Playing peekaboo with a squirrel

What a first month to 2017. Particularly the last ten or eleven days. The news has brought one shock of disappointment after another, quickly evaporating any hope that Trump’s presidency might not be as bad as it looked. As a UK citizen, seeing the way May has handled herself has made me sick to my stomach. We appear spineless, naïve, collaborating – Chamberlain and Hitler all over again, if you want to take a very pessimistic view. The sneaking tendrils of the policies of both leaders are weaving themselves into my life and the life of those around me, in ways that make me frightened for my future. I am lucky that I am 28 before my government has made a noticeable negative impact on my life – unless you count the university tuition fees which tripled in time for me turning 18. But seeing what these fees have done since, I don’t feel I have much room to complain about the £25,000 odd debt I still have round my neck. These policies making people feel unwelcome outside their own country, pushing the poor deeper into poverty, and spreading hate and stupidity are affecting everybody now, even if we can’t see it straight away.

The news this month has been overwhelming in new ways, a bit like having your head held in a toilet by the school bully while they flush it over and over again. I started the year feeling good on some new anti-anxiety drugs – indeed I’m now wondering how anyone is getting through at the moment without them (joke). But the last ten days or so, I’ve started getting dragged down if I spend more than a few minutes a day on facebook, where I am bombarded with people’s statuses detailing the latest horror, or NYT article after article explaining why we’re going to hell in a handcart. Every now and then, we all need a break. But the worst thing is that when the news is this bad, it has some kind of centrifugal force that keeps us spinning round and round it, trying to pull away but kept in place by this weird effect of negative gravity. This week, I am trying to take a stand, and return to a few habits I had in the first weeks of the year which were keeping me feel centred and grounded. For me, it’s a combination of looking at the very big – and the very small.

The very small first. I spend a lot of my working week sitting down, so at lunchtime, I try to go for a half hour walk. Next to the office complex where I work, there’s a mosque. Sometimes in the summer, presumably when there are too many people to fit inside, men pray on the pavement outside. Other times I’ll come out for my walk at the end of a service, and there will be so many people filling the road that the occasional car struggles to get through. I watch the people at the mosque, with innocent human curiosity about a religion I don’t know enough about. I hope they take my glances as curiosity, and nothing more sinister. When I see them I wonder how much attention they get, how much courage it takes to walk outside wearing what they wear, marking themselves as “different”. On one of the lampposts by the mosque, there is a battered, rain-drenched flyer about inclusion, and welcoming refugees. I wonder if it was put there by someone at the mosque, or whether it was someone else trying to offer them some support and solidarity, to let them know that not everyone in England feels like they should “go home”.

After five minutes of entirely uninteresting pavements, my walk takes me to the canal, which is lined with houseboats. Next to the canal is a strip of greenery and trees, a wildlife garden set up around 15 years ago that’s gone slightly to seed. The small ponds are stagnant and covered in algae, some of the fences are in need of repair and there’s a general unkempt feel to many parts of it. A wooden walkway squishes slightly underfoot, as if (and I think it’s probably the case) the wood has rotted underneath. In one area, I often find three grey squirrels. Grey squirrels get a bad rap in this country: introduced by somebody sometime, they turned out to be rather more aggressive than the native red squirrels, which lost more and more territory to the grey squirrels, and now red squirrels are only rarely to be seen- mostly in Scotland, in pine forests. The grey squirrels also get a lot of grief for their habits of digging up plant bulbs, or stealing food in bird feeders. My dad will run out into the garden at odd intervals shrieking a battle cry or brandishing a cane, trying to get “the little bastards” away from the feed, and prompting my mum to say: “your father’s taken leave of his senses”.

Poor grey squirrels. It’s not their fault they’re greedy and extremely good at procreating. I have made friends with one of the squirrels in the wildlife garden, whom I have christened Chubs, for no real reason other than it’s a comforting sort of word, and he’s a comforting sort of squirrel. He stops and stares at me often when I walk past, interrupting his game of chasing the other squirrels round and round trees, either in an attempt at flirtation or to get them away from some buried treasure, I’m not sure which. One day, he was staring at me and I was staring at him as he held onto a tree trunk upside down. After a moment, he disappeared around the other side of the trunk. I waited, and a second later, he peeked his head round one side. I made a sudden, ha! I see you! action to that side, as you would with a small child. He disappeared. Then appeared on the other side of the trunk. I did the same thing. He disappeared… and reappeared again on the other side! I had to laugh at the sheer ludicrousness of what I was doing: playing peekaboo with a squirrel. He peeked round each side five or six times before he remembered the buried treasure, or the mating, whichever it was, and wandered off.

