Andy Field. London City Lab Part 3

We are waiting, caught in the fracture lines of London’s vast public infrastructure. Sitting on uncomfortable plastic seats in too-small too-warm spaces, them in one part of London and me in another, stuck temporarily as the machinery of the city whirrs and groans and rattles itself back to life again.

I am in a hospital waiting room, waiting. Sipping cold water from a plastic cup and bleeding the battery life from my phone as I wait for a friend who is being assessed for food poisoning. Around me the atmosphere is mutinous. Every two minutes someone goes to the nurses’ station to let the nurses know how long they have been waiting, until in frustrated desperation a nurse comes to tell all of us that they are doing their best but they have a skeleton staff today and it is just going to take a long time for everyone to be seen and they are sorry but there is nothing they can do about that. The air is thick and exhausted and everything smells of hospital. It’s the government’s fault the young woman next to me says they cut all the funding and people blame the hospital. She is pregnant and in pain and has been waiting here for five hours, but her composure and generosity are probably the most hopeful thing I have encountered since I arrived.

Meanwhile on an underground train in another part of London the rest of the artists from the lab are trapped by a signal failure, a painful blockage deep in the city’s gut. They are trying to get to West Ham to begin a walk through the borough of Newham’s complicated recent history, through battlegrounds made of buildings, some older and forcibly emptied, others aggressively new; life-size models of the future Newham council are impatiently dreaming of. We will visit the Carpenter’s Estate and see the half empty tower blocks from which city-high adverts for Gillette were hung during the Olympics, and on the top of which the BBC studios were erected, whilst on the floors below them unwanted residents did their best to carry on with their lives.  Later we will walk in the almost-rain across the Olympic park, a dead-eyed automaton of a park, a private space masquerading as a public space, full of very clear ideas of how you will make use of it, a park you consume rather than enjoy. All this though will only come once the artists finally manage to get off the underground.

Perhaps you are more prone to see the faults in your own city, having already grown so accustomed to the shape and texture of it, like looking at your own face in the mirror and only noticing the flaws that weren’t there the day before. There is much to love about London but it nonetheless feels to me like a city on the point of failing, the victim of a deranged neoliberal experiment, its public resources drained to feed private interests and left to wither away unsustainably.

Yet perhaps having reached this point of desperation it can be the spur to begin to formulate new strategies for survival. There is a passage in Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell in which she talks about the hope that can emerge from disaster:

The word disaster comes from the latin compound of dis-, or without and, astro, star or planet; literally, without a star. It originally suggested misfortune due to astrologically generated trouble – to be literally, born under a bad sign. 

In some disasters of the twentieth century the loss of electrical power meant that the light pollution blotting out the night sky vanished. In these disaster struck cities, people suddenly found themselves under the canopy of stars visible in small and remote places. On the warm night of August 15, 2003, the Milky Way could be seen in New York City, a heavenly realm long lost to view until the blackout that hit the Northeast that late afternoon.

You can think of the current social order as something akin to this artificial light: another kind of power that fails in disaster. In its place appears reversion to improvised, collaborative, cooperative, and local society. However beautiful the stars of a suddenly visible night sky, few nowadays could find their way by them. But the constellations of solidarity, altruism, and improvisation are within most of us and reappear at these times. People know what to do in a disaster. The loss of power, the disaster in the modern sense, is an affliction, but the reappearance of these old heavens is its opposite. 

I’m reminded of this as I negotiate my way towards Newham from the hospital, my phone now completely out of battery, relearning the city in some small way, scanning road signs and the maps on bus shelters, trying to tell my direction by finding a trace of the sun in the overcast sky or predicting the flight path of landing planes, remembering half-forgotten journeys, asking people for directions.

I’m reminded of it too in the stories we hear on the walk about the women in the Focus 15 campaign who are fighting for the survival of their estate and the things that estate represents within Newham and the wider country. They too are relearning the city on a larger scale, creating an improvised, collaborative, cooperative, and local society at the very moment at which Thatcher’s dream of a country without one appears, in London at least, closer than it has ever been to fruition.