Sunday, 20 May 2007

Small Steps in the Right Direction

Ever looked at the state of the world and felt powerless to make a difference? Here's how...

It was one of those typically overcast April days outside Café Limon on Bridge Street, and I was warding off the cold with coffee and a book in quiet company and even quieter thought. Being predisposed to a Saturday watching the world go by in my hometown, I’ve come to observe that Bridge Street is one of the most entertaining and fascinating places to witness life in our city in all its many forms. This particular weekend happened to play host to the continental market, filling the town centre with spices and flowers and children with sweeties and general genial hubbub.

Peterborough was alive with everything that makes it so unique. Here we are, a microcosm of British life: we are multi-faith, multi-racial; we come from all over the world and from just down the road, we grew up here, went to school here, we live here because it is our home. We are cautious about the way our city is changing, yet ready to be enlightened. We are on the sidelines of Europe and we peer into its colourful depths every now and again, when the pricey travelling circus of the continental market comes to town screaming: ‘Peterborough, look! This is Europe, and for one week only you are part of it!’

That weekend and every other time I really open my eyes and look about me I am struck by the muddled, miraculous diversity of this place where we live. Peterborough is essentially, and still feels like, a small city, and yet we rank amongst some of the biggest cities in the country when it comes to the diverse nationalities that live here and the huge range of cultures and religions that bring such vibrancy to our hometown.

So much negativity has come to be associated with that overused word: diversity. We’re all different, especially here in Peterborough, and for some innate human reason differences seem to become barriers, and barriers become hostilities, and hostilities become conflicts. It happens in our city every day. It happens on our televisions more than that. And we switch the box off and ignore the latest about the crises in the Middle-East and we turn away from kid who gets picked on at school for the colour of his skin because it seems easier than doing something. And anyway, what can we do?

There was someone else sitting outside Café Limon that day who’d been thinking about that question for a lot longer than I had. We met by chance: he sat to my left absorbed in foreign scribblings that appeared to me like some sort of code. I tried to suppress my intrusive and sadly instinctive curiosity; I failed. I asked him about his ‘code’. It wasn’t a code: it was Hebrew. I reddened, professed ignorance and apologised for my questions, but my embarrassment barely had time to surface before it was brushed aside with the man’s open smile and outstretched hand. Dan Bevan, 25, born and raised here in Peterborough.

Our following conversation and later meetings and musings revealed that Dan and his partner Jodie Turner are unafraid of that ominous question, ‘what can we do?’ Together, through much hard work and self-driven determination, they have founded a non-violent, non-religious, not-for-profit organisation called ‘Small Steps’. This summer, Jodie and Dan and their like-minded friends at Small Steps embark on a rather remarkable overland journey through Europe to the Middle East, where they will live for two months in Israel.

Their journey is not about crashing about in strange places to gawp at foreignness before disappearing home to show their friends how well travelled they are with the aid of a tan and a digital camera. It is about questions, questions like ‘what can we do?’ But mostly it is about the very thing that the name of the project suggests: taking small steps towards a better world.

Dan is no stranger to the Middle East: he spent a year and a half living in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem learning first hand about the Israeli conflict. For most of us the Middle Eastern crisis barely registers anymore, being inundated as we are with 24-hour news coverage that somehow detracts from the overall horror of the situation there. We see individual events, terrorist bombings, bloodshed on the streets, fear ingrained into strange faces, but we have lost the ability to look at this conflict for what it is: ordinary people living in terror their whole lives for reasons that seemed important fifty years ago. The reasons get lost in history and the terror becomes inherent in communities: the conflict continues.

Dan and Jodie and their friends understand the enormity of the problems there and recognise that they alone cannot bring peace to Israel and Palestine. However they also understand that we, as human beings and as part of the global community that bears witness to these atrocities every day, cannot continue to sit back and do nothing. We must hold ourselves accountable.

Dan speaks for me and, I’m sure, many of you when he says, "I don’t like the fact that the world’s a mess. And I don’t know what I can do about it, I really don’t. But I know I want to do something, I know I don’t want to go through life being satisfied with having a house, lots of money, a good job… I want to make a difference." I’d normally cringe at the clichéd gap-year jargon implicit in ‘making a difference’, but Dan was earnest and humble, and for once the phrase seemed appropriate as he went on, "I want to make a difference, but not for some sort of legacy, so I can say, ‘well, I’ve done that’, just because what else is there to do?"

With this in mind, Small Steps is based around a set of unique and flexible goals. It is about learning on a personal level and on a global level: about helping each individual to place himself within the world and to gain an understanding of peace that they can hopefully share with those they meet. Non-violence is central to this and Dan is optimistic about the possibilities for social change through non-violent means: "One of the biggest problems in the Middle East is that people tend to polarise themselves as either pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. We’re going to go there and try and understand both sides, and not make any decisions, because it’s not our place to do so. We want to understand people living in the conflict, and then to take that and look at ourselves and ask ‘what can I do?' And I expect what people will probably find is that they can be kind to their neighbour, walk down the street in Peterborough and smile at someone, be friendly towards random people in coffee shops. We can do all of these small things, and eventually they all count towards having a more peaceful world."

The decision to go to Israel despite the dangers associated with the area was an obvious one for Dan and Jodie. They explain, "Nowhere else is it so clear how far from our paths we have strayed. Israel is a land where people have forgotten to listen to others. The conflicts and the struggles of the people and the land are the same conflicts that lie within each of us, and we hope that by making changes to our own lives we can begin to create social change."

Practically, this translates as working with peace-keeping organizations, visiting Kibbutzim (socialist agricultural communities), spending time with the Bedouin and supporting their plight with the help of organization such as Bustan, and learning about numerous different faiths through contact with ordinary people. Israel is the birthplace of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, but it also the homeland of Druze, Black Hebrews, Sufis, Kabbalists and many other smaller denominations. Dan and Jodie hope that spending time with these communities will provide spiritual enrichment and understanding for all of those involved, which in turn will contribute to the overarching goal of non-violent means of creating social change.

