Last weekend I went back to Manchester for a few days. Spending time back home is always a slightly disorientating experience. Both going to Manchester and coming back to Amsterdam, I’m confronted by just how different the two cities are. There are the obvious things like the language, the way people dress, and the architecture. And then there are the differences like never seeing homeless people in Amsterdam, but always seeing several on the streets of Manchester. It was also disorientating to wake up on Friday morning to see a map of the UK swathed in blue, when I had been hoping for a very different outcome. All weekend and for days afterwards I felt a sense of sadness and disbelief whenever I remembered that the Conservatives are still in power.
I feel sad too for all the people in Nepal who have lost their homes and loved ones. I work for a nature organisation doing communications, so I spend a lot of my time with one eye on the news. I see a lot that saddens me. Like the way that we continue to degrade the planet and its human and non-human life. I know this sense of sadness is useless in the long run. I try to find things to hold on to, things that give me hope. I hope that in some small way I am making a difference.
Last weekend most of my friends and family were talking about the election, and quite a few joked about leaving the country. Some suggested I should become a Dutch citizen. It’s not something I’ve ever had any intention of doing. I shouldn’t need to and doing so would feel like renouncing the place that will always be home to me. A change in passport won’t change the fact that I am British. I don’t really believe in the notion that the country I was born in is somehow better than any other country. I’m sure I would feel just as much a part of any other country, were I born there. Britain, and Manchester in particular, shaped me in ways I can’t really pinpoint, I have roots there – the comparison between family and tree seems apt.
I recently read an article on the Big Issue website by author Melissa Harrison and one part in particular has been playing over in my mind:
People get lost in time. We speak in eras – the Victorians, the Romans – and often the only individuals we do remember are the rulers, the wealthy or those deemed exceptional in some way. But in the kind of fiction I’m trying to write, everyone matters… and there is no one, dominant narrative that erases other views.
When I read those lines I thought of my grandma, who’s memoir of her childhood in 1930s Salford I’ve recently been typing up. It has been fascinating to read accounts by someone I know so well of a world that seems so different to my own. A world where housewives cleaned their doorsteps once a week, where there was no safety net to fall back on if you were out of work or ill, and where tasks that take a matter of minutes today, like cleaning your clothes, took days or even weeks. I knew these things already, but only in an abstract way. Reading my grandma’s stories of her childhood has made those facts real and vivid.
I’m glad that my grandma, who is now in her late 80s, has finally had the chance to write her story and the story of her parents – her father grew up in an orphanage after he was found wandering the streets of Manchester as a child, and her mother once worked in a cotton mill. I like Melissa Harrison’s idea that their stories are just as valuable as the stories of more prominent figures of that era and that somehow those stories of everyday life are never really lost.
In the article Harrison goes on to write:
I’m interested in the dignity of all our human triumphs and tragedies; I want to believe that even if our names are one day forgotten, our lives will still have counted. The stones added to a walker’s cairn, the grave marker, the hand print in cement – to me, these are ways of speaking across time, of saying: we passed this way. This person mattered. I was here.
I too want to believe that the sum of all human endeavour is worth more than a headline. That the people who “win” elections are no more or less important than the stranger who accidentally walks over wet concrete. I want to believe that the small moments of our lives have value. I want us all to go out into the land, or our local parks, and create cairns – to intervene somehow.
I still feel slightly lost in this fug of disorientation; of geographical, political and historic borders. As I try and work my way out of it, perhaps this blog post will act as a waymarker, one that will one day be lost in some digital grave but that for now states, I’m here.