What are the dwelling-places of the human? Are not our houses and huts, our tents and caves, our urban and rural environments alike, spaces of nonlife that give forth life? In particular, the urban domain which so many people now inhabit reveals itself to us as a vastly complex ecosystem of life and death, one in which the extension of the organism occurs in the most varied, layered and complex ways—in the flowing of the sewers, the surging of electricity, the streams of traffic and tributaries of streets and roads, the transmissions and circulation of information and symbolisation, the capture, release and manipulation of vast libidinal currents. “Urban space gathers crowds, products in the markets, acts and symbols. It concentrates all of these, and accumulates them.” And in this gathering, this accumulation, we can identify the coming-together, the becoming-with, of life and death, the tendential connectivity of both.
However, the urban space in particular, in its position as a space of the absorption of excess and the eruption of endless accumulation, has so often become a space in which the tendential connectivity, this commoning between the living and the dead, has been concealed and marginalised under the figures of finalist-death, under the logics of opposition, rationalisation and fatalism. The continual purging of life, that is the absolute exclusion of the living, from the rationalism of nonlife appears as the impossible dream of modernism. The grand structures of the modernist dream stand within the urban as spaces of nonlife that attempt a violent silencing of the tendential interplay between life and death. As an architecture modelled on the opposition of the living and the dead, that is moulded in the image of finalist-death, the vast towers of modernism with their proud, tall straight lines and gleaming pristine surfaces deny the efficacy of nonlife other than as a rationally manipulated backdrop for life. The processes of decay and dirt are excluded from them, and every morning and evening people across the cities come to these spaces tasked specifically with cleaning away any remnants of life that might cling to these structures, with the attempted absolute annihilation of any nonhuman life form, microbial or otherwise, that might seek to dwell within these domains of finalist-death.
Of course this annihilation is never final or absolute, for no number of attempts could entirely remove the tendential connectivity of the living and the dead. The marginalisation of microbial life that manifests itself so clearly on the immaculate glass surfaces of the looming urban towers can never be total, and the continual reassertion of life within even those spaces so closely modelled on the notion of a finalist-death reveals the inescapability of the cohabitation of life and death. And what is more, the emergence of life upon these planes that sought to exclude them need not be the object of a collective neurosis of cleanliness in which life, to its own destruction, seeks to impinge upon itself. Rather, these processes of decay and degradation, of life standing forth from its attempted exclusion, can become a matter of joy and affirmation as in the Mouldiness Manifesto of Hundertwasser.
When rust sets in on a razor blade, when a wall starts to get mouldy, when moss grows in a corner of a room, rounding its geometric angles, we should be glad because, together with the microbes and fungi, life is moving into the house and through this process we can more consciously become witnesses of architectural changes from which we have much to learn.[ii]
The urban domain, rather than being built to exclude life—that is, built in the image of a finalist-death of rationalism and opposition—is inescapably decaying, and it is this very decay that is an unfolding unto death that is also the springing forth of li
fe. This springing forth of life is that of which the finalist tendencies of modernist architecture remains in denial, and which it seeks to continually exclude under the banner of rationalism. But this exclusion can never occur or find its absolute realisation, for the architectural domains from which exclusion is attempted already form elements of a vast ecology of extended organisms, that is they are already and inescapably continuous with life, as elements of an organology by which life faces death and death faces life; the living dwell and become-with the dead.
It is hoped that it is clear that in all these instances what is important is not that one builds in order then to dwell—that the spider constructs its web in order to dwell within it, that the termites build their mound in order to live inside, that the humans construct the urban domain only then to later inhabit it—it is not that building has dwelling as its goal.[iii] Dwelling, that is becoming in life and death, existing as a durative-soul in continual becoming, connection and swelling, is anterior to building. To build we must dwell with the living and the dead, and we must share our becoming with them. To build we must, so to speak, inhabit the commons of life and death, as entities that appear delimited, but are in fact spread more and more thinly across a vast expansive domain of connection, collision and association. Dwelling does not come after building, for in building we dwell. We dwell with the so-called dead entities that we assign to the realm of technics and tools, and we cannot think of these apparently dead entities without thinking of their other side, that is their life and the life with which they are continuous. We cannot think the tool and yet ignore the hand just as we cannot think the hand and seek to ignore the tool. And tool and hand cannot oppose one another as exclusory opposites, just as the living and the dead cannot stand opposed to one another each as the principle of utter exclusion of the other.
Toby Austin Locke—The Living and the Dead
[ii] Hundertwasser, Friedensreich (1964) Mouldiness Manifesto
[iii] Heidegger, Martin (n.d.) Building Dwelling Thinking
In an extract from her recent book Lean Out, Dawn Foster explores the limits of self-proclaimed feminist Theresa May’s solidarity with women.
The notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre was opened in 2001, under the last Labour government, and management was outsourced to private company Serco in 2007. Poor conditions in the centre and protests against the 400-capacity facility have intensified in recent years, coming to a head in 2015. Reports of sexual abuse and mistreatment in the compound became increasingly common, and self-harm was rife among the women, who comprised of failed asylum seekers awaiting deportation, imprisoned despite committing no crime. A Channel 4 investigation obtained footage of the systemic mistreatment of women detained in the centre, included a guard shouting “Headbutt the bitch. I’d beat her up.”
Rashida Manjoo, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on violence against women, was barred from Yarl’s Wood by the Home Office in April 2014 when she tried to investigate complaints as part of her fact-finding mission into violence against women in the UK. Cameras have never been allowed in. In April 2015, in the same week as a woman died in Yarl’s Wood and a guard with a history of sexually inappropriate behaviour was￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼ suspended pending investigation for a revenge assault, Cristel Amiss, of the Black Women’s Rape Action Project, told The Guardian: “We’ve been supporting women in Yarl’s Wood for over a decade and have heard consistent reports from brave whistleblowers exposing abusive treatment and sexually predatory behaviour by guards.”
After the Channel 4 investigation, Theresa May refused to come to the House of Commons to answer an urgent question from the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, on the treatment of detainees, called amongst other abusive names “black bitch”, “animals”, “beasties”, and “evil”. Cooper said, “There is no point in ministers pretending to be shocked at news of abuse. This is not news. Even now, the ministers have not set up an independent inquiry. This is state-sanctioned abuse of women on the Home Secretary’s watch and it needs to end now.”
Despite May’s assertions that she believes in women’s empowerment, there is a distinct limit to her solidarity, which depends on how your race, country of birth, and economic wealth intersect. As Home Secretary, May is in a position rarely occupied by women, and rarely occupied by anyone for so long. Home Secretaries tend to be hit by scandals and forced to resign with wearying regularity. But whilst in office, May has overseen some of the most draconian immigration legislation for decades, defending immigration detention, renewing contracts with Serco despite sexual violence reports, and introducing rules that mean low income families are split up and British people split up from their partners and children if they don’t earn over a soon-to-be-raised income threshold.
May sits in a cabinet with many other powerful women, especially after criticism of Cameron’s disproportionately male and Etonian cabinet refused to die down until a reshuffle. The policies that trickle down from that cabinet harm women disproportionately. Despite launching a campaign titled “Theresa May for Equal Pay” in 2008, May has endorsed an austerity regime ￼￼￼￼that saw the gender pay-gap increase, and been a stalwart of a government that introduced cuts that affected four times as many women as men.
Meanwhile, there is a burgeoning crisis in the women’s sector: provision of domestic violence services and rape crisis centres and helplines has been reduced due to austerity cuts. Headline figures on cuts to UK domestic violence services often mask the full impact of government cuts on people fleeing abuse at home. Women across the UK have been hardest hit by austerity and attendant spending cuts. Charities in the sector speak out about the problems they’re seeing: Women’s Aid has warned that services are “at breaking point”, with a third of women turned away from refuges due to lack of space, and the total number of refuges falling from 187 to 155 between 2010 and 2014. But for many of the women escaping violence, moving to a refuge is only the first step on the journey to safe, independent living.
The housing crisis, especially in the south east and London, is one of the biggest factors affecting women trying to move on. Most women spend between six to nine months in refuges, where they’re assigned a support worker who offers counselling, signposts services and advocates for the women, helping them build independent living skills, and getting them into education and training. The move to independence after surviving violence is crucial, as without support and safeguards put in place, the risk of returning home to violence and abuse is heightened.
At one refuge in London last year, run by the charity Hestia, the service manager Louise Dickerson told me: “It’s really difficult in the climate now. Because social housing is pretty much abolished, local authorities discharge their duty through private rented accommodation now most often, which is maybe on a yearly license or tenancy.” Housing waiting lists in the UK’s local councils, who have a legal duty to help homeless and vulnerable people, are at an all-time high. With so much pressure on counc￼￼￼￼￼ils, domestic violence survivors can struggle to convince council employees they are a priority. Women have even spoken of being disbelieved when they disclose their need to flee because of violence. Moving to privately rented flats means the women and families are offered less security and are liable for far higher rents: most private housing offers tenancy agreements of no longer than a year, and Hestia report more women are being asked to have a financial guarantor, who agrees to be financially liable for rent arrears. For women fleeing violence, who’ve often cut all ties to their wider family and friendship groups, this is an impossibility and an insult after their ordeal.
Even when women do find a home to move on to, the cuts mean they face even more hardship. In the raft of public-spending cuts in the last few years, many of the financial assistance schemes councils offered have been slashed. The crisis loan fund, which provided a total of £180m in hardship loans to people in extreme financial need, has now been scrapped. Economic control is a commonly used tool of domestic violence perpetrators when preventing women from leaving: removing financial help for such vulnerable women and children puts lives at risk. This money was previously a lifeline for people in extreme distress and very vulnerable situations, and losing it puts even more pressure on domestic violence services. As Dickerson explains:
They’ve taken away the crisis loan, and women relied on that for resettlement. So women will leave without a mattress to sleep on, and some of them have young families. One woman was self-harming recently, living in a shelter that was not homely. It’s very challenging for our workers. We work really hard just to make sure the women can survive.
Other lifelines of financial support are also being slowly eroded. The Discretionary Housing Payment funding, which provide payments of up to a year for people facing difficulty paying their accommodation costs, is to be slashed by 24% from 2015.
In a speech to Women’s Aid’s annual conference in 2010 in the early days of the coalition, May told the audience that both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats would reverse the decline in rape crisis centres, but tentatively refused to make any funding commitments to the women’s sector in the face of looming local authority cuts. “Your problem is my problem”, May said, adding, “Success for us will not mean we’ve spent more of the money we don’t have. It will mean more women have been helped, more abusers have been brought to justice and more attitudes have been changed.”
