This is an edited version of the speech I gave at the final event of my Welcome Blanket project, last night.
This evening is the moment for me to say farewell to the blanket. I am handing it over to A Thousand for a Thousand, an amazing local community-based charity. I understand it will be used to welcome and comfort a refugee family who are struggling to find a new home here in Brighton.
The Welcome Blanket has been a large part of my life for the last 10 months. I want to say a couple of things about that experience.
The blanket was made by many hands – everyone who contributed squares, everyone who donated money, everyone who sewed names, everyone who talked to their friends about it.
Thank you to all those people. It’s been a lovely experience. I’ve enjoyed seeing the variety of styles and bringing everything together. I’ve loved working with the fabric and taking care of each person’s contribution. I’ve made new friends.
But it’s also been an unsettling experience. I’ve been reading and learning about the reality of migration in the UK, and thinking about the meaning of the words on the blanket, as I worked on them.
One thing that has become clear to me is that living in the UK as a migrant is often a conditional existence.
People make their lives in temporary spaces that can be snatched away by one ‘if’ after another. If they renew the visa, if they accept the asylum application, if they believe we are really married, if we can raise the money for the fees and so on.
The verse on the blanket – which stands at the entrance to our city – is lovely. But I’ve noticed that the people who respond most positively to it are white people like me, who have indeed found that Brighton accepts us without asking us to justify ourselves.
Yet for many people in our community, there is a positive epidemic of asking, and the reality for them is nowhere near as welcoming as we may fondly believe it to be.
Many people have said to me that this blanket should be hanging in Brighton Museum or somewhere like that. I understand the sentiment. But I think having produced this beautiful object is not the thing that needs to be remembered and marked.
What would be worth putting in the museum would be a story about how the people of Brighton took action – at this time of crisis – to live up to their image of themselves. It’s all very well having these fine words, but what matters is how we act.
The Welcome Blanket project is above all a call to action. Action is required from all of us to help bring these words to life.
For most of 2017, I have been working on my Brighton Welcome Blanket project, a large scale, collaborative piece, which incorporates the verse carved on one of the Patcham Pylons at the entrance to Brighton:
Hail Guest. We ask not what thou art
If friend, we greet thee, hand & heart
If stranger, such no longer be
If foe, our love shall conquer thee
This verse appeals to progressive white Brightonians, like me, because it encapsulates something we feel is distinctive and characteristic about our city – its openness and acceptance of diversity, its willingness to provide sanctuary to those who don’t belong in the places they come from.
As I worked on this blanket, I photographed each crocheted word, sharing my progress on Facebook in order to encourage other people to take part by contributing their own textile squares. The slowness of working by hand with yarn means that there is time to develop an intimate relationship with a piece of work. I tried to reflect on the significance of each word and phrase as I went along.
For instance, when I had finished the word hand, I posted this on the Facebook group:
In Sophie NL Besse’s show, Borderline, there is a scene in which a young refugee is told, after travelling across Europe to Calais, that because his fingerprints had been taken in Italy, he must return there. His response is to take a lighter and try to burn away his fingerprints. For others, stranded in camps and sleeping rough across Europe and beyond, a photo of their hand sent to the grassroots Facebook group Phone Credit For Refugees brings in return the precious gift of a chance to talk with loved ones or summon help in an emergency. But this word is simply about a greeting, human to human, hand to hand.
As I read and learned more about the situation of refugees and migrants in Europe and the UK specifically, I began to feel differently about the verse. Two thoughts have crystallised for me, as the blanket reaches its final stage.
1. ‘We ask not’ is the key phrase
Not asking means starting from the basic assumption that all humans are equal, and equally worthy of respect. It is a risky stance – as explained in the verse. There’s always a chance that you are unknowingly welcoming a foe into your home. But it is the only way to maintain your own humanity.
To say in advance that you will extend a hand of friendship to every visitor, without first questioning their status or motives, means that you relinquish your power to pick and choose who may enter. It means you opt not to see people from outside as a resource to be exploited or as victims to be rescued.
On the other side of the coin, not being asked is an experience that many progressive white Brightonians like me take for granted. It feels great, to be accepted at your word. We want to celebrate that feeling and that freedom, and share it with everyone.
But unfortunately, it is a lie.
2. We ask all the time
The unpalatable truth is that the welcome we offer to people who turn up in Brighton, the UK or Europe is very far from the open acceptance suggested by the words on my blanket.
In reality, the experience of arriving in Europe or the UK is one of being asked repeatedly what your value is, and whether you can prove you meet the (arbitrary) standards we set for people to settle here.
We ask at the border, and we keep on asking. The UK’s hostile environment for “illegal” migrants is a system that is designed to bring the border into every aspect of day-to-day life.
We ask at hospital
From 23rd October 2017, hospitals and other providers of secondary health care will be legally obliged to ask people about their immigration status and to charge overseas visitors in advance for the treatment they need.
We ask at school
Schools carry out a pupil census every term. Campaigners revealed last year that since December 2015, the Home Office has had an arrangement in place to regularly request access to the data gathered for immigration purposes.
