Poverty and Those Ghastly Scroungers

I have sat on this one for a month or so, so that my emotions do not get the better of me.

But I am still furious.

I am lucky. I have always had a roof over my head.

I read an article in a broadsheet newspaper weekend supplement that self-righteously banged on about having to convert an entire house on a small budget of twenty thousand pounds, and how they had to live oh, such a frugal life, whilst they were doing this.

Not that there was anything wrong with the house before they converted it, but it wasn’t a style that they liked.

And the colour of that wall, isn’t it dreadful? How could anyone be expected to live in a house like that?

Have they ever had to wonder how they were going to buy food for their family because the bank refused to honour their cheques, because they were overdrawn without permission? No, but I bloody well have, and it really makes me furious.

And I am very aware that compared to the problems and dangers facing millions of people in the world today, mine was a comparatively minor problem. No one was shooting at me. I wasn’t forced to live on the streets. My children didn’t drown attempting to reach a country where they wouldn’t starve to death or be shot or bombed.

Untitled-TrueColor-01

I am certain that many people here in the west today simply do not understand what ‘poverty’ means.

It does not mean that you cannot afford an exotic holiday this year.

It does not mean that you cannot afford to upgrade your car this year.

It does not mean that you have to buy the second best large flat-screen TV.

So many people condemn ‘economic migrants’ as if the very term means that they are simply greedy freeloaders.

As if hundreds of thousands of people are willing to risk their lives, and those of their families, just to get a little bit more. A few extra treats, or somesuch.

That they must be greedy, scrounging and good for nothing.

Foreign, of course.

It seems to matter little that they are fleeing war, terror, the destruction of their entire lives and livelihoods.

They are forced into overcrowded camps with hardly any facilities, which are then condemned for being squalid.

And newspapers and politicians encourage and disseminate this attitude for their own ends, telling us all that our own standards of living will decline if we let them in. Like the shameful lie that went around the UK a couple of years back that immigrants were being given cars by councils.

I am genuinely ashamed of belonging to this society.

It is not that there have been any new revelations on the migrant crisis, rather there is a paucity of news. Dozens of human beings drowning in a desperate attempt to reach safety no longer merits more than a passing mention.

Do we no longer care, or are we merely saturated with the horror of it?

Or do we just not, really, care what happens to people who live, or should live, far away?

No, it was just this one little article in one broadsheet supplement that made me furious this time. Next time, it will be something else.

Don’t tell me that if all the powerful and influential people of the world got together with genuine goodwill that they could not solve this crisis.

Where are the powerful of industry? There are one or two immensely rich industrial tycoons, such as Bill Gates, who have demonstrated that people like themselves can make a genuine difference to the world, and in a good way. Where are the others? I have always felt that the very rich have become very rich because they are callous, selfish, and do not care about anybody else.

I would be delighted if a few of them could now prove me wrong.

An Alien Culture?

More people travel for leisure purposes today than have ever done so in the past. And many work abroad on short- or long-term contracts, often with a certain amount of leisure time available to experience the culture that surrounds them there.

And this will result in these travellers meeting the people that make up the indigenous society where, for a while, they find themselves. Will there then be a meeting of minds?

Having lived in an ex-pat society, as I have referred to on here before, I am familiar with the laager mentality that often pervades it. I won’t go into all the permutations, but there is frequently a combination of arrogance and fear that leads to a strong feeling of ‘us and them’.

Many travel with the firm conviction that their own society is superior to any other, and are unwilling to see any good at all in any others. Some who go away to work resent being uprooted, and arrive with that resentment packed in their baggage. Some find the experience to be fearful, if they do not understand the language being spoken around them or assume that this alien society has values that somehow threaten them.

And they can either lock themselves away and peer over the barricades, or they can embrace the experience and learn from it.

137 (2)

Travel broadens the mind, it is said, but sometimes it seems to just cement prejudices more firmly in place.

And how easy it is to travel around just looking for things to justify prejudices!

One of the more infuriating things that I come across occasionally is a bigoted and ignorant letter or article in a local newspaper (it often tends to be the local ones) where someone’s idiot views are justified by the phrase ‘I know; I was there’. I imagine them living their entire time in a foreign country in a compound that they rarely leave, yet thinking that they now know exactly how the society functions beyond their walls.

