London this weekend. Friday night cocktails in the Gilbert Scott (cocktails I dream of, my favourite place). A trip out to Becontree to see the Harry Hausen exhibit at the Valence House Museum — which I loved. I mean, the Dagenham Idol is there. I finally got to see Becontree Estate, a landmark council housing estate where they moved everyone from the East End during the slum clearances, and which I had read about in Willmott & Young. So much bigger than I expected though I knew it was big, sprawling, lots of variety in building and some designs I had never seen before, yet it does feel very much the same. Lots of green. We walked and ate ice cream in perfect weather. We saw goslings but also two rats in the park. I suppose they should be allowed their springtime frolics in the grass like everyone else. Then meeting up with China and Rosie for Guggenheim celebrations and lots of catching up. Rosanne Rabinowitz’s book launch and a book of short stories I am so looking forward to, a poteen and ancient pram, followed by a stack of potato pancakes and a giant meat ball at Elephant and Castle. A Sunday morning wander to find everything closed, and Kew gardens with the rhododendrons in full bloom and the trees — so many wonderful trees. Giant victorian greenhouses, the alpine flowers all in full bloom too, and my favourites. Some poppies, so I got a little bit of home.
From Derek Walcott’s Midsummer, 1984…Brixton, uprising, the ideal and the violent, brutal, racist reality.
And Brixton. And the feeling staring back in time and at the violent austerity of the present and into the future if we don’t act, that things don’t change.
With the stampeding hiss and scurry of green lemmings,
midsummer’s leaves race to extinction like the roar
of a Brixton riot tunnelled by water hoses;
they seethe toward autumn’s fire–it is in their nature,
being men as well as leaves, to die for the sun.
The leaf stems tug at their chains, the branches bending
like Boer cattle under Tory whips that drag every wagon
nearer to apartheid. And, for me, that closes
the child’s fairy tale of an antic England–fairy rings,
thatched cottages fenced with dog roses,
a green gale lifting the hair of Warwickshire.
I was there to add some color to the British theater.
“But the blacks can’t do Shakespeare, they have no experience.”
This was true. Their thick skulls bled with rancor
when the riot police and the skinheads exchanged quips
you could trace to the Sonnets, or the Moor’s eclipse.
Praise had bled my lines white of any more anger,
and snow had inducted me into white fellowships,
while Calibans howled down the barred streets of an empire
that began with Caedmon’s raceless dew, and is ending
in the alleys of Brixton, burning like Turner’s ships.
For him she got clean. For the baby, when he was tiny, still inside her.
She’d tried before. Her mom went and got her. She tried. Went back. Tried again. Family in pieces around her. Love for that man a big pull, heroin a big pull too. You will lie, cheat and steal for both of them. They were something to hold on to in this world that hates Black women, I guess. Something.
Lucky for all of us, love for her son proved stronger than the others. Love for herself seemed to come with it, and that was beautiful to see.
He was born too early, so early, still in his birth sac, a miracle baby. A tiny, beautiful thing.
For him she stayed clean. Counting day by day as you do. Fighting week by week, month by month. Celebrating every anniversary. She stayed clean.
For him she got it together, got a job.
For him she ate better, celebrated filling out again, getting healthy. Had just gone vegetarian. Celebrated her skin clearing. Wore bright red lipstick and amazing great big green-framed glasses and they looked so damn good on her. She had the most beautiful smile.
Two years her family and friends had her back, with life and hope ahead of her.
All for him.
Now lost. The doctors told her something like stomach flu, sent her home. But night before last she died in hospital. Completely unexpected. Total shock.
Lost to her parents, lost to her son, lost to us.
My heart a little more broken.
This morning I woke up to the news because they couldn’t get hold of me yesterday, and I thought how the US just keeps taking and taking. Just keeps killing its children, young mothers and fathers — grandparents still raise our next generation. I am too far to be any help, I grieve at an immeasurable distance.
This morning too I woke to the news of the attack on London Bridge, the deaths in borough market. Just as two weeks ago I woke to the Manchester bombing. In our world torn apart by war and wracked by addiction I know every morning is this morning for so many. If only our love and solidarity could end this. I know we can only do our best, but I want to end this and I know I am not alone but I cannot see our way.
A crazy, packed weekend in London, that involved the launch of the 4th issue of Salvage and meeting Andreas Malm (and friends, lots of friends), catching up with my friend Tucker who just passed his viva with no corrections, The Robots exhibition at the Science Museum and much more… and still there was much left undone, friends not seen, stones left unturned.
Robots. Pretty awesome.
From the exhibit description:
Throughout history, artists and scientists have sought to understand what it means to be human. The Science Museum’s new Robots exhibition, opening in February 2017, will explore this very human obsession to recreate ourselves, revealing the remarkable 500-year story of humanoid robots.
It did make me realise that the closer we get to actually making robots real, the less I am fascinated by them. Really it is the old automata and clockwork things I most love. It opened with old clocks, and this, on the subject of orreries:
Possessing a model of the universe became a mark of politeness and respectability in the new, rational world of the 18th Century.
I almost laughed out loud. As I did seeing this:
An incredible and absurdly intricate automaton which they called ‘rose engine’ lathe created about 1750 — this produced a small complicated pattern cut into a round piece of wood. The exhibit notes it was made for someone wealthy – no shit.
I spent a while staring trying to work out where they could add another flourish of metal.
But even better was this automaton monk, made in Germany or Spain about 1560:
This monk prayed, walking across a tabletop while moving his lips, raising a crucifix and rosary, and beating his breast in contrition. He was built as an offering on behalf of King Phillip II of Spain, in thanks for his son’s recovery from a bad injury.
Just one of a whole collection of wonderful (and absurd) Catholic automata, that I suppose given the current state of catholic decorations for the home should hardly surprise me:
In this crucifix above, Jesus’s head would roll from side to side and shed wooden tears of blood while the Mary’s and other mourners raised their arms up to him.
