In praise of Port Meadow

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Not far from my home is a wide, flat meadow. A river – lined with houseboats and spanned by a rainbow bridge – winds through it, and cattle and wild ponies graze it. 

For over a thousand years it has belonged to the people of Oxford, a gift from King Alfred the Great in gratitude for their help defending the kingdom from attack.  

Instead of being enclosed, ploughed or divided up, it has been shared for the last eleven centuries by the people of the city: those who built the spires and those who studied under them, college cleaners and lecturers, prime ministers, poets, factory workers and shop assistants. 

My children have grown up going to what they briefly thought was ‘Pork Meadow’ in all seasons – to crack the ice in the puddles and lie in the buttercups and pick blackberries with scratched purple fingers. They lost wellies in the mud there, flew kites and rode bikes, spent hours braiding the ponies’ shaggy manes, and played baseball like only British people can. 

Issy Port Meadow.jpg

As teenagers, it's the place they’ve chosen to celebrate the end of exams, with chips on a jetty and wild-swimming with friends. It's where they've lost the dog too many times to count – only to have her presence revealed half a mile away by flocks of birds squawking suddenly into the air. It's where we’ve walked amongst the hawthorn blossom and meadowsweet in long, light summer evenings that seemed like they would never end. 

The leaves on the meadow are turning yellow and rust red, and starting to fall as the wind gusts. Like the river, time moves on more quietly and quickly than we realise. 

Each visit to Port Meadow reminds me how important it is to be present to the moment in a world full of fleeting and outrageous beauty.

It also reminds me that when you love a person or a place, you should do it fiercely and faithfully – and with everything you have.

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Earth’s crammed with heaven / And every common bush afire with God

- Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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Postcard from Paris

Photo by Rob Potvin on Unsplash

Photo by Rob Potvin on Unsplash

Paris and me, we have history.

On a sixth-form trip, walking with friends down the Champs Elysées in the spring sunshine, it seemed Rimbaud had written his poem for us: ‘On n’est pas sérieux, quand on a dix-sept ans / Et qu’on a des tilleuls verts sur la promenade’ (‘No one’s serious at seventeen / When lime trees line the promenade’). I’d never seen anywhere so beautiful or so alive.

The next time I visited I was studying French at university, and I arrived with a boyfriend – who dumped me without ceremony on the first day of our holiday. I made an excuse about making a phone call and left him for hours as the city welcomed me back. I walked until I was lost and re-found my sense of self.

I returned a few years later with another boy, and we fell for Paris together. On the next visit there were three of us. Our daughter was three weeks old and neither she nor I had a clue what we were doing. Sleep-starved, dazed and hormonal, I walked the boulevards with my arms wrapped round her while her dad worked, and began to see how life could begin again.

Well-loved friends moved to the city and – purely for the sake of loyalty – we went to see them often, and Paris became a city of playgrounds and boat rides and parks with wild strawberries where our children tried out their first (tiny) rollercoaster.

That first daughter is about to leave home in a few weeks, and we’ve brought her and her younger sister back to Paris, while their brother cycles the tree-lined roads of the south for a few days. 

Paris has been a place to which I always return, a distant constant when the rest of life has whirled and swirled around me. She’s a city of contradictions: elegant and seedy, grand and intimate, full of light and shadows, grime and glory. Her streets are alive with creativity, with the ghosts of philosophers and artists and writers I once studied, and loved for their humanity and wisdom. One of her bridges buckled recently under the weight of locks bearing lovers’ initials attached to them. She’s the city of love and longing, and she always has been. 

But this visit she’s shown a different side. 

We drove in from the north, scanning for that moment when the Eiffel Tower first comes into view. 

The road took us through a strobing tunnel to Porte de la Chapelle, and a makeshift camp of hundreds of tents under a flyover, where people walked, stood and sat at the edge of the dual carriageway. 

A woman with a cardboard sign asking for help weaved between closed car windows towards us. A boy washed the windscreen and came to the window for payment. We gave him 5 Euros but he leant in and demanded 10, then grabbed the wing mirror, threatening to tear it off if we didn’t give more. 

Groups of men stood in huddles, just yards from police and soldiers with boys’ faces, body armour and machine guns.

We googled ‘Porte de la Chapelle’ and read about the repeated rounding-up and removal of those seeking sanctuary in the city, including dozens of unaccompanied children. The issues are clearly messy and confusing, complex and nuanced. Around a hundred migrants arrive each day in the area, and the conditions they live in are unsustainable and insanitary. Criminal networks are quick to exploit the needs and vulnerability of the newcomers, and women who live nearby have found themselves harassed and endangered. The place is tense and brutal, and ugly.  

As Europeans we have raised our eyebrows at the words beneath the statue France gifted to the American people on their independence, ‘Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses...’, and what seems to be the current US administration’s betrayal of its country’s dearest values.

But those masses are also here, in Paris, and the government's response is to keep them at the end of a gun, to don hazard suits to sift through the debris of broken lives after another dawn round-up.

These Eritreans and Sudanese, Syrians and Afghans cannot simply be defined and dismissed as members of the wrong club, who lost the birth lottery and are now cluttering up the streets. 

They are people – with the guts to get out of a war zone, to seek a way out of endless violence, poverty and fear, to reach the city that champions freedom, equality and brotherhood. 

But the clarion call of the republic, emblazoned across every hotel de ville in the land, rings cracked and hollow in Porte de la Chapelle.

An evening walk took us into the heart of the city, past a family on a mattress, a boy covered in burns and a mother holding out a cup for coins.

I know that the first family I saw sitting together on a mattress at the side of the road tore at my heart, and that within a couple of days I was speeding up to get past them. I know that in the four days of our stay I saw no one stop to give money, or food, or exchange words. I know that they will have watched my family walk past awkwardly on the other side of the road, our younger daughter asking why the story of the Good Samaritan plays out differently on a Parisian avenue. 

I am bitterly aware that I don’t have answers. But the questions are howling round the boulevards and bridges, the parks and squares of Paris, and they demand a response that is concerted and compassionate, not ill-conceived, populist or panic-prompted.

The Musée d’Orsay houses the paintings of Van Gogh, a broken, impoverished foreigner, overlooked and undervalued his whole life through, whose works now draw millions from across all the countries of the world. Where life left him in despair he saw stars that lit the midnight blue and light it still for those who come. 

If only Paris, city of light, would now choose to extend her promise of liberté, égalité and fraternité to those who are huddled, and bruised, and grieving, and far from home, just like he once was. 

 

https://helprefugees.org.uk/

http://sanctuaryhosting.org/

http://safepassage.org.uk/

http://www.redcross.org.uk/What-we-do/Refugee-support

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The Song of Digby and of Jane

At Birmingham University’s freshers’ week in 1967, a quietly classy Yorkshire girl called Jane met Digby, a shaggy-haired boy from the outskirts of Manchester.

For reasons that remain unclear, in an effort to impress he told her that he was part-Aborigine. 

Despite this unusual strategy, they fell in love. 

The story of their relationship is not mine to tell, but it led to a wedding day four years later, and hands that have held each other for half a century now. 

Digby took some time out from his studies so they spent a time apart and finished their degrees in different years. Their first daughter appears as a carefully-held bundle in grainy, light-flooded ciné film footage at Digby’s graduation. That bundle was me. 

Years followed of brave knitwear choices, bad haircuts, tins-full of homemade cake and holidays in anoraks in a static caravan (I’ve never known excitement in the pit of my stomach like I felt when my sister and I watched the car being loaded with provisions for the summer and the long journey to the wild north).

