Solus and the City

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I’m very happy to be a part of this event via Degenerate Space

I’ve contributed this essay, which will be displayed in the structure that they are building. It can be seen from the 1st of June as part of the London Festival of Architecture at Greendale Playing Fields, just off Dog Kennel Hill in Camberwell, SE London. The themes were solitude, sanctuary, women negotiating urban space. Some of it is based on a previous post, Doing Identity

Here’s what I wrote:

On the Street

Growing up as I did – a ‘weird’ kid with undiagnosed autism, a unique dress sense, the oddest parents in the neighbourhood, and indoctrinated as a good baby revolutionary, was pretty lonely. Sometimes I had friends to pal around with, but more often, I didn’t. But, since home was not always comfortable, either, I walked the London streets alone a lot from the age of about ten or eleven. Often, I crossed and re-crossed the street to avoid other children, from whom I always expected, and often received, a hostile reception. I walked in a state of constant paranoia and tension, trying to remain alert to any possible danger. At home I got rubbish advice: try to be more like other people, because dressing my individuality was attracting the hostility, or to just punch people who bullied or physically harassed me. But as far back as I can recall, I have been a pacifist and an individualist. So no help there. At the age of twelve, I did try for a while to dress like everyone else at school, and I cut my problematic hair (curly, bushy, frizzy, huge). But I felt so miserable in my ‘normal drag’ that I decided the trouble it caused me to dress as I pleased was worth it; I returned to my own tastes.

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McEntee school, Walthamstow, which I regularly absconded from

That was the year I discovered, during the chaos of a teacher’s strike, that truancy was a thing. Rapidly I learned to take advantage of the fact that I was often mistaken for my mother on the phone: I rang up the school in the morning and excused myself, changed out of my uniform, then spent the day walking around London. Sometimes I wandered far, as far as the British Museum or National Gallery, where I swooned over Egyptian artefacts and Tudor paintings; sometimes I walked around and around closer to home, weary and driven, not enjoying myself at all, but unable to stop. The city streets are hard, they blistered the soles of my feet. I got lost in the maze of streets and had to retrace my steps. Sometimes I saw groups of truants in the shopping centre, where I would only venture on rainy days. They were having more fun than me. But I never went to speak to them, and I often saw them being questioned by authority figures. I didn’t want to get caught. In the backstreets of ‘Theatre Land’ I saw drunks on the streets, urine trickling away from them in streams that stained the tarmac. I kept walking, never stopping. Once an older boy, brother of a kid in my class, followed me for a couple of hours and tried to chat me up. I knew I had to be jaunty but firm, and to keep walking, just keep walking, to fend him off without making him angry.

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Me aged 16

As I grew older, leaving school at fourteen and spending a year travelling the world with my family cemented my individualism. I returned to London (sans parents), aged fifteen, did not attend school, and embarked on a year or two of constantly changing my appearance and hair colour. It called even more attention, not always hostile, but often it was the attention of men, in cars, on scaffolding, just walking down the street. Now I had sunglasses to hide behind, and a fierce image which I wore as a shield. I told the men to get stuffed if I was feeling confident, or just blanked them, hot, angry, humiliated on the inside. I cultivated what I like to call ‘fuck off-vibes’ and insisted that I would walk where I liked, when I liked. I would not take up the cultural burden of fear that society tries to drum into the female body. I drew on my anger about the fear culture and projected that outwards, striding along. I’m not physically brave, but walking through London at 3am, perhaps dressed as a punk, perhaps as Madonna circa Desperately Seeking Susan, I felt that I was willing to risk anything in order to feel free, as free as a man might. No-one ever approached me then, even in Soho, even in the 1980s ruins of Docklands – I must have looked pretty angry.

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Art on the street in Bristol

I also became a ‘tagger’ for a while, writing my graffiti tag as often as I could on every available surface. Our tiny crew walked everywhere, as much as we could, because that was how you found the newly-cleaned-of-graffiti bus shelters to ‘bomb’ (entirely cover with graffiti), and at night was the best time to tag post boxes, phone boxes, any kind of signage, billboards, etc. It was another kind of urban freedom – we claimed the space as our own by marking it, and we became part of a network. The first time I went Kilburn I was paranoid until I saw a familiar tag. I felt reassured – I was not in entirely unknown, unexplored territory. ‘Care’ had been there before me. So I still feel at home in areas covered in tags. I know they are not the acceptable face of street art. They are often poorly penned, poorly executed, and seem to me to be poorly chosen (a ‘tag’ is like a single-word signature that you don’t change often. If you come up with a good one, you may keep it for years, even decades. The word you choose may be misspelled in order to make the artistic flow of the letters better). A good tag is a beautiful example of the calligrapher’s art, executed at speed, often on an uneven surface and with felt tip or spray can. So I’m often, when in cities, caught standing in front of a wall of tags, looking for the good ones, laughing at strange word choices, by young people who may well wonder what the hell this middle-aged white woman is doing. If I lived in a city now, I think I would engage in street art again. It makes a city yours.