They had this amazing, tiny, mechanical spider
They had the wondrous Silver Swan finished in 1773, originally found in the Mechanical Museum of James Cox, and with an internal mechanism by John Joseph Merlin:
These little silver fish swim up and down when the mechanism is in motion, and the swan endlessly succeeds in catching them, releasing them (you can watch it here, I am sad we did not see it in motion):
But on to the real robots. Maria, from Metropolis, happiness:
Cygan, George and Eric (Britain’s first robot, rebuilt here):
These mad composites of plastic and metal and wood and wire:
And on to a present that is feeling like the future:
In chatting over what we had seen, I realised Mark had the same nostalgia I did walking through the space for the utterly amazing Cosmonauts exhibition, which is the last thing we saw there. Not even robots could displace the memories of awe and wonder. But it was pretty awesome.
I am finally getting around to reading Georg Simmel’s (1858-1918) sociological and urban classic ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ (download here) on the relationship between the city and the people within it. As per usual in reading the classic, most of what you thought you knew you didn’t know at all, and it manages to surprise you. This short essay packs quite an intellectual punch as well, connecting space and population density with economics with human striving and human behaviour in ways that many others never manage, even with the benefit of building on such work that does.
The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life. (11)
I keep turning these things over in my mind, especially in relation to the things I have been thinking and reading that celebrate our connections to land, to culture, to community. Simmel’s celebration of individuality emerges from such a specific European, male, steeped-in-a-certain-tradition kind of place. This place:
The eighteenth century may have called for liberation from all the ties which grew up historically in politics, in religion, in morality and in economics in order to permit the original natural virtue of man, which is equal in everyone, to develop without inhibition; the nineteenth century may have sought to promote, in addition to man’s freedom, his individuality (which is connected with the division of labour) and his achievements which make him unique and indispensable but which at the same time make him so much the more dependent on the complementary activity of others … in each of these the same fundamental motive was at work, namely the resistance of the individual to being levelled, swallowed up in the social-technological mechanism. (11)
This comparison makes even more salient Simmel’s focus on the difference between the city and the countryside, even more interesting that he should make newness and change the foundation of intellect as opposed to tradition and emotion:
The psychological foundation, upon which the metropolitan individuality is erected, is the intensification of emotional life due to the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli. … To the extent that the metropolis creates these psychological conditions — with every crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life — it creates in the sensory foundations of mental life, and in the degree of awareness necessitated by our organization as creatures dependent on differences, a deep contrast with the slower, more habitual, more smoothly flowing rhythm of the sensory-mental phase of small town and rural existence. Thereby the essentially intellectualistic character of the mental life of the metropolis becomes intelligible as over against that of the small town which rests more on feelings and emotional relationships. These latter are rooted in the unconscious levels of the mind and develop most readily in the steady equilibrium of unbroken customs. The locus of reason, on the other hand, is in the lucid, conscious upper strata of the mind and it is the most adaptable of our inner forces (11-12)
Fascinating, too, that this translates for Simmel into pure intellectuality, and thus an instrumentality that facilitates a money economy and capitalism itself.
This intellectualistic quality which is thus recognized as a protection of the inner life against the domination of the metropolis, becomes ramified into numerous specific phenomena…. money economy and the domination of the intellect stand in the closest relationship to one another. They have in common a purely matter-of-fact attitude in the treatment of persons and things in which a formal justice is often combined with an unrelenting hardness. The purely intellectualistic person is indifferent to all things personal…
There are at least two things going on here, I think. The first is the way that the form and crowdedness of the city is both ’cause and effect’ of a certain abstraction and the impersonal relationships of the money economy:
In certain apparently insignificant characters or traits of the most external aspects of life are to be found a number of characteristic mental tendencies. The modern mind has become more and more a calculating one. The calculating exactness of practical life which has resulted from a money economy corresponds to the ideal of natural science, namely that of transforming the world into an arithmetical problem and of fixing every one of its parts in a mathematical formula. It has been money economy which has thus filled the daily life of so many people with weighing, calculating, enumerating and the reduction of qualitative values to quantitative terms. … It is, however, the conditions of the metropolis which are cause as well as effect for this essential characteristic. The relationships and concerns of the typical metropolitan resident are so manifold and complex that, especially as a result of the agglomeration of so many persons with such differentiated interests, their relationships and activities intertwine with one another into a many-membered organism.
