Tag Archives: myth

Liberal England: How can a #Liberal talk to a #Hate Addict?

The wonderful Jonathan Calder has published my piece on what Europe’s oldest poem, the Iliad, can tell us about hate addiction.

How can Liberals argue with people who are getting a kick out of hate?

The Iliad on Jonathan Calder’s Liberal England Blog

 

#Europe, my country

#Europe, my country

When I was nineteen, Paula and I went inter-railing around Europe. The Berlin Wall had come down just the year before.

We splashed in the fountains in front of the Eiffel tower, then took a train East, chatting all day in English with a young man from Iceland. We stayed in the Ruhr and then in a small castle in Bavaria that was full of Yorkshire Terrier puppies. But we had to carry on East because Prague was the place to go, the recently uncovered jewel.

Being vegetarians then, all we could eat in Prague were white bread rolls, plain yellow cheese and the sweetest, most pungent tomatoes I’ve ever tasted. In the old town the statues of heroes on horseback, and the shutters and curtains decorated with hearts, recalled to us our own childhood fairytales of gingerbread cottages and earnest princes.

We wandered in grand nineteenth-century cemeteries, peered into dynastic shrines where brown and white photos showed familiar old-fashioned costumes – fluffy beards, cravats, monocles.

A history teacher and his wife and teenage son had us to dinner and spoke to us in broken English and broad smiles of delight that we could all be there together. After dinner the couple withdrew to the sofa to watch TV and cuddle unashamedly. We kept in touch with their son Jan by post-card for some years.

Paula and I took our picnics of white rolls, cheese and tomatoes to benches in the wide squares. Around us the middle-aged and the old walked slowly, almost gingerly, out from their apartments to sit on benches and talk, softly, casually, about this and that, the pigeons, the children.

We were told this was a great new pleasure for them, that they hadn’t been able to do for forty years.

The women were stout, with knotted nets of varicose veins around their calves.

Taking the train back we passed leafless forests, where smoke from soft coal had burned away the leaves.

We saw the wound and we saw it starting to heal.

#UKIP Myth: Toy Story

When Leo sits down with his Toy Story jigsaw puzzles a cold hand grips my heart. Sunday evening, I want to feel cosy, and he brings out those garish, creepy figures.

But there’s no escape. ‘Come, Mummy,’ says my two and a half year old, extending the beckoning hand that can’t be refused.

toy story jigsaw

Added to the first horror of sorting out four jisaws that have been jumbled together, I then have to pore over every limb of these gruesome zombie like objects: the corpse with the drooping eyelid (Leo calls it ‘baby’); the giant locust crossed with the Incredible Hulk (Leo calls it ‘green man with yellow pants’); the sickly pink fluffy monster (‘teddy bear’ to Leo), the leathery octopus, the eight-eyed monster…. I want to hide these four jigsaws (once we start we have to do them all) in a cupboard, but his favourite babysitter gave them to him for Christmas, so it wouldn’t be diplomatic.

I wonder if this is how Ukippers feel about the European Union: weird alien creatures they don’t want to understand. And I sympathise.

But I have to learn from Leo who assumes that everything around him is animate, and in some way connected to the world he already knows, and so he can relate to anything. The doll is a baby, the eight-eyed monster is a different kind of frog.

Maybe even Farage is just a different kind of frog.

Maybe we can relate to the Other without losing ourselves.

#OscarsSoWhite

 

Inclusion is Hollywood’s Second-Favourite Activity

Guest Post by Herbert Agyemang-Duah, St Albans.

The Oscars have, for the second straight year, failed to nominate any actors of color. It’s not that they’re trying to be racist. It’s just that they can’t help it.

For the second year in a row, the Academy has handed out a whopping total of zero nominations to non-white performers in the four acting categories.

After accusations of racism from the mainstream media and Twitter’s “OscarsSoWhite” hashtag sullied last year’s awards, it’s hard to understand how the eternally progressive Hollywood community behind the Oscars couldn’t correct last year’s error and offer a measly one of those 16 nominations to an actor of color. How did this happen? How did this group of racial-diversity-embracing liberals offer up the exact same offense this year?

