One in a million/a million to one

I felt guilty for years after 2003 because I did not join in the protest march against the Iraq War.

It took me a long time to appreciate the absurdity of my belief that had I gone it might not have happened.

It took me longer still, and a lot more marches, to understand what it is that a march actually does.

It was two years after the Iraq marches that I attended my first actual protest, and it was very small scale by comparison. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter planned to close the Music, Chemistry, and Italian departments. Much of the student body disapproved. We went for a desultory march around campus and rallied outside the Great Hall.

When I started working for a trade union, the protests started coming thick and fast. We marched: for the NHS; against austerity; for a fairer society; probably for some other things I can’t remember now. Some were on my doorstep; some meant a train to London; one meant a train to Manchester. I ended up with my picture in the Morning Star (deflating one of those giant balloons in Hyde Park) and the Guardian (one little figure in a Where’s Wally style crowd scene; you had to know which banner to look for).

As protests became just a part of my job, my feelings changed. I was no longer under the impression that I’d change the world by walking down the street, no matter how amusing my placard (and I saw some good ones). There was inevitably a load of hassle beforehand: phoning union branch secretaries, looking up coach operators, ordering stickers and vuvuzelas and other hideous tat. Usually, by the time the actual day rolled round, I just wanted it to be over. Some I probably shouldn’t have attended: in Manchester, I was going down with a cold, and ended up flat on my back in a park woozily watching the clouds. I did miss the 2018 one, having mashed my foot up falling off a narrow gauge train a few weeks earlier.

There was always a lot of standing around, a lot of stopping and starting, and then more standing around when we got to the other end. And yet I inevitably came away from them feeling energised, buoyed up, ready to go back to work on Monday and keep on going.

It was not that my presence, one person more or less in a million-strong crowd, would change the outcome of the issue. It was that it changed my perception of the fight.

I was not the only person who was angry. I was not the only person who cared. It was worth carrying on with this.

Did the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter care what the students thought about his plans to close the Music, Chemistry and Italian departments? Probably not. Did he care after we protested, noisily, against them? Still probably not. Italian was saved by some revised plans by the department itself; Music and Chemistry went. Austerity continues to bite; the NHS wobbles; society seems rather less fair than it did even when I started protesting about things.

But I continue to care.

Protests change things not by sending a message to those in power, but by equipping the rest of us with hope. They say yes, I care, and yes, I’m angry, and then, yes, we care, and yes, we’re angry, and then we keep on going.

Anyway, I’m about to clean my teeth and put a hat on and go and protest against prorogation. If you’re about to do that too, then good luck and stay safe, and maybe I’ll see you there.

And if you want to be or you think you should be but you aren’t, if you can’t because you’re busy, or you can’t do crowds, or you’re looking after the children, or you’re working, or you’re ill, or it isn’t safe for you, or if (like me in 2003) you have no idea where to start, or if it’s just too much, or for any other reason that I haven’t thought of, then know that I understand, that I’ve been there (or, rather, not been there) myself, and I’m protesting for you, too.

Keep on going.

December Reflections 31: my word for 2019

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There are two things that ‘sanctuary’ can mean, and both feel significant. Firstly, there’s the sense of safety, of being able to claim a refuge, of hanging onto the door handle of the church and invoking protection and justice.

And that comes from its older sense, of a place that is sanctified, holy, set apart. Which is more obvious, and more difficult. We’ll see where I go with it.

December Reflections 30: thank you for…

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… a successful book launch

… a trip to the opera

… a week on the Book Bus

… a weekend in the country

… new friends and old friends

… reading whatever I felt like

… learning to teach, and enjoying it

expanded horizons (internal)

(finding space in my faith for the fullness of myself)

… railways that got better and better

expanded horizons (external)

I came into this year, and in particular I went into the InterRail trip, thinking of it as the last chance to have fun before things got terrible. And who knows, it may still turn out to be that. I’ve been scared of 2019 for… well, two years. And so I was thinking of Patrick Leigh Fermor, hiking from the Netherlands to Constantinople during the rise of Nazism; I was thinking, do it now, in case you don’t have a chance later.

But about two days in I knew that I was going to have to go back. I was going to have to go back to Hamburg; I was going to have to go back to Copenhagen. I was going to have to bring other people to see them. I was going to have to go back to mainland Europe and see things I hadn’t got round to this time round.

I wrote, on the way home,

This isn’t the end of anything. This is about understanding that it’s all mine for the enjoying, that much more is possible than I ever thought, that in fact I can have both/and.

Maybe I won’t be able to. Maybe politics or money will get in the way. Maybe I’ll be doing other things. There are many things that might stop me – but it’s less likely, now, that I’ll be one of them.

So. It sounds ridiculous now, and goodness knows what it’ll sound like in a year’s time, but thank you, 2018, for hope.