This organism, by reason of the crowded and always-changing nature of its spatiality, requires an ever greater temporal organisation:
For this reason the technique of metropolitan life in general is not conceivable without all of its activities and reciprocal relationships being organized and coordinated in the most punctual way into a firmly fixed framework of time which transcends all subjective elements … every event, however restricted to this superficial level it may appear, comes immediately into contact with the depths of the soul, and that the most banal externalities are, in the last analysis, bound up with the final decisions concerning the meaning and the style of life. Punctuality, calculability and exactness, which are required by the complications and extensiveness of metropolitan life, are not only most intimately connected with its capitalistic and intellectualistic character but also colour the content of life and are conductive to the exclusion of those irrational, instinctive, sovereign human traits and impulses which originally seek to determine the form of life from within instead of receiving it from the outside in a general, schematically precise form. (13)
Separate from this, yet connected, is the manner in which the city’s inhabitants protect their own psyche and space. Simmel writes:
There is perhaps no psychic phenomenon which is so unconditionally reserved to the city as the blasé outlook. (14)
What does that mean exactly? It’s something I recognise as a city dweller, though I am not sure I agree with this description or analysis:
the blasé attitude — in which the nerves reveal their final possibility of adjusting themselves to the content and the form of metropolitan life by renouncing the response to them. We see that the self preservation of certain types of personalities is obtained at the cost of devaluing the entire objective world, ending inevitably in dragging the personality downward into a feeling of its own valuelessness. Whereas the subject of this form of existence must come to terms with it for himself, his self-preservation in the face of the great city requires of him a no less negative type of social conduct. The mental attitude of the people of the metropolis to one another may be designated formally as one of reserve. If the unceasing external contact of numbers of persons in the city should be met by the same number of inner reactions as in the small town, in which one knows almost every person he meets and to each of whom he has a positive relationship, one would be completely atomized internally and would fall into an unthinkable mental condition. (14-15)
That last sentence is interesting. With so much stimuli you are forced to shut down a little bit, forced to create some kind of shell of indifference. There is a resonance to this that perhaps I am not quite ready to grant to the rest, but it has me thinking in ways I find particularly fruitful:
Combined with this physiological source of the blasé metropolitan attitude there is another, which derives from a money economy. The essence of the blasé attitude is an indifference toward the distinctions between things. … the meaning and the value of the distinctions between things, and therewith of the things themselves, are experienced as meaningless. They appear to the blasé person in a homogeneous, flat and grey colour with no one of them worthy of being preferred to another… the correct subjective reflection of a complete money economy to the extent that money takes the place of all the manifoldness of things and expresses all qualitative distinctions between them in the distinction of how much. To the extent that money, with its colourlessness and its indifferent quality, can become a common denominator of all values, it becomes the frightful leveller — it hollows out the core of things, their peculiarities, their specific values and their uniqueness and incomparability in a way which is beyond repair. (14)
These two in combination, argues Simmel, leads to the particularities of the city resident as the blasé person — though he pushes it further:
Indeed, if I am not mistaken, the inner side of this external reserve is not only indifference but more frequently than we believe, it is a slight aversion, a mutual strangeness and repulsion which, in a close contact which has arisen any way whatever, can break out into hatred and conflict. The entire inner organization of such a type of extended commercial life rests on an extremely varied structure of sympathies, indifferences and aversions of the briefest as well as of the most enduring sort. (15)
It is from this aversion, this purposeful ignoring of others that leads us to move, to look away that creates what many love most about the city:
This reserve with its overtone of concealed aversion appears once more, however, as the form or the wrappings of a much more general psychic trait of the metropolis. It assures the individual of a type and degree of personal freedom to which there is no analogy in other circumstances. (15)
This is in distinction for other kinds of communities, Simmel sees an evolution from small cohesive circles to whom everyone outside is a foreigner to cities. These small, traditional communities he describes as having:
a rigorous setting of boundaries and a centripetal unity and for that reason it cannot give room to freedom and the peculiarities of inner and external development of the individual. (15)
In contrast to such communities, cities provide the needed room for both perception and development of the intellect — though there is a darker side to such freedom:
The mutual reserve and indifference, and the intellectual conditions of life in large social units are never more sharply appreciated in their significance for the independence of the individual than in the dense crowds of the metropolis, because the bodily closeness and lack of space make intellectual distance really perceivable for the first time. It is obviously only the obverse of this freedom that, under certain circumstances, one never feels as lonely and as deserted as in this metropolitan crush of persons. For here, as elsewhere, it is by no means necessary that the freedom of man reflect itself in his emotional life only as a pleasant experience. (16)
This, for Simmel, is the meaning of cosmopolitanism. I term I didn’t know he used, one thrown about a great deal these days.
It is rather in transcending this purely tangible extensiveness that the metropolis also becomes the seat of cosmopolitanism. Comparable with the form of the development of wealth … the individual’s horizon is enlarged.
It is curious the way that Simmel ties this back into the economy — not into its discourses or the way it shapes the mindset and commonsense of everyday life as before, but in its materiality. First, through rent, which he does not explore which frustrates me. Maybe in that massive tome he has written about money there is more:
This may be illustrated by the fact that within the city the `unearned increment’ of ground rent, through a mere increase in traffic, brings to the owner profits which are self-generating. At this point the quantitative aspects of life are transformed qualitatively. (17)
There is something in this, I think, about the freedom that this particular kind of profit gives. But he does not forget nature or labour:
Cities are above all the seat of the most advanced economic division of labour. … The decisive fact here is that in the life of a city, struggle with nature for the means of life is transformed into a conflict with human beings, and the gain which is fought for is granted, not by nature, but by man. (17)
All of this grayness, crowdedness, freedom combines so that:
one seizes on qualitative distinctions, so that … the attention of the social world can, in some way, be won for oneself. This leads ultimately to the strangest eccentricities, to specifically metropolitan extravagances of self-distantiation, of caprice, of fastidiousness, the meaning of which is no longer to be found in the content of such activity itself but rather in its being a form of `being different’ — of making oneself noticeable. For many types of persons these are still the only means of saving for oneself, through the attention gained from others, some sort of self-esteem and the sense of filling a position.
And you have such a brief time to make this impression. This seems only an interesting aside, making me think of all the characters I have known, walked past in their colourful bids for attention and differentiation. Making me think of fashion, our increasing aim to be distinctive and unique within given limits. But Simmel takes it further than that, makes it more interesting when thinking about concrete city spaces.
Here in buildings and in educational institutions, in the wonders and comforts of space-conquering technique, in the formations of social life and in the concrete institutions of the State is to be found such a tremendous richness of crystalizing, de-personalized cultural accomplishments that the personality can, so to speak, scarcely maintain itself in the fact of it. (19)
The idea that human beings are actually in competition somehow with the built environment, and the cultural panoply of modern life. This leads to particular kind of person:
When both of these forms of individualism which are nourished by the quantitative relationships of the metropolis, i.e. individual independence and the elaboration of personal peculiarities, are examined with reference to their historical position, the metropolis attains an entirely new value and meaning in the world history of the spirit.
