I’m waiting in a cafe in Bristol for someone because when they pull your beard, they mean it, and then they drown you in the scent of pine and you lose your hat, and you walk under a bridge passing a man with a top hat just as the anger of slaves is chilling you so much you’ve lit a fire while you walk to warm you. The people you walk alongside are telling you stories of the chattel markets and the fallen squats, just as the people you just walked alongside recounted stories of the river filled with blood, and it’s all spiraling hope and the earth falls beneath you because you remember this all.
Coherent? No. Let’s walk back, which is also walking forward, because time’s slipping about. You don’t tell time, the dead Marxist Jewish mystic reminds, but the moment, the now-time only. The rest is all memory, and very rarely your own.
How Wild We Once Were
You break your body to get into a plane. You have to compress your soul, pull in your limbs and will so that you might be herded with others into metal boxes torching jet fuel to propel you across an ocean.
A former lover wrote me from an airport just a few days before I began my own journey:
In the airport security line thinking about how wild we must have been when they needed turnstiles to keep us in place.
Now, of course, synthetic petro-fabric ribbon suspended taut betwixt short metal poles is enough to tell us where to go, demarcating the course of your passage into machines possessing the secret of radioactive vision. You doff your boots, empty your pockets of everything really important, all your identification and money, metal adornments bearing meaning and devices in which are contained your entire life’s work and means of communication.
You do this all to get through security, and you trust that you will get it all back when you are found not-guilty, without blemish, without sin. We have indeed become tame.
A few days before I left, I boarded a ferry across a sound of the Salish Sea bearing boxes and shipping materials, documents and envelopes and the remaining print copies of A Beautiful Resistance. I’d done all the distribution for the journal the last 6 months; a dear friend had agreed to take it over for me while I was gone– provided I brought all the materials to her.
I do not own a car; I do not drive. A lover helped me haul those things to a ferry terminal, both of us quite strong and accustomed to carrying immense weights, yet both particularly encumbered. It was impossible for me to carry it all onto the ferry, and so my lover–much more practical in such matters than I–secured a large luggage cart in the terminal for me.
I am standing in this moment in a memory. We are lined up to await the gate to open to board. Perhaps 40 of us, people milling nervously, thumbing their phones, staring out the glass onto the expanse of water we’ll cross. And then the gate is opened and can board, but there are so many of us–and I with a large flat cart ladened with books–that we cannot move very fast.
Some are trying to push forward faster, to get a better seat perhaps, or just be parted from the logjam of ferry passengers in this small entrance corridor. I feel their haste and I shake my head.
“We’re all going the same place. We’re not coming back. Rushing to our death won’t make it any faster.”
And then I’m shaking my head as I look at the boxes of books, all the things I thought would mean something, all the things I know I won’t get to keep.
“They’ll take it away, just like the last time,” I mutter to myself.
I jolted my head upright to pull out of the memory. Seattle people again, moderns, thumbing their phones, boarding a ferry.
I don’t know whose memory that was, but it was not mine. And I thought about that memory as I stood in line for security a few days later, leaving first Seattle, then Brooklyn.
How wild we must have once been before the turnstiles, the bodyscanners, the registrations, the boxcars, the prisons, the factories.
Agamben had said:
…In the camps, city and house became indistinguishable, and the possibility of differentiating between our biological body and our political body — between what is incommunicable and mute and what is communicable and sayable — was taken from us forever.
And I think we have now only memories, mostly not our own.
The Body, Enraged: Manchester, United Kingdom, May 11th
This photo is of Manchester. So is this:
But if I were to show you images which most felt like Manchester, then there are these:
And also (and I’ll explain), this one:
Manchester feels like the body, enraged.
Manchester feels like the the work of the body, enchained. Grand soaring facades of interminable brick walling off the human from the sky, expropriated labor, humans exhausting themselves like breed-stock upon each other, desire channeled into the production of the worker and the raising of the workhouses.
I arrived, stumbled out blinking into the morning of a different land. I was met there by my friend; he’d secured us both hotel rooms, a place to nap before exploring. He handed me a bottle of mineral water as I met him. We meet each other in airports in foreign lands, bearing liquids or their imminent availability, our gesture of Aquarian and working-class solidarity.
I slept a few hours. Fraught dreams. Voices of the land in languages my body understands but my mind fails to translate.
I woke, we walked, passing towering brick in which fern had found purchase. The streets smell of the resignation following failed uprisings, of sweat-soaked muscles in cramped mills. They are the scents I remembered walking with my friend, but they were not my memory.
As evening fell, my eyes followed the line of the rooftops where red-brown soil-brick fought with grey-blue gloam-light. Tired, I’d slip into memory of others staring at the same line. But tired, I could not easily slip out, nor hear what washed up along the shore where sky met city.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. I hand-washed my socks and a shirt in the hotel bathroom sink, hung the socks from the shower rail. I ironed the shirt to dry it.
I don’t iron. I haven’t ironed for at least 2 decades, but there was an iron in the room, and a board, and I was a woman pressing with hot metal the one nice shirt he had, hoping he wasn’t drinking away all the pay because we fucking need it and I was fucking tired of all my piecework going to keeping him fucking happy.
Not my memory again, but I felt it in my body, and it was maybe my memory after all, or one of which I consist, or one out of which I was composed.