To answer that question, imagine you’re a person who really values religious inclusivity. In fact, you value it so much that your second favorite activity in the world is inviting Muslim and Jewish folks over to your house for dinner.

The problem, however, is that your favorite activity in the world is serving your dinner guests a piping hot plate of barbecued pork. In fact, you love doing this so much that you can’t stop yourself from offering the aforementioned porcine cuisine to dinner guests you know have religious objections to eating it.

So even though you really want to practice religious inclusion, and even though you don’t want to get yelled at for offering your Muslim and Jewish guests unclean food again, you fall into the same pit because you just can’t bring yourself to change the dinner menu. It’s not that you’re trying to exclude your Muslim and Jewish dinner guests. It’s just that exclusion happens when you won’t sacrifice the thing you love if that’s what it takes to embrace your guests.

This is precisely why the Oscars have, for the second straight year, failed to nominate any actors of color. It’s not that they’retrying to be racist. It’s just that they can’t help it. Of course the Academy wants to give statues to non-white actors and actresses. Of course it would love to have another Hattie McDaniel moment or hear another Halle Berry style acceptance speech.

Hollywood’s favorite thing is giving awards for performances in movies about upper-class 1940s lesbian college professors who bravely battled both unjust banking practices and homophobia.

But giving awards to people of color is currently the Academy’s second-favorite thing in the world. Its favorite thing is giving awards for performances in movies about upper-class 1940s lesbian college professors who bravely battled both unjust banking practices and homophobia—bonus points if they were persecuted by political or religious conservatives, double bonus points if they worked in Hollywood, and triple bonus points if they existed in real life.

Because the Academy insists on doing its favorite thing, because it insists on giving all its awards to films of this nature, it can’t help but exclude those of ethnicities that weren’t terribly prevalent in 1940s upper-class British academic circles or on McCarthy-era blacklists. So, just like the dinner host who won’t sacrifice his favorite thing (serving pork to his guests) for the sake of his second favorite thing (respecting their religious beliefs), the Oscars have no choice but to fail at racial inclusivity as long as they prefer to shower awards on cinematic stories that exclude most of the races.

For example, it’s not that the Academy was trying to exclude “Creed’s” Michael B. Jordan from the best actor race. It’s just that Eddie Redmayne played a kind-of-real-life transgender caucasian artist, and Oscar voters couldn’t possibly have taken that off the menu include someone who played a character as boring as a pretend black boxer from God knows where.

Steve Jobs’ story needed to be told again because the first time it had Ashton Kutcher in it.

Similarly, while in a down year Hollywood would gladly have nominated “Concussion’s” Will Smith for playing real-life forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu, Bryan Cranston played an ever-so-terribly-persecuted-in-real life Hollywood Communist in “Trumbo,” and there’s no way the Academy could have overlooked a performance of that historic significance just to bring more diversity to Oscar night.

Dalton Trumbo’s story, after all, needed to be told, as did Lili Elbe’s (“The Danish Girl”). Steve Jobs’ story needed to be told again because the first time it had Ashton Kutcher in it. And it’s hardly the Academy’s fault blacks were too busy not being allowed to be screenwriters in 1950s Hollywood or that Latinos failed to adequately represent themselves in 1920s Scandinavian LGBTQ circles or that no one of Middle Eastern descent would have been believable as the half-German inventor of the iMac. (Unrelated fun fact: Steve Jobs was also half Syrian! Who knew?) Donald Trump take note.

Granted, one might argue Hollywood could fix its race problem by essentially keeping the barbecue rub recipe but swapping out pork for a more inclusive meat—in other words, by casting non-white actors in the kind of roles it most desperately wants to award. In theory, there’s no reason film studios couldn’t make this happen.

