Monthly Archives: July 2014

A Sunday in a Berlin Park

The highlight of our recent short visit to Berlin was the weekly public festival held in Mauer Park. Every Sunday the park hosts a large flea market which pulls in loads of people. The market is ok and sold some decent street food, but it was nothing special. What was special was what was going on in the rest of the park.

A focal point was an outdoor amphitheatre which by 2pm was filled with hundreds of people – all ages and backgrounds, some with their dogs. (As with bicycles, many seem to own dogs in Berlin.) On the stage a couple of guys were setting up their sound system and to much applause one of them began to sing. It was the beginning of 6 hours of public karaoke. Singers were young and old, men and women, sometimes duos and more. All took it seriously and some had even had dressed up for their song. The crowd was in raptures, cheering and shouting, laughing and enjoying every moment. The atmosphere was shared happiness.

At the same time across the open park were groups eating, talking and playing. There were groups of jugglers and acrobats and not least 2 drummers who played 2 incredible sets. Hundreds danced to the drums during the afternoon, bound together by the rhythm and the atmosphere.

So much of what was going on in this park spoke to the kind of world we believe in. Here were people organising their own happiness. You could donate to the acts but there was no pressure. This was not about having money. It was about people of all ages and backgrounds having fun together. The happiness was multiplied by being with so many other people enjoying the same songs and music. There were no committees and leaders just people coming together to entertain and be entertained.

It felt a truly public space. A space for the people and by the people. Apart from the amphitheatre and basket ball court you basically set up where you wanted. There were no ‘security guards’ prowling around telling you where to go. There were no advertising banners in the park despite the numbers. There was plenty of beer being drunk sold by people wandering around; the bottles were dropped only to be retrieved soon after by mainly old men with shopping carts who got 8 cents for every empty they returned. It made sense and it worked.

These are not common experiences for many these days when you have so many states frightened when people come together outside their control and supervision. Such states do whatever they can to make such events as this difficult to happen.

These kinds of gatherings remind us what we can do when we act together, trust one another and respect ourselves. It reminds us of what talents there are amongst us and what beauty people can create.

Even so, we were surprised at 8pm when the big entertainments were stopped by the police. There were some moans but basically it was accepted in good humour and as one of the drummers said, “no hassles please, we want to come back next week”. So there are some limits. After all, this is a city where you can see people waiting for the green light before crossing a road even when there is no traffic!

We would return to Berlin for the Sunday festival but not for much else. Undoubtedly it is a city that has much going for it despite an horrendous recent history. Its parks and trees are wonderful because it means you hear birds in the very centre of the city. It feels safe and it seems to be organised. But Berlin is one of those hub cities which dominate global life and business. It is simply impossible to look at the general comfort and prosperity of Berlin and not think at what cost to the rest of humanity.

On the other hand the Sunday Festival points to another world right where one of the strongest pulses of global exploitation beats. And it would be no surprise to learn that there are other such pulses in Berlin just as there are all over the world.

John Ashton: Not Enough!

John Ashton: Not Enough!

trickle down

I suspect that many people would have welcomed the Guardian’s (July 1st 2014) front page coverage of John Ashton’s comments about health services and major challenges confronting British society.

The paper’s readers are assured that we have a bona fide expert here. Referred to as a ‘senior doctor’ his CV is cited which includes professorships, a CBE for outstanding services to the NHS, a long involvement in progressive public health and now the President of the UK Public Health Faculty (a professional organisation).

I have heard John speak on many occasions. He is eloquent, passionate, and well informed. His oft made plea that we should look upstream when examining any social problem/issue always seemed to me to be very important. Not the least as John would point out it’s pretty futile to keep ‘rescuing people/bodies’ from the river when we need to be looking at just how they got swept into the river in the first place.

It is precisely on this point that John’s comments and observations are so disappointing. He fails to heed his own advice. If he has moved up river from those whose job is rescue then he has moved just a few steps. Not far enough by a long shot.

Inequalities he tells us is one of the biggest challenges facing British society today. I am not sure if the poor of Britain would agree with him and I am very sure that the 80% of the globe’s population who have to get by on less than $10 a day would not. Their problem, they will tell you again and again, is that they live in a global system which is inhumane and unjust. This is a crucial starting point. Just why they ask, are so many suffering when the world as a whole has the clear and proven capacity to provide the means of decency for every single person? What is happening to humanity which stands back and sees so many treated so cruelly. They see and experience every day a system that fails utterly the vast majority of people and which is now imperilling the very environment in which we live. Inequalities they would tell John, are but one symptom of a system that patently does not work for most of us.

‘System’ is the word often used by the poor to describe what they are up against. Capitalism is its heart but not its only part. For the weakest and most vulnerable their most immediate threats come from the state, its police, its prisons, its armies, its surveillance and its supporting agencies such as schools and social services. All operate within similar paradigms of seeing the poor as garbage, waste, not worth listening to, and so accorded no respect.

Stand in these shoes. What do you see? Humanity in action; sharing and trust; mutualities and solidarities ? These you will see and experience everyday because this is how you get by. But from the system? Never.

And do we really need another swathe of research and commission reports to tell us what is a common truth that the system in Britain is screwed just as it is in much of the world. It fails again and again and now in this brutal phase of pulling back state support in order to let profit reign it is a system with few if any redeeming features.

So in conclusion I would urge John to be more bold and travel upstream but this time in the company of those who are rarely heard but have much to tell.

Chris Jones

July 5th