I’ve met one or two of them, over the years.

I spent three years in Oman, working, and I’ve travelled fairly extensively in India, but I do not imagine or pretend that I really have much more than a superficial experience of these places. I knew little of the local culture in Oman beyond what I could see in the streets and villages and markets that I visited. I didn’t know anyone well enough to spend time at their homes or in their social circles. I went with groups of other westerners to places of interest. I did spend a lot of time exploring the desert and the nearby towns on my own, but I was effectively still inside my own little bubble. It is a huge regret that I never got deeper under the surface.

I have, perhaps, managed to learn a little more about the real India, especially through spending time on a project in a village, although I cannot pretend, even to myself, that I really have any idea of what it is like to actually live in an Indian village.

During the later days of the British Raj, the rulers took the approach that their civilisation was naturally superior, and that there was nothing in Indian civilisation worthy of their consideration. The irony of this is that around the end of the eighteenth century, and the first years of the nineteenth, many of the British in India had taken a keen interest in Indian history and culture, themselves doing a tremendous amount to unearth much of the history that had been lost and forgotten. For that comparatively brief period, it would seem that many of the British treated Indians and their culture with a deep respect.

The reasons that this changed are probably deeper than my understanding, but two things stand out. Firstly, that from the beginning of the nineteenth century, many British women came to India in search of husbands, bringing with them what we tend to think of as Victorian attitudes, and secondly, there was an upsurge of evangelism in Britain, which translated itself in India as a movement to convert the ‘heathens’ to Christianity. These combined as a new feeling of superiority, and contempt for a society that was now seen as inferior, especially when much of it resisted their overtures.

With this, the British as a whole seemed to become more intolerant and arrogant, and less respectful of sensibilities. This culminated in the horrors of 1857, which could be said to be caused directly by these attitudes.

To return to the present day, it seems that many travellers have attitudes no better than their Victorian predecessors’. I wrote a post a few months back that mentioned a number of westerners I came across in a Himalayan hill resort, https://mickcanning.co/2015/10/25/the-mad-woman-of-the-hill-station/  should you wish to view it, whose behaviour and attitudes were just downright arrogant and disrespectful. They were doing no more than confirming their prejudices as they travelled, and at the same time I daresay they were confirming many people’s views of western travellers.

Yet there are many people who travel with open ears, open eyes and an open mind, and their rewards are far greater than those of the blinkered traveller. They have the wonderful opportunity to experience and learn about different cultures at first hand, speak to people who hold different beliefs and ideals to them, and perhaps learn a little of what drives them. In return, they have an opportunity to enlighten others, perhaps, to things in their own society that might not be understood by those others. In a small way, each and every one of them can choose to contribute either to different societies coming to understand and become more tolerant, or to the further spread of tensions, mistrust, and misunderstandings.

And all of these little interactions, added together, are as important and influential as the contacts between politicians and diplomats.

Rich Beyond my Wildest Dreams

The other day, a friend of mine jokingly asked me whether I would be moving into a big mansion and getting a chauffeur driven car, once my novel is published and I have made a fortune.

For a few minutes we invented a whole new life for me; where my riches enabled me to buy whatever I desired and to do whatever I wished. Then we got tired of that, and the conversation moved on to more mundane things.

But let us say this came to pass, because, you know, things happen. Unexpectedly. What would I want?

old car one (2)

I can only listen to one piece of music at a time, no matter how much I may love music.

I can only read one book at a time and, God knows, I have a pile as high as, ooh, this to get through already. I continually try not to buy any more books when I go out. And I continually fail.

I don’t want a flash car. I don’t actually want a car at all, as it happens. I’m stuck with one at the moment, because the work that actually provides me with a tenuous living requires it. If I no longer did that work, I would probably get rid of the car.

A bigger house? No, not really. Perhaps one further out of town, though.

There is travel, of course. More trips to India and Nepal, for a start. But again, time is not infinite, and there would be a limit to how many different places I could go. Would I stay in luxury hotels, then? No. I have no desire to do that. Fly first class? That is probably the one thing I would do. I am tall, and the leg-room on most flights is a little mean even for children. And then my back causes me so much pain at the best of times that any long-haul flight is extremely uncomfortable.

