One of the defining features of cities is the dense web of connections that characterise them. This week I was sharply reminded of this by the appearance of industrial action at my workplace organised by people I know from elsewhere. I was taken by surprise, but it was exciting to have this part of my life intruding on my normally dull workplace. Since industrial action is likely to be ongoing for some time, I now find two of my worlds caught up with each other. This makes me a little nervous as well as excited.
There is certainly plenty of opportunity to gain new knowledge and skills and build new relationships. But alas we live in a country afflicted by repressive legislation, which means I have felt some uncertainty about the best way to show solidarity. Meetings over the coming days should clarify what is possible and how best to support the actions of my colleagues and comrades. The nature of the repressive legislation is draconian, affecting what I would consider to be my right to associate in ways that make sense to me. I am reminded of former times in this country when many forms of association were banned, and people met in back rooms of pubs or on remote heaths and spoke in whispers and codes. This history of repression and resistance is now largely unknown, and the memory of what type of country we live in has disappeared with it. Repression is the knee-jerk reaction of the majority of our elite, and continues to this day.
No wonder the overlords of Londres are committed to a different model of the city to myself. I find the accidental connections made in a city to be beautiful and hopeful. They fear them and pass laws against them.
In the east of Londres, not far from the Tamesis, is a sweet swimming spot in an old dock, beside some thriving lime trees and a thirty seconds walk to the nearest pub. People have enjoyed swimming here for some years, their enjoyment not at all affected by the signs up around the dock saying ‘No swimming’. It is true that there has been one death there from a man jumping in from the side, but this is widely known, and people still choose to swim there.
Choice in Londres, however, is for shopping. Choosing your own risks is not permitted. The local Mayor has lately taken an interest in the swimming spot, by which I mean he has tried to shut it down. There are now fences around the pontoons where people used to sunbathe. Police have been reported instructing people to leave the water. There are new cameras up. So another common space, free to all, has come under attack.
Today I went to the dock knowing this and wondering if I would be able to swim there. Perhaps it would be surrounded by guards on all sides to prevent people enjoying themselves in an unpaid manner. But what I found instead was more people there than ever. The appearance of the swimming spot in the local news appeared to have alerted more people to its existence. To the usual alternative middle class demographic was added working class teenagers arriving on their bicycles. The effect of the fence around the pontoon has been to scatter the sunbathers around various parts of the dock. Now anywhere with a ladder is considered a suitable spot from which to swim.
It gave me, I have to admit, considerable pleasure to see the quiet authoritarianism that governs much of British life backfire so badly. I’m all for informing people better so that they don’t disturb the bird pontoon in the middle of the dock, but in the city of my dreams, adults will largely be allowed to take their own risks.
The sun is back and so is my sleep, which means a better day with a sense of wellbeing. I have been wandering the streets of a rich part of town enjoying the sun and feeling jealous. Jealousy of the property of others is frowned upon, but mostly by those who own the houses and feel they deserve them, or those with religious morality. It seems to me entirely reasonable to be jealous when I struggle to buy even a basic house to meet my needs.
Yes, I feel jealousy is not so bad as a political principle. It says that those few people have something that we lack, that would improve our lives, and there’s no justice in that distribution. Perhaps we ought to amplify our jealousy, weaponise it in campaigns. We could create jealousy maps across the unequal city, and show the wealthy enclaves under siege in a landscape of jealous renters. Perhaps then those who own too much would feel the need to defend their position. Perhaps then it would become more clear that many of them even made decisions that created this inequality, or at least implicitly supported them.
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.