Saturday, 10 December 2011

Secret shelves

"Yes I'd love to come to the meeting...but...I'd be at a loose end in town for three hours". Not a prospect I relished at this time of year. Not only have I never really grasped the concept of shopping as a form of entertainment, but one of the three hours would fall in that awkward lull you get in every British city between the shops closing and the "evening economy" firing up. Two of the hours would be after dark, and all three would be cold. And windy. Then I remembered a conversation from earlier in the day:

"There's a library round the back of the_"
"Really?? Open to the public?"
"Yes. Until quite late. It's the City Archives. Anyone can go in"

I left my investigations til after dark. The building's less than a hundred yards from the nearest shops, after all. But you have to know where you're going: there's no light. There are lawns (black), gravel paths (audible), a couple of small car-parks (tenebrous) and, so I'm reliably informed, a legion of legless Roman soldiers marching silently through a basement off to the left somewhere. I feel distinctly under-dressed: my coat should be longer, my hair blacker and my face paler. I walk past a tramp who's looking through some large commercial bins, and then through a gateway in some iron railings ("CCTV in operation") into a velvet-black garden. The tramp decides that lost-looking people are more interesting than bins, and comes over: though he talks with some difficulty, he's obviously "in" on this Archive lark.

He tells me the velvet garden's infradig and if I'm looking for the library the door's just round there. I nearly walk in through a brightly-lit window: the door's right next to it, in complete darkness. It looks like the sort of door that usually has a sign on it saying "Do Not Use This Door". But it's unlocked.

Inside it's wine-chiller cool. There are huge heaters, in theory, but the heat simply soaks into the mediaeval walls never to be heard of again. The staff at the reception desk take time to explain what I can find here, but it all just goes in one ear and out the other as I marvel at how such a place can carry on existing just a hundred yards from shops that are desperate to sell anything to avoid going under with the high rents.

The huge tomes in the first room I investigate, are records from parishes all over the country. I spend some time looking for any of the (many) places with which I have any connection, but draw a blank and start to look for some science. What I find there, quite by chance, are some real eye-openers. J.S. Haldane pondering the social and ethical dilemmas that are (or at least, should be) still alive in science today. A fascinating account of the perils of how the then-new (late 30s) chemically-assisted agriculture renders soil weak and sterile, which wouldn't have looked out of place in this month's Permaculture Magazine. Who knows, if I'd been able to carry on looking, I might even have come across Farmers of Forty Centuries, (celebrating its centenary this year) in which the soil is named as the "staying power" behind China's achievement as the only ancient superpower still extant in modern times.

But it was throwing-out time at the Archives, and anyway I had a meeting to go to.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Sacred space

For some reason, I only noticed the Facebook post the night before it was all due to start. I hadn't really been following any local news about the "biggest strike in a generation": how can you go on strike when you haven't got a job? But it was November, people would be standing outside from before dawn on the picket-lines, and the local wing of UK Uncut were organising a run of hot drinks and snacks. I signed up to help. What better way for someone unemployed to go "on strike" than by getting up at 6:15 and going to work?

The morning was still, dark and quiet. I passed two sets of pickets on the way into town: one at the Police station and one, of all places, at the Barracks. Who would police the day's march and rally? And what would the local regiment of Ghurkhas look like out on strike?

The venue for the tea-making had been described as a "Church Hall" but I pushed open a large arched door to find myself in the nave of what appeared to be a fully functioning church, complete with altar, crucifixes and the beginnings of a congregation. There were even hymn numbers on a board on the wall. But there was a bike-trailer parked in the middle of the room: this must be the right place. I recognised the Pastor: he had made a brilliant speech at a rally in the summer comparing wealth inequality to the suffering in a flood. It had moved me to tears. Now he is letting us use his church as HQ. There's a map spread out on the altar with all the locations of the pickets. They hadn't known about the barracks.

The kitchen was up some steps beyond the altar: thus, all the worshippers would have unwittingly been addressing their devotions to the Place of Food. And we're not talking just tea and biscuits here: we're making bacon butties, veggie sausages, and I got the plate-warmer up and running so that they could go out hot to the front lines. Someone had even brought a thermal picnic bag. Pickets had been briefed: they could phone and ask for food any time between 8:00 and 10:00 am. I stuffed bacon and sausages that someone else had fried, into buns which I then wrapped and counted into bags. Bikes and cars took them all over the city in the early morning sunshine: I hadn't realised how many government outposts there were here.

"Six bacon butties and two veggie sausages!!" A journalist from London came to the door and asked if our effort was being appreciated on the picket-lines but nobody had heard him and that was the first answer he got. We gave our stories. The strike, the backup and the public support were covered as a New Social Phenomenon the following day.

And no wonder: the breathing-space at the end of a working life, just like the one at the end of the working week, is part of life's pattern. You might try and remove it temporarily in times of war, but expecting 68-year-old dusties to lift our heavy boxes of bottles, or 68-year-old police to chase burglars, just because somebody in a bank isn't very good at risk assessment, is a poor show. Especially when, as in the Pastor's metaphorical flood, the people at the bottom go under, while those at the top lose nothing at all.