It’s Thursday 9th April 2020 and when I’m picking up Caribbean food in St Pauls a woman tells me it’s all going to end next Thursday. ‘Everyone will be able to come out of their houses and it’ll go back to normal’. Oh really? I ask. That seems a bit soon, won’t there still be the whole epidemic thing? ‘It says so in the Bible’, she answers. She gets out her phone and reads the relevant sections, the first from Isaiah 26:20 that says ‘go my people into your houses and hide yourselves for a little while until the Lord’s wrath has passed’. She then reads the section about Passover being on the 16th April which is indeed next Thursday. There’s a few things in this account that don’t add up, like in the relevant section in the book of Joshua it says the Passover feast will be on the 14th of the month not the 16th. But I don’t have this information at hand. I don’t tell her I’ve walked in the Jericho plains where the Israelites had their Passover feast and in the hills over looking the Jordan river where they crossed from their exile in Egypt and which is covered in barbed wire and mines and a complicated series of military checkpoints, and the border between the West Bank and Jordan named the ‘dignity crossing’ (al-karameh) after a fedayeen camp there in the 60s and should be called the loss of dignity crossing. The land of milk and honey. I don’t think about the holy land but about this woman, and her belief in the prophecy and if that brings her comfort then who am I to judge her. I think about how people are so surprising and if anything would warn against judging others is that I can never tell someone will tell me next if I let them talk freely. Like that time on the coast of Montenegro when I was cycling up the coastal road heading towards Albania and stopped to admire the view and the man selling souvenirs on the roadside told me he’d been to England and thought that Stevenage was beautiful. We looked out to the sea and at the coastline of white beaches and the peninsula towns and I moved on. As I drop off the Caribbean food to Eastville the people come out of their houses to clap for the NHS and carers and its 8pm and I join in cycling no-handed back to St Werbergs along the Frome river.
As I cycle up Whiteladies Road I notice a man sat on his own in the window of his closed restaurant drinking a can of Fosters next to a catering size hand sanitiser and he’s still there cutting a lonely figure as I cycle back down on the way to somewhere else. I remember eating dinner with my family for my birthday in that restaurant nearly four years ago. We talked about the upcoming Brexit vote, how we thought it couldn’t really happen, probably wouldn’t happen, and what a economic disaster it would be. And here we find ourselves four years later, adrift on Brexit island in a sea of pandemic panic, and what else is there to do but drink a can of Fosters and hope for the best. I’m reading a book by Turkish writer and activist Ece Temelkuran How to Lose A Country about how politics can drift into small minded populism and xenphobia when you’re not paying attention and when you think that rational truths and reasoned debate will save you. She’s speaking like a true prophet and I wish we could have heard her voice four years ago but then we weren’t paying attention and didn’t think it would happen to us, but it was already happening to us. She says when she gives talks she is always asked ‘so is there hope?’ and she replies, ‘Hope is a fragile word. I prefer to beleive in determination, the determination to create beauty, political beauty.’ When faced with the onslaught of the past four years of Britain’s public debate descending further into the mire of recrimination and petty hatreds and divisions then hope has indeed been ephemeral and fragile and resorted to flag waving against flag waving and a ‘choose your side and stick to it’ mentality of digging a trench and lying in it despite any reasonable evidence that you’re sitting on a mine. Brexit island was divided between blind hope and faith indifferent to working class struggles on the one side and dogged and fiery intolerance on the other and in the midst of that there was a profound lack of solidarity. And as Temelkuran later points out, solidarity might be all we have, when she writes: ‘And the only meaningful defence by which we can protect ourselves and each other is by building bonds of solidarity in order to change the political atmosphere and render it outdated, an evil cause that was no more than a passing trend.’
I pick up a double order from Poco and cycle first to Cotham. There’s an abandoned pink rocking horse on Nine Tree Hill and that’s nothing new really in terms of street furniture but there’s an empty space where the Carriageworks used to be and you can see the city through it. It makes me think of the recently demolished Post Office building at Temple Meads and why it is that the loss of these buildings makes me unreasonably sad, like a marker of a battle where the corporate property vultures won and the people lost. As Temelkuran reminds me there are many battles in the wider people’s struggle against the populists and the profiteers and none more so than in the post pandemic order. The second order goes to the part of Clifton where the houses are so big they can’t be seen from the road and the inhabitants seem to think that house numbers are beneath them and they prefer to keep them hidden. Strange to think that the Brexit myth was sold to the masses by the crazed right-wing press and hedge fund managers and financier types like Rees-Mogg and Farage who are now seeking to profit from the pandemic crash that might leave millions unemployed, so they could parcel up and sell off the NHS that we’re now relying on more than ever to save our lives, chasing after a neoliberal dream of private healthcare that is making the US looking increasingly like a paper tiger, or as some are saying, a failed state. And while the affluent leafy neighbourhoods of Bristol like Clifton and Redland and the mixed wards of Easton and Lawrence Hill knew that their interests were better served by staying in the EU, deprived Filwood (Knowle West), Hartcliffe and Hengrove had nothing to lose and voted out. These wards are in the most deprived 10% of Britain. And the saddest thing for me is that while the corporate barons who own the British press and the hedge fund aristocrats who would sell off Britain’s grandmothers if it’d make a profit will weather quite comfortably any economic crash whether from the pandemic or the later Brexit nightmare that will lead us further towards the neoliberal hollowing out of the welfare state, the people in those Brexit-voting wards will be more likely to sink into deprivation. And do I have hope in the midst of this crisis that is showing us the best of some and the worst of others? No, but I do have determination and that might see us through, and if that fails I know the shops still have vodka.