There’s no reason historical details like ‘Bruce Jenner wasn’t black’ should diminish the power of a biopic called ‘Caitlyn’ with Idris Elba in the titular role. he goesw on to say

If historical inaccuracies like Steve Jobs not saying most of the stuff he said in “Steve Jobs” didn’t diminish the film’s Oscar-worthiness, there’s no reason historical details like “Bruce Jenner wasn’t black” should diminish the power of a biopic called “Caitlyn” with Idris Elba in the titular role.

As much as the Academy would love to support a project of this nature, however, filmmaking is a business, studios need to make a profit to survive, and the harsh economic reality of awards season is that audiences simply aren’t lining up to see films with Oscar-worthy performances from actors of color like they are from white actors. Or the ‘right’ audiences aren’t?

What is the numbers story? “Creed,” brought in  $106 million domestically, as opposed to “Spotlight’s” $28 million, “Steve Jobs’s” $17 million (on a $30 million budget), “The Danish Girl’s” $8 million, “Trumbo’s” $7, “Carol’s” $7, “Room’s” $5, and “45 Years’s” staggering $341,000. Okay, those might have been seven bad examples, but you get the point—Hollywood and the Oscars really want to give non-white actors an opportunity to shine. Audiences just won’t let them?

Perhaps the Oscars wouldn’t have to be so white if people of color could figure out a way to make their history a little more transgendery.

So of course the Academy wants to be more racially inclusive. Racial inclusivity is, after all, its second favorite thing in the world. It’s just that, right now, the Academy’s favorite thing is hurling golden statues at films whose settings and characters prevent them from including any blacks or Latinos or Asians or Native Americans or anyone of an integument darker than translucent ivory.

So perhaps those inclined to once again fill Twitter with the “OscarsSoWhite” hashtag should show a little compassion towards the poor members of the Academy who, bless their hearts, just can’t let religious inclusion trump serving pork for dinner.

If we want to fix this problem, perhaps it’s time to look to the other side of the table. Perhaps it’s time to ask those Jewish and Muslim dinner guests to try a bite of the unclean cuisine. Perhaps the Oscars wouldn’t have to be so white if people of color could figure out a way to make their history a little more transgendery or Hollywoody or English-accented, or, at the very least, a little more staring-at-walls-and-coming-to-terms-with-things. – – – –

MEMO TO SPIKE LEE:  enough of the black angst, cultural clichés. enough of the the uncle toms, coons, mammies  and bucks images of your people. it might make you moolahs  but it reinforces and reinscribes  negative sterotypes. those age old racist caricatures are passé even as  parodies or political statements. a new script that transcends the tribe might score you brownie points.  {pun intended} and give your Black actors Oscars.A

Another note: Audiences, black or white or Hispanic don’t want to be preached at; or forcibly streamed through your kaleidoscope of Black consciousness. . Anyway Agit-prop doesn’t make money and that is why Hollywood doesn’t promote them.

HERBERT CHARLES AGYEMANG-DUAH

FREELANCE WRITER /  EDUCATOR / SOCIAL ACTIVIST / MUSICOLOGIST

#Pilgrimage in #Terror Day 4

Day Four: Within a Tradition. Burguete to Zubiri (20km).  

Vue de Bizkarreta-Gerendiain.

‘The Navarrese fornicate shamelessly with their beasts, and it is said that a Navarrese will put a padlock on his she-mule and his mare lest another man should get at them. He also libidinously kisses the vulva of a woman or a she-mule.’

So wrote Aimery Picaud of Poitou, a French clergyman who made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in the twelfth century. Afterwards, he wrote a guidebook to the route, in which he criticises just about every Spaniard he meets. But the people of Navarre, where I am walking now, are the most sexually depraved, according to him. (How did he find that out?)

My path led out of the hills and down into the river valley to pass through Viscarret. Viscarret was grand enough in the twelfth century to be a major staging post for Aimery Picaud, between St. Jean Pied de Port and Pamplona. Since then it has steadily lost importance. There are no modern buildings in Viscarret. The yellow churches and the great houses of stone and carved timber decompose gently amid striped vegetable gardens.

