Pen Pals


Among the many projects MP Jo Cox was working on before her untimely death was a bid to tackle the growing problem of loneliness and isolation in the UK, reaching out across party lines to find the best solution.

This morning’s Woman’s Hour not only discussed Jo’s work with Conservative MP Seema Kennedy and its continuation by Kennedy and Labour MP Rachel Reeves, but also spoke to participants in a more small-scale scheme in Yorkshire that has been running with similar goals for a few years now.

Set up by Georgina Binnie, the scheme partners up English students at the University of Leeds with older people in the surrounding area, who then write to each other once a fortnight. What’s interesting is that this is far from just some noble and slightly patronising crusade to make life better for the elderly – in fact it’s been hugely mutually beneficial, with young people away from home for the first time taking comfort from having an older friend nearby, as well as learning from pen pals they’re often surprised to have more in common with than they might have imagined. Also, who doesn’t  like writing and receiving letters? One of the things I miss most about being at university was the letters I used to write home to my little sister.

It would be great to see something like this rolled out in communities across the country (student and community groups take heed), especially at a time when political and cultural divisions are often drawn very sharply (and not always accurately) across age lines.

More generally though, guests on the Woman’s Hour broadcast were encouraging everyone to do their bit to tackle loneliness – whether that’s making time to pick up the phone and call a grandparent, or dropping by now and then to make sure people that you know are okay. We can all be doing a little more to strengthen our communities and look our for our loved ones.

You can listen to the full broadcast here (the University of Leeds section starts about 18.20), or read more about the scheme in the Yorkshire Post here.

#GrabYourWallet and #StopFundingHate

In a system dominated by unregulated markets, perhaps our greatest power is to use our status as consumers by making conscious choices about how we spend our money.

Many of you may already be familiar with #GrabYourWallet, a Twitter campaign designed to help those protesting against Donald Trump to boycott companies owned by him and his family, as well as either boycotting or putting pressure on those who helped support his campaign. For all those who want to put their money where their mouth is, here’s a handy link to a spreadsheet full of all the companies currently being targeted, along with a sample email to send to any organisations you’d like to contact:

You’ll notice that a lot of those are American and so not necessarily relevant in the UK. Those looking to do something this side of the pond can get on board with Stop Funding Hate, a campaign that puts pressure on companies to pull their advertising from newspapers like The Sun and The Daily Mail which fan the flames of hatred and division. You can follow the campaign on Facebook here or on Twitter @stopfundinghate. Those supporting the campaign are encouraged to write directly to companies, in the hope that if enough big companies refuse to advertise with these publications, their revenue will be so decreased that they’ll be forced to change their behaviour.

Brendan Cox’s Alternative Christmas Message

“After all that’s happened this year, [Jo] would hope that all of us would make a resolution to do something in 2017 to bring our communities back together; to reach out to somebody who might disagree with us. Now is not a moment to shout louder into our echo chambers.”

A Christmas Challenge

With division and loneliness now rife and on the rise in the UK, it seems like the obvious place to start to make a change is close to home.

There are plenty of reasons why our society has become so fractured – one is the ideology of individualism that I referred to in my first post, one is the internet reducing our will or our ability to reach out to other people in person, and one major and growing problem is the way in which we work – it’s estimated that up to 50% of us will be in non-traditional working arrangements (e.g. freelance, part-time, working remotely, etc) by 2020, meaning that we don’t even have proper human contact with our colleagues any more, and many of us go whole days without directly interacting with anyone but our nearest and dearest.

All of this adds up to an urgent need to rebuild a sense of community. So here’s a quick list of suggestions of ways that we can start to reach out to those around us. Hopefully, by doing this, we’ll not only be starting to break down those dangerous divisions, but also learning about each other, gaining more respect for other people’s points of view, and maybe even finding ways of making our own case more persuasively.

Over the coming months, I’ll be taking the following up as a challenge to myself and blogging about it. I hope you’ll join me. Please feel free to make your own suggestions, but be aware that I have made a point of choosing things that don’t require any financial commitment, so that everyone can do them.

