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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Mayer

2020 Vision, 4 June, 07:30

It was Stephen, our draft-dodger lodger, who introduced us to the brown rice fast. We had recently moved from London to a Northern town made affluent in the mid-19th century by a direct rail connection to Manchester. Our rambling, ramshackle new house came with “period features” dating to that era, cast-iron radiators that clanged and murmured and, in the attic allocated to Stephen, a bell system for summoning help, as needed, to the kitchen, drawing room, dining room or billiards room.

Stephen had lodged with us in London, too, an expatriate American nesting with compatriots. None of us remembers why he decided to accompany us when we moved again. What prompted a young dancer to abandon the buzzing capital to share quarters with a family of five humans, two basset hounds, two cats and a brace of tortoises with diarrhoea? He also endured, with sunny grace, a shifting cast of roommates. My parents often put up touring performers for the duration of their Manchester shows and, for several months, the boyfriend of a London Contemporary Dance Theatre dancer while she received treatment at Stoke Mandeville after a fall on a Manchester stage.

Perhaps Stephen’s choice was dictated purely by economics. I don’t think he paid rent for that attic room with its bells. Whatever his motives, he was lively company, always telling stories and inducting my sisters and me into Californian mysteries. He consulted the I Ching, followed a macrobiotic diet and, when yin and yang slipped out of whack, submitted to a ten-day regimen of brown rice and water. This he called a fast, though he placed no restriction on the amount of rice he consumed.

Most fascinating to me, and I think the reason my parents gave him the room, was his reason for being in England—he had refused to fight in Vietnam. Unfortunately for him, he’d reached that decision after completing his military registration, making him, in the eyes of the US authorities, not just a dodger but a deserter. He faced a prison sentence if he returned home.

Oh America. My earliest years in your bosom, before we set sail for England, are pockmarked with intimations of what you already were and would become. A school photo shows me as the sole dark head among Wisconsin classmates drawn from Scandinavian and German stock. Every morning we raised the flag and pledged allegiance to it, every day imbibed more of your creation myths. We celebrated the genocidal Pilgrim Fathers, glorified abolitionists while ignoring slave histories, heard little of the Reconstruction and its failure, nothing at all of Jim Crow. At night, we watched cowboy movies. The Kennedys and MLK, the Black Panthers, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Kent State, these names circulated at home, but largely without context or clarity. After mishearing a TV news report of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, I imagined the murder weapon to be Saran wrap. I exchanged letters with my Vietnamese “foster sister”, Nguyen Thi Ngoc, mine about hayrides and ice skating, hers dutiful descriptions of benefits my parents’ donation had brought to her village.

Stephen’s predicament began to shift my understanding of the world. I learned that people might stand up for what they believed in and face consequences. It would be years before I understood how different those consequences looked for different communities or the privilege bound up in having the choice to engage or not. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, as America sloughs off its remaining veneer of Yes We Can and HOPE while death tolls both sides of the Atlantic lay bare not only the fragility of human life but the precarity of some lives by comparison to others. What is to be done? It is not enough—it is never enough—to stand back and observe, but effective activism must be responsive and informed, respectful of work already being done and of the people whose experiences and expertise should drive it. It is not enough—it is never enough—to change your avatar, buy the t-shirt. Transformations take energy, imagination and time—far too much of it—and much care.

Last September—a lifetime ago, before Covid, when Andy lived—I travelled to Rekjavik to speak at a global summit, #MeToo: Moving Forward, dedicated not only to identifying the lessons of the movement inspired by Tarana Burke but to the painstaking work that is at the heart of successful activism, embedding those lessons in permanent change. Giving the opening night’s keynote was the same Angela Davis who had featured in conversations I overheard as a child and, as I grew older, became one of my lodestars.

She, too, was in retrospective mood. “Women,” she said, “have been saying ‘me too’ for a very long time. So long that we should have recognised long ago that gender violence and sexual harassment are structural, deeply embedded in cultures, traditions and institutions. But it was not until two years ago, 2017, that these issues began to be taken seriously within the mainstream. When we began to forcefully speak out against the physical and sexual abuse of women, we did not know that it would be fifty years until this ideological struggle against gender violence would begin to yield material results, fifty years of anti-rape hotlines and other measures, fifty years of battered women’s shelters, fifty years of activist commitment, protests, marches, demonstrations. Neither did we realise that it would take just as long for racist police violence to be acknowledged.”

Acknowledged, she said, not contained. Fifty years and such slender progress as we have achieved is as fragile as a human body. How easy it is to suffocate. All it takes is a knee on the neck, a virus in the air. So many who can’t breathe.

“Stay alert,” the UK government urges us. That’s hard to do, as I saw recently, when oxygen levels drop. Hard to do amid a flurry of misinformation and deliberate distraction.

June 1st marked four months since Andy died and the first day of an easing of lockdown here in England by a government offering that easing not in line with scientific advice but as a bribe. Look at this bright, shiny thing and not at our abject failings. Forget your anger over excess deaths, 60,000 now and rising; forget Downing Street advisers who breach their own advice, one rule for us, another for you lot. Forget that death was allowed to rip through care homes. Forget that Covid mortality rates are twice as high for Black, Asian and minority ethnic people and certainly don't ask why. Have a barbeque. After ten weeks confined to our households, we might look forward, said Boris Johnson, to “a long-awaited and joyful moment”, an outdoor gathering of up to six people as the fat sputters and burns.

For ten weeks I have communed with insubstantial spirits that flicker on Zoom or shimmer around me as Andy does. Ten weeks I have spent largely on my own but for weekly visits to help out, at distance, at my mother’s. Of course the prospect of analogue company, of real, solid human presence, is alluring, even if I still cannot touch or be touched. At night I hold my pillow and pretend it is holding me.

Lockdown is like Stephen’s brown rice fast. At first, hunger makes the unseasoned grain almost palatable. By day three, its blandness nauseates. I tried his regime a few times over the years, as a reset after alcohol-infused Decembers. By day four, I could eat nothing. On my final attempt, I made it to a seventh day, then cracked and added a glug of Encona to the tupperware box of glutinous, cold rice. That first forkful, laced with hot pepper sauce, tasted unbelievably delicious.

I remember that forkful as our mendacious government promises to spice up bleary lockdown, but I also remember their own message: stay alert. Without a fully functional testing and contact tracing system, without immediate action to tackle the structural inequalities that make the virus more deadly for some citizens and are deadly in their own right, the heightened flavours of social interaction could prove as delicious as a death row feast.

Letter sent by the Women's Equality Party leader Mandu Reid to Boris Johnson, 3 June 2020. To support Mandu's initiative, click here:

My father, still in Manchester, on 3 June 2020

In London, before the move

All words and images ©Catherine Mayer 2020 except for Mandu Reid's letter and the photograph of David Mayer, which is ©Helen Day-Mayer

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