Archive | December, 2011

I’m sick of cars, and with cycle deaths being blamed on the cyclists themselves

28 Dec

I read this Guardian article on cycle deaths and it made me angry

Here is my response.

Your article on the rise in cyclist deaths fails to capture in any way the realities of cycling on our city streets. The report cited in the article by the Department for Transport ‘revealed’ that ‘the biggest single contributory factor in cycle deaths is the cyclist failing to look properly (25% of fatalities), followed by failing to judge the other person’s path or speed (10%), the cyclist entering the road from the pavement (8%), and careless or reckless behaviour (8%)’. These ‘factors’ are laughable and insulting – cycle deaths are caused by cars – full stop. Every ‘factor’ stated here in the report fails to acknowledge the car and the car drivers’ significant role in the fatality – a cyclist does not die from simply failing to look properly as they cycle along, there is a car involved in this too. I have definitely cycled along the road and admired a cool looking dog on the pavement, ‘failing to look’ perhaps, but did not find myself suddenly dead for this moment of distraction. These ‘factors’ make the cyclists’ deaths seem completely isolated from everything around them – they make a wrong move and suddenly ‘poof’, they’re gone – of course it wasn’t a large speeding car or a badly designed round about, it was solely the cyclist’s fault. The report completely removes the major cause of cyclists’ deaths. It is chilling the way in which the victim is being blamed for the accident.

With this misunderstanding of the causes of cyclist deaths comes equally useless ‘solutions’ from the London Cycling Campaign. Charlie Lloyd’s response to the report is feeble. More cycle safety training and education for children. These are all well and good, but don’t get to the main problem which is dangerous cars and terrible cycle infrastructure. I’ve been cycling in London for years and am a very cautious cyclist – more training will not stop cars speeding towards me, beeping at me unnecessarily, cutting across me. Every time I cycle I encounter a great deal of hostility from cars – we cyclists are treated with absolute disregard by impatient and arrogant car drivers. Cycling in London has become a completely joyless experience for me such is the stress and anxiety I experience as I attempt to navigate our clogged and polluted roads – there have been numerous times when I’ve wanted to give up cycling altogether. The suggestion that better training will help improve cyclists’ safety is akin to teaching a bullied child self defence when the bully is a heavy weight boxer – we don’t stand a chance, and also there is the moral point that why should it be us that has to respond and deal with this danger and aggression in the first place?

As the Reclaim the Streets non-violent direct action group pointed out in the 1990s, cars are privatizing our roads and are causing the obstruction and suffocation of our public spaces – it is up to us to reclaim them to create safer spaces and communities. Today, the Critical Mass bike rides around London on the last Friday of every month bring cyclists together to party in our streets and cycle safely, surrounded by hundreds of other cyclists and by blocking off cars. These are real solutions to making roads safer for cyclists; car free roads – without the toxic cocktail of pollutants, the roaring noise of traffic, the use of petrol causing oil wars, and the deaths of pedestrians and cyclists – can be a reality.

What is this government doing?

22 Dec

Is a question I find myself asking several times a day. Today I received a letter from ‘Broadway’ – a London based homeless charity – advising me on changes to my housing benefit. They sound like a fantastic charity and I appreciated their letter, but surely when government (housing??) policy, in this case the ‘Shared Accomodation Rate’ (which restricts the amount of housing benefit a person under 35 can claim to cover their rent in the private sector), sees the benefit claimant receive a letter from a homeless charity – surely this is the sign of bad housing policy?

Furthermore, this policy targets the under 35s – what have we done? Is this not age discrimination?

The Elephant anti-gentrification walk

18 Dec

Some notes and thoughts… haven’t quite had time to make these more coherent, but will try to do this soon!

This Sunday afternoon we attended an anti-gentrification walk around Elephant and Castle. The changes that are happening in this relatively small area are incredible. Huge new fancy apartment blocks have sprung up, including the giant tower – the Strata tower – with three wind turbines which stubbornly refuse to spin. And from the walk, we learned that there are many more towers planned for this area so that City workers are a ten minute cycle away from their work place. Of course this ‘development’ has completely ignored the local community that is already living there – not only does it ignore them, but it strives to create an urban environment that actively excludes them. In one new apartment block that had been built where there was a quota for social housing, the social housing flats had steel balconies in contrast to the other flats with their coloured wooden balconies – strikingly illustrating the intended segregation. In the Strata tower the social housing is on the lower floors and they have a separate lift from those wealthier residents living on the higher floors so that the two groups never come into contact with each other. And of course, when these new developments promise ‘affordable housing’ – the first question we must ask is ‘affordable for who?’