No longer was it the`general human quality’ in every individual but rather his qualitative uniqueness and irreplaceability that now became the criteria of his value. In the conflict and shifting interpretations of these two ways of defining the position of the individual within the totality is to be found the external as well as the internal history of our time. It is the function of the metropolis to make a place for the conflict and for the attempts at unification of both of these in the sense that its own peculiar conditions have been revealed to us as the occasion and the stimulus for the development of both. Thereby they attain a quite unique place, fruitful with an inexhaustible richness of meaning in the development of the mental life. They reveal themselves as one of those great historical structures in which conflicting life-embracing currents find themselves with equal legitimacy. (19)
There is so much packed into this brief essay — only 9 pages. I look forward to coming back to it, and it is definitely the sort of piece brilliant for teaching, as I am sure students would read it in very different ways depending on their experience. This makes me want to return to Weber, Durkheim, the Frankfurt School — there is too little time in life to do everything.
Just two other asides, one on Ruskin and Nietzsche and anti-urban sentiment:
It is in the light of this that we can explain the passionate hatred of personalities like Ruskin and Nietzsche for the metropolis — personalities who found the value of life only in unschematized individual expressions which cannot be reduced to exact equivalents and in whom, on that account, there flowed from the same source as did that hatred, the hatred of the money economy and of the intellectualism of existence.
The second, a delightful commentary on London…
a point which I shall attempt to demonstrate only with the statement of the most outstanding English constitutional historian to the effect that through the entire course of English history London has never acted as the heart of England but often as its intellect and always as its money bag.
For now at least. Because it doesn’t seem at all real. Perhaps because I have not moved into somewhere else. There is no other home. Most of my things now sit boxed and bagged beneath the eves of my wonderful friend Heather’s loft, she and Geoffrey, Mark and I having completed one of the labours of Hercules to get them up there. They are safe.
I have a strange ache along my right side, but it’s fast disappearing.
I have no home.
I do have Mark, which is where my heart is. And a corner here, and some of the books I hope to use for research and writing over the summer.
London is an impossible city to say goodbye to.
Above all I will miss people. I know I should have had some kind of evening, some kind of open goodbye kind of a party, but I didn’t have the heart for it. Too much to plan on top of everything else. Moving house, massive academic job applications, a blog for the British Library, articles to finish. The anniversary of my dad’s death, which always knocks me a bit endways. My birthday thrown in there, and me hitting a decade mark. My birthday was the last time I talked to my dad when he was really with it, before fever had sent him delirious. He was already in hospital then. I miss him terribly. He’d quite enjoy my farming plans, as my mum does.
Starting this evening, I will be farming. So this blog will change a bit from cities to countryside, from academic literature to orchards and lambs. It will probably be much more exciting for a while.
But this last one… Goodbyes. Endings. I suppose always most important is people. I said goodbye to a few of the people I love most that I love London for having brought me, but not all. Not close. True friends never have to say forever goodbyes though. Goodbye to LSE, which I won’t miss really, but Holborn and Lincolns Inn Fields I really will.
Easier was to make a list of places I had not yet seen and see a last few of them — that also made me feel that I had done well to see so much because it wasn’t actually that long a list. Freud’s house and a last visit to Kew Gardens and the self-built council flats in Lewisham and the dinosaurs in Crystal Palace are the things I regret not managing to squeeze in. I blame the marathon, because the plan was always to leave on Sunday not Saturday. But plans change I guess.
Because it was my birthday weekend last weekend, we hit the town a little bit. I have never really done the cocktail thing here, so we did it. Friday we went to the cocktail bar in St Pancras Hotel — the ridiculous gaudy Victorian creation of Gilbert C. Scott who bequeathed his name to the bar. I loved it. The cocktails were marvelous as well, and a touch of absinthe always brings bubbly happiness — which is the opposite of what I always think it’s supposed to do, but I fist learned otherwise with the marvelous Switchblade cocktail created for our noir imprint. My phone was out of juice, I got no pictures.
Goodbye to my beloved Brixton and Brixton Village, the latin brunch place with Olive Morris on the wall and delicious food and intense hot sauce:
A last show at the National Theatre — Les Blancs by Lorraine Hansberry.
Chancery Lane to my favourite pub (apart from the Effra), the Seven Stars
More cocktails starting at Simpsons in the Strand — first learned of it the old film Sabotage (1936) as THE place to go for a steak. We went for martinis instead, but never do the floral gin martini thing.
As a place Simpsons as a whole does have a lovely old-elegance atmosphere, and chess is everywhere as this was once the place for that. The cocktail bar not quite as exciting.
At this point I was brave enough to walk boldly into the Savoy and ask where the cocktails were at. There are two bars there, the woman suggested we try both, and that sounded like a really good idea. We started in this black and gold room full of beautiful young things and with some guy playing the piano in that sickly sweet sort of way that college boys think will get them laid. There were pop-up books with an around-the-world in cocktails theme, making you remember once again that Empire hasn’t really gone away. There was a £12,000 pound cocktail using up a barrel of rather ancient rum, a number of others around the £650 and £750 mark, and then a few for under £20. Ours were nice enough.
The American Bar in the Savoy was much better. Of course it was, because this is where Lauren Bacall and Bogey used to hang out, and why we came here at all.
Cocktails were better here too — or maybe we just made better selections.
We called it an (expensive) night.
Sunday we went to the exhibit at the V&A Museum of Childhood — I’d never been, and was quite amazed to see all of the toys I’d wanted growing up and never been able to afford. In that sense we agreed it was a little bit of a museum of the commodification of childhood, but it was still pretty awesome to see these guys, my favourite action figures apart from stormtroopers:
Some of the old motion picture/camera toys were amazing too.
And this was a special moment:
Really though, we were there to see first the exhibition on child migration, which was small but powerful and I think I shall write more about it later — I never knew that thousands of children were sent to the colonies until reading about Dr Barnardo, but it is such a chilling chapter in our history.
Second, and most wonderful was the special section on Peter Firmin and his marvelous creations with Oliver Postgate. Bagpuss, Ivor the Engine, Nog, the Clangers.
From there we headed north, to see 2 Willow Rd, the home built by Erno Goldfinger — the home that pissed Ian Flemming off so much he created a villain in the architect’s honour. Of course, I cared more about the modernist archietct of the Balfour tower and etc.
