Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Diversity in children's books



Shoot me down on this one but here goes: I very much enjoyed the Guardian's page on diversity in children's books. We need as much information circulating about these. I also think there is an urgency about this with a resurgent right focussing as it does on what they call 'immigration' linked to a general xenophobia. So what is 'diversity'? This is where I think there is a serious discussion to be had. Diversity must mean more than 'black' or more than 'black and Asian'. This is to do favours to everyone. Of course 'people of colour' have experienced (and are still experiencing) in the most recent period serious prejudice, discrimination, violence, intentional and institutional racism.

However, 'diversity' as a term should not be a 'cover' or an alternative for dealing with these issues of racism. If we (or anyone else) is going to use the term 'diversity' then that's what it should be: a reflection on how in a given space (let's say 'UK" for the moment) we are diverse. Diversity has to encompass every possible sense of the ways in which we are diverse.

Now to the egocentric part of that. I am what, (I gather from my own children from what they've been told at school), is being termed 'ethnically Jewish or jewish'. I can live with that. So how is that part of diversity being reflected in lists of 'diversity'. I find that inevitably, 'ethnic jewishness' mostly gets to be defined in terms of the Holocaust. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm very much in favour of the Holocaust being treated in children's books. But the Holocaust is ultimately not a 'Jewish question' it's a humanity question. It wasn't actually caused by Jews. Admittedly, it has become a matter of enormous concern to Jews - of course - but apart from experts, it isn't necessarily how we lead our lives. So, yes, a big welcome to books about the Holocaust but in terms of diversity, it's a bit offbeam to say that that is a 'sufficient' description.

So, what in terms of 'diversity' am I talking about? Well, for several centuries Jews have lived in Britain being diverse themselves, arriving from very different parts of the world, speaking different languages, eating different foods etc etc….and in terms of children's daily lives, doing a wide variety of things. I know of one tiny part of that - i.e. a way of going on of highly politicised 'Ostjuden' (Jews from Eastern Europe) who arrived in Britain at the end of the 19th century retaining, as my children tell me, some ethnic markers, whilst participating in many of the institutions of the locality or country - in my case London. Though I'm touched by the Holocaust through my father's side of the family and have indeed written about it a good few times, particularly when thinking about racism, resistance and persecution, this hasn't been the only or the main definer of my life.

So this is a very longwinded way of saying that 'diversity' should reflect ways in which people lead their lives. I didn't mean this to apply just to a reflection on 'ethnic Jews' but to all members of all communities. That's to say, it's the "normality of difference" that needs to be celebrated and not just a people's moments of injustice and persecution, no matter how powerful and necessary these are too.

Again, of course, many people of African origin have said this in relation to the slave trade. I hear, for example, that of course this has to be recorded, documented, marked, but in terms of lives lived now, it's not what is going on. As I say, diversity is a slightly different matter, it is about the 'normality of difference'.

I suspect that in the coming months and years we will have to struggle as much for this 'normality of difference' as we do for the reminders about persecution and injustice. Not 'instead of' or 'more than' or 'less than' - but 'as well as'.

New poem: Deer



We were on a road between two towns and a sign

came up by the side of the road. `It was a picture

of a stag. I’ve always understood that this means

that as you’re driving along a stag could jump out

on to the road. You could hit a stag. Or a stag could

hit you. And maybe the stag would be with other

deer. They could all hit your car. First the stag would

hit it - voom. And then the others - voom voom voom.

We looked into the woods to see if we could see

any. It was raining, so we reckoned that they would

be sheltering under the trees. Or lying under the

bracken. It was autumn so everything was turning

yellow, brown and dark green. If the stag and deer

were in there, they’d be hard to see. If they came

out and did that voom voom voom thing, you wouldn’t

get much notice. In between the woods, there were

open parts, clearings. There was gorse. Again, no

deer. A few cows. A few ponies. Then it was back to

woods: silver birch, oak, beech. As we came round a

corner, I looked again into the woods and saw

something which for a moment looked like a group

or herd of something - a bit grey, a bit brown. Not

deer though. It was jackets. They were hanging from

the trees. Maybe twenty or thirty of them. Damp from

the rain, so they were still. Not that there was any

wind.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

New poem: Brooch



Sometime after my father died, my step-mother came

over with a small plastic pot. One of the things in it was

a brass brooch of a miner’s lamp. I had never seen it

before. I went online to see what it was. I found out

that they were sold by the miners’ union during and

after the General Strike of 1926. It was to help the

miners’ families who were starving. I remembered from

when I was a boy, my father saying that he could

remember the General Strike from when he was 7.