December Reflections 24: traditions

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Christmas Eve:

Morning: last minute dashing around (this year, looking for wool for my mother, who was playing yarn chicken with my brother’s fiancée’s Christmas present); making mince pies if I can be bothered

2.55pm: the radio is switched on for

3.00pm: the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge (not last year; we were there in person)

during which –

  • the tree is decorated
  • the cake is iced

4.45pm: change for choir

5.30pm: leave for choir

5.45pm: brief warm-up before:

6.30pm: Nine Lessons and Carols at our parish church

8.00pm: dash home

Through the rest of the evening:

the several courses of the Polish Wigilia meal, beginning with sharing opłatek (pictured) with a hug and a kiss, and finishing with cherry vodka in tiny green and gilt glasses,

and, if we’re done before

11.15pm: dash out to the midnight service

12.30am: come home, put the bike away as quietly as possible given the fact that the padlock on the shed has frozen up, and go to bed

Two families’ worth of traditions, together with our shared tradition of singing (and therefore telling us what the Director of Music tells us). It’s like this every year, and next year it will be different again.

 

 

 

 

December Reflections 21: paper

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“What people bring with them is treasure“.

I was tidying my desk, as one does on the last day in the office before Christmas, and turned up my coursebook from the autumn’s tutor training course, and remembered what I’d scrawled on the cover.

I’ve underlined ‘people bring with them’, so that must have been a quotation. And I’ve double-underlined ‘treasure’, so that must have been something important.

My recollection is that we were talking about the mental and emotional baggage that people bring with them to courses. They bring bad memories from school. They bring a grudge about having been made to attend the thing in the first place. They bring cynicism. They bring whatever’s going on in their life outside the classroom.

They bring knowledge. (Something that stuck with me from the first two days of the course was the estimate that, when dealing with adult learners, 85% of the knowledge already exists in the room, and the task of the tutor is to bring it out and then fill in the gaps.) They bring wisdom. They bring experience. Curiosity. Good ideas.

And perhaps that was what I meant by ‘treasure’.

But I think it must have been something more than that, to make me write it down there, on the cover, rather than next the activity that prompted it. And I think I meant something like: people bring with them is everything that’s gone to make them who they are; all their triumphs and their tragedies; everything they’ve ever learned and seen and been through, and everything that they’ve forgotten; all their fortunes and misfortunes; all the lies they’ve heard and all the truths; all their hopes and fears.

People bring their whole complicated selves.

A phrase that has come up a couple of times for me this year is this: Nothing is wasted. I’ve seen it on writing Twitter (nothing you write is wasted, even if it never sees the light of day). It’s been murmured to me in church (to which I brought things ill done and done to others’ harm – or, in this case, my own – /which once you took for exercise of virtue). I’ve reminded myself of it as I wonder what I’m meant to be doing next, and whether I’m in the right place now. Even if I end up on a different path, my experience on this path will come in useful. (Sometimes I think that I see them converging at the horizon, and sometimes I think that’s just the vanishing point…)

Nothing is wasted.

What people bring with them is themselves.

What people bring with them is treasure.

December Days 20: secret

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I don’t think I have many secrets. I have some things that I don’t mention to some people, but I can’t think of anything that I’ve told to nobody at all.

My secrets tend to be the things I’m scared of looking at myself, in case I find out what a disaster I am. Once they’re cracked, once the light gets in, they don’t have to be secret any more.

I think that quite a lot of people probably have secrets like that.

December Days 19: tasty

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Terrible photo; very tasty chocolates. It’s the time of year for very tasty chocolates.

I always find this time of year a little difficult: how to balance my need for sleep with my desire to get involved with things and have fun? How to avoid getting burned out and cynical about the whole Christmas thing before we’ve even got to December? How to honour my need for solitude without being a miserable cow? How to acknowledge the fact that the short days and the long to-do list make it very difficult to be cheerful? How to keep a holy Advent without becoming sanctimonious?

There are some things that I always do. I take the first week of Advent off work, to catch up on sleep. I do some kind of observance: I have an Advent calendar and I read an Advent book. And I don’t sing with any group that requires me to start rehearsing Christmas music before mid-November.

(I really do like Advent. It acknowledges the fear and despair that annoyingly seem to be longstanding guests in my head, while refusing to let me stop with them.)

There are some things that I experiment with. This year I’ve given up alcohol, except for a couple of glasses of prosecco before the work disco, because in that moment refusing it would have felt sanctimonious, and declined to participate in Secret Santa (too bloody awkward). But I’ve also sung carols at a Christmas lights switch-on and ridden on gallopers while the organ was playing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (in mid-November, at that), and danced until my knees hurt at the aforementioned disco.

I haven’t got it right yet. I was reluctant to get out of bed this morning. But I have had fun today. I drank lemonade and jumped around with a tambourine and sung along with Wombling Merry Christmas. And I ate a very tasty lunch.