Category Archives: death

Slogan slogan slogan, shout shout shout

Workers at a protest, from The Battle of Chile, Dir Paricio Guzman, Venezuela /France/Cuba 1973-1979.

Workers at a protest, from The Battle of Chile, Dir Paricio Guzman, Venezuela /France/Cuba 1973-1979.

It’s all about shouting at the ICA today. Leandro Cardoso and Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre (who explains that “Uruguay is the only country in the world where god is spelled with a lower-case g”) present a workshop on Latin American political chants. After listening to unidentified recordings of protests and manifestations, we’re asked as a ‘listening exercise’ to think about what these sounds of demonstrations, speeches and streets clashes might be. The particpants (mostly students) reckons that some are ‘melodious’, others sound ‘tribal’, and one ventures to speculate on the number of amplification and recording devices that the voices have been filtered through to reach us. It turns out that all the recordings are from Chile in the three years running up to the CIA-back coup and murder of Allende (which Leandro pronounces almost as ‘Agenda’), some of them stripped and looped from the soundtrack to Patrico Guzman‘s Battle of Chile.

Our education over, we turn to practical exercises. We chant the word ‘freedom’ until it becomes meaningless to us (pretty quick, that) and then one participant is given Leandro’s mic and told to address and exhort us: we are told in turn to shout him down. Thirty people with their bare voices shouting down one man with an amplified voice is quite exhilarating, though I quickly feel the legacy of too many cigarettes: a street-corner orator I’ll never be.

We go on to follow the recordings and join in the chants: a la Plaza and trabajadores al poder! There’s something sublime about chanting together, even in the hallowed halls of art and isolated from politics. Leandro laughs at the students chanting about the workers and opines that though some talk about ‘re-enacting’ political events, we are not Chileans, and we are not in Chile thirty-five years ago, as if our worlds are incommensurable.

Meanwhile, outside Parliament, as MPs angrily debate their grocery receipts, Tamils protesting against the government genocide in Sri Lanka have broken the bounds of permitted protest. An email from an entity called CommunitySafe comes round to our desks:

A large number of Tamil protestors have spilled onto the road area surrounding Parliament Square, They have also advanced onto Westminster Bridge, this has brought traffic into the area to a total standstill. Please do not make any attempt to travel towards or through this area on either foot or by vehicle. Roads are likely to remain closed for some considerable time. Please refer to media outlets for updates.

Avoid Tamil protestors today. Maybe in thirty-five years time, we will be shouting Tamil slogans in the ICA galleries.

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Bombs, slums, and brightly-coloured balloons

Victoria/Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Bombay/Mumbai

Victoria/Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Bombay/Mumbai

It’s all the same for tourists and terrorists when it comes down to it: get downtown and do the sights. When Azam Amir Kasab and his fellow attackers arrived in Mumbai in November 2008, they could have been reading straight from the Rough Guide’s 24-hour essentials. First they took in the opulence of the Taj and the Oberoi, then the everyday hustle and bustle of Victoria Terminus before popping to slaughter the backpacker-Bombay-boho mix at Leopold’s Cafe. Truly, India is a Land of Contrasts. They even managed to blow up an ‘iconic’ Ambassador taxi, such is the literal iconoclasm of fundamentalists.

And then terrorism is swiftly recycled as tourism. The Taj maintains its grandeur even sealed behind a police cordon: a bored patrolman whistles his way along the covered arcade, while the red-carpeted steps are slowly swept. The half-deserted snack bar that looks out over VT’s station concourse has photos on the wall of the damage wreaked on its premises; select bullet-holes are still visible in the shuttered plate glass windows of Leopold’s on the Colaba Causeway. It’s hard to tell whether it’s historical preservation or everyday neglect, but if you get friendly with a waiter he might shift a picture on the wall to show you another bullethole, or gesture to the very spot where colleagues were murdered. It’s nearly as exciting as being asked to be in a Bollywood movie by one of the scouts that patrol the streets nearby.