It’s not precisely clear how May and the government expect rape crisis centres to continue to provide an identical service with less money, which perhaps explains why she is not chancellor, but does little to comfort the women in need who find their service threatened with closure. Violence against women is a problem for all of society, and without accepting that all services must be welcoming and accessible for women fleeing violence and crucially that they must be adequately funded, more women will find their lives in danger.
The benefit of having women in the cabinet remains to be seen for migrant, low-paid, or abused women. For now, it seems as though there is no difference: the powerful look after the powerful, with gender as an afterthought, or a bargaining chip when trying to deflect criticism for cuts that harm women.
Graeme has a place waiting in the recently requisitioned Walpole Bay Hotel and Nick puts him in a USG minivan with a few other recent arrivals. The rooms are all full and so a series of bunk beds and spaces for sleeping bags have been set up in the downstairs lounge. He sits in the corner feeling vulnerable, his bag held tight, wishing he hadn’t flushed that spliff away; he could do with a smoke, calm his nerves.
How much will his records get sold for? They must be worth six, seven grand if he could get full price for them, probably they will go up for auction on one of the Government’s Clawback sites and be sold for whatever anyone bids for them, anything that isn’t sold after a certain point goes to charity shops for free. He thinks maybe he can sell the records he has in the bag to pay off his debts and buy back his own stock.
The room is filling up now. A dazed looking group in black hoodies is being processed at the doorway and let into the room one by one, activists, he thinks he recognises a few. He doesn’t want to hug the bag of records too close for fear of alerting someone to their value or loosen his hold on them for fear they might be taken. If he loses this he loses everything. He can’t seem to get any kind of signal on his phone down here and needs to get online, to contact his buyer and arrange something. Money no object, they said. He’s seen tape collections go for ten, twelve grand, getting bid up on ExecutiveCollector. This is all a mistake he can rectify if he can just get online.
On the other side of the room he spots another couple of familiar faces, Giveback Partners from one of the refit jobs they did in Elephant and Castle six months ago, a horrible experience that got Graeme ever more frantically pursuing his record trading afterwards in order to stave off ever having to do it again. A group of ten of them in Giveback Boilersuits jogging in lockstep from the branded Giveback van, the team leader, ex-Army, barking instructions at them, the public spectacle of it as much a part of the exercise as anything, letting the poor know, this is what’s waiting, allowing the rich to savour the discipline.
He approaches tentatively, knows faces but not names, they all seemed alright even though they hadn’t communicated much, each one locked away in a pocket of anger and shame that seems here in the light and space of the temporary encampment to have been broken open.#
Alright boss, Graeme says. I know you mate, from Giveback up in Elephant. We did that housing estate, ripping all the old carpets up and that. For a second they look blankly at him then one of them nods, yeah, yeah, bruv. Yeah that’s right. They got you too.
What’s going on? I need to get back up to London. He’s here coincidentally, accidentally he explains, came down on some business and can’t get back up there now, hasn’t had time to sell or stash his stuff, nothing more than the shirt on his back and the phone in his hand. Can anyone get a signal? He needs to ring Matty, he’ll come and get him, ring his contact, let him know he’s got stuff, start negotiating a price. Ring Joolzy, ring the OkupaUK crew, anyone, just to let them know he’s here, that there’s been some mistake. They all shake their heads. Signal’s been jammed, something’s going on. You could try the internet café down on the front but you are not supposed to go more than quarter of a mile from your centre. How can there be no wireless, he asks, no phone signal? They’ve turned it all off. Simple as that. Plus, one of them says we know you yeah, but don’t talk to anyone you don’t know. Lot of undercover narcs about.
One of the group is telling them a story about how he had to go and work for Pret A Manger making sandwiches on a Giveback placement in a big, cold warehouse up the river, standing at a long line of other workers in white coats and hairnets at scratched silver trestle tables. He is tall, six foot three and the bench was little too low. He asked the supervisor if there was any way they could raise the table but he looked at him blankly. That’s the table we use here, he said. Then could he have a chair to sit on? We don’t have chairs, they told him. No one else is sitting down. Yeah, but I am taller than they are. The supervisor smiled. Find a solution, he said. Don’t mention it to me again.
An older guy, maybe early fifties, with a beer belly and glasses has drifted over to join them. Find a solution to being tall? Every day the pain in his back started a little earlier in the shift, until even after a weekend of lying in bed just trying to recover, using the muscles as little as possible, on the following Monday morning the pain was instantaneous, adjusting his posture slightly to pull the first two slices of bread out of the box a strap of raw muscle started heating up until after thirty minutes it was burning and making him nauseous. Every time he finished a sandwich it was pulled across the table cut and boxed then sealed. He began to slow down dramatically, shifting his weight from side to side bending and stretching, pausing as his teammate scowled impatiently at him from across the other side of the table. Each pair was assessed for productivity, each team competing with other teams, each section with others and each individual performance logged, someone would lose out, the least productive pair in each team put the whole table in danger of being deemed to be showing insufficient enthusiasm, efficiency, motivation and penalised, benefits cut, more Giveback hours extended, or worse, both. You could find yourself working more hours for free, racking up Giveback hours for a bare subsistence in terms of on-the-job food allocations. He tried to keep going he said but by the afternoon the pain was unbearable and in the half hour break he sat and wept in the company toilet wondering what the fuck he was going to do, whether they would even let him leave and dreading the sanctions they would apply, the medical tests he would have to go through, which would find him fit to work and give him pain-killers, a privilege he would have to pay for with more Giveback hours. In the end he couldn’t take it any more. And so.
Yeah. Yeah. Everyone nods.
How come you are down here? They ask a guy in his early thirties. Hi alright, he says, I am Charlie. Charlie sounds a little bit posh. He said had been stopped at the turnstile at Charing Cross by some private security guards asking him why he wanted to come into Zone 1, what the purpose of his visit was, asking why a Claimant would have any need to leave his particular, they used the word designated, Zone to come down here. I want to go to the library. You are not a student though, are you? You can do all that online. I want to go to the library, the museum, a gallery, window shopping whatever, what’s the problem with that? Loitering with no clear purpose then. Looking at your Viability Index you have got no money to spend and I am refusing you entry on reasonable suspicion of attempted non-authorised financial solicitation. ITB. Intent to Beg. After some protesting and refusal in which he was very careful not to lose his temper he was eventually escorted into a side office while his details were checked, then he was taken away and kept in police custody for 24 hours as they went round and trashed his flat looking for suspicious or subversive material. Lucky for you we didn’t find anything, they said, though we could have done if we had wanted to. Two days later he received notice that the Giveback hours incurred through the time being held in the police cell had pushed him over some preprescribed limit and that he was to report to the office down here.
They are getting serious; they are cracking the fuck down. Another guy on one of the camp beds at the back chipped in that he had been refused entry to a pub in Blackheath after his Claimant Card set off some kind of alarm behind the bar. He refused to leave and a group of big guys in rugby shirts made the fact that he was not welcome clear to him: fuck off out of here or you’ll be claiming disability from now on, one told him, to raucous laughter.
Well, she said, I was coming back home on the bus one day and I just decided, fuck it, I am going to go full default. I was working in Rootz making £6.37 an hour and I had debts, you know? There was no way I could pay it back, no way, and the interest was accumulating all the time so, I mean it was scary to do it but I’d just got paid and I knew I was going to see all of that money disappear, go to the landlord, on transport, to pay back student loans, to cover credit card bills. Already I was living in a shared house, right, in the cheapest room and every month I am just digging myself in deeper paying bills and expenses. So I ended up looking around for a cheaper place to live but they were all even further away from work so then there was extra transport costs. What can I do, right? I’m not going into one of the Beehives. I can’t live. I am working all week and I can’t live. Do more hours, work two jobs maybe but I am already doing an extra ten to twenty hours a week overtime just to show willing and keep my job at Root and Branch, so about two months ago I thought, well, I can either go back and live with my Mum and Dad or I can go full default, in which case I have got about a two week head start before the bailiffs are on to me. So that means no phone, nothing, you’re looking at five years for some of the debts to be cancelled, some of them never, always trying to stay ahead of the bailiffs, always having to find work from someone who won’t ask questions, no benefits, people always ready to grass you up, you know? The only thing worse than being a Claimant is being a defaulter as far as some people are concerned, but me, I had no choice. I couldn’t see any way out. My Mum and Dad don’t have any money to give me a leg up, you know. I worked through University, I got a good grade, I wanted to keep studying but then the prices went up, the credit dried up, the only jobs I could get were minimum wage, I didn’t know if I would be working from one week to the next. And nearly everyone I knew was the same, some of them had help but I didn’t have any lifelines, you know. So I just had to leave.
How long did you manage?
Six weeks. Immigration raided this meat packing plant I was working in up near York. There were three Brits in there; everyone else was foreign, y’know, from all over. I got shipped back down here.
How much have they got you for?
Giveback? She swallows.
Fucking years and years and years.
Who dares dissent from the gospel according to Silicon Valley? There is – we are insistently told – no alternative to the invasion of capitalist cyberspace into all areas of consciousness and culture. Anyone who expresses even the mildest scepticism about social media and smartphones is roundly denounced as nostalgic. The old, desperate not to seem out of touch, rarely dare question the young’s compulsive attachment to their smartphones. Anti-capitalists join with
tycoons to celebrate the potentials of network society. In article after article, conference after conference, the “new” is routinely equated with “the digital”, to such an extent that is now difficult to remember a time when “technology” wasn’t a shorthand for communicative software. When mobile phones entered the marketplace, they were the object of mockery: who could be so self-important as to believe that they needed to be contactable everywhere and anywhere? Now, everyone is required to act like some cross between a hustler always on the make and an addict jonesing for contact.
But how has this model of progress, in which history culminates in the glorious invention of iPhones and apps, become so uncontested? And, if we attend closely, isn’t there a desperate quality to all this cheerleading? Addicts always rationalise their compulsions, but the desperation here belongs to capital itself, which has thrown everything at the great digital swindle. Capital might still swagger like some data cowboy, but iPhones plus Victorian values can only be a steampunk throwback. The return to centuries’ old forms of exploitation is obfuscated by the distracting urgencies of digital communication.
What if Silicon Valley was not – as we are relentlessly hectored to believe – a stupendous success story but a massive monument to failure? In Defence of Serendipity encourages us to pose this counter-intuitive question. Sebastian Olma demonstrates that neoliberal capitalism has systematically destroyed the conditions which allowed Silicon Valley to emerge, at the very same time as it pimps 70s California as the definitive model for all cultural as well as business innovation. In Olma’s narrative, Steve Jobs and the other Californian oligarchs come to seem like the hapless figures from a fairy tale. They wished to totally transform the world, but instead they received unimaginable wealth. Their devices only led to more of the same: the ‘changeless change’ of a capitalism that endlessly crows about innovation in a manic attempt to cover over the glacial monotony of its homogeneity and repetitiveness. The Silicon Valley princes provided capital with new tools of capture and captivation. More than that, they gave capital a new hymn sheet, a way to sell drudgery as creativity and hyper-exploitation as sharing, so that we are all expected to be “passionate” about our cyber-serfery.
