(This is an edited version of a talk given at the ‘Everywhere & Nowhere’ postgraduate symposium of the Landscape, Space & Place group at the University of Nottingham, on 20 June 2016)
It might seem odd to posit the city of Manchester as an imagined place. However, from the beginnings of its rapid growth in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, the real city was mythologised by the many from around these islands and beyond them who came to see the miracle or shock city of the age. Manchester in the Industrial Revolution became an archetype of both shock and wonder, awesome and awful at the same time. As it grew, with remarkable speed and with no discernible plan, it attracted comparisons both with the greatest of human and divine achievements, and with the works of the devil.
For Disraeli it was ‘as great a human exploit as Athens’, for Carlyle, ‘every whit as wonderful, as fearful, as unimaginable, as the oldest Salem or prophetic city’. Many accounts, alongside these exalted descriptions, acknowledge the dichotomy – for example this from the Chambers Edinburgh Journal of 1858:
Manchester streets may be irregular, and its trading inscriptions pretentious, its smoke may be dense and its mud ultra-muddy, but not any or all of these things can prevent the image of a great city rising before us as the very symbol of civilisation, foremost in the march of improvement, a grand incarnation of progress.
Alexis de Tocqueville too was able to recognise both extremes. In Manchester ‘the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilise the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development, and its most brutish; here civilisation works its miracles, and civilized man is turned back almost into a savage.’
Overall though the majority came down on the ‘awful’ side of the divide. Even Mrs Gaskell, who was a local, described the impression of the men working in the factories as ‘demons’. For others it was ‘a Babel in brick’, a ‘revolting labyrinth’, and its river was ‘the Styx of this new Hades’.
There were particular aspects of Manchester that inspired these reactions. De Tocqueville said that:
Everything in the external appearance of the city attests the individual powers of man; nothing the directing power of society. At every turn, human liberty shows its capricious force.
Whereas some cities’ growth can be illustrated by an expanding grid, or like Paris by the addition of layer upon layer of suburbs, Manchester grew organically, cramming factories and workers’ housing into whatever space was available, without much consideration of the living conditions that would result, minor things such as sanitation, for example, and the outcomes were grim.
Manchester was thus characterised as ‘a vast unknowable chaos’, illustrated by the invocation of Erebus, in Greek mythology the personification of darkness, born of Chaos, who inhabits a place of darkness between Earth and Hades. So we have descriptions of chimneys ‘belching forth clouds of Erebean darkness and dirt, as if they had a dispensation from the devil’.
Hippolyte Taine records that ‘in the city’s main hotel, the gas had to be lit for five days: at midday one could not see clearly enough to write.’ The darkness was noted well into the 1950s. There were two factors here, not only the constant smoke from the chimneys but the moist air and relatively flat terrain, which meant that ‘the acid and other impurities become dissolved in the moisture, and the black parts of the smoke become wet and heavy’. This combination created the ‘terrifying Manchester fogs … when the phenomenon of temperature-inversion produced near darkness and zero visibility around the clock for days on end’.
The pollution had other effects. Sir James Crichton Browne (1902) rather marvellously described how ‘A sable incubus embarrasses your breathing, a hideous scum settles on your skin and clothes, a swart awning offends your vision, [and] a sullen cloud oppresses your spirits’.
There is a kind of trope of ‘first view of Manchester’ which strengthens the sense of an archetype, a mythical place. For example:
Alexis de Tocqueville – Voyages en Angleterre, Irlande, Suisse et Algerie (1835): A sort of black smoke covers the city. The sun seen through it is a disc without rays. Under this half daylight, 300000 human beings are ceaselessly at work. A thousand noises disturb this damp, dark, labyrinth.
Hugh Miller – First Impressions of England and its People (1847): One receives one’s first intimation of its existence from the lurid gloom that overhangs it. There is a murky blot in one section of the sky which broadens and heightens as we approach, until at length it seems spread over half the firmament. And now the innumerable chimneys come in view, tall and dim in the dun haze, each bearing atop its own troubled pennon of darkness.
Mrs Gaskell – North & South (1855): For several miles before they reached Milton, they saw a deep, lead-coloured cloud hanging over the horizon in the direction in which it lay.
Hippolyte Taine – Notes sur l’Angleterre (1874): We approach Manchester. In the copper sky of the sunset, a strangely shaped cloud hangs over the plain; beneath this immobile cover, the high chimneys, like obelisks, bristle in their hundreds; one can distinguish an enormous dark mass, the vague rows of buildings, and we enter the Babel of brick.
