Charles Dickens was a famous insomniac and night-time walker. Photo by John & Charles Watkins/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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The Big Tramp comes to London

The Big Tramp, combining the literary tropes of homelessness and night-walking, will raise money for theatre company Cardboard Citizens.

Night-time London has long been a joy of writers. To wander its streets at night, sobre, is to discover a tranquility and beauty that the capital cannot afford during the day, as well as a different variety of ugliness – the stench of urine and fried food is stronger. In the nineteenth century Charles Dickens, workaholic insomniac that he was, drew on his nocturnal exploration of the city in his essay ‘Nightwalks,’ a piece of writing that also explores what he terms “houselessness.”

Homelessness, as we’d probably call it today, also exerts strong influence over English literary culture. George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris in London is a particularly prominent example of the interest writers take in deprivation. And W.H. Davies, the self-styled “super tramp” of the early twentieth century, was also a writer who drew heavily on his experiences of being without a home, even if he is not especially remembered today.

There might seem something distasteful, however, in selling homelessness as an experience, even if it is combined with another literary trope – something that Cardboard Citizens, a company that creates theatre with and for homeless people, is currently doing. Termed the Big Tramp, their walking tour of London this Saturday night will allow participants to see Dickens’ night-time haunts, places mentioned by Orwell in Down and Out, and the dosshouses where Davies stayed.

Will the Big Tramp come across as homelessness tourism? “There’s definitely a danger of that,” Henry  Eliot, who is leading the walk, tells the New Statesman. “But we’re not going to be pointing fingers and observing the homeless in their natural habit, as if we were in a zoo – that would be crass.”

“The point is to raise awareness of homelessness,” he adds. “Most of those coming will be people who want to learn about homelessness and who are in a position to donate – everyone has to try to raise £500 in sponsorship.” The money will be going towards supporting Cardboard Citizens’ 2015 forum theatre tour to hostels, prisons, and day centres in London.

Eliot regularly leads walks like these. He has twice taken a group from Salisbury Cathedral to Stonehenge to see the dawn of the summer solstice, and has led a tour of London themed around T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland. The lucky guests on the latter tour got to see a slurry processing plant not normally open to the public.

“The theme of the Big Tramp was always going to be homelessness,” Eliot says, making reference to the activities of Carboard Citizens. “George Orwell is one of the most famous down-and-outs of London. Dickens was famously an insomniac, and his essay ‘Nightwalks’ was very important to me. The rest grew from that.”

Part of the walk will be a performance of the opening scene of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion by St Paul’s, Covent Garden, where the play is set. The cast will be comprised of actors from Cardboard Citizens. “People mingle and chat on night-time walks, so I imagine the same will happen with this one,” Eliot says. “Hopefully people will learn something about homelessness from talking to members of Carboard Citizens.”

At nine miles the walk is not much of a test, in length, for most people. The challenge will lie in staying awake all through the night. Raising £500 might not be all that easy, either.

Alexander Woolley is a freelance journalist. He can be found on Twitter as @alexwoolley4.

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How the death of a militant in Kashmir went viral

Burhan Wani was a 22-year-old Hizb al-Mujahedin commander. In life, he resuscitated the flagging insurgency. Now, his death has put it on a firm road to revival.

His photographs began to circulate on Facebook last year. In one, he leans against a cedar tree in a forest in southern Kashmir, a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder. In another, he stands before lush green mountains under a cloudless sky.

But the picture that created the myth of Burhan Wani, the 22-year-old Hizb al-Mujahedin commander, was a group shot with ten armed associates standing around him. They faced the camera calmly, a hint of a smile tugging at their lips. The photograph went viral, not only in Kashmir but also across India and Pakistan.

On 8 July, when Wani and two other rebels were shot dead in a joint operation by the police and paramilitary forces, thousands of people across southern Kashmir took to the streets to mourn and protest. The mosques reverberated with slogans of freedom – a throwback to the late 1980s, when armed struggle against Indian rule broke out in the region. The protesters lobbed stones. The police fired back.

