Memory of a Demonstration

The burly man in an orange high-vis jacket stepped back from the opening door of the train. He made a gesture for me to board.
‘After you’, I said, moving back a foot on the platform, ‘you’re the driver’.
‘Is this train going up to London?’
‘Yes, but I’m only going as far as Ashford’, he looked at me, ‘and then this will attach to another train so you’ll be right at the back’.
He gave me a thumbs up and stepped off the train.

The train needs a driver and it needs guards and the stations need people to help disabled people get on and off the trains and sell tickets and just generally to be helpful. Technically a lot of these processes could be automated. Ticket sales are already provided by machines but given the complicated pricing system on the railways it is not easy for the passengers to understand the options. A certain amount of over-charging and mis-pricing must be going on. More unearned profits for the train companies.

The technical movement of a train from one station to another could be automated. But there is a lot more to it than that. It is going to be some time before the computing power is available to provide the sort of capability that the eyes and ears of the driver provide. Computing power could be better used determining how many people there are in the world, how much food and drink they need, how many school books, shoes, beds, houses and medicines and making sure everyone has enough of all those things.

It seems as if the government and its supporters – they are both supra-rich and poor – have an invincible hold on political power. But they play a dangerous game. Rather than govern in the policy sense they seek to politicise everything according to their view. There is no longer a general ideology in support and defence of capitalism. There is a specific ideology about deregulation, tax havens, culture wars. It is shored up with attacks on the poor, immigrants, refugees, ‘the other’, trade unions. Crude tools of division are used; racism, homophobia, bashing trans rights, Islamophobia.

The whole machine of Toryism is laced with money corruption (money changing hands outside the rule of law), political corruption (decisions and actions outside the rule of law and professional codes of practice), moral bankruptcy (acting only in accordance to their individual ego). The idea of the Prime Minister having an ethics adviser is ludicrous. There is only so much lipstick that can be adorned upon the face of the pig. This cannot continue indefinitely particularly as prices rise, energy bills double and quadruple, transport and housing costs rise and wages stagnate. This is accompanied by the right-wing propaganda newspapers shouting in our faces each day. It is financially impossible and degrading to the person.

There are millions of closed circuit television cameras to check that no-one takes a bus ride without paying £2.50 or takes to writing ‘Workers Organise’ on the shiny glass of the corporate towers. But there is no checks to make sure everyone has enough to eat, that young women have sanitary products, that the old and poor are warm and safe, that school children get three good meals a day. No-one in the government is checking that. In fact there is talk in the streets and in the railway depots and the warehouses and offices and factories and care homes that the government is making sure that children don’t get adequately fed at all.

London streets are full of protest and resentment and anger and anxiety. There is drumming and singing and shouting outside St Pancras Station. A line of people. Cleaners. They are members of the RMT. They worked throughout the Covid pandemic and yet they are just about paid the minimum wage. And that’s not much. They don’t get sick pay. They have something so powerful there in front of the people leaving the station; the dignity of labour. For a time they are not defined as cleaners but as warm, brilliant, vibrant individuals who become a greater force when they act as a group of organised workers. The leaflet reads:

‘Many of us are on the minimum wage and we don’t get sick pay, which means we have to come into work when we’re ill.

‘Our employer is a company called Churchill. Last year they made a profit of £10 million and in the pandemic they paid their shareholders a £12 million dividend. But they kept us on poverty pay and we can’t make ends meet in this cost-of-living crisis’.

I take the underground train to Great Portland Street to experience the atmosphere from the beginning. The demonstration is pulling up its socks and lacing up its boots. A man with a black t-shirt with white lettering. ‘Become ungovernable’. An assumption, based on the jaunty angle of his pork pie hat, makes me think he already is. A group of people wearing t-shirts with the slogan, ‘Value Education: Value the Educators’. An Asian woman with long black hair holding a placard which demands ‘CUT WAR NOT WELFARE’.

I’m leaning on some scaffolding surrounding a building site to escape the rain. A young Black woman is standing next to me. We talk.
‘It’s these shoes’, I tell her pointing to my shoes. How old am I goes through my brain? How old do I look? What am I on about?
‘They have no tread. And every time I wear them, it rains’.
‘The rain bringing shoes’ she says. She is so funny.
We talk about bills and money and the cost of living and life and why it all needs to change.
A man walks past with a t-shirt which reads, ‘Still Hate Thatcher’.