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Burnt-out taxi

Nothing makes me feel more liberated and powerful than challenging those societal fears that my female body might be violated if I am alone, or where I ‘shouldn’t’ be. I have experienced just as much – or more – violation indoors, in domestic settings, where I should have been safe. And in other ways, I like to play with urban space and feminism. Although I never ‘man-spread’ when space is tight, if the bus or train is fairly empty and my clothes allow, I will sit with legs apart, arms resting along the seat backs, just taking up space in the way I see men do all the time. It garners a lot of surprised looks (I admit, I relish those looks), but it makes me feel that I belong in the space and the space belongs to me. I will stick out my elbows and square my shoulders and muscle my way through a crowd, and only step out of someone’s way if they are also behaving politely. I’ll sit on the steps, on the ground, climb over walls and railings, dash across the road. Because the more you let the conventions of civil behaviour rule your body and where and how you negotiate the city, the more you ingrain obedience into your psyche. I do not advocate rebellion against civility itself – I am considerate, helpful, polite, always making room for people who need a seat more than I, offering help with a bag or a pushchair, holding doors open and trying to spread good feelings in my wake. But I won’t submit to rude, pushy and aggressive people. Nowadays, having lived out of London for sixteen years, I no longer generate my ‘fuck off-vibes’ all the time, I have slowed my pace, I can walk without being driven by paranoia as I was when I was a child and a young woman. I talk to people in shops and on buses like the bumpkin I’ve become. But something of the streets will always be in me, something of the rebel who jumps the gate instead of going all the way around, and the woman who enjoys messing with preconceptions about how to use space and where and when and how we can be in the city.

People power

freedom

The word ‘anarchy’ has long been misconstrued as meaning ‘chaos and violent disorder’.

anarchy
1. a state of disorder due to absence or non-recognition of authority or other controlling systems.
synonyms: Lawlessness, nihilism, mobocracy, revolution, insurrection, riot, rebellion, mutiny, disorder, disorganization, misrule, chaos, tumult, turmoil, mayhem, pandemonium
2. absence of government and absolute freedom of the individual, regarded as a political ideal.
The word has, since the 1660s at least, always carried both of these meanings.

A direct translation from the original Greek αναρχία or anarkhos‘, would be ‘without (‘an‘) a leader/ruler (‘arkhos‘)’. And I think we can see the huge split in the two definitions thus: while an anarchist movement sees the second – the political ideal which elevates (and demands) every citizen’s participation and contribution and chooses an optimistic view of human nature and sociability, anyone describing anarchism from the position of the entrenched ruling elite will, of course, plump for the first – chaos, mutiny, insurrection.

It seems almost impossible for us in our large, centrally-controlled nation states* in the 21st-century world to imagine how an anarchist society might work. Indeed, I am new to anarchy myself (identifying as such only within the past 12 months) and still learning. But it unquestionably true that anarchism is the longest-running system of human organisation, the form of social organisation within which the human species evolved and grew up, and it continues to be the way in which mobile hunting-gathering-foraging peoples live. I guess that, if pushed, I would suggest a political system of local collectives which decide issues by consensus (predicated upon total freedom of movement and the choice to join together in whatever collective best suits your own inclinations), accompanied by a system of participatory representative democracy at a larger level, so that all citizens could/should take a turn in representing their communities.

An anarchist world would not be without problems and divisions, of course. So many, many people are unhappy, ignorant, lazy, mis-educated, and in order for us all to live and let live, we will need to address this. But community life breaks down a huge amount of barriers and heals a lot of wounds, as I know myself. Working hard together on projects that are larger than one’s own concerns is excellent at creating ties between people. Hunter-gather-forager communities do have to work to keep everyone equal. Typically this is accomplished with humour and love, gentle teasing, and practices such as ‘insulting the meat’ to prevent prolific or skilled hunters, for example, from getting too full of themselves. This is a lovely post about how this egalitarianism is sustained, and reproduced generation to generation.

Although we may think that such organisation is impossible in the huge nation states of today, if we stop to think about most of the movements and technologies that make major and positive changes to our lives, we can see that it’s always people/citizens that make the difference, make the change. A truly representative government should indeed always follow the people, but our governments, only having to worry about their remit every 4-5 years, often do so only when forced to by overwhelming public feeling. Universal suffrage, the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements, the dismemberment of empires, LGBTQ rights, environmentalism; all of them started at grass-roots level, all eventually gaining enough momentum to force policy change in governments. The fight goes on on all these fronts and new movements begin all the time.

