Sitting in a cafe near me recently, trying to read a book I frequently finding myself distracted by the conversations around me. Increasingly, as wealthy new residents make their home in this part of London I feel like I am in an unfamiliar country – the way they talk and the things they talk about somehow make it hard to tune out. There’s another aspect to it that people arriving at a cafe has become a big thing in itself, you hear people discussing the setting, the food in either purring or dismissive tones. The search for the perfect breakfast or brunch is on, and it feels that the boundaries of what people are prepared to do to get the perfect table are being pushed all the time.
People seem so bright and sparkling and pleased with being there. Strange and not easy, for in many ways I feel like I am on the edge, in the shadows. When I heard one woman exclaim that something was ‘very important” and that the other woman should write it down, but I was disappointed when it turned out to be jobs in her flat that required noting down. With consumption and lifestyle seeming to dominate, I had a flash of gratitude and heartache for Mark.
We’re basically all doing the same thing, going for a cup of coffee, but I loved going to cafes with him, because it was as if he’d found the door to the heart of the experience. Somehow, consumption has become the goal, rather than the means – the perfect brunch is worn like a badge of success on social media.
With Mark, as with everything, it was really a matter of the inner world. Going out together was an expression of value, that we didn’t just want to see each other in the domestic setting, we used to go to talk or read and be together.
Sitting in the cafe on Sunday I felt such a longing for that space we could create together, it felt like my heart was breaking all over again. Now, some days later, I sense something has emerged with the realisation that I haven’t lost that capacity to enter into the world through a different door.
I was in Newcastle recently and there was a crowd of us who went to a bar after doing our work, and it was a good time of laughter and not heavy, but good chatting, and I left feeling good, nourished, as if I was part of something.
So experiences like those I experienced with Mark are still possible, like the lighter notes of the same perfume. And while I will always miss those exquisite moments with Mark, I don’t want to give up on that kind of experience It’s part of what makes life meaningful, and it’s part of something we have to determine to carry on doing in cities like London that seem to be sucking up so much of our life and experience for the sake of the consumer dream.
So often now London feels like it’s a city that happens to the people, rather than the people having power to shape it, I feel such a sense of loss, not just of the places I knew and loved, but of any notion that I or we have any means by which to shape this city.
I think often of leaving, but am not sure where to go. I would like to go somewhere where there is space to dream and imagine different ways of doing things. Mark and I managed to carve out a life for ourselves that was as free as we could be to shape our time and prioritise each other and work that was meaningful to us. It was bruising at times, I don’t think it’s easy to cut loose from these things entirely, but I’m so grateful for the extent to which we managed and the ways in which we were able to focus on things that really mattered. In this new time, when it’s not all about loss but trying to make the present and the future work, I realise how easy it is to stay in the shadows, not try to enjoy life and its meaning.
But while it’s painful, while Mark’s presence reverberates like an echo at times, the implications of shutting that part of me down seem far worse. I want to open up to life’s beauty and possibility, relish moments both on my own and with people. It’s not a case of holding on for dear life anymore, it’s about learning to live in today, with its swirling mix of richness and warmth, sadness and loneliness and not flee from it, but have faith that I can build a different life.
Micah White’s argument in The End Of Protest: A New Playbook For Revolution that we need to free our imaginations from consumer culture seems very important right now. The life I want is certainly not to be found within it. It seems important to disconnect desire from the constant churn of consumption. It’s not that things aren’t part of it, they just aren’t all there is to it. That place that I shared with Mark, the capacity to drop down to the level of what really mattered, to reach into the essence of an experience I think will be really precious as I conjure up dreams of a new life.
*These photos were taken at Claudia Friend’s The Future Museum of Now during the Planet B Festival in Peterborough.