After walking our way around the new housing developments that are popping up around the Elephant and Castle roundabout and down the Walworth Road – all of which have adopted a bright colour scheme of oranges and greens which do make them quite striking – our final stop on the walk was the Heygate estate, which in contrast to all these brightly coloured new buildings is the grey concrete of the 1960s/1970s brutalist housing estates. This huge deserted estate is welcoming though. It’s incredible walking around the place. It feels slightly post-apocalyptic, but also uptopic…you can imagine how it may have once been, when the spacious and well built flats had residents living there. But also its current empty state seems full of potential, as one of the walk’s guides pointed out – they are trying to breathe life back into it by having bonfires and soups and out-door film screenings there. It feels exciting to think about how this space could be used. There is so much open space and lots of greenery that it feels like a refuge from the busy London streets. Yet, as well as potential, it seems a terrible waste of space and housing, to be left almost desolate. What about the people who lived here? What has happened to them now? What do they think of what has happened? There are signs warning of patrolling guard dogs and all the houses are covered with iron sheets to prevent squatters from entering. One fact which seems to sum up the feelings of waste and lost potential of this place is that the hundred of trees that are dotted around between the buildings are only reaching maturity now. Just as the architect’s vision was being realised, government policy and developers have decided that more money could be made from knocking down these homes with complete disregard for the lives that were lived here.

Of course, this process that is occurring in Elephant and Castle is happening all over London and other cities in the UK. A little way away in my home areas of Brixton and Stockwell rapid changes are occurring here as well. Change is not always a bad thing. But when the changes are implemented in the non-democratic and profit making manner that characterize these developments in Elephant and elsewhere then we must look and think critically about what is happening around us.

I’ve been on several radical walking tours of different parts of London in the past month. It’s an incredible way to see and learn about the city and capitalism and to think about what interventions we can make to reclaim our urban environment.


Startling statistics for 2011

17 Dec

Inspired by a US blog post – ‘50 economic numbers from 2011 that are almost too crazy to believe’ – we are creating our own UK focused stat page to stimulate thought and debate at Christmas lunch this year. We are starting with a more modest 10 statistics, but we welcome people to contribute their own so that we can make it to 50…or maybe even 100.

#1 the latest figures reveal that unemployment has reached 2.64 million, the highest since 1994. Youth unemployment is rising to 1.027 million – the highest since records began in 1992.

#2 Tax dodging by corporations and the rich costs the UK £95 billion a year. The British public is subsidising banks to a tune of £100 billion a year. Either of these could pay for Cameron’s £81 billion four year cuts programme.,

#3 Workfare is being rolled out across the country for those receiving unemployment benefits. They are being forced to work for £2.25 per hour in jobs that previously would had to have paid the minimum wage.

#4 There are 1 million empty homes (350,000 empty long term) and 2 million families in need of a home.

#5 There has been a 5% increase in declared homeless households this year.

#6 One in four families in the UK will struggle to heat their homes this winter. This is a significant increase from last year in which one in five families last year experienced fuel poverty. This rise in homes experiencing fuel poverty comes as (a result of) the Big Six energy companies recording 733% profits per customer.

#7 The Trussell Trust is opening one new food bank each week, with demand for their emergency food parcels up 50%. The charity Fareshares has seen a 20% rise in the number of people it is feeding – from 29,500 a year to 35,000 a year.

#8 In November this year, it was decided to raise the security budget for the Olympics to £1 billion.

#9 The average CEO pay of FTSE100 companies rose by 32% this year (to £3.5m per CEO), while the average worker saw only a rise of 0.5%, 4.5% lower than inflation.,

#10 The Libyan war cost between £600-1200 million this year, whilst the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan cost another £5 billion,


Fighting the stigma of unemployment

9 Dec

With so many people now unemployed there is the opportunity to de-stigmatise unemployment and discuss the issue in a meaningful way. For it is quite obvious that it is not some individual failing that results in unemployment but rather that unemployment is a structural issue – that it is the product of the organisation of our society and therefore an issue for society to address collectively, rather than blaming it on, and demonising individuals. This latter tendency of stigmatising the individual that our society seems to have gets us nowhere.

In this article I will draw largely from my own experience of unemployment for the last two months to make my arguments for a radical rethink and approach to unemployment – clearly, my experience of unemployment for this period is somewhat limited, for example, I have been fortunate to have not been forced onto workfare – whereby people on Job Seekers Allowance are made to work for private companies, and even charities and local councils, for the equivalent of £2.25 per hour. However, in these two months, I have experienced many things that make up the contradictory experience of unemployment that I’m sure resonate with others – the absolute horror of seeing someone I knew when I was standing outside the Job Centre, frustration at being treated like a non-person by the Job Centre staff, distress and sadness at friends’ lack of understanding, outrage at the state’s treatment of the unemployed, worry about how I can make ends meet, yet also a brilliant sense of freedom as well. And therefore I hope that sharing these will help others to see the human faces behind unemployment and to generate a meaningful discussion. People often feel able to make comments on the unemployed without actually having listened to what we have to say, often resulting in prejudiced accounts and misunderstandings – listening to others, and listening well, is where we must start from.


There is a tremendous amount of stigma surrounding unemployment – however, for a long time this largely passed me by. My mum was a single parent and her time was dedicated to bringing me up as best as she could in difficult circumstances – on the pitiful amount of benefits she received. She may have been classed as ‘unemployed’ but she worked extremely hard caring for me as I did my absolute best to make her job as difficult as possible. The portrayals of the unemployed in mainstream media, by politicians, and held by much of society, do not see the valuable contributions that the unemployed make to society, the worthwhile jobs that they do. A good friend of mine whom I admire greatly has also struggled to find a job that would harness his many talents. Rather than him feeling inadequate and depressed about being unable to find a job, I believe that the problem is that our society has not created jobs that utilise his energy and enthusiasm – and yet rather than think about our job market, the nature of work in our society today, and the proliferation of incredibly boring jobs that revolve around Excel spreadsheets, he is made to internalise these issues and feel worthless. Perhaps also watchin  The Full Monty many years ago with the scene of them queuing for the dole and dancing to ‘Hot Stuff’ may also have contributed to my more positive understandings of unemployment. Therefore, when I needed to sign on after finishing my master’s to support myself whilst finding a job, I was not at all bothered about this. In fact, being unemployed has at times been quite fun. It has allowed me a much needed break after three years of intensive study at university, to think about what I want to do now, and to pursue my research and writing passions – I have found myself co-ordinating a mapping research project and find myself almost as busy as when I was doing my master’s. My point is to emphasise that those who are unemployed are not ‘unproductive’ but engage in a wide range of activities that contribute to the enhancement of themselves and wider society. Furthermore, everyone deserves to feel that sense of freedom that one gets when one has free time and can do things on their own terms.


Yet, I have still strongly felt the stigma of unemployment and it has affected me greatly – despite my attempts not to, I have somehow internalised society’s attitudes towards unemployment that see it as a problem, as something to be ashamed of. The other day I was standing outside the Job Centre on the high street unlocking my bike when an acquaintance spotted me and said ‘hi’. It should have been no big deal at all. But I happened to have had a huge crush on this guy as a teenager. He is an incredibly relaxed, non-judgemental person and most definitely didn’t have a problem with the fact that I was unemployed. But walking away after this encounter, which involved me staring at him panic stricken and in which I was incredibly nervous and rambled away trying to justify my unemployment, I felt incredibly low. I felt a deep sadness that after so many years and now that I was an adult, he had seen me unemployed. Perhaps there was a bit of my teenage self still wanting to impress, but unable to with the low status that unemployment commands. Another distressing episode involved my closet university friends. It had been a while since we had all met and I was excited to tell them everything that I had been up to and my thoughts and perspectives on unemployment. These friends are certainly left leaning, yet as we talked about our lives, I felt my comments on unemployment and my life at present to them were not at all legitimate. They did not seem to know how to respond, which is fair enough, but also it felt as if they simply did not want to hear what I was saying at all – that it was so far away from anything that they could comprehend and was perhaps so ‘radical’ that it made them uncomfortable. I felt completely silenced – my experiences of the things I had been doing that I had been so excited to share were deviant and should not be spoken of. I was shocked to have provoked this hesitant and wary position from my close friends. At first I did simply stop talking. Then I tried to raise the issue a couple more times with varying success. Trying to discuss unemployment with them, I was surprised to hear them repeat mainstream perceptions about unemployment – despite the fact that I’m sure they knew very few unemployed people from which they could draw these ideas. This stigma that is associated with unemployment, that I felt myself in the previous episode and that others felt towards me, is completely unjustified and utterly unhelpful to thinking about and addressing unemployment in our society. We must challenge this stigma and highlight the significant contributions that unemployed people make to society – through valuing one another, we can move beyond the idea that unemployment is a problem of the individual and we can move towards addressing it as a society in a way that benefits all.


Linked to the stigma of unemployment is the state of poverty you find yourself in when forced to rely on state benefits. From the state’s point of view, the unemployed are clearly so undeserving that they should be punished for finding themselves unemployed.  I was absolutely appalled and insulted when I received a letter from the benefits centre informing me that £53.45 is the amount ‘the law says you need to live on each week’. I was furious that the law (most likely a white, privileged man with no comprehension of what people need to get by) had decided this on behalf of me, particularly when the law does not feel the need to set an upper limit on how much people need to live on each week, so it is deemed acceptable that Frank Lampard ‘needs’ to receive £151,000 a week to live, whilst I need only £53.45. Well, I’m afraid there has been a massive error in their calculation. This measly sum is even less when we take into account that the state does not feel that I necessarily need a roof over my head – with housing benefit only covering some of the rent of my bedroom in a shared flat. Add to this money for bills and I’m left with about £30 for the week for food and travel – obviously the unemployed don’t deserve to enjoy any leisure or social activities. This amount of money immediately marginalises you from the rest of society as you are unable to engage in many activities that your peers do. Day to day living becomes a constant stress. Your benefits obviously do not allow you to live – covering as they do only food – and this is at a stretch. What happens when those other aspects of life, such as a bike in need of a new chain (£10), a need for new shoes (£30), a visit to a friend in another city (£20) crop up? What happens at Christmas? I guess the unemployed just don’t deserve to celebrate Christmas. Those who made this law, as well as the entire Conservative party, should be made to live on £53.45 a week, I’d like to see how they get by. Perhaps then they will realise that this is not how much a person needs to live a decent life. One of the low points of unemployment for me was when I checked my bank balance at a cash machine. Standing in the high street my balance flashed up as £10. My heart literally sank at this moment. All I had was £10. In a society where your worth is measured by your possessions, by your wealth, to have only £10 is to feel utterly worthless.

One further point that I would like to raise – and I haven’t even been able to address workfare here – is the lack of support that there is for the unemployed to actually find a job. Your signing on meeting is supposed to last 10 minutes, but is often much shorter. For the past couple of weeks I have been served by a woman who does not speak to me and barely acknowledges my existence. It is thoroughly demoralising. I enter the Job Centre keen to give feedback about my last two weeks of job searching and to receive advice, yet it seems that they do not have the time for this. Being ignored week after week was an incredibly frustrating experience, and it is no wonder that some people end up staying on the dole for long periods of time when there is such disregard for them and their attempts at job searching – what do they do when they have run out of ideas, or when they simply need some morale boosting? I’m sure the people at the Job Centres are doing the best jobs they can, but there needs to be more support for those who are job searching, just some recognition would be nice. It really does make a difference.


I hope that this account will contribute to productive discussions on unemployment and the ways in which we can address it. As described above, immediate demands include respect and value of the unemployed and the contributions they make, a decent standard of living, and greater support in finding a job that harnesses our talents, as well as an end to workfare. The most important thing is that we do not see it as a ‘problem’ of the ‘individual’ but as an issue for society to address with the voices of the unemployed at the forefront. Looking at unemployment may lead us to question the entire nature of work in society today for the two are intimately linked. When you are unemployed you think of the kind of job that you would like to have, and for me, my ideal jobs and how I would like to do them simply does not fit with what is out there. Let us all, the unemployed and the employed, think about the jobs we do and what we value in life and organise our society so that what we enjoy and what we value make up what we do each day.




Touring London on N30 – Inspiration and police repression

9 Dec

My absolute hatred for everything this government is inflicting upon our society is perhaps one of the only things that would see me wake up at 6am as we did on N30 and spend the next 12 hours out on the streets. We were heading to Liverpool Street Station to join Occupy London’s secret action. On our cycle ride toLiverpool Streetwe saw street cleaners out on the streets in the darkness which filled me for immense respect for them. These would have been traditionally public sector jobs, however, these workers were not out on strike today because much of our street cleaning services have been outsourced. The previous day I had been at the hospital where the staff looked after me with incredible care. My mum is absolutely dedicated to her work at Brixton library for which she receives very little recognition. It is fair to say that I have a lot of love for the public sector and am outraged at the government’s action to make these hard working people pay for a crisis that they did not cause.

At Liverpool Street Station we found the gaggle of fellow protestors which built up – Rhythms of Resistance were playing, bringing samba sounds to the dreariness of the station. We danced on the spot and people unfurled banners from the balcony. I love the spectacle of something ‘unordinary’ happening in City spaces which often have strictly prescribed uses – e.g. transit space, shopping space, work space, and nothing else, no fun, no interaction or meaningful engagement, no assisting each other. We followed the samba band and danced through the streets of the City of London, which sadly looked as if it had been unaffected by the strike – people were carrying on as normal as if all the things vital to our lives – health, education, a clean environment – were of no concern or use to them as they went about trading their invisible monies. As we walked the streets ofLondon, the police, rather than facilitating peaceful protest, seemed to think that their job was to ensure the free flow of roads, and attempted to restrict our movements to the pavement. On the south side ofSouthwarkBridgethey formed a sort of kettle around protestors on the street. At this point, after watching in solidarity with our fellow protestors for a while, we decided to cycle off as we had a picket to support outside Brixton library.

Our cycle ride from the City to Brixton saw us pass pickets outside South Bank University, as well as a few along Brixton Road. We cheered, dinged our bells, and shouted our love for public sector workers as we passed. OnBrixton Roadanother cyclist joined our cheering to the pickets. We joined my mum on her picket outside Brixton library where they were chanting ‘What do we want?’ ‘Pensions’ ‘When do we want them?’ ‘Before we die!’ Because of my age, I don’t have much experience of strikes, but seeing the workers and their supporters joining together for a common cause, made me realise their significance. In a society which constantly promotes a hyper individualist and consumerist culture, coming together and acting collectively is a unique act. In front of the library on the large square, many more people were gathering for a rally – people from other picket lines came and congregated along with members of the community. At 11.30 we marched together down Brixton Road. A man on the street approached me and said ‘Thank you for striking’ which was lovely of him. I love those moments of unexpected encounters. The large group of several hundred disappeared into the tube station and we cycled off to join the student protests at ULU. The student group at ULU was smaller than the student march on Nov 9 which is shame because there should have been a large presence of students and lecturers. Perhaps the ‘total policing’ tactics of Nov 9 had put students off and quite understandably too. However, as we weaved our way through the streets joining other strikers it was clear that there were many thousands of people out on the streets to defend fair pensions and express their anger at this government. Our march was so large that it took three hours to walk the route of the march, however people were very good natured and there was a strong family presence with children sitting on their parent’s shoulders. UK Uncut were out serving SolidariTEA. An Occupy London bloc had a disproportionate police presence fearful that we would occupy yet another space. Yet they are doing everything in their powers to ensure that we cannot protest outside (or inside) state and financial institutions. The road toWhitehalland access toTrafalgar Squarewere completely blocked off by huge metal barriers – of a kind I have not seen before. Perhaps the police are getting their Christmas presents early. In fact, I’ve caught a glimpse of their Christmas list in today’s Guardian, and they’re hoping for a £4 million water canon with which to police protests. I think Santa should give them lumps of coal for that audacious and useless request. More and more of the city is out of bounds to protest. It is an extremely worrying development.