It was time for lunch and the eternal hope of potatoes. A sign saying Cafe Bar pointed through a bead-hung doorway. I pushed through the tassels only to retreat as a dog snarled and leaped about in the shadows. People of different ages were standing about or sitting at a small kitchen table. They motioned me to go round to the other entrance. Fine. But why have the sign pointing straight in through that door if it isn’t the entrance?

The other door was on the piazza of the village. Germans sat out in the sun like ripening tomatoes. I took my English complexion indoors. I was full of hope. I heard sounds of cooking in the kitchen, could smell frying. A young woman eventually came to the bar in this small, dark room. She was slim, with black hair but looked as though she hadn’t slept for weeks, perhaps had never slept. This look – the sallow face and shadowed eyes – was to haunt the village bars that I passed through. All that lovelife, taking its toll.

‘Habla usted patatas?’ I asked.

She called through a door to the kitchen which was out of my sight and, after some discussion back and forth, she replied that No, there were no potatoes. I presumed the smells of cooking must therefore be for the family and the savage dog and enquired if there was a restaurant in the village. Yes, across the road, she said.

I went out and found an impressive mansion with a sign saying restaurant and delicious smells of vegetables being fried. I strode in happily. In a little room to the right an old lady and an old man were preparing an elaborate lunch. ‘A meal?’ I asked, salivating.

‘No, we are closed,’ said the old lady, regretfully.

‘It smells so good,’ I tried.

They laughed with pleasure at the compliment and then waited for me to leave.

I was back with sallow-face behind the bar. We were no longer friends. Why on earth had she directed me to a restaurant that she must have known was closed? It was moon-faced idiocy. With resignation I ordered a sandwich, and crisps for my potato content, and a bag of pistachios and sat down at a brown formica table. The thinly sliced processed cheese arrived in its white baguette, speckled with blue spots of mould. I tried to comfort myself with the pistachios and grew a mountain of shells on my table top in the shadows.

From my corner I perceived that three men had come in and places were being laid for them. They even had a checked paper table cloth. A soup appeared, along with half a carafe of wine. The soup course passed and pieces of chicken appeared, together with salad and – !

I rose from my table, a fountain of pistachio shells cascading in all directions but as nothing compared with my incandescent indignation. I stretched out my arm to the enviable gobbling men and summoned my finest Spanish to the fore:

‘Senora! These are potatoes!’

At which the dark eyes flashed. ‘But that is a menu! Did you want a menu? You should have said. Do you want a menu?’

‘Well not now,’ I said, no longer bothering to speak Spanish. ‘Not after I’ve already eaten a mouldy sandwich, a pack of greasy crisps and 500 grammes of pistachios!’

She understood exactly the tone of my words and gestures and began a tirade, the words flashing across the little room like jumping fish. I remembered the woman in Espinal who had hurled my shopping basket across the minimart, eyed the bottles behind her, and decided it was best to leave.

May the name of Viscarret be remembered forever….

Christmas Rape

Thomas Nast added the North Pole and the elves’ workshop to Father Christmas lore

Boxing Day 2015, Blairgowrie.

This morning we were in Grandad’s bathroom doing nappy change. ‘Mummy,’ says Leo, ‘Why did you pack a stocking?’ ‘So you could put it out and Father Christmas could put presents in.’ ‘I don’t want presents! I don’t want Father Christmas to give me presents!’ The tears rolled over the bright red cheeks. He had been okay about it yesterday, but now he was blotchy and shaking.

It’s true that his bah-humbug mum had filled his stocking entirely with oddments purchased at closing time on Christmas Eve in the charity shops of Blairgowrie (Raspberry Capital of Scotland). But I don’t think it was just about the quality of the gifts. Leo had been interested enough in the plastic fish holding an anchor in its fins and the miniature elephant asleep in a box. Knowing my son, I think it was about self-determination: I hadn’t properly asked him if he wanted to hang up a stocking, we had just done it, and he’d gone along with it without knowing what it was about. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said now. ‘You don’t want presents from Father Christmas, I’m sorry.’

