From counter-cultural Paris to proletarian London
Dublin, May 1995. With my exams finished, I was dead set on seeing the world beyond the industrialised West. But one problem stood in my way: I had no money. Ireland's economic depression was well into its third decade. Unemployment had remained persistently high at around 15% for as long as I could remember. The only thing that prevented it from climbing higher was emigration – between 50,000 and 80,000 people were leaving the country each year. Without connections, it was almost impossible for a young person to find a job and, even for the lucky few, with no minimum wage legislation, pay was a fraction of what could be earned overseas.
My plan was to spend a few months working in Europe to earn enough money for a trip to somewhere, anywhere, in the third world. The first part was no great adventure. I had spent the previous two Summers in North America working to finance my college studies and migrant labouring was a cultural norm for Irish people.
Together with an old school friend, Phil Morris, I travelled to Paris to once again stay with Simon. I hoped to further explore the European anarchist counter-culture in my time off from work. This proved to be wishful thinking – there were very few opportunities in France for young people, fewer still for foreigners and virtually none for those who were less than fluent French speakers. What's more, squat parties and job hunting made poor bed-fellows. After a few weeks of futility, we retreated North across the English Channel to London, a city full of gainfully employed Irish immigrant workers.
Another old friend, Johnny Daly, was working there. We tracked him down to a basic two bedroomed flat in a wretched corner of Hackney, under the looming shadow of the ugly concrete tower blocks of Hackney Downs. He was sharing the flat with 3 or 4 others. Although it was already crowded, they agreed to take us in and split the rent. Several of the occupants worked night-shifts so beds were shared in shifts. In economically marginal immigrant communities, hospitality and mutual aid is a powerful force that is necessary for survival. As a rule of thumb, anybody who shows up in need of a place to stay and has even the vaguest connection to an occupant will be taken in. In most cases, there are mutual benefits to such practices, as rent is shared, but not always - over the course of the few months that I stayed in London, the cast of occupants of the house changed several times as new economic refugees arrived and others left for pastures greener. Some of the arrivals were destitute but were still housed and fed.
One afternoon, a guy showed up on our doorstep. A couple of us had vaguely known him when we were teenagers, but he had drifted away over the years. He had become a high-rolling drug-dealer complete with flashy clothes, girls and cars and we had apparently fallen beneath his glamour threshold. However, on this occasion, he presented an altogether sorrier sight. He had been stung by an operation involving some rival drug-dealers and police and had ended up losing his entire stockpile of drugs and tens of thousands of dollars in cash. His supplier had shown up at his family's house the next morning with guns and death-threats looking for their money. He had heard about this on his way home and had immediately fled the country with only the clothes that he was wearing and had somehow managed to make his way to our door.
Despite the fact that we were less than impressed by the turn he had taken, there was never a question of turning him away. He spent the next couple of months in our sitting room - London was full of Irish immigrants and he was afraid of being recognised and assassinated, so he wouldn't leave the appartment. We found an old half-broken tiny black and white television to keep him amused and gave him whatever spare bits of food we could afford and a few t-shirts and old track-suits to wear. His pale, skeletal figure slouched on the sofa, watching Wimbledon on the tv is what I remember most clearly when I think of that Summer in London. It made for an especially piteous sight as the 'thunk' sounds of rackets hitting balls was the only clue that he was watching a tennis match - the picture showed nothing but a couple of muddy grey blurs moving around the screen while the ball was rarely discernible.
The immigrant solidarity network also extended to work - within a few days both myself and Phil had secured employment as security guards at First Security, where Johnny was employed. I called them from a payphone in a busy tube station and was immediately offered the job, despite the fact that they could barely make out what I was saying over the background noise. My induction and training amounted to a brief visit to their offices to pick up my uniform (the cost of which was docked from my first pay cheque). I learned that their management appeared to have been recruited from ex British Army officers and they weren’t particularly fond of Irish people, or 'paddies' as they wittily called us.
Officer Paddy McChekov
The next 3 months were spent working 12 hour shifts, 7 days on, 3 days off. I was mainly based in a shopping centre in Walthamstow village, a small and tatty commercial centre set amid an endless sea of grey housing estates on the edge of London. My main duty was to prevent members of the public from wheeling bicycles through the centre. When they weren’t using their battery of CCTV cameras to detect surreptitious cyclists or ogle women’s breasts, my controllers would scrutinise my demeanour as I walked up and down through the centre, barking orders over my walkie-talkie for me to stop slouching or to take my hands out of my pockets. It was very fulfilling.
My days off turned out to be mostly hypothetical as the company was frequently short of night staff for some of their contracts. Many of these jobs were located in “the city”, London’s financial district, and involved 7pm to 7am shifts guarding empty office buildings. The IRA were in the middle of a bombing campaign against the city and the lobby areas of these buildings tended to have huge glass-fronted facades, making them death traps in the event of an explosion anywhere in the vicinity. Hence these were not exactly attractive assignments, but the ex-army officers probably enjoyed allocating them to Irish staff, and I needed the money.
Although the life of a low-paid security guard in a big city like London has nothing to recommend it, I found the experience valuable. My co-workers were a varied bunch with backgrounds from beyond my normal social world and the mindlessly boring routine of patrolling shopping centres and offices gave us plenty of opportunities to chat. I learned that one of my colleagues, a Ghanaian immigrant, was both a qualified lawyer and a card-carrying member of the communist party. Another was a local man who had always wanted to be a policeman but had been refused due to a criminal conviction for leading a mob-attack on a local youth hostel in a search of German people to lynch in the immediate aftermath of England’s loss to West Germany in the 1990 world cup. I liked him and went out with his friends on a couple of occasions.