In September 2016, new questions about nationality and country of birth were added to the Schools Census. The purpose of gathering this data is nothing to do with ensuring adequate funding for schools or support for pupils with additional language needs. It is directly related to the hostile environment programme, as Against Borders for Children explain:
In 2015 then-Home Secretary Theresa May outlined proposals to be included in the Immigration Bill that would bring schools under the government’s agenda to create a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants. According to the BBC, those plans included schools withdrawing places offered to children of irregular migrant families and checking immigration status before accepting new pupils. After the then-Education Secretary Nicky Morgan expressed ‘profound concerns’, they reached a compromise, and the DfE agreed instead to collect nationality, COB and and expanded language data through schools “to improve [the DfE’s] understanding of the scale and impact of pupil migration on the education sector.” The new data collection is explicitly linked to the government’s policy to create a hostile environment for migrants, and is part of an attempt to make schools a proxy for immigration enforcement.
We ask at the letting agency
Since February 2016, private landlords have been required to check the immigration status of all adults they are letting property to. Landlords must check up every year and report tenants to the Home Office if they find they no longer have the required documents
Deeds not words
If you were not aware of this epidemic of asking, you are probably white, with a British-sounding name. Many of us will most likely never experience the impact of Theresa May’s hostile environment, but that doesn’t mean we can continue to assume we live in an accepting, welcoming country. We do not.
If we want to make our idea of ourselves a reality, we have to take action. Take a risk. Make a stand.
Here are some groups of people who are doing that. If you like the idea of the Welcome Blanket, you can help to make it less of a lie by joining and supporting them.
Thousand 4 1000
You can sponsor a square of the Welcome Blanket by making a donation to Thousand 4 1000, Brighton’s community response to enforced homelessness of forced migrants.
Prints and cards of the blanket are also on sale, with all profits going to Thousand 4 1000.
Docs not Cops
This campaign brings together healthcare providers and patients to resist the introduction of charging into the NHS. Download their toolkit and take action in your local area.
Against Borders for Children
Their September 2017 update has a list of clear actions you can take to disrupt the use of the school census to enforce immigration controls, whether you are a parent, teacher or anyone else.
The agenda of the meeting is long and complicated. The 54 voting members of the council will be making decisions that affect everyone in the city, but most citizens are unaware of the meeting taking place. Of those who are, I imagine most have not read the documents, or managed to grasp the essential issues. I’m a highly educated person, with a frankly abnormal interest in the workings of local government, and I think I will struggle to follow the proceedings in the meeting.
I had hoped to try and spell out the key issues in this post, but I am hampered by the fact that the amendments to the budget from the three political groups have not yet been published on the council website (as I write at 10am, six hours before the meeting begins). I don’t know if councillors have seen them, but I think it’s ridiculous that the public are denied access to the information we need to form an opinion, let alone have an influence.
Two of the parties have issued press releases about their amendments. The Labour group’s press release describes one effect of their amendments as being to “reverse cuts to social care”, exactly the same wording as is used by the Greens in proposing an increase in council tax by 4.75%.
However, none of the amendments mentioned by Labour actually touch the major cuts to adult social care that will take place if the budget goes through as proposed by the Policy and Resources Committee (where Labour and Conservative councillors combined to strip out the extra council tax rise suggested by the Greens).
I assume (though I can’t be sure until the amendments are officially published) that the cuts to social care they refer to are the proposals to reduce the budget for services to children with disabilities by £68,000 and divert £41,000 of school funding into this area. I agree that families with disabled children cannot afford to have their services cut, but I think it is misleading of Labour to present a change to less than 0.05% of the council’s budget as “reversing cuts to social care”.
The Conservative amendments, as described by them, make similarly minimal changes to the budget proposals. In common with Labour, they propose to reverse the cut to the respite care budget (though they identify this as amounting to £84,000, a figure I cannot find in the latest budget papers at all), to reverse the cut to community and voluntary sector grants, to retain the subsidy for Able and Willing and to cut funding to services for travellers.
Obviously, I don’t agree that respite care, community grants or supported employment should be cut. But I am horrified at the way the bulk of the job and service cuts in the proposed budget have been completely sidelined by the opposition parties.
The Green Party have not yet announced any amendments, other than to say that they will be proposing the 4.75% council tax increase again this afternoon.
This proposal, the only one that even comes close to addressing the core issues at stake, is unfortunately bound to be defeated at the council meeting.
For the non-obsessed citizen, all the arcane procedures, all the high drama of last minute amendments and surprise manoeuvres are impenetrable, boring and irrelevant. All the puff pieces about how heroic rescues have been made by this or that party are pretty distasteful.
For some of the citizens with learning disabilities who today can get friendly, helpful support with finding and keeping a job from fairly-paid, experienced and dedicated council staff, the issue is very simple. From April, that support will start to be withdrawn. Over the next few years, those staff will lose their jobs. Their knowledge, skill and experience will be lost to our community.
For some of the older citizens who today have the option of moving into residential care homes paid for from our common funds when they need to, the issue is very simple. From April, there will be fewer residential places available because there will be £1,150,000 less to pay for them.