And I know the feeling. There’s a heck of a lot of Christmas that I don’t want and did anybody ask me? Did anyone ask me if I wanted my head buzzing with Frank Sinatra’s  tinkety-tonk from end Nov to 24th Dec everywhere I go? Did anyone ask me if I wanted to intone ‘While shepherds watched…’ or eat brussels sprouts? Did anyone ask me if I wanted that egg cup, that biography, that scarf? Did anyone ask me? And there’s my honourable Scrooge Within who doesn’t enjoy blowing a month’s child tax credit in a week…

I miss my Dad. He brought a rich, velvety gloom to every part of Christmas, sombre tones between the tinsel. The Christmas cards would start to arrive: ‘Oh God! They had us to dinner five years ago and we still haven’t had them back. It’s awful!’ As the card season wore on, ‘We haven’t sent them one.’ Sigh. ‘Too late now!’

He would fry his nerves doing all his shopping on Christmas Eve and then deliberately exhaust himself by not starting present wrapping till gone ten o’clock. By that time we would have had the family row, the only part of Christmas he joined in with a passion. On Christmas Day, if he could find no other excuse for misery, Dad would develop toothache, at its worst the year we stayed with a friend in the country and there were no painkillers for miles.

Sometimes when you lose someone you love you would be willing to have any piece of them back. If the only Dad I got was the toothache spectre in the corner, I would opt for that. But it’s not just that I want him back, I also need that uninhibited party-pooper. By the time the 27th came, and we were preparing for yet another set of family friends or lonely hearts to eat turkey risotto or cold ham, my Dad would burst out: ‘I would like some peace!’

In this time when foreign policy is not going my way I find myself wondering if there could be some link between my Dad’s ‘peace’ and the pipe dream of world peace. What if we just did less? What if we gave up that positive idea that ‘there is always a solution’. What if we chose to endure adversity with the same bitter gloom that my Dad used for Christmas? What if that turned out to be the less harmful option?

Here in Blairgowrie, like everywhere, we’ve had the Strictly Christmas Special, the World at War, an Andre Rieu concert and a black and white Christmas Carol. Today, St Stephen’s Day, when we could be meditating on the poor saint getting smashed to death by stoning, we have done the Perth panto, with puns, dames and local lyrics to well-known numbers. It’s like we’re trying desperately to distract ourselves from some unpleasant truth. What is it? Winter? The sure knowledge that we will have flu in February (with and without the jab)? Or war? – that as we sit at our family tables our taxes are paying to blow other similar families to bits, physically and psychologically? But the chin-up grinning goes back a lot further even than this ‘War on Terror’ that we’ve been befuddled into staying in for fifteen years.

My theory is that the Christmas story is even scarier than the Crucifixion. Maybe we can just about get our head around someone, finding himself in a hairy situation, threatened with death, deciding to Tell the Truth, let go of control and take what comes. Sometimes people do have these moments of courage. But to be a god, who could stay up on a cloud twiddling a harp, and deliberately choose to get down here – knowing how it’s likely to end – that is too scary. And not believing in God doesn’t really protect from the story. The point is that, if there were a god, we think he might do that.

We think he might do that – suggests there’s a part of us that’s choosing to be here – not just the one in Denial, and the Lizard Brain with its survival reflexes, some other bit that actually chooses this.

Why on earth?

War on Terror: the Score

Autumn 2001

st martins

On Sunday 7 October 2001 the Coalition for War on Terror began bombing Afghanistan. On the Monday afternoon, two weeks later, a cricket scoreboard stood on the steps of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, recording the number of civilians killed as a result of the bombings. War on Terror, it said, the score.

There were three sub headings: ‘Killed’, ‘Refugee’ and ‘Starving’.

The board stood there every Monday, from two o’clock to six o’clock, until Christmas. The numbers were a foot high, white on a black ground to show up on failing autumn afternoons, and visible from across the square, a pitch length away. Red double-deckers passed, and tourists on their way to the National Gallery or the theatre district; and limousines with darkened windows, headed for Whitehall. As the afternoons darkened, the numbers climbed.