W G Sebald, The Emigrants (1992)
Max Ferber’s arrival in 1945: From a last bluff he had had a bird’s eye view of the city spread out before him … Over the flatland to the west, a curiously shaped cloud extended to the horizon, and the last rays of sunlight were blazing past its edges, and for a while lit up the entire panorama as if by firelight or Bengal flares. Not until this illumination died … did his eye roam, taking in the crammed and interlinked rows of houses, the textile mills and dying works, the gasometers, chemical plants and factories of every kind, as far as what he took to be the centre of the city, where all seemed one solid mass of utter blackness, bereft of any further distinguishing features.
The narrator’s arrival in 1966: By now, we should have been able to make out the sprawling mass of Manchester, yet one could see nothing but a faint glimmer, as if from a fire almost suffocated in ash. A blanket of fog that had risen out of the marshy plains that reached as far as the Irish Sea had covered the city, a city that spread across a thousand square kilometres, built of countless bricks and inhabited by millions of souls, dead and alive.
What strikes the observer in each case is that where they should be able to see the city, instead they see a pall of black smoke, a ‘murky blot’ in one part of the sky, a strangely shaped cloud that hangs over it. Coming closer they see the chimneys, each with its ‘troubled pennon of darkness’ and closer still the mass of buildings, the black river, the sombre brickwork. It’s also worth noting the striking similarity between Sebald’s description of Max Ferber’s first view of the city, and Hippolyte Taine’s.
Another feature attributed to Manchester which led to associations with hell or at least a cursed place was the absence of native flora and fauna. Birdlife was largely absent at the height of industrial activity, and much restricted later, until the Clean Air act created a more hospitable environment. And attempts to create parks, to give the inhabitants a taste of the countryside were doomed as trees and shrubs and blooms were poisoned by the fumes.
These conditions were not unique to Manchester. The industrial cities of the North East inspired John Martin’s apocalyptic paintings, and those of the Black Country Tolkien’s vision of Mordor.
And there’s an intriguing apocalyptic story published in the Idler magazine in 1893 about the doom of London, resulting from a seven day fog, with no wind to clear it, suffocating all of the inhabitants. But Manchester seemed to exert a particular fascination – the scale and the extremity of the conditions in the city drew visitors from across the country and from Europe. As Tristram Hunt says, in his study of the Victorian city, ‘in Manchester it was always worse’.
By the 1950s some of the most notorious slums had disappeared, and proper sanitation had long since removed the threat of cholera and typhus. But the fogs were still extreme, the air still heavy with smoke and metallic tasting vapours, the rain still a near-constant. In addition to the effects of pollution, there were areas of wasteland, bomb sites from the war, not yet redeveloped.
Michel Butor’s novel L’Emploi du temps, published 60 years ago, transformed Manchester into Bleston, and used its mythology to imbue its rain-drenched streets with a sense of dread and danger. Taking elements of the real city he subverts its mundane reality so that Manchester becomes Babel, Babylon, Daedalus’ labyrinth, a Circe or a Hydra. It also becomes Paris under Nazi occupation.
Michel Butor arrived in Manchester in 1951, straight from a spell teaching in Egypt. He was, as he described it, inundated with sun, and then plunged into Mancunian darkness. It was a climatic shock, and the very features of the city which had inspired earlier writers to flights of heightened prose and invocations of hell were to influence his response.
Darkness, fog, mud and soot, rain. These elements feature on almost every page of his novel, L’Emploi du temps (Passing Time), in which the city is renamed Bleston. So far, so realistic. But from very early on they begin to be associated with something beyond the combination of natural and manmade phenomena which Butor was observing.
The fog makes it difficult to find one’s way in the city – masking its shape so that the unwary find themselves going in circles, losing all sense of direction. It stifles, engulfs and sedates, oppressing the spirits. Bleston/Manchester, is a labyrinth, eluding navigation, confounding any attempt to grasp its totality, the narrator, Jacques Revel, says that ‘it grows and alters even while I explore it’. As in Andre Gide’s version of the Cretan labyrinth in his novel Thésée, the ‘narcotic fumes’ sap the will so that those within the labyrinth lose the desire to escape, forget that escape is even possible. On the walls near Bleston’s station, posters illustrate holiday destinations, but the narrator comments sardonically ‘as if it was really possible to get away’. His one attempt to get to countryside is doomed – the best the city can offer, it seems, is some nice parks. Thus the city is a prison, as it was effectively for so many of its past inhabitants.
Butor commented that ‘it is easy to see how the French capital hides beneath the mask of Bleston’. On the face of it, it’s far from easy. Paris is the city of light, a cosmopolitan centre of culture – Bleston/Manchester is characterised by darkness, dirt and narrowness of vision (literally and metaphorically). But something in the constant smell of smoke in the air, the darkness of evening when everything was closed, the way the inhabitants hunched their shoulders against the rain and scurried home ‘as if there were only a few minutes left before some rigid curfew’ triggered memories for Butor of a very different Paris.
