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: