Wisdom, revolution, solidarity

lotusThe other day I watched a PBS documentary about the Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. There’s an excellent hour-long Democracy Now special here with the director Stanley Nelson, and the Black Panthers’ communications secretary Kathleen Cleaver.

I’m sort of ashamed to admit that I didn’t know that much about the Black Panthers, beyond the iconography of hair and jackets and guns, and the black power salute, until T told me about their community programmes (which he’d found out about at an exhibition at Urbis in Manchester, now turned into the football museum). The Black Panthers were not just about guns and intimidating the police doing stop and search, they were a truly revolutionary organisation: they translated their explicitly revolutionary analysis of power and oppression into community-run breakfast clubs for kids. They addressed gender roles, valuing the roles that women played and making a commitment to challenging and visibly reversing gender stereotypes by showing women with guns and men cooking in community kitchens. Black Panther writers and artists made the literary case for revolution, and created iconographic images and their own original ‘social realism’ imagery of Black people engaged in revolutionary work. They had a pretty comprehensive organising structure, and a revolutionary newspaper with a wide circulation that aimed to “reach the parts the organisation cannot reach”.

Filled with original footage of rallies, marches, meetings, and the hard work of daily community maintenance, I was gripped by the film. So that, although I knew how it would end, the story it tells is so inspiring, moment to moment, and he passion of the surviving Black Panthers who are interviews in the film is so alive, even today, that I kept hoping for a different conclusion. But in the end the FBI won.

For me the most inspirational moment in the film is in footage of Fred Hampton, head of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers (aged only 22!), speaking to various meetings. Fred was a revolutionary. At meetings he liked to encourage the audience to get in touch with their potential to make change by practicing the Black Power salute and calling out together: “I am a revolutionary! I am a revolutionary! I am a revolutionary!” (This works great magic – I urge you to try it.)

Fred Hampton addressing a rally in Chicago

Fred Hampton addressing a rally in Chicago

In one segment of grainy film, Fred stands up and says: “People will be divisive and say, ‘I’m Black and I hate White people; I’m White and I hate Black people; I’m Latin American and I hate Hillbillies; I’m a Hillbilly and I hate Indians. So we fight amongst each other!’ The Black Panther party say, ‘We don’t care what anybody says – we don’t think you fight fire with fire, we say you fight fire with water pistols; you don’t fight racism with racism, we gonna fight it with solidarity.'” It was this call for racial unity, especially when taken to white working class communities, that finally brought the FBI down on the Black Panthers, out of fear that the people, united, might actually be undefeatable. It was what made Fred Hampden the target for what might be the most brutal (and crude) political assassination by the police ever carried out on American soil.

In his rallying cry “you don’t fight fire with fire, you don’t fight racism with racism”, I heard an ancient echo. A few days later I found these words in the Dhammapada:

Hatred never ends with hatred / By non-hatred alone does it end. This is an ancient truth.” (5)

Wisdom is truth that cannot be traced to an original source – it will pop out just at the moment and right in the place it is most needed. All that is required for us to hear it is for a channel to open – and a mouthpiece to speak it out. For a moment in 1968 that was Fred Hampton.

But wisdom has to be put into practice for change to come about.

Zen teacher Gil Fronsdal translates the next verse of the Dhammapadda like this:

Many do not realize that / We here must die. / For those who realise this, / Quarrels end.” (6)

Solidarity is a wisdom practice. It has the power to change everything – if you’re doing it right.

Peter Norman stands in solidarity with Tommie Smith & John Carlos on the winners podium at the 1968 Olympics

Peter Norman stands in solidarity with Tommie Smith & John Carlos on the winners podium at the 1968 Olympics




I was tightly wound in my body and my mind; muscles and neural pathways both taut to vibrating point, and numb with the effort of getting on with things through focusing on the day to day, day after day. The relentless need to focus had narrowed my capacity to think, blinkered my inner vision; I felt I was moving over the surface of everything wearing a visor – neither grounded nor able to sense the wideness, the spaciousness of the World.

A few minutes walk from home is what Gerry at That’s How the Light Gets In calls “the mile-wide green belt of south Manchester”. Here the embankmented River Mersey meanders surprisingly peacefully along the bottom edge of Manchester. I still feel new to this part of the Earth, and I still have that explorer’s urge to wander the land, to discover for myself the corners that are overlooked. I’m still hunting for wildish spaces to escape to and in which I can be kind of free.

