Wednesday, February 17, 2016
I point to number 40 on the large notice board before me and give a hopeful smile to the white-coated woman at the reception desk. Numbers are the only symbols recognisable to me in a vast sea of Chinese characters. Forty yuan,** I’ve been told, is the price of a one hour massage. The receptionist doesn’t smile back; instead she looks bewildered, so I point to the 40 again, but this does nothing to allay her bewilderment. One of the two people receiving a massage in the room looks up at me, curious. His masseuse says something to the receptionist and the two women confer briefly while casting sidelong glances at me. When they nod their heads in apparent agreement, the receptionist says something to me, but I know not what.
Intuition tells me that I’ve been asked to wait so I take a seat and observe the scene in this somewhat dilapidated room. The receptionist is now engrossed in her smart phone. One of the masseuses is blind; he works with the sleeves of his white coat rolled tightly to the elbows and is moving slowly down the spine of his client, kneading and pressing with his thumbs and the heel of his palm. The client is fully dressed, minus his shoes, and a pillow case is placed over the area the masseuse is working on. He works through the layers, moving adroitly down the spine in slow repetitive motions. The other masseuse says a few words to her client and the woman turns over, face upward. Silence prevails once again as the foreground to the roar of traffic just beyond the double-glazed patio doors leading from the reception area into the street.
I’ve come at the busiest time, when rush hour commuters vacate their place in the race to get home and drop in for a massage. This is my first trip to China and my first experience of a Chinese massage. In the weeks to come, when I frequently return here, I notice that clients appear to be working people or students of both sexes who call in as a matter of routine. Some ask for a masseuse by name, while others accept whoever is free. From what I can see, this is not an elite service on offer to those who can afford the rate; it is a common treatment option available to whoever, whenever.
The silence is broken when a door at the back of the room is pushed open and another white-coated masseuse leans in. Her gaze immediately comes to rest on me. A few words are said and I am led off into a backroom for my treatment, whatever that might be. She closes the door and when we are facing each other under the glare of a fluorescent bulb that fizzes occasionally, she inquires why I have come, or so I presume. In all likelihood she is asking me what treatment I want and whether I have any injuries, important questions that I have no means of understanding or responding to. It’s hopeless. I smile benignly and throw my hands up in a gesture of incomprehension. We both sigh and my masseuse indicates that I am to lie on the narrow bed, face down, with my back exposed. While I am arranging myself thus she turns her attention to an array of what look like glass yoghourt pots, not unlike the Danone ones I used to buy when I lived in Spain. Then it clicks; she is going to give me a “cupping” treatment. I’ve heard about this... Gwyneth Paltrow and other celebrities extol its virtues, so I’m curious to see what will happen.
Each glass cup is placed on the skin and some deft manoeuvre is performed with a flame that issues forth from an electronic firelighter so that a vacuum is created, sealing the cup to my back. As I’m lying face down, I can’t observe the procedure but what I do feel is suction, increasing suction from each glass cup as the vacuum is created. When the masseuse has finished, there are about fifteen to twenty cups on my back that clink when I breathe deeply. She leaves the room and I lie quietly experiencing the strange sensation, which must be similar to that felt by patients in the 19th century when leaches were used to treat them.
Once the cups are removed I’m left with an impressive array of maroon-coloured circles all over my back and on the tops of my arms. I can hardly wait to return to my room to inspect the outcome in more detail. Apparently, the darker the circles are, the greater the need for cupping. After looking in my mirror I do a search on the internet to find out what possible benefits I could expect from the procedure. Cupping, I learn, is believed to help draw out toxins and stimulate circulation throughout the body. It’s also used for muscle tension, pain, allergies, anxiety and fevers, as well as an array of other common conditions.
In the weeks following the treatment I notice no significant improvements in my day-to-day functioning, possibly because I don’t suffer from any of the conditions that cupping is alleged to be beneficial for. Nevertheless, I keep an open mind, hoping that, at a very subtle level, cupping might be good for me.
When I return for a massage to the same place, this time I make it clear what I want; I point to the 40, point to my back and mime the act of giving a massage. Presently, I am guided out of the reception area, up a pitch black stairwell to the main room, where there are two other clients. One is a teenager, who is being “walked on” by her masseuse and the other looks like a middle-aged businessman, but he probably isn’t. Wu, my masseuse, is a thirtyish elfin-framed man whose delicate looking hands belie their strength. Very quickly, he introduces me to the landscape of my own body. All it requires is for him to lightly rest his touch on me to open my awareness to the vast swathes of tension which lock the muscles of my back and legs into rigidity. I’d anticipated knots of tension, but not this.
