Riot Grrl

Right at the end of my living in London stint I started working at Pogo Café in Hackney. I also found myself in the middle of a riot.

One of the maddogs I used to work with

It was high summer and there was no teaching work for five weeks. I had considered getting a bar job but I couldn’t bring myself to work for six quid an hour – that is not why I went to uni for four years. Anyway, I went to Pogo one night to watch a screening of Noise and Resistance and starting yarning with one of the girls who worked there. It was an all-vegan anarchist co-op – completely volunteer-run, and all profits went to paying the bills and to helping various charities. Pogo would reimburse the workers for travel to and from work, and we were also allowed a free main meal while we were on shift. I explained that I would be moving back to Australia in a month but that I could work three or four days shifts per week up until then. I do realise that I went from refusing to work a bar job because the pay was beneath me to volunteering my services for free, but…it was probably one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I really loved working there.

Senorita Ana

Everyone I worked with was amazing in their own way, and we were all there because we wanted to be, not because we had to. I worked with people from all kinds of backgrounds. One thing we all had in common was the café and the ethics and political lifestyle implications that came from that. All of us were vegetarians of varying degrees, mostly vegan. We all supported organic farming and fair trade. We were all part of various alternative subcultures and our lifestyle choices were not compatible with the dominant society. We were all misfits and outcasts in some way, some more obviously than others. We were homo-, hetero-, bi-, a- and trans- kinds of sexual. We were old and young and everything in between. Some of us rented, others lived in co-ops, a few squatted and a couple were homeless. Some used Pogo as their sole means of working and getting a free meal every day, while others just worked out of leisure. We all used it as a social hub.

Foraging in Hackney yields sweet returns

Some of the people I worked with in that last month showed me some of the best times out of the whole time I lived in London. The time Ana from Spain and I went bike-riding through Hackney, found hidden farmland and picked buckets full of wild blackberries, then sat in a field of horses, got blazed and munged out, and talked about human circuses, punk rock and literature. The time Seba from Poland and I sat at Pogo for two hours after it closed and showed each other up in the thrash stakes on Youtube. The day I first worked with the beautiful Eva from Italy and she allowed me the privilege of watching her make mouth-watering, healthful and colourful salads out of our garden, flowers and all. The day that Jozsef from Russia Hungary and I made ten different kinds of scrumptious vegan desserts and taste tested them all. The day that Joel from Byron Bay first came into the café wearing the exact same Dangers jumper as I, and we sat and trouted about hardcore all morning. The day that Summer from LA told me she was a writer, and we read to each other bits and pieces of things we’d written over the years whilst listening to Rodriguez and Neil Young. The time Paul from Dublin introduced me to some low-down and dirty rocknroll from his hometown in the style of the Cramps. All these times were very special to me – bonding with strangers from all over the world about the things that matter the most in my life. I was sad to leave but grateful to have been a part of it. It’s something that I would like to start up here eventually, once I get tired of the academic rat race. A not-for-profit, organic vegan café that doubles as an art and music space, run by a community of like-minded and eclectic individuals that could make it greater than the sum of its parts. One day…one day…

Beauteous Hackney farmland

Anyway, you would have heard something about the England Riots of 2011. What started out as a legitimate angered response to police brutality and lies regarding the shooting of Mark Duggan turned ugly when the cops bashed a young girl in Tottenham on the Saturday night. This of course set the community raging even more so – police stations were picketed all over most of the poorer areas of London – Tottenham, Brixton, Hackney and Croydon amongst others – and full-on riots began that Sunday night and carried over for close to a week in different parts of the country. It started in these areas in London, and the High Streets were set ablaze and looters took advantage of the chaos. What could have turned into a righteous response to ongoing problem of police power tripping quickly turned scummy, and people lost their lives trying to protect the streets, their families and themselves. I witnessed the scumminess, and also the strength, of some of these people firsthand as I went into Pogo on that Monday afternoon. Here is an excerpt from my journal that evening:

<beginning of entry>

Monday, 8th of August, 2011

I just found myself in a pretty fucking intense situation. I went to go and watch a movie at Pogo; I left home early because I wanted to chill and have a feed at the café beforehand. There was a report that Hackney Central station was closed because of the riots yesterday, as was Brixton tube, so I took a train from Tulse Hill to St Pancras, then a tube from King’s Cross to Highbury and Islington, and then the overground towards Homerton, where I was going to get off and walk, but the train ended up stopping at Hackney Central anyway. That was a fucking mission!

