I made the journey again. It’s early Sunday morning and raining. The sea can hardly be seen but it lies there on the horizon under a grey brown squall. At the railway station the woman who sells the tickets is reading a book. She’s been up since 5am.
‘It’s ok’, she answers and makes a face. ‘Can’t get into it yet’.
‘I’ve had books like that’, thinking of Alone in Berlin – ‘there’s one book I tried and tried but couldn’t get into it, but once I did, couldn’t put it down’.
‘I was like that with…’ I don’t catch the name of the author through the glass of the ticket office. ‘But a friend said it’s just the first three chapters. You have to read them again and again. Read twelve of their books now’.
The sea was in powerful motion. Moving, swelling, washing up against the shore. Sand, shingle, debris from the bottom of the channel, churned up. Rolling waves across the rocks at the base of the chalk cliffs. Each area of the sea has its own personality but it is impossible to determine where each area of the sea begins and ends. It is constantly changing. Today there is a unity of the sea for miles and miles along the coast. It keeps rolling in, one continuous swell of water and waves, all a muddy sand colour except where the waves roll over and churn into white surf. The sea was relentless today, as if planning an invasion of the whole coast, marshalling its forces, organising its power. Rain across the sea blurring the line between sea and sky, obscuring the distinction between land and heaven and the ocean depths. It was seductive. This is the sea of mermaids, alluring, calling, tempting. This is a sea to walk into and never return.
The train left the coast and headed inland, through the countryside, accelerating past motorways and the flash of towns. Across the Medway, hills and fields in curves and a mass of chalk, spring crops, outgrowths of trees, lines of leafless hedges. Two people walking in the countryside. Ships anchored on the Thames, a long train of vans and cars slowly moving east wards. An enormous industrial estate of warehouses, Tesco distribution depot, containers full of chemicals, silos, gangs of railway workers in orange high jackets and trousers. One worker stands on the railway lines checking for trains. On another track a single worker is pushing a heavy looking piece of equipment along the rails. An electrical junction box has been opened up. One worker is holding a torch to study the assemblage of wires and cables.
The train accelerates into the tunnel under the London suburbs. It comes up for air at Stratford and then plunges into a subterranean mystery once more. And then into the corporate take over by Google and a reinvented St Pancras. Google represents a victory of capital. But it is not yet clear what this victory actually means. Or for how long that victory might last.
On the underground train from Kings Cross to Victoria. There is a moment when the inane announcements cease. In that moment a sense of being in Tarkovsky’s film Solaris takes over. But capital and all its followers actively work to prevent such moments. The city is increasingly a self-referencing giant capital-good and commodity-image-object. Labour pours in, surplus value is squeezed out, capital expands. Announcements, branded image-objects, meaningless terms of management-speak, turning rebellion into money, monetization, financialization, commodification, off-shore tax havens, shell companies, money laundering, corruption. This contains many contradictions, many of which have the potential to create revolutionary change. Time, clocks, digital time, numbers changing on the notice boards, time decreasing until the next train arrives on the platform. Even time is commodified and strictly controlled, and time itself is used to discipline, control, coerce, measure outputs of work and toil.
I walked through Pimlico again. It was raining and the sun appeared at times, and then was hidden by fast moving muddy-cream coloured clouds. They kept changing their shape. An abandoned van was being examined by the police. Would it explode? The police ran back and forwards to their parked cars. Blue lights flashed on and off. No one took any notice.
There is at least one good bakers in Pimlico. It usually has a queue and as it’s a small shop, the queue stands on the pavement. This is a different class to that of which I’m used to. It’s difficult to explain it. Mannerisms, accents, ways of speaking, clothes, the way the clothes are worn, attitudes. It all suggests something. One thing I do notice is that there is an atmosphere which doesn’t encourage casual conversation. Do I imagine this? Something stops me from testing this by speaking. In a curious way the experiment is completed.
I bought an almond croissant, a black coffee and a loaf of bread. It was over ten pounds. But it was good quality. I sat in St George’s Gardens listening to the bells of St Saviours church being rung. A pigeon joined me and ate up all the crumbs as they fell from the croissant onto the tarmac around the bench. I liked that pigeon. It had pluck and was good company. We finished our breakfasts around the same time. Kropotkin was right in many ways about Mutual Aid.
Three people walked past holding clip boards.
‘What’s this about?’ I asked.
They stopped. A woman and two men. The woman explained.
‘We’re in a running group and we’re going to do a run of the cabbie shelters in London. There are thirteen of them. It’s about 18 miles. We also do a Monopoly board run and a Circle Line run’.
‘Oh, I do Radical Walks’. I handed them a card.
‘I’m working out a Radical Pimlico Walk. The only problem is you start thinking about what one particular person might want and they end up controlling your mind’.
The woman laughed. There’s an old theory that if you can’t explain something to a stranger in five minutes then you probably don’t understand it well enough. I decided to test this with an overview of the housing of the area. I gave a brief overview of Churchill Gardens, Dolphin Square, Thomas Cubbitt, Lillington Gardens and Tachbrook Estate. I was aware of how self-indulgent this was, but I wanted to know how much I knew. I stopped. Three minutes? Four? Five? I wasn’t sure and made a mental note to check Thomas Cubbitt. Two political points were also made; about good quality low cost housing, modern housing, and how Thatcher had lit a fuse to a bomb which has continued to cause destruction, chaos and corruption in the provision of housing. This short speech was illustrated with a outstretched arm pointing to the global grot of glass boxes puking up all over Vauxhall, ‘plenty of construction, but it’s the wrong type of construction. That’s all about making money’.