They trained as teachers and taught in schools in inner-city Birmingham, and on troubled estates. Digby was working at a school in Handsworth when tensions boiled over into rioting. We watched the footage of burning cars on the TV news as we waited for his return, no hope of a call from a mobile to reassure us. 

Like anyone, they knew frustrations and breakthroughs in these years – and searing grief and quiet comfort, stress, strain and everyday happinesses. This, again, is too deep and private a song to sing here; it’s music for a different place, high on a mountain at the end of time. 

Suffice it to say, their lives – like yours and mine – were ordinary and extraordinary. 

They built a family and a home; they taught their own and many other people’s children to love learning and to know themselves to be of value.

After a lifetime of hard work and obligations, retirement is often presented as the holy grail of self-reward. Rest, treats, travel and comfortable trousers await us if we only save and plan and jump successfully through the final hoop.

Digby and Jane retired a few years ago, and they have enjoyed spending time with their grandchildren and getting discount at the cinema in the middle of the week.

But as I’ve watched I’ve seen something else at work. 

As students they were introduced to an ancient book and an ageless love which has been their stay through the decades since. It teaches care for the underdog, the overlooked and the stranger, and it has defined the way they live.  

They are private people. I remember how personally they took it when, on an empty beach in driving rain, the only other people unhinged enough to brave the elements chose to pitch their spot near ours – for solidarity, maybe, or simply to minimise the risk of being swept into the sea. They find it hard to share their beloved Lake District with the other people who keep going there and spoiling its peace.

But despite this, their retirement has not been a time of retraction and withdrawal. Their lives have instead opened wider and more generously, bringing people on the edge closer in to the warmth.

Digby still sees Ed, the friend he made at one school in the late 1970s. They talk on the phone and meet up to play pool and chat. The school was a special school for children with disabilities and learning difficulties. But Ed wasn’t a colleague – he was a pupil, and their friendship has flourished for over 40 years.

They live on a leafy road where people have long been civil and smiled and waved at their neighbours, but few have known each other well. The last few years have seen them nurture a thriving Street Association, bringing a once disparate community together into each other’s houses, into the local hall for quizzes and cake and tea, and out – together – to dig through the dusty grounds of the brain-injury unit at the end of the road, where they planted flowers to brighten the view and scent the air for those recuperating inside. 

One of their neighbours has lived reclusively for years behind a growing thicket of brambles. Gently and slowly they have built trust and connection with her. After leaving a note to invite her to a talk they thought she might find interesting, thinking it highly unlikely that she would respond, they found her waiting at the end of her drive for a lift. She now comes out to join the neighbours when they meet, and finds a welcome there.

On Friday nights at midnight, when I’m asleep on my sofa, they head off to Broad Street, the home of many of Birmingham’s busiest nightclubs, bars and restaurants. They put on their City Pastor jackets and earpieces and walk the streets in the darkness. For the next few hours they look out for people who have lost their phones, their keys, their friends or their way. 

They stop to talk, to hand out flip-flops, silver space blankets, to receive a drunken kiss or hug, to point someone in the right direction. Their visible presence is designed to dissuade those who might take advantage of people who are drunk or high, vulnerable or in despair. 

A taxi driver, accompanied by his friend, was insistent that two young women who had not been looking for a lift get into his cab. They intervened, asked the women where they were heading and saw them to safety and away from who knows what.

I am so proud of how, even on dark and inhospitable nights, they leave comfort behind to reclaim a place of safety and kindness for those who find themselves in harder, colder places.

It’s fifty years since they met, but their love still has a youth about it – a freshness and a hopefulness and an aliveness – that is perhaps best captured by Bob Dylan, the voice of their generation (and soundtrack of my childhood Sunday afternoons):

‘May your hands always be busy 

May your feet always be swift

May you have a strong foundation 

When the winds of changes shift

May your heart always be joyful 

And may your song always be sung

May you stay forever young

Forever young, forever young 

May you stay forever young.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Five ways to get through dark days

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It is strange now to think that we once called 2016 callous for stealing David Bowie and Victoria Wood from us.

Looking back, it becomes apparent that the year stole so much more than that, with the killing of Jo Cox, the fall-out of the Brexit vote, the mowing down of 86 people on a warm Nice night, mass drownings in the Mediterranean, protracted conflict in Syria and Yemen, drought and hunger across the Horn of Africa. 

Many of us watched with mouths hanging open as the year closed with the election of a former reality TV host to the White House, the rise of an emboldened far right and a spike in hate crime, division, and distrust.

Destabilising forces are at play, including a sustained and cynical undermining of the free press. While fictitious news is disseminated on an industrial scale, powerful people choose to describe genuine reporting as ‘fake’. It’s staggering to think that ‘MSM’ – mainstream media – is now a pejorative term.

Meanwhile, we find ourselves retreating into bubbles – intentionally or not. 

Algorithms construct echo chambers for us on social media that we narrow further as we unfriend or mute those whose views we don’t share. 

Ads and suggestions for the next thing we should watch or listen to or buy are minutely tailored to our online profile. When profit is the only driver this can leave people exposed and vulnerable. An MIT Technology Review article in May this year reported evidence of Facebook’s use of sensitive user data to target particular ads at teenagers experiencing feelings of worthlessness. 

Our moorings are creaking as the connections between us weaken and our reference points blur. Divided and dazed, it becomes hard to see the way forward.

But it’s worth drawing strength from the fact that many before us have lived through dark days and found their way through them. 

John Woolman was a Quaker tradesman in slave-owning colonial America. His sensitivity to what he called ‘the operations of Divine Love’ led him to become an advocate for the abolition of slavery and a refusal to benefit from consumer goods produced by slave labour and unjust trade practices.

In November 1758 he stayed in the home of Thomas Woodward after speaking at a Quaker meeting. When he learned that the household servants were slaves his response was neither to openly confront his host, nor to turn a blind eye. 

Instead, during the night he rose and wrote a note to his hosts explaining why he could not accept their hospitality, went to the slaves’ quarters to pay them for their service, and made his way out into the night.

In the morning, the note was found and, deaf to his wife’s objections, Thomas Woodward set every slave free.

There’s a star in the constellation Ursa Minor called Polaris – also known as the lodestar or north star – which remains in a fixed position throughout the night. For centuries it has given travellers the means by which to navigate in the darkness.

John Woolman had found his north star. In days when people openly traded in humans, it gave him courage and conviction when it was only too easy to compromise or be passively complicit.

Actions like Woolman’s that are kind and bold and good – and have the power to reverse vicious circles – are vital in these fragile, volatile days. 

They’re evident in the open-hearted responses of the people of Manchester and London who opened their homes to those affected by the recent attacks, drove them home, worked round the clock to give medical care. In the actions of those who took the time to lift a girl in a wheelchair to safety as people fled from the Manchester Arena, and in the man who pledged to return to the restaurant he was eating in on the night of the London Bridge attack to pay his bill and tip those who served him. Under fire they knew what they held dear.

But, away from the headlines, we make a thousand tiny decisions each day that mould and define the world we live in. How do we find and stay true to our north star in the face of fear and fragmentation?

Here are five ideas that come to mind:

1. Lift your head up. You can’t see the way with your head down. Leave your phone behind and go somewhere you can see for a long way. Intersperse noise and busyness and 24/7 media consumption with the ancient rhythms of rest, reflection, and refuge in the world’s wildness to reclaim a sense of perspective.

2. Actively seek what’s true. Hunt it out in the midst of all that is distracting, shifting, immediately appealing or absorbing. When you find it, let it shape your choices, words, and actions. 

