Barony Colliery, the Barnie Pit, the coal mine my father (and his father) worked in has long since been closed down. Ever active in the imagination.
Talking about digging, I just had the urge, following the horrors in Paris last week, to re-post the story I wrote in response to the bombings in London ten years ago.
In memory of Jean Charles de Menezes
On the way to Willesden
When my alarm goes off, I am so startled for a moment I don’t remember where I am. Through the window I see a weak sun struggling to break through a clump of orangey cloud above the city rooftops. To me, the default state of the sky is clear blue. I vaguely clock the cloud as a blemish, something somehow slightly morally wrong. Something that somebody forgot to clean. Or could not clean. I wonder about this feeling, make a mental note to try to work out what it means, and I fall asleep again. When I wake up for the second time, I’m late for work.
9.33. I come out of my flat in Scotia road. Nova Scotia. A metastasis of Scotland. Britain is Great, but the Kingdom could hardly be called United. None of the other countries in it likes England. The English are full of themselves. But London is different. London is not England. London belongs to the world. Everybody loves London, the red double-decker buses, the Hackney cabs, and the black&white chequered police. The Paki shops conveniently open round the clock.
There’s a buzz here. I suppose you could say there’s a buzz in all cities. But the London buzz has nothing to prove; it just is. When I first arrived here, even though I don’t really like cities, I much prefer living in the countryside, I got a high from it. The traffic, the crowd. The scene in the pubs. The clubs. The restaurants. Now I’m used to it, I fit in better. I’m moving at the same speed as everyone else.
When I hit the pavement like this in the morning, it’s there, in the air, the acrid tang of London-ness, pinstripe suits and bowler hats. I slide into the movement, everybody hurrying, first thing in the morning, everybody determined to get to work as fast as possible. But not really rushing. There’s no aggressive feel to it. It’s all very tame.
Things do get tense at times. I’ve felt that tension. At Nottinghill carnival once, I left my friends and wandered along a street with different bands playing different types of music, it was weird, like changing worlds, and I got this strange feeling, walking past, it hit me, there was a patch with electricity in the air, it felt really violent, the vibes were really heavy. It didn’t feel much like a carnival to me, more like a kind of war going on in the music. When I got home I switched on the telly and there had been a murder, right in that spot.
I’m nearing Brixton tube station when I realise the tube is not running. I like the area around Brixton tube. The market, the lane. I like the kind of villagey atmosphere. I speak to my boss on the mobile. I have to go and fix a fire alarm. I’ll take a bus to Stockwell then the tube from there. Lucky I have a transport pass. You can jump on any bus or tube. I’ve never been to Willesden before. There’s a first time for everything.
It never fails, every time I get on a bus I go upstairs and I get a real kick out of it, it’s like going sight-seeing. You forget you're going to work and you see your surroundings a bit like in a film. I like the atmosphere on the buses. The people are busy, pre-occupied, but not hostile. Tolerant. There’s a tolerance about London you don’t feel in other cities. Probably to do with the eccentric side of the British character. Punks. Or maybe I’m imagining it. Maybe I’m not being objective. Anyway, the atmosphere changes when there’s a strike on. That’s such a hassle. Normally people here leave each other plenty of space, but when everyone is packed in like sardines there’s no privacy. And then the bomb scares. They really fuck everything up for everybody. Those explosions last week, that was terrible. I wanted to buy a motorbike and avoid public transport altogether. What kind of warped minds would target people in double-decker buses? People trying to get to work, people at work, the labouring classes, they’re just as oppressed as anybody else, you would have to be out of your mind to think they were responsible for the state of the world, we’re all having enough trouble coping with the state of our lives, it’s hard enough when the buses are running on time.
Wreaking havoc for no good reason, or maybe they think they have good reason, but the target is totally wrong. It doesn’t affect the people who make the decisions. They don’t use public transport for Christ’s sake. I can’t fathom their reasoning. They must be pretty desperate, that’s for sure, but what makes them think they can have any effect on anything by blowing people up and spreading terror at the bottom of the heap? It only serves to spread misery, and there’s too much of it around in the world already. Maybe they think that anyone who lives in a country that has built its wealth on oppression is fair game. But all governments are corrupt. Power corrupts. The more you have the more you want.