The following morning, news of protesters’ deaths started to emerge. The injured, numbering in their hundreds, began to reach the hospitals in Srinagar. Many had been hit in the eyes with pellets from pump-action guns, non-lethal weapons used for crowd control in Kashmir since 2010.

The eye doctors at Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital said that more than a hundred people had been partially or completely blinded. Among them was a 14-year-old schoolgirl, Insha Malik, who lost the vision in both eyes. A picture of her pellet-riddled face has become the symbol of the ongoing mayhem.

The fury soon spread across Kashmir. Mosque loudspeakers boomed with slogans and songs calling for resistance against India. Apart from the government-owned broadband service, internet and mobile-phone networks were shut down. Yet this made little difference. Roughly sixty people – many of them teenagers – have lost their lives. According to figures presented to parliament by the Indian home minister on 11 August, 4,515 security personnel and 3,356 civilians have been injured in the protests.

What made Burhan Wani important enough to warrant such widespread mourning and anger? The answer is tacitly understood in Kashmir but little articulated. In his six years as a rebel, Wani revived anti-India militancy from near-extinction. His strategy was primarily tech-driven – according to police in Kashmir, he hadn’t fired a single shot.

The image of a handsome young man in battle fatigues against a pastoral backdrop, calling for a new attempt at jihad against India, held a powerful appeal for a young generation in Kashmir. These are the people who are enduring the fallout of more than two decades of separatist insurgency, and they are bitter about New Delhi’s oppressive hold over their homeland. With his fresh, viral image, Wani separated his movement from Kashmir’s history and bestowed a new moral glamour on their actions.

He was soon joined by scores of recruits. In 2015, for the first time in a decade, local militants outnumbered outsiders. This year, out of 145 active rebels, 91 are from Indian-administered Kashmir and most of the rest are from Pakistan or Pakistan-administered Kashmir (though this is still a far cry from the early 1990s, when thousands of militants, both local and from elsewhere, roamed the valley). The recruits – many of them home-grown, Wani-inspired youths – are replenishing the ranks as others are killed.

As the ongoing turmoil shows, Wani long ago transcended his modest militant credentials. He has become an emblem of Kashmir’s deepening alienation from India and a role model for young people for whom guns seem to be the only route to a better future.

In life, he resuscitated the flagging insurgency. Now, his death has put it on a firm road to revival. Unlike during the mass uprisings of 2008 and 2010, Kashmir today is drifting back to active militancy, with the myths about Wani enlivening the separatist narrative.

“You will kill one Burhan; thousands of Burhans will be born”, one slogan goes. “Burhan, your blood will bring revolution”, promises another. The millennial generation has little memory of the horrors of the 1990s, of the innumerable killings and disappearances. An estimated 60,000 people have been killed in the armed rebellion against New Delhi, in part aided by Pakistan (which claims Kashmir as part of its territory, in a dispute that stretches back to the 1947 partition of India). Human rights groups put the number of enforced disappearances in the present conflict at 8,000.

Contributing to this mood are India’s rightward turn under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the perception that New Delhi wants to forcibly change the demographics in Kashmir. This fear has been reinforced by recent government measures to set up colonies to be settled by Indian soldiers and Kashmiri Pandits – the latter from a small Hindu community that was forced to flee the region during the separatist violence.

At Wani’s funeral on 9 July, all eyes were on a group of masked rebels in the front row. They fired their guns in salute to their fallen chief. When prayers ended, the mourners strained to catch a glimpse of Wani’s comrades. Those who were close enough kissed them on the forehead before they escaped.

More than a month later, the anger on the streets shows no sign of abating. Protests take place daily across Kashmir. Businesses are shut down for most of the day, opening only briefly late in the evening and early in the morning. Internet access is restricted, except through the state-owned broadband. With each week of disturbances, the numbers of deaths and injuries continue to mount.

Meanwhile, a new video has appeared on Facebook and YouTube. This time, it comes from Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, Wani’s successor. Again, it shows a commander and his associates in battle fatigues, in a forest in southern Kashmir. Bhat waves to the camera as the others remain engrossed by their phones. It, too, has gone viral. 

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge