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Life in the big smoke

Back to the river

Every day stuff floats in on the tide and then out again, empty coke bottles, plastic cups, tennis balls, pieces of wood, condoms, plastic bag, the left-overs of life along the Thames. The tidal movement is called ebb and flod in my native Swedish. Not so different from the English, but those are the words that find me first. Nature is where I stumble. I know what a buzzard is in English, but I have to use wikipedia to translate it into Swedish. Ormvråk. I know what a Gös is, but a Zander means nothing.

We went back to Finland for two weeks. One day we visited my grandmother and in the afternoon we stopped by the cottage in her garden, the bagarstuga. There is a great bookshelf in the bagarstuga. The shelves look like half-smiles and the books look like unruly teeth sticking out in all directions. I went there to try to find some extra things to read during the holiday, but most of the books were in Spanish, French, German, Russian and Finnish. My grandmother learned and tried to learn many languages.

The attic at the bagarstuga smells of dry dust, a sweet grainy smell that takes me back to being seven or nine and making up adventure stories in family attics. We looked at the glass vats my grandmother used for making wine and at the old hammers and saws and the spinning wheel that must have belonged to my grandmother’s parents. We also found a few large leather folders wrapped in old newspapers, unwrapped them carefully, untied the strings holding them together and found a selection of pressed wildflowers. Next to the flowers was a tidy description of where and when they had been picked and their name in Swedish and in Latin. My grandmother’s brother’s homework over the summer. My parents also picked and pressed plants during their summer holidays, that’s how they learned the names. Today it’s different. We’ve lost the names so we look at nature without seeing it.

At the summer house I read Ryszard Kapucinski’s reportages from Africa. In one chapter he talks about the difficulty of describing and understanding the nature around him when he doesn’t know the real names of what he’s seeing. Without knowing the local name, how could he understand the essence of the tree he was sheltering underneath. It was a good book and it was a good holiday, but now I’m back in the studio next to the river, trying to remember the English names of some things and the Swedish names of others.

Hope or hate – the choice is ours

I’m sad and tired. Tired and sad. I’ve been writing about the Jo Cox tragedy for the last two days and the shocking murder of a person who seems to have touched so many lives is eating away at me. Many things have been written over the last few days. There is the personal tragedy, heart-breaking and raw. And then there are the many narratives and political opinions swirling around in the papers and on social media. At the heart of it, at first, there seems to be the random pointless tragedy of life. The bad timing, the wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time, the referral for treatment that took a bit too long, the person who forgot to look in the wing mirror, the raging mob taking things too far. Another narrative sits there as well, the vulnerable lone wolf, radicalised by fever-pitch hate and intolerance in the echo chambers of the web.

The closer I look the blurrier the picture becomes. There, at the heart of it, is also a darkness, a sinister and frightening current pulling us backward in time, erasing the lessons history should have taught us. What happens when a society fans the flames of xenophobia, fear and hate? The more intense these feelings become the harder they will try to find an outlet. At some point there will be an eruption. This kind of fear-mongering has been going on for a long time in a lot of different places. We might laugh at the demagogues on TV in the US, but the same kind of hateful politics exist a lot closer to home. We see it in all of the movements in Europe who suggest that one set of people are better than another and in groups who believe they have a monopoly on the truth.

This is a beast with many heads. There is not just one kind of hate and intolerance out there, each monster emboldens the one next to it, but the core is the same. Fear. Fear that turns into hate that turns into action.

Is this the kind of world we want to live in? Is this the type of society we want to build for ourselves? I pose this question to you because in the end the world we live in is created and shared by all of us. We are all a part of it. The person in their bedroom hiding from it is a part of it, as is the politician and the agitator with a million followers on Twitter. What we consume, how we talk about things with our friends, how we choose to or are able to educate ourselves, how we speak up for or mock others, it’s all apart of it.

We have a choice. We can take a step back from passionate, heartfelt conviction and embrace common sense. We can choose to listen to all kinds of opinions and thoughts, to attempt to bring our heads and not just to our hearts into political debates.

In my day job I write about current affairs. This means I spend a lot of time thinking about the way hate and intimidation has started to dominate our political discussions. I don’t see myself as a political animal or a polemicist. But enough is enough. We need to look at each other, to listen to each other, to see a human being and not a label or a stereotype. Then perhaps we can start having some sensible conversations about where we are and where we’re going.