Some battles are less obvious. Take ‘Mumbai’ vs ‘Bombay’. To a right-minded English person, the decolonisation of place names seems reasonable: re-establishing an indigenous geography warped by the British Empire. But then Bombay didn’t really exist before the Portuguese and British put it together: Surat was the trading port for this part of the Arabian sea. Mumbai is the Marathi way of saying Bombay: the definitive name-change was imposed on the city in 1995 by the right-wing Hinduist Shiv Sena government: ‘Mumbai’ also stands for an ethnic and religious exclusivism, and an antagonism towards North Indians and Muslims. The Sainiks are a nasty bunch all right, instigators of communal violence after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992, but they also represent the defeat of India’s communists in their own constituency, the working class. While Bombay is the city of the middle classes comfortable with an imperial multiculturalism in which they occupied an upper berth, Mumbai is the city of the working and lower classes.

Both VS Naipaul in India: A Million Mutinies Now and Suketu Mehta in his more focused work of equal scope, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, begin with a visit to the street operators of the Sena, exhibiting a curious fascination with the troops of an unfamiliar force in Indian politics. These days the BJP has stolen the Sena’s Hindutva thunder on the national stage, and Narendra Modi’s a demon to best the superannuated Bal Thackeray. Even a Gandhi is in on the act: Indira’s grandson Varun, a BJP candidate in the elections has been jailed under security and hatespeech legislation for an inflammatory speech threatening to ‘cut off the hand’ raised against the Hindu majority. The English-language Indian press, written in a code-laden register reminiscent of Variety, talks of him as the ‘poster-boy’ for the ‘saffron party’.

The Bombay action starts in the slums. If you want to, you can see for yourself. We go through the back of a sweetshop and up the stairs to where a business centre shares the first floor with tiny living quarters: a wrong turn takes you into a kitchen. Through the door of a tiny office a man turns off a fan so that we can climb stairs which are practically a ladder; at the top of the stairs is the door to a cupboard-sized office where a representative of Reality Tours takes our booking for a walk through  the Dharavi slum, the location and source of child actors for Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire.

The next day we meet our guide Ganesh at Churchgate station and take a forty-minute commuter train journey to Mahim Junction, where the slum begins, butted right up against the railway tracks, but clearly on the wrong side of them. Our view from the bridge above the station is a jumble of tin roofs stretching for miles. ‘Slum’ doesn’t do the place justice: an informal area of settlement for Gujarati potters and leather workers since the late nineteenth century, it houses nearly a million people. In contrast to downtown Colaba, where begging and street hassle are practised like theatre, during a two-hour tour of the entire area, not one person asks us for money.

What happens here is recycling. When you put your milk cartons and newspapers in a box outside your front door, you’re not ‘doing the recycling’. These people are doing the recycling, and it’s a dirty, disgusting, health-harming job. Rubbish from all over Mumbai is collected and brought here to be processed and then returned to the production cycle. The snaking plumes of smoke making their way up from the tin roofs come from waste paint burning off cans, so they can be beaten back into shape and reused. Aluminium is recycled in fires and moulded into ingots for use elsewhere. Ghee containers are cleaned in boiling water. Needless to say, no-one wears face masks or even gloves. Plastic of all sorts is thrown into noisily rattling chipping machines that shred it into tiny pieces; the pieces are boiled clean, dried and dyed, then melted and extruded into semi-rigid spaghetti which is finally chopped into tiny plastic beads which can be used as raw material in new plastic moulds. They also make the plastic chipping machines themselves in Dharavi. As we walk gingerly through the workshop in which they’re assembled, some of the machines, a lathe in particular, remind me of ones I once worked on.

Communal tensions ran higher in Dharavi after the riots of 1992-3; housing is now organised more along ethno-religious lines than it once was, and Muslim areas are festooned with crescent flags, but it’s far from a battleground. Ganesh proudly shows us a Muslim-owned factory where wooden Hindu shrines are made as an example of communal collaboration and co-operation. The wage of an industrial worker in Dharavi is between 100 and 150 rupees a day; monthly rent is about 1500. Where the factory areas have space between the hutments sufficient to stack and unload materials, the living areas are cramped and close together, the paths between buildings not much more than covered gutters where one person can just about pass another. Crowded rooms where families crouch and cook on the floor are visible through curtain doors. And somewhere in the middle of it all is a shop, clean and brightly-coloured packets of crisps and sweets hanging above the counter just like any other corner shop in India.

