Put away the matches – the forest is dry.
It is peaceful in my house at the moment. My two eldest children are away at university, and my two youngest are at school. My husband, a teacher at a school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties, is at work. I am minding my neighbour’s dog this afternoon, but at the moment she, and my own two dogs, are all asleep. The sunlight falls on the dog beds by the window, and the clock ticks, and my spaniel snores beside me on the sofa.
And so I am having a little time to think.
Because I know that it is not like this for others.
Because today in our country there are politicians making speeches using language which, to be put it mildly, does not help promote peace. The language they use sows division and fear and suspicion and the general sense that somehow we are being cheated or threatened by nameless people.
Cheated by whom?
By the foreign doctors who work in our overstretched and underfunded hospitals and help us when we or our loved ones are sick?
By frightened, isolated unaccompanied child refugees in Calais who have a legal right to be here and who are fleeing wars often fought using British-made weapons?
By people whose religion we don’t understand or value?
By those of our own citizens who have the misfortune to be ill and need benefits we really should, in a all decency, and in acknowledgement of our own luck, be glad for them to have?
By ‘bed-blockers’ (horrible term) – those, often elderly, who cannot leave hospital because they have nowhere to go to?
By people labelled by others who have no inside knowledge or respect, who have no right to judge, as scroungers or cheaters or ‘useless’.
The trouble is, such rhetoric is nothing new. We should know better by now.
I fear that too many politicians and media pundits are like people playing with matches in a dry forest – the trees catch fire and they are taken aback by the destruction which ensues.
So please – put away the matches. Choose the stories you tell carefully. Think about the words you use. They enflame people – they catch fire – but fire can destroy as well as warm – where do you want the fire to take hold?
Think about the words other people have used. The stories other people have told in the past – the ‘us and them’ tales which only ended in bloodshed, in tragedy.
We should all know this by now. We should know, whatever political party we vote for, that the wrong words breed fear and that fear breeds hate and that the world cannot exist on hate.
We should know our own recent European history. It is not hard to access, for goodness sake. I cannot believe that what happened in Germany in the 1930s can be so easily forgotten. Those who are the victims of anti-semitism today cannot forget. Those who are the victims of disability hate crimes, or racist attacks, or islamophobic attacks, or attacks because they are gay. They are aware – but we all should be.
I wrote ‘Girl with a White Dog’ because I was uneasy at the headlines I could see in our papers – the way migrants and refugees were talked about as if they were sub-humans. And I was aware that the stories of these subhumans who are threatening our beautiful country are the same sort of stories that were told to children and adults in the Germany of the early 1930s, before the world finally woke up to the evil of Nazism.
And I wanted to tell a different one, with a happier ending. And I still do. And I believe that there are enough of us out there who can do it.
Do we really want to tell the same stories that Hitler told at the beginning of the 1930s? The fairy tales of good people and bad people – but with a value system that doesn’t recognise or celebrate true goodness, or tenderness, or interdependence, or the beauty of difference and diversity?
It started with words. Words which enflamed people.
Let’s use different words. Let’s stop playing with matches in a dry forest – that will only lead to tragedy. We know this. History tells us. If we must use matches, if we must use words which catch fire, let’s light that fire in a hearth, in a home, and make people welcome. Be kind. Use kind words. That builds a legacy of gratitude and love and mutual respect, and leads to Peace.
This is my book ‘Girl with a White Dog’. I wish it wasn’t relevant, but it is. I would like as many children as possible to read it so that they can recognise what sort of stories are being told to them by too many in this country. I want them to know that there are other, better, stories, and they can play a vital part in telling them.
Please support the work of WarChild – this retelling of the gospel story of Jesus, Mary and Joseph becoming refugees has been written by me and illustrated by Sam Usher. It was published last year and raised £30,000 for WarChildUK, but sadly this is a drop in the ocean and so much more money is needed. Nosy Crow are publishing it again this year (so now it is in different formats) in the hope that we can use both words and pictures and continue to raise funds and empathy for refugees.