As the weeks go by, a connection with Wu develops as he tries to communicate to me some of what he is reading from my body. He even gets a voice-activated translation App on his mobile. When I wince under his touch, he consults the App and an electronic voice utters the words: “PAIN. You feel pain” into my ear. I nod encouragingly. One afternoon, close to the date I was due to leave China, Wu must have felt confident enough to get the electronic voice to chide me, “You need exercise. Don’t be [wait] too long.” How could I retort that I was doing exercise, three hours a week of power walking? Instead, I prop myself up on my elbows, smile sheepishly and give Wu the thumbs up for being so tuned into me. I really didn’t think that a thumbs-down message would be welcome to his well-intentioned advice.
There is something quite delicious about participating in a fictitious version of your reality, about knowing one thing to be true and having to indicate the opposite because your options are severely curtailed (by your ability to mime). I doubt whether I’ll ever learn more than a few words of Mandarin, which is a real pity, but in the meantime I’ll enjoy the fun if I ever return to China, and I very much hope I will.
*I spent ten weeks in the autumn of 2015 living and working on Henan University campus in the city of Kaifeng.
**Forty yuan = about £4.00
Friday, January 15, 2016
About a dozen young men gather nightly in the old gardens of Henan University in central China to practise their kung fu skills. Overhead, thousands of bats skim and flutter in the deepening twilight, their twitters momentarily lost in the shouts and bellows of the martial arts practitioners below. This is my introduction to night life in the campus gardens. For the participants, this scene can hold little allure, but for me this is one of the memorable encounters I was fortunate to have on my first trip to China. On the long journey eastward from Ireland, I had hoped for difference, and I’d already found it on the first day. For me, bats and kung fu were a thrilling start to my ten-week stay in Kaifeng.
Daily and nightly, the gardens of the old campus hosted several fascinating activities. Sometimes there were up to 150 students of tai chi following their teacher’s every move; there were seniors whose badminton games must have started at dawn, judging by their enthusiasm and the glean of sweat on their foreheads when I passed them each morning at 7.30am on my way to class; not far from the pagoda were the singers, whose voice strengthening exercises didn’t seem to differ much from the kung fu fighters’ bellows and shouts; and then there were groups of up to thirty students who regularly gathered by the trees and on the basketball court to revise en masse for their next exam; further away, there were one or two lone students by the pond whose manic mutterings only ceased when they glanced down briefly at the text book to refresh their memory .
On most afternoons I spent a few moments at my hotel window watching up to half a dozen toddlers joyfully pursuing the cutest members of the large colony of feral cats that lived close to the car park. The cats tolerated the “fun” as long as they were given food, but when the treats finished, the cats vanished. As winter advanced and the temperature dipped to freezing, the toddlers’ movements became increasingly ungainly, being swaddled, as they were, in multiple layers of clothing, topped by a padded coat. Fun over, cats gone, the toddlers were rounded up and wheeled or carried away. Children, I quickly learned, are worshipped in China. I wonder if Freud was thinking of China when he wrote “His Majesty the Baby”.
And then there were the nightly fireworks. I couldn’t understand what the festivities were about when I first noticed these spectacular displays. I inquired of my students as to the occasion but they were puzzled that I was even asking the question. In the end I concluded that the Chinese had firework displays for apparently no other reason than because they could. After all, China is the cradle of gun powder.
Another mystery was the marchers. Every evening, at a few minutes before 8.00, I heard stomping feet and a series of shouts in unison, very close to the hotel. I heard the marchers clearly but couldn’t see them in the darkness from my window. In the final week I saw them, and they were not marchers. While I was sitting on a wall, waiting for them to pass, I heard a softly fluctuating tune arise from the gardens behind me. Through the hedge I glimpsed dancers. They were dressed in black flowing robes, moving gracefully in the gloom, blending their movements with the surrounding shadows. When the dancing finished, the group signalled the end with a series of shouts and stomping feet and then they dissipated under a moon hazy with the high level of pollution in the atmosphere.