3. Be willing to go against the flow, against the grain. Ask questions. Don’t operate on autopilot. We need intentionally to check our reference points against the constancy of our north star to make sure we’re not being blown off course by the influences around us. 

4. Defuse. Woolman chose not to shame his hosts but to convict them. In Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, Jewish prisoners were forced to work in arms factories manufacturing bombs to be used against the Allies. Elmer Bendiner, the navigator of a B-17 bomber, tells the story of his bewildered gratitude at emerging unharmed from an attack by German anti-aircraft guns in which shells pierced his plane’s gas tanks but failed to explode. When the shells were sent for defusing they were found to have no charge. Eleven were empty; one contained a carefully-rolled piece of paper with a message in Czech that read, ‘This is all we can do for you now.’

5. Break out of your bubble by joining in and reaching out. Find places and events that you wouldn’t normally go to, where people are different from you. Support what other people are doing, like The Great Get-Together on 16-18 June inspired by Jo Cox’s belief that ‘We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.’ Lend your presence and your support. Build bridges not walls.

Darkness is disorientating but light is always more powerful. Martin Luther King said ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’. Let’s keep our eyes fixed on it. 

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Why your creativity counts

On a spur-of-the-moment day trip to Barcelona, my family and I arrived at the gates of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia only 15 minutes before closing time. Five tickets for such a fleeting visit seemed too extravagant to every adult, budget-juggling fibre in us, but we silenced the sensibleness and paid to enter.

It was the right decision. 

What we found was not the cold stone splendour of a Norman cathedral, but a vast white space full of light and soaring height. It’s a place of illumination and intimate grandeur, and a purity that left my heart raw as if it had been scraped and scoured very tenderly clean.

Ninety years after his death, Gaudi’s masterpiece is still under construction. The act of creation he set in motion is still alive and unfurling.

It has the power to leave visitors changed as they walk back out into the Spanish heat, tacitly challenged to live with a little more boldness and wonder.

Humans are by nature creative. Children are prolific creators, as any parent trying to manage piles of loo roll models and paintings and pasta collages will testify.

But adulthood can often signal the waning of our creativity. Untended, it dwindles as we focus on earning a living, building a CV, paying the bills. We become too pressured and distracted to carve out space, too neglectful of the latent spark in us to strike it and see what might happen. 

Instead, consumption trumps creativity. 

A small number of people are paid millions to make art, design clothes, sing to packed stadiums, cook Michelin-starred food, and then license their products so we can catch their cleverness and keep it in our cupboards. We become passive consumers rather than the conceivers and creators and connectors that I believe we’re meant to be.

But to create – whatever that might look like – is to take part in an act of profound resistance.

Like Gaudi’s masterpiece, it lets the light in.

Here are three stories that illustrate why we need, now more than ever, to silence our inner critic and launch out on some creative adventures.

Claire

For the last six months I’ve been working with a charity called Community Albums, whose team of award-winning professional musicians help people who have known little but discrimination and exclusion to find and use their voices. A couple of years ago they worked with Claire. Struggling with anorexia and personality disorder, she initially found it difficult even to make eye contact.

With skill and kindness, the team helped her to find the words and music she needed to express herself, and she went on to write and perform a song called ‘I Am Claire’, which ends with the lines: ‘I am stronger than I think I am. I am more than my illness. Anorexia, you will not define me. I am Claire.’ Her act of courageous creativity has since won her a wide audience and she now blogs regularly for the Huffington Post, using her newfound voice to help bridge the gulfs that so often open up around people dealing with poor mental health. 

Jane

My friend Jane has a demanding job in child protection, and her work takes her between the UK and India. Together with another friend, Rosie, we meet every few months to share projects and pieces we’ve been working on – written, painted or even sometimes cooked.

A little while ago, Jane read a poem she’d written, telling us as she started that it really wasn’t much good. As she read, time slowed and when she came to the last line we asked her immediately to read it again. Jane’s work means that she knows how broken 'broken' can be. But in a Delhi shelter that is home to children already far too well acquainted with grief and pain, she noticed and captured a force at work that was more muscular and more gentle than anything else she saw there:

 

Boys Shelter in Delhi

There is light in this place

Immutable in dim surrounds

It illuminates the faces of the boys 

And floods the space with gentleness

Dark walls cannot keep it out

It slides under the doors 

And pours through the ancient locks 

Expanding to the corners of every story

Of each priceless life

 

– Jane Travis 

 

Abel

Abel Meeropol was a Jewish schoolteacher in New York in the 1930s. After seeing a photograph of the lynchings of two black men he wrote a poem called ‘Strange Fruit’ in which he described the ‘Pastoral scene of the gallant South, / The bulging eyes and twisted mouth’ of humans hanging like strange, bitter fruit in American trees.

He showed his poem to jazz singer Billie Holiday and they worked together to set it to music. Once heard, Holiday’s song is not forgotten, haunting its listeners long after the silence sets in. Meeropol’s act of creation sparked into life a work voted the song of the twentieth century, which gave voice to a depth of despair, disgust, resilience and protest that shames the perpetrators of the violence it describes more devastatingly than a judge’s report ever could. 

But without the schoolteacher’s poem, the jazz singer’s song would not exist.

Our creations have value in their own right, but they don’t exist in isolation. They are part of something bigger, and the life in them can set off chain reactions that disappear off in directions we may never know. In Lucy Winkett’s book ‘Our Sound is our Wound’ (Continuum Books, 2010) she writes,

There will be times when we are asked to rest, be silent, to allow another voice to be heard. But if we don’t sing or play the part we have uniquely been given, someone else will miss their cue.’

Practising creativity helps us to question, imagine, and grow, and makes space for what is not yet but could soon be.

In days like these we can be silent and passive. Or we can choose to act, to create, to trigger who knows what or who – and let the light come streaming in.

 

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The human cost of fast fashion

My mum once knitted me a scarf as a present, and sewed on to it buttons from the clothes of my childhood. Just a glimpse of the red metal button from one corduroy pinafore (mm-hmm) brought back the taste of fishfingers and ketchup and the Diff’rent Strokes theme tune.

A few years after my pinafore period I started wearing a cardigan that my mum had made for herself when I was very little. It was soft and a rusty shade of fox. I wore it constantly as a sixth former until it was mysteriously ‘lost’ during a washing cycle. I have never forgotten it. It may have looked less than delicious to others but to me it communicated comfort, and a sense of being held. 

More recently a black sweater with a tiny criss-cross patterning in the weave won a place in my affections. I liked the shape and simplicity of it and wore it until it started to fall apart at the seams so I stitched it up (a sign of true affection as, due to an early scarring experience with a needlework teacher, this is not something I often do). After spilling a splash of bleach on it I had to colour the marks with a black sharpie whenever I wore it. Eventually we reached the point in our relationship when I knew we needed to say goodbye, but it took me a long time to act on that knowledge. 

Some clothes find a way into your heart – because of how perfectly they fit, or feel on your skin, or because of good things that have happened when you wore them. 

But the fashion industry that produces them needs us to see clothes differently, or the trajectory of its profits will start to slacken. It requires us to be consumers rather than friends of our clothes: to eat, digest and excrete vast quantities of clothes to keep its momentum going.

In order to make this possible, a high proportion of clothes are sold at relatively low cost to the consumer, so many people don’t need to think twice before making a new purchase. When I was a student, I paid £45 for a new pair of Levis. Today I can buy a pair of jeans for £10, and be pretty sure that:

- when I’ve had enough of them I can throw them out and buy another pair for the cost of a single cinema ticket

- the person who made them will be paid less than 40p for their work, maybe much less

- because the supply chain is global, I won’t need to see that person and confront the reality of how they live

As well as skimping on wages paid to workers, some clothing companies choose to use only a narrow range of cheap dyes to allow production of high-turnover fashion at bargain prices. But surely skimping on colour is like putting on an exhibition of beautiful pieces of art and then switching off the lights to keep electricity costs down? 