It’s the little things, the moments and pictures that make you feel grateful, even for only a little time. The benefits of interacting with nature are well-documented, and it’s nice to know it’s possible even in the middle of a large city. I’ve also watched coots diving in the canal, fascinated by their disappearing, reappearing act, and the smoothness of each of their dives. I’ve watched robins singing in trees – something that strikes me as actually quite rare, to be watching a bird sing. I watch birds, and I hear them sing, but not often do I see the bird that’s singing.

So if these small acts of nature watching on a lunchtime walk help make me feel centred in a whirlwind world, I’ve started turning to non-fiction to ground myself. Oddly, because I wasn’t keen on the subject at school, I am taking refuge in science. Specifically, physics. I read Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics at the start of the year, then followed it up with his examination of similar themes in Reality is Not What it Seems, which has a greater emphasis on quantum gravity. How much do I understand? 40-70%, depending on what he’s talking about, I think. I also lose the specifics very quickly, which is frustrating. But I enjoy reading about people discovering things we take for granted, or things that are too weird for us to have comprehended yet. The stories of failure and trying again are quite inspirational, especially in today’s culture of failure being something so monstrous nobody is allowed to fail – everyone gets a medal for participation – or nobody tries because they failure is too difficult to entertain. Science is a beautiful subject in that it is, in some ways, so ready to take criticism. If someone disproves something, then okay, we move on. Einstein proved Newton wrong on some things. Einstein was wrong about some aspects of quantum theory. We are all wrong, and it doesn’t make us bad or useless people. I am finding comfort in that.

I am also enjoying using my brain in different ways, and I’m intrigued to learn how relaxing it can be. Until now I thought to really RELAX I needed to be watching Friends, or reading a Mhairi MacFarlane novel (excellent intelligent “chick lit” which is actually genuinely funny, even if the plot is more or less identical in each book). But I’m finding I can relax with my brain engaged. I am rediscovering the joy of learning, which I think I lost a little after my Masters degree. Reading about quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity and the history of autism (Neurotribes, EXCELLENT book – a pamphlet summarising it should be required reading for everyone) has shown me that I can learn about things I thought I would never understand, and feel better for it. I’ve also read a couple of Jon Ronson books, on public shaming and psychopaths, which are certainly lighter and easier to read, but which I wouldn’t have considered standard ‘relaxation’ fare either. As I found during my degree, placing myself in a wider history or broader story is comforting. Even though looking back on mistakes and seeing them reflected in today’s world is sometimes discouraging, you can take heart from the changes that did eventually come. Paying attention to new facts and history makes it obvious how ignorant many people still are about things they really shouldn’t be ignorant about, but seeing how change eventually arrived in many areas is also heartening. I’m talking here about advances in science in many arenas, physics, but also psychology, as documented in Neurotribes and Ronson’s The Psychopath Test. Neurotribes really deserves its own post as its messages are so important, its approach to people who are “different” and how we respond to and interact with those people. I’d like to send a copy of that and The Psychopath Test to Trump (I’m fairly certain he’d come out as a psychopath) but I don’t suppose he’d be interested in learning anything new outside his own self-centred, self-interested, stupid view of life. I am grateful that I do not think like him. What a prison it must be.

Brexit: new racist incidents and Jo Cox. How will history remember this?

I wasn’t going to write a blog about the referendum, as I didn’t feel like I had anything to say that somebody hadn’t already said. However, yesterday I saw a collection of tweets detailing racist attacks across the country since Friday morning, and I now feel like everyone needs to speak out to condemn these acts – even if it’s just in a small way.

I know that racist attacks are not exactly uncommon in this country. I did a Master’s dissertation on second generation Chinese migrants in Britain, and one of the focuses was on racism. So I know people still encounter lazy racist stereotyping and hurtful abuse. What makes these new reports different is not only the number reported in different parts of the country over a short space of time but that the abusers clearly feel the referendum result has legitimated their disgusting opinions. I am not branding all Leave voters with this, I know it is a very small minority and many people voted Leave for what they feel to be sound economic reasons. I don’t understand what EU regulations have done to some British fishermen but I was in Whitstable yesterday and there were several signs out thanking people who had voted Leave. I sincerely hope that if the result does go ahead that they get what they wanted.