1) Find out who your neighbours are.
I’m putting this at the top of the list because it ought to be one of the easiest, provided you get on it sooner rather than later. It’s nearly Christmas, so the obvious thing to do is to add them to your card list (or start one if you don’t normally send any). Drop cards in, and make sure you include your own name and address. If you already know your neighbours and are accustomed to exchanging the season’s greetings, try to go the extra mile and have a conversation with somebody you haven’t really talked to much before, or do something extra nice for someone. I’ve become really aware recently of how bad it is that I don’t even know the names of the people who live in the same building as me, and I suspect I’m not alone.

2) Go to a political talk or meeting.
I’m not going to be specific about this because you’ll all know what’s unusual or not for you. You might want to go to a hustings, a rally, a Q&A session or a drop-in surgery, or you might want to start getting properly involved with a local party branch. If you’re already hot on this, my challenge to you is to go and listen to someone you disagree with, or who is not from your own party.

3) Visit a community centre, social club or place of worship that isn’t linked to your own cultural identity.
One of the loveliest things I saw post-Brexit was photos of kind messages and cards left at a Polish centre in an attempt to counteract the abuse and insults that were being flung around before and after the referendum. I also remember around the same time listening to Hardeep Singh Kohli on the radio talking to a Muslim guy who’d helped to fund repairs to a Synagogue, become best friends with a Jewish leader, and helped to bring the communities together. Recently we’ve seen a similar thing happen in America with Muslim and Jewish groups uniting to put pressure on the government. You don’t have to just sort of rock up on your own and be weird about this. It’s totally okay – and probably better – if you ask someone you know to show you around. Hopefully we all know *at least* one person of a different faith, race or nationality who could help with this. If you don’t, it’s on you to rectify that.

4) Ask somebody a full generation older or younger than you (about 20 years) for their thoughts on a contemporary political issue.
The crucial thing here is that you listen without reservation to what they have to say and only respond with your opinion if and when you’re asked for it. If you’re able to, do both – speak to someone a generation older and younger than you. If you’re not, try to find someone at least a little bit older and a little bit younger than you are.

5) Meet up with someone you haven’t seen for over a year.
Paradoxically, while the internet has superficially enabled us to keep in touch with people, we’re actually probably worse than ever at actually seeing each other. Meet up with an old friend and schedule a regular date to meet with them again – even if it’s only once a year. Stick to your arrangement.

6) Read a book by someone who is not from Britain, America, Canada, Australia or New Zealand.
Basically somewhere either culturally or linguistically alien to you. Discuss what you learn with other people.

7) Volunteer
It doesn’t matter what you do or how long you do it for – as long as it’s for a cause that’s important to you.

8) Read a non-fiction book by someone whose politics, philosophy or worldview you know or believe you disagree with.
Resist the urge to comment online about it until you’ve finished the entire book! This is probably the best possible way of challenging your assumptions, since you can’t argue with someone who isn’t there. Once you have finished, discuss with other people.

9) Learn a bit of another language.
Try to use what you’ve learned with someone who is fluent. Ideally, pick something other than the popular French, German, or Spanish options – the more unusual (and potentially useful locally, e.g in Coventry you might consider Polish, or one of the plethora of South Asian languages spoken here), the better. You don’t have to take regular classes or get fluent – it can just be a few words or phrases. We’re one of the worst nations, not just at learning other languages, but at having the courage to speak them, and our ignorance contributes to the isolationism of our politics and our rudeness abroad. We should all be more alert to the ways in which our language shapes our perception of the world.

10) Write a positive letter to a councillor or MP.
We only ever tend to contact our representatives if we have something to complain about. My dad was talking recently about all the lovely wildflowers that have been planted locally this year (very good for our poor bees), and thinking about writing something in support of the scheme. I think it’s a really good idea, not just because it’s nice for them to be appreciated, but also because it helps us to be more aware and more appreciative of the good stuff we have, instead of focusing on the negatives. Feeling generally valued also tends to make people more receptive when they are asked to change something. We’re all just human.

