I’m adrift in an enemy city, empty handed without a diatribe for any easy delivery, pulling together various threads for a bashful take on a busy month. I’m just about getting by, many are not. Here.
I work one day a week as a sexual violence prevention worker. The demands of the job involve taking trains out to deeply unknown south London boroughs – Bexley, Bromley, Merton. A friend said incredulously ‘who even lives there?’ The so-called no-one, of course, that is, no up and coming artists or breadmaking businesses here, just thousands and thousands of ordinary people, migrant workers, human beings on trains being hassled by ticket inspectors. I meet social workers with pain in their eyes and case loads creaking at the edges. They are glad of a day off to sit with me. They tell me how vectors of vulnerability fuse into each other, the pressure from above to rename old problems with new flashing red lights of risk, leaving people branded under a final insult, a government initiative unbelievably titled ‘Troubled Families.’ As I travel there, my mind is consumed by buildings. Tiny windows. Disused social housing juts from the landscaped around the further reaches of the river Thames, long after the skyscrapers named after kitchen utensils (‘The Cheesegrater’ I kid you not, is the latest) give way to empty industrial units, mudflats and, in spite of the wastelandia – ever more half-built incongruous ‘stunning developments’ for commuters, always foregrounding in their literature how easy it will be to get from their tiny box to Cheese-graterville.
Last week we marched ‘for homes.’ The route of the protest, negotiated with the police, of course, seemed ridiculous at first, deliberately snaking around back roads and avoiding major thoroughfares, but this diversion had the unintended consequence of showing many of the well-meaning marchers just how stark the aggressive demolition of social housing and aggressive building of ever more expensive and exclusive ‘luxury flats’ is. Every. Single. Corner. I am sure there is a word for this – some kind of architectural pathetic fallacy, where the looming ideology of the build environment tells the story. No bricks were thrown and we were sodden through with rain. Shortly after some squatters returned to the Aylesbury estate, a solid late 60s landmark social housing development now already half empty and earmarked for demolition, and occupied it in solidarity with the thousands of tenants (and homeowners) who have been ‘decanted’ (the preferred phrase, tellingly evocative of a ‘liquidation’, for the removal of human life so capital instead can grow) to outer boroughs, unnamed conurbations. It’s hard to put into words how much this city is changing. It feels like losing something, a cyclical bereavement of social life, history, community. Because it is. I have never been evicted, though. This is a notional violence. But I still feel it, I am still scared. People are disappearing. I medicate my simmering rage with context setting architectural critique or maudlin pseudography, bitter sketches, inevitability (Owen Hatherley’s ‘Guide to the new ruins of Great Britain’, Laura Oldfield-Ford’s ‘Savage Messiah’ fanzine collected into a book) and their incredible visions soothe me for a bit.
Relatedly. I work one day a week in an independent archive set up by some old left-libertarians as a repository for materials relating to social movements. Greenham Common. Black Deaths in Custody. Zerowork. Wages for Housework. You name it we have some browning old pamphlet. These are, largely speaking, people who came of age in a twentieth century. I watch them intently. They speak of comrades who were spared jail, of noted theorists and famous agitators. These people’s elders, then often radical leftists of the 60s, 70s, are beginning to get old and die, and the space (Mayday Rooms) was set up to resist state enclosure, strategic defanging, recuperation of this material, or worst still its total neglect and pulping. Listening to and participating in conversations between those approaching 50 and those of my age, there’s a clear rift in the radical psyche. What’s achievable, where our ambitions lie, what it means to compromise so we do more than just the political equivalent shifting and rearranging the furniture in a tiny condemned cell. I also saw some feminist theorists speak in the Tate gallery about trans-generational conversations too. What has been lost? We do not even have the language to imagine what it would mean to engage with London as a liveable city, where a life of mischief, detournement and studied, deliberate ‘unwork’ was possible. This is, also, I think, a British context, but that is where I am. Trouble is, the lost possibilities have become a fetish in their own right, and I am completely guilty of this, but isn’t it natural? Wouldn’t you rather just disappear? I hear, wide eyed, of how penniless activists were able to buy their squat for a few grand, and now live rather comfortably with expensive metropolitan tastes, thank you very much housing crisis. Just as we cannot really imagine a world without digital connectivity anymore, so they struggle to understand just how far enclosure of options for real resistance has gone, in a world that has so deliberately made resigned husks of its young.
The light, when it does gets in, is generated in dark rooms with friends and acquaintances. But you knew that. A shared practice space, an archway under a railway track, has become a home for a ton of cool London bands, shared with a quiet blacksmith and a fiery female motorbike mechanic.
Liminal spaces. Things are happening, slowly, finally, as we save and scrimp and hoodwink real estate agents into showing us around warehouses… finally homing in on making a DIY space in this cold hearted crone of a city a liveable, if even temporary reality.
We make plans and divvy up jobs, and I approach my 29th birthday clinging to tasks not yet completed, propelling myself forward with only hope as a grounding ballast for my own personal husk.