I had been thinking about reprising the My London Passion blog for several days now, My London Passion: The Masked Months. It has been three years since my final, 100th post, when I decided it was time to move on. And time moved on at quite the pace. Until suddenly, in March 2020, it stopped. Or rather time didn’t stop but we did, frozen in a strange and disturbing lockdown existence. In September, when the restrictions remained eased and the children were finally, finally, finally allowed back to school and I emerged from the basement having been typing away on a dissertation for months, blinking in the sunlight, I re-engaged with the world as much as legally possible and started up my London adventuring with a passion. Why not share it? So, I spent several mornings typing away, but nothing seemed to flow. Then came a message from a dear friend since teenage years. She wanted me to know that overnight her house had been vandalized and covered with death threats and homophobic slurs. Her older son is a ballet dancer and happens to be gay.
Remember way back in the Spring, at the beginning of the Covid crisis when along with the fear and the frustration there was also a sense of hope, a belief that we were going to emerge from the crisis a changed earth, a changed people, with clean oceans and smog free skies and endless, reciprocal acts of kindness? A world in which peace would guide and love would steer…well, alas, that Age of Aquarius never really got dawning, did it? Violence, anger, greed, viciousness and fear have made spectacular comebacks. It makes you want to howl at the moon. And look at art. Not necessarily for any sort of explanation or redemption, but because sometimes the best thing art can do is initiate a gathering of shaking heads, a collection of sighs, an acknowledgment, once again, of how exhausting and debilitating hate is.
Theaster Gates, a Professor at the University of Chicago, is an artist of so many mediums and talents it is impossible to describe his practice succinctly, except to say he can and does pretty everything. He was to show at the Covid-cancelled Frieze this Autumn; however White Cube made his installation available to the public at their Bermondsey street gallery. Entitled, Sweet Square of Dark Abyss, it includes a series of books, outdated (one hopes, anyway) American history books, the contents of which Gates responded to with poetry and subsequently re-covered and re-titled with the poems. Within the work Nump, is this pair, my favourite, which reads: LET ME BE / OH LORD, LET ME BE
I thought immediately of a poem I was introduced to during Spring lockdown through the excellent Poetry Unbound podcast. ‘The Book of Genesis’ by Kei Miller, a Professor at the University of Exeter, which imagines a world in which our sole influence is the word LET. Not ‘allow’, which suggests some level of power structure, but LET, a word through which anything can happen. What would a world be like if we could just let each other be, to dance, to write, to paint, to love, to live, just as we are, just as we can become.
‘Suppose there was a book full only of the word,
let – from whose clipped sound all things began: fir
and firmament, feather, the first whale — and suppose
we could scroll through its pages every day
to find and pronounce a Let meant only for us —
we would stumble through the streets with open books,
eyes crossed from too much reading; we would speak
in auto-rhyme, the world would echo itself — and still
we’d continue in rounds, saying let and let and let
until even silent dreams had been allowed.’
Within the shock and horror my friend, her family and her entire community are experiencing a new solidarity has emerged. The outpouring of support and kindness has been, well, as it should be, enormous. I have a postcard of the Bob and Roberta Smith piece, What Unites Human Beings Is Huge And Wonderful, in a frame, in my home. The original is written on two large doors. Even in its reduced size it is a big message, one we all need to be reminded of every day. Especially on days when hate comes in its unfortunate disguise as a spray can.