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‘We Recently Had A Daughter. Now She’s 21’

Floating Bookshop, Canal, Kings Cross, London

Floating Bookshop, Kings Cross, London

 Has a  parent got any wisdom for the road ahead ?

21 lines for a 21 year old.

It’s no longer called the age of ‘majority’, when you passed from being a minor to a major. But it remains a liminal moment, with a freedom to do now what you might never be able to do again. And it makes a parent wonder if he can throw any light on the road that lies ahead. It turns out every thought I had has been thought first, and said better, by someone else. (Continued)

‘We Play Football, Every Week, Fourteen of Us…’

On playing football with your mates, every week for twenty years.

We play football, every week, fourteen of us. And then we go to the pub. It’s a different fourteen every week. The fastest fourteen to reply on Sunday evening, when an email announces the game is on. As it has been every week. For almost twenty years. (Continued)

‘Where Do You Get Your News?’

Good Morning. Where do you get your news?

From programmes like this, of course… but traditional news sources are under siege from the internet.

There’s another source of news which is also under threat. This week one of the big supermarket chains announced the closure of several dozen convenience stores.

Many felt the rapid expansion of ‘express’ or ‘local’ stores, would be one more blow to the survival prospects of the traditional corner shop.
You don’t know what you miss until it’s gone. A good local shop provides customers with more than milk, bread & emergency loo roll.

It’s where, for example, I get my news. I get it from Bhupendra, our local shopkeeper. (Continued)

‘Routine Acts of Kindness’

Good morning. A few days ago Sammy Welch, a young mum, was entertaining her son Rylan on the five hour train journey from Birmingham to Plymouth.

Not easy with a three year old in a crowded carriage but Sammy’s parenting skills did not go unnoticed.

After a stop in Wiltshire, she found a note left on the table.

‘Have a drink on me,’ it read. ‘You’re a credit to your generation, polite and teaching the little boy good manners’
It was signed from ‘man on the train at table with glasses and hat’. There was a five pound note with it. (Continued)

‘Just By Being Here All Our Numbers Came Up’

Good Morning. The chances are you’ll play it tonight – or someone in your family will.

The National Lottery – some 70% of us play regularly.

Sissy, 84, is the oldest member in our church syndicate.

The Church has never been a fan of the Lottery but Sissy is… she’s so sure our numbers will come up, that when Renee died, she took on her ticket too.

Some people drop out – their belief falters – but new people join.

The good thing about a church is there’s so much faith to call on.

We have twenty lines of six numbers but Sissy, who studies the lines religiously, is convinced we have a problem.

After a Sunday service she’ll tell me we have too many numbers in the thirties – we need more in the twenties & forties. But we can’t add new numbers without dropping others and we can’t do that because, well, what if they came up ?

How would we live with ourselves?

Over time, we’ve won £4,000. Mind you, our total layout is 20,000… so we’re down a bit.

I tell people it’s a long term investment. Risky yes, but not foolish, like, say, a pension.

You’ve got to be in it to win it. It could be us.

You can’t prove luck exists but we often behave as if it does. Good luck – we say – as if it will make some kind of difference.

Bad luck – we commiserate – as if some unseen force explains why your horse fell at the last or your partner walked out on you.

The odds of winning the jackpot are one in 14million – why do we think it could be us? Maybe because the odds of just being alive on this good earth in this strange universe are so much longer.

Someone calculated the odds of any of us being born at

one in ten… followed by two and three quarter million zeroes.

Or to put it another way: the odds of being alive are so far-fetched that winning the lottery seems quite plausible.

Just by being here all our numbers came up.

We’re luckier still. We can send our children to school, call on the NHS when we’re sick, vote out politicians we don’t like.

Most of this good fortune was made by people who came before us, people who got lucky with their own health or education and decided to share their winnings by working for the rights that we take for granted.

‘Time and chance happeneth to them all,’ says the ancient writer of Ecclesiastes.

Faith and fate, divinity and destiny are not always comfortable in each other’s company – religions find luck hard to explain and may be wise to remain agnostic on that.

While Sissy and I disagree on whether switching our numbers will improve our jackpot chances we both know that we lucked out just by being alive… right here, right now.

‘Dear Alexis Sánchez…’

A letter to a great footballer who escaped poverty – about the working poverty of low-paid staff at Arsenal Football Club.

 

Dear Alexis…

First up… thanks.

For bringing a touch of jinking, swerving, dribbling magic to the Premiership.

For your furious passion to win.

For signing for the Arsenal.

For all the goals… already.