As soon as I got out of the station shit was weird. Riot cops had shut off the ramp and directed us down the stairs towards Amherst Road. Across the road, there were about thirty people gathered in the square – some masked or scarfed over, but most brave-faced. Something was being anticipated. You could see it in the way everyone was shuffling their feet, hands in pockets or clutching drink bottles, eyes flicking in a 360° vista, placing themselves in relation to everyone else. Always feeling safer amongst my own and wary of the real bad guys, I stood amongst this crew and looked to the right, toward the ramp of the station. Four riot cops stood, blocking the way of the nobodies trying (yet) to get through.

I took my headphones out – I realised I would need to be catlike and alert to be safe – and that’s when I noticed the unholy noise of drone and doom from the sky. I usually love that shit but hearing it live and not at a gig is fucking unsettling. I counted four black choppers in my direct vicinity and a few more scattered further away and hovering in and out of sight. This shit was serious.

Well, no way was I going to get onto Mare Road where I usually walked to the café. As I walked north along Amherst Road to go the long way towards Dalston Lane, I could see through the alleyways on my right that Mare Road was blocked off – the cops clearly anticipated that rioters would be looting the shit out of those swanky High Street stores. Thing is, for all of their armour and batons and weapons, I could see even at this early stage that the cops were outnumbered at least four to one and this isn’t even the intense part yet. I kept walking along the strangely silent street, overdubbed with the sound of the blades spinning overhead. I got to Kenmure Road which is a side access to Mare Road and walked up to one of the cops blocking the way in.

“Hey mate, I need to get to Clarence Street,” I said.

“Where’s that?” he asked.

“Well usually I walk straight up here and past the estate, up that street.”

“Well that’s all blocked off, you’re best to walk up and around and then you’d have to go through the estate, but I would advise against walking through there by yourself.”

“Are you talking about Pembury Annex on the corner? Like, don’t go through there?” I asked, not sure of what he was telling me to do.

“Yeah. Stay away from the estate.”

“Why’s that? No, don’t worry. I know exactly why. I’ll sort something out.”

“Righto,” he said.

“Racist cunt,” I thought. “You think I’m one of you and so you’re trying to point out false boogeymen in the places where the brown and poor live. Well, I am brown and poor, and the only people on this earth that scare me in situations like this are white men in uniforms.”

I walked back down the way, debating whether to walk up to Homerton and jump on a train home, or just go around the long way to Pogo. “Fuck it, I’ve come all this way, may as well have a go.” As I kept walking I noticed a tall young man fall into step beside me.

“Hello, are you going through Pembury?” he asked in a heavy Eastern European accent.

“Yeah, are you?”

“Yes, I have to meet my friends up the road. I can walk with you if you like.”

“Yeah thanks. What’s your name?”

“Mikael.”

“I’m ‘Dot’. Where are you from?”

As we got yarning, I learnt that this young man was from Romania, and had just lost his job at a construction company. He’d been living in London for nine months, in Hackney, and wasn’t educated past Year 10, making it really hard for him to get work.

“How old are you?” he asked, peering sideways into my face.

“Too old for you love!” I joked.

“No, you’re only about twenty-one or twenty-two,” he argued.

“Actually I’m nearly twenty-seven mate,” I laughed.

“Oh! Oh okay. You look like a kid still. How old do you think I am?”

“I don’t know. I don’t like these games.”

“Just guess.”

I turned and smiled at him. “Sixteen?”

“No, of course not,” he puffed, his manly pride clearly hurt, “I’m twenty-three.”

“Still too young darlin’.”

After a minute or so he asked me: “What makes you feel crazy?”

Unsure of what he meant, I asked him to elaborate. He wanted to know the things that made my blood heat up, that made my toes tingle, that gave me butterflies, that made me smile secretly. He wasn’t being smutty, and this was one of those interesting conversations that punctuates the mostly banal exchanges I have come to expect from strangers in London. No shit, I have been told too many times to count that I was the most interesting person that some people had ever met, and it made me sad because there are millions more interesting than me out there. This is what I crave – chaos, unfamiliarity, that which creates friction and so, growth. I am glad that I gave that young man the time of day. Anyway, back to the conversation.