In commercial areas there are grocery shops, fresh produce, pharmacies, an ATM; even a cinema showing Slumdog in Tamil. NGOs have built and maintain schools: Reality Tours support one such venture with what they make from showing curious tourists this place. Since the 1990s, residency and building has been formalised to an extent: new construction requires consent by signature from neighbours. It’s not perfect: Ganesh shows us one towerblock where signatures were found forged. Construction was halted, but that didn’t stop people moving in to the half-finished building, barely any better than the shacks. For all that idiots like Brian Eno laud the ‘self-organising’ power of the informal market in slums, infrastructure and social justice remain crucial necessities.

Back in the city that the British built, the towers soar. The southern end of Bombay is a playground for ideas in Gothic decoration that make St Pancras look like the work of Mies van der Rohe. VT, or Victoria Terminus, is now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, renamed like so many things in Mumbai, for a seventeenth century Marathi warrior king and scourge of the Mughals (in the same way that Balkan anti-Muslim sentiment often refers back to the ‘Turkish Yoke’, Hindutva uses the Mughal Empire as the past oppressor of a rightfully Hindu India). The station seems strangely familiar before we even step into it: from Slumdog, from the news footage of the attacks, and from documentation of Patrick Keiller’s incredible multimedia recreation of the station in Lille.

Colaba is a bubble, a heritage vacuum in the heart of the country’s busiest city, but it’s not just for the tourists. Though our hotel’s street is lined with handicraft shops, expensive cars pull up at night outside the swish-looking nightclub. Two streets away they eat tasty seekh kebabs from the vehicles’ hoods, served up from the smoking Bademiya stand. Backpackers are far from cool here: they spoil the vibe for the real cool Mumbaikers. We get asked to move on as soon as we’ve finished eating at hip sisha rooftop hangout Koyla. Shops and hotels have a lot of visible security: mustachioed men in interchangeable police-like khaki uniforms, their cloth-patch badges with a standard-issue space for the firm’s name above the word ‘security’. At the Gateway to India, photographers hold bulky photo-printers under their arm to produce instant pictures of you at the landmark. Hawkers carry enormous brightly-coloured balloons nearly as large as they are, thwacking them suggestively as you pass.

And then, Bombay as a whole is back to front. The Gateway, another Indo-gothic arch built to welcome George V, but best remembered for heralding the last departing British troops from Indian soil, stands facing not the Arabian Sea and Europe, but the bay and mainland beyond. To reach the open sea you have to first sail round the hook of Colaba. What they call the ‘back bay’ in fact faces the sea. At the top, at the end of Marine Drive, the backwash has deposited the sandy stretch of Chowpatty, Bombay’s urban beach. The wind whips up the sand, and the entrance smells vaguely of sewage, but for twenty rupees you can hire a mat to sit on, and for another twenty eat a plate of delicious pani puri standing up at the Badshah puri stall. A tiny big wheel is powered by hand: the crew grab hold of the bars at the top and then hang on and swing down to the bottom before climbing back up on the shaky-looking apparatus. The toys are on the correct scale for the children thronging the beach and braving the sea: plastic baubles and windmills on sticks. As the sun goes down behind the wall of buildings along the Walkeshwar Road, we look for a cab and all too soon it will be time to go home.

Mausolea and migrants

Kensal Green angel

Kensal Green angel

For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.
G.K. Chesterton

Is it ghoulish to go looking for a fresh grave? On Sunday we wander through Kensal Green cemetery to see if we can find where Harold Pinter was buried on Tuesday, with only ‘in the heart of’ and ‘under a tree’ as clues. There can’t be many new burials at this time of year, and we think we find it. This is what a fresh grave looks like: bare clods of pale earth, the diggings boarded and tarped. No flowers, no marker, just a rectangle of disturbed ground. A headstone won’t appear for months. Not only does it take time to cut, compose and hammer, but the sod is uneasy too. The overturned earth must settle around the bones, and a lasting memorial needs steady soil.