For some of the people with learning disabilities and older people who today enjoy a sense of friendship and community at council-funded day centres, the issue is very simple. From April, their centres will be at risk of closure, their friendships will be disrupted and threatened.
For most people in the city, politics is not a game. Most people know – and the behaviour of our councillors over the last few months has demonstrated this rather dismally – that whatever politicians say, in the end they will sell you down the river if it brings them some glory.
I’m reading Virginia Woolf’s essay Three Guineas at the moment. I’m working on a collaborative banner for International Women’s Day, featuring a famous quote from that work – “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.”
Woolf talks about the choices facing educated women in the early 20th century, as the opportunity to participate in political and public life opened up for the first time. She reminds her readers that women have achieved great things despite (or perhaps because of) their lack of access to the structures of power and privilege designed by and for men.
She talks of “the four great teachers of the daughters of educated men – poverty, chastity, derision and freedom from unreal loyalties”. I apologise for quoting at great length, but I think this advice remains relevant and pertinent for anyone – local councillors, for example – who hopes to make a difference in this deeply dysfunctional society:
“By poverty is meant enough money to live upon. That is, you must earn enough to be independent of any other human being and buy that modicum of health, leisure, knowledge and so on that is needed for the full development of body and mind. But no more. Not a penny more.
By chastity is meant that when you have made enough to live on by your profession you must refuse to sell your brain for the sake of money. That is you must cease to practise your profession, or practise it for the sake of research and experiment; or, if you are an artist, for the sake of the art; or give the knowledge acquired professionally to those who need it for nothing […]
By derision – a bad word, but once again the English language is much in need of new words – is meant that you must refuse all methods of advertising merit, and hold that ridicule, obscurity and censure are preferable, for psychological reasons, to fame and praise. Directly badges, orders or degrees are offered you, fling them back in the giver’s face.
By freedom from unreal loyalties is meant that you must rid yourself of pride of nationality in the first place; also of religious pride, college pride, school pride, family pride, sex pride and those unreal loyalties that spring from them. Directly the seducers come with their seductions to bribe you into captivity, tear up the parchments; refuse to fill up the forms.”
Over the last month I’ve been spending my Sundays in various Hanover streets, sitting in a drawing of a living room, littering planets around town and dressing cars up as hills and ladybirds. It was lovely – have a look at this Facebook page, this note and (especially) this blog post to find out more about what we did.
Creating the open house made me think about…
I crocheted most of a ladybird costume for a parked car, and roped in friends and family to make the rest of it. It took about two months to make, bringing home to me very directly just how big the cars parked all over our streets are. Each ordinary car occupies around 5 square metres of land.
As well as making big things into small ones, another art work I contributed was a scale model of the solar system. The sun, represented by a balloon, was tied to the top of the open house. The planets, to scale, were ridiculously small and scattered. When our open house was in Scotland Street, the solar system extended as far as North Street towards the south, London Road towards the north-west, and West Drive to the east.
In this model, the Earth is a peppercorn. We are floating through space on a tiny fragment of rock. All the air and water on which life on this planet depends is held within a thin skin on the very surface.
London Road and West Drive sometimes seem to be worlds apart. Making this model reminded me that we all breathe the same air, we are all part of the same ecosystem.
Private property and public space
We didn’t ask permission to set up our open house in the street, nor to make temporary use of the parked cars that form part of the landscape around here.
We were respectful of people’s need to travel, and always removed our decorations from cars if they were needed. If people needed to drive through the streets where we were (a very rare occurrence), we made space for them to do so.
However, our installations did effectively close the streets to traffic for a few hours, thereby opening them up as social, creative and playful spaces.
It made a change from the normal run of things, in which private individuals take control of the public street space, without permission, by lining the streets with parked cars.
What streets are for
I think that in a neighbourhood like Hanover, streets could easily be more than storage spaces for the private vehicles of just over half the residents.
They could be spaces for people to meet, talk, cycle, play, walk, scoot, skate and create. To a large extent, they already are. Whenever something like the Zocalo or the open house project comes along, people in Hanover embrace it.
But whenever a proposal is made to reallocate street space permanently for something other than car parking – for communal bins, for example – there is fierce resistance. Why is this?
I don’t know the answer, but I do know that we can’t carry on filling up our streets, our city and our planet with cars forever.
Somehow, we have to find a way to work out this knotty issue about private choices which intrude on our fragile shared environment.
It’s not just cars, of course. There is a threat to begin fracking in the Sussex countryside – an idea so breathtakingly foolish that it’s difficult to take seriously. But the energy companies truly seem determined to extract more and more fossil fuels from the Earth, in the face of all the evidence that this is the worst thing we can do. I am pleased to see Hanover residents supporting the resistance to this horrific idea.
But part of shifting towards a low carbon economy will have to be a change in the demand for energy – including for travel.
Our open house was a bit of fun in the May sunshine, but it was also about looking at things differently. How we choose to travel affects our neighbours, not only in Hanover, but all over our tiny peppercorn planet.