Lambeth High Street is no longer a high street. It’s a back alley running behind Albert Embankment, winding between 1930s council blocks, empty corporate high rises and modern, faceless new builds. Turn right as you walk towards Lambeth Bridge, down Black Prince Road, you come to Southbank House. A beautiful old victorian red brick building with ornate and perplexing reliefs on the facade.
The five-story building is the last surviving part of the Doulton Pottery complex. It was built as a monument to a thriving industry that dates back to 1815. In fact, Lambeth High Street was home to London’s pottery industry. One hundred years ago this was a proud and bustling community, the base for boatmakers, shoemakers, chandler shops and grocers.
Now, it’s a through way for delivery vans, and a parking spot for occupants in the nearby luxury flats.
At the end of the high street is Old Paradise Gardens. Once a cemetery, the area was converted in the seventies into a mini pleasure park. Children play in the fountain and their screams mingle with the growl of the city trains and the relentless jackhammers from close by construction sites. Wilted, now faceless, burial stones collapse into the surrounding brick walls laced with weeds and moss.
Passing Old Paradise Road and across the busy Lambeth Walk, is St. Mary’s at Lambeth, tucked in beside Lambeth Palace – the traditional home of the Archbishop if Canterbury.
St. Mary’s has been turned into the Garden Museum. The garden is the home of the tombs of John Tradescant the Elder (c.1570-1638) and Younger (1608-1662). As a monument to their work in plant collection and gardening the existing garden was created in 1980 as a seventeenth century style knot garden. The Knot Garden is a traditional style of garden design dating back the Tudors.
Inside the church is now an exhibition space and cafe serving home made salads and cakes, as well as teas a juices. It has the feel of old 1960s coffee mornings – no music, no loud TVs, just the clink of saucers and the chatter of the girls behind the counter. The church walls are bare and freshly conserved sandstone, and hold ornate carvings of biblical stories along with the stained glass windows.
There is a politics to the humility of conserving such spaces, especially right bang in the centre of London. The dissolution of a cultural hub like Lambeth is sad. Times change, but whole communities are discarded, dissipated, and nothing remains but street names and brick walls that disappear into modern concrete. The dirt, the noise and the booming culture of a historical place has been cleansed, wiped clean of its identity and heritage.
The Garden Museum at Lambeth has no government endowment or financial backer. It is run solely by volunteers and costs £10,000 a year to keep up.
The world often seems at the complete mercy of destroyers. Those who disrupt, construct and dismantle with equal glee and thoughtless relish. However, our reality is held together by those who sweep floors, run children’s nurseries, church concerts and work for free in local heritage museums. They tend the plants, sow the seeds and bake cakes. They do not obsess over details, but take pleasure in them, maintaining a human honesty in the simplicity of the moment.
Too often our politics, work ethic and even our art, veers from the visionary to the grandiose. And an imagination distracted from the dirt and grain of life, can too easily slip from innocent grandiosity into fascism.
Today, we are caught between two types of fascism. A silent creeping conformity, the gutless nihilism we find in empty office blocks and the bruised high rises of corporatism; and the more traditional fascism of the jackboot and torture, the kind that is sweeping through the middle east as we fiddle at the city gates.
Unlike the violent ideology of ISIS, the quieter fascism gets to work on our spiritual immune systems. It drills away at the inner fabric of our imaginations, our personal identity and ultimately our free will.
Is it wrong to call this fascism? Is it exaggerating to equate this with violence and torture?
No. Fascism, in whatever form, is the insatiable lust for rank and power. People dismiss modern capitalism for its rapacious greed for money. They are only a third right. It is rapacious and it is driven by greed. But money is not the ultimate end. Money is an object of desire because it gives you power.
Corporate culture is so dangerous because it is so total. Like ordinary, run of the mill fascism like that of ISIS, it seeks to create complete hegemony, monopoly.
When it comes to ISIS, we are slowly realising that we did not put an end to imperial ideologies and ideological violence after the Soviet Union collapsed. The world didn’t change. Neither did the human craving for absolute power. The jackboot is back and now it’s on YouTube. Unlike 20th century fascism, modern political violence has good PR.
Whether we are talking about the sleek, insidious conformity of corporatism, or the black bitterness and rage of Islamic State, our enemies have marketing strategies. Sun Tzu himself would have marvelled at the genius of a good marketing strategy. Get your marketing right, and you might not even have to fight at all. You won’t drain yourself making siege to the city. You will just stroll in and be welcomed in hapless surrender.
Islamic Sate, like corporate fascism, attacks the soft belly of our psychologies with mixed messages and confusing, almost Warhol-like juxtapositions of humanity and brutality.
That’s why their ‘rebels’ give their victims a hug before tossing them off buildings or cutting their heads off. That’s why they use documentary styles and slick editing techniques to create empathic narratives – only to disrupt those narratives with equally crafted snuff videos. They contrast unthinkable, pornographic violence with a narrative of persecution.
Any advertiser knows that you weaken the will by creating a double bind in the viewer’s psychology. Cognitive dissonance has become a weapon of mass conformism, or rather, a weapon of self-destruction. ISIS are depending on these techniques of submission as much as Coca Cola and Sony Music.
The calm echo in the nave of St. Mary’s is like an impervious shield at the madness of a hysterical world. Such sacred, ancient pockets of silence in London feel like they are protected by an ageing spell, an energy of history that survives the frantic frequencies of our shallow software world.
The garden has a spiritual message. You cannot solve the world’s problems. You cannot save everyone from disaster, torture and ideological fanaticism. You can, however, tend to your own patch in the world, cultivate it with beauty and mystery, embody the nuances and confusions of life so subtly that even if an army trampled over it, the spirit of your achievement would outlast the aggression.
One thing fascism hates is narrative. It hates that a simple tale, a beginning, a middle and an end, should have an imperceptible resonance. Meaning does not have to be a conscious experience. As TS Eliot said of good poetry, it creates understanding before it is understood.
Corporations and ideological fascism both hate that fact. And the best way to fight them is to persist creating such every-day, human narratives like cooking a meal, tending a plant bed or working on a long-neglected novel for five minute each morning over a cup of hot coffee.
We cannot eliminate violence, but we can defy it. We can refuse to bow and live at its mercy. We can refuse to hollow ourselves out in conformism and repetition, and we can simply decide not to live in anticipation of terror. It sounds far fetched, but it’s actually anything but.
Our task is to follow our curiosities and intuitions, rather than headlines. To cultivate the patch in front of us, to care for our ministries, rather than shoulder the weight human suffering on our shoulders. Existence brings with it enough suffering. Our daily relationships offer chances for diplomacy and self-discipline in abundance.
Blake saw heaven in a wild flower, because that’s actually the only place it exists.