Those who fled Paris in 1940 and then returned after the armistice found it uncanny, familiar yet profoundly different. There was a curfew, the clocks had been changed so that it got dark an hour earlier, and a pall of smoke hung over the city from the burning of tanks of oil as the German army advanced, which poisoned the air and drove its birdlife away.
This was the Paris of Butor’s adolescence. He lived near the Hotel Lutetia, HQ of the Abwehr (and after Liberation, the meeting point for returning deportees), near the prison du Cherche Midi where many resistance members were imprisoned, and he walked to school through streets where now plaques commemorate those who were killed during the Occupation and the liberation of the city. At his school both pupils and staff disappeared, some deported or imprisoned, some choosing a clandestine life in the Resistance. Butor described the sense that nothing was happening but that this nothing was bloody. The carceral menace of everyday life, as Debarati Sanyal put it.
Thus in Bleston the fog and the darkness are metaphorical as well as literal, creating not only confusion but fear. There is a constant sense of menace, and the city itself is the source. Personified as a sorcerer, as a Hydra, as both labyrinth and Minotaur, Bleston is at war with Revel, and he with it. But it’s also at war with itself, consuming itself in fire (prosaically a series of arson attacks on various premises encircling the city). The recurring motif of Cain and Abel is a reminder of the divisions between those who collaborated and those who resisted, as well as between occupier and occupied.
The novel is no allegory of the Occupation. This is one reading of a book that defies categorisation, a many-layered text. But my argument is that something in the extremity of Manchester, where it’s always worse, prompted memories of those dark years in Butor, and those memories created the tension in the novel, between the mundane events and the dark, violent interpretations of those events, between the humorous realism of the grim up north descriptions of rain and atrocious food and the sense of dread and danger on every page.
Around ten years after L’Emploi du temps was published, another young European, W G Sebald, arrived in the city, read Butor’s book, and began to write about his own Manchester, in The Emigrants and After Nature, transforming the landscape of industrial decay into a melancholic landscape of loss and trauma.
Like Butor, W G Sebald encountered a significant culture shock on arriving in Manchester, after teaching in Switzerland. Sebald was profoundly alienated from his home country of Germany. His sense of isolation ‘could not have been helped by his wanderings through scenes of slum clearance and urban decay.’
Objectively those areas were disappearing so one might surmise that Sebald sought them out, was drawn to their melancholy which reflected and intensified his own. It’s true that the Manchester Development Plan approved in 1961 (although not fully implemented, as I’ll mention later), and the implementation of smokeless zones were making significant improvements in the atmosphere and cleanliness of the city, even if children growing up in the city in the 60s still had plenty of bombsites to play on. However, Sebald’s ‘melancholy at alienation, and exile in a strange land’ found its correlative in the ‘desolate leftovers of nineteenth century Manchester’. It is also suggested that Sebald’s reading of L’Emploi du temps enhanced his melancholy but again it is likely that he was drawn to the novel because it resonated with his own mood and response to Manchester.
Thus the picture painted in The Emigrants of Manchester as ‘a city of ruins, dust, deserted streets, blocked canals, a city in terminal decline’ is probably a distortion. However, the narrative is only in part about the Manchester that Sebald encountered in 1966-7. ‘Manchester … fades into insignificance in relation to another important geographical, phantasmic and persistent presence, which is Germany’.
Sebald gives us more than one Manchester. We see the city first of all through the eyes of the narrator (who both is and isn’t Sebald) arriving in the 1960s, and then through the eyes of the titular Emigrant, Max Ferber, who arrives in 1945, having been sent on the Kindertransport in 1938 from Munich, and finally the narrator’s return in the 1990s, finding that a further cycle of improvement and decay has taken place in the interim.
For Ferber, Manchester triggers memories of Germany. This is partly due to its immigrant communities, the Jewish quarters with their names evoking a European past. But as Thomas Mann, exiled in the US, said, ‘Where I am, is Germany’. There’s another connotation. Manchester’s ‘night and fog’, its fire buried in ash, its chimneys, evoke a past that he escaped, thanks to his parents’ foresight, but which they did not.
Ernestine Schlant describes this aspect of Sebald’s writing as ‘“dense” time – a time in which past and present intersect, commingle, and overlap. This commingling destroys sequence and evokes the sense of a labyrinth with no exit‘. She was speaking specifically of Sebald’s writing, but it would equally be a powerful description of Butor’s novel, where Bleston’s past as Roman temple of war, divided Reformation city and industrial machine are threaded with Butor’s memories of Paris at war.