In the third week of my trip I discovered power walking Chinese style. A couple of my teaching colleagues had mentioned that instead of joining a gym they had joined Chinese power walkers on the athletics track behind my hotel. I’d never power walked before and since my colleagues were so enthusiastic, I put on my trainers, slipped past the kung fu practice groups in the garden, and strolled over to the athletics field. Immediately, I was struck that the majority of people were in groups, some of which numbered up to fifty strong; this was power walking en masse. The few loners I could see dotted around the track appeared to be in the serious business of race walking - Olympic style.
For no other reason than proximity, I chose the group of around fifteen people that was closest to me on the track and, somewhat self consciously, slid into their ranks. It soon became apparent that I wasn’t as fit as the others. The pace and distance were a challenge for me but, by moving to the inside lane, I was able to keep up. On that first night I kept going mainly because my ego refused to let me drop out. But by the time we finished, I had determined to join the power walkers at least three times a week while I was in Kaifeng, and that was even before the endorphin rush.
I enjoyed the power walking partly because of the wonderful Chinese “get up and go” music the “leader” blasted from a speaker attached to her belt. There was no mistaking that this woman with the music was the leader. She was in the front line, flanked by her “lieutenants “, and she set the pace. Those of us behind followed the red blinking light of her speaker, which moved slightly from side to side in the darkness, in tune with her gait. And her gait was unique; I had time to study how she moved, lap after lap, week after week. I noticed how her right arm swung left to right while her left arm moved forward and backward. Her right leg brought to mind a staircase, climbing up a staircase. For me, the overall effect of her arm movement and robust gait was inspiring. Yes, the energy of the group was crucial but I felt it was she who powered us around that track.
There were other, bigger groups than ours, but we were the fastest. Coming up behind another (slower) group, our leader would raise her arm and point leftwards to signal that we were to cut across the field diametrically and rejoin the track on the other side. By then our bodies had settled into the rhythm of the pace, we’d reached “cruising speed”, when less effort was needed to keep up. The music urged us on, but in the silences between one song and the next, the sound of our footsteps marked a tempo of its own. The hour we spent on the track nearly always flew by, and when we entered the home straight in tune with the final chords of “I like to move it, move it. You like to... move it” darkness had completely surrounded us.
Now that I’m home, I miss the camaraderie of the power walkers, with their cheerful banter each time one or the other felt brave enough to test their English with me. Exercising in a gym, under the glare of fluorescent lights, with pop videos for motivation is not the same. I hope I will return to Kaifeng, to the power walkers, and if I’m brave enough there is always the dancers. But that option requires true courage from me.
Saturday, April 4, 2015
A pearlised white 4 wheel drive pulls over to the corner shop in front of me. With the engine still running, the driver sounds the horn once. Almost immediately a lean nut-brown man steps across the threshold of the shop and hastens over to the vehicle. After a few words, accompanied by several leisurely gestures of the hand, the driver withdraws his head into the interior of the vehicle where he adjusts the folds of his keffiyh. The shopkeeper has nodded his assent, swivelled and vanished into the gloom of his premises.
Barely a couple of minutes later he appears with a small bundle of provisions and is ready to hand it over when the driver gestures with his thumb for the purchases to be loaded into the boot. Task completed, the same hand emerges once more into the sunlight, proffering notes held between thumb and digit finger, which are accepted. Whatever the shopkeeper is saying in response for payment is interrupted by a single gesture from the hand, unmistakeably communicating that change is not required. The 4WD then slides away, leaving a momentary cloud of dust behind.
All over Doha this is a common scenario. Wealthy Qataris are served seated at the wheel of their titanic-size vehicles by Indian, Pakistani or Philippine traders. The drivers do not enter the premises and indeed the presence of these rather regal figures in the cramped aisles of a neighbourhood shop would be something of an anomaly. The brilliantly white starched thobe and the keffiyh, with its “crown” to hold it secure, is the attire of choice for the vast majority of Qatari men, and for women it is the burka. These traditional garments are worn not just on formal occasions, as I had supposed prior to my arrival in Doha, but daily. Thus dressed they convey something of the elegance and dignity for which Arabs are renowned the world over. Dress is also a statement of their place at the pinnacle of the highly stratified society which is contemporary Qatar.
