From austerity to fairyland

bethnal green hospital occupation work-in nupe july 1978

Bethnal Green Hospital 1978: The first work-in at a hospital casualty department

In the next few weeks I’ll be taking part in two very different events. At the London Anarchist Bookfair next Saturday – 19 October – I’ll contribute to a meeting that will look back on hospital occupations against closure and discuss their current relevance to defending health services. And at the World Fantasy Convention two weeks afterwards I’m on a panel about… fairies.

From austerity to fairyland: the leap between these two subjects first provoked a few bemused chuckles. Then I looked into these subjects a bit more, and you know… I had to think again.

So, the discussion at the bookfair will ask the question: “Occupying is good for your health?” This meeting is part of a stream of radical history presentations and discussions at the bookfair. The people from Past Tense, who are coordinating these meetings, write:

“We don’t see ‘history’ as a dry ‘subject’; it isn’t separate from our own experiences and the struggles, and situations we are part of now, and the ideas and movements we hope can help build a freer future. Our own stories are also history; but reversing that, history is made up of experiences, battles, events, individuals and mass movements – linked to ours by both resistance to the hierarchical and unequal social relations they faced, and the desires, ideas and dreams of what life could be, and how to get there.” 

In this spirit, we will cast our eye back on campaigns in the 1970s through the 1990s when staff and patients occupied hospitals under threat of closure. I took part in the occupation of the South London Hospital for Women from 1984 to 1985, so I’ll bring reflections on that to the discussion. My friend Myk will share his experiences of occupying at UCH in the 1990s. Currently the NHS is under threat again. How is the situation different now? Are tales of previous occupations relevant? The NHS, vital as it is, has never really been under our control – are occupations a step in that direction? We’re also very keen to hear from others who are currently involved with opposing health service cuts and hospital closures.

The bookfair itself is well worth a visit and you don’t need to be a card-carrying or flag-waving anarchist to find something of interest here. The event takes place at Queen Mary’s University at Mile End and features workshops, stalls, books and music,  talks and films. Two crèches are available and there is also disabled access. Check out the bookfair website for more  information.WFC_small

Which brings us to the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, from 31 October to 3 November. Though I’ve been to the UK Fantasycon many times, this will be my first world fantasy event. I’m looking forward to four days of schmoozing, socialising, panels and discussions, drinking, drinking, drinking, curries and curries… and meeting other readers and writers from around the world(ish) who are passionate about fantastical fiction. And I’m also excited to be involved in two programme items.

Tickets are no longer on sale for the convention, but if you happen to be going you might be interested in the following. On Friday 1 November I’ll be at the Reading Café 3-3.30. Given that one stream of programming at WFC will mark Arthur Machen’s 150th birthday, I’ll read from my novella Helen’s Story and from “Lambeth North”, my short story in Horror Without Victims. As you can guess from the title, “Lambeth North” will shed a different light on a part of London that Machen had once described as ‘shapeless’, ‘unmeaning’ and ‘dismal beyond words’. But here South London holds its own.

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing circa 1786 by William Blake 1757-1827Then on the Saturday at mid-day I’ll be on a panel, The Little People: When the Fairies Come Out to Play. This discussion looks at how Arthur Machen and other authors and artists have used folklore, the landscape, science and literature to create stories of the faerie otherworld.

So what is the connection between these topics? When musing on this, I had another read of Simon Bestwick’s excellent blog post, The Shrinking Space, which addresses a similar question. Simon describes the fallout from austerity and the ‘shrinking space’ it leaves for enjoying life and exercising the imagination. Simon also looks at the legacy of Arthur Machen, As well as a classic writer of dark fiction, Machen is often read as a father of psychogeography. An impoverished clerk in his younger days, he wandered the streets of Edwardian London to discover worlds of wonder and dread “a stone’s throw from Kings Cross station”.

But in the modern-day ConDemNewLab dystopia there’s little time for wandering, and the otherworldly and unworldly transcendence of Machen’s vision will find little room to thrive. Nowadays, those in employment face continual compulsion to work more and more for much less and give up their live to their work. The clerk of today would be subject to repeated performance reviews, team-building exercises and examinations of their ‘attitude’. Meanwhile, those who are unable to work or refuse to submit to this regime are hounded and starved by the DWP, ATOS and a vile cabal of poverty profiteers such as A4E and G4S.

Machen’s character Lucien Taylor in The Hill of Dreams “craves beauty and peace and seeks to capture them through prose”. But there’s no chance of doing that for those who get forced onto a workfare scheme or – as Universal Credit would have it – get forced to do time in the job centre if their clerk’s salary is too meagre without a top-up for stratospheric 21st century London rents.

Machen became a bit of an old Tory himself and waxed jingoistic over WWI, but Simon’s article nails how the literary legacy of his best work still stands opposed to the ravages of contemporary neoliberalism. I tend to think that ‘authorial intention’ is often distinct from how the core of a story is perceived by those who read it in years to come.

Moving on from Machen’s day, Johnny Void has also pointed out that a mere 15 years of neoliberal  regression could have prevented Harry Potter (among the creations of many writers who put in a few years on the dole) from ever seeing the light of publication. “Under this Government’s plans for single parents, JK Rowling would have been on workfare rather than creating some of the most successful characters in children’s literature in history.”

On one hand, the regime of austerity and intensified work aims to crush any attempt to use the imagination. On the other hand,  the active use of imagination is what gives social movements their power. Fairies might not have had much bearing on our occupation of the South London Women’s Hospital – though we did tell a few ghost stories about the walk along the underground corridor between the main building to the annexe, which happened to pass the morgue.

SL Women's Hospital

This is the balcony where we sang “What shall we do with the cops and bailiffs”, dressed up in nurse uniforms and surgeon’s masks. Good times!

But our campaign showed resilience because we went beyond traditional meetings and petition-writing. We didn’t only defend the health service as it was, but created a centre where women came together to take action, discuss and start to create the kind of health care we wanted. And beyond that – a vision of the kind of world we want to live in.

I still sometimes come across the idea that fantastical fiction is always escapist. It can be – so can anything. It can also be subversive – it is what we make it. In this context, a classic line from the 80s punk band Zounds comes to mind: “I’m not looking for escapism, I just want to escape.”

Is there a difference between escapism and wanting to escape? Answers on the back of a postcard, please!

And with that I’ll sign off with a song…

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