A brief postscript – I mentioned the Manchester Development Plan, published in 1961. This as it turns out is another imaginary Manchester – not drawing upon the myths of the past but upon a vision of the future.
Plans were drawn up in 1945, but budgetary constraints and building regulations meant that they were largely put on hold. By the time they were revisited, technological advances had opened up hitherto unimaginable possibilities for the city, with moving pavements, heliports and monorails. Once again, the economic climate changed before the plans could be realised and they stand now as a memorial to that other unrealised Manchester.
So in this very real city we can glimpse Engels’ hell on earth, Butor’s city at war, Sebald’s post-Holocaust landscape, the idealistic vision of the 1960s planners. The features that made Manchester the shock city of the 19th century are no longer readily visible. Manchester now is arguably just one of our major cities, unlikely to inspire comparisons with Athens or with Hades. But the past in all its various forms, as well as the unrealised visions of the future are there to be stumbled over, bubbling up between the paving stones. Unmemorialised, their presence is still felt.
Michel Butor, L’Emploi du temps (Minuit, 1956); English translation (by Jean Stewart), Passing Time (Faber, 1965)
W G Sebald, Die Ausgewanderten (Fischer, 1992); English translation (by Michael Hulse), The Emigrants (Vintage, 2002)
__, Nach der Natur (Fischer, 1995); English translation (by Michael Hamburger), After Nature (Hamish Hamilton, 2002)
Robert Barr, The Doom of London, The Idler (1893)
Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1854)
Benjamin Disraeli, Coningsby (1844)
Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1840)
Leon Faucher, Manchester in 1844
Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton (1848), North and South (1855)
Andre Gide, Thésée (1946)
James Phillips Kay, The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes Employed in the Cotton Manufacture in Manchester (1832)
Hugh Miller, First Impressions of England and its People (1869)
Hippolyte Taine, Notes sur l’Angleterre (1874)
Alexis de Tocqueville, Voyages en Angleterre, Irlande, Suisse et Algérie (1835)
Asa Briggs, Victorian Cities (Penguin, 1990)
Mireille Calle-Gruber, La Ville dans L’Emploi du temps de Michel Butor (Nizet, 1995)
Jo Catling and Richard Hibbitt (eds), Saturn’s Moons: W G Sebald – a Handbook (Legenda, 2011)
Mark Crinson, Urban Memory (Routledge, 2005)
J B Howitt, Michel Butor and Manchester, Nottingham French Studies, 12, 2 (1973)
Tristram Hunt, Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City (Phoenix, 2005)
Michael Kennedy, Portrait of Manchester (Hale, 1970)
Alan J Kidd, Manchester (Keele UP, 1996)
Gary S Messinger, Manchester in the Victorian Age (MUP, 1985)
Stephen Mosley, The Chimney of the World (Routledge, 2008)
Terry Pitts, La Catastrophe muette: Sebald à Manchester, Ligeia, 105-8 (2011)
Peter Preston and Paul Simpson-Housley (eds), Writing the City: Eden, Babylon and the New Jerusalem (Routledge, 1994)
Natalie Rudd, Fabrications : New Art and Urban Memory in Manchester (UMiM, 2002)
Debarati Sanyal, The French War, in Cambridge Companion to the Literature of WWII (CUP, 2009)
Ernestine Schlant, The Language of Silence (Routledge, 1999)
Janet Wolff, Max Ferber and the Persistence of Pre-Memory in Mancunian Exile, Melilah, 2 (2012)
A fine piece to commemorate the slaughter on the Somme, from Gerry Cordon’s That’s How the Light Gets In blog.
At 7.30 on a sunny morning one hundred years ago today more than sixty thousand British soldiers, each with a bayonet rifle in his hand, began climbing out of their trenches along a 13-mile front and walked towards the German line. By nightfall 20,000 British soldiers were dead. In just a few minutes whole communities in Britain had been devastated. This was the start of the Battle of the Somme. It went on, with little gain, for nearly half a year. By then, more than a million men were dead or wounded, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history.
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I’m glad I waited a bit before blogging about the outcome of the Referendum. Anything I wrote on Friday would have been an incoherent outburst of grief and anger. Not that I’m in a position to write a more informed and balanced piece now – we still, on day 7 of our ‘independence’, know nothing, and it appears that those who purport to lead us are no clearer than we are. We have neither government nor opposition, we have voted to leave the EU but have taken none of the necessary steps to set that process in motion.
In this vacuum Nigel Farage presents himself as the voice of Britain, jeering at the MEPs, taking his revenge for having been laughed at for so long. In this vacuum those who voted Remain earnestly debate whether to sign the petition for a re-run of the referendum, or to lobby for a General Election, or whether we’re worrying about nothing because nobody will actually press the red button, since nobody (other than Farage) actually wants to. In this vacuum those who voted Leave are frustrated that nothing is happening, that the Remainers are still whingeing on about the result, and that the leaders of the Leave campaigns are rowing back vigorously on the promises made during the campaign. Some of them are saying that they didn’t really mean it, that they’d vote to Remain if there was a re-run. Some of them are saying that what they meant by it was that all foreigners should get out, now.
