The MP for Stratford, Nadhim Zahawi fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and came to Britain. Estimates of his wealth range from £30-100 million. Zahawi got tax payers to heat his private riding stables, last year claimed £133,837 in expenses alone and has not been paying his taxes. His track record as an MP? A landlord, he voted against a Labour amendment requiring private landlords to make homes “fit for human habitation”
In Zahawi’s constituency there are large numbers of refugees, asylum seekers, people reduced to relying on food banks and more begging on the streets of the once lovely market town where Shakespeare was born. For years the approach from the train station has given tourists an appalling impression – abandoned shops and greasy take-aways on an ugly sleazy-feel street.
Tucked away on a residential road I find a real gem: a whole acre of community garden attached to a vibrant complementary natural health centre. Spirits lifted, I continue my journey… over a busy junction, down Chestnut Walk, tractor-cars racing past. At the Shakespeare Institute I sit sipping tea in the vaulted wood-panelled hall, next to a bust of Shakespeare.
The headline reads “scores of child asylum seekers kidnapped from Home Office hotel.” They are apparently being abducted by sex-traffickers. Of the roughly 600 unaccompanied children to pass through just one hotel in Sussex over the past 18 months, 136 went missing and more than half – 79 – are still unaccounted for.
It’s not just the children. Word on the street is gangs are targeting women asylum seekers outside their hotels, selling them into prostitution. Dozens more refugees are dying in Home Office accommodation, where depression rates are very high. I’ve returned to run art workshops with asylum seekers in the local library, among whom I notice a steep deterioration in morale since November.
In a Warwickshire garden I see more birds than I’ve seen in years in the garden in France. New-builds by the petrol station have little gaps in the brickwork where swifts can nest. But walking up the road to our old house, the pollution chokes you.
Another town, in England this time. Average house price – hundreds of thousands. Outside the bank by the market that was a market when Shakespeare was a boy, a sizeable group gathers early in the morning, cans of lager in hand. They are there, all day, drinking, occasionally going round the corner to piss in an alcove.
The central lending library hosts a 2-hour “knit-and-natter” on Wednesday afternoons as part of Edinburgh’s Warm and Welcoming policy complete with free knitting needles, wool, tea, biscuits and librarians happy to teach you to cast off. There was more knitting than nattering until a couple of fellas turned up who were trying to stay away from a different kind of needle, the sort that took them to dark, lost places.
It’s dark by 4pm in a Scottish winter. Emerging from the station into the rain, I climb The  News Steps leading up to the High (Edinburgh’s “Royal Mile”). Three quarters of the way up sits a man wrapped in stained cloths, reduced to hoping passersby will spare some change.
A printer until the print works closed down, Robert – the man on the steps – told me the homeless can shelter in churches at night. The Bethany Trust organise a bus that picks them up once the soup kitchens have closed, after 9pm, meaning they can’t bed down before 10pm. Six more long, dark hours in rain or snow, bitterly icy winds, out on the streets.
Davey sits outside Tesco, hoping to get the ten pounds he needs to pay for accommodation at a local shelter. His face lights up when you chat but tears course down my face as I walk away. Too many are reduced to begging on cold, dirty streets of this rich city.
A fabulously happy day meandering around the National Museum of Scotland where I find more and more of my childhood displayed in glass cases.… An exhibition of Bernat Klein’s gloriously colourful designs proved yet another trip down memory lane, the mannequins reminding me of my mother in the 1960s/70s – I hadn’t realised just how stylish she was.
Bernat Klein was born in Senta, Yugoslavia (now Serbia) in 1922 to Jewish parents who worked in textiles. Settled in Galasheils, in the Scottish Borders, Klein revolutionised Scottish fashion with his bold-coloured innovatively woven fabrics inspired by nature. His tweeds were bought by big fashion houses like Coco Chanel, Dior and Yves Saint Laurent.
“Empires collapse. Gang leaders are strutting about like statesmen. The people can no longer be seen under all those armaments. So the future lies in darkness and the forces of right Are weak. All this was plain to you ….” so wrote Bertholdt Brecht in a Letter to a refugee.
I challenge decision makers of countries concerned about falling populations to take public transport in any big city at rush hour. When I do, I am invariably convinced the very last thing this planet needs is more people. There are already an estimated 103 million refugees in the world – could we not focus on creating a kinder, safer, more equal world for those already here?
The philosopher-physicist Aurélien Barrau began an interview with news he’d read on the train: half the tress planted in the name of carbon offsetting die, and rain water is now “unfit for consumption.” The interview continued in like vein, with a touch of humour -? – when Barrau referred to artificial Intelligence as “algorithmic unintelligence which impoverishes the possible” …
In second hand bookshops, I generally head straight for the nature section – my favourite genre at the moment because uplifting. It should have come as no surprise though that Rachel Carson’s book is not – the clue, after all, is in the title: Man’s War Against Nature. With hindsight, I should have bought the battered book about old country crafts.
In How To Stay Sane In An Age of Division, Elif Shafak writes that her mother and grandmother had an entrenched faith in progress, that tomorrow, almost by definition, would be brighter than yesterday that, as Zymunt Bauman put it, the parents’ point of arrival was the children’s starting point. “Today the faith that tomorrow will be better is no more” (Shafak 2020: 52)