Many people say that you and Angel di Maria at Man Utd are the signings of the season. But apart from the fact you play for the better team, that thing you do with your shorts before a free kick will always give you the edge.

But this isn’t about that.

This is about the cleaners. The people you bump into most days at The Emirates or training at London Colney.

Maybe some days they remind you of the first cleaner you knew, your mother Martina, working all the hours God sent in your home town of Tocopilla, in rural Chile.

Humberto, your brother, says that even though you’ve become one of the world’s great footballers, you’ll never forget your childhood in that small mining town. How your dad walked out when you were a toddler leaving your mother alone, to raise you and him, and your sisters Tamara and Marjorie. As a six year old you were on the street earning cash to help make ends meet.

‘We were the poorest of the poor so Alexis had to earn money any way he could from a very young age.

He would wash cars for a few pence or perform somersaults for a handful of coins from onlookers. He was like a little gymnast, hurling himself all over the place.

‘The neighbours would give him a few coins for entertaining them. Sometimes he was so hungry he would knock on neighbours’ doors and ask for bread. On occasions Alexis would box in the street for entertainment.’

And you described in a film how your mother became a cleaner at your school. ‘When she was cleaning in the school I hid because I didn’t like to see her there.’

Her wages weren’t enough to support the family. She had to take on other jobs — washing fish for neighbours or selling flowers.

You were so good with a football you were known as ‘El Nino Maravilla’ – the ‘Wonder Kid’ — and you promised your mother you would ‘get us out of this situation’.

You kept your promise and fulfilled that dream… but your story is rare.
Other talented kids, playing barefoot on the same local streets, didn’t make it.

Not many escape poverty through sporting genius.
Most people need a fair wage for a fair days work.

That’s why I wanted you to know that while you’ve signed for a great club with fine traditions — including exemplary work in the local community — Arsenal have a bit of a problem.

And it’s the cleaners who can tell you about it.

Although this is one of the world’s richest clubs and season tickets are the most expensive in the Premiership, Arsenal’s directors don’t believe they can afford to pay their cleaners a living wage.

Or matchday stewards. Or security staff. Or those serving hot dogs or beer at the bar.

Hundreds of low paid staff on contract with Arsenal have to make a life in one of the world’s most expensive cities on £6.50 an hour. It’s impossible and, like your mum, they have to take on second jobs, or third jobs.

Up early, home late. Some days never seeing the kids.
I know this from my friend Raja who works for Arsenal on match days. I wrote about him to Ivan Gazidis, Arsenal’s CEO, who pays everyone’s wages.  I asked Ivan to get the club to adopt the Living Wage, calculated each year according to the basic cost of living. It’s the amount someone needs to get by on if they’re holding down one job, instead of two. So they can have a family life, help the kids with homework, go to the pub, watch the football.

In London the Living Wage is £8.80 an hour. That’s a couple of quid more than the legal minimum wage, a couple of quid that, over time, can lift a family out of working poverty. A couple of quid to transform life for thousands of people.

Lots of fans, including The Arsenal Independent Supporters Association , think the club should lead the way and become the first in the Premiership to introduce the Living Wage. Fans are asking Arsenal to take a lead.
If they did, other clubs would follow, and thousands of families would benefit. The Living Wage is already going mainstream. A year ago 400 UK companies had committed to it — today it’s nearly 1,000.

After I dropped my letter to Ivan around to The Emirates, I published it here and 15,000 people read it. Ivan’s mum and dad were activist heroes in apartheid South Africa so he has an idea of what life is like for people on low incomes. Many people wanted to read his reply to my letter but so far he hasn’t come up with one.

At the Arsenal AGM a few days ago Ivan said a Living Wage was a decision for government. This is not an argument he ever uses about ticket prices. But anyway, the Prime Minister David Cameron already backs the Living Wage and so does Labour leader Ed Milliband.

‘Paying the Living Wage is not only morally right,’ says Mayor of London Boris Johnson, ‘It makes good business sense too.’

Ivan tells campaigners that it’s all a bit ‘complex’ — the club employ cleaners and catering people through other companies. But so do hundreds of other major corporations. HSBC, for example, one of the UK’s biggest banks has just agreed to pay all 45,000 staff the living wage — permanent staff, contract staff or temporary staff.

They’re not waiting to follow government, they’ve decided to take the lead. Like Hearts FC in Scotland, announcing at their AGM that ‘we propose to implement the nationally-approved Living Wage, across all staff, including part-time and contract workers.’
Alexis, you recently donated £160,000 to replace five football pitches in Tocopilla.