Meanwhile our European erstwhile partners are shaking their heads, and reminding us that freedom of movement is inextricably linked to trade deals and that we can’t have one without the other. They’re reminding us that our membership of the EU is as the United Kingdom and therefore that if Scotland and Northern Ireland want to honour their population’s vote to Remain, they would have to break away from the UK which, overall, has voted to Leave. Marine le Pen, of course, is rejoicing.
I’m not going to speculate about what happens now – there are people far better informed than me who are doing that and I’ll leave them to it. And I’m not going to rant about or criticise those who voted Leave – they did so for many and various reasons, some at least of which I might respect and understand, however profoundly I disagree. My response is a personal one – now that my emotions are less raw, I can begin to explore why I felt such grief, as well as such anger, and why I felt, and feel, afraid.
In the early hours of Friday, having felt increasingly pessimistic as the results came in with such dismaying consistency, I saw that Sheffield had voted Leave. That was when I felt that we’d lost, not just the referendum but so much more. That was when I wept, and despaired.
I have always felt at home in this city – I’ve lived here for over forty years, and since I got here I haven’t wanted to live anywhere else. I’ve always loved it – its hills, its greenery, its culture, its friendliness. But in the light of that decision I felt as though I didn’t know it after all, wasn’t as much a part of it as I had believed.
Of course, the vote was close – Leave and Remain were separated by just 6,000 of my fellow Sheffielders. But what it confirmed is that the city is polarised, more so perhaps than some of the other big northern cities. We have one of the wealthiest political constituencies in the country – but nearly one-quarter of the local areas used to assess deprivation are in the most deprived 10%. This polarisation has increased since 2010. My Sheffield voted Remain. But my Sheffield is dark blue.
I don’t have a detailed breakdown of how different areas of the city voted. But a new article by Charles Pattie, Professor of Electoral Geography at the University of Sheffield, has looked at data on the proportion of graduates, amongst other indicators, in different areas of the city.
All of this paints a picture of a city deeply divided; a city where class, education and opportunity have shaped the political understandings of its people. And although we’re still waiting on a demographic breakdown of the results, it’s highly likely that such divisions will have cut through the rest of the UK, too. The case of Sheffield shows that the fracture lines in British society do not just run between north and south, Scotland and England, or rural and urban areas. They run through every community in the country.
It’s still my city, my home. Burt I forgot those fracture lines. Those fracture lines are dangerous. People like me tend to live next door to, work and socialise with people like me. People like me hear from our social media contacts and our colleagues the echo of our own views. We can be oblivious to how the world looks when employment is hard to find or insecure and when your wages aren’t enough to support your family, when debts are unmanageable and creditors importunate, when housing is inadequate and schools are failing, and benefits are sanctioned – and when the party in power tells you that you are a skiver not a striver, a scrounger rather than a hard-working tax payer. We can be oblivious to how tempting it is to find scapegoats, the scapegoats offered up daily on the front pages of the Mail, the Express, the Sun (people like me don’t read those papers, of course). We can be oblivious to how easy it is to believe that this daily struggle is the result not of austerity but of immigration, that others are not struggling but are being given an easy path to housing and jobs and prosperity. If we’re to heal we need to stop being oblivious, stop listening just to people like us.
What that does not mean, however, is to continue with the mealy mouthed refusal to challenge racism. Gary Younge makes this point powerfully:
Labour tends to condemn outright bigotry before clothing it in the cosy blanket of understanding and concern for the bigot. It protests and then it panders. It routinely points out that racism is bad, but is rarely brave enough to make the case for why anti-racism is good. This leads to the worst of all worlds. Racism and xenophobia are condemned but never challenged, which leaves those who hold such views feeling silenced and ignored, but never engaged.
Some of those who have been silenced, ignored but not engaged now feel legitimised and emboldened by the referendum result. Everyone but Farage may have been insistent that the referendum was not about immigration, but the sub-text was often clear, and in the Mail, the Express, the Sun, it was not sub-text, not even text, but screaming headline.