Clothes are meant to be fun, to be useful, beautiful, and interesting. Mid-century dramas are alive with the zing of the dresses of the 1950s and 60s, their prints and patterns, the scarves and sunglasses and lipstick. But when I go into some high street shops I see cheap clothes made hastily with poor quality fabric and dingy colours that run out of the washing machine into the drains by the third wash.

We are missing the point.

But, sadly, it’s not quite as innocent as that. We’re not just missing out; we’re involved in something much darker in our lunch hour, as we pop into the nearest shop for a quick fashion fix.

I read a book about slavery a little while ago, and the depths of the cruelty detailed in it still haunt me. What became clear through its pages was that, but for a few dissenters, an entire society contentedly fed its children on the proceeds of torture. Generations of British people who in many other ways lived useful and kind lives had explicit or implicit involvement in perhaps the most horrifying system humanity has ever devised. Most of them turned their gaze from the true source of their wealth so they could freely enjoy its benefits – even, in the case of one elegant walking party, speeding up as they strolled past a slave ship on the seafront, to avoid the stench of death it belched and find more bearable air. 

Thinking about that blinkered generation made me wonder what we might be busy turning a blind eye to now. Is there anything that our children and their children will look back on in disbelief and ask, ‘How could you silently sanction that?’

The more I learn about it, the more it seems that one of our most significant blind spots may be the way we buy our clothes.

Most of us are aware that many of the people who make our clothes in Bangladesh and Vietnam and other far-off places get a raw deal. We don’t like it, but judging which brands are more trustworthy than others can be complicated, and life is busy, and we need clothes to wear, and so we end up perpetuating a system that condemns living, breathing, crying, laughing, dreaming, feeling people to death: either a non-life of deadening poverty and appalling conditions, or swift extinction in a factory fire or collapse. 1,134 people were killed in one day alone when the Rana Plaza complex collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, but they were garment workers rather than western tourists, so it doesn’t seem to live in our collective consciousness like other, more famous tragedies do.

There are a number of reasons why working out what to do about our clothes shopping habits is less than straightforward. Here are four:

  1. Paying a higher price for your clothes does not guarantee that they’ve been made more fairly. It’s safe to assume that the making of a very cheap piece of clothing has involved exploitation at some point because maths is maths is maths. On average, four per cent of the price of an item goes to pay people in the country of manufacture, and 96 per cent to people in the country of sale. But a higher price tag certainly doesn’t mean a fairer wage for makers. Hermes and Chanel, for example, rank at the very bottom of the Fashion Transparency Index.
  2. Digging deeper to see which brands we can trust seems to reveal prime alternative facts territory. Fashion supply chains are long and very complex. Many brands don’t know exactly where or how their clothes are made; others do and choose to avert a profit-focused eye. H&M, for example, has won accolades for its efforts to institute a living wage for garment workers, but it's also the same company that runs supplying factories in Myanmar in which 14 year-old girls work 15-hour days. A Clean Clothes Campaign report found that over half of H&M’s strategic suppliers still lack adequate fire exits. The industry is opaque, and knowing who to trust is a challenge.
  3. Some wonder whether boycotting brands that allow exploitation of their workforces will hit the poor hardest: ‘If I stop buying these clothes will the people who make them be left with even less to live on?’ But surely propping up an unfair system because you worry about the fragility of the alternative will not give that fairer alternative the opportunity it needs to prove itself.
  4. Our phones flash with another notification and our attention moves on, and grappling with complexity gets dropped in favour of the next quick digital hit.

I grew up in Birmingham on Bournville land, developed by the Cadbury family to provide a healthy environment for the workers at their chocolate factory. The verges are wide, the houses built with thought and care, and the minimum number of fruit-trees in the gardens once stipulated by by-law. The old Cadbury kindness has seeped into the soil and I grew up knowing that business could be enlightened and successful, and intentionally and proactively good.

Fortunately, people with creativity, imagination and determination are still working to tackle exploitation and injustice. If we in turn seek out what they’re doing and vote with our bank cards, we can demonstrate to fashion industry decision-makers that respect for human life and dignity can turn a good profit. 

One of these people happens to live in the street next to mine. My neighbour Maria is a garment industry professional who runs a charitable organisation which helps people living in difficult situations to develop their dressmaking skills and generate an income.

In response to an invitation from a contact working with disadvantaged women in Mozambique, she has designed a dress and business model that is innovative and inspired. 

Photo: Laura Simmons. Models: Ruth Miller and Hannah Omar

Photo: Laura Simmons. Models: Ruth Miller and Hannah Omar

Into the very design of the dress are worked principles created to benefit the wearer, the maker, the seller and the environment. The same dress is designed to fit anyone, from size 6 to 26, and is made without zips, buttons or additional parts that may be harder to source in some parts of the world. It can be made on a manual sewing machine, if electricity is unreliable or simply not available.

  • The wearer gets to own a beautiful dress that has been made well and fairly, with 30 per cent of the price tag going to the maker.
  • The maker saves money on a pattern designed to minimise waste that does not require anything other than fabric and thread for its production.
  • The seller can be confident that any dress they order will fit any prospective customer. There is no longer a need to order a range of different sizes, or worry about stock that won’t shift.
  • The environment is protected as air miles, fabric waste, and turnover are reduced.

Fittingly, the dress is being launched on Fashion Revolution Day, 24th April, and will be on sale at Indigo, Oxford. 

While the current focus may be local, however, the vision stretches far. 

The plan is to use sales of dresses in Oxford to finance its extension internationally. The patented dress template and accompanying instructions can be used for a £1 license fee per year, making the product a tried, tested and inexpensive way for a dressmaker anywhere in the world to be paid fairly for a high quality, lasting product.

After all, it’s only fitting that a dress should be fun and beautiful, and something that increases rather than reduces the sum total of joy in this world.

 

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Find out more about Maria’s Dorcas dress here.

On Monday 24th April, you are warmly invited to come and find out #WhoMadeYourClothes and meet Maria, Bahar and others involved in the project at the dress launch, from 6:00 – 7:30 p.m. at Indigo, 62 Cowley Road, Oxford, OX4 1JB.

Dresses will also be available from 24th April at Live Lagom, 6 Gabriel’s Wharf, Upper Ground, South Bank, London, SE1 9PP. 

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Sunday morning song

 

Like most of the people on the planet, my eyes and thoughts have been focused on events in Washington over the last few days, and I’ve found it hard to look away. 

To be frank, I’ve found the bombast and bluster and breathtaking dishonesty stifling.

But seeing banners unfurl with the call to #buildbridgesnotwalls has been like breathing again. 

Sharing stories is one of the best ways of building bridges I know. As I’ve written before, stories can stop us from feeling alone, remind us that we’re part of something bigger, give us a sense of our shared humanity. They can forge connection, expand horizons, deepen empathy and dissolve division.

So, in that spirit, I want to tell a very short story of something I watched unfold at my church on a Sunday morning a few months ago. 

It’s a story from the shadows, short and bitter and sweet.

A man I'll call Pete came into our church a little while ago. I didn’t notice him until I heard shouting and looked up to see him – behind the glass doors of the entrance hall – raising angry arms and voice to a member of the welcome team.

He was incoherent and distressed. Slowly but deliberately a number of men rose from their seats and walked over as one to give support.

