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Face to Face and Side by Side

Gill Hicks lost both her legs in the 7/7London Underground bombs three years ago.  She is now walking between Leeds and London [200 miles] with her new artificial legs. 

I met Gill when she and her WALK/TALK Team walked through Sheffield.  The Sheffield length of the walk commenced in the City’s Peace Gardens.  Leader of the Council, Paul Scriven was among those who gathered to walk and talk with Gill and her team.  In his words to Gill, Paul Scriven said, “I want to launch a new initiative today.  Each year, during this particular week, we will encourage people to walk in each other’s shoes as a way of encouraging people to understand each other better.”  Mike Love, a member of the Walk/Talk Team called on people to build a shared future through conversation.  Then Paul joined fifty or so others to walk with Gill and colleagues through the streets of Sheffield.

I walked and talked with Gill.  As I did so recalled that in March 1997 I had set off from the Peace Gardens to walk to 10 Downing Street along the route Gill was taking to London.  I had walked to hand deliver a letter to the Prime Minister asking for a fairer deal for “Asylum Seekers”.  I asked her why she was walking to London.  “It’s to encourage people to walk side by side with each other and talk with each other, to encourage conversation.” 

“But why are you walking?” I asked her.

“Walking is the most difficult thing I have to do” she replied, “I want to say to people, if I can do this you can do something simpler, meet with each other and talk with each other”.  Gill particularly wants those who fear each other, or just never meet, to talk to each other, and “walk in each other’s shoes”.

The route brought us to Sheffield United Football Club, where former legends like Tony Currie and staff from “Football Against Racism in Europe” [FARE}, came and expressed solidarity.

The walkers moved on to Mount Pleasant Park, Sharrowvale, for a delicious lunch provided and served by Aagrah, the newest Asian Restaurant in Sheffield.  Mohammed Aslam, the Managing Director of Aagrah is part of Gill’s Walk Talk Team and walking to London, supplying refreshments and a support minibus for the entire route.

Perhaps the best way to engage in conversation with friends and strangers is over a meal, and along a walk.

Gill led the walkers on to Sheffield’s newest, purpose built Mosque, in Abbeydale.  The Mosque was packed with around 1000 worshippers gathered for Friday prayers.  Gill was introduced as one who lost both her legs in the 7/7 Bomb explosions and was invited to address the assembled congregation.  She walked up to the front and said what she was doing and shared her simple message of building good relationship with each other, of learning the art of living peacefully alongside each other. 

Gill then sat down, on a chair provided specially for her, and remained until prayers were concluded in the customary manner of sharing words of peace.

At the close of Prayers members of the Congregation came to Gill and expressed words of sorrow and regret at what had happened to her.  “We are very sorry for what has happened to you.”  These were the words said to Gill Hicks.  Words were accompanied by tears.  These were not empty words. 

It was one of the most powerful and emotional moments of love and forgiveness that I have ever witnessed.

It was also a moment of revelation and inspiration.  The path to forming relationships of respect trust among those who fear each other includes taking steps to forgive each other for the ways we have hurt each other.  Forgiveness is one of the hardest tasks in relationships.  “Sorry” is one of the hardest words to say.

Community tensions are heightened by fear of those who are different from us.  Kate Adie commenting in her book “The kindness of strangers” on the aftermath of 9/11, on her observation and reporting of events worldwide, says that we only become interested in strangers when we come to see them as a threat to us.  This is the world in which we live.  There are fears in our communities, of those who are of another faith, ethnicity or nationality, for example. 

Gill Hicks could have gone around to spread a message of hatred towards the Muslim community.  There are those who use fears to create hatred and hostility in our multi ethnic, multi faith communities.   

I came to walk and talk with Gill Hicks fresh from the Government launch of the “Face to Face and Side by Side” strategy, which Hazel Blears MP described as “a framework for a partnership in our multi faith society”.  The framework aims to create more opportunities for face to face dialogue along with side by side collaborative social action.  It’s about increasing our understanding of each other and coming together to share time, energy and skills to improve local neighbourhoods.

The Walk/Talk initiative is one very good example of what we can all do.  Gill says she is doing the most difficult thing for her, walk, to bring neighbours together.  In one day her walk brought people together in Parks, Streets, a Football Club and a Worship Centre.  In different environments she is creating opportunities for people who do not normally meet and talk with each other to do so.  It is possible to challenge political and religious extremism.  We can build a better and shared future together through conversation with each other. 

July 2008                

What if?

What if?  by poet laureate Andrew Motion adorns the side of a Hallam University building. Written for the 2007 ‘Off The Shelf ‘literature festival.

From the Sheffield Telegraph 01 November 2007:

Travellers to and from Sheffield rail station took a longer look than normal at the side of Hallam University’s Owen Building on Wednesday afternoon.

A light show playing on the wall revealed a 131 feet tall poem, What If?, by Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, who was in Sheffield for the unveiling.

In the past, the royal poet has written several poems to mark events ranging from Prince William’s 21st birthday to the Paddington rail disaster.

He has also written poems displayed on the Underground in London, and in several parks. However, the poem now on the wall of the Owen Building, part of Hallam’s central campus overlooking Howard Street, is the most conspicuous he has been commissioned to do, he said.

It was part of the Off the Shelf’s literary festival’s Text and the City project, which has already unveiled public art poems around Sheffield.

Andrew Motion was commissioned to write something to attract travellers on their way to and coming back from the station.

He said he was never in doubt that he should take on the project.

“I have honorary degrees from both Hallam University and the University of Sheffield. This was my chance to give something back to Sheffield,” he said.

The poem reflects arrival in a new city and the surprises and opportunities it can offer. “I wanted to say something about what someone arriving in this city would feel.

Paul Swales, the public arts consultant who has coordinated all of Text and the City’s public art projects in Sheffield, said it took two weeks and two teams of workers to put the large poem on the wall.

Listen to the poem whatif