The world produces too much, and not enough. Too much of the wrong things; nuclear bombs, anti-personnel mines, hypersonic missiles. And not enough food, medicines, good quality housing, schools, kindergartens. There is an endless building boom in Britain and a never ending housing crisis. There is a shortage of homes and a surplus of empty buildings, empty flats in high rise sky scrapers. The political response of the rich is right-wing scabrous populism, pissing out hate, built on shameless lies, amplified by money-interest newspapers, jabbing a finger in the faces of the poor, the despised, the wretched of the earth. The political response from the working class is unorganised, inchoate. Sour milk socialism is presented in such a watered down fashion that there is no milk at all, just a thin puddle, when what is needed is wave after wave of tremendous workers’ power.
The woman in the Battersea General Store asks me if I want milk in my Americano.
‘I had a customer in here the other day who insisted that an Americano doesn’t have milk in it. And now I’m confused’. This is something welcome and rare in affected-labour land. A real conversation. She is looking at me from under her straw hat and leaning on the counter. I cannot work out where her accent is from. She speaks excellent English.
‘I don’t know either’, I reply. ‘But I think it’s better if the customer is never right’. She laughs and continues to discuss whether an Americano should have milk or not.
‘He was very insistent’, she said. I bought two pain au chocolat and a bottle of water. She put everything into a white paper bag. I like casual conversations like this you learn a lot of stuff.
It reminded me of Anwar Indian restaurant in Whitfield Street (?). I assume the person who ran it was Mr Anwar. That’s what everybody called him. If it was a quiet afternoon he would come and join you and smoke a cigarette and discuss the world while you eat a chick pea curry. Lunchtimes were busier and one day I was sitting in there enjoying my lunch when someone started complaining. In that loud look-at-me sort of way. Mr Anwar come out into the restaurant – cafe really – with a cigarette dangling from his lip. He also smoked without tipping off the ash so this always grew, drooping ever more and creating a sense of ‘will-it-won’t-it’ fall into my dinner as he is spooning it on to a plate. He walked slowly around the cafe.
‘How’s your dinner’. he asked a table of people by the window.
Through mouthfuls of food they all agreed it was fine. He did this to every table in the place and then came to me. The ash was now defying all known forces of gravity. Surely it would fall? I discreetly half covered my plate with a raised arm holding a fork.
‘Lovely Mr Anwar, it’s the best curry I’ve had for some time’. He looked at me and winked.
He then returned to the complainant who he had ignored up until now.
‘See’, he said, sweeping his arm around the room full of people eating, ‘everyone is enjoying their dinner. No one is complaining’.
One – (I am not sure of the use of the word, ‘one’ ) – must try not to react to everything. It is wearing to be in the company of people who do. The ambition, if it can be called that, must be to walk through, to flow, to pass, to observe and to record what is seen without too much opinion and certainly with no prejudice. It is easy enough to construct a lazy view, harder to go beyond the immediate view and prod and poke a little to find out what is going on underneath. The land sales, the price of land, the ownership of land, the capital which flows into the city and freezes up into giant blocks of icy glass. Here lies the real obfuscation. The visual unco-ordination of the topography of petro-dollar capital further obscures the difference between the surface and the underlying realities. So obscure can this become that the actual reality appears unreal, a mystification. Something needs turning on its head here.
I sat on an arm chair covered with artificial grass and looked out across the river at the Churchill Gardens estate on the opposite bank of the Thames. It has weathered well. It has a post-war modernity, a sense of purpose, a place well-lived in. Battersea Power Station is behind me. It was nearly demolished even thouogh it had so much potential. To become the centre piece of a huge city garden, a green extension of Battersea Park to the west. The whole area could have become open fields again, market gardens. The power station itself could have become so many other things. If only people’s hearts and souls were in charge instead of the oily greasy coins that are piled up into dead piles, bringing deadness in their wake, pushing out life and any creations of the imagination.
Now the shape of the building has been spoiled by the lumps of glass placed on the top of the red brick walls. A door opens up there and a man in a yellow t-shirt and white shorts comes out and paces about on the balcony. These are the £10 million penthouse suites. So much that money buys is ugliness, not style. The power station is now surrounded by further glass buildings. The glass and the brick don’t mix. They are of different times and without any continuity or organic connection. It creates a gloomy tension in the space between the buildings where a little bit of life and joy could have been conjured up. But that would require different values, principles, ethical considerations, a dash or two of philosophy and an artist or two unleashed.
I enjoy the Americano and the two pain au chocolate I’ve bought for breakfast. It’s pleasant sitting here. The artificial grass furniture, a three piece suite, a giant armchair are all gaudy but funny in their own way. A young woman comes along and asks if she can ask me three questions for her A Level geography project. What do I like about it all, what don’t I like, some positive words, some negative words.
I explain, that I am surprised that I like the artificial grass covered furniture. There are clearly people having fun on and around it as we speak. That I don’t like the fact that so much of this area is full of expensive property which is under-utilised. Buy to leave; up to 40 percent of Nine Elms empty; but no-one really knows because these are secrets. There needs to be a history of secrets in London written soon. Those secrets are part of the reality. How can we properly understand the reality if what we mostly notice is the poverty and the people who can no longer cope or the workers chained to their daily tasks for long hours each day? That is only a partial reality. The secrets hold the key to the true reality; and that is anything but a mystification. Those secrets have hard heads; of money transactions, money investments, money corruption, money power. We talk for some time. She makes notes and then its time to move off, along the river, a further exploration of Battersea.