Of course the recent spike in racist abuse may be in part down to more of these incidents being reported post-Brexit. But the accounts have something specific in common – the assertion that ‘we’ won, that ‘we’ have our country back now and that therefore ‘they’ should be packing their bags because ‘they’ will have to go. No distinction is made between those who have lived here all their lives, whose families have lived here for generations, and recent arrivals. No distinction is made between those who have come here thanks to the EU’s freedom of movement and those who have Tier 2 sponsored posts here. Because of the hostility to white European immigrants, no distinction is made on the basis of colour (although of all groups facing this viciousness, hijab-wearing Muslim women are probably the most at risk). Either they have not yet realised that Brexit could never mean that EU nationals already here would be expelled, let alone that British citizens of non-British ancestry would be deported, or they do not care, their narrative is suddenly dominant, they have got their moment and are seizing it.
Why this sudden explosion? Paul Bagguley, a sociologist based at the University of Leeds, points to the gleeful tone of the racism: “There is a kind of celebration going on; it’s a celebratory racism.” With immigration cited in polls as the second most common reason in voting for Brexit, “people are expressing a sense of power and success, that they have won,” he says. “People haven’t changed. I would argue the country splits into two-thirds to three-quarters of people being tolerant and a quarter to a third being intolerant. And a section of that third have become emboldened. At other times, people are polite and rub along.”
It is this ‘celebratory’ aspect to the racism that is particularly horrifying. It didn’t start with Brexit, of course, but those who might always have felt this way now feel they can express it.
It may die down. Or, if one wished to take a less sanguine view, as people realise that Brexit is likely to mean no reduction in net migration, that it will not result in anyone being ‘sent back’, they will be bitter and angry and rather than blaming the politicians who allowed them to believe such things in order to win their votes, they will continue to blame the migrants and the refugees in their communities.
And so we find ourselves talking about how we can counter racism on our streets, in our schools, on the tram and the bus, in the pub. We wear safety pins in our lapels to indicate our support for those who are under attack and our willingness to stand with them, to stand up for them.
Will this do any good? Who knows. But when someone launches a tirade of racist abuse on the bus, if I’m wearing my pin the first thing I will do is to look around to see if I have any allies. If two of us stand up, I believe others will follow. As to what we might actually do, that depends upon the situation. The aim must be to defuse rather than to inflame, focusing on the victim rather than the aggressor, making them feel safer, letting them know the hatred is not shared by all of us. But we do also need to speak, to let not only the victim but the aggressor and those who are fiercely staring at their newspapers or their phones and pretending they can’t hear or see what’s happening know that this is not right.
The thing is, I want my country back too.
I want to wake up tomorrow in a country where people are kind, and tolerant, and decent to one another. A country where people – all people – can feel at least a little bit safe. I want to rub the sleep of neofascist nightmares from my eyes and find myself in a country where we do not respond to the killing of a politician by voting against everything she stood for. A country where we are polite to our neighbors. A country where we have dealt like adults with the embarrassing fact that we once conquered half the world, instead of yearning for a time when our glory was stolen from enslaved people a convenient ocean away and large parts of the map were the gentle pink of blood in the water. I want to go back to a Britain where hope conquers hate; where crabbed, cowed racism and xenophobia don’t win the day; where people feel they have options and choices in life and are less likely to press the big red button to bring the house down on top of us. I want my country back.
The country that Laurie Penny wants back is, she acknowledges, fictional. But so is Farage’s – and which would we rather live in? The country I want back was conjured up memorably and brilliantly in the opening ceremony to the 2012 Olympics. Funny, celebratory and bonkers, it gave us a vision of ourselves now, not as we used to be, and it set the scene for our collective joy and pride as a succession of medals were draped around the necks of our athletes, who themselves represented Britain now, in all its rich diversity.
That seems a long time ago and very far away. But we have to try to find it again. In Europe or out of it – we may not be able to reverse that decision, but we can work to make things better now, here, for all of us. Meantime, remember:
I said a week ago when I started my annual Refugee Week blogathon that it felt different this year. As Refugee Week draws to a close it feels unimaginably different again. We are in, as so many people said during the long hours as the result of the referendum emerged, uncharted territory. We are in uncertain times.
For refugees and asylum seekers there is no charted territory, there are no certain times. But as anecdotal evidence mounts of racism and xenophobia seemingly legitimised and emboldened by the vote to leave the EU, as we wait for those who would lead us into this brave new world to give us a clue as to what it will be like, I know I am not alone in being afraid.
I’ve been told that the referendum result is democracy in action, and that I should stop whingeing about the outcome. Certainly I have no intention of endlessly bemoaning it, or berating those who voted Leave. But there is plenty to be said, plenty that must be said.
I know that I cannot assume that all of the 48% who voted to remain would endorse the message that refugees are welcome here, any more than all of the 52% would want to send them all back. But many of us do share the belief that how we treat people who seek sanctuary from war, persecution and starvation is a measure of what kind of country we are, what kind of people we are. And many of us do believe that generosity, empathy, compassion are qualities that represent the best that we can be, individually and collectively.