“This,” I said, “this is what gives me butterflies – connections, warmth, belonging. Throwing a net out in the vast and overpopulated ocean, not to catch a multitude but just one or two special, rare and willing finds.” Not sure he wouldn’t take that as encouragement, I added to distract him, but no less honestly: “When I talk to and when I think about the person that I love, I feel a thousand times happier than I did before.”

“Mmm. This is a nice answer. I like it. Would you like to have a drink with me later?”

“No, I don’t drink.”

“What about a coffee then?”

“Look, I don’t want to give you the wrong idea about me. I’m not interested in anything romantic.”

“That’s okay, I understand. Somebody is very lucky to have your heart,” he said sweetly.

I smiled, and thanked him, and wondered how accurate that statement really was.

We turned the corner and stopped, taking in the sight of burning bins on the rubbish strewn northern end of Clarence Road; hundreds of people, mostly masked and hooded, gathered around, sporadically visible through the black smoke of burning plastic and rubber, which moved through the air around us in zigzags, pushed this way and that by the helicopters chopping into the ether just above us. Mikael suddenly put his arm across my chest and pushed me back as something flew past us and glass smashed on the wall next to my face.

“Holy shit! Thankyou! There’s no way I’m going into work tonight.” I stared all around me. Mikael grabbed my hand and offered to walk me through.

“No, I think I’ll just go home. Thankyou anyway, and good luck!”

“So I can’t see you again?”

“Look, I think not. I’m moving back to Australia soon. But please, stay sweet. Its very refreshing.”

We hugged, then I smiled at him and walked away past a young woman and man putting out a council bin fire and moving it off the road. An older man was heckling them. The young woman had enough, stood up and looked him in the eye.

“You know what Uncle? My mum and baby brother need to drive home very soon. We live here, this is our street. So I’ll just clean up your mess Uncle, and you respect my family in turn.” Chastised, he let them be and wandered into the crowd, muttering to himself. I hope that strong young girl’s family got home safe and sound.

I wanted to walk north through the park of Hackney Downs, but was loathe to pull out my work smartphone in the middle of this, to check out my direction, which lines were down, and the best way to get back south without putting myself in any dangerous situations.

There was a pub nearby, and I went in to the toilet and pulled the phone out to check where the closest open station was. Satisfied with my orienteering skills, I went out into the bar for a few minutes. The pub was packed, all patrons with pints in their hands, staring at the news on the flatscreen. They were watching news of the riots in Hackney, when they could well have just looked outside for a flesh and blood update.

“Fuck this flatscreen culture,” I thought. “Hyperreality sucks everyone in.”

I walked through the community orchard, and the apocalyptic doomsday atmosphere got under my skin. There were random packs of other humans, and I was a lone wolf, a female, and very fucking thankful that I dress like a teenage boy in times like this. I pulled my hood over my face and my scarf up where my beard would be if I’d had a Y chromosome. I wasn’t hassled the whole way home – I kept to myself and stayed alert.

I caught a train from Rectory Road to Seven Sisters, and then into Camden Town. I treated myself to a nice dinner at Inspiral Café, and sat and wrote and people-watched. I caught a few more trains to get back, sticking to the peripheries of the city itself, giving wide berth to the hotspots. It was a long and winding road home, going around the tedious way, narrowly avoiding some crazy shop fires and opportunistic looting in the centre of Brixton, but I eventually got home safe and sound. I’m glad I didn’t get caught up in anything gnarlier!

London’s burning?! Camden Lock, Monday night of the riots.

<end of entry>

The next day I spoke to some of the Pogo crew. They had locked the café and watched the rioting from inside. Some of the photos they took were pretty full on. There was a car upended in front of the shop and set alight. It gave off so much heat that the front window of the shop cracked! A few shops down the street were looted and destroyed. We started up a fund straightaway to help our neighbours. It was rad to see everybody lending a hand.

Delicious Pogo food

Anyway, that was my experience of arson, stealth and romance in the London Riots of August 2011. Namaste.