Image by Oscar Keys/Unsplash.

Thoughts like elephants balancing on a pin

In my apartment block there is a girl who always sits outside her flat with her laptop. She has a desk set up on the balcony and that seems to be where she works. No matter how early I get up in the mornings she’s there. Today London is cold and she’s wrapped up in a jacket.

I’m a bit envious of this girl. In my head she gets up at six, does yoga and then meditates for a while. Then she drinks a green smoothie and starts writing her morning pages on the balcony. When she’s done she moves onto working on her next novel. Or perhaps she works on some big commission about that year she spent living in a small cottage on a remote Scottish island. Maybe she’s writing a gonzo piece about working as a cleaner in the City.

All of these things of course say more about me than they do about anyone else and writing them down feels a bit embarrassing. But there you go. I’m comparing myself to virtuous-writer-girl because my own daily routine has been a bit messy this year. I feel like I’m lagging behind and trying to catch up. My days have been shunted forward. If we commute into the new studio at rush hour we end up stuck in traffic so on many days we sleep in and leave at ten. Then we work late, because there is no point leaving at rush hour in the evening. We come back late and the cycle repeats itself. For a morning person this is frustrating. I imagine all the people I work with noticing my emails arriving later and later each morning and a big chorus tutting “well, she gets up late”. I know this is totally irrational.

We’re planning to make a final move south of the river, to find a house or an apartment somewhere nearer the new studio. This move will happen at some point in the coming months. Before then it’s difficult to settle on a routine. I used to think I liked change, but the move is making me nervous. It will be like moving to a new city. Further away from friends and places I know.

As I was running these things over in my head a few nights ago the silliness of it all struck me. I’ve been doing that thing again where everything becomes heavy. Events in the past and the future bubble up and turn into big mountains, casting large shadows over everything else. I start putting a lot of weight on certain things, like balancing elephants on the top of a pin. Life is supposed to be light. As I laid awake that night I realised all I had to do to make things easier was to change my perspective. There is no script to follow to the letter. Most of the time no one decision or thing will cast as long a shadow as I think. Wait and see, wait and see, is all I have to tell myself. I don’t have to be perfect.

I’m working from home today. When the sun hits my balcony I’m going to take my coffee outside, close my eyes and breathe.

Image by Lauren Mancke.

Settling in next to the river

I’m sorry it’s been a bit quiet here lately. The truth is I’ve been a bit unsettled, slightly more unsettled than I thought I would be, by all this change. I’m still trying to make sense of it all. Of moving and getting to know a new part of London. I’m trying to prepare myself for some of the other changes that are coming. But I’m still in-between. So I’m focusing on the details, the small things.

We’ve moved to the studio next to the river. When we arrive in the morning the banks along the Thames are muddy. In the afternoon the tide flows back and the waves lap at the flood barriers. The water is silty and a muted brown. There are three ducks, two mallards and a hen living somewhere near the studio. Every time I’ve walked down to the water they’ve been there. Sometimes they jump up on the platform further out where the London Port Authority’s boats dock. Sometimes one of the mallards chases the other one and nips at his tail feathers.

On the other side of the river big ships bring sugar to the Tate & Lyle factory. The current one is flying a Maltese flag. Gangly cranes swing over it and back again with the cargo. It’s a calm and peaceful dance. Planes take off from London City Airport behind the factory. The sound lags behind the plane. I notice them when they’re already on their way. When the tail has cleared the factory and the plane is climbing steeply toward the clouds.

I spend a lot of time scanning the water, hoping to one day spot a seal. I’ve been reading about wildlife returning to the Thames. Pods of dolphins have been seen further west and seals have been spotted near the skyscrapers in Canary Wharf. London is showing me its wild and industrial side.

It’s a over month since we moved to the new studio. I’m getting used to it. London twists and turns around me. Everything radiates from the places we call home, all the routes you know lead to the areas where you live and work. My center has been north and east. Slowly it is shifting to the south. London turns around me and I’m learning to see the city from a new perspective.