It is by now screamingly clear that innovation does not spontaneously effloresce when capital dominates society and culture. Generalised insecurity leads to sterility and repetition, not surprise and innovation. The conditions in which the new can appear have to be produced and nurtured. This, Sebastian Olma demonstrates, is the real import of the concept of serendipity when it is properly understood. The irony of Silicon Valley is that its very hegemonic dominion has contributed to the disappearance of such conditions in the capitalist world. Silicon Valley emerged from the serendipitious synthesis of the counterculture and state-sponsored cybernetics, but neoliberal capital has destroyed the possibility of a counterculture even as it has annexed and subdued the state. In Defence of Serendipity shows that that the real future is building itself beyond the instrumentalising urgencies of business, in the spaces between a new bohemia and a revived public sphere.
“There’s no such thing as the voiceless, only the deliberately silenced and the preferably unheard.”—Arundhati Roy
Post-crash, countless studies have shown that the impact of cuts and austerity has been borne predominately by women. A Fawcett Society study on the impact of cuts doled out by the coalition government in the UK stated that 75% of all cuts hit women. Women with disabilities, black women, working-class women, and single mothers were the hardest hit.
The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission warn that 2010–2020 will be the first decade since records began that sees a rise in absolute poverty in the UK, with the gulf between the rich and poor as irreparable. When the economy tanks, it is predictably women who suffer. The fight for women’s rights is less a long, slow march, and more like a climbing wall: it is possible to climb as well as fall, so vigilance is essential at all times. The clawing back of the welfare state is a direct attack on women’s rights, but boardroom quotas make a tidier headline, based on the assumption that certain rights have already been won.
In reaction to the argument that “there is no alternative” to cuts and austerity, with Labour and the Conservatives in the UK singing from the same hymn sheets, women’s grassroots groups have started to fight back. The Focus E15 campaign grew in Newham in response initially to Newham’s “social cleansing” of the poorest households in the borough, targeting single mothers and forcing them to relocate to cities and towns hundreds of miles away from their children’s schools, families and support networks. In 2013, a group of 29 young single mothers, many of whom were teenagers, were served with eviction notices from their specialist hostel in east London. The Focus E15 foyer provided one-bedroom apartments for the women to live in with their children, or whilst pregnant, after being made homeless, and provided targeted skills training, literacy teaching, and specialist support to help the women back into work or training. Many of the women in the £125-a-week rooms were studying, or in part-time work in the area, and one mother said she was applying for universities in London.
The funding of Supporting People, designed to help vulnerable people live independently, was slashed in England and the foyer said that without funding for specialist support, the hostel would cease to be an appropriate environment for young mothers and children. Newham Council, tasked with rehousing the women, told them they should expect to be placed outside the borough and city. A change to Newham’s housing policy meant working families and people who had served in the armed forces received priority over single mothers like the Focus E15 residents.
Rather than accept their fate, the women took action. Starting from a weekly street stall in Stratford city centre, the women explained their predicament and soon rallied around supporters and other activists. This culminated in September 2014 with an attention-grabbing protest a few minutes’ walk away next to Stratford station. Coinciding with London’s Open House weekend, where iconic and listed buildings are opened to public tours, the Focus E15 campaigners, now comprising the mothers, locals, and seasoned campaigners, broke into two empty flats.
The flats, in the Carpenters Estate, had lain empty for years. Walking around the estate, it was remarkable how many windows were boarded up, so close to the 2012 Olympic site, which had promised regeneration and wealth for a poor area. Members of the Tenant Management Organisation, responsible for managing the site, told me Newham Council had refused to allow them to let properties that became empty if families moved out, slowly turning the red-brick estate into a ghost town.
Once in, the campaigners decorated the properties with toys, soft furnishings, banners and posters and declared their own Open House. Outside, green fabric banners decorated with the slogans “These Homes Need People: These People Need Homes” were unfurled, a simple message underlining the absurdity of the situation the mothers and other homeless families in the borough were faced with. On a sunny Saturday, the flats were thronged with visitors. One room I went into was being used as an impromptu crèche: babies were happily being entertained by two locals in a former bedroom. The living room was a campaign centre, with media phone numbers tacked to the wall, alongside lists of what was needed to make the occupation work.
What was striking about the flats was their state of repair. Curious visitors who popped in after hearing of the occupation via social media and news coverage were genuinely shocked at how immaculate the decor and fittings were. Wandering around, I noticed the wallpaper looked as good as new, and the kitchen was far better than many I had seen in my own rented flats over the years. The TMO said most flats were the same: perfectly liveable, but empty by command of the council. The campaigners pointed out that it would be far easier to move women into these small family homes than ship them miles from their own families, disrupting young children’s lives.
The campaign garnered a huge amount of media and local attention, initially through social media, before being picked up by The Guardian and The Financial Times. In The Guardian, one of the mothers, Jasmin Stone, wrote:
“We wanted to participate in Open House to show how many houses sit empty in London and what an easy solution there is to the housing crisis. This crisis, as it is usually covered in the newspapers, is one experienced by the middle classes, whose steady march from private renting to home ownership has been stopped in its tracks by the hugely inflated market. For members of the working class, however, the crisis is much more virulent. It involves not only the prospect of annual rent increases, the impossibility of home ownership and poor-quality housing, but also removal and displacement from the place in which you were born, leading to isolation in a place where you know nobody and opportunities for jobs are non-existent.”
The campaign, built up over years and still fighting homelessness and gentrification in Newham, meant that a process that usually happens to women silently was brought to public attention. Individually, families facing homelessness, often single mothers because they comprise the lowest-paid and most vulnerable households, are turned away from council housing offices and left to fend for themselves, or placed in unsuitable hostels miles away from their home. Focus E15 challenged this silencing and directly linked it to the rapid development of London due to unsustainably fast house-price growth tempting investors in to make a quick buck. Councils, with slashed budgets from central government, abdicate responsibility to vulnerable residents in lieu of making some quick cash from land sales, in the process (they hope) tempting in more financially flush tenants.
This exact scenario was relayed to me in 2010, when a Newham councillor asked me what I thought the biggest problem facing Newham was (I worked as a student welfare advisor in a university in the Borough). With students, predominantly women, coming in every day complaining about homelessness, poor conditions, or that they were experiencing domes- tic violence but couldn’t afford to move out, I replied that the biggest issue was the need for more social housing. “Oh no”, he said. “That just encourages undesirables.” Instead, they needed to build more new, metropolitan flats, the kind springing up around Stratford Station and the under-development Westfield Shopping Centre. The kind that attracted bankers from nearby Canary Wharf, not the sort of people who lived and worked in Newham already.
But “undesirables” have to live somewhere, and it sticks in the craw of the rich when these “undesirables” live in an area deemed desirable by the wealthy. The New Era estate in Hoxton was bought out in May 2014 by American property develop- ment company Westbrook Partners. Letters sent following the takeover informed the 93 families living on the estate that they faced a four-fold increase in rent. For the majority of the residents, this amounted to an eviction notice: few residents, some who had lived on the estate for as many as 70 years, could afford to pay those sums even if their only outgoing was rent.
Three women took charge of the fight to keep the residents in their homes: Lindsey Garrett, Danielle Molinari and Lynsay Spiteri rallied tenants and got word out about the conditions of the takeover. That the Benyon Estate, the family business of the country’s richest MP, Richard Benyon, had a 10% stake in the estate made it easier to argue their case. The women contacted The Daily Mirror, then other papers, organised a demonstration outside Westbrook Partners’ UK offices, and presented a 300,000-signature petition to Downing St.
After months of work, the campaign had won vocal and public support from politicians across the political divide, including the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and the Mayor of Hackney, the borough the estate resides in. For the investors, the level of attention and the volume of bad publicity made their plans untenable: shortly before Christmas, the Benyon Estate pulled out, quickly followed by Westbrook Partners. The estate was sold to Dolphin Square, a charity that is committed to providing low-cost homes to people on low incomes, and ten- ants were told not to expect rent increases.
Recovering from celebrations, Molinari told the BBC: “They underestimated us three women, but also all the residents on the estate, the community spirit and what Hoxton is all about”. Garrett, currently an NHS worker, is now planning to run for London Mayor in the 2016 elections, and has been elected chair of the New Era Tenants’ Association.
The 3Cosas campaign have campaigned for better rights for cleaners (predominantly women) and fought gender discrimination and unfair dismissal cases when Unite the Union refused to recognise casual staff.
In 2013, the Home Office introduced a billboard van that drove around with the message “Here illegally? GO HOME” with a number listed for undocumented migrants to call. What the government termed the “Immigration Enforcement Campaign” quickly gained a new, more commonly used name: the “racist van”. The glory of social media is that, as with the bedroom tax, you have little control over what people describe campaigns and policies as. Once the general public insists, by virtue of sheer wilful numbers, that they are going to use one term, your more strategic title is binned by most media outlets. One young woman, who writes pseudonymously as “Pukkah Punjabi”, called the number, left a voicemail, then toyed with the Home Office operator who called her back, saying she was just after a lift back to Willesden, as that was her home. Social-media agitators continued to deluge the hotline with similar calls, until the campaign looked less Judge Dredd, more Benny Hill. Southall Black Sisters have campaigned for women for years and again hit the headlines on August 1st 2013, when they were holding a women’s advice centre. Word reached the group of an immigration raid happening close by: the women gathered and drove the van away from their centre, before intercepting and surrounding the vans with supporters and megaphones as they attempted to carry out an immigration raid. “We were all so enraged by it that we emerged from our building and followed the vehicles around Southall
shouting ‘this is racist’,” Southall Black Sisters wrote on their site. “Many of the women have escaped domestic violence and have felt trapped by their immigration status to stay in abusive marriages.” Other groups have also worked to stop raids, notably the Anti-Raids Network, and often local communities act organically to attempt to stop raids, such as in south London in June 2015, when a UKBA van was surrounded, rocked, and had its tyres slashed by locals outraged at the attack on their community and neighbours.
