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A rare glimpse of civilisation

Light on water (Grand Canal, Dublin, from Baggot St Bridge)

Light on water (Grand Canal, Dublin, from Baggot St Bridge)

Walking along the Prom’ in a complete daze due to lack of sleep this afternoon, I had a flashback to another sunny day. Unseasonably and unusually so, for Manchester. And once more I was back there in that northern city, pounding the circuit around the city centre, hemmed in by police, barriers and my fellow marchers. Cheered on by the occasional well-wisher (why weren’t they marching at our sides?), more often stared at with blind incomprehension, we moved on briskly. The absurdity of the whole situation was weighing on my mind.

Bunch of predominantly middle-class bien-pensant types, giving up a major part of our weekend to achieve … what?
Bugger all, frankly. Except demonstrate that what was being done was not, as the slogan had it, in our name. Barely enough to do more than salve our wounded consciences. While the people represented by the Palestinian flag I was given were really being sold down the river by their own kind – Hamas.
I remembered an ex housemate of mine from recent, post-disaster days. A proud Basque, chef and international relief worker, he was in the UK to improve his English.
“You know,” he mused one evening over supper, “the only time I saw the people happy was on that march in London …”
He was referring to the turnout against the Iraq invasion that saw up to a million people take to the streets.
“Yes,” he continued, “they were happy because for a moment they felt they were together.”
So he’d noticed how atomised our society had become: hardly difficult, so obvious is this condition.
He’d noticed other startling matters, too: “I am shocked,” said he, “at how much the men in this country hate women. They hate – it is real hatred. You know, I come from Espain – and the word ‘machismo’ is, of course, Espainish and is no accident! So when I come here, I expect better of the men. But no, for here …!”

But on that day in Manchester we may well have been exhilarated by a sense of solidarity, however ephemeral and illusory, we marchers; but we were wasting our time on that day in Manchester, and I for one knew it. Any battles worth winning had been long-lost, I was thinking as I stomped along the road in my heavy old walking boots.

And then I saw him. Pale, thin, tense – the boy. Aged in his late teens or, possibly, early twenties, he perched teetering on the pavement’s edge, his position uncertain in a crowd of obvious Muslim supporters of our march. Precariously he stood balanced on frail gangling limbs, dark-clad and avid-eyed. A cloud of tight curls, black as night, framed a face of ghostly whiteness, his skin and features so delicate you could almost make out the framework of blood and bone beneath, complex and oh-so fragile. With the over-large hands of late adolescence, he held on, knuckles whitened, to a placard.
I peered at it as I approached, making out the words he’d blocked out on the paper covering:

I laughed, and waved my pointless poster at him.

“Shalom!” I yelled, grinning and eyes alight to get my message over: I admire you; I am glad to see you, and I wish you well. Most of all, I wish you peace: “Shalom aleichem!” I called out to him.
He smiled joyously, and mouthed the rejoinder “Aleichem shalom.”
I wanted to run over and hug him; but our march was nearing its finish and I feared losing my companions and, even, missing the coach home. A friend who worked as a radiotherapist in an oncology unit once told me her opinion that a hug was a means of giving someone some of your energy. It made sense to me. So I wanted to give the boy some of my own energy; but the level of his bravery and resolution perhaps precluded such a gesture which may have appeared patronising. Respectful acknowledgement from a distance might be more appropriate, I felt.
In any case, what did it matter – he had already given me so much, how could I possibly reciprocate adequately?
But by holding him there in that moment, gloriously alive in my memory and prayers, I can continue to celebrate him and all he stood for with such obvious and moving vulnerability and humour. He warmed my heart, made me exercise my brain – and learn that I was wrong.
Peace be with you, peacenik boychick. I will never forget your gift of engagement and encouragement. In that fraught moment some of his strength was transferred to me.
Peace be always with you, whoever and wherever you are. And may you, as the Jewish blessing has it, have a long life. We need you, you see. We need more boys and men of your calibre – and desperately.
We need him – those of us who feel enough’s enough, already.

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