THE BRIDGE (Some thoughts about Extinction Rebellion and beyond)

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

RAFT on RESONANCE 104.4 fm Episode 8

Tune into Resonance 104.4 fm On Tuesday 16th April, 5 pm, for episode 8!

This month’s credits:

“Two songs and a conversation” with Nawroz Oramari

“The dreaming” written and narrated by Chiara Ambrosio with soundscapes by Bird Radio

“Beautiful Animals” written and performed by Bird Radio

THE SONG

When I looked out of the window there was a great wind blowing, pushing the trees’ crowns to the ground as though in prayer.

The buildings rattled, their skeletons and cladding creaking ominously like vessels at sea weathering a mighty storm, unsure of their hold on the surface of the city.

 

We took refuge inside a song, gently hummed on our breaths in a quiet corner of the street, while all around people bought and sold, and leaned on each other for shelter, all of them displaced by the storm- and far away from home. 

The wind shook their worn tarpaulins that flapped like the gigantic wings of a beached albatross, unable to take flight. 

Their red shoes, now misshapen and full of holes, have no leverage when trying to cross back through the border.

 

We weaved our way through the white lace and the beads and the gold plated chains, past the eggs and the fruit all neatly piled up despite the blowing of the wind.

We bought lemons at the end of the road, by the line in the ground that marked the threshold, and then we entered the library at the junction by the train station, where we looked for a quiet corner to sing, while the city took flight and unraveled all around us. 

 

We saw it all happen from the glass window on the first floor: at first the trees, then the cars and the traffic lights, then the concrete, lifting like ribbons from the street. 

The eggs and the lemons, the tarpaulins and the beads and the gold, the cinema seats and the projector, the bones and the knives and the money- all dragged up by the wind, spiraling away into the sky.

 

At last the people, first one by one and then in flocks, quietly, maybe just a little startled.

 

Alone with the books, we sang, until there was nothing left outside, not even the wind.

And then we stepped out to teach our song to the quiet city.

RAFT on RESONANCE 104.4 fm Episode 7

Tune in to Resonance 104.4 fm on Tuesday 19th March at 5pm for episode 7 of Raft, my radio programme in which we explore real and imaginary landscapes of the city.
Credits for this month’s episode:

“The Song”- Written and narrated by Chiara Ambrosio, with singing by Nawroz Oramari

Berlin 3 Circle- composed by James Hesford

A walk through Bunhill Fields with James Hesford

“When The Morning Comes”- Written and performed by Bird Radio


IN THE HOUSE OF THE LAST LONDON

I entered the house of the last London. So is this it? 

Is it the end, or is it already beginning again? 

The rooms are silent, occupied by myriad gazes and gestures, bodies visible and invisible. And in the backyard the garden is still in bloom. 

 

Are the clouds gathering or dispersing? Or are they just passing by, as usual? 

In the dusk the murky light will not reveal whether it is night or a new day dawning.

 

The staircases are empty, but I can hear the sound of a gathering crowd drifting in from the open windows like a warm summer’s breeze- and the damp smell of rain. 

The marks are on the walls, arranged in various formations, some of them deliberate, and some of them the offspring of chance collisions, like cosmic debris drifting through space. 

The floorboards speak under my weight but everything else is still, awaiting a next move. 

 

A heavy hand hovers over the house of the last London- one deft swipe will bring all of its walls tumbling down and yield space for the next impenetrable, unmarked fort, rising over fresh, unmarked graves.

But for now the tender walls hold the names and the dates that were laid down along with its bricks, one at a time, one above the other, bound with mortar and spit and blood, until they too became a house.

Perhaps the last.

Perhaps the first.

RAFT on RESONANCE 104.4 FM- Episode 6

Tune in to Resonance 104.4 fm on Tuesday 19th February at 5pm for the sixth appointment with Raft, my radio programme in which we explore real and imaginary landscapes of the city.

Credits for this month’s episode:

The House Of The Last London- Written and narrated by Chiara Ambrosio- Soundscapes by Bird Radio

“You Are The Moonlight”- Written and performed by Bird Radio

OIL SPILL, a poem written and recited by John Bently

A conversation in the studio with John Bently

“Camberwell Road” part of the forthcoming album “One Shoe Michael- A London Song-Cycle” written and performed by Bones and the Aft

ONCE UPON A TIME

Once upon a time

 

There was a street

There were alleys and dark corners

There were scratched surfaces and acrid walls

There were doorways that opened or remained shut

 

I saw a man on the street, and he knew the way it flowed.

He burrowed through the alleyways and whispered into the dark corners, until they whispered back to him their dirty story.

He touched the walls with his purple hands, and the walls gave way a little under his touch, revealing another layer below the surface, an intricate tangle of signs scratched into the damp stone, which he read through his fingertips like the blind.

When he knocked, all the doors would open to let him through, but sometimes, when I looked again, both him and the doorways were gone.

 

Once upon a time

 

people moved through, or stayed still

people walked and ran

people rode underground trains

people gazed into the past, scared about their future

people cried and people dreamed

 

I knew a story that moved through the city like a song.

Sometimes it would linger, gather in a pool like rainwater on the pavement, and on its surface the city would see its own face reflected, whole and brilliant against the sky.

The story could always find a way through the changing topography, it would never get lost or stuck where a wall suddenly rose to replace an alley.

It would dig and it would sow, and then- as it always happens- it would wait patiently for new shoots to sprout, while it remembered all the words it already knew one by one, so an not to lose any of them as the roaring days turned into nights.

The story spoke even when all other voices fell silent- too tired, too lonely or too scared. It would not stay quiet.

 

Once upon a time

 

a city heaved 

a city breathed its ages into the gasping mouths of the needy

a city nursed and a city cursed

a city carried 

a city abandoned 

a city killed and then brought back to life

 

The man sat on the same corner where he always sat, and his body was an armour with which he fought back erasure- a ring on every finger and a pen in each hand dripping purple words like blooming flowers onto the parched skin of the city. 

When you travel alone, you can see things come into sharp focus and new words form on your tongue, waiting to be released like birds form a cage.

The city will nurture its lost and lonely, sat on marble steps, falling asleep to the ringing of church bells, awakening to the hunger and the vision.

When all other eyes fall blind, it is the city’s orbits that will bind you to your spot on that same street corner, commit you to existence, day after day.

 

And then   you will open your mouth, and you too shall whisper:

“Once upon a time…”