When one looks at the world from the standpoint of a poorly paid security guard in a city like London, the fundamental unfairness of the economic system looks crystal clear. My colleagues were no more or less obviously smart or capable than any other group of people that one might come across. They worked longer hours in more unpleasant circumstances than most. Yet their prospects were non-existent. The pay was only sufficient for survival and the routine was so exhausting that there was little hope of developing escape routes. Nevertheless, almost everybody tried – night courses and so on were somehow sustained and Lotto numbers were a frequent subject of conversation. Up until this point, I had often teased Lotto players for their lack of understanding of probability - in this case, that argument did not apply - the odds may have been several million to one, but that was better than their zero percent alternative.
Meanwhile, they were treated with contempt by management: moved here and there like chattel, given impossible work-burdens, disciplined in humiliating ways for minor infractions. I particularly recall an ex-NCO publicly explaining to me - "paddy" - what a computer was in baby-speak and the impotent rage that this produced in me. I had been programming since I was 10 and was intimately acquainted with the fine details of processor architectures, yet I knew that, if I had corrected him, I risked being victimised in retaliation for causing him embarrassment. There is little less pleasant than having an idiot talk down to you and not being able to talk back because you are at his economic mercy. Still, it was easy enough for me to suck it up, I was just passing through. For many people this is an everyday and never-ending experience.
Counter-cultural politics and the proles
It was instinctively obvious to me that the model of political action that I had been introduced to in the anarchist-influenced counter-culture was useless in this domain. Most of my colleagues had families and no financial safety net. Had I advocated dropping out and becoming squatters, it would only have had the effect of making them see me as crazy. Nonetheless, my new-found political fire was still burning brightly. When I talked politics, as I frequently did, I stuck to advocating the basic socialist ideas of economic exploitation and the importance of collective action.
I did seek to make personal contact with anarchists in London, however, but it was not easy. I came across a squat in the Camden area, but, in the absence of any contacts to introduce me, there was no obvious way in which I could gain access to their world and I wasn't in a position to attend squat parties or social centre events, so I gave up. I made do with a couple of trips into the city centre to seek out radical books. This was not easy because London is a big place and the small advertisements in the yellow pages and newspapers were all I had to go on. I eventually found a radical book section in Compendium books in Camden and bought the one that looked most promising – it was thick and expensive and obviously professionally produced by a mainstream publisher. It was called “Anarchy, State and Utopia” and its author was Robert Nozick – a professor at Harvard University.
I was dismayed to discover that it contained nothing remotely similar to what Chomsky had been talking about. It was a purely abstract work, starting from a Lockean ‘state of nature’, consisting of a group of rational, self-interested, sociopathic individuals. From this premise, the author logically deduced the emergence of a minimal state which protected private property but rejected all other functions as tyrannical. The bulk of the work consisted of a lengthy argument regarding the injustice of wealth redistribution through taxation.
Oh brother, why do things have to be so complicated?
One, two, many anarchisms
This anarchism that I was interested in was turning out to be much more difficult to understand than I had imagined. Under the term, thusfar, I had found the following:
- A political idea advocated by Noam Chomsky, which can be more or less be simplified as “socialism plus anti-authoritarianism”
- A historical labour movement which had peaked in Spain in the 1930’s that was based on federalised democracy and a communist ideal.
- A modern counter-cultural movement which focused on creating non-hierarchical autonomous spaces in which to develop alternatives to normative mainstream culture.
- A logical-deductive argument from modern academic political philosophy which focused on justifying private property and the tyrannical nature of wealth redistribution.
As the Summer progressed, the savings of both myself and Phil steadily grew and our attention turned to further afield. By the middle of August, we had put aside about £1000 each. We still had no good idea of where we would go. It is worth remembering that this was before the era of the useful-web and before the era of mass cheap air transport. That made a big difference - we really had very little to go on as we knew nobody who had ever made a similar trip. All we knew was that we had a budget and that the third world was probably cheap, so the key factor was going to be the price of the flight. The cheaper we could find a flight, the sooner we could quit our jobs.
We went through the small ads at the back of the Sunday newspapers to find bargains and eventually we found what looked like the perfect deal - a charter flight to Delhi and back for £324! We reasoned that India was a great choice - it had been part of the British empire, meaning people would speak at least some English and we knew that hippies had been traveling out there since the 1960's so it was at least possible to get by without much money. Furthermore, there were backpacker guidebooks available. We duly called the number from the newspaper and called into an office - which in retrospect was suspiciously unlike a normal airline office - in some out of the way corner of London to pay our money and get our tickets. The operator was Tajik Air, a name which meant nothing to us, but we were novices when it came to travel anyway. 6 weeks in India awaited us!
We arrived to Heathrow airport on a bright Saturday morning in late August, with a spring in our steps. Not only were our miserable jobs behind us, but I had managed to quit in spectacularly satisfactory fashion by unleashing a hail of expletives upon one of my less pleasant commanding officers while tearing up all of his precious paperwork. With an idiotic grin on my face, I strode boldly into the airport and straight into the most catastrophic and stressful week of my life.
That will be the subject of my next installment