Something about a type-writer being thrown over a wall.

He hadn’t ever mentioned the brooch. It must have

been his mother’s. He didn’t know his father. He was

in the US. He, his sister and his mother didn’t live

near any pits and coalfields. They lived in Whitechapel,

in east London. In a house with 6 or 7 others. He said

he shared a bedroom with his Uncle Sam. They didn’t

talk to each other he said. Sam had spoiled a cap my father

had been bought on Petticoat Lane. I asked him who

turned the bedroom light out? Neither of us, he said. They

had candles, not lights. I remember his mother. He called

her ‘Ma’. I didn’t know then that she had had a baby who

died. Or that her father and mother came from Poland. I

don’t know if anyone in the house knew any miners. My

father said that sometimes sailors used to come to the

house. He remembered a sailor who came from Jamaica.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

New poem: Chair



I was in the barber. When the barber had finished

cutting my hair, I got up and looked down at the

metal plate where my feet were, it was the metal

plate joined to the chair I had been sitting in. The

writing on the plate, said, ‘UTOPIA’. I put my jacket

on and stood at the bus stop. I wondered if I had

just been sitting in Utopia. Was that where I was?

Had I just had a moment in part of a perfect

society? I thought about what it had just been like.

Someone was cutting my hair. He comes from

Turkey. He used scissors. He also cut my beard.

He did that with an electric beard-trimmer. He

also blew some hot wet air into my face. It came

from a hot wet air machine. When it was all over

I gave him some money. Then I saw the sign on

the chair. So far, this didn’t sound like Utopia. Not

like a whole vision of the best possible society. I

was just sitting in a chair and someone was cutting

bits of hair off my head. Unless that’s what Utopia

is: people sitting in chairs having their hair cut.

And their face steamed. Then getting up and

standing at the bus stop. Actually, there were

some other things. They gave me a cup of coffee.

The young man who made it was learning

English. And learning how to cut hair. And there

were some newspapers on the table before I had

my haircut. I read them. And there were some other

people there. We talked a bit. That was before the

haircut. And, like I said, after the haircut, I waited

at the bus stop. Not for long. A bus came along

pretty soon.






Friday, 24 October 2014

New poem: Bread



I opened up a packet of bread the other day,

took out a slice and as I put the butter on I

noticed that there was a hair in the bread. Not

on the slice. It was in the bread. It wasn’t

very long. I didn’t fancy eating it, so I put the

slice back in the packet and put the packet

in the bin. In the morning, I was looking around

for something to eat for breakfast, and I didn’t

have anything in, so I thought, ah, maybe I

could fish that loaf out of the bin, pull the

slice with the hair in it out of the packet and

maybe eat one of the other slices. So I got

it out the bin, opened up the packet and the slice

that had the hair in was on the top. Now

it had several hairs. I looked closely at it and

I could see that the hair was growing out of the

bread. This wasn’t mould. I know what that hairy

mould looks like. This was hair. It was a browny

colour with little blonde touches. I put it back in

the bin and went off to work. When I came back

from work, I got the packet out again and

sure enough, it had grown more hair. Now there

was enough hair to make it look like it was the top

of someone’s head. All growing out of one slice.

It even had a parting. Then, without knowing

why, I picked up this slice with the hair on it

and started to eat it. I was right about the hair.

It was hair. The bread had changed though. It

didn’t really taste like bread. More like something

made out of walnut. I ate it and pulled the hair out

of my mouth. It wasn’t really hairy. More furry than

hairy.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

New poem: Trains



I noticed that there have been some improvements

at the station I use: streamlining of services.

