by Eithne Cullen
This week, our theme is ‘Standing Together’ celebrating BAME voices and I have some fabulous pieces to share.
I’m lucky to have been sent pieces from people I work with and share my writing with, in a group we all belong to. ‘Write Next Door’ currently meets weekly on Zoom, to share and workshop our writing. Coronavirus has featured in much of our work, but we cover all kinds of topics and write in many different styles.
We decided to write something for the VE day celebrations and I was thrilled to see the range of responses. Some of the group moved away from stories of the celebrations in London, and the following is one of them, by Roy Merchant, set in the Caribbean.
VE Day 1945
Six months had gone by since the death of Joshua’s mother. The war was still going on, and by now everyone was fed up with The Gleaner (the Jamaican national newspaper) telling them about it. Everyone had a distant relative or a friend overseas fighting it, but a war with no bombs or people dying in front of your eyes tended to sanitise the senses.
In any case, most of us did not know what they were fighting about. So, probably the worst tragedy in twentieth-century history passed us by in the foothills of a mountain in a remote part of the British Empire – just as everything else going on in the world outside passed us by.
Every now and again, a ship would come back from England with someone who had been fighting in the war. They would tell us romanticised stories of life in England, and how they had lost the leg or the arm that was now giving them trouble, but these incidences were sporadic. Supplies were still tricky to come by but, by now, we had adapted to being without the things we could not have.
So, when The Gleaner said it was VE day on May 8th, 1945, most of the learned people knew where Europe was and could pinpoint it exactly on the map. We could tell you the capital of every city in Europe, but it was like some distant fairyland, where other people lived. All we knew was that they had stopped the fighting.
We knew the Europeans as tourists who came to go rafting on the Rio Grande, or to visit Navy Island, where all the Hollywood stars would go. We had no TV to tell us how big the celebrations were in England and the rest of Europe. And, by the time it came to us on Pathe News at the cinema in Port Antonio, the newspaper had already told us it was over and something else was catching our attention.
So, for us in the West Indies, like much of the war, it was something we heard about, but not something we were a part of. Our real involvement in Britain would start when 500 of us decided to get on the Windrush ship in 1948 to help the mother country. But that is another story.
© Roy Merchant, 2020
You can find out more about Roy’s writing on YouTube: Relentless Realities
Dionne Pryce’s poem really needs no introduction and the words “I can’t breathe” will be etched on our memories as long as we think of 2020 and what we’ve witnessed and lived through.
I Can’t Breathe
Three simple words which will forever cause pain and anguish
for those who not only read it, heard it but
feel it everyday.
That gnawing in the back of your mind
The looking over your innocent shoulder that holds a heavy weight if you
Look, speak, walk the wrong way
Say the wrong thing
Say the right thing in the wrong way
‘Calm down, no need to shout’
The constant threat that reminds you that you are
a colour first, human second.
A simple walk in the park where I should feel free to inhale, gasp at nature’s beauty
Sit and fill my lungs with this clean fresh air, contemplate, ponder, day dream
I can’t breathe
The constant ignoring
Being guarded but open
Assertive but friendly
And all I want to do is just breathe
George Floyd will be remembered forever
His will be the name etched into the timeline as
one of the historical events of the year 2020
Outside of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I need it to be burned into text books
I need his death to give life to working towards abolishing racism
so I can breathe.
And yet as I write this, I read about
Another black life
Taken Whilst Doing Nothing
Whilst Peacefully Passively Protesting
Against this very gift we all have – Life
And again, I can’t breathe.
What has to happen?
How much more pain has to be endured?
When will we all finally be able to
© Dionne Pryce, June 2020
You can follow Dionne on Twitter: @crazydee2704
The next three pieces are also from ‘Write Next Door’ writers.
Claire Baker was the Redbridge winner on the first ‘Spread The Word’ competition: ‘City Of Stories.’
Farewell, my love. The dark hole in my soul is a raw, pulsating thing. My heart is shredded. Torn to searing pieces. I lay, dry-eyed, on the freshly-laid mound. Hoping that its cold, crumbling surface will suddenly warm to my touch, bringing you back to me. How can I say goodbye?