Such is the level of immigration in Qatar that the number of immigrants exceeds the native-born population by around 3 – 1 in a society with approximately two million inhabitants. The country is developing rapidly and has had to import labour for almost every sector of the economy, particularly construction, retail, wholesale, transport, security and domestic service. Without these workers the country would grind to a halt. Yet reports and rumours abound of the exploitation, outrageously low wages* and Victorian living conditions endured by immigrants from the most poverty stricken countries. Qatar, it would seem, is not generous with its “guest workers”.
As a foreigner temporarily living in Doha, I belonged to the majority community in a society populated with foreigners. I didn’t “stand out” as newcomers to new cultures often do and neither did I have to struggle over the hurdles of a new language since English is the lingua franca in Qatar. English is spoken widely and apparently by almost everyone. However, Arabic is the first language and Islam is the dominant religion. There are over 1,200 mosques in the country, many of them recent constructions and very much state of the art. A single glance at the skyline of Doha indicates how highly architectural creativity is valued. Another of the architectural achievements in modern day Qatar is the Souk Waqif market in Doha. It was constructed ten years ago on the site of the original souk and built to resemble a traditional Arabic market place with cobblestoned streets and narrow alleyways. It is here that spices, perfumes, jewellery, rugs, shisha pipes, burkas and much more is sold.
On one of my first visits I sought out the falconry souk, located away from where the majority of animals and birds are sold. For centuries falconry has been an intrinsic part of life for Gulf Arabs and there are about a dozen premises which trade in these birds of prey. Hooded and tethered in the glare of fluorescent lighting, the falcons sit patiently on their perches in a sand pit. While one of the falcons dissects a piece of chicken for its supper the trader tells me that these birds were captured in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Kazakhstan, among other countries. They have not yet been trained; that is the task of the buyer, who will pay around £5,000 for a falcon. Later I see a father and son bearing one of the falcons on a gauntlet in the direction of the nearby Souk Waqif Falcon Hospital, to get it checked out, they say.
Dozens of women in burkas, some with the niqab covering their face, stroll through the alleyways and market stalls of the souk. Often a Philippine housemaid accompanying them is charged with the task of either carrying the youngest child in the family or holding a toddler’s hand. Further behind, an ancient Indian or Nepalese porter navigates a wheelbarrow loaded with the family’s purchases through the crowds.
What I don’t see amongst the throngs in the souk are African or Indian workers, the men who spend their days labouring on the hundreds of construction sites in Doha. I consciously began to look for them after noticing khaki clad police or security guards posted at the various entrances to the souk, preventing men with certain profiles from passing. A Nigerian construction site worker tells me he has never attempted to enter the souk. He goes on to say that when he or one of his workmates boards a bus in the city some passengers cover their mouth and nose. I find this hard to believe and wonder whether this is an isolated incident. On the one occasion when I travel by bus with him, a Philippine woman on the seat to my right covers the lower part of her face; she keeps it covered until she alights. As we pull away I look up through the window at one of the many billboards in Doha carrying the promotion slogan: Qatar: We are proud of you.
Many of the immigrants in Qatar come from other Arab nations and a significant number of them are refugees from Syria, Palestine and Libya. One evening a Syrian student mentions how popular camel racing is in Gulf Arab states. He tells me that mini robots with a riding crop are mounted on the camels and controlled by remote devices the owners operate. The robots were invented in Qatar in response to the number of casualties among children (mainly from India and Pakistan) who were trained as jockeys.
Three weeks later I arrive at a camel race track at the start of the exercise period. Very few people are around because of the dust storm which has been blowing for two days now. About thirty camels are led out; five carry jockeys and the remainder have robots mounted on them. The terrain is sand and at first the camels walk briskly but soon they are in a fast trot. At the sound of a car horn, the herd breaks into a gallop, which appears ungainly to my inexpert eyes. A number of 4 Wheel Drives keep pace with the camels and from the passenger seats the owners or trainers control the robots and their riding crops. The dusty hazy atmosphere adds to the dreamlike quality of the image.
Our travel memories are not always accompanied by narrative, images, a kaleidoscope of images suffices. Plastic shopping bags floating on the shoreline of the Arabian Gulf; burka-clad women sitting on deckchairs in the shallows of low tide; a billboard warning: “Do Not Slaughter Animals outside the Slaughterhouse”; white horses pacing a city centre corral at midnight; wooden dhow vessels moored alongside some of the most powerful speed boats in the world; a laughing dove hunched up against the dusty windowpane of my apartment in a sandstorm, the endless traffic jams blocking the roads of Doha; and gazing at the breathtaking glamour of the Doha skyline illuminated at midnight as my flight heads northward and homeward.