That sort of generosity transforms life in a local community but decent wages changes life for an entire society.

And what Arsenal’s cleaners and caterers need is justice.

A fair day’s pay for a hard day’s work.

A living wage.

I wondered if you could remind Ivan and Arsène Wenger and the club directors what it’s like to live with the powerlessness of poverty. How trapped you can be when you work hard but still don’t earn enough to change your circumstances.

Many people think the living wage is an idea whose time has come — and now is the moment for Arsenal to show moral leadership. As your great Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda put it: ‘You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming.’

After only two months with the club, your drive and determination on the pitch make it clear you want Arsenal to be winners. If you could help the Arsenal board see how important it is to put everyone who works for them on a living wage the club would win something more significant than any cup or league.

Even by the standards of ‘El Nino Maravilla’, that would be seriously wonderful.

Thanks for reading Alexis

Martin Wroe

PS When Ivan didn’t reply, I wrote to Arsene, your manager, our hero. He’s a trained economist who knows all about recruiting great staff and paying decent wages. He hasn’t replied either. He’s probably focussed on the salary of that defender we need in January but if you could remind him…

‘Thoughts and Prayers’

Good Morning.

A famous entertainer endures the final days of illness.
She’s ‘in our thoughts and prayers.’

Out of the blue an ordinary family face a terrible tragedy.
‘Our thoughts and prayers are with them.’

Innocent civilians, caught in a warzone.
‘They’re in our thoughts and prayers’.

In a post-Christian culture like ours, sometimes the language of faith doesn’t quite ring true. Politicians, for example, put ‘thoughts’ in front of ‘prayers’ to moderate the religious aspect. Most of their audience, they guess, don’t do prayer. They want to convey empathy without pretending that they – or we – are as devout as we once were.

Sometimes the ‘prayer’ word is dropped. During the final illness of Tony Benn, a colleague tweeted that she was sending him ‘all strength, thoughts and best wishes.’We know what she means – and she means well. It’s the thought that counts, even when our words may feel like they don’t count for much. If we can’t honestly pray for someone, we can let them know we’re thinking well of them.

The roots of the phrase ‘thoughts and prayers’ go back as far as 1821 and the Christian Herald and Seaman’s Magazine – an excellent title, sadly no longer on sale.‘Masters and seamen,’ writes the author, ‘As you are about to leave us for the season, I trust we shall follow you in our thoughts and prayers.’ Doubtless they did and the expression had legs.

Finding the right words is tricky in an age of religious diversity – acknowledging the possibility of faith without alienating those who don’t share it. All of us do thoughts but many of us don’t do prayer – at least not in the way people have often thought of prayer … relating to an unseen presence so that our experience of life is transformed. But perhaps there’s more to prayer than we thought. There is a kind of prayer that doesn’t ask whether or not God exists – but sees that contemplation and reflection are strangely transformative.

Last week saw the close of the Matisse ‘Cut-Outs’ show at the Tate Modern. Even though, late in life, Matisse designed a chapel and clergy vestments, he wasn’t sure he believed in God. But as an artist, he said, ‘the essential thing is to put oneself in a frame of mind which is close to that of prayer.’ Sometimes we overrate belief and underplay experience – but the practice of prayer can transcend any creed. On those days when we can’t find the words for what is happening in our lives – or our world – maybe all we can do is

– light a solitary candle on the kitchen table.
– lay a flower at the roadside.
– bow in respect as the funeral cortege goes by.

Sometimes a prayer is as simple as this poem, by the cartoonist Michael Leunig.

‘These circumstances will change.
This situation shall pass. Amen.’

‘Include Your Giving In Your Cost Of Living’

Good Morning. Lady Gaga and Bill Gates have done it but David Cameron and Barack Obama have not.

Russell Brand and Oprah Winfrey have been soaked while Stephen Hawking’s kids did it for him.

Someone you know probably did it this week – then posted the video online.

This is the Ice Bucket Challenge. A cold, wet public humiliation – and a fundraising phenomenon for charities tackling Motor Neurone Disease.

One American organisation has received gifts from 800,000 new donors. Total giving is near 100m dollars.

At some point most of us are moved to give money to help others – to fight disease or hunger, to promote human rights or equality.
If you follow a way of faith, you’re not supposed to make a song and dance about it. Which is a challenge when the Internet wants to make a song and dance about everything.
‘When you give alms,’ says Jesus. ‘Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret.’
In other words – keep it under your hat. Otherwise it looks like self-promotion not self-sacrifice – about your personal good, not the common good.