Defender Of The Faith,  20.11.12

Writing About Art Is Like Talking About Music (which is apparently like dancing about architecture)

I have drawing on the brain

A few months ago, I enrolled in an art course called Acrylics for Beginners. I had really wanted to do an oil painting course because I have never used them before, but alas! the oils course wasn’t running that semester. I thought, “Fuck it; I’ll just start here.” I am no beginner of acrylics, having used them extensively throughout high school and sporadically beyond, and I have had my work exhibited – but it has been a while. For the last few years, I’ve been moving around a lot to different towns, different states and even different countries. If I wasn’t half-arsed about painting before I began my wanderings, my nomadic existence became the most convenient creative cop-out. Money-wise, it just wasn’t feasible to buy new materials wherever I hung up my hat, and it has always been highly impractical to bring it all with.

However, I was never willing to break up with art completely. So instead of painting, I started drawing. It is much easier to create art with whatever is at hand – scrap paper, pens and pencils – than to set up paints and canvas, brushes, water and drop sheets whenever one gets motivated, because there is no time for the inspiration to be diluted. Drawing is truly a portable art form. I have drawn at the beach, in the bush, in the mountains and in cities; antisocially at peoples’ houses and at cafes; in buses, cars and trains, on trams, ferries and planes; on my way to and fro gigs; in work breaks; when I had nothing better to do and especially when I had ‘more important’ things to do. It’s even been a cheeky little icebreaker at times.

In the beginning, I never thought of myself as a good drawer (whatever that means). In fact, I had the idea that I could be a decent painter, but because I never had the time/space/money to get stuck into it I would never fulfil my potential. This is because it is practise, and not proclivity, that makes perfect. In hindsight, I would say that I’ve always had wonderful – wondrous! – ideas, but travelling was the perfect excuse to not even try to execute them. Drawing, however, became my foil. The ideas that I have can be quickly and basically outlined by pen or by pencil, and it is far less heartbreaking to screw up on scrap paper than it is to fuck up a pristine canvas. Yes, canvases can be painted over, but not without a prequel of guilty hesitation. Paper can be ripped up and recycle-binned without remorse.

And, may I say? That while I was apparently wasting my ideas on pissy little doodles, I accidently got pretty good at it. And by good, I don’t mean that I can draw objects realistically from memory or even by looking at the object and copying every detail. I can’t. Anyway, that’s what photography is for (which is what I started telling myself as a balm for my frustrated ego with such failed lofty goals). By good, I mean that I became proficient in manifesting on paper the pictures that swim around blindly in the deep dark grottos of my mind. Quite by accident, I discovered how much I love lines and shapes, negative space and suggestion, patterns and repetition, anomalies and deviations. Each drawing is an artistic fugue, with every line adding a more interesting layer and building the picture up, variation by miniscule adaptation. Straight up drawing, without worrying about materials and the ritual of setting up and planning and packing up and cleaning, for me, is true psychedelic art. Etymologically, the word psychedelic means “mind-manifesting” and so it goes with me – the pictures in my psyche are quickly projected onto paper. Whilst my drawings are a long way from photorealism, they do turn out exactly the way I want them to. There’s a giddy kind of freedom in that for perfectionist cunts like me.

I still surprise myself. I will start off with an idea; something that I’ve previously glimpsed and then gestated in my verdant imagination, that suddenly expresses itself in a dream or a vision or some other altered state. I’ll feverishly put down the lines and the shapes that suggest the image that I hold in my head, and I just keep at it until I’m smug and satisfied. Sometimes it turns out approximately the way I’ve visualised it, but more often than not it grows into a better version that I never could have imagined. I’m always amazed with the product:

I did that? Fuck off!” The astonishment is not with the level of shit that swarms my headspace; more so the fact that the execution always fits. It’s a fucking grand old feeling.