*A construction worker spoke of a monthly salary of £160.00 or around §235 USD.
Wednesday, October 8, 2014
Last week the BBC broadcast a documentary to mark twenty years since the IRA declared a ceasefire which led to the end of the conflict in the north of Ireland. As I watched the BBC images of cheering republicans waving tricolours in west Belfast and celebrating the declaration on 31 August 1994 I sensed an emptiness inside me. In retrospect the hopes and optimism of that day seem somewhat naive and unfounded. We believed we were celebrating a breakthrough but I wondered what we expected it would lead to. Did we expect that two decades later there would still be ongoing political tension in the north of Ireland and that the union with Britain would remain as secure as ever?
The documentary, Who Won the War? put this very question to a number of leading Irish and British politicians and political activists. Film maker and journalist, Peter Taylor, elicited responses from all sides before he concluded by giving his own answer to the question. Taylor has followed developments in the conflict for many years in his documentaries and writings. In this latest production he spoke at times with a depth of feeling and engagement with the topic.
Standing in front of a multi-storey loyalist bonfire “decorated” with Sinn Féin election posters and tricolours, Taylor comments, “In some parts normality seems like a veneer to hide the powerful undercurrents of bitterness and resentment”. Fierce opposition to the removal of the Union flag from Belfast city council and protests by the Orange Order over the so called right to march are expressions of this bitterness and resentment. But perhaps the most visible and enduring sign that real peace has not yet come about are the four or five metre high walls dividing Catholic and Protestant communities in Belfast.
Speaking from a loyalist viewpoint, Billy Hutchinson of the Progressive Unionist Party argued that his community feels alienated from the state. He pointed out that working class loyalists feel they haven’t gained anything from the peace process, there is still deprivation, poverty and educational under achievement. Pressed on the issue of what loyalist violence achieved, if anything, Hutchinson replied that it had “prevented a United Ireland”.
If Hutchinson was satisfied with this achievement, he didn’t look it. Preventing a United Ireland has not raised living standards for either community and dissatisfaction with the current political situation is also apparent among working class Catholics. Former IRA prisoner Gerard Hodgins tells Taylor “We set out to be revolutionaries and overthrow the state and ended up being caretakers of the state... 3,000 plus people is a hell of a price to pay to become part of the state you were trying to overthrow.” Hodgin’s reply to the question as to who won the war, is blunt, “the British”.
The deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin, is more sanguine as to the outcome of the conflict. The inequalities suffered by nationalists are in the past and “people are no longer being treated as second class citizens.” While it is true that there is equality of political representation in the Stormont government, there are still profound differences with regards to the levels of deprivation. Statistics indicate that poverty tends to be more concentrated in Catholic working class areas than Protestant.* People living in these areas suffer doubly, religious and class discrimination.
Perhaps the most depressing image in the documentary was that of Sean McKinley. McKinley featured in a 1970s documentary as a young boy with the initials “IRA” tattooed on his knuckles. Back then he announced that when he grew up he would fight and die for his country. McKinley spent time in prison for killing a British soldier and now, in his early fifties, looking weary under the weight of his years, he tells Peter Taylor, “I know a lot of people who thought they were fighting and dying for their country but it never worked out that way... We’ll get there ... I have faith in Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.”
Gerry Adams is a now member of Dáil Éireann and president of what is currently the largest party on the island of Ireland, Sinn Féin. The party has come a long way since the early days of the conflict and Adams clearly believes that it can go further still. When asked “Who won the war?” he replies that the struggle isn’t over.
Overall, the portrayal of nationalists in “Who Won the War” is forward looking and optimistic and at one point Peter Taylor remarks, “Coming back to Belfast, I really get the sense that Nationalists and Republicans are comfortable in their own skins” or “confident in their Irishness and republicanism,” as Martin McGuinness puts it.
In answer to his own question, who really won the war, Peter Taylor states that the winners are the British and the Unionists because the union with Britain is still safe. However, he adds a caveat, “I wouldn’t be surprised if in the long years ahead a United Ireland did emerge.” Listening to him, I wondered if at some level on that afternoon of August 1994, this was what we were cheering about, a long term goal of freedom from colonial status or was it something more immediate, like equality. And this, I suppose is what the documentary brings into focus, not who won the war but what the war was about. If it was about equality, then Republicans have triumphed and if it was about ensuring a united Ireland did not come about then Unionists have won. In the end, it appears to depend on which story each side wants to tell themselves.
