“Under my Umbrella”

My first impressions, when I saw the pictures on the TV, of scenes of floodwaters along The Wicker in Sheffield, took me back to the hurricane and floods of New Orleans and the Tsunami.  June has been our month of monsoon.

New Prime Minister, Car Bombs, Bomb alerts, Terrorism, War and the Smoking Ban have been in the news but our focus has been on our local reality.

When the big rains came, the volume of water and the routes it took, surprised everyone.  This was a flood of Biblical proportions.  The extremely heavy rains of June have broken all records.  Where was the ark to save us?  There were 3000 emergency calls in Doncaster alone between Mon 24 and Fri 28 June.  The Fire Service answered a call every 30 seconds.  The RNLI came from coastal regions to assist in the rescue efforts in South Yorkshire.

Sheffield’s floods exposed some important truths about our city. 

First, our City is divided into two by the River Don.  When the river swelled up and flooded, one of the greatest causes of concern was that people were prevented from crossing the river by road.  This was the cause of some of the most serious traffic jams and delays.  Many people were stranded away from home on the other side of the Don to where they lived.  Members of family were stranded in different parts of the City and separated.  Many people couldn’t get home from Day Service Centres, Hospitals, Schools, Work and Shopping Centres.  Nurses and other staff couldn’t get in to work to start their shift and relieve colleagues.

Second, the past five or six years have seen tremendous property development and investment along the River Don.  Luxury apartments have been built along the river banks and sold at astronomical prices.  At the same time, houses have been demolished, for example, on Wincobank and Woodside.  These are areas of considerable beauty that are considered to be “less desirable” for living or investing in.  Furthermore, the eating houses providing Caribbean, Kurdish and Pakistani cuisine along the Wicker were all flooded and are now closed awaiting refurbishment.  There has been investment for the wealthy, but not protection for the vulnerable businesses.

Third, the aged infrastructure in parts of Sheffield along the River Don has proved to be inadequate.  Nature has reclaimed the River Don since the Steel Industry has declined.  The tropical temperature of the waters has disappeared.  Fish have returned.  It’s good to see kingfishers and even cormorants.  Fig Trees abound along the river banks.  But the new pollution is the rubbish people throw into the River.  This along with fallen trees helped to block water routes in the river.  We cannot simply shift blame for the floods on to nature, or just ask “how could God allow such disasters”.  We also have to acknowledge the consequences of our own lifestyle.

Fourth, Pop song “Under my Umbrella” sums up the real sense of community spirit that has been evidenced among us.  The Major Incident Plan, and the Emergency Services went into action and deserve thanks from us all.  But they were assisted by countless acts of love and sacrifice from ordinary people.  Extra shelter was provided for those stranded, or suddenly bereft of their homes, by schools, superstores, the Royal Mail and hospitals.  Stories of hatred and terrorist activities have created fear in communities.  People transcended this and offered hospitality.  Many welcomed complete strangers into their homes and gave them shelter.  Radio Sheffield’s Good Neighbour scheme has been an excellent idea.  
Plans to prevent floods in the future will require attention around river banks, flood plains, architecture and design of buildings, roads and railways.  We must all consider our own lifestyles also, and reduce the amount of waste we create and throw away.  Throwing rubbish into the rivers and dykes must end, and the Council must take greater care of our rivers, river banks and river beds.

Our own floods will help us to empathise even more with people in other parts of the world who are victims of extreme weather and disasters.  Floods in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India over the same period in June killed six hundred people, and a total of 1.2 million have been affected by the storms. We have learnt from the Tsunami and the situation in New Orleans’ floods that our care strategy is judged by how we respond to the needs of the poorest and the most vulnerable among us.

1st July 2007

Face to Face and Side by Side

Gill Hicks lost both her legs in the 7/7London Underground bombs three years ago.  She is now walking between Leeds and London [200 miles] with her new artificial legs. 

I met Gill when she and her WALK/TALK Team walked through Sheffield.  The Sheffield length of the walk commenced in the City’s Peace Gardens.  Leader of the Council, Paul Scriven was among those who gathered to walk and talk with Gill and her team.  In his words to Gill, Paul Scriven said, “I want to launch a new initiative today.  Each year, during this particular week, we will encourage people to walk in each other’s shoes as a way of encouraging people to understand each other better.”  Mike Love, a member of the Walk/Talk Team called on people to build a shared future through conversation.  Then Paul joined fifty or so others to walk with Gill and colleagues through the streets of Sheffield.

I walked and talked with Gill.  As I did so recalled that in March 1997 I had set off from the Peace Gardens to walk to 10 Downing Street along the route Gill was taking to London.  I had walked to hand deliver a letter to the Prime Minister asking for a fairer deal for “Asylum Seekers”.  I asked her why she was walking to London.  “It’s to encourage people to walk side by side with each other and talk with each other, to encourage conversation.” 