So as this Refugee Week ends we will be continuing to say that refugees are welcome, saying it louder if we need to, if the voices against us are more numerous or more vociferous.
And we’ll keep saying it in memory of Jo Cox.
We all know that the vast majority of the terrified, friendless and profoundly vulnerable child refugees scattered across Europe tonight came from Syria.
We also know that as that conflict enters its sixth barbaric year that desperate Syrian families are being forced to make an impossible decision: stay and face starvation, rape, persecution and death or make a perilous journey to find sanctuary elsewhere.
And who can blame desperate parents for wanting to escape the horror that their families are experiencing. The reality in which children are being killed on their way to school, where children as young as seven are being forcibly recruited to the front line and where one in three Syrian children have grown up knowing nothing but fear and war.
These children have been exposed to things no child should ever witness and I know I personally would risk life and limb to get my two precious babies out of that hell-hole.
#LoveLikeJo #MoreInCommon #The48% #RefugeesWelcome
To celebrate Glastonbury weekend, check out the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, with Damon Albarn. “When there is violence in the world, you have to make more beautiful music, and make it more intensely.” Music in exile becomes a kind of homecoming.
We don’t know what impact there will be from Britain’s withdrawal from the EU on refugees and asylum seekers. We can be certain, however, that people will continue to flee war and persecution, and that those who get here, by whatever routes, will continue to face bureaucracy, prejudice, detention and destitution. So the work of charities who dedicate themselves to campaigning and fundraising and organising to support them will continue to be vital.
Assist Sheffield is one of those organisations.
ASSIST Sheffield is currently the only Sheffield charity focused on destitution among asylum seekers.
- To provide accommodation, food and support for asylum seekers in Sheffield who are in conditions of need, hardship or distress
- To advance the education of the public, and other statutory and voluntary organisations, in order to assist the inclusion of asylum seekers into the wider community
- To raise awareness about the plight of asylum seekers in our city
Who we help
We help asylum seekers whose initial claims have been rejected, and who are therefore destitute.
We only give support to people who can demonstrate their situation.
Unfortunately, we cannot support everyone who needs help. We prioritise those who don’t have any other means of support from friends or family, those who do not have somewhere safe to sleep or regular access to food and those who are particularly vulnerable, for example because they are unwell, elderly or pregnant.
If you can, support this work by donating or volunteering.
Saturday 25th June
Rudio, by Lucy Haighton
A ‘meet and greet’ movement based workshop.
NB: This workshop will take place in the Adelphi Room at The Crucible Theatre (55 Norfolk Street)
The Art of Migration Showcase, featuring Bashar Farhat (poet), Mina Salama + Special Guest
Performances from a vibrant mix of talented regional artists with migration and refugee backgrounds. Commissioned by Arts on the Run.
Puppetry Worskhop, by Vertebra Theatre
Exploring immigration through puppetry!
Silk Road, by Incomplete Collaboration
Migration explored through poetry, sound and art.
Eastern Europeans for Dummies, by There There
Brutal beginners guide to Eastern Europeans.
Tanja, by Strawberry Blonde Curls
Locked up. Shipped around. Sold as sex.
We may be preoccupied at present with the refugee crisis that has brought so many thousands across the Mediterranean and across Europe, displaced by war in Africa and the Middle East. But looking back over the decades, this is really nothing new.
In 1936, refugees were escaping from flooding in Shantung, in China, and were fed and housed by the provisional government in Tsinan.
In the USA, the Dust Bowl and resulting drought forced tens of thousands of families to abandon their farms. Many migrated to California in the hope of finding better conditions. Meanwhile in Europe, the Spanish Civil War led many to flee, often heading across the border into France, which proved only a temporary haven, and in Germany Jews who had been subjected to anti-semitic legislation were taking whatever opportunities they could to leave before things got worse. CARA (under the name of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning) was working to find posts in British universities for academics thrown out of their posts at institutions in Germany.
1946 saw displacement on a massive scale, across most of Europe. Germans were forcibly expelled from the territories that had been occupied during the war and now fell under the Soviet remit.
Many citizens of Eastern European countries were desperately trying to stay in the West. And the survivors of the concentration camps were making their way to the homes they had once known, or waiting for the possibility of passage to Palestine, or the US.
In 1956 the brutal Soviet suppression of the uprising in Hungary led to around 200,000 people fleeing the country, initially to Austria and West Germany.
In 1966 Vietnamese were fleeing ahead of the Vietcong advance. The New York Times reported that nearly half of the 10,000 inhabitants of the An Lao valley had chosen to leave, pleading desperately with withdrawing US troops for help.
