For Black History Month, I wrote about Maya Angelou and what her work means to me for Migrant Voice.
I don’t have a hot take in me for the events of today: the Turkey attack. Germany’s. The news that UK-made cluster bombs are being used in Yemen. Amnesty’s report accusing the Burmese military of perpetrating crimes against humanity against the Rohingya.
Right now we need the arts more than ever: poets, comedians, artists, sculptors, writers, painters…
So a poet then, with the words for these times:
“later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
everywhere.” – Warsan Shire
When I was an awkward 13 year-old ill at ease in my own skin and self-conscious about my eczema scars, this poem changed my life:
I have a running joke with a Tory colleague of mine, that I broke democracy, which is why I #canthavenicethings . Because, I voted for Corbyn. I remember when he sauntered over to my computer as I was (on my lunch break, if my boss asks) just filling out my voting form online. He was amazed (“I’ve read about Corbyn supporters but never met one!”) and curious (“Why….no really..why?”)
To admit that you voted for Corbyn is like saying you believe the earth is flat or that your puppy is a unicorn. You might as well don the Wonder Woman bracelets and tin foil hats and wait for the apocalypse. Which, if you’re reading the Telegraph, draws ever nearer with every day that Corbyn is Labour leader. The unelectable man who is at the same time so dangerous that if he gets into No 10 (despite the aforementioned handicap) he will promptly ruin the country. He’s at once a sappy leftie idiot and a dangerous political animal who, as it turns out, isn’t dying to press the nuclear button. The media caricature of Corbyn supporters, meanwhile, is of hard-nosed idealists, aggressive and crazed, foolishly sailing towards the iceberg and throwing a party on the deck of the Titanic. Or – hard-nosed idealists, aggressive and crazed, gleefully plotting a Night of the Long Knives for Labour moderates and right-wingers.
Which is where my colleague comes in. Why, he asked me? Genuinely curious. Very surprised.
I don’t agree with Corbyn on everything, far from it. But then, do we ever? But for the first time in a long time I voted for something rather than against something else. Yes, Ok, there was some voting against. I didn’t vote for the other candidates because they offered nothing.
No leadership, just polling.
No ideas, just Tory policies with a hug.
And an emphasis on winning as if the merit of them winning as opposed to the Tories were self-evident. (memo from the country: not necessarily)
This anodyne space is apparently the centre ground, where you’re supposed to be, according to political wisdom. Parties try to sound like the other to win the others supporters because you do have to build a coalition. Of course you must. No one can win otherwise. But the “ideas” of this centre ground, or the accepted wisdom: Immigration bad, free market awesome, welfare bad, NHS privatised, poor people lazy/bad…these are all right wing. And they are not true. They are contested. But instead of contesting this space, instead of shaping this centre, Labour would allow the Tories to define it, to shift public opinion and settle a consensus and then….tinker around the edges. Throw the odd social democratic bone. But just to keep the loony left quiet.(not so loony when they’re doing the door knocking for you, though. Then they are good foot soldiers.) A lot of these supporters that Labour despise, these foot soldiers, are working people. And that is not a guarantee that you’re earning a decent wage, that your rights are protected, that you’ll be able to buy a house or even rent securely. But…that doesn’t quite fit with the warm fuzziness of this centre where you have to be to win.
“Occupying the middle ground might appear democratic, shaping policies according to public desire. Yet the rush over the past two decades by parties of all hues to occupy the middle ground has coincided with greater public disengagement with politics. The more parties have politically cross-dressed, the less their views seem to have been heard.
Why? Because, in reality, it is an approach that has shrunk the political sphere and eroded the democratic process. Instead of emerging organically from a particular vision of what society should be like, policies are arbitrarily stitched together as means of appealing to particular constituencies. And so, the electorate’s ability to choose is diminished. This is why, right across Europe, large sections of the public have rejected mainstream middle ground parties in favour of populists, of both right and left.” Kenan Malik
And what did I vote for? A different way of doing things. Do I think it will win? I honestly don’t know. But dammit, we have to try. Someone has to contest the centre. It won’t move otherwise. Public opinion is not fixed, it changes. The Tories have been rewriting history – the crash, its causes, who must now pay. And they have been allowed to do so unfettered by either an opposition or reality. And I think it’s already having an effect.
Musa Okwonga has blogged about how Corbyn is changing the agenda , even a few days in. His focus is the Times editorial criticising Saudi and Bahrain. About time, you would say. But this uncomfortable but necessary relationship has long been a part of British realpolitik, an idea so settled as to be unquestionable. Until…
“It is remarkable to see The Times so strongly criticise a key British ally. Perhaps there are several of those in the British Government itself who have long since secretly tired of their relationship with Saudi Arabia. But it looks like it is Corbyn who has been the catalyst for the expression of louder discontent.” – Musa Okwonga
I don’t think Corbyn can change everything. But I voted in hope, despite all the cynical voices that keep saying that it’s silly to, we should just accept things as they are because that’s how things are now. The cynicism that we’re all being told to usher back into is a comfort blanket, a bit like when you have a bad breakup so you write off all men, while secretly hoping one good man will battle through your defences to prove that yes! good ones do exist! We’re told time and again that hope is the foolish thing, the easy thing. But, if you’re not working to change things, then what’s the point? There’s too much at stake not to try.
I voted Corbyn because, what the hell. Let’s give it a whirl.
Ben Okri’s new poem (allegedly about Corbyn) puts it best:
A New Dream of Politics.
They say there is only one way for politics.
That it looks with hard eyes at the hard world
And shapes it with a ruler’s edge,
Measuring what is possible against
Acclaim, support, and votes.