The Scottish Fire Brigade Union have pipers and drummers. Equity members all wear white. There’s a drum band banging out a might opposition. Union banners, hand made posters, bits of cardboard. People lining the streets holding up slogans. ‘We can’t pay’. ‘BRITAIN NEEDS A PAY RISE’. Midwives, bus workers, technicians, office workers, members of the Communications Workers Union, members of Unite and Unison, RMT, ASLEF, FBU and many more. I walk across Regent Street. I’ve seen a comrade. He’s selling a socialist newspaper. We shake hands through the crowd. ‘See you soon’ a thumbs up, the sense of his hand in mine stays there for some time, long after the physical presence.

There’s a rush of energy on the streets. It could go further, it has to go further. It’s a good demonstration but there needs to be more. This needs to become an ongoing campaign which is rooted in the workplaces, the neighbourhoods, among groups of friends. There needs to be an overall strategy and local tactics. This is a big demonstration but there are millions of people who are now feeling the impact of rising prices and therefore shrinking pay packets. This is a generalised attack on the whole of the population which isn’t stinking rich. The immediate question is how to get more people involved. How to relate to the mess that’s the Labour Party and how to build something outside the Labour Party. How to encourage the development of class consciousness and socialist ideas. How to move beyond that to positions where the whole break up of capitalism can be achieved.

I stop to ask an elderly woman in a wheelchair if I can take her photograph.
‘That’s fine she say’s. The man pushing her tells me that she has been protesting for 70 years.
‘And this lot are the worst’, she adds.

I take the tube from Westminster to Waterloo and then to Battersea Power Station. In the drips of rain I draw the remains of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s red brick industrial wonder.
‘Why did they build it with so much detail?’
I am asked by my excellent companion who has turned up to help me with the explorations. We examine the brick work and touch the concrete and the detail of metal. We always adopt a question and answer session in relation to the buildings and topography rather than ‘I don’t like this, this is good, this is bad’.

‘What do you think of this?’ I ask, of the white building next to the power station.
‘I like it’, is the reply, ‘it’s like a modern, up to date version of art-deco’. I can see that too now it’s been described in such terms. But we both agree its far too close to the power station. It looks as if it’s about to fall into it.

We walk around Battersea Power Station. We both like that and one of the buildings that surrounds it. But neither of us like the identi-kit glass walls buildings which surround most of it. And we agree that in general the area seems to be without character and without soul. Are we imagining this? I look at the people eating and drinking in the restaurant and bars. Is it all as empty as we feel it to be.

What to make of this space and place which has been funded by despots and tyrants. What does it really represent? Do our feelings towards it all change if was ask questions about who built it and what their rates of pay were? Where did they live and how many hours did they work and what was their reward? Did they speak freely as they worked or was self-censorship the order of the day? When did union meetings take place? Oh, I see, no unions existed during the construction and fit-out. Not through legislation and force of arms but through pressure, endless pressure, an unwritten code that union talk would lead to the security gate and being escorted off the site.

Not only is this space and place an expression of the solidifying power of capital, built with despots’ money, this space and place are carriers of tyranny. There can be no visible signs of discontent and opposition. No posters anywhere calling on strikes against austerity, no space for protests against austerity, rising electricity bills, against cuts to schools and libraries. Ah, but what goes on inside the mind, that most mysterious phenomena? What about that particular place which brings us a realisation of our own being?

Of course there are some who are so hollowed out that they live in such environments and feel that all is right in the world. But there are many more, up there in the sky, sitting on their glass balconies, sipping on chilled Chablis just as the pixelated brochures told them to, who are screaming inside. Waking up sweating in the middle of the night, their minds a storm of numbers on a spreadsheet, a put down at a meeting, bullying which can never be proven, exhaustion from an 80 hour week but so exhausted that sleep won’t come. A speck inside that won’t go away. Perhaps it’s only the size of an atom. But it feels much bigger and it creates a disquiet, a concern, an anxiety.
‘I have so much and yet feel I have nothing at all’.

The emptiness that won’t go away. The disturbing images on the television screens of pieces of children being hosed off the street after their school was hit by a hypersonic missile. No way out. A realisation that this is a trap. The apartment on the 20th storey of this glass, concrete and steel tower is a trap. That a person, a real life human, has been ambushed, captured, imprisoned by all of this. That capital has found yet another victim. It is not a mortgage on some concrete and glass and steel that’s been taken out, it’s a mortgage on a life. That your life has become an ATM machine from which Capital withdraws money from you on a daily basis.

