In late August as the seasons were on the turn and the first leaves were starting to fall from the trees, the final heatwave of summer gave way to cooler days. Stepping out of the Co-op one evening, I unwrapped the white cotton scarf I had been using as a face covering from around my nose and mouth and walked down the steps from the square, passing by the big yellow salt bin that sits dormant by the roadside during the warmer months, waiting for winter. On its lid lay a soggy, misshapen pillow. Abandoned months before, it once belonged to a young man of about twenty who arrived on the streets in early January and took up a nightly residence in the square.
I remember him clearly, because the square lies just outside the city centre, and it’s not a common haunt amongst the homeless. From his age, appearance and demeanour I sensed that he was new to the streets, so I stopped to ask if he needed anything from the shop and if he knew of the places he might seek help, shelter, and hot meals in the local area.
This was before the pandemic, whilst the virus that has altered every facet of our lives was still largely confined to Wuhan in China. I haven’t seen him since April. When the UK shut down at the end of March to bring the national outbreak under control, funding was put in place to ensure that our sizeable homeless population could be put up in hostels and hotels. One day he was sat outside in the early spring sunshine, wrapped in his sleeping bag, dust mask around his neck whilst he rolled a cigarette, and the next day he was gone, leaving his pillow and his sleeping bag behind, draped across the salt bin.
Today I celebrate fifteen years of veganism. I turned vegan in the autumn of 2005 when I was nineteen and in my second year at university. Before turning vegan I ate a normal diet including meat, fish and dairy, and I didn’t pay too much attention to the non-food items I used either, other than to buy cruelty free cosmetics. The only thing I didn’t eat was beef which I stopped eating in the mid 1990s as a result of the BSE / CJD crisis in the UK. It was my decision to stop eating beef when I was ten, and I made that decision because I was so horrified by what I was seeing in the news and the knowledge that BSE was caused by feeding cows – herbivores – low quality food containing the remains of other animals. I was probably more aware of the BSE and CJD crisis than most children and teenagers would have been at the time because, after leaving midwifery in the late 1990s, my mum worked as a nurse and provided nursing home care for a young woman just a few years older than my brother and sister were who was dying from CJD. Knowing what I did, giving up beef was easy.
I have decided to take some time away from Instagram while I try to sort out my thoughts about the platform. In particular, I’m concerned about the role that parent company Facebook plays in shaping dialogue in our increasingly polarised world.
I don’t use Facebook itself. I deleted my Facebook account in March 2012 and I’ve explored my reasons for that here. In brief, I decided to stop using the platform as it kept me artificially connected with ‘friends’ who were really just acquaintances, because I was fed up with the hollow performance of it all, and because of concerns I held about the direction the network was moving in as an advertising platform. 2012 feels like a long time ago now, in the life of the internet. Technology and society have changed so much over the course of the past decade or so, taking us further and further away from what the internet, in my opinion, should be: open and accessible to all, a tool that helps us to connect, to share information, and to solve problems by removing the barriers that stand in the way of communication and collaboration without sacrificing privacy, safety or democracy.
Ed joined me for my daily walk around Edgbaston this evening, the dry and dusty streets carpeted with faded blossom petals and fragrant pine needles as this once in a lifetime spring drifts ever on towards summer. Hundreds of metres of fresh bunting and Union Jack flags had appeared overnight, strung out across front gardens, driveways and cars in celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of Victory in Europe.
Last night at 8pm on the third evening of our semi-lockdown in the UK, hundreds of thousands of people took part in a national round of applause for the NHS. I live in a strong Labour seat, so I knew the clapping, whistling and fireworks were genuine and heartfelt. However, we are just a few months out from a general election where large swathes of the population voted for a party who have been carefully – and not so quietly – undermining, underfunding, and undervaluing the same health service they were stood on their doorsteps cheering for. Talk is cheap and easy, but I couldn’t bring myself to take part in an event which had been co-opted by people who refuse to pay a penny more in tax to fund the NHS, as well as the same government which has spent the past ten years destroying the health service they now celebrate.