Although spending time in Israel is clearly the most important part of the project, the journey there is also in the process of careful planning. The group plans to travel cheaply overland, often hitchhiking. The ability to trust the benevolence of strangers is a central part of the ideologies behind Small Steps and hitchhiking seems a good place to start. It will take around six weeks to get there, departing on 1st August, and will include visits to the Sangatte, to learn about the condition of immigrants waiting to enter the UK; Berlin, to explore divisions that are still evident from the Second World War; and Auschwitz, to remember the horrors of the Holocaust.

Dan also stresses that Small Steps welcomes everyone – from families to the elderly – with likeminded ideals. So far word of mouth and website publicity have generated a huge amount of interest, with people from all over the world expressing enthusiasm and support for the project. Some of those interested will begin the journey with Dan and Jodie on the 1st August, whilst some plan to fly out to meet their friends from Small Steps in Israel, or en route. In every instance, it becomes clear that Small Steps is as much about the individual as it is the global community or even the organization itself: anyone who feels that they want to take part is welcome, no matter how much or how little time they are able to commit to the project.

Dan told me that Peterborough has a lot in common with the Middle East. It seems far-fetched at first, but it doesn’t take long to understand where he’s coming from. Both are fraught with cultural divisions, both have problems relating to the sheer number of multi-racial communities and religions living in one place. Whilst the Middle East may be an extreme example of the problems resulting from diverse peoples in small spaces, these same conflicts and struggles are evident on our streets and even in our homes. And these conflicts and struggles must be addressed in the same way: through listening with compassion, through a willingness to understand. These are small steps that all of us can take.

If you would like to help, log on to to contact Dan or Jodie and find out more.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Book Review - Fresh by Mark McNay

Clean cut tragedy fresh from the streets of Glasgow

A native Scot, Mark McNay graduated from a creative writing course with distinction in 2003, after a failed electrical engineering course and fifteen years of doing odd jobs. Last month his debut novel, Fresh, won the Arts Foundation New Fiction Award 2007, and he has since won another Arts Foundation award to buy him time to work on his next novel.

Fresh follows a day in the life of Sean O’Grady, a diligent family man, as he attempts to find a grand of money entrusted to him by his violent elder brother Archie, on the day of Archie’s release from prison. McNay’s simple prose slides effortlessly between the unfolding events of Sean’s working day in a chicken factory, and flashbacks to the O’Gradys in childhood, nurturing a growing notion of the relationship between the brothers and a sense of the rising panic experienced by Sean as he struggles to reassemble the money he owes. The very classical contrast between Sean as the innately ‘good’ brother, and Archie, who is described as harbouring horrific and sometimes very graphic malice, is complicated by Sean’s distorted sense of morality, which contributes to the likeable realism of this character and the overall effectiveness of the plot.

McNay brings together unpretentious language, short sentences and an uncomplicated plot to very effectively convey Sean’s gentle humanity, his honest love for his family, and his somewhat inexorable downfall at the hands of his brother. The sometimes painfully beautiful simplicity of the narrative lends itself to both heart-warming humour and understated, gut-wrenching horror, whilst still retaining an attention for detail that renders Sean’s environment acutely imaginable.

It is perhaps this same uncluttered style that makes Fresh a rather put-downable novel. Not overtly comic at any point, it lacks a certain wit that results in quite a dark rendition of life on the poverty line in wintry Scotland. The precision of rolling a cigarette is described countless times: a repeated device used to express the mundanity of life without money or aspiration, an idea that is also expressed through Sean’s frequent retreat into his daydreams. Better described as ‘gritty’ than ‘fresh’, McNay’s first novel is a Shakespearean tragedy that seeps from the labouring pores of one of Glasgow’s most oppressed districts.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Book Review - Essays in Love by Alain de Botton

Generic self-help or insightful genius? You decide...

De Botton is one of those annoyingly clever people whose propensity for accurate, insightful thought will make your teeth ache. He is multi-lingual (of Swiss origin), he is remarkably intelligent (having received a double starred first from Cambridge in 1991) and he is ridiculously successful (with five books to his name by the time he turned thirty). But, please, don’t let this put you off. He is also one of the few writers of our time interested in blowing the dust from the stuffy philosophical literature that most of us will never touch, and transforming philosophy into something relevant, helpful, and (dare I say it) fashionable.

'Essays in Love', published in 1993, is de Botton’s first novel. It attracted relatively little recognition in its early days, becoming popular only after the release of the internationally acclaimed 'How Proust Can Change Your Life' (1997). Despite this, it is a good read and an excellent place to start with de Botton and his popular philosophy. It follows the course of a relationship from meeting to heartbreak, with all the niceties and tribulations of love in between. Chapters are short and divided further into concise numbered paragraphs that each relate to one of de Botton’s profundities. And there are plenty of them. Though at times the subject matter is in danger of seeming trite, de Botton writes with an eloquent simplicity and clear sense of direction, making his story consistently engaging. He is insightful and he does at times display an astonishing ability to express the intricacies of romance that leave most of us lost for words, and this saves the story from becoming romantically mundane or intellectually unmanageable, although it will undoubtedly leave those with a better-than-average philosophical intelligence tearing at their hair.

The blurb on the back says that 'Essays in Love', 'will appeal to anyone who has ever been in love’. It all sounds a bit generic, and sometimes it is. But there is something to be said for a man who successfully pulverises centuries of philosophical thought into a snappy modern love story and then sells millions and millions of copies of it in twenty different languages. I’m not quite sure what that something is, but it’s definitely worth a look.