A tall Black guy is standing near Battersea gates. He’s wearing a hard hat, a yellow high viz jacket and big boots and glasses with thick black rims. An SUV drives into the park.
‘That’s taking the piss’, he says. I think he’s directing the traffic.
‘Are these the gates to the park?’ I ask.
He looks at me. I get the impression he’s fed up. The history of fed up workers would make another useful research project.
‘Yes’, he eventually says. And then he softens, ‘they got hit by a lorry and now it’s all got to be put back together again. ‘It’s not easy’. I notice the blocks of stone on the ground. Was this were John Burns and Shapurji Saklatvala and John Archer and Charlotte Despard once spoke? There is a hillock nearby but surrounded by trees. Would these have been here one hundred years ago?
‘This is where they used to have the big workers’ meetings’, I explain, with perhaps a little artistic licence – not because the meetings never happened – they did, but because I’m not sure where in the park they took place. Maybe on that hillock with trees, but who knows. It makes a good spot where the meetings could have happened.
‘Fighting for the eight hour day, better housing, better schools, education, better wages, trade unions’.
He turns to face me.
‘And John Archer was elected in Battersea in 1913. The first Black mayor in London’.
He is looking at me intently now and listening. These are just tiny sparks, but you sometimes see the light of these sparks reflected back in someone’s eyes.
I walk through Battersea looking for shaded routes. It is the height of the summer and the trees are covered in fully opened leaves. On the ground dappled sun light through the shadows of the boughs and branches and canopies. A young man and young woman are playing cards and drinking bottles of beer. I notice on the other side of the river an old, former wharf building. It must have all looked much like this at one time, before the Blitz, before the war, before the decisions to close the docks, to turn the democratic realm of the dockers into yet another despotic empire of capital. That one building evoked more than all the steel and glass put together. I stayed by the river. The air was cooler and the buildings provide a certain amount of shade.
At St Mary’s church there are four people looking after a stall selling a mixture of food and what can be described as bric-a-brac. Stuff that people accumulate and becomes part of them, objects to associate with memories with. It means nothing to other people, but it means a great deal to those who have collected it together. It seems forlorn and lonely now it’s been donated to a church sale. What could anyone else want with this?
A couple of china cups, a dusty picture, a book or two. Where they ever read? Souvenirs from the coast of Spain, the Highlands of Scotland and a trip to Rome. Objects which define us, objects which carry meanings for us, objects which mean nothing at all. They lie in a drawer hidden away. Often moved so that other objects can be found. And then one day, the air is different, a psychic change, a period of a life is over, and now the object is seen again. It’s no longer needed. Whatever memory has faded too far, the once powerful emotions dissolved, those moments that it represents have gone. And somehow the object ends up here on the stall outside St Mary’s Church.
Conversation starts up. This and that and chit and chat. We all comment on the events of the week in which the Prime Minister was forced to resign as more and more cabinet members, ministers and junior ranking secretaries and party organisers handed in their notice. It provided 24 hours of great entertainment and glee. But no lessons were learned.
The Prime Minister told lies to the end and continues to tell lies. The right wing press – Times, Telegraph, Daily Mail, Sun – all subsequently carried stories about ‘the elites’ and ‘remainers’ having brought him down. It’s not fascism but it’s from the fascist playbook. The stab in the back, the elites, everyone’s fault but theirs. The elite is never defined. Is Jacob Rees-Mogg in this elite? Or Rupert Murdoch? Or the editor of the Daily Mail? Or the owner of the Telegraph? There is a way to cut through this and its a lot easier than some might imagine. A class based approach which calls everything out for what it is.
‘What would you do if you were Prime Minister?’, the Black woman asks me. She’s wearing a purple and white crocheted hat and big Dr Marten boots. She is standing in the sunlight with the backdrop of the river. She has an air of a certain working class toughness. The water is running upstream, the tide is coming in, sea water mixing with the river water. And the tide will change and the river will flow to the sea again.
‘The first thing I’d do is make sure no kid in this country goes hungry’.
When you say stuff like this people listen.
‘And there’d be no homelessness or overcrowding’, I add sweeping my arm across the vista of the river up to Nine Elms. ‘There’s no shortage of buildings’.
She tells me about a homeless man on the estate she lives on.
But we are all made to feel powerless. That it’s not for us to sort the world out, that we can’t solve the problems of hunger and homelessness, we’re not smart enough, not clever enough, don’t have the right to take on Parliament and the state, should know our place and listen carefully when the elites tell us who the elites are.
But what happens when the elites point fingers at imaginary figures and wag their fingers too hard and too often at the poor and the working people? What happens if someone steps forwards and breaks their wagging fingers? And others hold up a cracked mirror to their alarmed faces and shows them what elites look like? Why, they look like Rupert Murdoch, Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Paul D’Acre and all of the rest of these right-wing stale breath dead eye people.
The walk ends at Archer House and White House on the St John’s estate. They are fine looking blocks which proudly proclaim they were built in 1933. And what a difference to the overcrowded bug and vermin infested landlord controlled housing. But these blocks have been hijacked. Sold off, bought off by management companies, investment opportunities, nodes of profit. In a further neo-liberal twist the space between the blocks which might once have been a play area is now a car park. A gated car park. Cars looked after better than people.
A short walk through London which reveals a great deal. And a few tiny sparks. Just sparks. The power of a spark is not in its own energy but the quantity of combustible material that the spark lands on. Sparks are usually of the same size and power. But the amount of combustible material seems to be growing in mass. Such is how explosions happen.