I walked along beside Chorlton Brook through Chorlton Ees*, emerging from the woodlands just where the brook meets the Mersey. In the summer when I had just moved to the city, I would come here at the end of the work day and forage for herbs and blossoms to dry for tea in winter. I clambered down the bank a little way and found a lovely sitspot right at the confluence that echoed my sitspot at the confluence of the Boundary Brook and the River Thames in Oxford. Where two waterways meet it’s possible, sometimes, to get beyond logic and really feel the truth that past and future are always here now, in the present.


Summer scents, winter brews

At the confluence you emerge out of the wooded ees onto the banks of the Mersey and suddenly the sky is open above you. Here I turned east, and felt my adventure begin. To be bluntly honest, the stretch of the Mersey between Chorlton Ees and Simon’s Bridge is not obviously pretty; the river banks have been carefully and unsubtly landscaped by the flood management measures of the 1970s. The result, though, is the openness I craved. It was our first fully sunny day for what felt like months, warm enough to do without a hat, and I revelled in it. I began to walk.

Staying close to the river, following its broad loops and meanders, I walked gently upstream. Along the banks I saw evidence of the recent Boxing Day floods in heaps and mats of organic matter, and scattered branches and sections of tree trunk piled on the river banks, now high and dry. And everywhere was evidence of the changing climate in the confusion of unseasonal growth: blackthorn in blossom; hawthorns bearing buds and new leaves and bright red berries; a cluster of broad, dark green ramsons growing in the shadow of the motorway. They say that winter is at last on its way, tomorrow. It’s weird to imagine eating my own pesto while it’s snowing.


Too soon

Because the river skirts the suburbs of southeast Manchester, walking beside it you catch a hint of the flavour of each neighbourhood you pass. I noticed that city phenomenon of very different neighbourhoods squashed up against each other, cheek by jowl. A semi-rural zone seemingly reserved for green-wellied, expensively-coiffured small-dog walkers bumped up against a rougher stretch of riverbank of a few hundred metres’ length marked by illegal firepits lined with melted plastic. The boundaries were invisible, and permeable to an outsider, but carefully respected – at least during daylight. What goes on here after dark is anyone’s guess. Part way along the walk, where Princess Road crosses the Mersey by the junction with the motorway, I looked up and noticed a tree growing just at the place where I had landed in Manchester last year.

At Simon’s Bridge I’d had enough, legs tired, head getting cold. I had achieved my original aim of finding space, and I was happy to go home, so I turned away from the river into Didsbury Village**. I’d walked for three hours, but the tram journey home took 10 minutes. I was reminded that the fast pace we live at, we invent, it’s not inevitable. But it takes walking the land at one’s natural animal pace to be reminded of it. My walk had given me space and lifted me out of my narrowness – and grounded me. And in the process of walking the land I live on, I had found my landing place.

*Ee is an old word for floodplain. Here’s a readable study guide to the urban floodplains along the Mersey. **Great charity shops


Friday morning love train


This morning I was on a crowded commuter train in London; reading my book I was locked in my own peaceful world just like everyone else. It was quiet. I like that quiet of the morning commuter trains – it has a gentle, sleepy, quality. It feels respectful, everyone careful to abide by the consensus for silence in a consensus built pretty much on self interest. You leave me in peace and I’ll do the same for you. It’s not particularly cheery or loving, but it’s not grudging or resentful (a vibe that’s all too common on the late afternoon homeward commuter trains).

At one stop we were held for a while after everyone who wanted to had got on or off. The train driver made an announcement and apologised for the delay – we would have to wait a few moments for the line ahead to clear before we could proceed. There was a mild collective reaction, a vague ripple in the still peace and quiet – but it was nearly imperceptible, no one in the carriage even audibly sighed. And then suddenly into the silence:

“Ladies and gentlemen, can I just take this opportunity to let you all know: God loves you, God loves each and every one of you – of us. Go well today. Thank you for listening.”

That was all. It was a short message, gently and respectfully delivered. Nonetheless I instantly bristled – at the disturbance of my peace, of the peace of the carriage. At the shock of the intervention into our sleepy privacy, so carefully guarded against, and by, one another. Then in the next moment I engaged my brain – and I was shocked at my reaction to what was essentially a generous message of love. I raised my eyes from my book and looked up at our messenger. He wore a half smile, and had his eyes half closed. Perhaps to prevent anyone catching his eye. He must have known that it’s not easy to give a free gift to people who aren’t expecting it.

