Street Level Camaraderie

A day out in London, mainly to visit Tate Britain to study the art of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. More of that later. I don’t why people say London’s not friendly. I didn’t get a a minute’s peace.

It was early and the streets and the underground were quiet with that particular atmosphere of a Sunday morning in a huge city. I wanted to take a photograph of the empty station. There was a man in front of me on the platform. He was taking his time to walk towards the exit, sauntering in a care-free – or was that an idling manner? The rich are care free, the poor are idle. He was poor. His clothes loose and shapeless, dirty and stained. He moved slower than I thought for he was standing at the barriers when I arrived there. He was explaining through a mixture of single words and hand gestures that he had no ticket, no money, no oyster card. He held one finger up, a plea; ‘just this one time?’.

The Transport for London man was in a box, the sort of thing a sentry might spend the day in. The lower part made of wood, the upper part made of glass. He was a big man with large muscled arms which were folded and on which his chin was resting. He stared at the man who held his one finger up again. Which way would it go? There was no one else around. Did the transport worker suspect I might be one of those secret-shopper spies? I hope I don’t look like one. He could get in a lot of trouble for letting this man through without a ticket. Suddenly without saying anything he stood up, momentarily filling the box completely with his size, stepped out and swiped the barrier gate open so the man could leave. What’s the cost of all of this? £2.40. The poor are studied in their actions and how they might ‘cheat’ the system. Tis a pity such scrutiny evades the rich.

And then he had to deal with me as I have two Oyster cards and could not remember which one I had swiped in with. Which would make a difference to which one I might swipe out with.

‘I’m really sorry about this’, I said
‘It’s ok’, he said, ‘these things happen’, and he was genuinely helpful in sorting it out.

I went to look at the peculiar and cynical expansion of capital by the river. A man and a women, each with a dog, both wished me a loud and cheerful good morning.

At the Tate I asked the woman outside if I could go in earlier than my ticket.

‘Of course’, she said, smiling with her eyes. She explained that the cafe does a very good cup of coffee.

‘And do they sell cake’?
‘Oh yes, very good cakes’.

I was gazing at Sir Joshua Reynolds painting of Lady Talbot with the gallery all to myself. About the time my attention started to fade, one of the attendants arrived.

‘You alright’, he asked
‘Yes, I’m ok, how about you? It’s great to be here on my own’.
‘You wouldn’t have liked it here yesterday then’, he explained, ‘everyone and their mum was here’.
We talked about the art and the need to see the physical paintings.
‘You always see something new’.

I had one more conversation in the gallery. While staring at David Wilkie’s painting The Village Holiday (1811) I noticed that one of the characters, sitting on the table, is a Black man drinking what looks to be a rather good glass of ale. He is smiling and appears to be with friends and companions.

‘Probably a servant or slave’, the man next to me said. Or a seafarer? The Whig aristocrats and even large farmers certainly had Black servants at this time. But did they go drinking in the local inns? And did Black seafarers? (of whom there were large numbers in the Royal Navy at the time of the Napoleonic Wars). This has intrigued me a great deal.

While taking photographs of the Millbank estate I had a short conversation with a passerby (who kindly stopped their walk thinking they might block my view). He stepped round a corner just as I was about to take a photograph. It was an impeccably timed comic moment. Which made us both burst out laughing at the same time.
‘Enjoy your day’, he said.

No sooner had he walked off than a man from New York City turned up. We had a long conversation about public housing, social housing, the London County Council, Catherine Bauer and Modern Housing, the influence of William Morris, Raymond Unwin and the garden city movement, the development of Bauhaus and some other stuff.

While studying the architecture of Queen Anne’s Gate (the bourgeois version of housing) a man came out of an office or was it an embassy?
‘It’s ok, I’m not casing the joint’, I said to reassure him. ‘I’m studying the architecture’.
We had a long chat that covered the cost of housing, the state of the world, the cost of living.

‘We need to rise up’, I suggested, slowly raising my arm with a clenched fist.
‘Damn right’, he said. ‘Then the cost of living would go down and wages would go up’ (his emphasis).

Ten out of ten however to an elderly Irish man called Paul who I met. I could see him on the opposite side of the road (outside the Home Office of all places). Two men in a white van with Romanian number plates stopped to let him cross the road. Which he did slowly leaning on his walking stick. How did I know he was coming across the road to talk to me?

‘You’ve a lovely smile’, he said. ‘What’s your name? Danny? That’s an Irish name’, he said approvingly. ‘Danny boy’, he said. ‘It’s lovely to meet you. I’d like to take you out for a nice steak and a couple o’ pints of the black stuff’.

But, after a long, convoluted and poignant story he explained why this wouldn’t be possible. I gave a generous donation to his personal cause. I can afford it. He had the look and air of poverty. And I might be the only person he talks to all day. And that offer of a steak and a couple of pints of the black stuff was a good one.
‘I built this town’, he said. He had the most intense blue eyes.

As we began to part company he held my hand with both of his hands. They were old with pale almost see-through skin, ‘but how will I pay this back?’ he asked imploringly.
‘Oh that’s ok, I’ll see you around’, as if we were old and trusted and friends. Perhaps now we are.

There’s a great bread stall at Coal Drops Yard and there’s usually time to get a good loaf of sourdough before the train.

‘Where’s Judd Books’, the guy behind the stall asked me pointing to my bag full of books with ‘Judd Books’ written on the side. I’d managed a visit there too. This led into a long conversation about second hand book buying. I showed him ‘The Town Labourer’ by the Hammonds which I’d just bought. We had a long discussion about the Hammonds, EP Thompson and writing history from below.

Finally I got on the train and thought I might be able to collect my thoughts. A man in the railway company uniform was sitting in the empty carriage drinking coffee.
‘Is this train going to ….?’
‘I hope so’, he said, ‘I’m the driver’.

There’s something going on when people at ground level start talking to each other. There is a lot of basic radicalism and solidarity there.

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