Of course, the Leave voters who are now hounding migrants of all kinds across this country are not going to get what they want. They seem to be under an illusion that voting to leave the EU means all migrants in this country need to ‘get out’ – and quickly, as one man was apparently calling for ‘all foreigners to get out in the next 48 hours’. The total lack of information about what would actually happen if we voted to Leave is now being shown in all its alarming starkness. We have no fucking idea, and it doesn’t seem like anybody else does either. Some people were apparently surprised at the sudden drop in the value of the pound, despite it being forecast many times before the referendum. Presumably people will be even more surprised when businesses start to move elsewhere creating job losses, when even those who are still legally allowed to stay choose to leave to get away from racist abuse- with subsequent issues in NHS staffing for a bloody start; when the universities suffer even further as their EU funding and grants get pulled, and so on. Here is the change people so desperately thought they wanted, but for now at least it will be change for the worse.

I understand that many people in the UK feel powerless and wretched with our current state of affairs. While economic hardship has been blamed on immigrants for decades if not centuries, I still blame the media and politicians for exacerbating this belief and somehow making people believe that voting Leave would bring about some magical change in how Britain works. The people here who do not tick the ‘White British’ box on a census are not going to immediately leave, or even slowly leave, or quite probably leave at all (as one Vote Leave authority said at the weekend, that migrant numbers will likely stay the same). And thank fuck they aren’t going to leave. My (Canadian) partner said at the weekend, what would happen in this country if all the immigrants went on strike tomorrow? The hospitals would be screwed, universities would lose half their staff, I would lose two of my own expert colleagues, building, plumbing, and electrical work would decrease, etc. etc. I am tired of being lied to by these politicians, and the media’s ill-considered coverage of their plots and schemes. I believe politicians from all sides need to make announcements now, to explain exactly what voting Leave has meant, and to explain that it will not mean the immediate exodus of our non-white British residents. Brexit campaigners are already saying that the ‘facts’ they have been peddling for months are total horseshit, which many of us knew already having done any research at all – but if you’re desperate and you want change then statistics sound so beautifully plausible. Quite apart from telling us exactly how much money we’re going to save (certainly not £350 million) and what will happen to immigration, something needs to be said immediately to protect people from this awful racist bullying, driven by a belief that this racism has been validated by the election result.

All the time that I was reading these stories, of a Muslim girl being cornered by a group of men in Birmingham while they shouted ‘Out! Out! Out!’, notes put through the letterboxes of Polish residents in Huntingdon mere hours after the result, and so many more, my mind kept returning to Jo Cox. She was in many ways the first victim, and I am devastated by how quickly her death has been forgotten. Farage actually had the unreal shittiness to say that they had won ‘without a single bullet being fired.’ And this was hardly reported as the utter arseholery it was; I only saw it on Sunday night catching up on The Last Leg. I think many of us had a rather distasteful and unspoken hope that her death would cause a rise in awareness, that some people voting Leave would realise what side they were on, a side with someone who was undoubtedly ill but who was also spurred on by the Vote Leave campaign’s repulsive rhetoric to murder someone for wanting to promote equality. Although  I decided not to make studying history a career, years of examining events from the viewpoint of the future makes me wonder how people will study this period in fifty or a hundred years. What will happen? Will these racist incidents increase? Will we get a more right-wing government bent on removing the rights of those who were not born here, and doing even more to stop more people coming here to live and work and share their knowledge? It is already extremely difficult to get leave to stay here, how much worse will it get? Will those who find this all a hideous nightmare leave, removing some bastions of decency and normalcy? Will people looking back see the murder of an MP in broad daylight – and the swift amnesia that followed it in the minds of some – as the beginning of the country’s downfall?

I have read elsewhere a comparison to 1930’s Germany, which I’m glad and not glad someone else made – I thought I was being melodramatic so I’m glad I wasn’t the first, but I’m not glad others share my opinion of how frightening all this is. I haven’t studied the social history of the Nazis, so I don’t know exactly how many people were against Hitler from the beginning. But being in this country while we are slowly dragged to the right makes me think of all those who were sitting in Germany nearly a hundred years ago, with this sick feeling of dread in their stomachs at what they were seeing.