An hour into the march, we were feeling pretty exhausted from our early morning and cycling tours to and from the centre ofLondon. We wanted to cut a corner of the march and join it further down the road. We had overheard a police man saying that this was fine. However, when we tried to leave the route to rejoin it further down, a different police man stopped us saying that we must stick to the route, and that as marchers we could not leave the route or that would be an arrestable offence. I misheard him and thought he called us ‘Marxists’ so there was some confusion in our interaction. Simply because we were protestors meant that we did not have access to other streets in the city. As a life long Londoner it is incredibly frustrating to be denied the right to walk in the city that I know so well. This was the first of three incidents of over zealous policing which seeks to criminalise and intimidate protestors. Reaching the march’s end point we headed back towards Piccadilly as we had heard via Twitter that there would be an Occupy action happening there. On our way throughTrafalgar Square, which we were lucky to even be able to enter – there was a small gateway in the metal barriers through which we entered, but even then, police were monitoring who could come through. One of them did look as if to stop Luke from getting through. It was a strange scene inTrafalgar Square– gated with the huge metal sheets at the bottom, it was eerily quiet. At the top ofTrafalgar Squarejust outside the National Gallery we saw a large group of police with a small group of protestors. One of them was gesturing wildly to some other police nearby to join them, as if they really needed reinforcements. It seemed very strange that a small group of protestors were being stopped and searched, and two of them arrested, here outside the National Gallery. They seemed to have done nothing at all wrong. I was keen to stand close by to keep an eye on proceedings, but Luke was scared they would then turn on us, because we had protest things on us – a Unison flag and an NUT sash. It is ridiculous that the over zealous policing we have witnessed over the last couple of protests is having such an effect on us – that we felt we were somehow arrestable for standing in Trafalgar Square with a small Unison flag stuffed in Luke’s back pocket. We might as well just go along to a police station and hand ourselves in for a crime we have yet to commit, for this seems the way in which our justice system is moving. I was feeling very stubborn, so refused to move away, and we went over to one young man who was being stopped and searched to make sure that he was OK. We had seen the police open his wallet and record his name from his credit cards and we felt that they were acting in a somewhat legally dubious manner. We spoke with the young man and then stood closely by watching. A senior officer came over to speak with us and tried to suggest that we were ‘obstructing’ them, using language that could lead to our arrest. Our second almost arrest of the day. We took their police badge numbers and spoke with the man afterwards. The police had treated him in a bullying way.

Shaken by this incident, whereby we witnessed our freedoms being increasingly eroded, and the police acting in an unaccountable and threatening way, we made our way toPiccadilly Circus. Walking alongHaymarket Streettwo large Greek men emerged from a side street chanting Greek football songs. As we made our way towards the statue of Eros, we saw lots of sky blue soft caps of the riots police standing around the statue, and hundreds of Greek football fans filling the area. It was an incredible sight and a wonderful coincidence. We were not able to spot any protestors as they had been seemingly swamped by Greek football fans. We found a small group of Rhythms of Resistance who were walking back towards Haymarket and decided to follow them. Suddenly hundreds of protesters emerged from nowhere and went racing down Haymarket. Someone lit a bright red flare and we watched the flare fly down the street. It was a carnival atmosphere as people ran down the street with the sound of samba drums behind a glaring red flare. It was a beautiful sight. It felt exhilarating to watch after the restricted experience of the march and the incident atTrafalgar Square. However, we were too scared to join in because we knew the police response would be huge. So instead of joining in with the carnival, we walked along and watched in awe from the edge. A group ran into Panton House and get to the roof where they unfurled a banner. We stood below in the street, a fair distance from Panton House. Police back up came swiftly. And someone alerted us that they were running to kettle us. We tried to walk away down Haymarket, when a police man came running at us, his arms outstretched to stop us passing him. We jumped on our bikes and cycled down a side alley with several others. We had dodged our potential third arrest of the day. We returned to the scene a little later to see the whole street cordoned off and a kettle implemented. We could still hear Rhythms of Resistance drumming away. More and more police vans arrived, for a group of under 100 peaceful protestors. A van of police dogs arrived. It was a complete over reaction to a group of people occupying a building.

We cycled back through the dark streets exhausted from our day of protest and wondering where we go now…our experiences today show how the police are set on stifling any form of protest that does not march on a designated route with an intimidating police presence. More and more of the city is becoming off limits to protest. Our bodies and our streets are under police control.  It seems like incredibly sad times that we are having to protest for our right to protest.