My husband was one of them. Through the glass, I watched his open, generous body language as he calmed Pete and reassured him, shook his hand and made him coffee. I saw Pete pointing upwards and staggering backwards, and heard him shout again. But he quietened; the group of men stood and talked, and peace returned.

At the end of the service I went to find my husband, who had stayed out in the entrance hall. Pete was drunk; few of his words made any sense, and the stench of urine was strong and stale and sour. He shook my husband’s hand, and went falteringly out of the church, helped by a friend who had come for him.

My husband told me that he is an ex-soldier who has been battling drink and wants to stop, but has so far been unable. He told me that they talked about the drink and the army and the pain and all the while he kept repeating the same sentence:

“There’s only one man I love.”

And each time, he pointed upwards.

Pete is a man of sorrows. He’s despised and rejected by many who pass him by on the city streets. He is well acquainted with grief.

He’s also a man in love.

The ground is holy. I take off my shoes.

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The camping trip that changed America

Photo by Martin Jernberg on Unsplash

Photo by Martin Jernberg on Unsplash

Words carry.

When words ring true they can travel far. 

There was once a man who loved the mountains, and the words he chose to articulate this won him the friendship of a President and the gratitude of a nation. 

In 1849, 11-year-old John Muir moved from Scotland to the US with his mother, six siblings and a fierce, firebrand father. As a young boy he had explored the coast and countryside of East Lothian, and he loved the wildness of his new American home. He walked its wildernesses with a book of Robert Burns’s poems in his pocket.  

He enrolled at university, where he studied aspects of chemistry, geology and botany but never graduated. His career was fitful, taking him from sawmill to factory to shepherd’s hut.

Leaving a promising position as a supervisor, he took a thousand mile walk from Kentucky to Florida. He later sailed to California, where he walked from San Francisco to the Sierra Nevada. On his first visit to Yosemite, he wrote of being ‘overwhelmed by the landscape, scrambling down steep cliff faces to get a closer look at the waterfalls, whooping and howling at the vistas’.

Drawing on his eclectic studies, he developed the then outlandish-sounding theory that the valley had been carved by glaciers. His approach was scientific and his connection profoundly spiritual: he believed that the nature he loved was lit by the glory of God. 

Although he wrestled with the process, taking time to draft and re-draft, revise and whittle away at his words, he wrote prodigiously: poetry, letters, accounts of his discoveries, and articles for national magazines. Writing was a heavy task for him, one he felt could scarcely begin to capture the wonder of the world that intoxicated his senses. 

But it was a world under increasing threat from those who saw only profit in it, and so he wrote on. As the volume of his words grew, visitors came to see him – including his hero Ralph Waldo Emerson, who offered him a teaching position at Harvard. Muir decided to decline, declaring that he would never for a moment think of ‘giving up God’s big show for a mere profship.’

His words eventually reached the White House, and the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt. The President came to meet the poet in the mountains, and the two men went to camp in the back-country, sleeping under the stars and waking to a dusting of snow. Roosevelt never forgot it, recalling the experience as ‘like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.’

During the trip, Muir spoke of the state’s mismanagement of the valley and its consequent degradation, and urged Roosevelt to protect it with national park status. 

The President listened, and then oversaw the most significant expansion of national park land across the United States, protecting swathes of wilderness for posterity. What might have been ripped apart by saws and shredders and excavators was instead set aside for exploration and adventure and peace. 

Muir never became a professor or politician or professional administrator. But he wrote about what he loved – and it changed the world around him. 

Our voices matter. Our words can carry. 

Dig your words deep out of the fibre of your being. Write them, whisper them, speak them, shout them. You never know who might be listening.

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Everyone was a bird

This is a guest post from 17 year-old writer and novice theatre critic Phoebe Mitchell (who also just happens to be my daughter).

 

I recently went to see ‘Furious Folly’, a dramatic piece influenced by the Dadaist movement of the early 20th century. It was performed outdoors, in the cooling twilight as day turned to night – an evening of unexpected horror, discomfort, and uncertainty. I was utterly absorbed.

On arrival we were ushered through gates for a short walk amongst the Oxford spires. The walk was dreamy and otherworldly.

The tranquil setting was soon forgotten.

As we entered the setting of the drama – a sports field – each member of the audience was handed a green or brown toy soldier by a figure clad in dark overalls, their face obscured by a hood. Each soldier had been mangled and maimed, leaving each figure twisted, incomplete, contorted.

People given green soldiers were directed to the left; those given brown to the right. Our party was divided and a sense of foreboding took root in us all, an inexplicable apprehension. 

Loudspeakers spewed jazz music with crackles, warnings without conviction, words without soul or meaning. The audience waited, hushed and silent, as if afraid to speak – afraid to draw attention to themselves.

The figures in dark overalls lined the barriers, reticent and mute, speaking brusquely only when addressed. After some time they released the rope and the audience were guided into what had initially seemed to be the scene for the drama. 

The audience had become the participants: we were no longer safe, but vulnerable and exposed. The fourth wall of drama was destroyed and our ability simply to observe the action was eliminated, stripped from us. We were facing those with the brown toy soldiers; people who, five minutes ago, had been friends, family, neighbours now became other.

Between us was a strip of land with four watchtowers at the corners. A woman clothed in grimy white endlessly circled a tree, whispering, “never again, never again, never again”. She was broken; her back strained forwards; her face was grey and anonymous. A man with a gun marched up and down, arbitrarily taking aim at people on both sides.

The sound of a trumpet was interrupted by the jarring crack of gunshot. The fence separating us from the enemy opened and we streamed in to meet in the centre of no man’s land. 

The unspoken hostility that had permeated the sports pitch was gone – its existence and subsequent dissipation were both unexpected.

As we stood there, gunshots fired incessantly; fireworks shot off – no longer a symbol of celebration but of war. Actors mounted the four watchtowers and screamed. Their howls assaulted me. Their words were isolated, disjointed, spoken without the comfort of grammar and sentences. 

Their cries hollowed me out.

All the while, mechanical birds whirred and sang in cages which were hanging in the trees. Their voices, at first comforting, became hideous, shrill.

The performance left me changed. Through the muddle of broken sound and meaning, the actors were able to convey the sheer and utter horror of war. The production captured the absurdity of conflict and battle, and related to the audience the beauty, permanence and crucial importance of remembering our common humanity. 

As Sassoon wrote, we are all birds, the song we sing is wordless, and the singing will never be done.

Forgetting our connection to each other can come at a terrible cost.

 

Everyone Sang – Siegfried Sassoon

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;

And I was filled with such delight

As prisoned birds must find in freedom,

Winging wildly across the white

Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.

 

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;

And beauty came like the setting sun:

My heart was shaken with tears; and horror

Drifted away… O, but Everyone

Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

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Alchemy for beginners

Photo credit: Chris Fort

Photo credit: Chris Fort

For the last few weeks I’ve been trying to write a book about generosity.

It was probably predictable that this would bring my own less generous moments into wincingly sharp focus. Since starting, I’ve caught myself suggesting that we reduce a monthly gift to charity, that we turn down a slightly inconvenient request for a favour, and that my closest family members go away and leave me alone so I can concentrate on writing about kindness and inclusiveness. 

Despite the fact that I admire rather than exemplify it, I have been drawn to the subject for a long time and the more I study it, the more convinced I am that the practice of generosity has got to be a solution to some of the most difficult issues we face. 

Admittedly, being generous with our time, attitudes, bank accounts and affections was always going to be a good thing. 

It’s not rocket science: but it might just be alchemy.

