The Situationist City

London can be rather fabulous on a Wednesday lunchtime, especially when toil is abandoned for a couple of weeks. I take the Crossrail to Liverpool Street and walk through the station. Down to London Wall and past the mysterious All Hallows church. There’s a cut through at Throgmorton Street and then Copthall Avenue. Uncorked has moved here from Bishopsgate. I’ll get a good bottle of Bordeaux for the sea crossing. I’m not sure what the wine on the ferry will be like (although in the duty free shop it looked good). I ask the man who serves me what the new shop is like.
‘It has more light, more shelf space, bigger office space’.

I don’t really have time to look round and I only ever buy a small selection of their wines. They are always excellent and it’s possible sometimes to get a good case of claret on a discount. Then there is the other end of the range with bottles which cost hundreds of pounds. I have been in the shop browsing when a person came in and announced – in the way rich narcissistic people do – in those sneering accents they cultivate;
‘Oh I need a couple of good bottles for a client, perhaps £500 each’.
They will then ask several annoying questions. The type that certain middle class people ask at farmers’ markets.
‘Oh, when you say the sheep live outside, I mean, what’s the grass like?’

I was once browsing in Uncorked and noticed the name of a wine which would have made a friend laugh. I made an enquiry. The man went behind the counter and produced a key on the end of a chain. I started to sweat. He then unlocked one of the glass doors which had steel grill protection. The bottle was then taken from the shelf and he held it as if it was a new born baby. Without any prompting from me he then described the various flavours, the tannins, blackcurrant over tones, bilberry undertones and just the most subtle hint of liquorice.

I struggled to think how I was going to retreat from this absurd position. Perhaps something like, ‘fantastic, I will buy it next year for their 100th birthday’, or something like that. But I became seduced by all of this, making mental calculations on how many other things I might do without to pay for it. Eventually I mumbled something along the lines of ‘it does sound very good, and I’ll think about it’. It was a relief to get back into the bustle of Bishopsgate for some much needed air.

Today I settled for something from Bordeaux for £10.95. I haven’t quite worked out where the less expensive bottles are and that was the first one which caught my eye.

I continued my walk along Telegraph Street and then the passage into Tokenhouse Yard. This is an odd assemblage of streets, alleys and buildings. In fact, when you look closely, you realise how higgledy piddly the City of London is and how many bits and pieces of the nineteenth century remain. Then into Lothbury and Princes Street to the half hidden entrance to Bank station, as if it is built into the Bank of England itself. Perhaps it is. I take the noisy and rattly and super-efficient Waterloo & City line. I walk around the station, buy a sandwich, sit and watch the people go by, Waterloo Sunset’s mine.

Out of London by the south-west tracks, through Waterloo and Vauxhall. A tangled snare of railway lines and blocks of new built flats, disconnected and disjointed but good solid sources of rents and profits for the new-vogue semi-bourgeoisie who squeal in delight at the monthly income.

The topography of London is once again being rebuilt; gated communities here, ‘social’ housing there. After doing the research for the Radical Battersea Walk this landscape is now more familiar and the local history a little better known. Battersea Arts Centre on the horizon, once the town hall and a place where John Burns, Keir Hardie, Shapurji Saklatvala and many others spoke. I recognise the Latchmere Estate too, one of the first council housing estates and built by direct labour paid at union rates. Relatively, most of those construction workers were better paid than their equivalents today, and were organised into trade unions and the quality of the buildings is generally better.

Once the train moves beyond Clapham Junction the landscape is less familiar. Signs for Wimbledon and Surbiton and then places unknown, Raynes Park and Berrylands. There are no high rise buildings and this alone gives the urban landscape space to breathe. Those things can create oppressive and claustrophobic conditions. The gardens open up to fields, the fields fold and rise into wood covered hills, here and there a river glistens in the sun. A row of well built 1930s council housing, red brick detached houses, golf courses, commuter-belt land, a sense of opulence and luxury, but it’s also a world completely unknown to most of us.

A fine looking church near Godalming, red brick nineteenth century railway stations and buildings, farms and barns from earlier ages. It seems weird that England can create such constipated neurosis among some of the people and particularly bile-filled and spiteful politicians. But I don’t think they are created from these green pastures at all; they are creatures of global capital and dirty money. They wrap themselves in nostalgia but they represent chaos capitalism and toxic populism. The money sloshing around in the Tory Party from Russian oligarchs, many who are supporters of Putin, is only half documented, if that.

I arrive at Portsmouth and Southsea station with plenty of time to catch the ferry. Might as well go and look around the town for an hour. I am shocked by what I see. Is it when we witness the poverty in other people’s towns that we recognise the poverty that surrounds us where we live? Boarded up shops, homeless people, people begging, people who are clearly mentally distressed, people who look poor, people who are poor.

Much is made of the cost of living crisis and energy crisis but there is already a huge social crisis in England. It is all around us. Have we become so used to it that we take these conditions as normal? There are some fine buildings here – there are all over England – and the people are on the whole friendly. I find a sweet shop and go inside to buy some sweets. There are two women working in there and they are having a rather surreal discussion. When one of the women says to the other,
‘….and’, she looks very matter-of-fact, ‘he don’t like parrots’.
Some inner mischief takes over and I say without any conscious process,
‘And I don’t like Liz Truss’.
It was like lighting a firework of street level politics.
‘Don’t get me started’,
‘She’s just for the rich’,
‘They have no idea’
All people are talking about is how expensive everything is and how they are going to pay their bills’.