You would think that the experience of the twin towers would have put an end to this useless, random violence. They hit the jackpot, hit the big time, they had their fifteen minutes fame. Everyone was shocked, for days every television screen in the world showed the aircraft banging into office windows, the billowing smoke, the buildings crumbling, repeated ad nauseum. But it backfired on them. When I first saw that footage I said to myself ok, they’ve made their point, now people will take them seriously and try to find out why they did this. What is the message they are trying to get across. But the images were alternated with Bush’s speeches about ‘look how evil these people are’. All that planning and all that successful death and destruction to be simply labelled “evil”.
I imagine an ideal world in which somebody would have said, right, let’s sit down and try to work out what we did to provoke such monstrous hostility so that it doesn’t happen again. Instead, they completely ignored any possibility of causality and proceeded to use the whole episode as an excuse to steal more oil. Where will it ever end, this spiral of violence, the whole system is so sick, what is there to believe in anymore? The rich and powerful don’t even bother to hide their corruption, there’s no need to, in a world where theft is universally admired and the greater the spoils the greater the admiration it arouses. People step down from executive positions because they have made losses for a company, throwing people out of work to preserve the interests of the stakeholders, in return for golden parachutes worth hundreds of years of a minimum wage billions of people have no way of procuring. My parent’s generation believed they could make things better for their kids, and they did, but what are we going to tell our kids? Sorry, junior, the planet is stuffed with radioactive nuclear waste we didn’t know what to do with so we’re counting on you to be smarter than us and work it out.
The pulse, the beat. London has a beat of its own. The music is exciting. Brazilian music comes from deep in the body. The emotional being. Love me. Love this moment. The London beat is more from the head. The body follows the head instead of the head following the body. I’m not saying it’s more intellectual – some bands are pretty basic, but there’s a kind of denial – ‘I don’t have a body’ - I could be reading too much into it – Brazilian music is soothing to the soul, but maybe that’s because I am Brazilian - London music is stimulating, it seems to cry out a kind of uncomfortable fact that won’t go away, and yet is difficult to express. Maybe it’s the weather. The weather is important here. Londoners all talk about the weather non-stop, they live in hope of an improvement, of a clear sky, and yet the country is situated slap bang in the middle of a cloud belt. It can’t get better. That’s the impression I get, that they’re all optimistically hoping for an improvement that is not coming.
There’s something about bad weather that keeps you active though. The music here is probably a symptom of that. A wake-up call. Let’s roll our sleeves up and muck in. There’s no temptation to lie in a hammock when the temperature is barely tolerable. But I’m surely reading too much into it. Cut off from nature. There are no wild animals here. No dangerous spaces like the rain forest in Brazil. The jungle. The snakes. They don’t even have mosquitoes here, really. But they can make fun of it all, they can laugh at themselves, and at their situation. That’s what I like about Britain, the sense of humour, their most dangerous snake is Monty Python.
So I’m going to fix a fire alarm. I jump off the bus and go into the tube station. The air changes again. Stale air. Stale underground air. Smells slightly like a mine. Minas Gerais. I pick up a free newspaper to read on the tube. I like these free newspapers. You have to be careful with money. Everything’s so expensive in a city. My dream is to be able to leave here in a couple of years, go back home and get myself a place in the country, near my family. Get married and have kids. With the money I earn here I would be rich at home, I could live really well, help the family. But it isn’t that simple. Most of my wages go on rent and utility bills, then I go out for a drink, clothes, films. There is not much left to send back home.
I stick my pass in the slot. Here we go through, can’t help feeling a bit like cattle being herded. I don’t mind the metal mechanicalness of it, I’m young and agile, and you just go with the flow. But how would I cope when I’m old and frail? Anyway, I won’t be here. I don’t intend to stay here forever. One day, when I have enough money saved, I’ll go back home. Buy a farm, settle down. Maybe later on I’ll bring my kids here, show them Big Ben, the National Gallery, Nelson’s Column, Buckingham Palace, the works. I’ll take them upstairs on a double-decker bus.
Down the escalator. Lucky I’m not claustrophobic. I’m sure there are people who feel uneasy on these steep escalators, taking you down, down, relentlessly down ever deeper into the ever-staler air. That’s one thing I won’t miss about London. The stale air in the underground.
Hey! My luck’s in! There’s a train at the platform. I break into a run and jump in. And my luck’s in again, I’m quite tired, I stayed out late last night, and here’s a vacant seat just waiting for me. Happiness is sometimes just a tiny detail like that, the train waiting for you, with a vacant seat, you have your newspaper to read, a job to go to; yes, sometimes that’s – what’s happ-