On the way we passed the rather palatial residence of the Fabian Webbs:
A bit of contrast, as you can see.
This was brilliant (I couldn’t take pictures of the wonderful art, it is full of wonderful art).
More contrast again with Keats’ home
Or this classic
We wandered to the Spaniards Inn, old and lovely and part of the whole Dick Turpin highwayman mythology and also well known to Keats, Dickens and others — sadly now overflowing with people we didn’t care for. Though I don’t know I would have cared much for Keats either. We wandered back through lovely woods, passed Evelyn Waugh’s house.
Finished up with birthday dinner at Rules — again my phone dead. Oldest restaurant in London. Mostly tourists in there, and hunting trophies on the walls and leather and wood.
Then just a long week of goodbyes, packing, goodbyes. A last poetry reading at St Katharine’s yurt lates. A mad concert to see Shostakovitch played by the Borodin Quartet at Wigmore Hall the night before I moved. Frantic packing, moving, hauling, loading, cleaning. Trains and hauling. Sore muscles and sore heart.
Goodbye London. I might even be back, but I think you are far too expensive for me.
And now let the interim farming adventure begin.
It’s never very personal, this blog. No everyday details, no small defeats and great achievements. I am breaking from form. I remember the days when I was so worried I would forget where I came from. Looking for work now, these days it is more of a panic that perhaps I am being dragged back into poverty, and that I might not have actually escaped. Bad dreams. Sudden awakenings. Worries about everything. Such a big change, that shapes everything I write I think, especially when I am reading so many things written by people who have only an intellectual stake in things. Nothing personal.
I know, of course, that everything is personal. When I think about it, I value this. Of course we should care about what we write, of course it means something, all this theory we produce.
But I know this is not valued.
I want to shout that this is not just about a career. This is about erasing exploitation and poverty and racism,about joy in what we have created as well as critique, this is life and death, hope for the future or our own descent into global-warming peak-oil drought and famine horror. This is about change. A career is what is needed to carry this struggle on, to send money to my mother, to live simply but with some decency. So many people seem to just want the career. They are incomprehensible to me.
In a week and a half, I am saying goodbye to London. No job? It makes no sense to cling here. It is perhaps a forever goodbye. Tonight I was out with some of the people I love the most, and I can’t quite believe it is a forever goodbye. It doesn’t feel possible. Again, a goodbye. There are so many of them. Goodbye Tucson. Goodbye L.A. Goodbye London? I will go wherever will hire me, and I have preferences, but in this academic world you can’t want too much.
Since the banks took from us the home I most loved, the home built by my parents, the home in the desert, the mud house nautilus house adobe house, since then I have never fully loved a place. Never fully felt at home. A violence that I have not forgiven, and will never get over. A human violence that makes no real sense in the face of the universe, in the face of what matters. That makes every sense in the face of profit and the reality human beings have created for themselves.
I always worried that I did not understand human beings the way I understood the desert.
But I have loved people since then, communities. They are what I mourn now, what I miss now, the holes in my life where love and wisdom and caring should be. People to tell me I am fucking things up, people to go on adventures with, people to stay up late talking about everything and nothing with, people who laugh with me and who will take care of me when everything goes wrong. I think of them every day but too many of them live thousands of miles away, so I hold them in my heart and wish every good thing for them and all the good they are trying to achieve in the world. Beverley and Jose, Gilda and Gary, Maria and Chris and Jonas, Monic, Gloria and Reina, las dos Marias and Aracely and Manny and Norberta and Bobby and Davin and Lydia and Gerry. Patty and Irene. Leonardo. Don Toñito who has already gone ahead. So many more.
Leaving London will only create more holes. This place full of history and wonder and struggle. This place where you can take a bus or walk home at 3 am and not worry. This place that has transformed what I hope for from a city — local markets and cheap good food, safe streets and no catcalling, good public transportation, friendliness, an incredible mix of people and culture and language, police without guns (though I know some of them still have guns and kettling is no joke), a lack of guns generally, concerts and theatres and free museums and pubs and conviviality and perhaps there’s no country or rancheras on the jukebox or mariachis when I am sad, but there are some places with amazing Mexican food. This list seems paltry, I know I can do better. London is so much more.
I already miss South London, I already miss the East End.
This city is too expensive, for so long I paid as little as possible (still too much) to live in a terrible place and was miserable. Now I live in a very imperfect place that is still my own, a refuge yet I pay so much that everything else in life is out of kilter. I know the political economy of London, know the ways it is eating itself, forcing out everyone who loves it most, killing creativity and joy. I know it is killing itself. It is not an academic example of a city that is bent on destroying everything that makes it what it is. It is a personal example. It has beaten me. It has stripped me once more from a community that I love.
Rationally I know too that it is not London. It is developers, banks, politicians, the financialization of capital and real estate. Yet the soul of the city seems bigger than they are, so in the end I can only blame London itself. I still haven’t quite worked out what that means.
We lobbied to save libraries today, Lambeth council incompetently selling things gifted long ago to their constituents, turning libraries into gyms and paying for the pleasure — I missed the lobby, walked miles, long story, but we ended in the pub. The Railway Tavern, Tulse Hill (Tulse Hill still isn’t quite home the way Brixton is, I hope to have an Effra reunion next week). Sean and Ruth, RMT stories and high fashion librarians and struggle and what the working classes can do to win…about the meaning of books, the losing of spontaneity through high train fares and all the joyful possibility of adventure now gone, being priced out of football and so many other good things. About the way that privatised railway lines got a clause that allowed them charge the government (us, really) for their costs incurred by ‘lawful’ industrial action to the tune of over £20 million pounds. Unbelievable. But still we fight, and all of these fights we are losing. I am not one to say it doesn’t matter as long as we tried, but it has been an honour to fight in this company, and this was another night among so many I treasure — remember that night we occupied the town hall? Hopes were high then. I have no words for the sorrow I feel…
I have seen so much while I’ve lived here, though I have certainly slowed down the last couple years. Now staring my own leaving in the face, I sat and made a list of all the places I’ve been meaning to see for ages but just haven’t yet. I found a few new places to see while doing this as well, and of course, there are some amazing exhibitions on at the moment at places I know and love well.