And while I’ve grown to love my drawings, I’ve felt for some time that some important thing has been missing. I’ve secretly been yearning for something to bring this up to some next-level shit. I live and breathe beautiful colours and textures; anybody who has seen even a tenth of my dressups can attest to this. Coloured pencils just don’t cut it. They’re too soft or too streaky or too unpredictable in their texture. And while texta is pretty decent compared with pencils, there’s no subtle blending allowed. It’s all solid blocks or nothing, which is comparable to art fascism. That’s fine sometimes, but the shit that comes out of my imagination is too intensely layered to be represented in colours that are just this or only that. In-betweens and fade-outs and subtleties and fierce vibrant rainbows are more fitting embellishments for my style.  My forays into colour thus far have been tentative and cowardly at best. Some things I am happy enough with, but most I feel could have been achieved more beautifully in a richer, more pliable medium…such as oils! And here, in my roundabout way, I have come full circle.

I moved to this city six months ago with the intention of staying at least a year – an intention I have not had for a few years now. I moved out of my ghetto beach shack in early 2010, and I’ve moved residences a lot since then. I slothed on Mum’s couch for a bit, then I moved out bush, then back to the beach and on friends’ couches for a few weeks, then I lived in hostels in London, a huge share house in Brixton, back to the coast and on Mum’s couch again, then briefly at my Auntie’s house in the west, and here I am in [insert city name here] – a set of keys, suitcases unpacked, a real-enough bed, and a door that closes on my own room. The gypsy lifestyle was awesome while it lasted (and I must confess I still yearn for the open sky, where my roots are firmly planted) but it is nice to have a place that I know I’ll be at for longer than a few months. Here we go! Did I just accidently take you on another revolution? I hope you’re not too dizzy by now, and you have my utmost gratitude for staying with me on this literary merry-go-round.

I decided to start painting again – seriously this time. But a few weeks and then months went by and I hadn’t yet made room in my busy life to splash around in paints. One day I walked past my local art supplier and picked up a brochure for art classes, and the Oils for Beginners course caught my glittering eye. After enquiring within as the text requested, I learnt that the oils class would not be running that semester. So, I had two choices: I could wait nine weeks or start a different course straightaway. And so, I chose the acrylics course, knowing full well that I otherwise wouldn’t put brush to palette in that two-month interim. The class was on one evening per week for two and a half hours per session. At the time I started writing this, I had just finished my final class and although it wasn’t anything revelatory, I was actually painting again on a regular basis! The exercises were basic tasks: playing with tones, shades, lines and composition; mixing colours and using different mediums; and interpreting masterpieces, still life, landscapes and painting from photographs. It was a decent socialising date too. There were some lovely characters in my class and at the end of my solitary research days it’s nice to have a yarn and interact with flesh and blood for a while. Most importantly though, it was a time and space in which I had done what I had wanted to do for such a long time. I work well within the boundaries of vague routines; ‘a time for everything, and everything in its time’. And, regardless of the exercises that I would not have attempted if left to my own devices, it was fucking nice to just put some colour down again – to defile holy white canvii with maniacal brush strokes.

Now I have the background trout out of the way, I am going to get to the point of this. This is a story about wishful thinking and blessed synchronicity and good things coming to those who wait work and happily ever afters.

A few Sundays after my last art class, I was down at my local markets buying my weekly food the way it should be bought – direct from the farmer, fresh, organic, in the open air and with the lonesome sounds of a proficient blues slide guitarist soulfully licking my eardrums.

(Fuck supermarkets. Fuck fluorescent lighting; fuck crowds of unhealthy and stressed-out drones; fuck 90% of the ‘food’ being wrapped in plastic for ‘freshness’; fuck the other 10% of unwrapped food coming from interstate or overseas, grown from clones, watered with chemicals and sprayed with pesticides to preserve its already subpar colour, texture, flavour and nutritional value. Fuck government subsidies for farmers who pollute the earth, fuck the cheapness of this ill-gotten produce that shuts down small businesses and drives the price of real food up, and fuck the middle-men who profit at the expense of the farmers without doing any real work. Fuck the Coles-Woolworths duopoly. But I digress.)

I actually look forward to my food shopping; the whole experience soothes my soul and the feeling is refreshed momentarily throughout the week whenever I bite into a crunchy and juicy apple, and when I create gourmet feasts from my happily purchased and lovingly grown organic produce.