I stood beside the board. This demonstration was my demonstration. I still have problems explaining it to myself or anyone else. My friends were surprised. So were my family. ‘We’ve never seen you like this before.’

I had never been an activist – except once as a teenager in the 1980s I sat down in the middle of Oxford Street over something to do with Libya, I didn’t really understand what.

My jobs didn’t stand out as social conscience jobs. First I was a reporter for Investors Chronicle, helping the rich to get richer with tips on investment trusts. Then I was a Classics teacher in a private school for girls. The closest I had come to activism was being in the union at Investors Chronicle. Now I might be moving leftwards, as I was in adult education, but I never thought of my anti-war demonstration as left wing – at least, not originally.

It was like a reflex action to do that demonstration. It was difficult for me to explain it, because it was so obvious to me. People who supported the war were the ones that needed to do some explaining, in my view.

If there was no other consideration at all, simply the name of the campaign was an insult to human experience. War, against Terror? Only people who hadn’t suffered war and had no capacity to imagine it could talk about war as if it wasn’t in itself terrifying. Only very powerful people could get away with such a contradiction in terms. In fact, the use of such a phrase was a subtle intimidation in itself, a throwing one’s weight around, a saying what the hell one liked. It reminded me of the sinister nonsense in Orwell’s Animal Farm: ‘All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.’

On Saturday 20 October, while US Special Forces were attacking sites in southern Afghanistan (‘The Pentagon said US troops had met only slight resistance,’ said the BBC), I was in a van with Stan and his wife, edging down Regent Street, a cricket scoreboard lying on sacking in the back. Everyone seemed to be out shopping. It took us half an hour to make that quarter of a mile through walls of cars and taxis. The American troops in Afghanistan probably met less resistance than we did.

The verger of St Martin-in-the-Fields showed us where we could store the board, which was six foot high and ten feet wide, beside the stairs going up to the bell tower. When we had the board safely settled, Stan and I shook hands. ‘I hope it works out for you,’ said Stan. ‘It’s a sad business.’ He put a few coins into the church collection box and left to go back to his workshop in Leicestershire where he could get on with making normal scoreboards.

On the Monday, two weeks after the start of the War on Terror, the demo began. It was lunchtime. A Mexican was sitting on the steps eating chips. I asked him if he would mind helping me move the board. He put his chips down and we shifted it together. We propped it up against the railings in front of the church’s portico. We tied it in place with ropes that attached to hooks Stan and his men had nailed in the back of it. It was conspicuous. The whole top end of Trafalgar Square could see it.

The Mexican went off and bought another load of chips and came back and sat in front of the board scoffing them. ‘I am hungry today,’ he said.

I arranged the glossy white numbers on the board. I’d never seen a cricket scoreboard up close. It was clever. The numbers you didn’t need you hooked up, the numbers you were using stayed down. Two weeks after the start of the bombing my figures were:

Estimated Dead, 750

Refugees, 300,000

Starving, 400,000.

On that first day the board drew anger like a magnet. Men stuck their heads out of vans and cheered at the figures. Cheered at death. ‘How come they can bomb us but we can’t bomb them?’ they called as they waited at the traffic lights, and then screeched away when the light went green.

I sat down in front of the board to munch on some hula-hoops and heard a voice above my head: ‘You make me want to vomit.’ I looked up to find a man in a black turtleneck and a cream suit standing over me. He had jewel blue eyes and the sort of blemishless older-man face that would look perfect in an ad for Evian water.

‘Person is too good a word for you,’ he went on. ‘You’re not humane. You haven’t an atom of humanity. You aren’t worth the space you stand on. You make me RETCH!’ I stood up, in case he actually was going to be sick. Evian Ad gestured at my estimate of the dead. ‘What about the thousands the Taliban have killed? They built a stadium just for public executions. But you don’t care about that, do you?’ His mouth was creased nearly into a smile. His face was so inscrutable I actually wondered if in fact he was on my side and just mimicking what opponents might say.

A bearded man detached himself from the passers by and hurried up the steps. ‘She has a right to say what she thinks.’