Today, in a way, was quintessential London — as London was. As it won’t be for much longer. I started at Old St Pancras Church, just behind the station. People have called it the oldest site of Christian worship in England. There is some proof. The current church is lovely, Catholic, a modern reconstruction, but incorporates the many hundreds of years of its history within its walls as Roman tiles, Saxon altar stone, Norman pillars.
The graveyard…a big, beautiful, flowered open space. It was once even bigger, but being so close to the railway station, much of the graveyard was claimed for progress. Thus came into being the ‘Hardy tree’. Thomas Hardy, the novelist extraordinaire himself, was hired to deal with the exhumations, and he chose to arrange the tombstones around this tree like rays about the sun. It is curious, and strangely beautiful.
Here too is the tomb of Sir John Sloane, architect, whose home is another fabulous museum in Lincoln Inn Fields. It is a listed monument, most curious in design (as you would expect), and supposedly inspired the design for London’s iconic phone booths.
Best of all is the tomb of Mary Wollstonecraft (Godwin), amazing feminist, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women — something that knocked me over with its awesomeness when I was young, one of the things that made me want to write.
Her daughter’s book Frankenstein also made me want to write — this is where Mary planned her elopement with Percy Bysshe Shelley.
It also features in Dickens Tale of Two Cities, but that can hardly compare.
This is the kind of place that inspires love for London — except for all those cranes in the background building the modern monstrosities around the station — more unaffordable housing.
Old St Pancras Church
From there I walked to the Grant Museum of Zoology, which represents an early Victorian teaching collection — the goal was to have one of everything back in 1828 when it was founded. It is an extraordinary place, custom-made cabinets of glass and polished wood holding skeletons in various poses, preserved animals in varying degrees of dissection or preservation. Lots of jars.
Lots of moles.
A fossil compsongnathus (my dad used to tell us stories about them) and lungfish, a huge incredible skeleton of a boa constrictor, a tiny octopus (a few of those actually), an amazing ‘museum of tiny things’ (the micrarium). I loved it, despite the hordes of children. Also amazing, but a little more complicated by the connections between exploration, science, and colonialism. Here you can find the quagga and the tasmanian tiger, both hunted to extinction since this museum was founded.
Grant Museum of Zoology
the last stop was unplanned, but I’ve always wondered about the crypt of the New St Pancras Church. It was open, with an artist in residence — ‘Being Silence’ and the artist Evgenia Emets. It was cool seeing her large calligraphy canvases, experimenting with the space. I just took pictures of the space, it is quite amazing.
Also, rather full of figures from the East India Company. Also complicated. But cool to get down here.
New St Pancras Church
And then I got to drive the 68 bus all the way home. Happiness.
The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu (1913) is an extraordinary racist thriller of white fear and desire. While knowing vaguely about the character of Fu-Manchu, I admit I had no idea quite what I was getting into. It is a singular example of racist rhetoric, one that highlights the power and ancient knowledge of the ‘other’ rather than his stupidity or savage nature, a genius which puts the entire white empire at risk — I found its open racism and mad worldview shocking given its popularity — but I know I shouldn’t have.
It opens with a late night visit to Petrie by his friend Nayland Smith, just returned from Burma. Smith explains the reason for his return:
“A fiend who, unless my calculations are at fault is now in London, and who regularly wars with pleasant weapons of that kind. Petrie, I have traveled from Burma not in the interests of the British Government merely, but in the interests of the entire white race, and I honestly believe–though I pray I may be wrong–that its survival depends largely upon the success of my mission.”
Sentences like that are just a bit jaw-dropping. And his mission? To foil the evil Dr Fu-Manchu:
“There is little to fear until we arrive home,” he said calmly. “Afterwards there is much. To continue: This man, whether a fanatic or a duly appointed agent, is, unquestionably, the most malign and formidable personality existing in the known world today. He is a linguist who speaks with almost equal facility in any of the civilized languages, and in most of the barbaric. He is an adept in all the arts and sciences which a great university could teach him. He also is an adept in certain obscure arts and sciences which no university of to-day can teach. He has the brains of any three men of genius. Petrie, he is a mental giant.”
It gets sillier from there:
“But, Smith, this is almost incredible! What perverted genius controls this awful secret movement?”
“Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government–which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”
This explains American and British fears of the yellow peril better than anything else I have read, the crazed inversion of our own desires of empire and domination, our own motives forced upon others and thus excusing all of our cruelties:
“I have only the vaguest idea, Inspector; but he is no ordinary criminal. He is the greatest genius which the powers of evil have put on earth for centuries. He has the backing of a political group whose wealth is enormous, and his mission in Europe is to PAVE THE WAY! Do you follow me? He is the advance-agent of a movement so epoch-making that not one Britisher, and not one American, in fifty thousand has ever dreamed of it.”
It is described as inevitable struggle, a clash of opposites in East and West:
That I moved amid singular happenings, you, who have borne with me thus far, have learned, and that I witnessed many curious scenes; but of the many such scenes in that race-drama wherein Nayland Smith and Dr. Fu-Manchu played the leading parts…
They represent the polar opposites:
A breeze whispered through the leaves; a great wave of exotic perfume swept from the open window towards the curtained
It was a breath of the East–that stretched out a yellow hand to the West. It was symbolic of the subtle, intangible power manifested in Dr. Fu-Manchu, as Nayland Smith–lean, agile, bronzed with the suns of Burma, was symbolic of the clean British efficiency which sought to combat the insidious enemy.
The subtle versus the efficient, the scented and floral versus the clean and manly. I could keep writing binaries, but they are devolving fast. Still, they are all here. At least there is enough of some version of respect here to make of this a titanic struggle:
The mere thought that our trifling error of judgment tonight in tarrying a moment too long might mean the victory of Fu-Manchu, might mean the turning of the balance which a wise providence had adjusted between the white and yellow races, was appalling.