Slightly longer version of Re-imagining the City

8 Dec

Re-imagining the city – a day of talks and actions to reclaim the City


After a morning of truly inspiring talks – with Doreen Massey discussing ‘Spaces of finance’ focussing on the City of London, and Nishat Awan showing us beautiful maps made by radical collectives as a tool for social change – a group of 30 intrepid explorers ventured out onto the streets of the City of London armed with a megaphone, picnics, Twister, badminton racquets, street Bingo cards, and a curiosity about the increasingly blurred boundaries between public and private space. The closure of that ‘public’ space that is Paternoster Square, and threats of evictions from our truly public space at St Paul’s, had woken us up to the stark reality that our city space is being rapidly privatized with just some of the consequences being the exclusion of ordinary people from vast swathes of the city and the stifling of protest in the city – both of which have serious implications for the state of our democracy. Our grand walking tour of the City of London – part of a wider project at Tent City University which is mapping and researching public/private space in the City of London – aimed to investigate the increasingly blurred boundaries between public/private space by playing in the space and seeing what responses we provoked, as well as noting our own experiences of the City. This emphasis on play in the City was inherently political as we were creating and reclaiming public space, albeit temporarily. The City of London, dedicated almost solely to capital accumulation for the elite, had this main (dis)function disrupted and displaced as we used the City in more productive and creative ways, as one participant noted – ‘that’s the most concentrated amount of fun the City of London has ever seen’.


Our large group pushed against the sea of pinstripe suits as we made our way up Cheapside towards Guildhall, home of the City of London Corporation. This collective walking through the streets itself was a wonderful experience as we talked and got to know each other and spotted things that one pair of eyes may overlook. As we walked, people shouted out things to fill out their street Bingo which was designed to provoke us to see our City differently – try to spot chickweed (wild food in the City of London), urban wildlife (other life rather than just humans inhabiting the space), signs of poverty/inequality (that the City of London tries its best to hide), CCTV cameras (constant surveillance of our activities), people using space in an interesting way (usually it’s just people walking purposely from one place to another, or shopping). Reaching the Guildhall Square, a large ‘public’ square, we found the main entrance blocked by large steel fences – the City of London is afraid of protest at this site and so has erected these fences to keep protest out. A couple of days earlier, protesters from Occupy LSX had been kettled here by the police and some arrested after an action here on the evening of the Mayor’s banquet in which they highlighted how the banquet represented gross concentrations of wealth and power. Our presence here was also in solidarity with them. Determined that we still have our picnic at this site, we set up our blankets and wicker basket outside the barricades and sat down and shared food together. We set out some innocuous looking cupcakes, which with the use of an icing pen, quickly became politicised cupcakes demanding ‘Defend the right to protest’. In times like today when any form of protest is being quickly quashed, it was important that we were innovative. If a police officer were to approach, the offending cupcake protest could be quickly gobbled up before the cupcakes or the group could be arrested. However, it wasn’t police that we had to worry about. A security guard approached us requesting that we move because a van needed to enter the square and we were ‘blocking’ its entrance. He assured us that despite the steel fencing we could actually enter the square from the entrance around the side. Unconvinced, we decided to test this. And indeed a small number of our group almost made it to the square, until a different security guard called them back and prevented us from entering. We asked him why we couldn’t enter the square when it was a public square. He told us that he had let others in but he wouldn’t let our group in because ‘I don’t like you’. He changed tact at one point, deciding that we couldn’t go in because ‘I own it’ but then refused to tell us who he was. When he asked who our leader was, one young man piped up ‘we’re an autonomous walking group’ to which the man responded, ‘fuck off’. Having discovered the true nature of this ‘public’ square, we decided to move on as we had a lot of ground to cover.


Our next stop was the ‘inside out’ Lloyds building on Lime Street. Again, the beauty of collective walking was watching people’s responses to this crazy building. My mistake (which I have just discovered now much to my dismay) was to get this Lloyds (as in Lloyds insurance) building confused with Lloyds TSB Bank Plc, which as taxpayers we own a hefty 43.4% stake. What do they expect if they call themselves the same names? So sadly, we do not own 43.4% of this building, and so I guess requesting a ride in the elevators half way up of our publicly owned space was never going to happen as it isn’t actually ours. Alas we cannot ‘go beyond architecture and actually turn things inside out’ as Doreen Massey suggested when we believed the inside out building was 43.4% public. However, Lloyds insurance was involved in the slave trade and so they still deserve to be turned inside out. Our presence was not in vain. With giant steel pipes and elevators towering over us we found a courtyard area in which to ceilidh. Our ceilidh leader Vic (the only type of leader that we want at Occupy LSX) stood on a bench in order to conduct us. At this point, a young security guard approached us rather sheepishly from Willis, fortunately it was only to request that Vic step off the bench, and we were allowed to continue our ceilidh. Sandwiched between the two huge towers of Lloyds and Willis, we swung our partners round and round and jumped and shouted in the middle of the circle. Workers peered down at us from their windows, and so in some way we most definitely disrupted the flow of capital through the city. It was such a surreal and wonderful thing to be ceilidhing around in the City of London. Everyone was laughing and dancing – it was an incredible sight. The black marble slab seats and the grey paving, and the towering glass and steel buildings became much less hostile and lifeless when your spinning about uncontrollably. In a strange bit of psychogeography, a fellow walker found a Wikipedia page for nearby St Andrew Undershaft church which described another dancing event a long time ago and student unrest as well: ‘The church’s curious name derives from the shaft of the maypole that was traditionally set up each year opposite the church. The custom continued each spring until 1517, when student riots put an end to it, but the maypole itself survived until 1547 when a Puritan mob seized it and destroyed it as a “pagan idol“’.