Evian continued with his struggle to find an insult equal to the task: ‘You’re like those skinhead yobs that live off social security and then go off to Afghanistan, paid for by the British government, and then, when a few of them die, they complain!’

Protester against war equals unemployed person equals skinhead yob equals soldier who doesn’t like it when his friends get killed. An instinctively Tory part of my nature wanted to shout, ‘I’ve never taken hand-outs!’

‘She has a right to free speech,’ said the bearded guy.

Turtleneck pushed off.

‘Are you okay?’ asked my supporter, before carrying on on his way.

A handsome man in a tweed jacket trotted up the steps. ‘Can I have one of your leaflets?’ I was glad and smiled at him. He ripped the leaflet in half and gave it back to me.

A ginger-haired man in a barber charged up the steps and changed the figure for the dead himself, from ‘750’ to ‘7,750’, on the basis of out of date statistics from New York. At this I snapped. ‘If you want a demonstration about the dead in New York, you can pay for a board and you can stand next to it all day in the cold!’

He leant into my face. ‘It’s people like you that make this country what it is today.’ We looked at each other for a moment, both of us startled because it was such a cliché. Then he added: ‘Liberal and weak!’ – and skimmed along the steps and out of sight without ever bending his knees, so firm, upright and disciplined was his posture.

After a couple of weeks I got a helper. She was Flora, a Catholic lady – ‘But I don’t like to push church things on people.’ She had endured the Blitz. ‘People these days just don’t know what it’s like to be bombed!’ She wore gloves and smart coats, always just the right coat for the weather that day, and she beamed at people as they passed. The angry men shrivelled up. From her gloved hands my leaflets flowed out into London. She could get rid of 400 in a day. And she never took breaks.

Flora and I compared notes on the kinds of people who took leaflets. We both noticed the same trends. People that were dressed in bright colours, whether men or women, took leaflets; similarly people that wore hats, whether wacky or traditional. Smokers were big takers of leaflets. A smoker juggling ciggy and lighter, with a mobile phone gripped in the crook of his neck, would still somehow find a finger free to take a leaflet. Although he was on the phone, his eyes would clock Flora or myself and react.

Expensively and conventionally dressed men and women were less likely to take leaflets. In this group, the women were more closed to it than the men, and younger women especially so. A young professional woman with smooth blonde hair and a trim grey or navy suit would never, but never, take a leaflet

Men with facial hair, like the brightly coloured people, were more likely to take leaflets. I remembered that the man who had supported my right to free speech on the first day had worn a beard; and the man who had offered money had had side whiskers. There seemed to be something beyond co-incidence here. But what was it that connected these things? Where in the brain was localised that small bundle of grey cells that chose to read political leaflets and grow facial hair?

As the autumn evenings drew in, people became less certain about bombing Afghanistan, and less interested. The white numbers continued to climb.

The snows fell in Afghanistan and the valleys started to be cut off. Flora took to wearing a fur hat on our afternoon stints. The thousands who arrived in the refugee camps were given one blanket each. One blanket in a mountain winter. There were different reasons why people were fleeing but the most common was ‘the bombs’.

In November one of our government ministers rang the vicars, concerned that my demonstration was a ‘security risk’ for the church. He also thought that my estimates were inaccurate and misleading. The red-haired vicar came out to see me on the steps. He reassured me that he himself did not view me as a security risk, nor did he really believe that the minister did. He was disappointed in the minister. ‘We’ve worked with him well in the past on gay rights. I am a bit surprised.’ Still, we had to take the suggestion seriously. Could I make some kind of risk assessment which he would present at a meeting of the vicars?

I wrote five pages examining the demonstration from every possible angle of risk. I said that the people who had been angry with the demonstration had never shown any signs of being violent; that they had been respectable (in a sense), prosperous citizens, unlikely to resort to terrorist tactics. I also wrote to the minister saying I was sorry that the estimates were inaccurate and misleading. I had hunted on every relevant government website and had been unable to find any figures for dead or injured in Afghanistan. Could he help me with more accurate information?