A couple of years ago they figured out that we don’t

need indicator boards which tell you of every single

station the trains go to. All they needed to do was

put up the names of the last station on the line. This

meant that getting a train became an interesting kind

of guesswork. Would the train to Bigtown stop at

Littletown? Or would the train to Redtown be the

right one for Littletown? It was great. You could stand

on the wrong platform at the right time. Or the right

platform at the wrong time. Or the wrong platform at

the wrong time.




Then, they figured out that the indicator board thing

was a luxury. So they did away with them. Now, You

arrive at the station and guess which train might be

yours. Sometimes, you can wait on one platform, a

train comes in on another. You think it might be yours.

You dash along your platform, down the stairs, along

a tunnel, up some stairs on to the other platform, the

train is leaving. You dash back down the stairs, along

the tunnel, up the stairs, back to the platform you were

on in the first place.




Other people get up in the morning and think, I wonder

where I’ll go today? They head to the station and just get

on any train that looks like a train they might want to get

on.

New poem: Cucumber



There was a cucumber in the lost property office.

It was found near the ticket barrier at the station.

No one came in to say it was theirs. The cucumber

sat on the shelf. It started to go soft. But still no

one came. Then it started to flatten out and go

mushy. The skin stayed more or less the same.

A bit wrinkly but still like a cucumber skin.Inside

the cucumber became goo. It was smelling quite

strong. A fruity earthy smell. After a bit more time,

it started going dark grey. And fruit flies flew around it.

Then, about six months after the cucumber was

put in the lost property office, a man came in and

said, ‘Have you got a cucumber?’

The lost property office assistant said, ‘I’ll have

a look in the book.’

He got the book out and it said, ‘Cucumber.’

‘Can I ask you where you think you lost the

cucumber?’ he said.

The man said, ‘No, I’m sorry. I got on the train,

got off the train and went home. When I got home

I looked in my bag and the cucumber was gone.’

‘Can you tell me which station you got on at, and

which station you got off at?’

‘Well, my problem is that I got on and off at quite

a few stations that day,’ said the man, ‘and I can’t

remember them all. You see I deliver stuff for

people.’

‘Do you deliver cucumbers?’ said the assistant.

‘No,’ said the man, ‘the cucumber was for me

to eat.’

‘Can you describe the cucumber?’ said the

assistant.

‘It was green,’ said the man.

‘If I said to you,’ said the assistant, ‘that this

cucumber was found at a ticket barrier, do you

think you could tell me which ticket barrier that

might have been? You see we have to make sure

that people don’t come in here and claim things

that don’t belong to them. You might come in

here and say that you lost a gold watch. I can’t

hand you a gold watch, just because you say

you lost one.’

‘I haven’t lost a gold watch,’ said the man.

‘I didn’t say that you did,’ said the assistant.

‘I lost a cucumber,’ said the man.

‘So you say,’ said the assistant.

‘Can I ask you if anyone has come in here and

handed in a cucumber?’ said the man.

‘I can tell you that someone has indeed come in

here and handed in a cucumber.’

‘That’ll be mine,’ said the man.

‘No,’ said the assistant, ‘what you don’t know is

whether many people have come in here

and handed in cucumbers, in which case we

would have the problem of finding out which of

the many cucumbers belongs to you.’

‘Have many people come in here and handed

in cucumbers?’ said the man.

‘No,’ said the assistant.

‘Well, that one lone cucumber must be mine,’

said the man.

‘Not necessarily,’ said the assistant, ‘someone

else could have lost a cucumber and it’s their

cucumber that was handed in.’

‘Oh, yes,’ said the man, ‘I didn’t think of that.’

‘Well,’ said the assistant, ‘if you can’t think

where you might have left the cucumber, I’m

afraid I can’t give you the cucumber that we’ve

got here in the lost property office.’

‘OK, fair enough,’ said the man, ‘thanks very

much for your help.’