I have been dreading this day. It feels as though the past year has been an achingly slow countdown towards this moment. Treading through one dark, cold day after another. Pretending to eat, sleep, smile. I look at the mound, now freshly laid with frail spikes of green. It feels so cruel that such small things continue to grow without you in the world. The earth beneath my fingers is still cold, but firm. Like it belongs there now. My heart squeezes. I am surprised. My shredded heart has not disintegrated after all.
Today, I ache. Is it me, or has the mound grown smaller? The tufts of green sprout sturdily, proprietorially, beneath my fingers. ‘I miss you.’ The words come silently from my soul. A solitary tear rolls down one bare cheek. I realise I have accepted you are gone. The tear turns into a heaving, snotty flood. I feel as though I am drowning in a well of sadness from which I can never break free
There is someone with me. We stand silently. I concentrate on breathing. The clamour of words in my head turn into a few whispered sounds. It helps, Sal says, to chat as though you are still with me. She is right. There are tears, but I am not the broken snivelling wreck she found two months ago.
This is my tenth visit this year. The trees, normally studded with unfurling green spikes, are lean skeletons rattling in the wind. We talk, the mound an icy cushion beneath my coat. I apologise for not coming sooner at this time of year, to relieve the grey with a few sprays of flowers and titbits of gossip from my ordinary life.
I am a changed man. Or so I fancy. The day has dawned, cool and overcast. The white clouds flood everything with a clinical light. Today no longer fills me with fear, nor incapacitates me with sorrow. Sal’s support group has helped. She is waiting for me now. I smile and wave. Then give a tea-shaped lift of my fingers. She nods. Our steps fall in sync with each other. I am starting to feel whole.
© Claire Baker, June 2017
In this piece from Harvinell Tatton, we see the narrator trying to make sense of the things she witnesses and exploring some of the feelings she experiences. I like the way she ends with hope.
I am the dawn. As I arrive, clothed in grey clouds of cold, misty air, I wait with bated breath, peering with curious eyes on the scene below.
A field fills with shadows, like flowers with pointed, cracked petals, adorned on the outside with an array of brown, white and mottled hues; their insides showing pure sections of yellow and white.
Tossed in the wind are large fragments of newspapers: thick, capital letters, consoling words and headlines, drooping over the edges of the broadsheets. Even the ink of insincerity cannot hold them to the page.
There are two mountains, with a tightrope stretching between the opposing twin peaks of Mount Lockdown and Mount COVID-19 Exit. Government officials nervously curve their feet around the wire. With dispassionate eyes and unsteady steps, they journey between the two mountains, knowing their time in office has given them far more to deal with than they could ever have imagined.
I watch as official words and reputations fall on the jagged landscape, then disappear between the gaps as their surprised owners try to navigate the eggshell surface below, their excuses buried beneath the torrent of passionate public opinion: “Sorry…” “We must learn…” “Mistakes…” “The past…” Words the public have heard so many times before.
At ground level, there is a circular walkway joining the twin peaks at their bases, marked with towers at intervals.
Along the inner circle, giant capital red ‘Rs’ with score-lines carved up their sides mark the rise and fall of the all-important ‘R’ factor. Whose figures will determine the rate of the exit from lockdown?
Along the outer circle, huge green traffic lights also stand at intervals. Clustered around them are head teachers, captains of industry and other leaders, as they battle with the two-edged sword of permission to open, alongside the challenge of drawing up sustainable codes of practice that will free up the economy and keep the population safe from the ravages of the coronavirus.
Crowds of British people throng the walkways. They stretch up and down the country, linking in sympathy with other George Floyd protesters in other nations. Young, old, black and white join with others in endorsing their battle cry through screens; kept away by Coronavirus.
The protesters for Black Lives Matter kneel earnestly, eyes fearless, hearts beating compassionately.
Others voice their concerns through the media on COVID-19 and lockdown exit strategy. They seek action beyond social distancing, hand washing and the mixed benefits of contact tracing. This uncoordinated lockdown is leaving the vulnerable feeling even more vulnerable than before.