Friday, June 6, 2014
And did you get what
you wanted from this life even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
(Raymond Carver, 1938-1988)
On a recent stay at Gaia House Buddhist Retreat Centre*, one of the teachers read out this poem, written while the author was terminally ill. The question he poses remained with me for much of the retreat, for it is one which surely touches on our deepest fear that we might be squandering this precious life. Pause now to focus on the image the first two lines evoke and the unmistakeable day of reckoning comes to mind. On that day our answer, whatever it is, will be final; there will be no second opportunity, no prospect of returning to relive a life that has come and gone. If, unlike the persona in Raymond Carver’s poem, we have not loved or been loved, what then?
Posing a question of this magnitude retrospectively grants it a solemnity that is in accordance with the gravity of the subject. “And did you get what you wanted from this life?” goes far beyond day to day (ego) concerns of possessions and career, rather, it is about living wisely, while we still have time to do so. Could there be any more important question than that which asks whether we are spending our time on this earth wisely?To live thus is to lead a worthwhile life, and the point of departure has to be how we conduct our relations with other beings on the same arduous journey as ourselves. Integrity, honesty and compassion are some of the virtues that, to a greater or lesser extent, comprise the fabric of how we relate each other. If they are lacking, our hearts weigh heavy with their absence; the ache, the persistent niggle serving as a reminder that we have lost something fundamental to the way we could be living out our lives.
Seeking out a role model, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, people whose lives have been built on the foundation of these virtues, may not be of much help. Such is their greatness that we often fall into despair about our own capabilities. Being realistic, perhaps we have to acknowledge that the most we can aim for is to show more kindness to ourselves and each other in our everyday lives. This is a real possibility and one that would make life less arduous for us and those we interact with. Toward the end of his life, Aldous Huxley, writer and Buddhist scholar, touched on this theme when he confessed, “It's a little embarrassing that after 45 years of research and study, the best advice I can give people is to be a little kinder to each other.”
Kindness draws us out of that state of self absorption which allows our life to bypass us. Opportunities arise every day to live with kindness and they enable us to step back from whatever concerns have hijacked our mind and treasure the opportunity of this moment to make a connection, to feel alive. It is not just our fellow beings, but the Earth too which is generous in affording us opportunities to remind us of this. Midnight on moon-blanched pasture land and the cry of an owl fluttering on the night breeze opens the heart to beauty and gratitude floods in. The furious chirping of an angry blackbird, roused by the sight of a cat prowling in the proximity of her nest commands our attention and we snap out of whatever thoughts were preoccupying us and connect to our surroundings.
Our lifespan on this earth elapses in a micro second. We are less than the blink of an eye in the history of this planet and yet this blink is our sole opportunity to make something worthwhile out of the years that pass between our birth and our death. A possible starting point is to pose the question Raymond Carver has formulated and set about seeking an answer which we, as individuals, find satisfying. I wish you luck.
Sunday, March 23, 2014
On the morning of Friday 14 March I experienced one of those moments that will never fade from my memory. Cup of tea in hand, I was just about to settle into the armchair next to the radio when a sudden change in tone in the Radio 4 news presenter’s voice caught my attention. She paused momentarily and then solemnly announced the death of Mr Tony Benn. A wave of blunt pain rose up through me. Putting the tea aside I breathed deeply and the pain shifted into the deadweight that is grief.
Unlike Mr Benn’s bereaved family and friends, I can’t say that the loss of this gifted politician and inspirational leader is personal, but it feels like that. It feels as if part of me has been torn away, leaving behind an emptiness that has persisted since the news of his death. It is true that we have lost a unique and historical figure, a “national treasure” as he was called in his latter days, but it is largely nostalgia which explains my reaction. His importance for me dates back to my student days, when politics and protest formed as much a part of my education as my studies did. Again and again Tony Benn gave voice, as eloquently and passionately as only he knew how*, to the socialist politics I believed in. His words brought clarity and conviction to the muddled left-wing discourse in my head, and he became central to many of the causes I supported.