We walk into Battersea Park. It was Friday yesterday. I spent the whole of Friday evening reading Michael de Larrabeiti’s semi-fictional autobiography A Rose Beyond the Thames. It was read in one sitting. How else could it be read? This is a serious book. Furious, fiery, raw, upsetting, uplifting. I read the final paragraphs and then it hit me. It’s not semi-fictional at all. This is real life. Not only is working class life hard to experience it is extremely difficult to write about. It is richer, deeper and wider than middle class life. There is a lot more going on which is related to the tough stuff; money, class, housing, debt, poverty. On top of this a sense of worthlessness, inadequacy, being made to feel stupid and ignorant. Not having much to show for a life time of work, in a world where ‘showing’ ‘things’ is of great importance.

In the park there are still bits and pieces of the Festival of Britain and it’s possible to trace the hand of John Piper and others. The design is different. It isn’t cynical. It’s not arch. It’s not knowing. It’s deliberately attempting to be progressive, to look to the future. It’s about something else too; it’s non-commodified, it’s not about capital. It’s based on principles and morals and ethics. It’s not about making money and financialisation and commodification and monetisation. It was part of a generalised progressive movement which believed that positive change was possible.

There’s a band playing Afro-beats in the band stand. We eat a badly cooked and poor quality bratwurst. They are eight pounds each. In Germany they are three or four euros and they don’t taste as if they have been cooked in fat which is a hundred years old. But this is England where everything is corrupted. Even the cheapness, especially the cheapness, is corrupted. It never used to require so much money to be poor. Neo-liberalism means that now poverty can only be achieved through large amounts of debt.

We walk through the park and along Prince of Wales Drive and through the streets in between until we reach the Latchmere Estate. We take our time walking along Burns Road and Freedom Road and Ogden Road. This was build in 1903. The first ever municipal housing in England built with unionised direct labour. Is this mystical? Why does it seem to have a quality which is lacking now? Why do these red bricks laid with union labour seem to have a different atmosphere and air to those glass panels glued on steel frames with labour that is supra-exploited and lacks not just unions but sick pay, holiday pay, pensions? What is this relationship between the acts of hands and brains and the principles and ideas of those movements of hands and brains? Do our hands and brains themselves embody everything we need to know about the production and creation of the world and the way to change the world? If our hands and minds move in a different way does that create a revolutionary change?

We walk through the streets and past the railway lines. Along a lane, through a narrow gap under the railway lines. There is an endless circuit of mopeds and bicycles and small motorbikes. Built into the railway arch a set of bikes with ‘Zapp’ written on them. Despatch riders appear and drive away again every minute or so. They look to be representatives of every nation on earth. We walk under another bridge. There are more mopeds and bikes and motorbikes. In the industrial estate there are people making cheap meals with expensive logos and marketing slogans. One of the bike riders explains that he is Portuguese and speaks no English. We speak to another rider with a wide mouth full of teeth. He tells us that he drives here, picks up, goes to the customers. Then he comes back here, picks up, goes to the customers.
‘Can I take your photograph?’
‘Yeah, sure’, but I’m not sure what he means.

A woman who has been using a hose on the concrete floor walks over.
‘Can I help you?’ she asks suspiciously.
I give her my card. The one that has on it. She keeps repeating ‘fetishism’, as if she is seeking a gateway to another life. Aren’t we all? She tells us that she is originally from Slovakia.
‘It’s about commodities’, I say, ‘…the whole system is about producing commodities, things, but the system doesn’t care about people’.
‘That’s capitalism’.
‘I don’t know what capitalism is’, she says, ‘I never watch the news’.
‘We’re living in it’.
‘See those buildings there’, I point to a wall of glass, concrete and steel in the distance at Nine Elms. ‘They are looked after better than children are’.

I want to point to the mopeds and bicycles and the young men and young women and older men who are sat on their machines in a semi-circle around the door where the food is being produced. I want to photograph it all but that would never be enough. I want to organise this but that’s not my task. The organisation needs to come from within. They need to organise it. The low paid, the down-trodden, the mass that moves from here to there, from one slum to another, from one bed renting to another bed renting, from exhaustion to exhaustion, from feeling the kicks and insults, the 400 blows and the fear and hate. It’s so close and so far away. The organisation is only a few atoms away. But the means to organise is separated by huge cannons of ideology and tanks of oppression and bomber-fighters of the divisions of racism.

There was life on the streets of Portland Place and Regent Street as the demonstration moved along. There is life here too. In the hidden industrial state. An intensity of life. It needs Joe Hill like characters. Sylvia Pankhurst type characters. Eleanor Marx like characters. Forged in the fire. Tempered in the fire.

Such fires produce the strongest weapons.

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