The vicars allowed the demonstration to continue, and I continued to have to rely on estimates cobbled together from news reports. There were a few British and American soldiers now among the figures for the dead. It was tough, building statistics this way, because I couldn’t avoid the anecdotes that brought the numbers to life. One boy arrived in a refugee camp having lost all his family. He was clutching a pet bird. I kept wondering what would happen if the bird died. As our allies, the Northern Alliance, gained the upper hand, there were increasing numbers of Taliban prisoners. Whether all those ragged men had really wanted to serve the Taliban dictatorship we couldn’t know; but they did surrender. The Northern Alliance shipped them to prison in metal boxes. In one trainload, all died of asphyxiation except three who shared a hole in the metal, by which they took it in turns to breathe.

Numbers are clean and seem mutually exclusive: the number alive, the number dead. But life is a long drawn-out struggle with death and towards it. The slowness frightened me; the families that had nothing much to do in the refugee camp except look into each other’s faces and watch each other failing. As winter deepened, the babies and the old people couldn’t hold on.

The cost of a winter’s supply of food for every person in Afghanistan was a fraction of the cost of bombing them.

We stood beside the cricket scoreboard distributing leaflets while junk food wrappers blew up and down the steps. More nutrition in one central London bin than in some households. An ex-marine passed us sometimes and waved.

At dusk homeless people crept in and squatted beside the scoreboard as if it would give them shelter. A woman in a mac with pale brown skin and large dangly earrings passed. ‘Do you know a café?’ she said. ‘There used to be a café round here, an arty sort of place where you could meet people, get a drink and talk. Do you know where I mean?’

Another man came dancing up the steps with his arms opened wide as if he was going to embrace the scoreboard. ‘Why should I give love to everyone?’ he called over the roar of traffic. ‘They haven’t given love to me.’

‘They killed everyone in Babylon,’ came a voice, speaking with a cockney accent, as if chewing on a sticky bun. ‘They poisoned the water with wormwood. I know about wormwood. I know what it does.’ A young man in an arty brown bobble hat stood directly in front of me with his hands in his pockets, motionless as a statue. His almond grey eyes were clear of any emotion. ‘It makes you nervous and restless. You can’t sleep, you can’t do a single thing. I know about it from my past lives. That’s why I’m different from my brethren. They only have faith but I know.’

‘Which church do you go to?’

‘Kingdom Hall.’ He saw that I didn’t understand. ‘Jehovah’s witnesses. But I’m different from them. I know everything of what has happened. I have the keys to my past lives. Angels gave me the keys.’ He didn’t blink, but at the end of each statement something flickered in his eyes as if he was testing whether I would believe him. I nodded. ‘If he had only answered my letter. If Tony Blair had only answered my letter.’

‘Yes, he didn’t answer mine either,’ I commiserated.

‘If he had only of had audience with me, none of this would have happened. I know about demons. I’m stronger than what they are. I’m stronger than every single demon. The devil tries to frighten us but he is the weaker one. A demon attacked me when I was born. He tried to take my life and split up my family. He gave me drugs. But I am stronger. He tried to get to me through noise. He made the people next door make noise all the time to drive me out. That’s how I came on the homeless scene.’

In his arty hat and suede jacket he made it sound like the coolest scene in town.

What had begun as a grandiose speech about the world had ended up as a description of the specific problems of his own life. Listening can have this effect, of creating a turn. Writing can also turn things around. I wondered if I was in need of some kind of turn myself. I was perhaps not as far away as I would like to think from the pathetic grandiosity of Mr Bobble Hat. ‘If he would only of had audience with me,’ was something I was capable of thinking, even if I wouldn’t say it.

After all, what did me standing on some steps in a pinky-orange suit next to a cricket scoreboard actually achieve?

By the end of December, the civilians dead from direct attack in Afghanistan stood at around 4,000 on my count and at around 5,000 in a study I eventually found reported on the net compiled by Professor Marc Herold of the University of New Jersey. The civilian dead in Afghanistan had outstripped the dead in New York.

www.stopthewar.org.uk