They say there is only one way to dream
For the people, to give them not what they need
But food for their fears.
We measure the deeds of politicians
By their time in power.
But in ancient times they had another way.
They measured greatness by the gold
Of contentment, by the enduring arts,
The laughter at the hearths,
The length of silence when the bards
Told of what was done by those who
Had the courage to make their lands
Happy, away from war, spreading justice
And fostering health,
The most precious of the arts
But we live in times that have lost
This tough art of dreaming
The best for its people,
Or so we are told by cynics
And doomsayers who see the end
Of time in blood-red moons.
Always when least expected an unexpected
Figure rises when dreams here have
Become like ashes. But when the light
Is woken in our hearts after the long
Sleep, they wonder if it is a fable.
Of our better natures?
Can we still wish and will
For poverty’s death and a newer way
To undo war, and find peace in the labyrinth
Of the Middle East, and prosperity
In Africa as the true way
To end the feared tide of immigration?
We dream of a new politics
That will renew the world
Under their weary suspicious gaze.
There’s always a new way,
A better way that’s not been tried before.
This morning I caught up with my Saturday paper. I love my weekend paper but it’s so big that I tend to read sections during the week as well. In the Guardian Review, Jeanette Winterson reviewed The World’s Wife, a collection by Carol Ann Duffy. I enjoy the work of both authors, so it was a real pleasure. As usual, I was struck by Winterson’s turn of phrase. She described poetry thus:
“Poetry is a pleasure.
Sometimes people say to me, “why should I read a poem?” There are plenty of answers, from the profound – a poem is such an ancient means of communication that it feels like an evolutionary necessity – to the practical; a poem is like a shot of espresso – the fastest way to get a hit of mental and spiritual energy.
We could talk about poetry as a rope in a storm. Poetry as one continuous mantra of mental health. Poetry as the world’s biggest, longest-running workshop on how to love. Poetry as a conversation across time.”
She’s right. Later in my day I would stumble across a work by one of my favourite poets, Hollie McNish, Mermaids and Sand (Ocean Floor). As the best art points us towards truth, she highlights the compassion deficit in Europe towards those who die on the seas trying to make it to safety. The International Organization for Migration announced last week the the numbers last year topped 170,000. Syrians were the most numerous, followed by Eritreans.
“The emergency is not in the number of people involved or a risk that they will overburden Europe, a bloc of countries with a population of about 500 million people…the emergencies are the conflicts, instability and great uncertainty in a number of countries close to Europe, which people are fleeing. If we put these numbers in perspective, we’ll see that Turkey is hosting about 1.8 million Syrian refugees, and Lebanon (a very small country of 4 million people) is dealing with over one million.”
“We say go back. There’s no space for you here.” – Hollie McNish
“As it is, I can’t settle, I want someone who is fierce and will love me until death and know that love is as strong as death, and be on my side for ever and ever. I want someone who will destroy and be destroyed by me. There are many forms of love and affection, some people can spend their whole lives together without knowing each other’s names. Naming is a difficult and time-consuming process; it concerns essences, and it means power. But on the wild nights who can call you home? Only the one who knows your name.”
— Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
“A tough life needs a tough language—and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is.”
— Jeanette Winterson
I have just discovered the searing, startling literature of Jeanette Winterson (so, so late to the party that the lights are on and everyone has stumbled blinking into the dawn) – and in line with her excellent quote above, I am posting some great spoken word – poetry and prose – that offerspowerful reflections on migration, belonging and Britishness.
Mathematics, by poet Hollie McNish
The British by poet Benjamin Zephaniah
and the Migrant Manifesto by writer, commentator, activist (and my favourite football pundit), Musa Okwonga.
I can think of no finer tribute to Maya Angelou than her own words, written for other heroes that have gone before.
For Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass
I lay down in my grave
And watch my children
Above the weeds of death.
Their petals wave
And still nobody
Knows the soft black
Dirt that is my winding
Sheet. The worms, my friends,
Yet tunnel holes in
Bones and through those
Apertures I see the rain,
The sunfelt warmth
Within my space and
Brings me roots of my
Their seeds must fall
And press beneath
And find me where I
Wait. My only need to
Fertilize their birth.
I lay down in my grave
And watch my children grow.”
– Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
Maya Angelou died today and I’m not sad. Well… a bit sad. There are some lights in this world that leave us poorer without them. She is one of those.
And yet, upon her death, I find myself struck by how much she gave the world. Her words, her voice, will outlast her. Her poems will continue to enlighten and inspire young girls (as I once was) the world over. Her life was so rich, so layered, so well lived that it seems almost churlish to demand why we couldn’t have had longer with her.
Her family’s statement stressed that she died at peace, in her home, without any loss of her faculties. That is a fine end to a life lived with such passion and wisdom and courage.
I first encountered her work like so many others, through her poetry and specifically her poem, Phenomenal Woman. An awkward 13 year-old, I learnt it by heart and recited it to myself to exhort myself to be braver, bolder, more confident. I read all her books, poetry, essays – I devoured her work. Just two days ago I started on her latest memoir, Mom and Me and Mom. I read the introductory page and stopped, arrested by her words:
“This book has been written to examine some of the ways love heals and helps a person to climb to impossible heights and rise from immeasurable depths”
I couldn’t go on. I wanted to savour that thought, as always with Dr Angelou, so succint and beautiful and elegant and wise. I’ll read the rest eventually. Right now I’m a little buffetted by love and I don’t think I can cope with it. But I will.
Rest in peace, Maya Angelou. Thank you for your words, which will warm us for the ages.