Maps of the City

Maps on the page are fossils, a collective skeleton perfectly preserved in every bone, from wide spinal highways to the limbs of the suburbs, and the fine feathery impressions of alleys, courts and footpaths.

We carry living maps in heads, hearts and muscles, not  birds-eye views, like a lateral cross sections through the rock of the city,  but more often a succession of passages through a maze, experienced on the ground.

The stranger clutches paper maps or puzzles over pixels, his mind clouded, but carving a clear path as he travels. Those more familiar with the city are comfortable enough to travel by an internal compass and a mental picture, imperfect and partial, but adequate to our needs and printed with our character.

The taxi driver’s inner map is a complex instrument, finely honed, bristling with function. Images are instantly called up, routes surely plotted in graceful cascades, annotated with further Knowledge – roadworks, commercial context, religious festivals, cultural events. Alternatives coexist momentarily as ghostly possibilities before one is selected, the rest discarded, the meter started. The passenger watches the lights and facades slide past with deceptive inevitability.

A commuter’s map is a simpler beast. Home. Work. Bus stop. Tube station. Coffee source. Automatically activated at the same moment each day, the workers are sent on their way as along a fixed track, barely conscious of their journeys, living out the tasks of the day to come or just past, the abstract dances of finance, marketing, planning, targets, spinning through their minds as cars and carriages weave around them. Come the weekend, the temporarily released psyche shrinks from the same journey as from a bad dream; a different map animates the days of ease.

Most of us are social creatures – points on the map are defined by the humans we know or knew there. Painful memories are cruelly replayed on an involuntary screen at the sight of a street sign, happy memories extend a warm covering on winter days when passing a park where a sunny convivial picnic took place decades before. Our friends and associates lend their faces to the collage image a place name draws forth, so that we imagine boroughs and stations might possess those personalities themselves. Hackney is an irritable accountant; Angel is no angel; St Johns Wood can’t keep a secret.  

For some, the universe is a theatre, a concert hall, a museum. The South Bank flickers brightly through the ages, from Shakespeare’s Globe and Drake’s swift Hind to the stern modernism of the turbine hall, the optimistic brutalism of the Festival quarter. Quieter jewels shine in side streets and suburbs – a tiny gallery where tiny watercolours paused time, an upstairs room in a pub where some guys with guitars wove wonders one night. A whole street still rings with the powerful echo of a long ago performance of a violin concerto. Or the entire city is a patchwork of architecture, eras and styles crowding up to one another, beads of brilliance menaced by horrible stains. Wren churches point to glory, younger structures mask their insecurity with bravado, miles of mild terraces, uneasy tower blocks. All these buildings are held in a million minds, rated in a million different ways – masterpiece, monstrosity, home.     

Some live right on the skin of life, soaking their senses as each moment’s experience falls on them like a succession of bright raindrops. Their memories bind to places, making maps of sensations. The taste of strong bitter coffee under a red awning, a terrace of pale lemon-coloured brick and oppressive symmetry, by a park full of roses and honeysuckle, their scent rising entwined with a blackbird’s song into the darkening sky. The relentless din of traffic on a grey road, overlooked by silent statues of mottled pink granite, gleaming in the rain.   

Children’s maps are blank sheets, then coloured crayon bright with the few places they know, but know intensely. Everywhere is a definite article. The park. The school. Soon the page will grow, and labels, names and other dull abstractions will intrude.

Older people have maps which are thick with layers, atlas tomes with a page for every era, its people, places, fashions and concerns dimly visible through the translucent sheet of the following years. They know that the topmost layer, the present city, is ephemeral too, a gossamer leaf like the rest.

This man’s map has dwindled as he has retreated from the world. Once a healthy network, now a sad sparse scrawl of a few safe haunts, vanishing from the edges in until little but one node, one room, remains.

He looks from his window to see the birds rise from the trees by the canal. As they ascend they may take in an overhead view of the city, almost the same as the map on the page. But they cannot see it. The roads and landmarks mean little, their arrangement an incidental texture on the spread out plateau of animal threat and bounty – places of food, shelter, danger. They wheel and bank above the city, take a scent from the air, a magnetic signal from the earth, and turn together toward the sea.   


The Moneyless Landlady

What if everyone stopped using money?

0 pound note
Not worth the paper it’s not printed on

It’s not going to happen is it? So imagine one person stopped using money one day: your landlady.

You’d seen the warning signs in the weeks leading up to this unusual decision. The satchel full of books on radical politics and the pithy nuggets of wisdom on the unity of the species. “It’s all about compassion, guys,” she might have said on the occasions when she came round to remind you that the rent was due.

Well, let’s imagine it turns out that she’s not a hypocrite after all. She has decided that she’s going to stop using money but that she is also going to continue being a landlady. She just won’t be charging rent. That’s pretty good news for you but she’s just created some sizable problems for herself. Maintenance for one.