But does this not inevitably lead to the question: so why do we need the governments? They almost cannot help becoming distanced from the people, because they are corralled and given special status. While the hunter-gatherers make sure no-one’s ego gets over-inflated, our leaders are driven around in fleets of limousines with police escorts and wined and dined in palaces. They almost cannot help getting mired in corruption and graft because it costs so very much to become a leader. Because half of our MPs were privately educated, networks which link them to business and the judiciary are inherent to the system. A sense of specialness and privilege imbued since primary school is hard to eradicate (just go and have a look at some of the private schools and prep schools and try to imagine what it might have felt like, walking into one of those places every day, seeing other children walking into crappy comprehensives. There’s no need for the difference to be articulated, it can be seen and experienced).

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Westminster School
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McEntee School (my school)

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, 75% of human ingenuity, creativity, intelligence, passion, ability, talent, is languishing. It’s stuck behind gender and colour bars, wasting away in refugee camps and prisons, working in bullshit jobs or sweatshop jobs or slave-labour jobs. It’s scrabbling to feed its children and pay for medicine and school and housing while we pour oil on the land, plastic into the sea, particulates into the air. We have all drunk the Kool-Aid about anarchism. We don’t feel capable of dealing with these huge issues, making these important decisions. But it will take every single one of us getting involved in our society to change our society. Not just by voting – our representative democracies are at best a compromise, at worst a sham – but by acting, organising, communicating, taking responsibility. There are different things that all of us can do, from the utterly radical to the small and everyday. Try something. Take back power, a little at a time. Join a demonstration, educate yourself about some issues, give your plastic packaging back to the supermarket, volunteer, change your bank or your energy supplier, support a grass-roots movement or campaign in your area or globally. It feels good. It feels like being an independent, free, human being with a brain and a heart. Like being an anarchist.

*Gonna do a post about the origin of nation states another day – it’s a fascinating subject

Making freedom by hand

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Tension plate made by me

When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, I genuinely believed that humanity was never going to make it to the year 2000. It was so obvious that we were going to annihilate ourselves with nuclear weapons, it hardly seemed to make any sense to dream of a life, have a family or make any plans if I was going to die before I was 30. Then the wall came down and everything changed; the future opened up before me. It’s been amazing to spend nearly three decades free of that fear, and to see young people growing up around me who have never felt oppressed by the scary future.

But in those years, something else has happened. In Western societies freed from the Cold War, and in increasingly globalised markets, absolutely everything has been seized on and exploited by capital. We can have everything new and shiny, and cheap – so cheap! No need to dally here for long – so much has already been written by better-informed people than me about the impact of these processes. But I think we can see that in the past decade, a fashion for handicrafts (both participating in crafts and buying handmade products) and even more for the ‘Industrial’ interior, which values old, battered objects that speak of work with the hands and import ‘authenticity’ and history into the home, have been part of the response to this bright and shiny world of the new and mass-produced.

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Felt badges made by me 

It extends into all areas of our culture – look at an old episode of Top of the Pops and the naivety and crudity of the production will seem laughable. The alpha-example for me was walking into Topshop a couple of years ago and seeing denim cut-offs for £25. Who in almighty hell buys such a thing? That’s hours of minimum-wage labour for a teenager, for something that should essentially be ‘free’ – a by-product of the jeans you’ve already had for years, that you just chop the legs off of. Quite apart from all the problems of over-production, labour rights in developing countries and pollution by the garment industry, it bespeaks quite another issue: dependency. If we are dependent upon shops and industry to supply our needs, they have an immense power over our lives.

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I bleached and added studs to my old denim jacket

Recently I heard Jay Brave talking about his veganism as a political issue, how if you could grow your own food you became instantly free of a whole industry. I found this very inspiring. I’m no longer convinced that there will be a post-apocalypse to deal with, or even that capitalism will crash and burn, although either of those may manifest in some form, but I do increasingly want to detach from a system that is rotten to the core. Not all of us can, or want, to live off-grid in an adobe house and weave all our own yoghurt. But we can all start to become more self-sufficient through handicrafts and gardening, by sharing large items like lawnmowers instead of buying them individually, and by re-using or donating old things. Simple acts like cutting up your own jeans, painting an old chest of drawers or growing some salad on the windowsill are small acts of revolution. If you can learn survival skills like camping, lighting a fire, making a stone tool or a basket, so much the better; you will feel even more free and less dependent on a system that only views you as a consumer, a cash cow.

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I reconditioned this sewing box that I bought for £2

I also get an enormous sense of satisfaction looking around and knowing that I made, or upcycled, or modified, or embellished the things that I use and wear. Making things is good for our physical and mental health, it’s calming, satisfying and fun. I hope this year to spend the summer living off-gird, eating mostly home-grown food, learning all sorts of new skills that will make me feel more secure in this uncertain world, more self-sufficient and more capable.