These groups have secured victories and publicity, not by leaning in, behaving and striving individually, but by adopting very specific strategies. Direct action is key to each movement: while petitions and lobbying of local and national politicians have complemented each campaign, it is direct action that has put the cat amongst the pigeons, and allowed the women to fully expose the horror and unfairness of the causes they are highlighting and fighting for. If housing is your issue, why not occupy empty homes to show the claim there is nowhere for vulnerable women to go is a lie? If your community is being raided and your neighbours are being bundled into a van for deportation by state thugs, why let the UK Border Agency do so quietly? Show the world what is going on every day under their noses.
Social media has been a huge force in both mobilising and publicising campaigns and injustices. While a lot has been said about the abuse prominent women receive on the internet, the ability to get online and connect with potentially millions of people who would care about your cause if they heard about it is revolutionary. For women, the democratising potential of social media networks has helped bring attention to campaigns and causes that previously would have buckled without press attention. People speaking in real time, and consistently shar- ing information, has sustained and bolstered many campaigns. Politicians are still wary of social media: some have lost jobs over unwise outbursts, but there’s also a fear of the unpredict- able networks revealing actions (such as in Newham) that tradi- tionally would have passed without outside notice or comment.
Mutual support and solidarity between neighbours and networks have been integral to many of these campaigns. Housing activists in different boroughs in London regularly disseminate email call-outs for more bodies and supplies for ongoing occupations around the capital. Actions against the UK Border Agency’s immigration raids are only made possible by communities fighting back and refusing to see someone who lives or works alongside them dragged into a van only to disappear once deported. Again, social media allows bedroom-tax campaigners to discuss tactics and loopholes nationally and provide emotional support throughout fights to keep their home.
Media attention is still integral to a successful campaign, but has changed tack in recent years. Social media now drives much news —I’ve sat in many commissioning meetings where editors have been unenthused by a story, but journalists have pointed out it’s all anyone is really discussing on social media, so choosing not to cover it looks politically motivated. A successful campaign thereby forces coverage, and coverage is the final stage in cementing victory. Politicians and forces will push not to recog- nise campaigns even when they’re attracting mass attention, but the esteem for traditional media is still far higher, and often once newspapers or TV channels get involved, victory is not far away, as the New Era Estate campaign showed.
Sisters Uncut, Southall Black Sisters, and the bulk of housing and bedroom-tax campaigners are now women, and usually working-class women, often on benefits. They are at the van- guard of anti-austerity campaigning, refusing to accept the cuts that affect women disproportionately. While austerity may be temporary (though the Conservatives and Labour seem happy to accept that it is now ideologically permanent), the effect of austerity on women and children lasts a lifetime.
In her book on class and music culture in the Nineties, Clampdown, Rhian E Jones notes that class is an endemic problem in contemporary feminism:
In mainstream politics and media, there remains a tendency for working-class women themselves to appear in feminist discourse as objects to be seen rather than heard, expected to rely on middle-class activists to articulate demands in their behalf but considered too inarticulate or otherwise “rough” to be directly engaged with.
Will that change? Who knows. But the drive towards direct action by many groups run by women should be recognised as a constructive feminist movement, and will be by anyone sensible who recognises that gender is but one part of oppression.
By occupying, withdrawing labour, and refusing to be complicit in the state’s violence against the most vulnerable in society, they show that “leaning out” of the capitalist model is far more effective at securing attention, provoking change, and ensuring demands are met than “leaning in”. Few people ever get anything radical accomplished by continuing to play the game. The women on the frontline of the new feminist campaigning accept that capitalism and the political and power elites are no friend of women, and that to have a stab at a life that can support you and your children, the answer isn’t to internalise the hatred society casts your way, but to fight to reveal injustice and refuse to participate.
Lean Out is out now, available from all good bookshops & online.
….the shabby houses of La Villette and Bercy, where famous poets spilled wine across their tattered and eternally unfinished manuscripts while dashing to the floor the inmates’ tiaras and robes de chambre in acts of romantic debauchery that, when publicized, bred ratlike sycophants, who, in seeking to nest in the shadows of the poets’ fame, infested these humble brothels and brought such demand for their women and the taste of the authentic poetic life they bestowed that the poets could no longer afford to frequent them and left behind nothing more than illicit tourist traps with re-creations of famous liaisons that had supposedly taken place there, to be viewed for ten sous through peepholes beneath bronze plaques from the Historical Society on the walls reminding visitors of whatever had taken place there during the Revolution as the proprietor shoved at them oversized coffee mugs printed with crude snapshots of their women as souvenirs, keychains with the professionally-designed logo of the brothel and its slogan in English, and oversized fanny-packs that were made in China with a secret compartment for coins, the silhouette of the Eiffel Tower stitched to the front, and an X-tra Fit elastic waistband that could stretch around the tourists to secure this distended artificial gut to the tourists’ cargo shorts, stained with McDonald’s condiments and sweat, on which they wiped their fingers after shoving a cheeseburger into their cola-scented mouths and, while chewing, bellowed their disdain for whatever painting they had, out of a sense of duty, left their Holiday Inn to see as their slimy tongues flicked little specks of mashed-up meat and bread onto the work in question to, when the accumulated cheeseburger residue came to obscure a certain percentage of the painting’s surface, be cleaned by professional art restorers, lamenting, as they delicately applied their vacuums and steam-brushes, the disrespect for the museum exhibited by the tourists, of whom few were half as destructive as one notorious visitor to France named Baruch Khazâd, future Lord Minimus, of the Isle of Minimus, a dwarf no elderly restorationist or museum owner could mention without a shudder as they warned their younger colleagues to beware tourists from the Isle, especially the male dwarfs on their plastronnage, as had been Lord Khazâd when, in 1934, having learned of the tradition when he immigrated to the Isle several months earlier from Ukraine, he rampaged through Paris in a drunken frenzy, attacking with a hammer ancient sculptures from Egypt and Greece, setting fire to paintings by Titian and Manet, and committing a lewd act upon the Arc de Triomphe, by which he claimed to be symbolically defiling all of French history as the police dragged him to the commissariat, where, as he peeked over the sill of the barred window at the city, chalk-colored under the lightly-clouded afternoon sun, they threatened him with all manner of brutality should he ever return to France, then beat him with their well-worn truncheons for a few minutes before shackling him naked to the roof of a prisoner train bound for Le Havre, as was the standard punishment in France for defacing artwork, with a ticket for a cargo ship back to the Isle, to be used should he survive the inclement weather, the storm that blew in that evening and drenched him while lightning crashed all around and filled the midnight countryside with a constant, flickering illumination that gave these fields and villages the look of the land of the dead and the two other art defacers shackled to the roof with him the look of crazed skeletons that had somehow come to life and sat themselves down on a train to terrify the clochards riding the rails in the other direction, inspiring tales of the “Vagabond-Fantôme”, who, after his myth reached the locomotive vagrants of the United States, slowly acquired the accoutrements by which this sinister figure is known today, including the tall, red top hat, the shredded tuxedo, stained with the blood of his victims, the monocle that reveals to him the sins of those he sees, the black velvet gloves over his six-fingered hands, the pair of neutered jackals named Dimnah and Kalilah on silver leashes named Rhaff and Rheffyn (fashioned by the finest craftsman of Surat and a nimble-fingered prophetess of Benares), the unspayed Tasmanian she-wolf named Amazon (left to wander freely and sniff out those guilty of committing any injustice against a vagrant or other downtrodden unfortunate), and the ivory cane, shaped into a tight spiral by the bonsai-master Prysgliach Gwrachell through binding, with a modified bonsai harness for twenty years, the living tusk of an enraged bull elephant in perpetual musth out there on the rainy northwestern peninsula of the Isle of Minimus, where, after the removal of this tusk late in its life by the Isle’s sole Nazi occupier for his own collection in 1940, the elephant ceased to patrol the peninsula as its territory and disappeared into the highlands to trample sheep, terrorize milkmaids, and evade the traps of Baruch Khazâd, still as stooped as a Béraud woman from his forced train ride six years earlier but determined to capture the legendary rogue elephant and thereby impress the young women of the Isle, who were ignoring him in favor of those dashing Resistance men fighting the Occupation from the seaside caves of the west coast and the forests of the central plateau, raiding the cities with their guns and homemade bombs to blow up a statue of Adolf Hitler in Dverberg or steal a jeep and drive it into the ocean, much to the delight of the women staring at them from the windows as they marched into town and occasionally running off to join them in their camps and cook for them or even accompany them on their attacks, as most of the Isle’s women despised the Isle’s Nazi for helping himself to food from their kitchens and groping them and their sisters or daughters in front of their subservient husbands and fathers, though not all these women shied away from his advances, and some actually made a great deal of money entertaining the Nazi in his private villa atop Bach Hill, overlooking the derelict Nouvelle-Chomedey harbor, sent there each night through the intervention of Khazâd, who used his familiarity with the Isle’s major brothel in Dverberg to secretly act as the Nazi’s “intermediary” in these matters in exchange for permission to hunt the rogue elephant, which he knew would give him the prestige to turn a few admiring eyes away from the Resistance godelureaux and toward himself, securing, through his marriage to one of the wealthier girls of the capital city, the necessary support to be named the next Lord Minimus once the Nazis, having completed their invasion of Britain and, succeeding in delivering peace to all Europe, sufficiently confident in their authority to allow the return of certain local customs they had felt it necessary to suppress during the conflict, reinstated that ancient title, which had languished, dormant, ever since the previous Lord Minimus, Carolino Gogoni, died under mysterious circumstances the day after the Nazi parachuted onto the Isle and received, despite the protestations of the Seneschal and part of the Minimal Council, Lord Gogoni’s immediate surrender, shocking this rookie paratrooper, who had undergone six months of training in anti-dwarf combat techniques in preparation for this invasion, expecting to meet heavy resistance from the famously nationalistic inhabitants, many of whom, instead, flocked to greet him and carry his luggage to the Bach Hill estate, where, after tea and boules infestées with the friendlier elders of the Council, he was led down to Lord Gogoni’s barely-seaworthy houseboat, moored in the harbor, and was formally presented, at high tide, with the Instrument of Surrender, signed by Lord Gogoni with one hundred different pens at a table set up on the houseboat’s roof, sheltered from the dismal weather by two menservants holding vast umbrella-lamps, which were printed in elaborate floral designs that threw spidery shadows across the Nazi’s face and made him appear far older when he stuck his pen in the mouth of one of the potted Venus flytraps that lined the roof and leaned back in his chair to brood on the sound of the foghorns guiding out of the harbor the boat evacuating to England a handful of families who had decided against the exercise of their patriotic duty to remain on the Isle during the Occupation while Lord Gogoni continued to pick out his name one penstroke at a time and hand off each pen as it was used to one of the many supporters filling the lower decks and spilling up the stairs, reaching out their hands as Lord Gogoni distractedly held out to them each used pen, each piece of history that would find an honored place in the home of every lucky recipient, who, years later, would, presumably, gesture to the pen on its marble dais in each of their heirloom salons and tell their grandchildren about that beautiful, sunny day they were there on Lord Gogoni’s houseboat to witness the Isle become one of the first members of the glorious Nazi empire that had now raised the swastika over every country and struck Communism, Jewery, and all other depravities from the face of the Earth, clearing the way for the Isle of Minimus to take its place at the head of human achievement, first among all nations in the eternal Reich promised by this Nazi, who sighed with boredom as he provoked the aloof flytraps and shifted uncomfortably in his tiny chair, shivering in the cold mist that blew up off the water and slowly soaked everyone on the roof, including the menservants with their umbrella-lamps, which had begun to leak water into their light bulbs and flicker ominously overhead, the dwarf octet that had, in lieu of their traditional Minimal instruments, taken up, out of respect for their German visitor, gigantic sousaphones, from which they struggled to force some semblance of Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, and the excited crowd on the stairs, who jostled and tittered with looks of dumb joy on faces dripping with rain and seawater, then gave a raucous cheer as the Nazi was at last handed the document and welcomed by Lord Gogoni to accompany him to a celebration that night in the ancient Roman fortifications overlooking the heavily polluted Dormitory Fjord on the north end of the Isle, where, in the first century AD, the Roman tactician Flavius Phallosius Maximus had drowned after his banishment from Rome for his shocking habit of wearing embroidered sleeves and a primitive wool cravat known as a polemical, which, according to dwarf legend, when it washed ashore some time later near the dwarf settlement now known as Hudson-sur-la-Manche, was interpreted to be a message from the Gods, its ornate floral pattern a strange foreign language that only the mad shaman who then ruled over the western coast of the Isle claimed to be able to decipher, the same mad shaman many dwarf historians believe to be the basis for the myth of the Nain Rouge, but who is, otherwise, poorly remembered (since he almost certainly did not exist), known mainly for sequestering himself for one month in an unidentified cave in the central hills to translate this mysterious text, which, when he at last read it aloud in translation to an assembly of dwarfs from all over the Isle, was found to be a hymn to this shaman’s greatness, a prophecy revealing that, once he, in all his magnificence, had impregnated every woman on the Isle, giants would be forever barred from approaching its shores, and the dwarfs would at last have a homeland free of foreign domination, fulfilling the dream they all shared, even on the northeast coast, among the pirate dwarfs who had supposedly rejected the culture of the western half of the Isle, though few, according to the legend, even in the shaman’s own village of Dverberg, went so far as to allow him to impregnate their wives and daughters, adopting the view, instead, that this mysterious text should be read as an allegory expressing the gods’ wish that the Isle be united under a single ruler, that dwarfs should procreate as often as possible in order to give the Isle a greater number of soldiers to defend its shores, and that giants defiled the land with their presence, brought to it a curse through the stamping of their heavy feet and the bellowing of their brutish voices, the establishment of alien customs unsuited to dwarf life, and the worship of tall gods that held dwarfs in contempt and would never answer their prayers, never accept their sacrificed goats and lambs, and never cease to help giants oppress dwarfs everywhere, which constituted a worldview that served to guide the Resistance in their five years of struggle against the Nazis, to support them in their darkest hours, forming the infrastructure of their faith that to expel this invader would bring the Isle peace, comforting them there in those frigid little rooms somewhere up in the hills as, each evening, the setting sun seemed to drag down with it all their hopes for the future, as the earth cast skyward its limitless shadow and vague shouts from the Marcellaville concentration camp echoed over the land to mix with the sound of the bombs exploding in the cafés and the wail of emergency sirens of ambulances carrying the collaborators and other victims off to the hospital where, when the Isle was at last liberated in October of 1945, the procuretrix of the Dverberg brothel, the only person, besides the Nazi, who could identify Baruch Khazâd as the one arranging the Nazi’s entertainments, as Khazâd never spoke directly to the inmates themselves face-to-face when dealing with these matters, was brought with a gunshot wound to the head and expired immediately upon arrival, prompting the Nazi, as he shared one last dinner on the veranda of his Bach Hill estate alone with young Khazâd, to joke coarsely about the “skilled aim” of this future Lord Minimus, a joke Khazâd seemed to find in poor taste, surprising the Nazi, as he had never found Khazâd to take exception to any joke, no matter how vile, no matter how scatological, racist, misogynistic, blasphemous, or antinanoidic, not even the one about the young female dwarf whose nymphomania leads her to embark on an expedition into the heart of darkest Africa, where she meets a dissolute priest whose priapismic escapades have convinced the local populace of his godhood, a witticism with a punchline so revolting that it caused Serge Gainsbourg to double over in helpless laughter when Lord Khazâd shared it with him between takes during the filming of the scene in which Anna Karina hops from petal to petal on a giant cannabis leaf painted across an empty concrete lot with Gainsbourg in the center while chanting “il m’aime, un peu, beaucoup, à la folie, pas du tout”, changing her expression drastically on each petal representing each bit of amatory prognostication from the universe, cheering on the “beaucoup” petal, waving her arms and shouting with joy on the “à la folie” petal, and finally collapsing with despair on the “pas du tout” petal, causing Karina to narrowly escape the assassin’s bullet, which zips past harmlessly into the ground, and Gainsbourg to look up from his copy of Prophetic Dreams of Abraham Lincoln 1850–1860, part of a one-hundred-volume series entitled Prophetic Dreams of the American Presidents by Sigmund Freud, and shout with annoyance at Alec Guinness, revealed (with a gong sound) as the camera pans to the right to be standing nearby with, in his leather-gloved hands, an enormous gun Gainsbourg takes from him in a choppily-edited martial arts sequence, followed by a scene in which Gainsbourg ties this inscrutable Japanese agent to the statue of the Coq Gaulois standing in front of the French pavilion and pummels him in the rain in the foreground, out of focus on the left half of the frame while, in focus on the right, Karina and Bardot dance beneath their parapluies in their cuissardes à talons hauts to the rhythm of Gainsbourg’s hit song “Bondage spécial” (he also composed the film’s main theme, “Soixante-Neuf, agent provocatif”, which he famously sang with Bardot in what some called an “obscene spectacle” at the 1968 Venice Film Festival, where the film tied for the Leone d’oro) until Guinness admits that he is in league with a sinister alliance consisting of Anglophone Canadian Peter Sellers, Soviet Commissar Marcello Mastroianni, CIA spy Lee Hazlewood, MI6 agent Michael Caine, turncoat agent of the Office québécois de la langue française Steve McQueen, and the evil supercomputer voiced by Marlon Brando, assembled together by an unknown puppet master for the purpose of exterminating the French language, a revelation that so outrages Gainsbourg that, when, in the next scene, he makes his videophone report to le général de Gaulle from his place in Habitat 67, he implores le Général to grant him authorization for Method Extreme Hostility, authorization to openly wage a campaign of total obliteration with a maximum of violence against any and every opponent of the French language encountered by the agent without making the slightest effort to disguise his actions and without any concern for the diplomatic repercussions, something, le Général tells him, a regretful look on his face on the black-and-white telescreen, he could never do, since approval for Method Extreme Hostility could only come from a unanimous vote of the Académie française, and they had not granted such approval since the conflict in Algérie ended five years earlier…
There was a point about four or five years ago, a point I’m not bothered about confirming archivally but which nonetheless definitely occurred, at which football clubs almost uniformly, if you’ll allow the pun, changed the way that they marketed their new kits. Not so long ago, you’d have found a posed shot of a star player rehearsing some fabulous piece of technique or even, where the club had a meagre branding budget, a simple team photograph which could create other revenue streams from calendars and similar items. What superseded these more traditional forms of marketing was a style of image which offers the contemporary student of semiotics much to consider. Now, the background will be an electrolysed Blade Runner gloom, perhaps with little serifs of smoke indicating some recent conflagration or catastrophe. Against this will stand three to five players, one of whom will be a goalkeeper, another a winger or attacking midfielder, and yet another a looming centre half with a backwoodsman’s beard and sleeve tattoos. Their arms are crossed and resolute; they are indomitable. The language used to sell the kits will be pared down to abstraction: ‘[Club Name] 2015 Home Kit: We Are One.’ The general tone is a seriousness so ascetic it detonates into camp, unable to withstand the internal stresses on its structure of plausibility.
Nevertheless, for some it must have the appeal of gravitas or it would simply not work as an incentive to purchase. How, then, can it be explained? First, perhaps, with recourse to a certain type of pop-cultural hetero-masculinity which (re-) emerged in the early twenty-first century, initially – if I had to pick a particular moment – with the success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations, but more lately underwritten and refocused with HBO’s preternaturally successful Game of Thrones. In these programmes’ fantasy second worlds
, manhood, if done properly and honourably, is a matter of disenchanted seriousness, a saddened and reluctant understanding of the inherently conflictual nature of existence. Any levity here can only manifest itself as grim irony – one does not simply walk into Mordor, remember – and all time between battles must be occupied with sorrowful renditions of stories of the travails of Good. The bearded, tattooed centre-half on the kit advert, then, is supposed to connote the fantasy version of ordeal, the effect of which is not limited to football’s contemporary image-system. Think, for example, of how car advertising has departed from its nineties staple of secure glamour to its present mood of quasi-military exertion, its stubbled protagonists surging through sodden Scandinavian or Scottish gloom in order not, as the case would once have been, to seduce, but to be reunited with family.
The last item in this chain of images is, of course, the military recruitment film, which has become, after a fashion, more honest and explicit about the danger and brutality of conflict in the period that I’m describing. In Britain, the army are no longer particularly reticent about depicting ‘live’ skirmishes in their propaganda, in part because they suspect that computer games are not far from offering a comparable intensity of experience anyway, but also because of a gathering idea which automatically associates soldiering with virtuousness. Ideally, the film prompting its audience to enlist in the Marines or for the Territorial Army shows a gunfight in Helmand, or on a generically be-jungled ‘African’ coastline populated by similarly generic ‘rebels’, before portraying the hero returning to the family that his actions have (somehow) safeguarded.
What I’m trying to get at here is how advertising aimed at men has undergone an elemental shift in how it desires, and in how it seeks to channel desire. The old, but not really that old, male utopia was one of ease, of frictionless libido cruising through a collage of Eurocentric sophistication, waking in Venice amidst the accoutrements of one erotic encounter and falling asleep in Monte Carlo amidst another’s. This no longer holds: it is perceived, understandably, as inauthentic and insufficiently austere for our times. Instead, the dream-work is of extended periods of sexual and romantic isolation in the still largely homosocial realms of military conflict or extreme exploration, interspersed with brief unifications with family. This is the logic to which football advertising in Britain increasingly appeals.