Wise providence? English greed for opium and world domination more like. And still we project upon the ‘other’ in a struggle of good and evil in which the two may never cooperate or combine, only fight to the death:
East and West may not intermingle. As a student of world-policies, as a physician, I admitted, could not deny, that truth.
It is only in the bodies of women that there lies a chance of it, a hope of it, but one forbidden. There is certainly desire, but it is a fatal one:
“She is one of the finest weapons in the enemy’s armory, Petrie. But a woman is a two-edged sword, and treacherous. To our great good fortune, she has formed a sudden predilection, characteristically Oriental, for yourself. Oh, you may scoff, but it is evident. She was employed to get this letter placed in my hands. Give it to me.”
Women are used against white men, yet often backfires given women’s innate treachery — even if she loves Petrie now, she will not for long and he knows that she will betray him. But how tragic it will all become before that happens:
Many there are, I doubt not, who will regard the Eastern girl with horror. I ask their forgiveness in that I regarded her quite
differently. No man having seen her could have condemned her unheard. Many, having looked into her lovely eyes, had they found there what I found, must have forgiven her almost any crime.
That she valued human life but little was no matter for wonder. Her nationality–her history–furnished adequate excuse for an attitude not condonable in a European equally cultured.
But indeed let me confess that hers was a nature incomprehensible to me in some respects. The soul of Karamaneh was a closed book to my short-sighted Western eyes. But the body of Karamaneh was exquisite; her beauty of a kind that was a key to the most extravagant rhapsodies of Eastern poets. Her eyes held a challenge wholly Oriental in its appeal; her lips, even in repose, were a taunt. And, herein, East is West and West is East.
Wow again. I don’t even know what that means.
I think of all his cringing hateful infuriating sentences, those must be some of the worst.
But to return to the city, the geographies of race and crime…this struggle has been brought to London, where a small band of devoted servants shall fight on behalf of the white races:
To Smith and me, who knew something of the secret influences at work to overthrow the Indian Empire, to place, it might be, the whole of Europe and America beneath an Eastern rule, it seemed that a great yellow hand was stretched out over London. Doctor Fu-Manchu was a menace to the civilized world. Yet his very existence remained unsuspected by the millions whose fate he sought to command.
Within these racialised logics, there is really only one place where Fu Manchu could go to find his permanent base, the centre of his many operations — the exotic and exoticised East End. I mean, look at the assumptions of the working class docks, even without his presence:
The cabman she had directed to drive to the lower end of the Commercial Road, the neighborhood of the new docks, and the scene of one of our early adventures with Dr. Fu-Manchu. The mantle of dusk had closed about the squalid activity of the East End streets as we neared our destination. Aliens of every shade of color were about us now, emerging from burrow-like alleys into the glare of the lamps upon the main road. In the short space of the drive we had passed from the bright world of the West into the dubious underworld of the East.
Aliens, people of colour, burrows and underworlds. Where better for Fu-Manchu to camouflage himself? This is the secret London, the London sought by the slummers and the journalists, the wealthy come to gawk, to escape, to make themselves feel better through drugs or charity, to assuage desires and discover new ones, to shiver in their proximity to criminality. Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Burke, and Sax Rohmer among them.
It is a fact, singular, but true, that few Londoners know London. Under the guidance of my friend, Nayland Smith, I had learned, since his return from Burma, how there are haunts in the very heart of the metropolis whose existence is unsuspected by all but the few; places unknown even to the ubiquitous copy-hunting pressman.
It is so clear who Petrie (and Rohmer) understands by the term ‘Londoner’ — the working class, the poor and the non-white are forever excluded.
Curious too, that the East End should be the world of the docks, and that Fu-Manchu’s hideouts are always alongside the water, almost as shifting and treacherous in Petrie’s eyes as Karamaneh:
Ten minutes’ steady tramping brought us within sight of the Thames. Smith and I both had noticed how Fu-Manchu’s activities centered always about the London river. Undoubtedly it was his highway, his line of communication, along which he moved his mysterious forces. The opium den off Shadwell Highway, the mansion upstream, at that hour a smoldering shell; now the hulk lying off the marshes. Always he made his headquarters upon the river. It was significant; and even if to-night’s expedition should fail, this was a clew for our future guidance.
Another question often put to me was: Where did the Doctor hide during the time that he pursued his operations in London? This is more susceptible of explanation. For a time Nayland Smith supposed, as I did myself, that the opium den adjacent to the old Ratcliff Highway was the Chinaman’s base of operations; later we came to believe that the mansion near Windsor was his hiding-place, and later still, the hulk lying off the downstream flats. But I think I can state with confidence that the spot which he had chosen for his home was neither of these, but the East End riverside building which I was the first to enter.
I’m as fascinated by the shifting views of South London as I am by the East End and those are here too, here we have Brixton as a centre of suburban respectability:
“The address is No.–Cold Harbor Lane,” he reported. “I shall not be able to come along, but you can’t miss it; it’s close by the Brixton Police Station. There’s no family, fortunately; he was quite alone in the world. His case-book isn’t in the American desk, which you’ll find in his sitting-room; it’s in the cupboard in the corner–top shelf. Here are his keys, all intact. I think this is the cupboard key.”
There are other interesting things here and there, like in Conan Doyle you find the ubiquity and legality of cocaine, casual sentences like: “Sir Crichton was addicted to cocaine…” Then there are the similarities this bears to some of the Sherlock Holmes stories, the way this is a more noble version of the prurience and violence of the Chinatown of Limehouse Nights. It’s pretty distressing that these were best-selling novels, inspired numbers of films, have entered fully into popular British and American culture. More distressing to untangle how they have shaped it…
I am almost curious to read the latest reboot of the Fu-Manchu novels by William Patrick Maynard, written in the past few years. See how much this shit has changed.