And I saw a woman that night. I remember her. I wrote about her, here. I was with her blood draining into the stones of the street.
She died here. I remember her from before from later, time all folded in and I catching only a thread of it.
I poured out some beer for her, got drunk from the rest of the bottle and fucked a body that was my own in reflection, fucking it into reflection, feeling flesh as I’d forgotten flesh, growling at phantasms and revolutionaries who speak in memory of flesh.
Poplars, Poets, and Piece-Work: Manchester, May 12th
I slept maybe three hours that night. I’d napped three hours the day before, slept not a whit on the plane. Sitting next a biker American heathen ‘dude’ who was going to Norway to go to the ‘land of my people, man! You ever been? It’s real there, and I have some ancestors with money somewhere…” on a transatlantic flight means no sleep, just as dreams of dead and some waking feral thing in your body means no sleep.
We left our hotel; I waited with my friend as he awaited a train to Scotland. I saw him off, then tread into the center of the city to meet Lorna Smithers and Nina George.
Lorna is a poet, an awenydd. Neither of us remember when we first found out about each other, apparently. But there are so few people working up any mystic craft with Welsh gods that such meetings are inevitable.
She’s also the editor of the second issue of A Beautiful Resistance, called The Fire is Here. There’s a very long story that should be told sometime about the intersection between asking her to edit the second issue and Gwyn Ap Nudd. I’ll tell it sometime, I suspect, once I actually understand some other stuff.
She arrived with her friend Nina, whose essay and poem, “everything breathes the revolutionary spirit” is in the second issue. We laughed when we’d admitted we’d both consistently made the same mistake about the Haymarket revolutionary August Spies, calling him Albert [as in Albert Parsons, the better known amongst those Beltane martyrs].
The three of us talked for several hours about dead revolutionaries, Welsh gods, the transatlantic divide within polytheist strands of Paganism. It felt conspiratorial, heart warmingly convivial. Safe from the absurdities of self-important priests there in the diner at the top floor of an alt-punk market, not far from the library where Engels and Marx met, not far from the Peterloo massacre, and not too far from the shrines of ancient gods: how could words not have more revolutionary potential in such a place?
The land of the witch is also the body of the witch, shaped, adorned, scarred, wrought and unwrought, remembering, waiting.
We walked to the Cathedral of Manchester, just missing the library where Marx and Engels met and birthed their manifesto. St. Denis is one of the saints to whom it’s dedicated, a good one for a city too restrained. Recounting for them Denis’ [Dionysus via Gallic Latin) death ‘by druids’ along with his companion St, Eleuthereus [an epithet common to Dionysus, meaning ‘Liberator’] on the Mount of the Martyr (‘Montmartre’ in Paris), I remembered all the other times Dionysus the Liberator brings with him trains of bawdy, erotically feral revolutionary dead.
We parted, and I left the city centre for the first of a few rented rooms secured through that new economy site, AirBnb.
As you may know, I’ve elsewhere criticized the opportunistic mechanism of modern putting-out. Low wages and scarce resources has more than a few people renting out bits of themselves, doing piece-work for new-tech middlemen in order to survive. Those mediators (TaskRabbit, Postmates, AirBnb, Uber) are no different than the merchants who expropriated the labor of women in the cottage industry or the pimps who manage and exploit sex workers. History doesn’t repeat, but is full of repeating forms.
Particularly in San Francisco and Berlin, along with many neighbourhoods in other cities, people with more Capital are purchasing property specifically to rent it out piecemeal through AirBnb, accelerating gentrification and decreasing the stock of long term rentals. Generally, the criticism is directed at AirBnb as the cause of such upheaval and displacement.
This misses the point, of course. Capital always controls the property available to renters and always decides how much to dole out at rents lower than owners would prefer to derive from their properties. AirBnb is not a new exploitation, but rather just another more efficient form.
What AirBnb does do, however, is take profit from social exchange by offering market access and a bit of a protection racket. Years ago, I would sublet an entire apartment in Berlin directly from the renters or owners at quite fair prices (typically just enough to cover the rent for them during their absence). Subletting and taking in lodgers has always happened; companies like AirBnb interject themselves into the activity and become the primary means for that activity to occur.
With all that in mind, it was a bit of an awful decision to use the site for a few sublets for this trip, the first of which was in Manchester. The place I stayed was affable, a small room in a gay couple’s flat just south-east of the city center. To be hosted in the home of someone for whom you have no connection except a financial transaction is quite different from staying with friends, more awkward and distant. That being said, the place was pleasant, and disordered enough that I didn’t feel uncomfortable. Inexpensive (a hotel would have been four times the cost), with a door that closed and a bed in which I had my first real sleep after leaving the States.
Food is generally cheaper in England (even accounting for the exchange rate) than in the US; I bought enough curry, pakoras and naan to feed three people for about $9 (US) and walked to a nearby park full of Poplars. I’d forgotten to ask for a fork, so I sat on a bench eating curry with my fingers in the gloaming light, staring at the moon through the branches feeling very alive.
And for the first time since I left Seattle, I was very aware that I was far away from everything I know, a body in the fading light of a land that is not yet my body.
Previous Pilgrimage Journals:
Can You Tell Me How To Get? (Brooklyn: May 10th-12th)
Next: Shropshire, Bristol, Bath.