On March 3 we have to leave

On March 3 the developers will lock the doors and we have to leave. We found out on Saturday. The rubbish is already taking over the hallways – old chairs, shelves, books, tins of paint, plastic bags and various wooden sticks and metal bits. The people next door left this weekend. The building is quiet. The bathroom and the corridors already have that cold, slightly metallic scent of abandonment.

Soon there will be no more artist studios on Cremer Street. The developer called us an “eyesore on Hackney Road”. And perhaps he was right. This is a crumbling sixties warehouse with graffitied walls, dirty windows and family of stray cats. It doesn’t fit with the new wine bars or the brand new apartment blocks with their straight walls, small windows and box-like flats selling for £600,000.

Soon this asbestos roof will be torn open and the walls chewed to pieces by bulldozers. I’ve seen it happen to the old council blocks up the road. I watched as the front of one of the buildings came down and a bedroom or living room with bright green walls gaped out over Hoxton like in some disaster movie. That was once someone’s home. In a winter the old buildings were gone and it’s been a year since people started leaving plant pots on the balconies and bicycles outside the new apartments.

This was always going to happen to the studio building on Cremer Street. The pub with the English flags in the windows was turned into a wine bar. The boarded up one that used to stand on the corner was demolished before I came here, but is still there on Google Street View like a digital ghost. Small shops selling wholesale bags and shoes are being turned into cafes. The gay club has been shut down. The derelict Georgian terraces have been renovated and decorated to smug perfection. The old hospital is being turned into expensive apartments. The boards around the building site show photographs of the people that might one day live there. Pretty, shiny haired people hanging out on Brick Lane. Aspirational people.

I sometimes wonder if these people are the new Londoners. The politicians talk a lot about “aspirational hard working families”, although no one seems to know who or where these people can be found. London itself is aspirational. The tallest buildings are reaching for new heights, the house prices climbing upward with them. Whoever you are there will always be someone with more money than you, a car more expensive than yours and an apartment more expensively furnished than yours. In this city we’re often reminded that the ladder stretches far above us.

But this aspirational London is not the town I want to live in. I’d like to call this place transitional, always changing, always in motion. London has been burned down, bombed and demolished several times over the last 2000 years. It’s always being rebuilt, the old torn down to make way for the new. But like a magic trick, the city never changes. In the midst of all of this turmoil some buildings have managed to escape the bombs and the bulldozers. Cremer Street and Hackney Road will still be there when the studio is gone. The map will look the same. Some of these roads were built by the Romans.

When this building is gone the stray cats in the studio car park will move on to another spot where people will feed them. The people who move into the new apartments will go to the same cafe we go to for their coffees. The trains will rumble along the tracks on the bridge over Cremer Street. The huge psychedelic graffiti eye on one of the tower blocks further into Hoxton will keep looking out over it all. We will move our studio south of the river and everything changes and nothing changes at the same time.

***

But just so I remember there is a sticker next to the door that says “Do you wear enough black to be an artist?” I don’t know who put it there. Next to it is a stack of framed prints and screens and then the table which used to be used for screen-printing, but we now mainly use for eating lunches and packing web orders, although not at the same time. On the wall opposite is the fridge and the microwave that should have been cleaned four months ago.

There is a shelf with tea and mugs and the plum vodka Gerry’s brother and his wife gave us and I swigged out of the bottle, whilst sitting on the printing table, one day after we’d had some upsetting news (it’s very tasty, thank you!). There is a shelf on the floor full of water-based paint and spray cans. Underneath the table are stacks of vinyls and screens. Next to the table there are two large and solid plan chests.

Underneath the barred windows there is the Ikea sofa I accidentally broke when I bounced up and down on it after I heard that my book had been accepted by the publisher. Then there is our desk where Gerry and I face each other, it’s covered in papers, printers, random hard-drives and cables. We’ve scribbled messages on it. There is a sleeping fish that Gerry drew on a sticker and placed next to my laptop.

Behind him is the year planner from 2015 and a huge Wall Street print that was damaged when it fell in front of the door and we had to bash the frame in order to get into the studio. Next to him is the Ikea shelving system with clothes rails stacked precariously on top of it and stock hanging below. Then there is the corner crammed full of stock boxes, hiding all the stuff that’s been forgotten about and kept out of sight. Behind that there are paintings, not ours, they were left here by the previous occupant who uses the studio for storage. This is it. The studio. Soon it will be empty and all we will have left are these memories.