The cold, cold earth is not the only place to go. Like Highgate, Kensal Green has its catacombs of coffins on shelves, beneath the central chapel with its impressive hydraulic catafalque. A triple-coffin is constructed for the occupant of each loculus: a wooden box for the body is fully sealed inside a lead coffin (a plumber usually deals with the metalwork) and then placed inside a larger, decorative coffin. There are thousands (though spaces remain) beneath the chapel where West Londoners also sheltered from German bombs during the war, but you can also get your own mini-mausoleum above the ground.

Kensal Green is the first and oldest of the magnificent seven municipal cemeteries created by act of Parliament in the mid-nineteenth century. There’s a continuity in the melancholy Victorian funerary art from the tumbledown headstones of Tower Hamlets to the proud and wacky Egyptiana of Highgate west, but the character of each cemetery comes from its setting and landscape. Nunhead has hills and views, Abney Park its legendary cruisers’ undergrowth, but Kensal Green is flat and open: from the top gate you can see across most of the plain that rises alongside the Harrow Road. Looking south and across the canal vast gasometers rise and fall in the distance behind the tombstones.

The seven were the solution to London’s early Victorian burial problem, the means by which city graveyards could be closed and sanitary order established. Vaster, more ambitious schemes were proposed, including a giant pyramidal catacomb atop Primrose Hill to house five million souls (the upper levels financed by the sale of the lower in an, er, pyramid-selling scheme), to which the seven were the sane and suburban alternative. But even they have their own lost pasts, their might-have-beens. The original designs for the chapel and entrances were high Victorian gothic, but the owners spurned them for (equally bombastic in their own way) classical columns and gates. Also proposed and never built was a southern water gate where barge-borne funeral processions could arrive along the canal which runs along the south side of the cemetery.

A municipal enterprise, the cemetery itself isn’t consecrated ground, and although the majority of the imagery feels Christian (crosses and angels) there’s also plenty of Victorian classical excess, and a bit more Egyptiana (while Greek and Roman columns serve Mammon and Thanatos with equal vigour, there’s something inherently creepy about animal-headed gods and mystical eyes that suits death rather better than life). There’s also a whole system of Victorian cemetery signifiers. The broken column symbolizes the head of a family lost; a lower broken column one cut off in his prime. There are even novelty headstones. Victorian adventure novelist Mayne Reid’s is equipped with a full set of Indiana Jones style adventure equipment. One grave has been decked out in full Christmas regalia. More warmingly, one flat headstone featureless except for a small stone frog is littered with an empty champagne bottle, candles, and a ‘world’s best mum’ mug.

To die somewhere you must live there first, and Kensal Green also pays a mute kind of tribute to West London’s fluctuating and migrant communities, as well as the great and the good. At the Western end of the cemetery, there’s a Catholic extension, and a small Orthodox section too (names jump out for odd reasons: a couple of Milosevices). There’s a small welter of Italian names, and among them the strange headstone of Italian anarchist Emidio Recchioni which bears his own image, reminds us that London also welcomes political communities in exile. The would-be assassin of Mussolini and associate of Emma Goldman opened a delicatessen in Soho named ‘King Bomba’ (not for anarchist explosives but for Sicilian King Ferdinand II, hammer of the 1848 Italian revolutionaries); he was the father of late Freedom editor Vernon Richards.

Other communities are less visible. Without a keen eye for dates and old-fashioned names, many West Indians buried in Kensal Green go unnoticed. A relief of a wind-blown palm tree on one headstone offers a clue to island origins; elsewhere, the modern fashion of embedding photos of the deceased in the memorial shows many black faces at the eastern end of the main avenue. The great photographer and documenter (gallery) of West London Charlie Phillips documented many black funerals at Kensal Green: somehow the black and white photos seem to emphasise the coldness of the ground in which people born under a warm Caribbean sun were buried. There are sadder stories still. Kelso Cochrane, victim of an early racist murder in Notting Hill is also buried here.

