Will we ever be able to recover what has been lost? It was a question Zoe asked as we left the Albion Restaurant after a dinner that turned out to be a celebration of her name day. As we set off for the tube station, we discovered an iron gate had closed off the path that we had used on our way in. I’d recently listened to a BBC Radio 4 programme that had discussed how local authorities were selling off city streets, and as we walked, other signs of privatisation gradually revealed themselves – the insignia, the design elements intended to keep footfall up and undesirables – be they those who prefer sitting on a bench to shopping, or sleeping in a doorway – kept moving.
“I know some see this as a triumph, but this feels like a loss to me,” Zoe had said, as we looked out of the restaurant at the glass edifices that were growing up in the shadow of the Tate Modern. We talked about the contrast between these places, that landed, pre-packaged in London, with the cafes we both knew in her native Athens – places that were independently owned that we agreed seemed somehow more authentic. We talked about the strangeness of the world and how alien some conversations can seem when you are in the midst of grief, when you are suffering, and reflected on the difference in Greece, where conversations often seemed at a deeper level, how it was easier at least to talk when people could somehow meet you where you are, which means that you don’t have to ratchet yourself up to a level of unreality if you want to talk to someone.
A week on from the General Election, the question about recovery seems relevant, not only to the parties that lost, but to the country as a whole. If the Conservatives are as intent as many fear on pushing back the state and unpicking the welfare state social contract, then we need to think not only about protecting what we hold dear, but also what we do about ground that has already been lost. I had feared for a long time that the Conservatives would win a majority, I had also hoped that they wouldn’t, that somehow people might catch on to that small whisper of the possibility of something different that was in the air. Was it foolish hope? Perhaps. On 7 May in the sunshine, however, that hope was a sweet antidote to the greyness I so often see up ahead when contemplating the future. It’s too easy to caricature the Tories as the baddies, of course, and I don’t trust the Labour party to be the good guys. But when I look ahead now it’s as if the wrecking ball is poised – against the NHS, against the welfare state, against all that was built up after the war as a buffer against poverty.
Our relationships to the space around us is surely linked to the erosion of our collective sense of ourselves and others that we are seeing. When my father talks about his childhood growing up in London, it seems so much livelier and freer, a city where the people inhabited the streets. Today, London is, Mark Fisher writes in the introduction to Laura Oldfield Ford’s Savage Messiah “a conquered city”:
…it belongs to the enemy. “The translucent edifices of Starbucks and Costa Coffee line these shining promenades, ‘young professionals’ sit outside gently conversing in sympathetic tones.’ The dominant mood is one of restoration and reaction, but it calls itself modernisation, and it calls its divisive and exclusionary work – making London safe for the super-rich – regeneration.
A city of soaring house prices and high rents is far removed from the “bombed-out city, full of chasms, caverns and spaces that could be temporarily occupied and squatted” that spawned punk. Today’s London can only generate “cultural conservatism” – it has become a place, says Fisher, where “practically all the city’s energy is put into paying the mortgage or the rent. There’s no time to journey without already knowing where you will end up. Your aims and objectives have to be stated up front. ‘Free time’ becomes convalescence. You turn to what reassures you, what will refresh you for the working day: the old familiar tunes (or what sound like them). London becomes a city of pinched-face drones plugged into iPods.
This changing relationship to the space we live explains my ambivalence towards the hologram march staged by protestors in front of the Spanish parliament in Madrid in April. They did so in defiance of the so-called ‘Gag law’ that was passed late last year that will prohibit protesters from convening outside of government buildings. The world’s first virtual political demonstration was an imaginative response to the controversial Citizen Safety Law and it attracted attention. But by representing themselves in shadow form, rather than forcing their bodies onto the streets, were the activists too acquiescent, effectively acknowledging that peaceful protest has been rendered impossible?
In an article titled Why protesting with a hologram is pathetic and dangerous, Natasha Lennard writes:
If the hologram-as-tactic spreads, dissent will be in a worse shape in Spain than even after the “security” measures passed. My hope is that the stunt triggers a visceral response that returns flesh and blood bodies to the streets. The hologram protest, at best, makes a point. It dangerously lacks any kernel of defiance.
As I wrote in a recent piece, my feelings of personal loss flow easily into the sense of despair about politics. So often it seems I’m looking out onto a very desolate landscape, yet it’s in this state of tired bleakness that I also feel the stirrings of a deep inner resolve, a new sense of fight. The struggle isn’t only to oppose and defend, because damage has already been done. In the midst of huge loss the question of how we go about rebuilding is an important one.