Clearly, nobody seriously thinks that the players of, say, Scunthorpe United visiting, say, Leyton Orient for an awayday is remotely comparable to a six-month tour of Helmand. Nevertheless, enough sticks from this metaphorical equivalence to make us think that footballers fulfil some kind of existential duty, something which exceeds the rubric of paid work, when they play for a team. It has long been the case that disloyalty has been the most atrocious crime a footballer can commit, but the economic insecurity of the historical moment seems to have amplified the notion that we have particular responsibilities to increasingly local social units. There is something especially interesting here in the way that football clubs now seem to be regarded as ends in themselves on this front, as entities more demanding and deserving of loyalty than the broad communities which they inhabit. One concrete example of the contrasting fortunes of club and community is Liverpool fans’ continuing failure to resist the acts of social cleansing taking place on behalf of the club in the vicinity of Anfield: evidence that This Football Club is regarded as a point of social allegiance in almost direct tension with its area. The player, in this case, is asked to behave as an avatar of that unit’s struggle in an increasingly atomised, conflictual world, and asked to buy wholesale into the ‘values’ of the ‘project’ even when those values and that project are things that have been conjured ad hoc by recently installed owners and managers whose heads have been turned by the jargon of ‘smart thinking’ books and TED talks.
‘Sport is a battle’, then, is the metaphor we are now required to live by as football fans. It came to light in a peculiarly candid way during the predictable period of recrimination following England’s equally predictable early exit from the 2014 Brazil World Cup. Even before the players had set off for home Harry Redknapp, the geezerish and journalist-friendly cockney who had been passed over for the England manager’s job in 2012 because of a pending court case, turned up in the press claiming that a number of English internationals were in the habit of begging their club managers to withdraw them from the national squad for friendly games. The allegation was stark: that some English players regard playing for their country not as an honour, but as an annoyance. England coach Roy Hodgson and his outgoing captain Steven Gerrard cannily took the sting out of Redknapp’s comments by asking him to name names, but the matter did not drop entirely. Former England striker and current light-entertainment go-to Ian Wright wrote in his column in the Sun newspaper that any player found to have shirked international ‘duty’ without good reason should be required to phone the parents of a soldier killed in Afghanistan to explain their decision to drop out.
This was imagined on Twitter in plenty of bleakly funny versions of how the transcript of such a call might read. Palpably, the suggestion was a piece of attention-seeking on the part of Wright, who has never, it seems, got over his early-career rejections or his marginalisation in the 1990s England team by more rounded strikers such as Alan Shearer. However, it spoke to something in England’s present-day ideological make-up, namely a resurgent patriotism of symbols which regards Englishness, whatever that might mean, as somehow under threat. The role the football player takes in this set of beliefs is intriguing. Wright was playing to the idea that the default setting for footballers is a patriotic one, that they feel a sense of pride in national symbols which extends beyond their utilitarian, team-bonding value. By linking this version of patriotic obligation to that of the soldier’s, he insisted tacitly on the relative unanimity of nationalistic sentiment amongst the working-class communities that both footballers and the rank-and-file military are drawn from.
This is an extract from a work-in-progress – No Less than Mystic: What do Lenin and the Russian Revolution mean to the 21st Century left? by John Medhurst. The book will be published by Repeater in late 2016/early 2017
The aim of this book is to present a new history of Lenin and the Russian Revolution that has a direct relevance for those today who oppose and resist neo-liberal capitalism. It broadly covers the period 1903 to 1921 in Russia and seeks to explain why the Bolshevik Revolution degenerated so quickly into its apparent opposite. Yet it is not only and exactly a work of history. It examines the issues and events of the Russian Revolution through the lens of a 21st century, non-Marxist libertarian socialism. It suggests that corporate capitalism must be opposed not with a set of “revolutionary” formulations which were questionable one hundred years ago and have even less relevance now, but with popular, pluralistic and democratic movements built on people’s needs and experience. As a result it is kinder to Russia’s non-Leninist socialists than are most histories. Although not blind to the many flaws of the Russian Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries and Jewish Bundists I seek to rescue them from a century of misrepresentation. I do not automatically assume the knowledge of the subject that many Russian Revolution hobbyists take for granted, nor show much deference to those icons of Bolshevism, Lenin and Trotsky, still common today on the left. I suggest that socialist thinkers and activists such as Noam Chomsky, Michael Albert, Owen Jones, Naomi Klein and Arundahti Roy have more constructive and positive options to offer the anti-capitalist left today than do the sages of Bolshevism.
Some will ask why, outside of academic history, this should be of any interest? The contemporary left does not look to the events and lessons of the French Revolution of 1789-93 for guidance and inspiration so why does it still scrutinise and debate the Russian Revolution? Mainly because it is the first “modern” revolution – i.e led by the urban working class and with a socialist objective – in an era dominated by global capitalism. As such it is a key issue and intellectual point of contention on which subsequent argument about capitalism and its alternatives rests. Its centenary will no doubt generate articles in the liberal media and documentaries on BBC2. There will be learned retrospectives seeking to establish a consensus for future generations on the lessons of the Bolshevik experiment. Most of these assessments will fall in to two camps – a complacent condemnation of the revolution, and by extension all revolution, from the perspective of capitalist “liberal democracy”, or a defence of Bolshevism with an admission that because of civil war and the failure of the European proletariat to also rise up it degenerated into bureaucratic tyranny and Stalinism. This book adopts neither of those perspectives. It argues that the real revolution of 1917 took place in February not October, and was led by a wide alliance of socialists, trade unionists, peasants and populists in which the Bolshevik Party played a minor role. Despite the enormous difficulties involved in creating a durable democratic framework after the February revolution, it contained great potential for social and cultural liberation and a far better future for the Russian people than they had suffered under three hundred years of Tsarism or would endure under Leninism and Stalinism.
This revolution and many of its key players, whilst they made serious tactical and strategic errors, had much within it that today’s anti-capitalist campaigners should re-examine and respect. Whilst it is true that some elements of the Bolshevik revolution, most notably its attempts to provide greater freedom for women and a short-lived libertarian attitude to social and educational experimentation, were bold and emancipatory, that revolution soon established a power structure as monumental and oppressive as the Tsarism it replaced. Within a few months (in some cases days and weeks) most of the democratic freedoms offered by the February revolution were swiftly crushed by the Bolsheviks after they assumed power in October. For a variety of reasons, not least the undemocratic and authoritarian nature of Leninist doctrine, the Bolshevik Revolution had little to no chance of achieving a genuine socialist transition in Russia, much less in the rest of Europe.
This argument is not in itself new. It could even be said to fall under the rubric of the “continuity thesis”, i.e that the policies of the Bolshevik government from October 1917 laid the groundwork for the Stalinist dictatorship of the 1930s and were the genesis of the oppressive police states of the Soviet Bloc. But I do not advocate the simplistic version of continuity, which is that the decisions and policies of the Bolsheviks led in clear, linear fashion straight to the Gulag Archipelago. There were many forks in the road where a more democratic socialist alternative could have been taken. Some of these alternatives were argued for by prominent Bolsheviks in both the “moderate” tendency in the party in 1917-18, and the “Workers Opposition” grouped around Alexandra Kollontai and Alexander Shlyapnikov in 1920-21. Most crucially, the history told here does not absolve capitalist society then or now for its terrible inequalities and oppressions simply because the so-called “alternative”, an inherently authoritarian socialism, would be even worse. It denies that is the alternative
Nevertheless, I hope it gives the Bolsheviks their due. Between February and October 1917, especially after Lenin’s return to Russia in April, the Bolshevik Party became stronger and more significant as it took root in the Soviets (Workers Councils) of the major cities and campaigned for Peace, Bread and Land. In this phase it undoubtedly spoke for many, perhaps the majority, of the workers in the cities, and Lenin produced his supreme example of revolutionary theory, The State and Revolution. However this phase of the party’s work and the principles of State and Revolution were comprehensibly rejected once the Bolsheviks took power in October. The Soviets and other manifestations of grass roots workers’ power such as Factory Committees were swiftly curtailed and real decision making power was removed to the Supreme Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarcom) and the Supreme Economic Council (Vesenka). Political and press freedom went the same way within weeks of October. Whilst the “bourgeois” parties were immediately outlawed even other socialist parties did not last long once Sovnarcom had firmly established its power. The Socialist Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks and the anarchists were tolerated for a while after the insurrection, but for a far shorter time than is commonly supposed. Most of their newspapers were instantly suppressed, for example. They were then persecuted, censored and finally banned as the Bolshevik Party became inextricable from the organs of state.
This is not the romantic mythology of the Russian Revolution. Nor is it the counter-myth of an inherently malevolent socialism imposed on a tragic, noble middle-class. It is a deeper tragedy of political authoritarians whose dogmatic philosophy, built into the DNA of the Bolshevik Party by Lenin from 1903 onward, led them to disastrous decisions whose consequences they could not foresee. One of those consequences was the suppression and destruction of independent bodies such as Factory Committees, trade unions and rural and urban Soviets that offered a path to a different form of socialism. This should not be a contentious thesis. Although the October Revolution was greeted by the international left as a great liberatory event that reaction was based on initial reports and was overwhelmingly emotional. It was not long before reliable reports from left witnesses and participants revealed a truer picture of what was happening inside the “first socialist country in the world”, and how far from any acceptable version of socialism that regime was.
From Marxist revolutionaries like Rosa Luxemburg to democratic socialists like Bertrand Russell many on the political left were critical of the Bolshevik insurrection from the first. Subsequent investigation and the course of the new regime over its first six months reinforced that criticism. In 1918 Rosa Luxemburg, writing of the limits and shortcomings of all institutions including democratic ones, concluded “But the remedy that Lenin and Trotsky have found is worse than the disease it is meant to cure”. Having seen the Bolsheviks’ strangulation of political and press freedom and the suppression of internal democracy in the Soviets, Luxemburg found that “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all.” She concluded that under Bolshevik rule the only “active element” was the bureaucracy and that therefore Bolshevik rule was “at bottom a clique affair – a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the Proletariat however but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians”.