We all use language carelessly at times. What do I mean by rich? Well, possibly something different to what you would mean, then again, possibly not. For some people, the idea of being rich means having virtually unlimited money so that they can buy every conceivable luxury. For others, it simply means not having to worry about whether they can make ends meet in day to day life, and that is the category that I fall into.

I have known people who earn heady amounts of money yet do not consider themselves rich, because they find it too easy to spend it almost as fast as they earn it. I have known others who would consider themselves rich if they came into a very modest windfall.

Today, in the affluent western world at least, the vast majority of us are rich, although we don’t recognise it. Why? Modern advertising is insidious and relentless and companies spend billions of pounds each year persuading us all that we cannot live without their products, that we all have a right to them and that we want (and deserve) them.

And that we want them now.

This has meant that luxury fripperies have come to be seen as necessities.

Audiences watching TV programs, or walking down their high streets, or opening magazines, are constantly bombarded with an unending stream of images of luxury goods that they are told are rightfully theirs, and which are paraded by their football or ‘reality’ TV heroes.

What these advertisers don’t want us to see is that the trash they are pushing is unnecessary and does nothing to enrich our lives.

Now, where was I?

Oh yes, I just have to nip out for a loaf of bread.

Of course, it has to be an artisan-crafted Estonian cob loaf made with organic Bulgar wheat flour milled under a full moon and leavened with yeasts descended from the very yeasts used by the court baker of Peter the Great of Russia and baked for thirty seven and a quarter minutes in a bread oven fired with birch logs and scented with juniper and a teaspoonful of fuller’s earth.

It will be damned expensive, but I DESERVE IT AND I WANT IT NOW.

The Language Barrier

As part of its strategy to counter extremism, the British Government has today announced its intention to fund a plan to help all migrants to this country learn English. For once, I think that this is a plan to applaud.

For the inability to speak and understand the language of others around you fosters fear, misunderstanding and distrust.

Having lived in an ex-patriot community myself, I remember how easy it is to become persuaded by others that you are somehow surrounded by ‘enemies’, and to develop a laager mentality. This mindset takes it as a given that everyone outside of the circle does not understand you, they are somehow ‘against’ you, and forever plotting to attack or undermine you, so you sit there muttering darkly about these ‘outsiders’, and voicing your dislike and prejudices against them…it becomes a cycle of mistrust that can possibly become violent.

It is another example of the saying that we hate what we fear, and we fear what we do not understand. And when someone is trapped in a limited social circle because they cannot understand anyone outside of that circle, their chances of becoming a full member of the wider community are severely limited.

Having travelled in non-English speaking countries, I realise how much easier life becomes for me when I make the effort to learn even a small amount of the language.

There will be some who refuse to learn the language on the grounds that they feel that they are there temporarily, possibly working on a short term contract, and can get away with using their own language in a limited circle of work, shopping and socialising.

And there will be some for whom it is a matter of pride to use only their birth language.

I think that both of these viewpoints are mistaken.

Writers understand only too well the importance of language. We worry over whether to use this or that word or phrase to get our meaning across; we worry over whether the way we have worded something may be misunderstood. But when you are attempting to communicate with others in a language that you only vaguely understand, every single conversation is full of these fears.

And when that is the norm, it becomes easier just to avoid any situations where you have to try to use that language.

But it does not actually take much to overcome these fears. Perhaps accepting an invitation to visit to someone’s home, or their place of worship, will lead naturally to conversations where people can learn about each other. But the essential thing is to be able to communicate, which becomes next to impossible without at least a few words of a language in common.

Christmas

One month to go. The internet will shortly be deluged with Christmas blog posts of one sort or another, and so I thought I’d get mine in early.

Because that’s what you do with Christmas; you get in there early, and stoke it up.

I have been told so often that when it comes to Christmas, I am a curmudgeonly old misanthrope, that I could almost believe it.

But not quite.

I do not dislike Christmas.

Far from it.

What I do dislike, though, is the greed and consumerism that has been steadily growing up around it for more years than I care to remember.

The greed and consumerism that fuels the pressure to buy more and buy bigger; the pressure on parents from their children; the peer pressure over who gets the most, who gets the biggest.

