I awoke this morning to the beginnings of another sweltering day. Deciding to embrace it, I went out for a run. Sweat ran off me in streams and the burnt ground of the local park was like concrete beneath my feet. A nice thing about extreme weather is that it becomes more acceptable to talk to strangers in Londres. “This heat is terrible isn’t it?” And we share a moment of solidarity, and remember that there’s nothing to stop us speaking to people on other days, except habit, and sometimes exhaustion.
But there is something to stop us. I know what it is, but find it difficult to express it in a way that makes instinctive sense. The economic structure of daily life reduces our space to have relationships with each other. We relate to much of our world through commercial relationships, and these take up space where deeper relationships could happen beyond the family. This is part of the appeal to me of co-operatives: they are not a solution to all the worlds problems, but they are a different way of relating to each other.
As I left the house this morning the sun shone bright but the air was cool. A neighbour’s culinary efforts floated to my nose: roasting coconut. I found myself for a split second in Thailand, in the back streets of Bangkok, a vat of coconut curry bubbling away on a nearby street stall. I like it when other cities appear in Londres like this, particularly a city I am as fond of as Bangkok.
The life of the alleyways was something totally different to other parts of the city, which were often colonised by suits and mobile phones and Seven-Elevens with air conditioning. Here people left their doors and windows open and the smell of cooking or laundry was always in the air. It was the smell of people living, and the women responsible for so much of it crossed your path with a ready smile and a twinkle, their work and social life inextricably one.
It would be foolish to romanticise these scenes too much: no doubt they often represented poverty, definitely gendered work, and I’m sure that dark things happen behind open doors as well as closed ones. Yet what was alluring about the streets was that they were undoubtedly made by the people who lived in them. I walk down the street near my house, lined by high walls and a row of trees, and it is clearly created by the town planners. We suffer from their mistakes and enjoy their successes but the streets are never ours. The soi life of Bangkok – the activity of the people – makes the streets, and that is why sometimes, for a few seconds, I am back there, and love it.
I have just returned from a certain Alban city in which I once lived. For the first year there I was happy, the second year less so. I finally packed my bags and went south once more, fleeing the weather and the boredom, with no house or job to welcome me. For someone who in general loves cities it is a curious experience to go back to a city I did not love. It reminded me of another city, much further south, that I also did not love, full of shopping malls and fascists. In both cities I could be said to have had bad luck. If I had met different people my experiences could have been different. It is the nature of the current city that we can all have deeply individual experiences of them.
In part too it is about attitude. In the Alban city yesterday I was amazed to see how much of the city I did not recognise. I was narrowly focussed at that time, through no fault of my own. Exploring was beyond me. It seems to me that I could go back to the Alban city and have a different experience. Much more so than the southern city. No matter how many great people I met there, shopping malls and fascists would still have circled me like the mountains. The Alban city I could make mine, in some future where we owned our cities. The southern city I could never make mine.
A city, some claim, is made up of public spaces and private spaces. I do not know which city such claims refer to, but I have never lived in it. Londres does have private spaces – this room in which I type, looking into the alcove where my desk sits, closed door next to me – and it does have public spaces, if less than it used to. But there are also thousands of spaces that are neither public nor private; spaces in which people meet together. These spaces are interesting because, like all spaces, they are created by the people who inhabit them, but the range of possibilities in these cracks is much greater.
I think of the meeting I had last night, in an organising space in central London. Some people there felt we had created a stressful meeting together. I felt no more stressed than in many a meeting. I would like to feel stressed in none, but the imperatives of achieving certain goals so often overrides.
I think of a meeting a few days ago, where forty people took democratic decisions together. We created a high together by taking each other seriously, by listening to each other.
I think of a meeting with some Catalan officials a month ago. It started out stilted, faltering. Only slowly did we feel more sure of our common interests. The power imbalance was felt by me, and inside, a secret desire for influence. The tensions in the room became inner tensions.
We create these common spaces together. We don’t often wonder what it is we are creating. Nobody I know genuinely knows how to make productive meetings fun. When it happens it feels like an accident. Is the future fun and productive meetings, or are we doomed forever to productivity+fun?
It is a still, close day in a Londres heatwave. I am at home but unusually the house and garden are empty. Even when I’m not feeling sociable there is a part of me that appreciates the buzz around where I live. In the future such conviviality in the city will be the norm.
Last night forty of us in a room in Forest Gate modelled what the future will look like. We gathered to discuss our dissatisfactions with housing in Londres, but most importantly to work out what we should do about it. To sit in a circle with forty people and reach agreement on what a better city would look like is a rare privilege in this age. In the city worth building, such conversations would be the norm.
Which is not to say that the democratic discussion is the only point of such encounters. Not at all. If anything what I get most from personally is the relationships built in such environments, the sense of belonging that can be built. It is possible that democracy, belonging and relationships among equals all mean the same thing, or could mean the same thing.
The city is experiencing a minor heatwave. The sun blazes down all day every day. It changes the places. As I cycle around I feel myself not here, in Londres, but elsewhere: Medellin, Mexico City, Buenos Aires. The atmosphere changes. Life on the street seems possible. The ghosts of intense family relationships, conservative morality and the possibility of collective action are all around. The smell of hot tarmac offers the promise of an increased conviviality.
In a small town, name forgotten, in northern Bolivia, I stumble upon a street party. I am invited to join. A man offers me cocaine on the end of a key. My nationality is a matter of curiosity. There is a moment of believing oneself part of a globespanning, never-ending party. But bonds so quickly forged are equally quickly broken. The end of the party is a return to the family, away from the wider family of the street. I cannot follow indoors, unless the offer of a cousin as partner is taken up. I am just a foreigner passing through a city. Or the city passes through me.