Both groups are demanding actions with real teeth to cope with the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice. And the fact of Coronavirus being extra-hard on certain communities.
Now, it is clearer than ever that the challenge of justice and creating a rejuvenated post-COVID-19 society are not isolated matters, but closely intertwined and will greatly impact on our future.
The mention of George Floyd’s name will forever remind the nations that his life and too many other lives have already paid the price for systemic injustice. Without justice, we cannot guarantee there won’t be any further ‘sitting in limbo’ travesties.
From a distance, it is easy to see that those who are alive need to create a truly level playing field. Despite many good deeds, the aims of the ‘Equality Act 2010’ have still not been completely fulfilled.
Emotion fills me as I survey the multiple reactions. At the tipping point of sorrow, the clouds rain down the world’s collected tears; unable to contain their weight any longer. As the cleansing flow clears minds and brings insight, I hear the Divine whisper of hope to many hearts:
“The work is too big for human hands alone. This fight needs divine might. I am here and will help you. But I am a gentleman and refuse to work without your invitation. I understand your pain and grief. My son was falsely accused, beaten and murdered, though he had done nothing wrong; his life dedicated to showing love to others.”
I see hearts and minds responding. When they rise, there is a radiance in their eyes, as they continue to hear the whisper. Encouraged, they share the conviction that a solution through this son is the only sure answer. Love is the force that can grow respect and develop practical pathways of care and honour, so that mindsets and contexts are changed. Love, deeper than any of us have known, can change the landscape, so that all men, by default, are valued individuals and deemed precious for their uniqueness.
And, as I move aside for the early morning sun, the clouds turn a fluffy white against a blue sky, with rays of brilliant sunshine breaking out from behind them.
Hope removes the final droplets of tears from my eyes and clarifies my view of the twin peaks.
© Harvinell Tatton, June 2020
The last piece I want to share is a poem by Kala Solanki. Her poem is a very personal response to the current situation and reflects on her own experience – past and the present.
A British Asian
Living in the UK
Having experienced racism
At school, work, and the streets
Time and time again
A subtle look
A peering glance
It’s a silent pandemic
You can’t define as law
Otherwise it would be banned
In the playground
White boys called us “Paki”
Trying to put us down
We just larfed
Ignored the insults
Stood our ground
But as I grew older
I turned the other cheek
Accepted the slurs
Didn’t answer back
I guess I was weak
Learnt to play the game
To save my job
Earn some money
It’s a crying shame
The killing of George Floyd
Has ignited the fuse
The torch is on fire
It’s all over the news
A sign of our times
You cannot ignore or refuse
It’s made me question
Myself, my race and what I can do
What can I change?
Maybe I should demonstrate?
For the sake of my health
I’ll raise awareness in other ways
I’ll post blogs, write a poem
That’s my protest
Will it make any difference?
Globally, it has
People have marched
In the UK
From global cities and towns
Slave owner’s statues
Dumped into the river
Left to rot and drown
I know it’s wrong
But I understand
What makes a man turn to violence and crime?
It’s deep seated, in years of oppression and something’s gotta change
We need to remember
And never forget
Slaves were captured, tortured, shipped to foreign lands,
Imprisoned in chains and forced to work at the white man’s hands
I’ve seen black men hung from trees
Burnt to a crisp by the Ku Klux Klan
This is against centuries of intolerance, injustice
The time is now, we all need to make a stand
Black lives matter
In fact, all lives matter
We are all cousins
All people and all races
We all came from Africa
A lesson we all need to understand
That’s the truth
It’s in all our DNA
There lies the ultimate proof
© Kala Solanki, June 2020
And finally, we’ll be reflecting on our relationship with technology during this strange time in our unplugged pages next week…feel free to send in some examples of your experience – electronically of course.
Cover image: Sky Arts Portraits by Pauline Cushnie
Three simple words which will forever cause pain and anguish
for those who not only read it, heard it but
feel it everyday.