11) Go to a public place or event you wouldn’t normally choose to go to or where you feel you don’t belong.
Again I’m not going to tell you what this should be because it will vary according to your personality, tastes and experiences. As an example, for me the obvious thing would probably be a sports match, but for some it might be a library, a theatre, a certain pub or club or even a shop. You know where you draw your own tribal lines. Cross them.

12) Participate in a community event, class or activity.
This might well be the hardest because it’s going to involve a greater level of commitment. The reason I think that it’s important is that I read a study recently suggesting that one of the most effective ways of tackling prejudice is by getting diverse groups of people participating in projects together. Active collaboration and working towards a shared goal are more effective than living in proximity or even conversation. So join a choir, am-dram society, dance class, sports team, folk group, writing group – whatever. Or help out with a festival or fundraiser or match or something like that. And meet new people. There are tons of options – even if you’re super busy, you can do this in the evenings, on weekends or during your holiday.

13) Schedule in at least one internet-free day per month.
It’s easy to forget how important it is to give your brain a rest.

What Do I Do Now?

As I begin this blog at the end of 2016, Britain and America reel in the aftermath of two of the most divisive public votes to ever be held, one of which resulted in the shock assassination of someone who was, by all accounts, of the UK’s finest MPs; there are fears of the collapse of a long-held peace and a fascist resurgence in Europe; innocent Muslims are targeted and persecuted in multiple countries; mass shootings peak and the murder of black civilians continues in the US; the Republic of Yemen disintegrates; there is indiscriminate slaughter and devastation on the streets of Aleppo, against which no one will take action for fear of inciting World War III; Russia continues to threaten Ukraine; and globally, we face what must be the greatest refugee crisis to have ever occurred in human history.

And this is just the stuff we get to hear about, the stories that aren’t drowned out in the endless sound and fury. Every tomorrow comes with more harrowing news, just as you think it can’t get any worse.

I’m getting this out of my system now because I want you to understand that if your heart is breaking, you are not alone. But I promise you, this is the first and last time that this blog is going to dwell on the numerous inconceivable horrors in our world. When lurid headlines scream doom and destruction to us daily while proposing no means of averting the inevitable apocalypse, it makes us hopeless, and it makes us ill.

“What can I do about it?” is a question a lot of us are asking, and it’s one I asked myself in a facebook post a little under a month ago. But there’s a problem with this question. When we think about ourselves as individuals up against a merciless tide of misery, we quickly become too overwhelmed to do anything. And when prevailing political and cultural discourse has been dominated by a cult of individualism since before many of us were even born (“There is no such thing as society”), it’s hard to know how else to understand our place in the world.

This blog was originally going to be called, but I’m now kind of glad that was already taken. I think this title is a better one, because as silly as it sounds, I think that asking, “What can we do?” straight away makes the situation feel a little less overwhelming. The hardest and most empowering thing that we can do to start with is to pick apart the ideology of isolation and individualism that we’ve been indoctrinated into, and to realise that it’s never really you alone against the world. To fight the deepening divisions that we face, we must reach out to one another, and reclaim our sense of community and solidarity. Because the honest truth is, I actually know that I can’t change anything. But I still have hope that we can.

It’s going to be baby steps: in the absence of a snow shovel, we’re going to have to clear that beach one single starfish at a time. But then if you ask me, the demand for instant solutions is one of the biggest challenges we face today. Technology has fooled us into believing that we can have anything we want at the click of a button, and it’s a pernicious myth that makes us disappointed when solutions to serious problems aren’t that simple, often leading us to lash out and look for someone to blame.

I know that there’s an irony to my sitting home alone writing this blog on the internet. But my intention in starting this is to motivate myself to get out and do things, and then to write about them, and hopefully offer some inspiration to anyone else reading in the process (I’m not going to flatter myself there’ll be any significant number of readers at first, but even if it’s just a few it’s worth it). I’ll also be collecting together any articles or sites I think offer hope or useful suggestions – so if you’ve got any ideas yourself or even fancy writing something for me about something you’ve done or something you’d like to see happening, I’d love to hear from you. The more collective this project becomes, the better.

So, here’s to a 2017 that’s better than 2016. I mean at least it can’t possibly be much worse – right? :/