“But why are you walking?” I asked her.

“Walking is the most difficult thing I have to do” she replied, “I want to say to people, if I can do this you can do something simpler, meet with each other and talk with each other”.  Gill particularly wants those who fear each other, or just never meet, to talk to each other, and “walk in each other’s shoes”.

The route brought us to Sheffield United Football Club, where former legends like Tony Currie and staff from “Football Against Racism in Europe” [FARE}, came and expressed solidarity.

The walkers moved on to Mount Pleasant Park, Sharrowvale, for a delicious lunch provided and served by Aagrah, the newest Asian Restaurant in Sheffield.  Mohammed Aslam, the Managing Director of Aagrah is part of Gill’s Walk Talk Team and walking to London, supplying refreshments and a support minibus for the entire route.

Perhaps the best way to engage in conversation with friends and strangers is over a meal, and along a walk.

Gill led the walkers on to Sheffield’s newest, purpose built Mosque, in Abbeydale.  The Mosque was packed with around 1000 worshippers gathered for Friday prayers.  Gill was introduced as one who lost both her legs in the 7/7 Bomb explosions and was invited to address the assembled congregation.  She walked up to the front and said what she was doing and shared her simple message of building good relationship with each other, of learning the art of living peacefully alongside each other. 

Gill then sat down, on a chair provided specially for her, and remained until prayers were concluded in the customary manner of sharing words of peace.

At the close of Prayers members of the Congregation came to Gill and expressed words of sorrow and regret at what had happened to her.  “We are very sorry for what has happened to you.”  These were the words said to Gill Hicks.  Words were accompanied by tears.  These were not empty words. 

It was one of the most powerful and emotional moments of love and forgiveness that I have ever witnessed.

It was also a moment of revelation and inspiration.  The path to forming relationships of respect trust among those who fear each other includes taking steps to forgive each other for the ways we have hurt each other.  Forgiveness is one of the hardest tasks in relationships.  “Sorry” is one of the hardest words to say.

Community tensions are heightened by fear of those who are different from us.  Kate Adie commenting in her book “The kindness of strangers” on the aftermath of 9/11, on her observation and reporting of events worldwide, says that we only become interested in strangers when we come to see them as a threat to us.  This is the world in which we live.  There are fears in our communities, of those who are of another faith, ethnicity or nationality, for example. 

Gill Hicks could have gone around to spread a message of hatred towards the Muslim community.  There are those who use fears to create hatred and hostility in our multi ethnic, multi faith communities.   

I came to walk and talk with Gill Hicks fresh from the Government launch of the “Face to Face and Side by Side” strategy, which Hazel Blears MP described as “a framework for a partnership in our multi faith society”.  The framework aims to create more opportunities for face to face dialogue along with side by side collaborative social action.  It’s about increasing our understanding of each other and coming together to share time, energy and skills to improve local neighbourhoods.

The Walk/Talk initiative is one very good example of what we can all do.  Gill says she is doing the most difficult thing for her, walk, to bring neighbours together.  In one day her walk brought people together in Parks, Streets, a Football Club and a Worship Centre.  In different environments she is creating opportunities for people who do not normally meet and talk with each other to do so.  It is possible to challenge political and religious extremism.  We can build a better and shared future together through conversation with each other. 

July 2008                

What if?

What if?  by poet laureate Andrew Motion adorns the side of a Hallam University building. Written for the 2007 ‘Off The Shelf ‘literature festival.

From the Sheffield Telegraph 01 November 2007:

Travellers to and from Sheffield rail station took a longer look than normal at the side of Hallam University’s Owen Building on Wednesday afternoon.

A light show playing on the wall revealed a 131 feet tall poem, What If?, by Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, who was in Sheffield for the unveiling.

In the past, the royal poet has written several poems to mark events ranging from Prince William’s 21st birthday to the Paddington rail disaster.

He has also written poems displayed on the Underground in London, and in several parks. However, the poem now on the wall of the Owen Building, part of Hallam’s central campus overlooking Howard Street, is the most conspicuous he has been commissioned to do, he said.

It was part of the Off the Shelf’s literary festival’s Text and the City project, which has already unveiled public art poems around Sheffield.

Andrew Motion was commissioned to write something to attract travellers on their way to and coming back from the station.

He said he was never in doubt that he should take on the project.

“I have honorary degrees from both Hallam University and the University of Sheffield. This was my chance to give something back to Sheffield,” he said.

The poem reflects arrival in a new city and the surprises and opportunities it can offer. “I wanted to say something about what someone arriving in this city would feel.

Paul Swales, the public arts consultant who has coordinated all of Text and the City’s public art projects in Sheffield, said it took two weeks and two teams of workers to put the large poem on the wall.

Listen to the poem whatif