It’s not easy to receive a free and unexpected gift, either. Perhaps if we gave each other more of them we’d all get better at receiving them too.

One body, marked.

326< close

Last week I went to a tattoo parlour in the suburb of a northern English city and, amid the porn photos printed off from the internet and the wall decorations of transfers of skulls and snakes and Nazi insignia, to a metalcore soundtrack by Parkway Drive, I had the number 326< tattooed on the back of my leg. I was born in 1971, the year that the number of parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 326.

In October 2013 I took part in the Liberate Tate performance Parts Per Million, in which a group of performers walked through Tate Britain’s new chronological gallery exhibition, BP Walk Through British Art. In each room the performers arranged themselves around and among the artworks and in unison chanted together the rising numbers of parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the time period covered by that gallery. Then we moved slowly to the next, and chanted up the numbers for the next gallery’s period, and so on.

From the outside, the piece made visible a hidden truth that is easy to forget, or deny. I took part because this feels to me like important work: the numbers and acronyms – ppm, CO2 – are too abstract to connect to, they don’t seem relevant or real, and they’re so easy to forget or deny.

As a performer I felt in my body how the shuffling, chanting human nature of the performance not only made the truth hidden in the esoteric letters and figures visible, it also made them flesh.

As we moved into the gallery 1970-1980 the group spread itself outwards – the map of the choreography of the performance shows a kind of starburst in that room, performers directed to spread outwards from the entrance to arrange themselves around the furthest edges along the walls of the long gallery. It was in that decade that the ppm of CO2 bust through the planet’s ‘safe limit’ of 351. This was my first decade of life. In our slow, dignified way, we ‘exploded’ into the room and started chanting up the numbers. As we chanted up from the year of my birth (1971: 326ppm), towards – and then past – 351ppm, I felt the the numbers move inside me through my breath, vibrating my vocal chords, resonating in my skull, drowning out the low grade tinnitus that usually fills my ears. I felt the numbers become real. I noticed the hope that naturally rose in me with each in-breath – and felt the disappointment as each of my outbreaths chanted another number in the rising sequence. I noticed how the tightening of my belly in the contracting of muscles that occurs in exhaling mirrored the tightening of the belly that comes with anxiety – and I felt anxiety mount in me as our numbers rose towards and inexorably past 351ppm.

The experience of that performance has stayed with me ever since. I’ve found that with other ‘ephemeral’ artworks. Sometimes I forget that it’s only the form of ephemeral art that is transitory – the real art is the ongoing, permanent changing that takes place as a result of the experience of the work.

I was changed by the performance. The earth connection I had long known to be integral to being human – the truth that we are each and all earth beings with stars and mud in our blood – now bore a dark shadow.

Since that day, I have carried everywhere with me the awareness of how we, humans, have marked the body of the earth, irrevocably, permanently. How we have scarred the flesh of the earth and poisoned the air and the waters. How we have enacted violence on the greater body of which we are all part. My joy at being a part of the earth, a limb of the greater being, a leaf on the huge tree of life, will now always include this understanding. This is not a transitory experience. This is permanent.

We are not working with nature, so much as we are nature, working. We are not defending nature, we are nature defending itself. We are not only scarring the beautiful earth, we are scarring ourselves.

“In many social transactions, marks of connection are only given to the ‘owned’. It is time for a new ritual which marks the ‘owner’, one by which they are reminded of their power and their responsibility.” – Billy Frugal

photo: T Remiarz

So: to mark my own body permanently, to go to a place of violence and inflict an act of violence on my skin, is my way of acknowledging the truth of the doing that we human beings have enacted, and taking my share of responsibility for that. It is an act of violence even to understand humans to be ‘owners’ of the earth. Surrounded by the symbolic violence of the tattoo parlour, I closed my eyes and in my mind revisited times and places when I have felt the joyful truth of being a part of the earth’s body. On a mountainside in the Pyrenees hearing the wind through the poplars as breath. At dusk at a confluence of waters in Oxford hearing the chuckling of a little stream as it rushed to merge with the mighty Thames. On a dusty, noisy city street being briefly transported by the spicy scent of a thicket of mugwort discovered at the roadside one autumn afternoon. Bathing at night in warm sea on my 30th birthday as the skies turned heavy with the approaching monsoon.

photo: T Remiarz

“In order to bring about a nonviolent world, activists go to the heart of the place of violence and undertake an act of transformation.” – Tomas Remiarz

Art transforms. When we take our art to the heart of the violence, we have the opportunity to make a kind of peace with the violent system, symbolically as much as materially; in doing so we carry out an act of transformation. With this act, with this scar, I make a kind of peace through acknowledging the violence of our human doings, and seal my commitment to live nonviolently in my relationship with earth.

