You want”¦ you want me to tell you this story?
After”¦ I mean really? When this happened I’d had 3 hours sleep and was mostly subsisting on nihilism and chocolate, so I don’t know if upbeat is”¦
Alright. If you’re sure.
Just”¦ give me a minute, yeah?
So, I’m in Battersea Arts Centre, which is kind of like my home and kind of like London”¦ in that, well, London is my home. But BAC feels like home. And both are full of magical spaces that I know either very well or not at all, and interconnecting ones that I’m always excited to piece together.
Anyway. I’m in the lobby. We all are. And we’ve been divided into small groups by London borough. I’ve suffered a minor incident of acid reflux at being assigned Westminster, given the day that it is.
Then we’re led up stairs. And stairs and stairs. And down a corridor. And into a little bedroom.
Where we meet Marcus.
And Marcus tells us his story.
And I think about how many places in London are people’s homes. Tiny attic rooms, basements, overpasses, Royal Parks, sidewalks. 8 million people is a lot of people. Constantly shifting to find new places to live, make new spaces.
Which is the thing, isn’t it? London is heaving with stories; those of everyone who has ever lived here, past and present, and taking in a mere 6 of them across an evening already feels like too much. It makes it slightly clearer why democratising a wildly stratified population of 300 million people and hoping to mobilise them all with empathy for people they know little of is hardly straightforward.
Yet 10 minutes in a room with someone I’ve never met, on what feels like the darkest of days, and my heart is already swelling with joy
“I’m 32 years old and I’ve lived through 5 wars,” is not a sentence that takes you gently by the arm and sits you down. It’s not meant to.
London Stories is an assemblage of truths told by the people who have lived them, not distilled through a third party. Some are writers, storytellers, makers. Some are not. In some cases the language is blunt and brutal by design, in others shaped by the life it’s telling of. All bubble and self-deprecating laughter, all pain and sharp edges.
We sit in a large, dim room that closes in about us as we hear the rest of Kuhel’s story. Of Iraq. Of Syria. Of being in London but never, not quite, having left the war. Not in your own mind.
We’re led down stairs. And stairs and stairs. And around corners. Through rooms of other people.
I shiver in the corridors. From cold. From tiredness. From knowing that people bled and swam and crammed themselves into the back of trucks to get to London. And all I had to do was get on a plane. It is not a new realisation. Or a new guilt. It’s just there.
We hear 4 more stories.
This is not the day to think of Auschwitz but it is exactly the day to think of Auschwitz.
This is not the day to feel joy, but it is exactly the day to be joyous.
We end in a room where the precious objects that people have carried with them, smuggled out, brought across hundreds and thousands of miles, are on display for us to see. It feels beyond humbling – like something that English perhaps doesn’t have a word for yet.
It is nothing like a museum, because every one of these pieces has been loaned willingly, to tell the story as its owner chooses. Irreplaceable things; last letters from loved ones. Shared with us. The kind of things I keep tucked away in boxes, in double layers of plastic, and never look at for fear of damaging, let alone show to others. Hiding my story feels selfish, now.
I leave. Feeling, if not quite as at home in this city that is and isn’t my city as I did a year ago, certainly reminded that the story isn’t done. Not yet. The rhetoric that’s winning in this country may be one of looking back, but everyone who’s come to London, who has chosen this place as their home, speaks of a future. One it has given them and one they’re not done building.
London Stories is on at the BAC until 26th November 2016. Click here for more details.