Generosity has the power to cut straight to the heart of a situation and change it when reason and argument and eloquence fail. It lowers defences, bridges gulfs, deepens trust, heightens connection, and makes the other a friend. It can take the base metal of self-centredness and transform it into something unexpectedly, ridiculously good – often magically much greater than the sum of its parts. 

On a simple level, there is the generosity that responds with provision to a perceived need. Someone spots a lack and is moved to fill it. This can often be beautiful to witness, like the person who gave their umbrella to a homeless person sitting on a pavement and walked on through the driving rain. One person realises they are seen; the other realises there is much more to see outside the confines of their own experience, and their gaze lifts and extends.

When generosity grows to become a significant part of a person’s character, everyone benefits. I know how much I value those friends who love lavishly and don’t count the cost, whose homes are open and whose kindness is contagious. I have the privilege of living next door to someone like this, and my family – in fact, our whole community – are blessed, and in turn breathe a bit more freely and share a bit more readily and rise a little higher to match the kindness standard she has set.

But in some unexpected situations, generosity can floor us. 

In the fevered and fearful atmosphere that has followed the killing of an unimaginably high number of black US citizens by the police, division and distrust seem to have opened up chasms in communities. 

Against this backdrop, a black mother of two recently saw a white police officer in a city park. She stopped her car, got out with both her children and approached the police officer – to ask if she could pray for him and for his safety. 

Unwarranted, courageous and extravagant generosity has the raw force to right wrongs and reverse vicious circles.

There’s a joy in generosity, an unrestrained, feisty, fighting response to life’s pain. It has, in the writer Marilynne Robinson’s words, ‘a grand laughter’ in it.

This makes me think of the day a few weeks ago when my friend Jenny and I met in a London cafe and resumed our conversation from where we’d last left it, months before. We talked, as parents of teenagers, about boundaries and expectations. She asked wryly, with raised eyebrow, what I used to get up to as a 15-year-old. The answer – ‘handbell-ringing’ – was met with one of the best and most brilliant laughs I have ever witnessed. Joy coursed out of her, along with tears, wave after wave as the people sitting next to us shifted uncomfortably in their seats and the traffic inched along outside and I knew I was witnessing something I would not forget. 

There are many facets to generosity I want to explore, but I know that one of the chapters will look at generosity in friendship, and I will write about Jenny. About friendship that weathers storms and provides shelter in them, that gives you a place to belong, that tells you that you are loved on this earth.

In the scheme of things, life is short. Let’s allow generosity to make it sweet.

 

 

 

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Lycra and me - a late-flowering love affair

To teach us how to cartwheel, my PE teacher used to line a selection of pupils up in ability order, rather like the evolutionary chart of progress from knuckle-grazing ape to statuesque homo sapiens. A girl called Georgia was invited to perform the ultimate, immaculate, fully evolved cartwheel.

The primate-style pre-cartwheel stage? Mm-hmm, that was me.

It makes me sound like I haven’t quite mastered walking upright. I should point out that I’m a reasonably capable human being, and not desperately unfit, but neither am I naturally gifted or overly interested in sport. 

But a strange and wonderful thing has happened.

I have for a long time had the head knowledge that fitness is a demanding but worthy goal. But my experience has finally - slightly red in the face and panting - caught up with the theory.

It’s been an interesting journey. The world has always seemed quite beautiful and inviting to me; I’ve walked far and wide exploring it, but at a comfortable pace, interspersed with regular breaks for cake and coffee and a sit-down somewhere nice. 

Sport, on the other hand, has always seemed other and alien. A sceptical relationship with the leotard, thanks in part to a number of Victoria Wood sketches, has prejudiced me against all stretchy gym wear.

A few years ago my car became quite unreliable, and reluctant to give it the attention it seemed to crave, I left it on the drive and cycled to work. I was encouraged in this by the fact that I live in a city that is constantly gridlocked with traffic; when this improves slightly, the council quickly put new plans in place to close a strategic combination of major routes in order to maintain high levels of disruption. 

My city is also home to the most jaw-dropping beauty, and my bike ride to work took me along a riverbank lined with wildflower meadows and medieval university buildings. So I became a cyclist, lost my parking space at work and fell in love with the freedom and fitness my bike brought me. 

But I retained a deep suspicion of running. Occasional fits of enthusiasm would overcome me and I would put my trainers on, launch off and stop soon after, out of breath and bored. 

I live on a street that circles a central green. I once set off from my front door for a run, got halfway round the green, saw a neighbour, lost confidence in my mission, and jogged nonchalantly back to my front door.

A few years later, I chose a new word for the year, as part of oneword365.com’s genius encouragement to ditch a list of new year’s resolutions and focus simply on one word for the year that sums up how you want to live.

The word I chose was ‘run’. 

This initially applied to attitude more than practice, and was defining as I made the decision to leave my job and set up a new business - Nightingale Ink, as a purveyor of words that sing to anyone needing some. The impetus, determination and effort captured in the word ‘run’ came into their own as I launched off into the unknown.

But I also started running for real. In the dark at the start. I would measure out sections of the road by lamp-posts and alternate running and walking between each section. There was no love lost between running and me, but I stuck at it. 

Then I agreed to take part in a triathlon for Viva, the charity I was about to leave, which holds a very dear place in my heart. I might hate running, but if running could help generate funds for work with vulnerable children that is thrilling in its courage and effectiveness, I could run.*

The triathlon is days away and I am now training regularly. I have just come back from a run with a smile on my face, my heart rate raised but my colour normal. It was on this last run that I realised for the first time what it means to hit your stride. Rhythm and momentum, and a new kind of comfortable. 

This experience has led me to think about the number of things I discount because I don’t think I’m good at them. Often we focus on the activities we’re naturally talented at, that come easily and bring some level of success.

But I’ve learned that my life’s trajectory is not set. I’m not a finished piece.

I knew that other people could, but now I know that I too can change, learn new things, take on unexpected challenges. I don’t need to focus only on what I know, what people associate with me, what I have allowed to define me. 

I can break the mould and change the script. 

It’s a wonderful irony that it took running to teach me that. 

Who knows, maybe I’ll dust down the leotard. Never say never. 

 

 

*If you would like to sponsor me, go to http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/team/VivaTrio. Any donations will help release children from situations of poverty and abuse and will be enormously, hugely appreciated.

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Four ways to live well I learned from my great-great uncle George

My great-great uncle George considered himself quite an ordinary person; King George V disagreed. 

In December 1914, in Merris, France, he awarded George the Victoria Cross for ‘conspicuous gallantry’. 

George was a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery. Three months earlier, he and his battery had been fighting to defend a crucial position just below the Chemin des Dames ridge on the Western Front. 

The shelling that day was so devastating that the Commander of the British Army authorised the digging of trenches, and trench warfare began. George, laying a gun in an open field with no defence, was repeatedly wounded and taken for medical treatment. 

But each time he returned to his gun. 

The second time this happened an orderly was charged with preventing him from returning, but in an almost comic-sounding move George distracted him and slipped back to the battle. Wounded a third time, he simply refused to leave his position.

George’s life was short and hard, but his courage has not been forgotten, and it challenges and unsettles me today. 

A few days ago I went with my parents and other members of the wider family to a ceremony to unveil a memorial to him in his home town of Alton, Hampshire. As he looks levelly out from the hundred year old photograph I sense both a steadfastness and a heaviness about him. Aged just 29, his eyes are old and I know, as I hold his gaze, that he has been witness to things I will never be able to imagine. 

The worlds we have been given to inhabit are so different. His was full of chaos and endless, ear-splitting, body-shaking shellfire, constant fear and separation from those he loved.

