Tag Archives: Street Signs

From my archive: On being haunted in the city

I was thinking today of my friend Bukola, who left this world just over 20 years ago this month. It made me dig this piece out, which I wrote ten years later, which was published in the CUCR magazine Street Signs in Autumn 2008. The Paul here is Paul Hendrich, who died tragically young ten years ago, in January 2018.

It is at train stations that I am most often visited by ghosts. Yesterday, at Waterloo East, I saw my friend Paul pushing his daughter in a buggy. As he came nearer and his image clarified, I realised that of course it was not him – those sideburns, that orange shirt belonged to another man – and a wave of grief hits me, thinking of the friend I no longer have, but especially the father his daughter no longer has.

Less frequently now than before, but still with surprising regularity, I see Bukola at London Bridge station, a glimpse amongst the crowds boarding and alighting from the trains in and out of the city. Sometimes her hair is cropped short, sometimes bleached yellow, her smile a white dazzle amongst the blur of passengers.

Bukola was my close friend for four years, nearly fifteen years ago.

I find her present too in Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, a book she lent me which I have been unable to finish but still morbidly pick at from time to time. It reminds me of a grim few days when I struggled with it in the inauspicious environment of the surgical in-patients ward at King’s in Camberwell. The memory of my brief hospitalisation inevitably triggers the far grimmer memory of later visits to Bukola in the psychiatric wing in the tower of Guy’s in the final months of her life. The muted television. The nodding inmates endlessly sipping tea and repeatedly tapping barely smoked cigarettes in the ashtray. The lack of privacy these men and women had.

Bukola’s copy of the Trilogy has passages underlined and highlighted. I have no way of knowing if she emphasised them, or bought the book second hand, already notated. I find arcane significance, clues to her death, in these phrases and paragraphs: depressing images of urban anonymity, paranoid fantasies of being followed along city blocks, Manhattan’s cityscape as an illegible labyrinth.

The regularity with which Bukola comes to me at London Bridge, I think, has to do with the survivor’s guilt associated with suicide: perhaps if I’d acted differently, if I’d held out the hand of friendship more fulsomely, more unconditionally, she would have made different decisions. I think of Bukola, as Antonin Artaud described Van Gogh, as suicided by society.

Her imagination, her creativity, her energy burnt too brightly, too vividly, too intensely for this world. I have no doubt that the everyday drip-drip of racism was part of Bukola’s illness, the non-verbal geographies of suspicion and interdiction that black Londoners navigate; in her episodes, Bukola frequently experienced herself as a black dog.

Bukola, though, was passionately metropolitan. Unlike many other native Londoners, she did not take the pleasures of the city for granted, and she used to enjoy taking me and my friend Johnny – small-town provincials – through the estates of Nunhead where she had been brought up, or pointing out the obscure root vegetables in Peckham
Rye market, or teasing us for acting like bumpkins at Soho post-production parties she snuck us into.

I thought then I would never lose the wonder of the metropolis, the bedazzlement and sensory overload in the face of London’s hugeness and variousness, of the city sublime. But over the years I find myself cultivating what the sociologist Simmel called the blasé attitude, the shock-resistance techniques of the urbanite – the defence system Bukola never mastered. And with that blasé attitude comes a little less wonder.

Until she appears again from out of the throng at London Bridge.

 

 

Gidley, Ben (2008) “On being haunted in the city” Street Signs Autumn 2008, p.17


From the archive: Passages Through Dark Times

Been going through some of my old stuff, and found some stuff from the CUCR magazine Street Signs (archive online here). This is from page 18-19 of Volume 1, Issue 5, Spring 2003. The issue also has a lovely interview with Paul Gilroy about The Streets, Fran Tonkiss on “inner city values”, Michael Stone on Laurie Grove in New Cross, Les Back interviewing M Y Alam, Hiroki Ogasawara visiting Walter Benjamin’s grave, and a beautiful celebration of Flemming Røgilds.

The article below describes my first proper academic conference, in Leipzig, and reflects on the relationship between Jews and the left in the darkness of the 20th century, and how that darkness is remembered by historians and leaves its traces in urban space. Since I wrote it, some of the people in it have passed away, including Arnold Paucker in 2016 (age 95).

Memhardstrasse and Rosa Luxemburg Strasse

Passages Through Dark Times
Ben Gidley talks about Jewishness, Memory and Urban Space in East Germany

“You who will emerge from the flood in which we were drowned remember when you speak of our weaknesses the dark time from which you escaped…
Remember us with forbearance.”
–Bertolt Brecht “To Those Born After Us”

“Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and in their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and
shed over the time span that was given them on earth…”
–Hannah Arendt “Men in Dark Times” 

The transit bus from the airport into Leipzig arrived at the exact time given on the time-table. The bus glided through the flat monotony of the Saxon countryside, entering a zone of urban sprawl, in which it was impossible to distinguish which low-rise concrete box contained homes and which contained factories, warehouses, offices. The grey postindustrial landscape was punctuated here and there by Vietnamese signs, testimony to the historic links between East Germany and Communist Vietnam.

