A Universal Idea

What does the book look like if its read here, in this particular place? The book is Folk Opposition by Alex Nevin. It was lent to me in the summer. We were in the beer garden of a pub after the Radical Battersea Walk. It was one of those days when the temperature was over 30 degrees, a burning heat. We walked in the shade of the trees in Battersea Park exploring the gardens and ponds and statues of the Festival of Britain.

I’m at the new development behind Kings Cross and St Pancras stations. The development of London cannot be explained without understanding the role of the expansion of Capital and capitalist relations of production. And ego must be scrapped, likes and preferences abandoned.

The place exists without you and that’s sometimes how it can best be explored, as a shadow, a wraith, moving through the particles of air without noise or visibility, to be there as if in a dream. Walking close to the edges of the buildings, through secret alleyways, inconspicuous while taking photographs and making notes. An attitude of detachment. Being here, and not being here. Hiding in the illumination, an illusion, reflected in the mirror-image.

Where has this environment of glass, concrete and steel come from? Surplus value created by the oil workers of Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, the United States of America, Nigeria. Those oil workers have a lot in common. If only they can find this.

Surplus value created by the millions of workers in the Pearl River Delta, Rio de Janerio, Shanghai, Mumbai, Berlin, Detroit, London, Paris, Vienna, Lagos, Sydney, Madrid, Durban, Alexandria, Amsterdam, San Diego, Lisbon. The products of the surplus value are moved by drivers on the long roads from Warsaw to Birmingham, the roads that run from Trieste to Bucharest, the ships that sail from Hamburg to Rotterdam, from Le Harve to San Francisco.

It’s as if each worker creates a speck of dust. And these specks are swept up by the capitalists and mixed with chemicals and water and minerals and ores. The specks are welded together and become machines, concrete, glass, steel, a million different types of commodities. An illusion is created and the individual specks can no longer be seen.

I am waiting for the market to open and lean upon a metal barrier. It takes an unquantifiable number of moments for time to slow, to stop. Here is a new moment to be part of and become aware of the sound and movement of London.

Words of conversation blown across the concrete, the clash and bang from construction sites, the wrap-around noise of the swish and drone of vehicles, two young women walk past, laughing.

The sound of the wind blowing through the trees, leaves rustling, the rrrrri-p, rrrr-p, rrrrr-p of a drill into concrete. We are always looking for things in other people, but what might they be looking for in us? Life changes life. A radio plays Poptones.

The industrial sound of a Thames Link train, squealing, hissing, rumbling, sighs and grumbling and an escalating whistle. Electronic signs, CCTV, inane announcements, shouting out the slogans of failing military campaigns, ‘If you see something that doesn’t look right…..’ Poverty, homelessness, corporations making profits out of health care, landlords and Section 21 evictions, low pay, hungry children, ‘….please contact the British Transport Police’. But no one is listening.

In Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Yemen, British weapons. Cluster bombs, anti-tank missiles, aircraft, rockets, tanks, machine gun bullets, the threat of nuclear war. It’s difficult through the smoke to see who is who. Are the right people being killed? Shouting on the internet, dirty money fuels the hate.

London is a city full of control and coercion and capitalist power.

I walk up and down Fleet Street and the alleys and side streets in between. I begin to notice how much empty property there is. It all seems shabby. I don’t like the huge flag outside St Dunstan’s. But it’s a useful flag. It’s a reminder that the gothic, the baroque and everything in between was predicated on imperial powers, monarchs, autocrats, tyrants, despots, exploitation, oppression. These flags are not expressions of unity they are symbols of class war.

The walk takes me along Fleet Street, Hind Court, Gough Square, Pemberton Row, Red Lion Court. I walk along Bell Yard and through New Square, making mental notes to properly study the 17th century, when so many of these red brick buildings were constructed. Memories of walking these streets with other people, evenings standing outside the Seven Stars in Carey Street, drinking beer with friends.

There’s a good quality Korean restaurant in Red Lion Street. The two women working in there are funny and friendly. It’s twenty minutes past two o’clock in the afternoon. ‘We close at three’, the young woman with black hair and bright red lipsticks says. I order a hot bowl with crispy pork.

‘Would you like a fried egg?’ she asks. I hesitate. I’m not sure. But she is smiling with her eyes and I agree.

The bowl is put on the table within 90 seconds. I eat with chopsticks. It’s easy enough to chop the fried egg up. The yellow yolk splits and pours over the rice, pork, red cabbage pickle, a bit of kimchi, fresh cucumber and tomato. It is delicious.

I walk back through Gray’s Inn Fields. These places are hidden, secretive, it feels as if they are prohibited. A man is putting bright yellow stickers on bags of rubbish with ‘Enforcement’ written on them. I throw out an opening line.

‘Do you know why there’s so many empty shops and buildings here?’ I ask.
He straightens up and looks at me.
‘Covid’, he says. The line worked, we start a conversation.
‘It’s never been the same since Covid’, he explains. ‘And I doubt it will ever come back how it was’.

We talk about the world of work, bosses, the system.

‘Everyone does a dodge from time to time when they can’, he explains, ‘but obviously you do the work. Mind you, there’s one bloke who never does anything, how he gets away with it no one knows’.

Resting on a bench outside the Temple church. The red door opens and dozens of people walk out into the afternoon sunshine. There’s been a wedding. Men in blue suits and white shirts, a woman in a green dress, a smartly dressed baby who keeps turning their head and follows everything with their bright blue eyes. The guests are given vials of different colours. When the top is removed they can squeeze them and hundreds and hundreds of bubbles are released. A man with black trousers rolled up to expose his ankles and highlight that he wears no socks. A fashion statement of 2022.

I fall asleep in St Bride’s Church, briefly waking, and then again into the state of sleep-dream-hallucination.

As I try to leave the young woman wearing a long black official gown stops me.

‘Sorry’, she says, ‘I’ve just locked the main gate, do you mind if you leave through the main entrance? Did you enjoy the peace of the church?’

I lean on the stone blocks of the doorway. We discuss the gothic and baroque.

‘So you’re a Marxist who believes in God?’ she asks. She has such a lovely character, so alive and curious and self-assured.

‘Well I’m definitely a Marxist’, I answer, although as soon as I say that I think of Marx’s comment, ‘all I know is I’m no Marxist’. I never think of it like that. It’s a set of ideas swirling around, it seems unnecessary to give it a label.

‘I think there’s a radical message within the story of the life of Christ. And the church is a place where people can ask forgiveness. And that’s powerful’.

‘I’m not sure I believe in God’, we are walking through the empty church. It is so still and peaceful.

‘But I do like the idea of a universal spirit, that there is a shared humanity, and that’s universal’. Although I would like to add that a person can only understand and experience that universality if they are prepared to accept it. If someone is full of bigotry, prejudice and exploitation then they cannot experience the universal world. The openness is conditional.

‘A universal idea’, she says, smiling.

We part with waves. In that brief conversation she left me with a lot to think about.

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