People think London would be a safe place for migrants still, being as it is such a multicultural and inclusive city. Yet there have been reports of racist incidents here too. I am apprehensive, hoping that I don’t see anyone being abused, because I would hope against all hope that I would be one of the ones to step in and stop it. But I know it isn’t as easy as proclaiming ‘YES I WILL DEFEND YOU ALL’. I had an incidence of this just recently. I was on a train with my partner, and we were stopped at a station. A man was standing in the doorway looking out at the platform. He started speaking to somebody we couldn’t see: ‘What are you doing spotting trains? Why don’t you go and do something real with your life? Get a girlfriend! Became a computer whiz! Go to the gym! You’re too young for this! It’s just sad!’ I wanted desperately to say something but the man speaking was several inches taller than me and about twice my body weight. I was frightened of what he would say to me or my partner if we got involved. He was radiating aggression. But I felt so bad for the boy, especially when we pulled out of the station and we saw him, standing pale and sheepish with his camera phone. I regret not putting my head out and saying, ‘Don’t worry, you’re not hurting anybody, so you just carry on doing exactly what you like. We need more people with passions like you, who follow their interests against the grain. And I know that just because you enjoy trainspotting doesn’t mean you don’t have a girlfriend, or that you’re gifted with a computer, or that you do exercise. There are so many sides to all of us and you don’t need to hide them.’

I wish that the people spouting this frightened abuse at people they don’t know could see beyond something as accidental as skin colour or place of birth. If they got talking to all these ‘vermin’, wouldn’t they find that they share some interests? Most of us can find some side of ourselves that matches with others, and sometimes you have several sides that match and you get on like a house on fire. Or even hardly any match at all and you still get on like crazy because you love each other’s differences. I am a daughter and a sister and an aunt and a partner, an amateur historical anthropologist and an even more amateur dancer. I am a part-time seamstress and an increasingly part-time Formula One enthusiast. I am getting into cloud watching and, aged 28, have recently become re-addicted to Ribena. I have studied for five years at SOAS, part of the University of London, and there of all places we embrace all sides of people and focus on learning about others (it is, I believe I’m right in saying, the only university in Britain that doesn’t study the country it is sitting in). I am desperately afraid that it will now face closure, as getting enough funding there was already a tricky question. It would be devastating to lose an institution that prides itself on debate and allowing people to be every side of themselves. I wish people would make more of an effort to embrace this way of thinking, rather than judging people so quickly and with so much anger. I know I am guilty of judging others quickly too, but I hope it doesn’t change my behaviour towards them too much, and I know that I would not abuse them pointlessly when they had done nothing to offend me or anybody else. And more than anything I wish that the leaders of the Leave campaign had not used the words and the ideas that they did to win this vote. ‘Take our country back’, always menacing and without any solid meaning (take it back where? Removing what?) now has an even more sinister edge after these reports of racism and people being told that the nation has voted for them, specifically, to get out. Little Polish girls at school were crying to their teachers, afraid that they were going to be deported. We need someone to stand up and eliminate all the confusion, tell these people that their behaviour is reprehensible and founded on lies, and that they must stop.

I don’t know what the future will bring us. I know most of us are still in denial, hoping desperately that some loophole will be found so that the referendum result will not go ahead. Perhaps it will, perhaps not. But I hope that this spread of hate and disunity stops before it goes any further. Jo Cox needs to be remembered for all the sides of her legacy. The sides of her that I am sure are most immediately missed are her identities as a mother and a partner and a friend. But she also needs to be remembered as a campaigner, a passionate MP, and as a murder victim – and, I hope, not remembered for being only the first victim in the beginning of an onslaught of violence. I am astonished and saddened that such a unique event as the death of an MP for political reasons has been explained and swept away as the result of ‘mental illness’ – a catch all term which I am not saying wasn’t a part of her death. But I do believe like her husband that it was not the only reason, that it was not random, that it was in some way a result of the viciousness of the Brexit campaign.

The saddest and most infuriating thing about our whole situation is that it was all lies. I feel desperately sorry for the people who voted to Leave, believing in these ridiculous claims. But I feel even more sorry for the people who are now being attacked as a result of people’s feeling of ‘triumph’ in this result. Let us hope that things do not continue on this trajectory, and that history will not remember this summer as the beginning of a slide into hate, terror, and persecution.