From a different perspective, but equally unafraid to state honestly what he observed even if it shattered the illusions of those who saw in Bolshevik Russia some form of socialism, Bertrand Russell, in The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (written in 1920 after a long visit to Russia and interviews with Lenin, Trotsky and Gorky) found that the Soviets had long died out as living democratic institutions because “no conceivable system of free elections would give majorities to the Communists, either in town or country”. This was hardly surprising given that the social and political system created by Lenin and the Bolsheviks was “…a slavery far more complete than that of capitalism. A sweated wage, long hours, industrial conscription, prohibition of strikes, prison for slackers, diminution of already insufficient rations in factories where production falls below what the authorities expect, an army of spies ready to report any tendency to political disaffection and to procure imprisonment for its promoters – this is the reality of a system which still professes to govern in the name of the proletariat”. This centralised state capitalism, presided over by a small political elite that denied political expression to any outside its own ranks, was not created by Stalin in the late 1920s and 1930s – Stalin simply added the physical liquidation of the Old Bolsheviks and a massive increase in the apparatus of state terror. On the contrary, this was the work of the Old Bolsheviks.
Naturally the propaganda organs of western capitalist states violently condemned the Bolsheviks from the very start. This criticism was pure hypocrisy. They did not make similar criticisms of the suppression of democracy in their colonial possessions in Ireland, India, Africa and Asia, or worry about the social and economic hardships suffered by their own working class. Their condemnation was driven not from sincere concern for democracy and civil rights but a desire to safeguard their wealth and privilege and ensure they did not share the fate of the Russian ruling class. It is little wonder many on the left gave no credence to such criticisms even if they were sometimes factually accurate. But it was not particularly difficult to find informed and honest critiques of the Bolshevik state from those across the Marxist and anarcho-syndicalist left who, in different ways, had taken part in or supported the process of revolutionary upheaval began in February 1917 and had seen at first hand its usurpation and corruption by the Bolsheviks.
A week after the Bolshevik insurrections in Petrograd and Moscow, the militant Railwayman’s Trade Union declared that it was strongly opposed to the seizure of power by one party and demanded that a broad based socialist coalition government be formed (it is often forgotten that Lenin’s justification for the Bolshevik coup was not rule by the Bolshevik Party, but to create a government elected by and accountable to the National Congress of Soviets, a promise never kept). Six weeks after October the newspaper Novaya Zhizn, edited by the writer Maxim Gorky, Lenin’s personal friend and a militant socialist, thunderously condemned the new regime. It said that power had not really passed to the Soviets (let alone “All Power”) and that the crucial 2nd Congress of Soviets, which had “ratified” the seizure of power, had in reality been faced with a fait accompli backed by armed soldiers who gave it little choice. The paper said that it was brutally clear that the slogan “All Power to the Soviets” meant in reality “All power to a few Bolsheviks”, and asserted that the new regime was in no sense a Soviet Republic but was actually “an oligarchic republic, a republic of a few People’s Commissars”(note).
But the most fundamental, best informed and ringing critique of Bolshevik authoritarianism came from the Russian socialist and Marxist left itself. Most especially the always present Marxist alternative best represented by the Mensheviks, led by Julius Martov, Lenin’s great opposite and antagonist since 1903 when the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP) had split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. At that crucial juncture Martov had stood for a more inclusive and democratic organisation, one not consisting entirely of full time “professional revolutionaries” divorced from ordinary workers and rigidly controlled from the centre. On this issue, Lenin actually lost to Martov and failed to carry the majority of delegates at the 2nd Congress of the RSDLP (it was on a lesser issue to do with the composition of an editorial board that Lenin secured more votes than Martov, and on the lesser issue that the names “Bolsheviks” (majority) and “Mensheviks” (minority) came to stick to the opposing sides). As early as 1904 Rosa Luxemburg wrote a pamphlet called Leninism or Marxism? in which she identified the danger of giving the leadership of a revolutionary socialist party sweeping powers that “…would multiply artificially and in a most dangerous measure the conservatism which is the necessary outgrowth of every such leadership”. She concluded “There is nothing which so easily and so surely hands over a still youthful labour movement to the private ambitions of intellectuals, as forcing the movement into the straight-jacket of a bureaucratic centralism which debases the fighting workers into the pliable tools of the hands of a “committee””. Even Trotsky, at the time, was adamantly opposed to Lenin’s conception of the party, stating plainly his belief that when Lenin spoke of the dictatorship of the Proletariat he really meant “a dictatorship over the proletariat”. Ironically, Trotsky himself would later help Lenin construct it.
Martov remained Lenin’s most articulate and principled Marxist opponent from 1903 until his death in 1923. After October 1917 his critiques of the Bolshevik regime were relentless yet always from a position of support for democratic socialism and working class freedom. In the 1920s his acute and honest accounts of the new regime were available through trade union and socialist publications in Europe, although these were marginalised and forgotten as Stalinist ideological orthodoxy clamped itself on the thinking of the western left. For those with ears to listen, though, Martov had already in 1919 laid out the bare truth of life in Bolshevik Russia and the betrayal of the hopes and promises of October 1917. As he put it, “Reality has cruelly shattered all these illusions. The “Soviet State” has not established in any instance electiveness and recall of public officials. It has not suppressed the professional police. It has not done away with social hierarchy in production…On the contrary, it shows a tendency in the opposite direction. It shows a tendency towards the utmost possible strengthening of the principles of hierarchy and compulsion. It shows a tendency toward the development of a more specialized apparatus of repression than before. It shows a tendency toward the total freedom of the executive organism from the tutelage of the electors”(note). Whilst supporting the Soviet government against the reactionary “Whites” in the Civil War, Martov condemned the restrictions on press and political freedom and the suppression of other political parties (the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks were semi-legal for a short while but were banned by 1920, by which time the Bolsheviks had long since turned on the working class and trade union movement itself).
For many of today’s anti-capitalist campaigners the legacy and importance of non-Leninist, libertarian socialism has found its best expression in the positions taken by Noam Chomsky since the 1960s. Chomsky’s forensic and damning indictments of US foreign policy are rooted in his anti-authoritarian politics, which he sometimes identifies as anarchism and sometimes as libertarian socialism (he increasingly ignores academic pigeon holes and simply supports any and all initiatives by trade unions, social activists and indigenous peoples that resist corporate capitalism). Chomsky is also one of the few outstanding left intellectuals to unambiguously reject Leninism and Bolshevism as not just misguided but fundamentally anti-socialist, and “in my view counter-revolutionary”. Chomsky identifies “incipient socialist institutions” such as Soviets, Factory Committees and workers co-operatives that emerged in the period after the February Revolution, and asserts “Lenin and Trotsky pretty much eliminated them as they consolidated power”. He concedes that there are arguments about the pressures and justifications for so doing (i.e the need to win the civil war and the terrible privations it caused) but believes that “The incipient socialist structures in Russia were dismantled before the really dire conditions arose”. More detailed studies, such as Maurice Brinton’s analysis of Workers’ Control in the period 1917-1921, tend to confirm this.
Chomsky’s general critique derived from “left Communists” such as Anton Pannekoek and anarcho-syndicalists such as Berkman and Rudolf Rocker, as well as an underlying and long established anti-statist radicalism best expressed by Michael Bakunin, the great seer and leader of 19th century anarchism. In debate with Karl Marx in the 1870s about the structures and policies of the 1st International, Bakunin predicted that Marx’s approach to revolution and socialism would lead to a “Red Bureaucracy” that would be worse than any form of oppression previously seen. Prescient as this was it is not necessary to be an anarchist to condemn Leninism as a departure from the core tenets of democratic socialism and from Marxism itself. Serious thinkers and leaders in the Marxist tradition such as Pannekoek, Rudolf Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg, Paul Mattick, Karl Kautsky and Martov all condemned Leninism before October 1917 as well as after it. Lenin himself added credence to their analyses through his political activities and philosophy – from his clearly stated belief when the Bolshevik Party was formed that the working class was “incapable on its own of developing anything more than a trade union consciousness”, and required political leadership “from without” (i.e. from bourgeois intellectuals such as himself) to his blunt admission shortly after October that “socialism is nothing but state capitalist monopoly made to benefit the whole people”. Diane P. Koenker, in Labour Relations in Socialist Russia: Printers, their union and the origins of Soviet socialism (1991) summed up what this meant for ordinary Russian workers, which was “In the shops where one-man management (Lenin’s own preference) replaced collegial management workers faced the same kinds of authoritarian management they thought existed only under capitalism”.
This is an edited extract from Smile if you Dare: Politics and Pointy Hats with the Pet Shop Boys, by Ramzy Alwakeel, which will be published by Repeater next year.
Two decades on, there’s something implausible about Very.
The Pet Shop Boys’ fifth album snuck posthumanism and panic sex into the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Its arrogant title said: here is our essence; an easy reference point; a convenient definition. But once you probed it, touched its bright orange case with trembling fingers, the conceit started to unravel.
You looked at the sleeve inlay and saw giant eggs, conical hats and beach balls before you spotted any human faces.
Then there was the music. Very didn’t so much showcase the Pet Shop Boys as reinvent them. The 12 career-best songs Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe recorded for the album glinted awkwardly like CGI skyscrapers in the artificial sun for miles – and years – in all directions. Somehow they were too near, or too large.
Even Very’s packaging was curiously oppositional. CD cases were meant to be shop windows, dressed by fancy designers to sell the silver discs’ invisible contents. This one was opaque. To date, the album has been sold in no fewer than seven different sleeves, but Very’s first edition remains one of the most recognisable items in British recorded music history.
Tennant and Lowe were bored of compact discs. Their pocket-sized artwork was a snivelling apology for the glorious 12-inch sleeve it had replaced, its pathetic scaled-down images shielded by flimsy transparent plastic. This was the conundrum they took to Pentagram.
Pentagram, which also designs buildings, gave them an orange box with three-dimensional polka dots on the front. It was a gamble – each of these unusual objects cost the Pet Shop Boys 40p – but Very’s limited edition was a success, rendering the album instantly visible in the racks: a flash of colour among hundreds of anonymous see-through cases.
The album’s vinyl and cassette versions mirrored the relief on the CD cover by arranging tiny photographs of Tennant and Lowe’s heads in the same polka dot pattern. It looked a bit like it was designed for babies, but novelty is sometimes the vehicle for genius.
As it happened, the CD case was an appropriate metaphor for what lay within: Very is rather difficult to miss. It’s a synth-pop obelisk, a wall of sound built from Tetris blocks.
After four smash hit LPs and a multi-platinum singles collection, one could have been forgiven for thinking the Pet Shop Boys had achieved everything, reshaping British pop music and surviving to tell the tale. Their 1990 studio effort, the stately Behaviour, had suggested a band whose members were growing old gracefully as they meditated on absent friends and Shostakovich.
Pop fans aren’t known for their attention spans, so by June 1993 it’s likely Tennant and Lowe’s 26-month absence from the UK top 10 had all but erased them from memory. They’d popped up as guests on a couple of tracks by Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr’s Electronic project in 1991, and produced a version of ‘The Crying Game’ for Boy George the following year – but in real terms the Pet Shop Boys were already a catalogue act, the stuff of TV retrospectives and pub quizzes.
