Friday, 16 June 2017

Eigg getting on with ordinary, radical lives

With Maggie Fyffe on Monday
I dashed from London to the Isle of Eigg on Monday to join the 20th anniversary celebrations of the community buy-out of the island.

If you don’t know the story, this Hebridean island was in thrall to a series of abusive landlords but created history by becoming a beacon for community ownership in the Highlands.

More than 20 years ago, with photographer Sam Maynard, I documented the deathly grip of landlordism on Eigg, although my grasp of feudal power was theoretical then.

For people living in leaking hovels on the island it was all too real.

Speaking out against their conditions risked livelihoods and homes because Keith Schellenberg, the landlord, controlled everything. But speak out they did, they changed the story and changed their lives.

It took great courage from the islanders, if I can borrow a fashionable phrase, to “take back control”.

Over two decades Eigg has become the proven alternative to the dead hand of landlordism.

Among many speeches and drams on Monday, the soundtrack to the entire day was toddlers gurgling and children laughing. It’s the sound of optimism.

Eigg is now home to 105 souls, a 60 per cent increase since the buy-out, with 19 children.

I bet when I go back in 20 years the population will have doubled.

About 500,000 acres of Scotland are now community owned, small cheer because that’s only 2.5 per cent of the land.

Yet, the minimum wage aside, I can think of few legislative changes other than land reform that have had such an impact on the Highlands in the last two decades.

I loved my day out, it was great to be re-united with old friends.

My journey proved, if it needed proving, that not all politics is in Westminster and there are people who in their ordinary way are a lot more radical than some of the guff on the green benches.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Grenfell Tower blaze - a parable of our times

Grenfell Tower is only two miles from me, so once the radio went off this morning I headed there.  

By the time I arrived at 7.30am the sirens had stopped, the screaming had stopped. People had stopped jumping to their death or throwing swaddled children out windows in the hope they’d be caught.

I walked past row after row of fire engines and dazed, hijab-clad women gathered outside community centres.

People were beginning to wake up and realise that in the smouldering, black pyre behind us people were still alive, children were missing, families missing.

The building itself was a horror, just a horror, the flames still rising across London, the embers falling to the streets.

And it was unbelievable that this could happen in the capital of Britain, in the 21st century.

People were shocked but they were angry too. Locals had warned, again and again, the towers were a firetrap. But they were ignored by the council and the building operators.

The official advice in the event of a fire was to stay put. People ignored that and their lives were saved.

Minister Nick Hurd announced a review of safety in tower blocks but that won’t bring back a single life from Grenfell Tower.

There will be an inquiry but many have come to their own conclusion, echoed by Jeremy Corbyn, that cuts were partly to blame.

Many believe this hellfire was a judgement, that Grenfell will become parable of our times.

This is the price paid when the voices of ordinary people, and the needs of communities, are ignored. 

This is what austerity costs.