“Irish poverty is a thing apart; it has no model or parallel anywhere in the world; once you have seen it you know that in theory the wretchedness of man has no limits…”
–Gustave de Beaumont, Ireland, its Society, Politics and Religion, 1839
This is a quote given by Flora Tristan to introduce part of her travels and studies of London, a look at the Irish quarter on Oxford Street. (I have written lots about Tristan, the general review of her descriptions of London is here).
At its starting-point, the elegant, long thoroughfare of
Oxford Street, with its throng of carriages, its wide pavements
and splendid shops. is joined almost at right angles by Tottenham Court Road; just off this street, facing Oxford Street, there is a narrow alley nearly always obstructed by an enormous can loaded with coal, which leaves hardly enough room for you to pass, even if you flatten yourself against the wall. This little alley, Bainbridge Street, is the entrance to the Irish quarter.
Bainbridge Street still exists but all the rest of it, absolutely all of it is all gone now as though poverty never existed there. You could not image unpaved streets or coal yards or dunghills here:
It is not without fear that the visitor ventures into the dark, narrow alley known as Bainbridge Street. Hardly have you gone ten paces when you are almost suffocated by the poisonous smell. The alley, completely blocked by the huge coal-yard, is impassable. We turned off to the right into another unpaved muddy alley with evil-smelling soapy water and other household slops even more fetid lying everywhere in stagnant pools. I had to struggle against my revulsion and summon up all my courage to go on through this veritable cesspool. In St Giles, the atmosphere is stifling; there is no fresh air to breathe nor daylight to guide your steps. The wretched inhabitants wash their tattered garments themselves and hang them on poles across the street, shutting out all pure air and sunshine. The slimy mud beneath your feet gives off all manner of noxious vapours, while the wretched rags above you drip their dirty rain upon your head. The fantasies of a fevered imagination could never match the horrifying reality! When I reached the end of the alley, which was not very long, my resolution faltered; my body is never quite as strong as my will, and now I felt my stomach heave, while a fierce pain gripped my head. I was wondering whether I could bear to go any further …
Sometimes I want to hit Flora Tristan, if I’m honest. I’ll spare you the sentimentality that follows, driving her to go further. But go further she did. It is reminiscent of what she found in Shoreditch and Bethnal Green, other centres of Irish settlement:
Picture, if you can, barefoot men, women and children picking their way through the foul morass; some huddled against the waII for want of anywhere to sit, others squatting on the ground, children wallowing in the mud like pigs. But unless you have seen it for yourself, it is impossible to imagine such extreme poverty, such total degradation. l saw children without a stitch of clothing, barefoot girls and women with babies at their breast, wearing nothing but a torn shirt that revealed almost the whole of their bodies; I saw old men cowering on dunghills, young men covered in rags.
What to her could be more other than these impossibly poor people, living in conditions that break my own heart in two. In seeking to describe them she reaches for comparisons and find only ‘negroes‘ and animals. Their dangerous hungers easily mastered by her assurance of authority.
Inside and out, the tumbledown hovels are entirely in keeping with the ragged population who inhabit them. In most of them the doors and windows lack fastenings and the floor is unpaved; the only furniture is a rough old oak table, a wooden bench, a stool, a few tin plates and a Sort of kennel, where father, mother, sons, daughters, and friends all sleep together regardless; such is the ‘comfort’ of the Irish quarter! All this is horrifying enough, but it is nothing compared with the expressions of the people’s faces. They are all fearfully thin, emaciated and sickly; their faces, necks and hands are covered with sores; their skin is so filmy and their hair so matted and disheveled that they look like negroes; their sunken eye express a stupid animal ferocity, but if you look at them with assurance they cringe and whine. I recognised in them the selfsame faces and expressions that I had observed when I visited the prisons. It must be a red-letter day for them when they enter Coldbath Fields; at least in prison they will have fresh linen, comfortable clothes, clean beds and pure air.
A kennel, she writes, where the Irish cringe and whine. They must suffer all the physical misery and hopelessness of poverty, while also being stared at by women like Flora, stripped further of their humanity. This makes me think about the ways such levels of want undoubtedly deform the spirits of those who suffer it (but they are still ‘us’ goddamn it), while also the visual manifestations of it push them beyond the pale of what the middle classes consider human. For Flora, Black folks are already automatically included in this, axiomatic of this status of suffering and otherness. It is hardly surprising, perhaps, that poverty should make the Irish look like negroes to Flora. Act like dogs.
There is such a tangling here of otherness.
It exists in other descriptions of the Irish, like Engels describing their areas in Manchester, likening them to animals and savages, insinuating they cannot be reclaimed but drag the English down with them.
How do they all live? By prostitution and theft. From the age of nine or ten the boys begin to steal; at eleven or twelve the girls are sold to brothels. The adults of both sexes are all professional thieves and their sole passion is drinking. If I had seen this quarter before I visited Newgate I would not have been so surprised to learn that the prison takes in fifty or sixty children a month and as many prostitutes. Theft is the only logical consequence when people live in such destitution as this. (156-158)
At least she does not blame them for their step outside of society’s mores in the battle for survival.
As I have mentioned before, the editing of the book and additional information are splendid — so here are some final facts on the area:
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Irish quarter in St Giles, Holborn occupied roughly the area bounded by Charing Cross Road, New Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue, but in Flora’s time the two last-named Streets did not exist; slum clearance began a few years after her 1839 visit. According to the census of 1831 the population of this district – commonly known as Little Dublin – was a staggering 36,432. The 1841 census registered 82,291 lrish-born residents in London (3% of the population) but this did not include children born in England of Irish parents. By 1851 the number had increased to 109,000 (4.6%) largely because of the influx of Irish after the terrible potato famines in lreland. Professor Lynn Lees has calculated that if children and relatives were added, the figure
would have risen to 156,000, but even this is still short of the
inflated figure of 200,000 that Flora gives for 1839.