That was the era of the Sandinista revolution and the spread of Euro communism, when it made sense to hitch-hike to Greenham Common and show solidarity with the women camping there in protest against the Cruise missiles base. It made sense to walk in the People’s March for Jobs, to join the campaign in favour of the miners’ strike and to have fun at the Marx with Sparks festival in London. Crucially, the music scene caught the mood of the times and brought the language of class politics right into mainstream media. Without bands like the Jam and the Clash the struggle might have been grimmer; it wasn’t. Their energy infused the potential for change with a momentum that I still recall thirty years later.
The campaigns and the music were all very well, but without credible and articulate leaders with access to power the Left risked losing focus. For many of us Tony Benn provided that focus. Of course, as the “figurehead of the Lunatic Left,” as he was labelled by the tabloid press, Mr Benn was repeatedly ridiculed and vilified. This was a man who was elected to the UK parliament no less than 15 times, who formed part of the Labour cabinet and very narrowly missed being elected leader of the party in 1981.** His voters, constituents and a significant section of the Labour Party certainly didn’t share the tabloid view; they had sufficient trust in the man to elect him into positions of power. By a tiny percentage, Tony Benn failed to become Labour leader in 1981 and possibly prime minister thereafter. The opportunity came and was lost.
Those years, when socialist politics were alive and vibrant, have been eclipsed by the rise of Thatcherism, the demise of trade union influence and the growth of a society in which greed is exalted and encouraged. This is the UK today. It wasn’t always like this and for those of us who recall a time when politics and policies were different, our memories, and our lives too, are that little bit lonelier now that Tony Benn has gone.
TONY BENN 1925 – 2014
* David Dimbleby describes Tony Benn’s oratory style as “mesmerising.” (BBC Radio 4 5.00 news, Friday 14 March)
** Denis Healey won the contest by 1 vote (Healey 50.4 / Benn 49.6)
Monday, March 17, 2014
One Sunday afternoon many years ago, a friend drove me over to south Belfast, where there is a supermarket specialising in Asian produce. He was confident that the trip would be an antidote to my disgruntlement with the uninspiring choice and mediocre quality of fresh fruit and vegetables in my area. As we were searching for a parking space in the terraced street closest to the supermarket I noticed scores of Chinese couples and families wheeling heavily burdened trolleys through the mizzle in the direction of their cars. Until that afternoon I’d only been vaguely aware that Chinese people lived in Belfast. Apparently, there were over 7,000* living in Northern Ireland at that time, which made them the largest non-European ethnic group within the wider population. My friend and I wondered where they all lived, what jobs they did and why they had come to Belfast, a city from which so many of the local population had fled during “The Troubles”. Where did the Chinese fit in here; were they anomalies in a terrain demarcated into orange and green, or red, white and blue? Were they “invisible people” I wondered, a shadow community in a population of nationalists and unionists?
More recently I’ve come to re-examine these questions. My friendship with a young Chinese couple, who have come to Belfast since the demise of the conflict, has given me an insight into how they perceive the challenges of building a life for themselves here. Far from being “shadows”, their forthrightness and resilience has a freshness that contrasts with the general weariness that seems to have fallen upon much of the population, defeated by a war and straitjacketed by an economic recession.
Steven arrived in Belfast ten years ago from the north of China and his wife, Judy, finally joined him three years later. By that time Steven had acquired a partnership in a city centre restaurant, a business which has become stable and prosperous. Management of the business takes up much of his time, but Steven is also very much “hands on” in the kitchen. He is a master chef and twice he has won first prize in competitions at the Chinese New Year Festival.
For her part, Judy has made it a priority to learn English. She spent three years enrolled on a full-time course for international students at Queen’s University and is now working toward a degree in art and design. She is a gifted artist and wishes she could devote more time to developing her creativity. But time has been at a premium since two-year-old Michael was born and assignments are often completed after midnight. Still, she knows there will be more opportunities to study when Michael starts play school.
Judy has mixed feelings about her son’s future on this side of the world, “I worry about him, about what his life will be like here. He’s a kind and gentle child and it may not be easy to find kindness out on the street.” Last year, a bus driver refused to let Judy board with the pram. She was surprised and hurt when this happened because she could see there were only about half a dozen passengers and a sole pram on the bus, so there was plenty of room. That evening, a friend (also Chinese and also a mother) explained this was not uncommon and advised her not take it too personally, “and I can’t afford to, can I?” she adds with a shrug.
