Sitting on a bus on feeling solid with misery on a cold winter’s day I got a phone call from Chris, who told me he’d had an idea for a ‘newspaper’ called 28 Days – did I want to get involved – finding writers and writing a piece? The call and the prospect of being involved in the project helped lift my gloomy mood then, and working on 28 Days has meant a lot to me since then.
Below is the piece I wrote, which was first published in 28 Days on 10 April.
On election day I imagine my first thoughts will be about my husband Mark Arram and sadness that we won’t be going to vote together this time. On 7 May it will be almost six months since Mark died, a sudden, unexpected, anomic event that left me groping in the dark, uncertain of what remained in this ‘post bomb’ world, let alone if piecing any of it together was remotely possible.
This election leaves me with the same challenge I experience so often without him – how do I embrace life, or even just get through it, without the remarkable, deeply funny, wise man with whom everything was so much more meaningful? My thoughts about this paradox flow into the question of how I respond to the political endeavour of voting, aware of a similar, wider devastation of confidence, hope and passion, and creeping meaningless of the process.
There were two elections during the time Mark and me were together, and on both days we walked to the community centre at the top of our road, enjoying our sense of purpose and pride, the belief that we were doing something important. We chatted to the officials there, said hello to others who were going in, and went to a nearby cafe afterwards to talk about the experience. Later on, Mark and Andrew Cunningham – friend and co-Suburban Pirate, Reggie to his Sly – loaded up their battered black Morris Minor truck with their sound system and gently disrupted the East Dulwich neighbourhood with their music. One song, “Cleggmania” seems so dated now, reflecting the bizarre excitement that grew up about Nick Clegg and the misplaced notion that he and the Liberal Democrats would deliver something different.
This sense of carnival at election time is something I witnessed even more profoundly when I was in Athens for the 25 January election this year. When I went to a polling station in my friend Maria’s home town of Xylocastro in Corinthia, the excitement was palpable among the people who stood talking at the school gates, shouting their greetings to newcomers, and the family friends sitting in a cafe smoking and chatting. During a walk by the sea, we saw a man swimming who kept shouting over and over “They’re coming, they’re coming! Who’s coming? Tsipras is coming!”
The hope and inspiration Mark and I experienced on polling day in London didn’t last much beyond the election night coverage. Like a true carnival, the established order soon resumed.
In Greece, though, the excitement and happiness continued after Syriza and Independent Greeks (ANEL) agreed to form a coalition government on on 26 January, with Alexis Tsipras as Prime Minister. It was as if clouds had lifted as people celebrated life in what friends dubbed, “the socialist paradise of Greece”. Of course there was trepidation, anxiety that their hope might be misplaced, that they were naive to think that this government would be any different. But as my friend Theodora said, “Its’ the first time for five years that we’ve had anything remotely good happen. I don’t want to spoil it.”
I certainly don’t think the political system in the UK is worthy of all the love, enthusiasm and connection people are capable of, and have a lot of sympathy with the view that there’s no point in voting because the current system can’t deliver. But sitting in an Athenian restaurant as we discussed the day’s news, I wanted this election to be different, wanted Syriza to come through as a government that would at last champion the interests of the Greek people against the European union and the financial institutions. Resolutely, I ignored the strains of the song “Things can only get better” going round my head – the song that became such a mockery of the hope in the air on that day in May when the election of a Labour government ended 18 years of Conservative rule.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that Syriza will deliver all that the Greek people hope for – inevitably, already, the sheen has begun to wear off, and who knows if, in years to come, that early optimism will seem misplaced? What then? Do we say it was wrong to hope?
There are no easy answers, not when you look at the situation in Egypt, where many prominent activists who overthrew President Hosni Mubarak after taking to the streets of Cairo in January 2011 to call for bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity, are now in prison for violating stringent new protest laws. But surely we shouldn’t dismiss it as a failed revolution and move on as much of the media seems to have? We need a more mature approach to failure and loss. Sorrow, mourning and lament must be as much part of the language of imagining and working towards a new future as the dreams and visions that drive us.
It also requires a determination to keep going. I remember sitting with Mark watching the immense crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and it dawning on me that what has become a standard of disaffection in this country – that a million people marched against the war in Iraq in 2003 and were ignored – was absurd in the light of what we were witnessing. The Egyptians, in their protest, went out day after day, night after night, they just kept on going. Can you imagine what would be the impact on a government in the UK if a million people marched and then marched again, and again and again?
For me, life seems to be a constant negotiation between the small buds of hope that spring up and the sadness that so much that was precious has been lost. A line from Dylan Thomas’s poem And Death Shall Have no Dominion that was read at Mark’s funeral has stayed with me ever since: ‘Though lovers be lost love shall not’. It mattered that I loved him and it matters now that I continue in love, whatever that means, but it certainly can’t mean giving up on the future or turning my back on life and all the things that were precious to me when Mark was alive.
Despite my lack of faith in the current system, I retain a strong conviction that if the vote was important enough to die for, I shouldn’t treat it lightly, even though many who campaigned for women’s rights only wanted it for a certain class of women and were at odds with the radicals for whom changing the system was a priority. On election day, I hope I will be able to stride to the polling station on my own, in sheer determination to keep going, to keep hoping and to honour the life I shared with Mark. I hope I will also get together with friends and make a bit of an occasion of watching the election results.
This isn’t about positive thinking. There’s no escaping the horrendous reality or the ache of loneliness, the loss of a future hoped for, just as there’s no denying what the experiences of Greek and Egyptian activists shows us, that those in power will use crushing force to put down those who want genuine change. But just as important as what we dream of, or hope for, is what we do when everything seems lost. We keep on. We march, to the booth, on the streets, wherever it takes us. One foot in front of the other, we keep going, hoping, showing up.