Of course it’s not all like this. There are more than enough working class people who vote for the Conservatives, read the right -wing press and have theories about race and immigration and are anti-union and narrow minded and bigoted. They have camaraderie too of sorts but it’s clannish and narrow. They are depressing at any time but dangerous at times of revolution. Some might come over to the side of a rebellion but many won’t and will tug the forelock as they work with their masters to suppress revolutionary movements.

What percentage are they? Perhaps 30 percent of the working class. I would suggest that there is 30 percent of the class that could be pulled in a revolutionary direction if there was a better organised and more politically clear revolutionary left. That leaves 30 percent who might do nothing or go either way. It’s the 30 percent who could be drawn into the communist left, and some of the 30 percent of the not sure’s that we need to concentrate on. That will be more than enough to neutralise the right within the working class.

That’s all as may be. I was intrigued not just by what those two women said but the depth of feeling, at how quickly the conversation moved, and how much the conversation covered. I have heard others say this too; not left wing propagandists but people who make useful observations; ‘I’m hearing this a lot everywhere, in pubs, in cabs, at work’.

There’s a street level creativity too. A tall young woman walks past wearing pink shorts and has a pink hair band in her long hair. She carries a bag which reads, ‘Stop Animal Testing’.

I am tempted to believe in quantum entanglement even if I’m not sure how it might work in practice. I’m just about to go back to the railway station to catch a cab to the ferry port when I notice the entrance to something called ‘Cascades’. I need to read Walter Benjamin properly but for now, let us take him as my inspiration to go and look at what’s inside. It’s a fabulous artefact of shopping design and I like it a great deal. I like a certain sort of shopping and browsing and looking in the windows. And yet nothing quite prepares me for the bold writing which declares The Situationist City and walls covered with images and text and an explanation of the Situationist International.

The Situationist International were a group of artists, thinks (sic) + writers who believed that the professionalism of architecture + design had led to a sterilization of the world that threatened to wipe out any sense of spontaneity or playfulness….

…taking the concept of mapping, they operated as a collective to reject pre-set routes or duration + were driven by intuition rather than calculation. The resulting cartography reads more like a route taken through internal chambers of the mind rather than a recording of accuracy’.

The taxi driver who takes me to the port tells me he is originally from Kurdistan. He’s been to France many times but now it’s becoming too expensive. He’s lived in the city for 20 years. We could have talked for longer. Is it his home? I didn’t ask him because it’s too personal a question. We would have to know each other better for such a conversation.

There are perhaps 30 foot passengers all told and I am taken aback at how we are treated. It is almost as if a deliberate ritual humiliation. A tiny, frail looking elderly woman who is wearing a pink mohair cardigan is questioned. She is accompanied by a giant of a man who looks as if he might once have been a bare knuckle fighter. He is questioned too. She stands with the dignity of poor people. It’s just yet another blow to join the 400 plus she’s already received in this one short life time. There is no sense by the security people as to how absurd and nasty this all is. An elderly man is made to put his palms against the wall, legs outstretched while he is closely frisked. Another is trying to explain that the tiny penknife he has was a present from a grandson. ‘You’ll have to pay £19 if you want us to send it back to you’.

The whole security industry stinks. Dreamed up by management consultants, designed by management consultants and delivered by incompetent private companies. There are billions to be made, a great deal of it coming from the public purse, money which could be much better spent on feeding children and making sure they have beds to sleep on, toys to play with and books to read. It’s neo-liberalism everywhere; it costs a lot and delivers little of any use to the mass of people.

Eventually it’s my turn and my tiny penknife is discovered in my art bag. The one I use for sharpening pencils and opening bottles of beer and uncorking wine. I listen to an officious speech by the overweight security guard with the hipster type beard. I try to look into his eyes but one is staring at the ceiling and the other at right angles to his head. Or so it seems. ‘You can have it sent back if you pay £19, you can declare it this, you can declare it that, you can….’ I don’t even listen and I don’t care. The blade bit doesn’t even work. To get it to open you need to use a pair of pliers. I should explain that to him but I might as well try to explain common sense. It would all be a waste of time.

We all sit on the bus with glum expressions in an atmosphere of despondency. The woman near me starts a controlled rant.
‘It’s nasty’, I add. ‘Here we are, a bus load of drug dealers, arms traders and people smugglers’.
She laughs.
‘I’m becoming a grumpy old lady’, she says.
‘No’, her husband gently says, ‘they are making you a grumpy old lady. He explains that the tiny penknife he had taken away is of great sentimental value.

‘And while they took my penknife’, I add, ‘they didn’t notice my sawn off shotgun’. Which is in fact a camera tripod, but a much deadlier weapon than that penknife ever was. The whole charade has little to do with security, it’s all about control. And as someone added, do they do such thorough searches of all the cars and car passengers? Of course they don’t. It’s a security industry and the main purpose is to make money.

I sit in the cafe area and eat some supper. It’s not great, it’s not bad, it’s not cheap either. I watch the waitresses.

Add plates together
Scrape food into bins
Move metal steel trolley with empty plates
Wipe tables
Collect up rubbish from tables
Constantly look around the cafe area
Stretch down to the sticky carpet floor to pick up rubbish
Answer questions from people eating
Pick up cutlery which has been left on table

And then I stand on the deck watching the end of the ship move up and down in relation to the horizon. Ship, deck, horizon movement becomes more and more pronounced. I’m hit by the intensity of a sea squall. It’s time to go to bed. Weird dreams inside the gold mine. Dimly aware of the ship’s movement, rolling, going down, down into the waves, rolling against the waves, rolling into the waves, a momentary shudder when the ship hits a particular large wave. And then the ship continues, an adjustment made to ensure it stays on course.

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