That incident occurred while Michael was still a baby. A few weeks ago, during lunch in one of the more exclusive stores in Belfast, Steven took his son over to look at the toys so that Judy and I could chat. Five minutes later he returned, saying that he had been “scolded” for allowing Michael to run up and down the aisle. I caught Judy’s eye and she murmured, “I think it’s only Chinese children who are not allowed to run here”. At this point Michael dropped his toy car, so I picked it up and told him to be careful. “Be careful;” he mimicked my pronunciation perfectly with a heart-melting smile, mirrored by his mother, delighted that another new word has been added to her son’s lexicon of English.
From the outset has Steven impressed upon Judy how important it is to integrate here, to follow norms. He felt uncomfortable when she wandered around the city taking photos for her art and design course, perhaps drawing attention to herself; not keeping a low profile. Developing talent often involves taking risks with new endeavours. Whereas most Chinese students study management or business, Judy points out that in choosing art and design, “I was already way off the beaten track as far as Chinese immigrants are concerned.”
The couple have achieved much in the years that have passed since Steven’s arrival in Belfast with some savings and just a few words of English; the point of disembarkation for a new life. Now they live in a detached house, outside of which their respective cars are parked, a testament to the double shifts and frequent seven-day weeks Steven works. Back in China he’d heard that this is a country where hard work and effort equals results. It is precisely this, the opportunity to make a success of life which Steven most values about this society.
He denies it is work which is causing him to look so weary. In his own words he tells me about an incident that occurred a few days ago in the restaurant. Two drunks entered and said some “dirty sentences” to the young Chinese waitress. One of them punched Steven’s brother when he intervened on her behalf. CCTV captured the scene and a local taxi driver followed the pair when they left; it was thanks to his help the police were able to initiate a criminal investigation. Neither Steven nor Judy is hopeful of a prosecution. Judy adds that they already spend too much time in their solicitor’s office and the outcomes are usually very disappointing because the cases are rarely taken seriously.
Drunks demanding free food or menacing staff are a persistent late-night hazard in the restaurant. On one occasion a couple of youths, high on drugs or alcohol, were behaving aggressively and Steven was endeavouring to persuade them to leave; just then a customer took a stand, a tall stand, for when he rose from his seat, he was about 6’7’’. He lifted the pair by the collar, one with each hand, and threw them into the street. “Chinese can’t do this because we would either be battered senseless or find ourselves in front of a court.”
Just recently Steven was stopped and questioned at the same police road block for five consecutive days. On the fifth day, he challenged the officer, pointing out that as a Chinese man he was being repeatedly singled out while other drivers were being waved on. Steven asked for the officer’s name and number and told him he would be taking the matter further. “But I can’t, can I? I’ve got a business to run. It’s like Judy says, we already spend too much time with our solicitor”.
Last year Steven went to the City airport to collect Judy, who was arriving from China. He’d barely walked into the foyer when he was “pounced” on by a pair of plain clothes border officials. They demanded to see his passport, and when Steven pointed out that he no reason to carry it because he’d only come to collect his wife the pair went on the offensive. At this point Steven turned the tables on the officials and insisted on seeing their ID. In the end it was only with great reluctance that they accepted his driving licence as valid ID. The irony is that Steven is a UK citizen with a UK passport. That his oriental features and faltering English make him an easy target is not an unfamiliar scenario for him.
Whereas the police are more likely to be “polite” now in their dealings with Chinese, this was not always the case. Steven recalled an occasion when six people left the restaurant after a lavish meal without paying. Staff called the police and Steven managed to catch up with one of the group in a nearby street. When the officer arrived on the scene she asked him if “all this fuss” was about “a tip”. The same police woman witnessed Steven being punched and responded by giving his assailant a private “talking to” and allowing him to run off.
Judy was quick to add that, in general, most people are friendly. “We really appreciate that because when discrimination happens, we remind ourselves that the majority accept and welcome us. Last year our neighbours spent two hours helping Steven dig his car out of the snow. That is something we will never forget.”
Before leaving Steven and Judy’s home, I asked if they were familiar with the 1970’s series Kung Fu. We watched a scene in which the “Chinaman” Kwai Chang Caine literally turns the tables on his aggressors. My friends laughed but added “That is not Belfast.” They are right, the setting isn’t Belfast but the attitudes Caine battles against perhaps resonate with many Chinese here.
*According to the Chinese Welfare Association, the figure has grown to 12,000 - 15,000.