Our final stop of the grand tour was the impressive looking RBS building on Bishopsgate of which the tax payer most definitely owns 84% and the adjacent seemingly ‘public’ Bishops Square. With this overwhelming majority of the building we hoped that we could use the modestly sized foyer area to hold a discussion on the nature of public space and ways of reclaiming the city. However, after speaking to one of the three security guards standing outside the building, it was quite clear this was not the public space we hoped it would be. So we set of to investigate Bishops Square instead, which does allow entry – only not to protesters. Stuck to the sign reading Bishops Square was a plastic A4 pocket which contained documents from a recent High Court of Justice hearing on November 2nd. The notice banned ‘Persons unknown entering or remaining without the consent of the claimant on the Bishops square estate, London E1in connection with protest action’. Within the document they had included unclear black and white photographs of protest actions against RBS – perhaps to illustrate exactly what we must not do. After being bemused by this document for a little while, we proceeded to play badminton and Twister and sit and discuss the issue of the right to the city, exhausted after our tour of the City.


Whilst we certainly covered a lot of ground, having a lot of fun in the process, there is more of the City of London to be explored and played in, to be reclaimed for public use. After our grand tour, maybe capitalism will chug along for another day, but perhaps at Lloyds insurance tomorrow there will be an empty desk as a worker finally pursues their dream of being a Scottish dancer.  

Re-imagining the City – interventions in the City of London

8 Dec

On Thursday 17th November, a group of 30 intrepid explorers from Occupy LSX left from St Paul’s to walk and play in the City of London in order to investigate the increasingly blurred boundaries between public and private space, and with the aims of creating and reclaiming public space. The City of London is predominantly used as a space of financial accumulation for the elite, however, we reckoned, using the City in different ways would displace and disrupt this primary (dis)function. This action was in direct response to the increasing privatization of the City that has been highlighted by the Occupy LSX protest – the closure of Paternoster Square, the eviction attempts from our camp at St Paul’s, injunctions at Canary Wharf and Broadgate, and rings of steel around the Corporation of London headquarters. This privatization of vast swathes of the City makes it out of bounds to ordinary people and protest, which greatly undermines the state of our democracy. Thus, we set out to reclaim these spaces for public use and reassert our right to the city.


Our first stop was the City of London Corporation headquarters where we intended to picnic in the ‘public’ Guildhall Square. A couple of days before, Occupy LSX protesters had been kettled in this space for protesting against inequality as the Lord Mayor banqueted with his friends including David Cameron. Access to the square was blocked by large metal fences and so we sat outside of the fences to eat and talk. We had made cupcakes on which we iced ‘Defend the Right to Protest’ – a rather ingenious form of protest which meant that if the police came in to kettle us, the offending protesting cupcakes could be quickly gobbled up – returning the space back to its dissent free sterility. Our presence outside of the gates was apparently not acceptable – we were warned that a van needed to enter the square and we were blocking its path. However, a security guard promised us that we could enter the square from an entrance around the corner. When we arrived at this entrance a couple of people were welcomed through, until another security guard took a disliking to our large group.


Security guard: You can’t come through.

Us: Why not?

Security guard: Because I own it.

Us: Do you? Who are you?

Security guard: Who are you? Who’s leading this?

Us: We’re an autonomous walking group

Security guard: Fuck off…I’m not letting you in because I don’t like you


Trying not to feel disheartened at this blatant discrimination, we visited our next stop – the Lloyds insurance building, also known as the inside-out building because of its striking architecture. Here we found an open space between the Lloyds building and the Willis building, which had shiny black marble seats and people in suits passing through. Here, our large group proceeded to ceilidh beneath the towering steel structure that is the Lloyds building, lead by Vic our ceilidh leader (the only type of leader we want in our movement) and Dan Dan accordion man. At one moment it looked touch and go as a young security guard from Willis came out to speak to Vic, but it was only to request that she step down from the black marble bench. We were allowed to ceilidh away with workers watching enviously from the windows as we spun wildly about. Successfully reclaimed public space I think we can conclude, although if we’d had the energy to continue dancing for a bit longer, perhaps there would have been some issues. Fortunately we were all too unfit to manage more than one dance.


