It’s now three weeks since I returned from my stay in the South of France as the 2014 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellow.
It was an extraordinary time, full of wonderful opportunities and experiences, from sitting on a panel at a London literary festival with Fay Weldon, to swimming in the Mediterranean sea at night by the light of a super moon, climbing right to the top of Charters Cathedral, communing with sperm whales off the coast of Italy, and running a writing workshop in Paris! In between times, my research went extremely well (I really did work, I promise!) and I hope to start working on the book that will result from it in the new year.
There are several very clear experiences and discoveries that will stay with me and continue to infuse my thinking and writing from here on in.
Tidal waves of refugees
One is around the issues of how to deal with the tidal wave of people displaced by wars, poverty and climate change, as it now starts to hit.
It is impossible to travel around Europe (we spent time in England, Ireland, France and Italy) and not be concerned by the large numbers of displaced and distressed people, sleeping on the side of the road or under bridges, begging, some drowning their sorrows in alcohol, others forming into disaffected groups that incite hostility and fear from the locals.
Living, as we were, right on the border of France and Italy, we daily watched the stream of (mainly) young African men trying to slip across the border from Italy into France- and watched the police chasing them and turning them back. It is an ugly game of cat and mouse – hugely race-based – where anyone with a dark face was suspect, while those with white skin cross the border with impunity.
Police officers wait at the local train station and search carriages for black faces and haul them off for questioning. Young kids are spread-eagled in alleyways and searched by gun-toting police.
This mass movement of refugees is at breaking point in the region, with up to 2500 trying to cross borders every week according to The Guardian.
Mass exoduses an overarching crisis
Then, if you take into account the sea of people made homeless elsewhere in the world, i.e. the Middle East, it would seem to me that mass exoduses are among the most major issues the world has to deal with (and God help us when climate change really hits.) Even NZ will not remain exempt from it forever, so what are we going to do? This question challenges me daily now.
The racism would seem to be part of a bigger political picture playing out in France (and the rest of Europe), as unemployment reaches terrifying levels and many countries are buckling under the strain.
In the south of France, just before we arrived, local elections saw the equivalent of the National Front win over 20% of the vote, a similar result mirrored around the rest of France and seeping into the rest of Europe.
Despite all the memorials and relics of WWI/II still so visible everywhere you turn in Europe, it’s frightening to see that the very same kinds of pressures that enabled Hitler’s rise are stirring again, empowered by slick PR and corporate backing.
And all this is plays out against the at-times obscene display of wealth along the beautiful Côte d’Azur, including Monaco (a city-state temple to capitalism.) The gap between the rich and poor, and the excessive privilege of the 1%, exists there as a perfect microcosm of this global problem.
A French lesson
Yet there is much in France that we could learn from, and which makes NZ pale in comparison. In the course of my research trip around France, we were struck by the beauty of the landscape and the far more sustainable farming practices. Farms were not overstocked as they are here; the land is in far better condition, not overworked or overly smothered in chemicals; waterways were cleaner.
There is also a much greater sense of family as important – time made to dine together, play together – far more civilised. There is a totally free health system, covering doctor visits and other free social services that we in NZ now can only mourn the loss of. Prices of food are regulated.
True, they have taxes for everything, but it means that everyone gets to benefit. Socialism has yet to become a totally dirty word there. In comparison, we are steadily eroding all safety-nets and community supports.
With all this playing on my mind, arriving back in NZ on the eve of the elections after reading ‘Dirty Politics’ and watching its fallout from afar did nothing to soothe my growing unease about the eroding of democracy and human rights.
And then to see that, as a country, we could so blatantly ignore the evidence of deceit and corruption and still vote for a John Key-led government left me wondering just what the hell I had come home to.
Wake up New Zealand! Stop believing the spin and Be The Change!
(Parts of this will also appear in ‘Booknotes Online’ in November.)