From the bus station, we crossed over the no-man’s land of a wide ring road (“good for tanks”, as my Yiddish teacher, Gennady Estraikh, pointed out – a fact he knew from the bitter experience of living most of his life in the Soviet Union) into the beauty of the baroque town centre. Since reunification, Leipzig has been a jewel in the East’s crown, receiving heavy regeneration investment. “Leipzig is coming” is the bizarre slogan of the tourist office, which describes it as a cosmopolitan, multicultural town (not something apparent from the faces of the people I passed on the street).

It was Autumn 2001. I was in Leipzig to participate in a conference, held at the Simon Dubnov Institute for Jewish History and Culture, entitled “Jewish Questions, Communist Answers”, about the historical relationship between Jews and Communist parties. I was anxious about giving my first proper conference paper – especially as I was scheduled into the opening slot, at 9 a.m., sharing a platform with some of the most distinguished scholars at the conference. As it turned out, post-September 11 fear of flying had kept away many of the American delegates, including the one I was most scared about sharing a session with. The absence of Americans, however, also meant that the dominant language shifted from English to German, leaving me feeling a little marginal – something non-English speakers regularly experience in the often American-centric academic world. As with many European academics, most of the conference participants were able to slide with ease between languages. But the multi-lingualism of the conference delegates was part of something different. Continue reading


With Arendt on 7/7: The left, social theory and terror

DissentI wrote this originally for the Centre for Urban and Community Research’s Street Signs magazine in September 2007. I re-wrote it for Dissent in September 2010. Dissent’s website migration means all the formatting has been lost, so I am re-posting it here, for the anniversary of 7/7.

When the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York happened, I was in my office in London, trying to finish a report that was overdue. A colleague came in to tell me what was happening. It seemed unreal; my first thought, of which I am now ashamed, was that this was a distraction I didn’t need. I went downstairs to the communal office where people were standing around the radio listening to events unfold on the BBC, then after a while returned to my office to try to finish off the report. It was only when I arrived home and started to watch the images on television that it began to feel more real. And then it began to feel painfully real when I spoke on the telephone to my mother—a New Yorker transplanted to Yorkshire.

Within hours of the attacks, I got an email from a friend describing them as “chickens coming home to roost” for American foreign policy, specifically U.S. sponsorship of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, as part of the final stages of the war on communism. In this sense, the phrase has a certain chilling accuracy. But the more general claim behind the phrase was the idea that America’s foreign policy would inevitably lead to “blowback,” to use another phrase that soon afterward appeared in an email from another friend—in other words, that the responsibility for the attacks was somehow America’s; responsibility and culpability shifted away from the terrorists themselves and onto a larger system. In the days and weeks after September 11, the “chickens coming home to roost” emails came thick and fast.

In July 2005, when my adopted hometown, London, was attacked, exactly the same pattern of responses followed. I received my first email from a friend with the words “chickens coming home to roost” within hours of the 7/7 bombs—while I was still waiting to get through to close friend who lives very near Tavistock Square and who I feared had been caught up in the rush hour atrocity. Now it was not American international policy in general, but the Iraq War specifically, and Britain’s involvement in it, that was the chicken that had come home to roost.

At the other end of the spectrum, of course, were those describing the bombers in terms of evil. The focus on the terrorists as evil, common in politicians’ speeches and newspaper editorials, removed the attacks from any kind of social or geopolitical context. It focused responsibility for the act squarely on the moral agency of the terrorists themselves.

These two responses—chickens coming home to roost on one side and pure evil on the other—demonstrate two opposite failures of thought, or, more precisely, failures of understanding. The claim that the attacks were evil was often accompanied by an insistence that seeking any explanation beyond the purity of evil was illegitimate and would somehow violate the sanctity of those who had been killed in the attacks. The concept of evil comes from moral—and more specifically religious—language, connoting the ineffable, the incomprehensible. To insist on this ineffability is to deny the possibility of rational analysis. The insistence on ineffability is a refusal to think about the attacks and shows a rush to judgment. In these statements, the attacks are a moral outrage, and to think about them, to try to understand their causes, is tantamount to excusing them.

For those whose drive is to analyze, particularly for those of us with a commitment to secular values, there is a basic reaction against the use of the concept of evil itself. Intellectuals, trained to refuse such moral categories, naturally reject this sort of rush to judgment. But there is no doubt that, if the word evil has any meaning, the indiscriminate mass murder of civilians—regardless of age, gender, race, religion, politics, or any other category—qualifies precisely as evil. To deny the evil status of the terrorist attacks is to deny the possibility of moral judgment.

The refusal of moral judgment typical of secular intellectuals does not, however, shy away from apportioning blame. The formula of “chickens coming home to roost” however, apportions blame not to evil individuals but rather to the underlying structures of global society. This has the effect, I believe, of removing the events from the agency of their perpetrators. The bombers cease to be protagonists but become pawns in some much larger game: global capitalism or Western imperialism. Such a refusal may be an intellectual strength, allowing us to reach for a deeper analysis than the politicians and newspaper editors, but it can be a moral failure, too. Continue reading