My world, with its freedoms and opportunities and promise, was hard won by his generation. I’m keen not to take it for granted, not to squander what was bought at such a high price. 

The shape of his life and the fibre of his character highlight for me four lessons that I want to explore and try to live out. I believe we urgently need to: 

1. Know what we stand for. They might not involve shells and rifles, but many battles need fighting today. There may be comfort and security for some, but so many people in the UK and further afield are imprisoned by exploitation, injustice, poverty or hopelessness. There’s no time to wait for someone else to step in. We need to draw on our own courage, energy and creativity, and make use of the channels at our disposal to demand and deliver change. My activist daughter has pinned a quote from a psalm to her door, ‘You’re here to defend the defenceless, to make sure that underdogs get a fair break. Your job is to stand up for the powerless, and prosecute all those who exploit them.’ She means business and I couldn’t love her more. 

2. Be willing to be uncomfortable. Comfort can be a wonderful thing; a friend and I have a running joke about how nicely decorated our personal comfort zones are. But its shadow side is disabling and counter-productive. When you live in comfort and refuse to venture out from it you end up living only for yourself, and you live small. Things that really matter often cost us something of ourselves. A tiny example is fitness. I have started running. I am not a runner. Running makes me cross. I could opt out (a frequent temptation), or I could push through the discomfort and build my strength, win a longer term benefit for my health and the charity for which I am aiming to raise funds. 

3. Block out distraction. Many of us can easily spend day after day with almost every need provided for and every second filled, and no need to think or act with originality or boldness. The messaging to which we are constantly exposed tells us that our main aims in life should be to have very white and even teeth, a powerful car, an impressive phone, a photogenic partner and a selection of mini-breaks. George would not even recognise much of this, but his life had meaning and resilience and character that was not bought or bid for or downloaded in an instant.

4. Refuse to be defined by others’ expectations. George’s father was illiterate. He signed his marriage certificate with a clumsy cross and brought up his large family in a labouring household, on someone else’s land, scratching a living in both fine weather and foul. But George didn’t define himself as someone whom life had treated harshly, someone who was owed something. His response was commitment, tenacity and generosity of spirit. 

So what came after the award and the rapturous response from his home town, when he returned on leave? He continued to serve with the Royal Field Artillery, seeing action from the first battle of Ypres to Mametz Wood on the Somme. 

He sailed to Egypt in 1917 as part of the Southern Palestine Offensive. A misunderstanding prevented his ship from entering the harbour at Alexandria. Sent back out into open sea, the ship came under torpedo attack. Hundreds were rescued from the waves - including George - and taken on board a second ship. 

But then the rescue ship itself was torpedoed, and George - married for just 78 days - lost his life. His bride never remarried; her husband lies now in Alexandria.

George’s life shows me that there are no guarantees, that each day is a gift and that I must recognise that there are more important things than my own needs, desires and comforts.

He showed what guts, grit and gallantry can do. Inspired by him, I’m renewing my commitment to take a stand and stick to it, and live for something bigger than myself.  

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We are all originals

Photo credit: Antonio González

Photo credit: Antonio González

When I told my husband that I was thinking about writing a post on the importance of not comparing, he laughed. For quite a long time. 

So apparently I am addressing myself as I write this. 

Comparing ourselves with others is common practice. Some of us even make it an art form. Unfortunately, I think that group has included me.

An early, defining moment was the discovery that a girl in the year above me at school had gone on to study fine art at the Sorbonne in Paris and then medicine at Cambridge. I so admired her epic and stylish crossing of both national and discipline boundaries, and felt emphatically small and dull in comparison.

I had a similar experience recently when I stumbled on the profile of someone I studied with at university who - like me - is now a forty-something mother. Slightly less like me, her facebook photos show her in a bikini at a festival, with legs so long and foal-like they look photoshopped (they aren’t; they haven’t changed in 20 years).

She is spectacular. But her beauty hasn’t done anything to stop me from being who I could or should be. I know that her looks and my sense of self are entirely unrelated. So why do I wallow in the comparison?

As a society, we measure constantly. It’s useful. We view the world through figures: rate rises, dress sizes, exam scores, numbers of followers, return on investment, and use these metrics to judge what is successful, and what has value. 

This information is also more readily available to us than ever before. We can search for a person and instantly find their job title and qualifications, even the value of their home.

As a result, we rate ourselves, identifying where we believe we come in the order of things. This can make some of us feel good, others feel falsely superior, and far too many of us freeze or recoil in response. As practices go, it’s got to be pretty pointless.

Here are four reasons why:

1. It steals joy. Comparing yourself critically with someone else more often than not lowers your mood and throws your focus. It also steals your ability to be genuinely happy for someone who has developed a talent, been tenacious and achieved something. That deserves to be celebrated rather than used as fuel to feed our insecurities. 

2. It stops momentum. The perceived gap between ourselves and those we admire may spur some on to greater efforts and successes, but more often it saps our energy and sense of empowerment, and brings with it stasis, self-pity and an erosion of self belief. 

3. It’s contagious. Those who live around comparers risk catching the habit. As a parent I know that my children’s value is, quite frankly, beyond imagining. I would stand up to anyone who undermined them. So why risk behaving in a way that causes them to develop an internal narrative that does just that?

4. It’s inaccurate. We often focus on the wrong things, and miss the big picture. Google can find someone’s title, career summary or net worth, but it doesn’t know how to show you what they carry in their heart, or the content of their character.

So if these are some of the reasons not to compare, how do we go about releasing ourselves from the curse of comparison? 

I’d argue that we need a fundamental change in the way we see things. If we take ourselves as our starting point - the selves we know to be lacking, because there’s simply no hiding - and look out at a world full of apparently able and high achieving people, we feel diminished. 

But what if we switch the viewing point? 

If we learn to look at ourselves and others from a wider, higher and more generous perspective, we see something radically different.

We see real people who are at once flawed, frustrating and full of wonder. Somehow, despite the vast numbers of people who have lived and died over centuries past, not one has yet been a duplicate. 

In his book ‘Gratitude’, neurologist Oliver Sacks writes: "There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate—the genetic and neural fate—of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.”

Two millennia earlier, an erudite Roman citizen called Paul of Tarsus was exploring a similar idea when he wrote that we are all - every one of us - God’s ‘poiema’. This Greek term means craftsmanship.

It also means masterpiece. 

Masterpieces are one-offs. They have a history and a resonance, imperfections, light, shade and colour all their own. They’re not copies. You don’t interpret one only by looking at a thousand others.

You stand in front of it and drink it in.

It's quite hard to wallow when you start seeing it that way. 

 

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The wrong sandwich

Just before Christmas I bought a copy of The Big Issue from a seller. I went in to the deli behind him to buy a present for a friend and while queuing to pay I decided to buy a sandwich for him. I chose a festive turkey and cranberry one, and gave it to him with a smile as I left.

At least that was the plan. 

What actually happened was that as I held it out to him he rolled his eyes and said he didn’t eat turkey, and asked me to go back into the shop and get a refund so he could choose something different. The experience was awkward and embarrassing, and I walked away feeling I’d been insensitive in not giving him the opportunity to choose the flavour he’d like, or even checking if he happened to want a sandwich at all. Gaaaah.

I’ve felt concern about the issue of homelessness for a long time. When I was a student I wrote to the Prime Minister of the time asking why - in our wealthy and stable country - there could possibly be an article in The Big Issue advising readers that a baked potato could not only be nutritious but also a good source of warmth to a rough sleeper on a freezing night. 

But beyond that I haven’t done very much. I’ve followed other causes and responded to other needs, but in terms of the homeless living in my city I’ve done little apart from turkey-sandwichgate.