‘Flats as safe deposit boxes’, the man with the beard said.
They jogged off with their clipboards and I gave the pigeon the last of the crumbs. The pigeon looked at me for more but I shook my head. It shook it’s head back and walked off, making a point of pecking at things which clearly weren’t edible. As if to make a point about still being hungry and hinting that I still had a loaf of bread of which a crust could have been shared. We parted on the basis of an unresolved dialectic. Aren’t they all?
I liked the free-wheeling character of this early morning walk. There’s a certain atmosphere on an Sunday morning. I went to the river, through a gate that was open. A man was putting wellington boots on and assembling a metal detector. He was about to go mud larking, looking in particular for ‘Georgian and Victorian coins’ as he described it.
‘How are you going to get down to the river?’
And then I noticed a ladder of about thirty feet.
He told me he was from Poland and we had a conversation about Poland, and eastern Europe, and Ukraine and the Ukrainians who have moved to Poland.
‘There’s about a million Ukrainians in Poland. The language is similar and they earn more money’.
He explained the problems of right-wing popularism in the region and the potential damage and dangers it caused. We talked about the history of the region, the impact of the Second World War and that legacy.
‘A lot of people want the Communist Party to come back’, he said.
We wished each other well and he climbed over the wall with his metal detector and slowly descended the ladder to the muddy bank of the Thames.
In a mews, a man outside his house with a cigarette and cup of coffee.
‘It’s ok, I’m not casing your joint’, conscious of my camera poking it’s lens into everything around it. He laughed and I went over to talk to him. I explained the research for the Radical Pimlico Walk.
‘Do you know how old these mews are?’
‘About 200 years’, he said. Through the open door a sense of a world of wealth and luxury in an understated bourgeois way could be seen.
I’m not sure how we got talking about Churchill Gardens estate,
‘Oh that area was completely pounded during the war’, he said, in a manner that suggested he might have had first hand knowledge of the event. You never know in any setting who is who and what they are and where they have come from. He might once have been a working class kid who went this way and that and became well off and adopted the clothes and accent and mannerism of a richer class. Such things happen. He had a warm human nature about him. He smiled when he spoke.
‘Well living here’, he said, ‘with the mix of people’ (this was in relation to our brief discussion about Churchill Gardens and the Tachbrook Estate), ‘you get to talk and meet real people, unlike somewhere like Kensington’.
He put out the cigarette end and drained his coffee. He went inside and the door to the luxury and wealth closed.
I am slowly being pulled into a different Pimlico which is exactly what I wanted to happen. Later in the Windsor Castle pub. A wonderful nineteenth century creation. Cut glass panels help create a series of intimate drinking areas, William Morris style wallpapers, fires of coal and wood, a stained glass roof. It had been built with certain demarcations. My companion for the day had gone to buy more drinks. In those moments I was left alone, and was seduced and drenched by atmosphere. I could not place who the ghosts were or how they had appeared. Where they domestic servants and butlers and those who looked after horses and carriages? Or where they the occupants of Carlisle Mansions. Rich men and – possibly women?- coming out of drinks with friends and neighbours? I have no idea of what the social composition of the pub might have been in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
But I did wonder whether Ms E. Blackburn, who had been the secretary of the Pimlico Social Democratic Federation, might have come in here with her comrades. And did the education reformer Mary Bridges Adams ever come in here? Both lived in Carlisle Mansions in a flat paid for by Daisy Greville, the Duchess of Warwick. She had become a socialist in a round about way. As one of the richest women in England in the 1890s she had organised many lavish balls and society events. One of these, in 1895, caught the attention of Robert Blatchford and he wrote about it critically in The Clarion.
‘Thousands of pounds spent on a few hours silly masquerade; men and women strutting before each other’s envious eyes, in mad rivalry of wanton dissipation; lavish luxury on lavish luxury, heap on heap, glitter on glitter, in a vulgar saturnalia of gaudy pride. Other men and women and children the while huddling in their ragged hovels, their meagre shrunken flesh pierced by the winter’s cruel sting; without food, without clothes, without fire; shuddering, shivering, suffering from dawn to night, from day to day, from week to week, their souls crushed between ever-grinding millstones *’.
On reading this, Daisy Greville took the first available train from Warwick to London, walked along Fleet Street until she found the offices of The Clarion and demanded Blatchford explain what he meant. By all accounts the meeting lasted for several hours. It wasn’t the moment Daisy Greville became a socialist but it was certainly an occasion which made her think about socialism.
I caught the sense of a group of people in early 1900s fashion, long dresses, jackets and caps, leather button boots, lace up leather boots, an occasional frock coat, lively and full of conversation, alive and pushing for reform and radical change. For a moment they almost came to the table I was sitting at and I wished they had. I would like to have met them.
* The Clarion 16 Feb 1895, quoted in The Countess of Warwick, Margaret Blunden p 97)