On that frabjous day, you stop paying rent, but we live in an entropic universe so the the landlady’s building is degrading in many tiresome ways. The paint is peeling on the porch, the electrics are about to pop in Flat 3 and weird looking mould has just appeared in the corner of your kitchen. How is your newly enlightened rentier going to deal with these issues?

Surprisingly well perhaps. Your fellow tenant in Flat 2 is so overjoyed to be living rent-free that she offers to paint the porch herself. You look up the weird mould online, and discover that it can be conquered with some fairly basic DIY, which you now have time to do yourself since you’re no longer working insane amounts of overtime to cover the rent. The electrics are more of an issue – there aren’t any electricians living in the building and even a budding utopian like your landlady isn’t about to dabble in amateur rewiring. Luckily Flat 4’s cousin is a sparky with an interest in alternative living, who offers to do the job gratis in recognition that Flat 4 seems much more contented, with the sweetener of a new cardigan which Flat 5, also freed up from overtime drudgery, now has time to knit…

This might all be rather far-fetched, but we can imagine how just one person swearing off money for a little while could replace its use with expansion of their circle of social relationships, start to form non-monetary bonds with others in the community, and develop a wider approach to problem-solving.

Of course, our theoretical landlady was affluent to start with, owning a building which people would happily pay (or not pay) to live in.  Going moneyless was relatively easy for her.  (Relinquishing the concept of property ownership might be less so.) The monetary system hasn’t worked out so well for a lot of people. Untold misery, hunger, inequality, war, boredom, injury, waste, deception, despair, rage and bullshit has resulted from the monetary system, whose winners entrench themselves in luxury and power while the rest of us worry ceaselessly about running out of money and suffer badly when we do. So side-stepping the whole system is a tempting prospect. Could a person or a group of people really opt out of money completely?

In essence, human needs are pretty simple – we need food, water, shelter and, arguably, clothing (certainly in the British climate, both meterological and cultural). These could, at a stretch, be met with a local, ‘back to the earth’ approach, if your landlady is lucky enough to have a large enough garden to act as a smallholding, has simple tastes and doesn’t mind wearing woollen underwear. This is similar to the experience of Mark Boyle, the ‘Moneyless Man’, who set himself the challenge of living without using money in any way. He was able to fend for himself successfully but was hugely restricted in the activities he could undertake beyond mere survival. And strategies which he was able to use, such as getting online for free at the local library, relied on the infrastructure of the money-based society he had chosen to reject.

For an individual choosing to ditch money, the Good Life and the good will of others aren’t going to solve all the challenges. By owning her own residential building, our landlady started her project with a huge advantage that most people do not possess, but at some point even she is going to have a problem that can only be solved with money. Making a phone call, for example, or switching on a light. She has not conquered the concept of finance single-handedly, because she still lives in a world that revolves around money. Even though she personally has become ‘economically inactive’, if she wants to continue to enjoy the fruits of industrialised society such as telecommunications, electricity, and all forms of industrially manufactured product from smartphones to shoes to spectacles to bicycles to pacemakers to cagoules, doesn’t she need to acknowledge that those benefits arise thanks to a money-based economy? She may have decided that she is somehow too pure to handle cash herself but at some point she is either going to have to call on a friend who is willing to pay for something she needs on her behalf, or plunge into total self-sufficiency with all the homemade sackcloth and ashes which that implies. There’s a further moral quandary around public services – the moneyless landlady will still have access to free NHS services, libraries and so on, but only thanks to her more conventional compatriots who still have an income and therefore still pay taxes to fund them.

Perhaps what’s needed isn’t really individuals making grand gestures and going cold turkey on cash overnight, but a movement of people gradually transforming the lives of their communities to place less emphasis on economic transactions and more on mutual support, freely given. Individiual actions will ripple out, and this effect will be increased when projects are undertaken collaboratviely. This is inevitably going to require some financial investment to begin with. Take energy as an example – advances in technology mean that renewable energy is becoming cheaper to produce and community energy projects can flourish (even if the current UK government is doing its best to thwart such projects). Solar panels, wind turbines and geo-thermal energy systems, among others, can be owned and operated by entire communities, reducing their electricity bills or selling excess energy to the National Grid. Typically these projects still run on money of course, but breaking free of the big energy conglomerates could be one of the first step towards a less money-focussed local economy.

Such initiatives, can work together with movements like community gardens and food-sharing, which could transform food from a commodity to a local resource and a right; and with ‘libraries of things’ and the gift economy, which could further shift our psychological focus away from the money system as the way we interact with others. These things aren’t going to bring down capitalism overnight. They are limited in scope, and for now they can’t make much difference to the lives of people suffering really severe financial privation.

But perhaps these sorts of ideas and innovations represent the loosening of the bonds of money which seem to have been getting ever tighter around our lives. Once we get a taste of freedom from money, a new way of thinking outside the monetary box, there may be no going back.


A substantial gap

There has been a substantial gap round here while I have been doing other things. There’s less stained glass these days, but more of other things…