This made it even more satisfying when Very’s impertinent lead single put them back on Top of the Pops. Rubbing shoulders with Lisa Stansfield, ‘Can You Forgive Her?’ was an undercover policeman at a children’s party, its five o’clock shadow an instant giveaway. The song was a blinking night sky of whirring, motion-blurred synthesisers that, even when Tennant started singing, was every bit as unreal as the costumes. In the spaces between orchestra hits, he spun a cautionary tale of humiliation, innuendo and denial while – incredibly – Lowe danced with three women holding cricket bats.
The next few months would see them achieve their only number one album, make a string of iconic videos, and score a career-defining hit with a song someone else had already released.
This is an edited extract from JD Taylor‘s forthcoming book, Island Story: Journeying Through Unfamiliar Britain
By the local estate parade, where I’d been warned of ‘dodgy people’ who might despoil a traveller of their possessions, Gary’s out with his young son. ‘Yer fucken mad, you are’, he says, laughing at my alibi for asking. He flicks his head up proudly. ‘It’s marvellous. Some bits are good round ere, some bits are bad, like everywhere’. His mum and sister live round the corner. It’s a community, he presses. Like Jan, surrounded by her sisters in the nearby streets, in spite of Middlesbrough’s decline it’s still kept together families and communities, and this is what people love about it, something impossible in most growing English towns.
But how does one live? Within the 19th century, Middlesbrough exploded from a dozy hamlet to an ‘infant Hercules’ town of a hundred thousand, producing ships, metals and chemicals. Its Teesside docks and port were live-wired into global trade. But all this was another history lesson, and the last of those industries, ICI’s chemical works at Wilton and Billingham, had been wiped out in the 90s, with a rump of smaller firms operating in its place. Middlesbrough’s population has been plummeting, but there was no serious discussion about a responsible shrinking or ungrowing. Instead there were more retail parks, malls and call-centres promised, and receding memories of a future that had failed to arrive.
The sentiment wasn’t merely melancholic. Riding through Billingham among its belching chimneys and swerving juggernauts, air funked with astringent fumes, the Brunner Mond chemical-works later taken over by ICI had inspired Aldous Huxley to imagine his Brave New World. Likewise, the neon-lit towers and flares I’d passed last night at Wilton had inspired Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Both dystopic visions of the future, tagged to the Tees. A ‘space age coated in pigeon shit’ is how Owen Hatherley describes its town centre today, a 60s New Town built by ICI, now marked by its dereliction, a description given with a hint of deserving affection.
Bewley and Seaton Carew follow, disorientatingly bland suburbs, all cul-de-sacs, palisade gates and paved driveways, Sky dishes and CCTV pointed out to the world. Places one could fake one’s death and live untroubled in… as John Darwin almost proved. This was the future that had taken its place, one which, despite its ugliness, had succeeded in offering what more people wanted most, instead of needed. I press on into Hartlepool. Beside the deserted marina and ‘historic quay’, site of ye goodly ol’ HMS Trincomalee, is a binge of retail parks, fast-food drive-thrus, bingo halls and budget hotel chains. The effect is truly bizarre, compounded by its New York-style yellow taxis and the sheer emptiness of the place, as if a millenarian religious cult had massed in the town, built these totems and trophies to the consumer gods, then quietly disbanded after the Credit Crunch apocalypse failed to arrive.
An older couple drift by in the distance. Yvonne and Eddie struggle to explain the town’s present condition. A massive steelworks and harbour have closed, leaving behind a ‘lot of poor’ and unemployment. The retail-glut reflected the magical thinking of the Blair era, that wealth could be simply be magicked into creation, ex nihilo, just as if one could ‘create’ energy into being, rather than harness or redistribute it from elsewhere. One needed credit for these places, now that the jobs were gone, but even that was harder to come by. Eddie points to the empty but modern-looking marina opposite, now owned by the council. There are no plans to use it. ‘I’d turn it into a big sports centre, with football, tennis, badminton’. ‘Kids today sit at home in their rooms on the computer’, Yvonne adds, describing their grandchildren. ‘It’s just the age’.
County Durham. The relatively flat scene is akin to the Cleveland towns, gelded by the closure of the mines. The takeaway and off-licence constitute communal life. After Blackhall, I pull over in Horden for clues. A woman old enough to have been a miner’s wife during the Strike struggles to articulate its story. ‘They’re all gone, shut in 85’. What happened to the people here? She shrugs. ‘Nothing’. Another man of similar age repeats the same. ‘They went out six miles to sea. They reckoned it cost too much money’. He hurries off.
At (another) Easington, the village’s school and council offices are boarded up, their windows smashed through. The pubs are closed, even the neat red-brick miners’ terraces barricaded in places. One might expect this in Detroit or Chernobyl, but on our doorstep? The damage done is plain to see. An old boy pushes a broken lawn-mower down a back-terrace, and we chat. When Thatcher died, he recalls, people came from miles around to party. Some hadn’t returned for at least a decade. When the collieries closed, some miners were sent on computer courses, for certificates ‘not worth’t paper printed on’.
The terrain begins to steepen, then at Sherburn it collapses down again. Durham appears almost from nowhere, secluded from sight in a deep valley. The town is remarkably affluent in contrast to its neighbours, populated by aspirational student bars and luxury homeware shops, its cobbled lanes threading over a gushing river and up a hillock towards its vast, austerely-adorned Norman cathedral and castle. Young Americans babble loudly, and someone busks with a violin.
I pedal on to Langley Moor, an ex-mining village on its outskirts. Clarissa, a friend of my partner’s, lives out here. As we drink beer and wine in her back garden, surrounded by light industrial warehouses and a sports centre, she reflects.
‘There used to be a slag heap there, a colliery down there, even a little railway bringing the coal’. The pits and two-up two-down terraces have almost all been pulled down and eradicated, unlike Easington. ‘I do think it is as bad now as the 80s’ she adds. I wonder how, still struggling to mentally connect up these scenes, past and present. ‘Lots of unemployment’, her late-teen daughter says, her and her mate joining us. Lads join the army. The suicide rate is particularly high.
Perhaps it’s in the collapsing infrastructure, the true, hidden extent of poverty and unemployment. But as they talk, this sense of 80s-scale defeat is in something else. It’s at the level of desire and feeling. Since York, the towns have all been deserted. There are no pricks to kick against, just the stony silence and shame that comes with robbing Peter to pay Paul, of heavy drinking and anti-depressants to salve the pain. The local miners’ gala is now a formalised piss-up, as sheer hedonism blunts the boredom with special occasions for off-the-leash Saturnalia. We hear the radio news from the other room, distant headlines of London and a political elite rattling on about economic growth and employment, but it made no sense out here.[…]
I’d been told that Ashington had been the biggest pit village in the world, a century ago, employing ten thousand miners in five collieries. Then Thatcher waged war on the organised miners, and the productive mines were closed. The town’s other product, aluminium, had also recently ceased, leaving Ashington cut adrift. A young man’s tip in a newsagent directs me to the Woodhorn Colliery, the last of the mines still standing, open as a museum to this lost way of life.
‘Close the door on past dreariness’. ‘The will to work is the way to prosperity’. ‘Nationalisation 1947. The New Era: Welfare Education Mechanisation’. Queen blue and claret banners hang inside, produced by local branches of the NUM, like Ellington, Seghill and Sleekburn A, all nearby. They are defined by their headline fonts, their sentimental and often heraldry-like use of borders and scrolls, and their emotive depictions of grey and miserable slum terraces, like those of Middlesbrough and Gateshead, a past they wished to put behind.
Their progressive, mechanised future is that which failed to arrive, but there is a specifically working class English modernism to these banners which I hadn’t anticipated. Rather than seeking to defend an unproductive and dangerous form of work, they sought to improve it. The banners were produced in the late 40s, at a time when much still felt possible. Rather than appearing as things back in time, they seem like the artefacts of ghosts of the future. What would demands for welfare, mechanisation, education or nationalisation look like today?
The scenes of the ‘Pitmen Painters’ collected here present a way of life gone, perhaps mercifully too. There are blinkered pit ponies, wandering underground; a Friday fish supper; a Labour man addressing a packed-out pub of menfolk; a woman alone, the drudgery of domestic work before the era of cheap appliances; the death of a wife by tuberculosis. One image captures in cartoon-format the life of a 14 year old miner, who wakes up at two each morning to put in a long shift on an unproductive seam, often where new miners would start until an older relative could negotiate something better. Returning home, he’s too tired to bathe, eat, or see his friends. He falls asleep as soon as he gets in, only to be woken by his mam to go back to the pit. ‘Slept it through’ is the title.
But the paintings are intriguing also in how they were produced. The group began meeting through a branch of the WEA in 1927 in an old hut, and by 1934 they worked with Robert Lyon to develop their paintings, which were then exhibited to the world. Harry Wilson was one miner involved. ‘Here I found an outlet for other things than earning my living’, he said. ‘There is a feeling of being my own boss for a change and with it comes a sense of freedom’.
Their hut was pulled down in 1983, and the last mine in the area shut in 2005, Howard tells me, one of the museum’s volunteers, as I quiz him on the legacy beyond the exhibits. ‘Coal not dole’, the striking miners demanded. Today even the latter’s hard to come by. Paul had spoken of the local foodbanks struggling to meet demand, as numbers of people too poor to even eat were soaring, victims of four-to-thirteen week benefit sanctions, some caused by DWP cruelty, others mere incompetence. That basic right to freedom, to live and to live well, are not expensive or unrealistic demands. Far more is spent on housing benefit to private landlords than on building new social housing; far more is lost in loose tax regulations and tax-breaks for the rich over benefit fraud.
People in London or the South might think that I’m being too negative, ‘playing politics’ over the veracity of the narrative. Come up to Easington and Ashington, if you dare, and spend some time here, seeing, listening, talking with locals. Take a look at just how needlessly ravaged these places are, and think about the past and present political events that are causing this. Consider whether it is morally right that a person should freeze or go without food, or be punished for the crime of being poor and having a spare bedroom, or that they should be coerced into working without a wage, in a country presently the fifth richest in the world. If that is fine with you, continue voting Conservative. You may wish to close the book here.
For those of you who feel, like me, wearied and stunned by it all, then a position of sceptical impartiality or knowing inaction’s no good either, for these things will continue, whether we choose to look elsewhere or not. Trading our grumbles won’t interrupt the processes that protect bankers and billionaires whilst consigning the vast majority of young and old to insecure, low-paid and drudgerous jobs. ‘Close the door on past dreariness’ said the Ellington miners back in 1950. What does a brighter future look like, and how will it work for us all?