P1050058

The greed that encourages shops to put up decorations in August or September, and run Christmas adverts then in an attempt to promote and fuel this feeding frenzy.

It is not an exaggeration to say that families can virtually get bankrupted with the costs of presents and entertainment. There are many families who spend thousands of pounds on Christmas.

Is that really what it is supposed to be about?

Unless you take the trouble to go into a church, you could be excused for not knowing that Christmas is supposed to be the festival that celebrates the birth of Christ.

It would appear to celebrate greed, especially on every television channel and in every department store.

Until Victorian times, Christmas wasn’t much celebrated, Easter being the important festival in the Christian calendar. Much of its popularity came from Charles Dickens championing it in books such as ‘A Christmas Carol.’

Since then, though, there has always been an element of overindulgence, of booziness. But that is to be expected with a festival. Where Yule was celebrated, there was feasting and drinking, so there would always be some who indulged a little more than others.

And so I am ambivalent about it. On the one hand, there is this ghastly mass consumerism, which I find utterly nauseating.

On the other, it is, really, just another of those winter festivals that originated to give people hope that the bitter, hard season would eventually be left behind, and that spring would come. That is what I like.

Because in that, it is about hope, something that we could all do with more of, at the moment.

Remembrance Day

Remembrance Day, and the wearing of poppies, seems to be something that divides opinions and causes a certain amount of friction, especially in Britain.

0006

On one side, there are those who say that simply wearing a red poppy is a glorification of militarism, whilst on the other are those who argue that it is all about respect; about honouring the dead.

Are we remembering the First World War, one hundred years ago, or are we celebrating it? There would seem to be quite a few people, judging from conversations that I have heard and threads that I have seen, who are happy to confuse the two and seem unwilling to listen to what is really being said.

A lot of nonsense, of course, is spoken by both sides:

‘Every soldier is/was a hero’

‘Anyone who objects to them is a traitor’

‘It is all about glorifying war and militarism’

Unfortunately, as soon as a debate becomes in any way emotional, then there is a tendency both for people’s opinions to become polarised, and for their perceptions of the opinions of others to also become polarised.

And then anything that your ‘opponent’ says is jumped upon as furiously as if they had just advocated the torture and murder of all children and little furry animals.

But they haven’t, so calm down.

Now then, the facts.

It may come as a surprise to some people, but the poppy was not chosen because the red colour of its petals symbolised bloodshed, but because of its ability to bloom where the ground has been smashed and churned up, such as at the Somme, where it was noticed by a Canadian soldier, Col. John McCrae, a physician, who wrote a poem about it, and through this it was adopted later by the Royal British Legion as a symbol for their poppy appeal. It is intended to symbolise how someone whose life has been in dreadful turmoil may come later to peace and normality.

The white poppy was first used in 1933, to remember those who had died, but also as a determination to work for peace. It was mildly controversial at the time, and some women lost their jobs for wearing it, but in more recent times Margaret Thatcher expressed her distaste for it and there are many now who follow her lead.

The Royal British Legion point out that they have no objection to the white poppy or, as some people like to do, it being worn alongside the red poppy.

To return to the controversy, then.

Why does it only commemorate the military? What about the civilians who died? What about the conscientious objectors who died for their beliefs? When it was first used by the Royal British Legion, it was to raise funds for disabled servicemen and the families of those who had been killed, so this wasn’t an issue then. When the white poppy was introduced, in many people’s minds it came to represent those others.

Does it glorify war? In some people’s minds, no doubt, it does, but this is not its purpose. Even the military will say that part of the purpose of Remembrance Day is to help to ensure that a war like WW1 never happens again. It is important to remember the horrors to avoid sleepwalking into them again.

There are also many people who feel it terribly important that it should be worn the ‘right way’, but there is no agreement over what this ‘right way’ is. Some say it should be worn on the left side, some that men should wear it on the left and women the right. Many argue over when it should be first worn – from October 31st? The eleven days leading up to Remembrance Day? After Guy Fawkes Night? Some argue that it should be worn with the leaf pointing to eleven o’clock. There are no ‘official’ guidelines on this.