This action was a part of #Birthmark, the latest performance from art activist collective Liberate Tate.

All photos by Tomas Remiarz.

wildish space

Where is your Wildish Space?

wildish space


I went to Pomona Island yesterday, a wildish space in the centre of Manchester squeezed between the old docks on the Manchester Ship Canal, and the sliver of the Bridgewater Canal. I first became curious about it in my second month in Manchester, when B joined me in exploring and orienting myself in my new home, and we walked along the canals to Salford Quays. I gazed across at Pomona and wondered what it was – a semi-wilderness grown up amongst the decay of what had clearly been a find promenade along the dockside. In the rainy late afternoon yesterday, I wandered through the profusion of anarchic and excited vegetation of late summer: the brightly coloured wildflowers, the blackberry bushes with their confusion of ripe and unripe berries, and the heaps of overgrown rubble. To my left the sleek concrete bed of the Metrolink railway rose above me on concrete pillars; over to the right the Manchester Ship Canal flowed gently towards Salford Quays and pooled silently in the old Pomona Docks. I stood still for a moment and allowed myself to feel the years seen by this space to be present at once with me there. This little corner of land has seen so much: the orchard that stood there and is now re-membered in the blackberry bushes; the huge ocean-going trading ships that sat in the docks to load and unload textiles and raw materials from the empire; the vacant stares of the people gazing over the scrubland that exists there now, waiting for a tram at Cornbrook Station at the end of a long day.

In wildish space, if you stand your ground, stand on the ground, you can really feel how the idea of time and space as separate entities is a nonsense. You can feel how all that has happened in this place is still alive somewhere in the earth beneath you, and all that has yet to happen, is as yet unmanifest, is possible, hangs above you in the air, waiting to be breathed in. The philosopher Martin Heidegger had this idea that time is not just a series of now-points, but a unity of the three dimensions – or ‘ecstasies’ – of past, present and future. All of them existing at once. I think you can really feel the sense of this (in both senses of the way we use that word) when you stand in an open space and look around you: the future and past lie just beyond the horizon of the space-time circle of now in which you stand. Space and time are one field of experience.

Forgetting this connection is dangerous, it can result in us remaining stuck, trapped in the status quo and the current moment and our unskillful habits of thinking and relating. Not questioning the rules we’re given, failing to find the courage to relate to each other freely with and in the love that emerges between us. Wild space, however, is what we make when we face each other with honesty, speak the language of our bodies together, break the habits that tie us down. It’s where we dare to dream, and where we end up when we step off the wheel.

Under the metrolink

Beneath the tramlines

There’s wild space in each of us. But it’s hard to find this in the city streets, where the rivers flow so far below the tarmac that we can’t even hear their burbling and rushing any more*; where the cries of the birds are drowned out by the traffic; where surveillance cameras and culture police our relationships with the place and each other.

B says: “the wildspace is only accessible through the avenue of beauty.” If wildspace is liberation, we need to be able to appreciate and travel the beautiful path to get there, so we can “truly love our calling as wild beings, ascending the spiral with passion.”

Our wild selves need wildish space to connect and remember. Save Pomona.

*Including the Corn Brook, which gives its name to the Metrolink stop overlooking Pomona Island.

Watch this brilliant short film about Pomona Island. And here’s a great article about the democratic deficit in the Pomona non-debate.

Further reading: Jay Griffiths’ Wild. David Abrams’ The Spell of the Sensuous.

When the waiting ends


when the waiting ends

If you can really inhabit your bardo state – sit with the chaos, the uncertainty, the impatience that arise within it, and feel the spaciousness of it, you may find that at the end you emerge – it opens up – into a wild space, a place of almost infinite possibility where you will write new rules to live by

New words: Bardo; Wild