Each day is filled with guilt. We are reminded on a daily basis that we are at risk of destroying the planet beyond repair. Our use and disposal of plastic is devastating the planet. The effects of the global temperature increase of climate change will be irreversible. Animals suffer at the hands of plastic in horrifying ways, ways in which we have been enlightened to thanks to our collective grand-father figure, David Attenborough. Even supermarkets, which one might argue are the route of the problem, are shaming consumers for the use of palm oil and the subsequent destruction of Orangutan’s habitats. We are to blame, and yet many of us feel powerless to be able to make any significant changes.

Each day we find ourselves confronting our behaviour. Choices we may have previously taken for granted. In the coffee shop, paper cups, lined with plastic film and with plastic lids, both not recyclable, are pushed on us with judging eyes as we explain that we don’t have a reusable cup. Ignoring the fact that they could be using ceramic cups, for those that don’t take-away. Selfishly the reusable cup is dismissed for its bulkiness, we already carry bottles and plastic lunchboxes in our handbags, along with an array of totes for spontaneous shopping, we don’t have space for a reusable cup.

One cup, though, does it really make any difference? Imagine the thousands of cups people use each day, all destined for landfill, what difference will one more cup make? How much can we really do, alone? There’s a niggle in the back of our heads. Rosa Parks, she was alone. She made a difference. Our education haunts us as we place the used-once cup in the bin, along with hundreds of others. The parting shot from our favourite coffee shop, laced with guilt.

At school, we were warned we would run out of fossil fuels by 2040. Reusable energy still takes a back seat 15 years later, fossil fuels still being discovered like treasure in the ground. Geography lessons felt less like learning about life on planet earth, and more about the inevitability we would destroy it. Our teachers spoke with an urgency it is hard to imagine now. Fifteen years later, and all the more urgent, they have been hushed, silenced to the back of our memories. Another generation where it isn’t our fault; we didn’t invent plastic, we didn’t lie about its disposal, we can’t do anything about it, we are too small.

As adults, we’re told contradictory statements, it seems like no decision is the right one. Don’t buy plastic clothes. Cotton is natural with no strain of plastic in sight. It will decompose, but the amount of water it takes to make a pair of jeans, is unsustainable. The carbon footprint of producing cotton clothing is huge. If we don’t feel guilty about one thing we realise we should be feeling guilty about another. Paper has replaced single use plastic in the example of straws. Their impact on animals in their disposal is devastating and being a completely unnecessary item we have been quick to stop their use, but where we replace plastic with paper, we are warned of the un-sustainability of that solution. We can not focus on paper alone, as we are warned that forests are already being cut down at an alarming rate as it is. Destroying animal habitats and adding to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. There seems to be no simple solution.

It is our responsibility as the children those lessons were drummed into. We have grown up. We are the people who work for the big supermarkets who make long lasting effective decisions, we are the ones that work for the ad agencies that encourage and facilitate the projection of a message that needs to be urgently heard. We are the consumers who evaluate our behaviour and choose the establishments we buy from based on their environmental outlook. We carry those reusable bottles with us, those emergency carrier bags. We evaluate our purchases guiltily knowing the outcome of the material used.

Since we were children we have been responsible for the decisions of the generations before us. Generations before us have ignored the issues. They continue to in some cases sweep them under the carpet. (The leader of the free world denies the existence of global warming, although I’m not sure to whose gain.) Our generation has been loaded with the ammunition of knowledge and the passion to create a more sustainable world. There will always be contradictions and people may refuse to change, from whichever generation, but we have to listen to that guilt - niggling feelings of doubt, those judging eyes when we take the single-use cup. Whilst we are envious that the generation before us didn’t have these worries, from the knowledge we now have about the impact of plastic on the environment, we have to accept that we are the ones that have to make the change. It has to come from us, one reusable cup at a time.

Virginia Woolf takes you by the hand and walks you through her story one character at a time. Strolling with you through London you accompany Clarissa in her party preparations, before picking up the pace to more of a waltz as you find yourself passing between the party-goers, London's social elite, later on. It is a challenging read, with few page breaks and chapters dividing the prose, yet it is so fluid and seamless I regret it was my bitty commute that broke the magic. Woolf uses the space to connect seemingly otherwise unconnected characters in a way much representative of life. It is such a concise novel, I'd recommend if you can take it in in one sitting, you'll see the benefits.

In amongst the affluence and celebrative nature of the party,  Woolf weaves the darkness of the story of Septimus Warren Smith, a retired war veteran who struggles with his mental health with what we would now recognise as PTSD. Woolf uses Clarissa's character to dismiss the effects of war on mental health, sweeping it under the carpet, reflecting her frustrations with the medical service at the time. 