The poppy, and Remembrance Day, are used also as propaganda by hate groups like ‘Britain First’ (if you have never heard of them, they describe themselves as a patriotic political party and street defence organisation’ – I think that tells you everything that you need to know), who choose to ignore facts such as that 400,000 Muslim and 1.2 million Indian troops fought alongside the allies in World War 1, many giving their lives, and like to think of it as a symbol of white Britishness. This, of course, is not a reason to object to the poppy, but only to the hate groups, especially as this only helps to further polarise opinions.

I do not see, then, any reason why pacifists should object to the red poppy and the Remembrance Day tradition, or why servicemen should object to the white poppy. If they all take the time to understand what each one represents, then they should understand that there is no real conflict in their views, and that both represent remembrance and respect.

The Mad Woman of the Hill Station

A few years ago I was staying in a town in the Indian Himalaya; one of those towns that would have been described as a ‘hill station’ in the days of the British Raj, where the climate is tolerably similar to that found in Britain, and the Colonial masters were able to retreat for that half of the year that the temperatures on the plains became just too hot for them to endure. When that happened, they would load up themselves and their possessions, even down to plants in plant pots, so that native servants could drive them or carry them for weeks on end, on the long journey up into the hills. Nothing would be too much bother…for the servants and ‘coolies’, that is. At that time, the Westerners considered themselves to be utterly superior to the ‘native peoples.’

       coolie 1

Of course, that kind of attitude has been consigned to history, now, hasn’t it?

Anyway, it is a lovely town, this town that I am referring to, full of historical buildings associated not only with the British, but also with Indians (of course), Nepalese, Tibetans, and several other races. For this reason, amongst others, it attracts a goodly number of tourists, Western and otherwise.

hill station 2

One day I sat eating breakfast in a restaurant there, when a group of five other Westerners entered and sat down at a table nearby. Within about half a minute, they had begun to complain bitterly to each other about their travels. They appeared to think that the whole world was a freak show, put on for their benefit as they travelled around viewing it, but everyone that they met in these backward places (‘I don’t miss Western civilisation at all.’ Remarked one of them, whilst playing with his i-phone) were either out to fleece them, or to thwart their plans in some way or another by pretending not to have what they were asking for, or by taking ages to do what was demanded of them.

However, I was distracted from listening to their conversation and wondering how best I could kill them all without being arrested, by the arrival of another Western lady, aged, I would think, about sixty, dressed in a slightly odd mix of Indian and Western dress. She had appeared the previous morning in the restaurant, and had a shouting match with the same group of Westerners, although I had been on the other side of the restaurant that morning and could not understand what it was about.

Today, she popped her bag down on the table next to mine, disappeared for a while, and then returned, with a loaf of sliced bread that she had obviously gone out especially to buy. She took out four slices, turned to me and said ‘Try these; they are much nicer. Are you a priest?’

‘Thank you.’ I replied (I was in t-shirt and trousers, nothing particularly priestly). ‘No, I’m not.’ Our conversation continued for about ten minutes. She was a Plantagenet royal, brought to 2013 by a time machine, which the CIA discovered in 2000. That is why so many people are unhappy; they have been sent away from their proper times. She apologised for not being able to hear very well, although I could see no problem in that respect, but she had been hypnotised. Then she wished me goodbye and went out again.

What a splendid woman. She was a breath of fresh air, and unknowingly saved the lives of five other Westerners that day just by being there.

Unfortunately for me, though, that same evening I chose to eat in a restaurant that was empty when I arrived, so that when a couple of girls came in and sat down two tables away from me, I could hear every word that they said, whether I wanted to or not. There was a Swiss girl, whose role in the conversation was to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and very little else, whilst the other girl, who was British, just spouted on and on and on…

It appeared that she was travelling around the world. If I was a relative, I would have given her the money and said ‘go off for a few years. Enjoy yourself.’ And then moved house. She had been to Marrakesh. To Cairo. Thailand, Cambodia, Australia…I forget where else. Almost everywhere, she hated the food. It generally made her sick. She hated the people. They were horrible. Rude. She was excited because someone was shot in a bar in Cambodia whilst she was in the bar. It seemed to have been the highlight of her travels so far. ‘Was he killed?’ ‘Of course!’ she said, excitedly. And on and on and on…

Perhaps we should all be made to stay at home.