But marrying comic spectacle with good cause, as the ice bucket challenge shows, demands self-promotion.
Filming it, tweeting it – that’s how the online world rolls.
It put me in mind of a life-changing conversation I once had with a friend.
We were talking about how to give and who to – the bewildering number of causes and emergencies.
From her handbag my friend retrieved what turned out to be the most subversive credit card I’d ever seen.
You could only use it to donate to charities – any one of 160,000 registered in Britain.
‘We decided,’ she said. ‘We could afford £10 a week. We set up the bank transfer. The tax we pay on that is reclaimed and added to our account. Then we give it away.’
I called her this week. Her family are still at it.
Quietly, undemonstratively – giving their money away, changing countless lives. Over 25 years, this one family have given away nearly £17,000 to a dozen good causes.
They include their giving in their cost of living.

They budget for generosity like they do for the rent, the shopping, the car, the holiday or the dog.

They help causes that don’t tug at the heart strings as well as popular ones that do – strategic long-term support with the left hand, spontaneous acts of compassion with the right.
And always discreetly.

Dousing yourself in a bucket of freezing water is great – but you wouldn’t want to do it every week.

To change this world for those who face poverty or disease, who need shelter or education, slow and steady giving wins the race.

We can budget to transform history for good. Over the length of our lives.
And when we feel powerless in the face of the grimmest headlines, this is one effective way to know our lives making a difference.

A Small Book Of Poems

Lyrical Book Cover

Every now and again a small anthology of poets meet up with a small chorus of singer-songwriters and we create an evening called ‘Lyrical’. It’s about celebrating the undiscovered possibilities in words, read or sung.

Five of us have now made a small book, offering a  lyrical twist on events we might ordinarily pass by without noticing: the cold-caller to your phone, that luminous guitar solo, the funeral cortege, the secret life of nature, the ways we miss each other. The poems are drawn from the ordinary and aspire to cast a small light back on it – the arc we wander from birth to death, the promise of faith, the price of love.

There’s also a sixth poet featured: the poem, Final Gift was the last one written by Mark Halliday before his death. Cole Moreton and I published a book of poems with Mark a few years back and sometimes we travelled to obscure locations and read them out loud to very select audiences. The close of Mark’s poem captures the intent in all our writing, ‘to hint at all I should have said but didn’t’.

The illustrator Hannah Cousins has created linocuts by hand from simple pencil drawings, inspired by the poems. Each drawing was covered in ink and pressed onto paper to print the final image. The artist Rob Pepper pulled everything together, looking after design and production – like Hannah a visual poet.

The book has a pretty limited print run but we might try and get it published online in the next few weeks.

‘Dear Arsène …’

An Open letter To The Manager of Arsenal Football Club.

Dear Arsène

Apologies for interrupting your busy schedule at the start of a new season but I’m after a small favour.

A few months back I wrote to Arsenal’s CEO, your colleague Ivan Gazidis, about a friend of mine Raja, who works for you in catering at the Emirates Stadium.

I explained what a reliable, hard-working bloke Raja is, preparing meals, washing up, how maybe Ivan had even been served a drink by him without knowing it. The problem is the wages — even if Raja takes every shift going he can’t make ends meet.

But with the Stadium almost paid for you’ve been explaining how the club is in a new financial era and has ‘more money available today than five years ago’.

And as luck would have it, you and Ivan have been working on this very issue of staff remuneration all summer. You’ve brought in a radical new wage structure so young legends like Ramsey and Wilshire don’t leave us to double their salaries at other clubs like that Dutch striker who used to play for us… name eludes me.

As well as tying down hotshots like Walcott and Cazorla to long-term deals on £100,000 a week you’ve invested £100m on ready-made superstars like Özil and Sanchez. Apparently the AFC books are so healthy, that the annual wage bill has jumped by £40m a year.

So this is the perfect moment to take a look at Raja’s wage structure… and the hundreds of cleaners, caterers, programme sellers and security personel who earn around £6.50 per hour at the club, just above the legal minimum of £6.31.

With your Masters Degree in Economics you’ll appreciate that £6.50 an hour in London in 2014 can leave you a little short. That’s why I explained to Ivan that some weeks Raja needs to cadge twenty or thirty quid from his mates, just to tide him over between one week’s bills and the next.