Seamlessly, Woolf juxtaposes the highs and lows of emotion with the highs and lows of society making for a critical and unsympathetic assessment of society and medical services at the time. 

Writing a novel in the inter-war years, Woolf has confronted issues head on, making her opinions known. I feel like in writing, we all should be doing the same.

I usually had to convince people to get the bus with me, but Jetta was willing. The number 68 bus was the bus I took to work everyday. I hate the tube and the trains from South London can be unreliable. Sitting at the front we had a perfect view of Brockwell park in the sunshine, as we negotiated the early morning school traffic. She didn’t question why I would purposely take a long journey into work, although she was understandable reserved about getting up so early. She just wanted to come with me so we could postpone our good-bye. She lives in Germany having moved there from London, and I barely see her once a year, so every moment is precious.

The bus, we both appreciate, having had a fair amount of experience living on the Piccadilly line, is a pleasurable way to travel. It may be slow, but the views from the top deck are unrivalled. It may get busy, but it is barely noticed from the front seats. We were in our own little bubble, slowly taking in the sights of suburban south London through a sleepy haze, blissfully unaware of the growing crowd behind us.

The 68 bus has been a comfort to me. Getting the tube makes me anxious. I hate the loud noises and the claustrophobia. I feel trapped underground, jumpy at any sudden noise or a rowdy passenger. Jetta had almost cancelled her trip to London, after the horrors of London Bridge flooded the news, which had followed the attack on Westminster, just weeks before. A time when Britain was and very much still is, on high terrorist alert. I had reassured her that it was the safest time to visit London, the worst was over. Of course I didn’t believe it. Not for a second. I wasn’t in London when the attacks of 7/7 happened, but I think about them every time I am on a tube. I remember, I must have been 17, coming home from school, seeing the news. The people running, the thick smoke, the knowledge that the worst wasn’t being shown. 56 people dead, many more with life changing injuries. Every time I get on the tube, I think, I am putting myself at risk.

The bus is calm and you can get off whenever you please. Each morning I sit at the front, a girl about my age gets on the other front seat opposite, a Chihuahua tucked away in her fur-lined coat. On the same bus every day I often see the same people. We have become a little community.

The day Jetta came with me, however, that girl wasn’t on the bus. I had been disappointed, I had wanted to show her the puppy. Instead in that seat was a man I hadn’t seen before. He was middle-aged and dark-skinned, his eyes so dark I couldn’t see his pupils. I first noticed him because he had a bracelet in his hand, he was passing the beads through his fingers. They were pearlescent, a rich brown, similar to a bracelet I had when I was a child. I had wondered if Jetta had one too. He seemed anxious, sat poised on the edge of the aisle seat, as though he wasn’t keen on getting too comfortable. He was muttering underneath his breath, the words I couldn’t understand getting louder as we approached Elephant and Castle, a busy south London junction.

I became hyper-aware of him, the way he sat, the beads passing through his fingers, the foreign words muttered under his breath. Jetta was talking to me but her voice had become an echo, secondary in my attention to the man sat next to us. Her words were disembodied from her, like we were under water. I became frightened. My heart raced. My veins were filled with adrenalin. My body was urging me to run: fight or flight. I fumbled into my bag for my phone and typed a message, which I showed Jetta. We need to get off this bus. She was confused. I hadn’t been responding to her conversation. I could feel blood draining from my face. She nodded and without even looking at the man, she made her way downstairs, pressing the buzzer to get off like there was nothing strange about it.

Off the bus, I assured her we could get on any old bus from here. We wouldn’t be waiting out in the cold for long. My eyes followed the bus through the junction, around the one-way system. It didn’t blow up, there was no flames, or screaming. I felt silly. I felt ashamed. I felt cowardly. We stood awkwardly denying the strangeness of what had just happened. My shame amplified by the complicity of my witness.

I had judged a man by the colour of his skin and his ethnicity. I could blame the media; the constant reports of the state of red alert; the supposed imminence of a terror attack. I could blame the tension created by the culture of fear. But it is ignorance that causes fear and it is my ignorance that is to blame. I hadn’t understood the language he spoke so I immediately feared it. I hadn’t understood why he was talking to himself with beads in his hand, so I feared it. My ignorance fuelled my fear and fear fuelled my actions.

I did see that man again on the number 68. He took an early bus to work just like me. We both sat at the front and enjoyed the views. While I chose to read on the long, slow road to London, he chose to pray.

© 2018 Kylie-Ann Homer.

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