It was within this mellow high that I accidently wandered into the art gallery at the markets and was warmed to my very cockles to see an entire room adorned with the beauteous art of some Eastern Arrente women. What a fantastic surprise! May I advise the uninitiated that this art is magick, pure and sweet. Not only do the designs look gorgeous, they also tell the most important stories that only symbols can describe – those of eternal and creation and dissolution, breaking and healing, living and dying, ad infinitum, played out simultaneously in the past, the present and the future; known to many as Dreaming stories. It is almost impossible to describe, but the canvas shimmies and shimmers right before your eyes. Two-dimensional planes come alive and create depth in your perception, thus forming the holy trinity of our known three dimensions. I highly recommend appreciating such art for yourself in person. Try not to be enchanted in the physical presence of such art, I dare you. Small-scale images on the internet flatten and render the music silent, so the Divine Matrix just won’t cut it this time I’m afraid.

I circled the room, drinking in the magic of these works. Each and every one mesmerised me, and it’s a memory that I will carry in my eyes forever. It was in this heightened state of stokedness that I mused to myself, “I would love for my art to decorate public spaces, and for people to stop and to get lost therein.” That desire sparkled within me for a while and then danced away into the ether, and I made my way home soon after.

Later that afternoon, I went to my favourite café in the universe for a late lunch. I noticed that they had painted the previously garish acid-pink walls a crisp and soothing white, and this pleased me. I felt less harried there, and I enjoyed my ramen at leisure. Whilst digesting, I took out my sketchbook and I got working on a design that I’d been fucking around with. Soon the bubbly manager approached me. We had a little yarn, then she asked to look at my work and I obliged. She asked if I was “an artist”. I said, “yes, in a way”, because I still find it supremely difficult to define what I am and describe it to others in minimal words (have you noticed?). She told me that they had painted the café white because they wanted a mural to decorate that space. They wanted a big cherry blossom tree painted upon those virginal walls. Then, she asked if I would be interested in making this happen. Oh!

I skipped home and sketched. Trees are my forte, and tree is the metaphorical meaning of two of my mother- and grandmother-given names. They are an absolute pleasure for me to draw. My Dharug ancestors grew and lived and died under the ancient darani (ghost gums) on the banks of the Deerubban (Hawkesbury River). My Lebanese ancestors grew and lived and died beneath the strong and fragrant cedars of Lebanon. They were tree people, all of them, and therefore I am too. I dream of them more often than not. They are spiritual guardians for me; the shapes and the colours and the textures and the scents make me feel balanced and whole. One day I will live in a tree house, and when I ride the lightning on my final trip out of this dimension, my body will be sung back into a tree where it belongs. But in the meantime, I drew some sketches and wrote a geeky little introduction letter to go with, and dropped it into the owner that week. He told me he was impressed and we discussed timeframes and materials and rates of pay and other unimportant niceties. And so, I was casually commissioned to create my interpretation of a thick and gnarled tree in cool dark browns that burst forth sprays of pale pink cherry blossoms from their fingertips in airy clouds like fairy floss. I started my sample paintings a few weeks ago. The first brush stroke was drawgasmic, and every day the tree grows in these preliminaries, branch by branch, as my psychedelic design comes more alive. There has not yet been any further talk about the whens and wherefores of the painting, but even if this mural doesn’t blossom on the wall of that café, the seeds of self-belief have germinated and taken root in my mind.

Make of this what you will, dear reader. Think of it as the law hypothesis conjecture of attraction if that is your proclivity. I personally cannot do the karma/fate/‘meant to be’ angle because in my understanding of my life there are no straight lines to just desserts; just baby steps in a marathon, monumental journey. All such fantastic coincidences have more layers of meaning than such a limited explanation will allow. But this is not a rant on spiritual lore (or is it?). If anything, it is just my writerly worship of things that are impossible to delineate in words, and an offering to you of one shining facet of my otherwise confined existence at the moment. And all that really matters is that I am fairly fucking pumped on life right now – the way it should be.

PS: to each and every one of my amazingly creative but devastatingly lazy friends, acquaintances and other passing readers – your apathy pisses me off. Have a go! Scare yourself. Pick up pen or paintbrush or musical instrument or whatever form your magic wand takes and create something new today. It will soothe you and make you feel human again. And if you die tomorrow, you can be at peace knowing that you have left something beautiful and tangible behind for us. Go forth and play. Solve et Coagula cunts!

 

Defender Of The Faith – 02.09.12