I described how people on such low incomes have to take second or third jobs to put food on the table for their families, to buy school uniforms for the kids. How they leave the flat early and get home late. How some days they barely see their partners, their children. How some days it’s all too much, the very life sapped out of them.
One morning in the week of the Cup Final (what a day — that’s my photo of Aaron Ramsey at Wembley — what a player ) I walked over to the Emirates and dropped my letter into Ivan’s office. I haven’t had a reply yet but later it dawned on me that at the time he was preoccupied with getting you to sign up to your new wage structure — and what a relief to everyone that you finally signed on. And probably, with all the transfer activity since then, he hasn’t had time to read my letter.

But 15,000 people have read it and a lot of them have asked, ‘Has Ivan replied?’

‘Not yet,’ I’ve been telling them. ‘I might need to get Arsène to remind him…’

I was asking Ivan to get the club to adopt the Living Wage, calculated each year according to the basic cost of living. It’s the amount someone needs to get by if they’re holding down one job, instead of two. So they can have a family life, help the kids with their homework, go to the pub, watch the football.

In London it’s set at £8.80 an hour. That’s a couple of quid more than the legally enforced minimum wage, a couple of quid that, over time, can lift a family out of working poverty. A couple of quid to transform life for thousands of people.

As you know Ivan is from a remarkable family, his heroic parents fought apartheid in South Africa. I’m sure he sees the social justice in the Living Wage argument but when he’s asked about it, he says it’s ‘complex’. Which, as everyone knows, is what the powerful often say in the period before they realize it’s not.

I told Ivan how all the main political leaders in Britain were backing the Living Wage — how David Cameron says ‘it’s an idea whose time has come.’ And in the last couple of months it’s really taking off.
Nestle, the world’s largest food company, almost as big a brand as Arsenal, has signed up, committing to pay the Living Wage to all staff and contractors. ITV has become the first broadcaster to sign up and last month HSBC, Britain’s biggest bank with 44,500 staff, also became a Living Wage Employer. (Funnily enough, when they’re first approached, companies often say it’s ‘complex.’)

A lot of fans are hoping Arsenal could be the first Living Wage Premiership club but Man City are also looking at it. After that 3–0 thrashing we gave them at Wembley you know better than anyone this is not the time for City to beat us again. This is a time for mental strength.

Anyway, here’s the favour I need — I was wondering if you could talk to Ivan about the economic and moral argument for a Living Wage.

A year or two back you brought some first team players to a local school where I’m a governor, promoting Arsenal’s amazing work in the community.

You talked of the three R’s of a good football club — results on the pitch, respect for tradition and responsibility to the community. (Incidentally, we’re a local school not a global brand, but we’re also Living Wage Employers.) You talked of how you’d learnt your moral values ‘through football’ and how a football club must show moral leadership.

‘As a club we have an educational purpose: to give back to those people who love Arsenal so that they learn moral values from our game and how we behave.’

Becoming a Living Wage Club might be ‘complex’ but no-one said showing moral leadership in the community is simple. If Arsenal broke the mould again, it wouldn’t be long before every Premiership club followed suit, transforming life for thousands of people.

There are now 800 Living Wage organisations, up 75% in a year. Household name brands like KPMG, Barclays or Lush Cosmetics aren’t doing it out of charity. They’re doing it because makes economic sense – boosting staff retention, morale and productivity.

I remember you once saying that ‘In a competitive world, not everybody can follow the pace; you will leave people out. We now accept that we must take care of these people.’

To borrow my favourite word of yours, what a truly footballistic idea. The Living Wage is one small mechanism in which a good society — or a good football club — can ensure that people are not left out. It means that the often invisible people who pick up the litter or flip the burgers on a match day also have a decent wage structure on which to build rewarding lives.

You support UEFA’s Financial Fair Play, designed to level the playing field in the era of debt-laden, unsustainable clubs. The Living Wage is like Financial Fair Play for low-paid staff. Hafiz, another Emirates caterer, puts it like this: ‘If we were paid a Living Wage, we wouldn’t need two or three jobs and we could afford to use the tube rather than the bus for long journeys… we could spend a bit more time with the people we love.’
From the open-top bus riding through Islington with the FA Cup in May, you might have seen a small band of people holding up a Living Wage banner. North London Citizens will be organising a little demo like that outside the Emirates at every home match this season. These are fans who believe in your three R’s — results on the pitch, respect for the club’s traditions and now they want the Living Wage to demonstrate the club’s responsibility to the community.

So if you could wander into Ivan’s office and mention that letter — and if he says it’s all a bit ‘complex’, maybe you could remind him of your own philosophy when you said this.

‘The biggest things in life have been achieved by people who, at the start, we would have judged crazy. And yet if they had not had these crazy ideas the world would have been more stupid.’

Best wishes and thanks for making football a beautiful game

Martin Wroe