Someone told me that Athens is the place where your usual coping strategies reach their limits, and I don’t know if that’s true but 2020 might have been the year that our dreams withered away in the face of sheer chaos. Lulu Miller writes in her book Why Fish Don’t Exist that chaos inevitably makes a mockery of human ambition: “Chaos will rot your plants and kill your dog and rust your bike. It will decay your most precious memories, topple your favorite cities, wreck any sanctuary you can ever build. It’s not if, it’s when. Chaos is the only sure thing in this world.” And weren’t we just reminded of that this year, the year of trying to recalibrate our relationships with one another, stuck in place, two parts pensive to one part fearful, the year that we eyed each other more suspicously that before, turned away from each other in the street while at the same time feeding each other across cities, reaching out on the phone, at once alone and together, at a distance. Humans are not the centre of the universe, we’re but a speck on a rock, shuffling across the earth like so many ants, pretending that we’re kings hurtling across the face of a planet in a metal tube with wings, digging up oil as we dig our own grave. Here at year’s end the air smells of End times, and it’s making me think of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History:
His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Benjamin is lamenting of the destructiveness of progressivist narratives: liberalism, capitalism, development, even Marxist teleological progress. When we’re too busy looking into the future at growth forecasts, quarterly projections, 5 year plans and that next holiday, the house on the park, we’re blinded to the pile of rubbish we’ve thrown behind us, and the ever dehumanising modes of organising our economic and social relations. Too busy eyeing the rising house prices to realise that we’re on a sinking ship, clinging to an ever so fragile glass mast.
Today’s theme of music to listen to at work is: the apocalypse. I feel like I’ve been on the edge of apocalypse all year, from the hallucinogenic sunshine-bleached Spring with it’s abandoned shops screaming about a new season’s line that would be thrown out before anyone was allowed back in to buy it and the the silenced car-free capital cities across the world, I woke up in Easton to the sound of birdsong. Now Britain’s been afflicted with mutant covid and we’re banned from Europe, learning the hard way the lessened value of our new ‘blue’ passports, and there’s talk of food shortages not for the first time on these rainiest of isles. I listen to Atmosphere as I take KFC to Barton Hill in the December rain: “this was the year he fell to pieces, and this was the year that more people than he ever knew existed scrambled to put him back together again.” They say that every generation thinks it lives in end times. In the 1960s there was the threat of nuclear annihilation, racial tensions and social unrest, in the 1970s Britain’s IMF bailout, the three day week, blackouts, rubbish piling up in the streets, the 1980s and the Battle of Orgreave, Greenham Common, Chernobyl and Hillsborough, and the end of society, the 1990s and collapse of state power in the Third World, famine and genocide, the Millenium bug, al-Qaida. Our generation has grappled with the twin fears of ISIS and extremist violence on the one hand and environmental collapse on the other. To end this decade with a series of plagues and the looming grim spectacle of a no-deal Brexit seems fitting. I snap back into focus as I crash into a kerb leaving Avonmeads towards the feeder. I look at the closed Showcase cinema and the St Phillips Causeway and the December light’s long since died although there’s a hint of orange over Clifton’s hills in West and the thing that resembles chicken in my backpack was probably fed with soy grown in the deforested Amazon, the smouldering burnt lung of our planet. I’m sure I can hear summer’s cries of ‘I can’t breathe’ drifting over the Netham Park as I round the corner into a cul-de-sac and hand over the cooling chicken wings.
I talk to my housemate about her food deliveries. She’s not sweating for a corporate vulture like I am, she’s delivering food packages to the poor and vulnerable across Bristol for Base and Roses, the East Bristol mutual aid network set up from Base Community Centre during the first lockdown. The UN is feeding British children for the first time ever due to corona-induced food poverty, and it’s fallen on the head of a footballer to be the government’s moral compass, reminding the Eton toffs that govern us that there are children going hungry in one of the world’s richest countries. Meanwhile the chummy ballsacks that pretend to govern this country hand out multi-million pound contracts to their friends for services they have approximately no experience delivering. Thanks to the so called ‘fast lane’ for government contracts we have Dido Harding who presided over one of this country’s worst ever data breaches as boss of Talk Talk at a cost to the company of £77 million, and was previously given a Baroness-hood by David Cameron for her services to the Conservative Party, in charge of the country’s test and trace scheme which, quelle surprise, is barely functional, Matt Hancock’s mate from the aptly named Cock Inn down the road in his constituency given a £30 million contract for medical supplies to the NHS despite having no experience in this field, and £425 million-worth of contracts to provide free school meals to handed to Edenred, a company which even the government knew was not ready to provide such services. And I’m cycling a box of sushi from the city centre to Clifton, a lasagne from Wapping Wharf to Electricity House, rent circa £1,500 a month, a curry to Stoke Bishop and meanwhile children in England are starving.
This was the year we fell to pieces and I don’t know if we’re even scrambling to put ourselves together again. I think of Kae Tempest’s words: “We wake up in the end-times, curled up in the wreckage, saying life’s going to happen, whether you dismiss it or expect it.” We’ll wake up curled in the wreckage ordering a pizza from our phones moaning when it’s five minutes late not noticing that the world is burning down around us. The lorries are piling up in Dover and the drivers might have to spend Christmas at Manston Airfield, a site that might have been making Israeli drones if it wasn’t for local protests. Instead it’s a no-deal Brexit mutant covid contingency lorry park. Welcome to 21st century Britain, please wait here in line while we arrange an outsourced food box delivery from Serco, although you might have starved by the time it gets to you. India has shut it’s border to us at last and I can’t help thinking of Franz Fanon and the ghost of Patrice Lumumba: ‘and the last shall be first and the first last’. This is the land of empty fresh produce shelves, starving children and one of the highest death rates from covid in the world. Well, at least we’ve got back control, shame we can’t eat our own sovereignty. No more lemons for Brexit islanders, though we’ll be consoled by the Queen’s speech on demand through smart talk-boxes we buy off an American multibillionaire. Sounds fair to me.
In the first lockdown I read Ece Temelkuran’s guide to populism for the West, and she says that hope is a fragile thing that might get lost in the wind but that we need steely determination to help us through. We’ll wake up on New Year’s Day and swim in the cold cold sea and remember that we’re alive and will stay alive for as long as we’ve got, Brexit, plagues on our houses, lemon shortages or otherwise.