag. Maybe it was dried catnip, that’s supposed to help you relax. Not sure if you can smoke it, though. I think it was hash or maybe worse. Then, Weasel dived on the bus just as it was finally about to pull away.

He sat at the back. Right across the aisle from me. Great. I reflected it was a good thing I was listening to music on my phone rather than using it to film the ‘transaction’. A scenario ran through my head where said weasel followed me and mugged me for my phone, or whipped out a knife. The only weapon I’ve got is a one inch blunt penknife on my key-ring, given to me by my 82-year old Dad. I doubt it would cut through butter let alone a vicious drug-thug. Or a pen. Matt Damon and Daniel Craig know how to use a pen as a weapon, I however, only write with mine. It’s not mightier than the sword when someone else has an actual sword.

He reeked of marijuana–it’s a horrid smell, especially when stale. And to keep up his hard-man image, he put on some ‘music’, sans headphones,which consisted of someone screeching profanities, making Artificial Smile sound like a lullaby. His knee bounced uncontrollably. He couldn’t sit still. He really needed that fix.

A lady sitting further down the bus with her small daughter, asked him to turn it down a bit. But all she got was a stream of obscenities in return. So she started to scream obscenities at him in her frustration. An elderly man with a hearing aid waded in, whilst Weasel began to defend his human rights to listen to vile, hate-filled stuff really loudly in public.  Ah the benefits of public transport. The council will never get people to give up using their cars until they get people to be pleasant and considerate towards others. I don’t see it happening, do you? Needless to say, the rest of the journey was a filth-addled nightmare.

This is why I like writing stories about a world when a gentleman would doff his cap and say, ‘Excuse me madam, please forgive the intrusion, but could you possibly turn down your Polish Alternative Rock for a moment or two, I’m trying to catch the jolly old cricket score on the transistor radio. I’d be most awfully grateful.’ Upon which I would say, ‘Gosh, yes, I’m so sorry, I had no idea it was so shockingly loud. How silly of me. I do beg your pardon.’ And we’d all get along swimmingly. That’s not much to ask, is it?

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Not an Island, but a Peninsula…

We writers cannot live in isolation. We often think we can, we convince ourselves we do. Like many of my writer friends and colleagues, I spend hours each day in my own little world, deep in thought, planning story-lines, creating and manipulating characters. It’s all too easy to believe that I am divorced from reality as I build worlds and imagine conversations.

But I’m not. We’re not. We are in fact very closely linked with the world around us, necessarily so, since even our fictions must be built on some kind of reality. We people-watch, we observe, then we go back to our desks and computers screens, or our comfy sofas and our notebooks, and we report what we have seen and heard. Sometimes we change the outcome, or the setting, or the players in our dramas, to create a more useful impact in our work.

Years ago, on a holiday to Scotland, tour guides would always say, ‘And over there you can see the Black Isle. It’s not an isle but a peninsula.’

That’s what I am. Connected to the mainland of the world around me by a narrow but crucial and strong strip of reality, not an island, not remote, separate, autonomous or isolated. But an integral part, connected, associated, a partner in the journey. I depend on this connection for my work, and without it I wouldn’t be able to shut myself away and write.

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