The rather fancy looking RBS on Bishopsgate was our next stop as we wanted to find out whether the 84% public ownership of the bank translated into public space – owning such a large proportion of the bank surely entitles us to access the space and decide what we want to do with it. But RBS were clearly prepared for groups looking to use the space in a more productive way than investing in tar sands, and had three security guards standing outside preventing the public from using this publicly owned bank. Perhaps we could find an inviting space further along in Bishops Square. However, here we found on the post stating ‘Bishops Square’ a plastic folder inside of which were court documents banning protest here. Badminton and Twister however are acceptable – and arguably just as political as a protest (or a form of protest in themselves), for we were showing that this square has more uses than a space in which you cross from one shop to another, but can be a place were people gather, play, interact, and engage with one another.


Exploring the City in a collective and subversive way was loads of fun – ‘the most concentrated amount of fun there has ever been in the City’ as a fellow walker told me. There was a real sense of freedom in what we were doing – walking together, and doing things that may be considered a little odd. Usually the City can feel quite an oppressive place, but it was transformed by our presence and our actions. Whilst we certainly covered a lot of ground there is more of the City of London to be explored and played in, to be reclaimed for public use. After our grand tour, maybe capitalism will chug along for another day, but perhaps at Lloyds insurance tomorrow there will be an empty desk as a worker finally pursues their dream of being a Scottish dancer. 


Postmodernism – basically, a lot of elaborate teapots

8 Dec

‘Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990’ Victoria and Albert Museum until 15 January 2012


I have failed to grapple with postmodernism for some time now, and so I was hoping this major exhibition dedicated to the movement at the V&A would enlighten me. Rooms and rooms are dedicated to extraordinary objects from the worlds of art, music, and architecture that drove and were influenced by postmodernism from 1970-1990. Without reading any of the captions this collection of objects – including a wide variety of brightly coloured and strangely shaped teapots, a dress that I honestly thought was a crocodile costume but was actually a ziggurat design, and a hologram of Boy George – give you the feel for what postmodernism is all about. It is subversive – rejecting authority, conformity, and discipline – doing its own thing – yet also hyper consumerist and superficial. These contradictions are not a problem – in fact, they are integral to postmodernism.


We start at the beginning of the movement, which begun as a response to the prevailing design at the time, modernism, with its emphasis on orderliness and rationality. Instead, one architect describes getting his inspiration from driving on motorways in the US and spotting ‘hoagies’ – giant 2D photos of sandwiches. This was a radical fringe movement which took a more playful approach to urban space and design, creating curves in buildings where once the rigid lines of modernism had stood. In one piece, a building in New Orleans which withstood Hurricane Katrina, the architect had designed a fountain which was the shape of Italy. Seeing the boot of Italy as a fountain in this model was surprising and surreal – exactly what postmodernism is about. Many other pieces in the exhibition had me laughing out loud, although I’m not sure this was always the intention of the designer – one animation had two skyscrapers engaging in sexual acts (there was even a small sign next to the piece warning of ‘scenes of a sexual nature’), there was a stool with a leg that resembled a penis, and an elaborate car shaped coffin. Humour brought a feeling of relief from the overbearing and stifling modernism.


Unsurprisingly, playful postmodernism caught the imagination and moved from an obscure peripheral movement into the mainstream. Here, postmodernism’s emphasis on bold images found its place amongst popular and consumerist culture, and its radical and critical edges were sanded down to make it more palatable for the hyper-capitalism of the 1980s and 1990s by which the movement became seduced. A large room, made to feel like an 80s club, blasts out pop music and is adorned with videos and clothes from pop stars of these decades showing the influence of postmodernism on pop and vice versa. This is not to suggest that pop and postmodernismbecame entirely frivolous for, as is shown in this rave like room, pop stars such as Annie Lennox contributed to gender politics and the subversion of gender stereotypes with their androgynous looks.


The movement became co-opted, serving the ‘needs’ of capitalism, as is well exemplified by a Micky Mouse tea set. However, some artists recognised this quickly and produced work critiquing this process of the commodification of art and life. ‘Protect me from what I want’ cries a neon sign lighting up New York. Even Andy Warhol’s canvas with a giant dollar sign signifies, as well as a celebration and enchantment with money, a parody of what art has become –literally a dollar sign that will generate many more of these. Ai weiwei too continues this theme of playing with the blurred boundaries between commodity and art and in turn critiquing the commodification of culture by emblazoning a Coca Cola sign on a 2,000 year old urn. This modification of the urn actually increased the value of the urn further, highlighting the distorted nature of today’s art market. This simple piece is striking and thought provoking, and, as with many of the works, humorous and subversive. My mum was horrified at the defacement of an ancient urn, I was somewhat impressed with Ai weiwei’s audacity. At the end of the exhibition, we were invited to ponder on whether postmodernism is still around today – as a neon sign ushers us into the gift shop filled with myriad colourful plastic objects.


This exhibition takes us on a journey through this strange and complex world of postmodernism. There is a great deal to take in, however, it is not intimidating but very good fun. My understanding of the movement has certainly deepened – and most importantly, I’ve learnt that the main thrust of it is basically about elaborate tea sets.