In 1976 in Lebanon the civil war created a wave of refugees, around 900,000, or about one-fifth of the population. On 12 August 1976, supported by Syria, Maronite forces managed to overwhelm the Palestinian and leftist militias defending the Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp in East Beirut, and 1,000-1,500 civilians were massacred.
In 1986 the ongoing civil war in Sri Lanka generated thousands of internally displaced people as well as refugees, mostly Tamils. Many fled to neighbouring India and western countries such as Canada, France, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Germany.
In 1996, the refugee crisis in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide became increasingly unstable. Hutu militants in the camps were now well organised, and led attacks into Rwanda and eastern Zaire. In what became known as the First Congo War, around half a million people were herded by the militants into the border areas, and subsequently fled back into Rwanda, or further into Zaire. Tens of thousands were killed, or died of exposure or starvation.
Ten years ago, refugees came primarily from Sudan, DRC, Somalia and CAR, as they do currently. In addition, Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia generated significant numbers of refugees following their civil wars, and the ongoing crisis in the Great Lakes area added Burundi and Rwanda to the list.
2016 – more than 1,200 people have died of starvation and illness at an aid camp in north-east Nigeria that houses people fleeing the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, according to the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières.
It goes on, and it always will. There will always be wars, and rumours of wars. There will be, increasingly, natural disasters as a result of climate change. There will be persecution and oppression and terrorism. People will leave because they have to, because home is the mouth of a shark. And we will have to find better ways of helping them, we must be braver, more generous, more open. Today of all days that seems a forlorn hope. But we must hang on to it, nonetheless.
Migration Matters Festival
Friday 24th June
To Walk in Your Shoes, by Rachael Munro-Fawcett
The Scar Test, by Untold
“I came to England, scarred for life.”
Deaths by Rescue, by SYMAAG with Dr Simon Parker
Film & discussion on the refugee crisis.
Iftar with Open Kitchen
Food and conversation!
One person in 113 worldwide is displaced from home due to conflict or persecution. That’s the highest it’s ever been. We’re talking about forced displacement, not people choosing to leave home because they fancy a better life somewhere else. Warsan Shire’s poem expresses this with immense power:
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
The UNHCR says that Syria at 4.9 million, Afghanistan at 2.7 million and Somalia at 1.1 million together accounted for more than half the refugees under its mandate worldwide. Colombia at 6.9 million, Syria at 6.6 million and Iraq at 4.4 million had the largest numbers of internally displaced people.
Commentators have often shown an uncanny ability to scan the faces of the people in the boats or waiting at border posts and determine where they have come from, and then to use these conclusions to argue that they are not ‘genuine’ refugees but economic migrants. Better to turn to the data gathered by UNHCR.
These tell us that the countries producing the highest number of refugees are, in order,
One does not have to be an expert on world affairs to be aware that the majority of these countries are, and in some cases have been for many years, riven by vicious civil wars, often spilling over into neighbouring countries. The accusation that the young males amongst the refugees should be fighting for their country is nonsensical in these chaotic and volatile situations – who should they be fighting with, or against? An oppressive government or an extremist rebel force? Often both official and unofficial forces bolster their fighting strength by forcing boys and young men to join them. In Sudan and CAR there has been at least the threat of genocide, in DRC disease and famine as well horrific violence and rape on an unthinkable scale. In addition, IS and its affiliates are active in many of these areas.
Given all that, why do we even wonder about the motivations of those who flee?
The other accusation that is often made is that ‘they’ should have sought refuge in neighbouring countries – the nearest safe place – rather than heading to Europe. Most do. In all, 86 per cent of the refugees under UNHCR’s mandate in 2015 were in low- and middle-income countries close to situations of conflict. Worldwide, Turkey was the biggest host country, with 2.5 million refugees. With nearly one refugee for every five citizens, Lebanon hosted more refugees compared to its population than any other country.
But in these countries, those who have fled genocide, famine, war and persecution find themselves in refugee camps. These are, by definition if not in practice, temporary holding spaces, transitory, a stop along the road to a place to call home. They are likely to be desperately short of food and medical supplies, sanitation is often rudimentary at best, and there is little prospect of education for the children. Many of the countries that host most of the world’s refugees are barely able to support their own citizens. When we say we are full or that we do not have the resources to support a pitifully tiny percentage of the desperate displaced people who need our help, we are demonstrating our own complacency and ignorance.
Here in Europe we can afford to feed, clothe, house and heal our own AND more. The statistics tell us that we are not doing our bit, nowhere near.
Migration Matters Festival – Thursday 23 June
Verse Matters – a Feminist Arts Event (19.30 pm) An inclusive, supportive space for poetry, spoken word, storytelling, music and comedy. Performers include Khadijah Ibrahim, Rae Burgess and Chijioke Ojukwu.