Jamaican connections go back further than the Windrush generation. Mary Seacole is buried in the Catholic section. Marcus Garvey spent the last five years of his life in London and was originally buried here in 1940; in 1964 he was disinterred and reburied in his homeland, in the National Heroes Park in Kingston, Jamaica. And as if to bring round a full Ethiopian circle, here too can be found the final resting place of Ras Andargachew Messai, son-in law of Haile Selassie.

So it goes. Add Harold to the list, and when we come in future years we will pay our respects here too, and tell other tales about nurses and poets, freedom fighters and playwrights. You could fill all London with the stories of those who lie here.

Death on the South Coast

Arthur found himself taking part in the drama of history: he was on duty with the British Army during the partition of India; he fought in the Korean war with the ANZACs; he was on the streets of Belfast when the Troubles started. After spell as a teacher, he came to Brighton to start a new life, and wrote about it years later in Deckhand, West Pier.

In my spare time in the QueenSpark Books office, I helped Arthur make a book of his short stories on a primitive Mac with a mere two megabytes of ram. The book was called How We Were and How We Are Now. I wrote a foreword in which I lauded Arthur’s vision of the past fifty years as a brave alternative to the pornography of the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the end of the second world war. It was all about the writing.

The last time I heard from Arthur, I was working at the BFI. He sent me a postcard with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward on it.

The drink did for Arthur in the end: they found him in his flat. At the crematorium we joined hands in a circle around his coffin and cheered. The tang of smoke was in the air, but we smelled burning again when we left the wake. Hurrying down to the sea we saw it was coming from the West Pier: a fire started the previous day had sprung to life again, at more or less the exact moment Arthur’s body was shunted into the flames.

 

I couldn’t really call Debo a close friend. I think we grated against each other, we weren’t the same kind of person. She was a poet, and I was an aspiring poet: she convened a weekly writing group under QueenSpark’s auspices called Club 94, which I went to when I was unemployed; she didn’t teach the group, but facilitated it: the atmosphere was serious without being unsupportive. It was all about the writing.

I have two small volumes of Debo’s work. One, Small Pitch, is hand-produced, typed on hand-dyed paper, stitched together into a tiny A6 chapbook. The other, Who Broke The Weather, is posthumous, professionally printed and bound. I think I like the first one better, though it always annoyed me the way that Debo omitted articles in her poems – I felt that language worked better with the natural bounce of language as it was spoken – but I did like the way that she put the titles, right-aligned, at the end of her poems, like punchlines and revelations all at once.

Debo once said that she’d met a man at a festival who used to be a poet, but had abandoned poetry altogether. She was an evangelist not only for her own work but for all poetry, and she’d tried to persuade him to start again, but even then I remember envying his status: ex-poet.

Debo was beaten to death by a man who then set fire to her house. She met him in a nightclub two stories below a flat I’d lived in four years previously.

 

I met Steven when I came back to Brighton after some time away. Jackie thought we’d have lots in common, and she was right: an intense but brief friendship blossomed. We were both unemployed, and had a lot of time to spend together, talking, thinking, walking around town. We were just getting into computers: Steven made montages, and for some reason, his clip-art assemblage of a business presentation littered with out-of-scale female figures labelled ‘Little ladies on the table, see’ is still one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. But words were the thing: we worked for QueenSpark, planned a literature zine called Dust (which never happened), swapped ideas. It was all about the writing.

It bothers me slightly that I can’t quite recall how we fell out in the end. I think Steven said something that really did offend me, pushed it too far, but that was my problem rather than his. I heard of him, and I was jealous when he published a novel.

Everyone has a favourite story about Steven’s hilariously warped sense of humour, and this is mine, even though I wasn’t there: when he worked at American Express with Nathan, he discovered how to use the network’s messaging system to make messages pop up directly onto people’s screens. Attempting to send a message to Nathan, he got the address wrong, and the message ‘You are gay’ popped up on an unsuspecting and unrelated woman’s screen. She was, of course, upset, and Steven got in trouble, but he kept his job.

Steven killed himself, in Birmingham. But his ashes were committed to the sea in Brighton, by the West Pier, now a stark scaffold of rust and burnt struts.