Homelessness is on the rise, and increasingly, painfully visible. Government figures report that rates have increased by 40% in the last five years alone.

Life on the streets is dangerous and can be deeply damaging, both physically and emotionally. Life expectancy for homeless men is 47. For women, it’s a shocking 43. That’s how old I am, and I feel like I’ve hardly even started.

The issue is also complex. Its causes are manifold and inter-dependent: traumatic life events, mental health issues, addiction, a lack of affordable housing, insecure jobs, debt, poor physical health, family or relationship breakdown, movement on from institutional living such as prison, the armed forces or the care system. 

Many of us care about homelessness and the people who find themselves homeless. But when people are struggling with deep-rooted, heart-rending problems like these it can be hard to know what to say, or how to be properly helpful. 

My local council ran an ad campaign recently called ‘Killing with Kindness’, discouraging members of the public from giving money to people on the street. It explained how responding to a request for cash can potentially do much more harm than good as it sustains life on the streets rather than encouraging people to access available support.

Combine this uncertainty about how best to respond with busy-ness, lack of experience, embarrassment and a range of other demands on our time and thoughts, and the result is often inaction. We get stuck - not sure how to help, feeling bad when we don’t respond, and bad sometimes when we do.

Effective and sustainable solutions are urgently needed. Many organisations are doing excellent work to deliver this, including ACT (Aldates Community Transformation), an innovative Oxford-based charity which is working to build a community where homeless people, prisoners and ex-offenders can find the acceptance, support and opportunities they need to flourish. They offer mentoring, life-skills courses and accommodation with specialist support in three houses. 

Their Meet at the Gate project provides an intensive programme of support to people leaving prison, including assistance finding accommodation, a community pack with daily essentials, help making connections to other services, and daily and subsequently weekly mentoring in order to support ex-offenders at a critical time to make a positive transition into life outside prison.  

Between them, the ACT team have years of experience, learning and expertise, and the fruit of it is clear in the stories of lives turned around. Like Dean, who after years of dealing and violence now says, ‘Thinking about the way I had treated my family and friends before, I realised I was like a beast. Now I want to be different, I want to be a man.’ 

But what can our role be as members of the public rather than experts or specialists? 

More than you’d think. Your skills, time and energy can make an invaluable contribution. And this doesn’t just apply to those who are time-rich. Opportunities for getting involved are flexible and creative and can fit around existing commitments in already busy lives.

There’s Amanda, the dentist, who gives up a few hours a week to cook with ACT members in one of the supported houses, sharing her love of good food and knowledge of how to prepare it.

There’s Claire, who commutes to London for her civil service job but spends one Sunday lunch-time a month at the Community Meal hosted at St Aldates church, where the invitation is extended to all who are hungry to come and eat, talk and build connections with each other.

There’s Jamie who works in sales and has been trained in mentoring, who is about to start regularly meeting with an ACT member to share coffee and conversation, and encourage and invest in his personal development.  

If you are interested, whatever the time you have available or the skills you can draw on, I’m pretty sure there’s a place for you at a local organisation working with homeless or vulnerable people.

It is wonderful to see what happens when people who have known little but pain, rejection and insecurity get to feel part of a safe and inclusive community, when they receive the investment, support and love that may have been missing all their lives. 

And what am I doing? I’m avoiding sandwich selection and concentrating on writing. I’ve just started volunteering with ACT to help spot, capture and share stories of change so that more of us know how to help address a huge and complicated issue in a way that means individual people feel their lives are worth living.

 

 

 

 

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Song for an old friend

Tomorrow I'm going to spend the day with Jo. Geography, jobs and family life mean we don't see each other so often. 

But when we do meet she often gives me a present that she has made herself. 

She is a lawyer and a historian with a sharp mind and impressive qualifications. She also loves to make things, and once told me about her new City law job and her experimentation with eighteenth century marmalade recipes in the same conversation. She is awesome.

Last time we met she pulled a present out of her bag for me, and I unwrapped a beautifully frilled scarf in autumn colours, layer after tumbling layer. It took me a few minutes to realise she hadn’t picked it out in a shop. It was complex and must have demanded considerable skill and time - and she had made it for me.

Over the years of our friendship she has also made a framed cross-stitch of my initials, a soft patchwork blanket for my daughter, and the most elegant green gloves (my favourite colour, she checked). 

As for me, my children have had to brave some humiliating moments in the nativity outfits I’ve ‘made’ for them. I’ve occasionally semi-successfully sewn up a hole in a jumper but I can't knit, crochet, sew or stitch.

So I thought about what I could give her. 

And I decided to write her a present, and you are reading it.

We met on the day we arrived at university for interview as seventeen year-olds, sick with nerves. Shown into a common room where we would spend the next two days waiting with hundreds of other candidates, we turned to each other and struck up conversation. 

Talking quickly and without really stopping, we managed to make each other laugh, even though I felt I was drowning in the depths of teenaged self-consciousness, surrounded by people who seemed effortlessly impressive, articulate and confident. 

Some returned from their interviews full of the effusive feedback they’d received. We went off, hearts beating, mouths dry, palms sweating and returned to each other, limpet-like, with an unspoken knowledge that we had, in each other, found someone to trust.

At the end of the two days we said goodbye, not really expecting to see each other again. I left for home feeling drained and hollow, not wanting to return, much less thinking I would.

The next time we saw each other was in a press of human flesh in the Horse and Jockey pub on the first day of freshers’ week. Disorientated and friend-free, I was pushing my way through the crowd of new arrivals. So fresh in my memory it seems it will never fade is the image of a hand reaching out to touch my arm as I passed. It was Jo, and I stopped and we didn’t leave each other’s side for the night. Or for many days to come. 

That first year is now a blur of fragmented images and sounds. Dancing in Jo’s room as we got ready for the nightly trip to the bar, ploughing through texts in the library, plates of pasta in the middle of the night, painfully early starts for rowing on the river, emotional upheaval as love lives flourished and waned, the drips of sweat that condensed and fell from the ceiling of the college dining hall during dance nights. Essay crises, love-life crises, confidence crises, hormone-driven angst, exhaustion, elation and belly laughs.

We shared a house in the second year, and boyfriends and new friends took us in directions away from each other but we always returned to each other’s company for laughter, for reassurance, for support. 

I had to leave college in my third year to live in France and work as a language assistante. The tearing I felt as I left was almost physical, and when I returned Jo was gone, living hundreds of miles away, studying law. I was still at college, one of a small number of fourth years left after the tide of our peers had moved on. 

She studied law in York and then practised it in London. I volunteered at a charity in Oxford and started working in fundraising. She bought a flat in the city; I became a mother in a little Cotswolds town. Our lives were different in pace, in shape, in style, but she came to cuddle my baby in the sunshine and I went to her wonderful wedding as she married her delicious husband, and they knocked us dead on the dance-floor.

So my present is a song of friendship that builds over years, of the unspoken trust and bone-deep understanding that comes from knowing and being known, from the shy 17 year-olds we once were to the women we now are. 

I am so proud of Jo. She bursts with life; she is generous and outrageous and thoughtful; she is feisty and funny and loyal.

Last year we met for lunch and drank and ate and walked and talked of jobs and family and travels and dreams. We talked about things that are very hard, and things that are very good. Children we’re proud of, husbands we love, roles we play, workloads we manage, homes which frustrate us. She sent me an email afterwards, which I have kept in my inbox, its subject line simply: ‘Wonderful day!’

So this is my song for an old friend. I sing it so that she knows she’s known. And enjoyed. 

And loved.

 

 

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