Waterloo Bridge at dusk never felt so close to Utopia.
In the darkening sky the full moon faded into its bright shape, rising between brutalist buildings and the mercurial river, overlooking a garden growing out of cement, against all odds.
The tarmac, adorned with drawings of whales, birds, flowers, butterflies, bees- relieved for a while of its heavy burden- did what it could to conjure green fields and the heady bustling of microscopic life crawling within it. The same life that is fading out of existence on our planet species by species, day by day.
Bright city lights appearing on the horizon and above our heads reminded us that this was still a metropolis, bound to its rhythms and rituals- and yet today, somehow, so different from yesterday.
The eerie quiet of a road overtaken by feet, song, bodies: an incongruous pedestrian choreography reclaiming its place in the middle, not just on the edges- where it is often too easily framed out of view.
A disgruntled young man, one of those people so often unseen, was walking up the bridge complaining aggressively about the chalk flowers and the peaceful uprising to a tired policewoman clad in bright yellow, who in turn replied with her concerns about austerity, and how profoundly it had depleted the city’s resources. As they walked along the bridge side by side, their conversation quickly turned to the universal right to speak up and be heard, touching on the fundamental principles of civilian coexistence, and the inner workings of a system that is failing most.
I thought about how a space like this, cleared of its business, cleared of its speed, can turn into a truly democratic place for debate, a Petri dish in which everyone has a chance to be seen and heard, no matter how small, slow, uncouth, quiet or marginal.
The gesture of the public reclaiming public space is a powerful reminder of how things can be, against everything we are told to the contrary. Bodies have the power to clog the arteries of the city-as-commerce and reframe our collective view onto the city as a space for exchange, growth, and- above all- care. It can also provide a necessary access to other realities, often invisible to our own, as the bridge becomes a conduit and a connector- a space in between here and there- however far the distance between any given here and there may be.
A few days before Extinction Rebellion declared the beginning of two weeks of disruption in London, I was walking at night along an unusually deserted Southbank on my way to the Tate Modern for an all-night performance of Gavin Bryars’ “Jesus’ blood never failed me yet”.
This seminal piece was composed as a series of arrangements for orchestra to accompany the voice of an unnamed homeless man singing a psalm, that Bryars recorded on the streets of London in 1971 while collecting sounds for a documentary about Elephant and Castle, and then looped over and over, turning the voice into a steady, unbreakable pulse at the very centre of the music.
On that night, Tate Modern stood dimly lit on the banks of the Thames: people slid quietly in and out of its only open door at this unusual hour, while the elegant trees glowing green shivered in the breeze like gentle sentinels.
The hall inside the Tanks was a raft, a shelter open to all who would be saved. Audience and players shared the same space, gathered in a circle around the frail but unbroken voice of an unnamed, long-gone old man, rising above his own marginal existence to possess the building and all those inside it for the entire duration of the piece- 12 hours. Different sections of the orchestra took turns in accompanying his voice, at times sustaining its flight, at others guarding its intimacy, with absolute commitment and devotion.
This performance of the piece was presented in association with Streetwise Opera, The Museum of Homelessness, The Academy of St Martins in the Fields and other organisations who work with people who experience or have experienced homelessness. And so the art gallery became, for one night, the real shelter it ought to be: the lost, the wandering, the homeless, the curious, were all welcomed in; some listened in rapture, others slept on the floor by the walls, hot drinks and food were provided for free throughout the night, and for 12 hours all shame, prejudice, categorization and division crumbled before the unshakeable truth of one man’s voice testifying to the hardships, dreams and courage of all.
No altar or pulpit was needed for that kind of communion: together we floated on the waves released by the sound of the man’s voice, the strings, the choir, the brass, guitar and percussion, beating like one large, heavy heart.
It takes great courage to see and hear things into existence, to allow for anyone who might, to occupy their rightful place on this planet. By placing the homeless man’s voice at the centre of the matter, quite literally, Bryars was exercising his privilege- the privilege of not being homeless, tired, constantly holding on to the edge with broken fingernails- to create a shared space for reflection and revelation, to propose, through his imagination, a way to recast the world in a more fair and just balance.
Too often we accept to unsee what upsets us, whether through shame, pain, or fear. We allow one single narrative to cast its long and dense shadow over all others, until we too are blind to everything but the surface. We unsee the cracks and what takes shelter inside them, we unsee the slippage, the overspill, the torn edges, the rips and tears in the fabric of our own reality. We unsee the truth in the lines on our faces, we unhear the voices pleading for our attention, help, and care- often even our own voice, troubled by the effort.
And the city aids us in this process of erasure, enhancing our speed, the distance between us and our introversion, pushing us further inside our bodies, away from our limbs, making us recoil like snails inside the most hidden part of our chests- shoulders tense, arms disengaged, safe from contact, safe from action, safe from deliverance. Alone, silent, impotent and withheld.
Reclaiming the centre of the street as a place in which to reach out from within our individual stories- colliding with other bodies moving along complementary trajectories, amplifying one another’s voice, offering and receiving shelter- is a radical practice of empathy and defiance, a necessary exercise in courage, commitment and humility.
Today we rise as Extinction Rebellion, focusing the attention on climate justice, and on the worlds’ governments urgent need to declare a climate crisis and act now- but beyond the timeframe of these two weeks, what remains is our urgent need to connect to one another and engage in conversations that can bridge over the torrents of division swelling everywhere around us, challenging the destructive, hypnotising refrain of “business as usual”.
Waterloo Bridge, now “cleared”, will continue to dream of the week in which it grew into a garden, as it continues its patient practice of joining together two opposing sides.
This kind of rebellion is a matter of survival and it can no longer be avoided.
“To those who do not know that the world is on fire, I have nothing to say.” Bertolt Brecht