It’s over. It’s not over.
i left Bristol last week and i cried when i said goodbye to my housemate and the dog in anticipation of the separation anxiety that will ensue without the latter bounding into my room every morning to lick my face. After seven long months of lockdown and the aftermath in this little Easton house we all need a change and I’m ready to leave Bristol for a break. I delivered my last few burgers and packed my bags. Last week delivery couriers in York and Sheffield boycotted Wagamama’s and Five Guys over excessive wait times and, pointing out that the waiting times were lowering couriers’ wages to around £4 an hour. The IGWB rep said “If Five Guys wants to spend hours making each order, polishing each burger and individually slicing each onion with a precision knife, that’s fine, but they should demand that Deliveroo pay for our waiting times. What they can’t do is continue to profit off the back of a hyper-exploited workforce and not expect there to be some kind of reaction.”
I’m happy not just because it is a sign of forment and resistance among delivery couriers for this the most awful of years showing up the exploitative employment practices of those leeches of late capitalism, Deliveroo and Uber, that may signal change and better treatment, but because Five Guys and Wagamama’s are among the rudest of restaurants out there. Working for Deliveroo and Uber in the past years has shown me how people deemed to be at the bottom of the workplace hierarchy get treated. Maybe I see it in a stark way, moving easily between the space where I am in a powerful position, as a teacher at the university of Bristol, with all this privilege as a white middle class person, to that where I am read and treated as other, as lower, as lesser because of the courier job. Sometimes I walk into restaurants and am blanked for ten or twenty minutes as waiters chat amongst themselves, assuming I don’t speak English – in that space I become Brazilian, Romanian, Polish or whatever – and then very slowly and patronisingly tell me to swipe the order in front of them and show them my phone so they know I haven’t stolen the food. I think about Zizzi in Clifton in February where I told the tall waiter my number, he said he’d check and he told me to wait outside. I watched him serve some customers and then stand around for a while. After fifteen minutes I asked him again, he looked at me like i was some dirt from the street messing up his fancy restaurant then went to the kitchen and got the food that I could see had been there the whole time. Another time just before the lockdown in Turtle Bay on Gloucester Road I ask the waiter for the number, she tells me to wait. I wait a while and can see an order on the side in the kitchen ready to go. I try to get the waiter’s attention and she ignores me. I go to the bar manager and ask for my number, and he looks at me like I’m an impetuous child and says very slowly and clearly in case I don’t understand, ‘have you told someone your number?’ miming with his hands. Yes I have, and I can see that it’s ready, and while I’m waiting here, my wage is dwindling below minimum wage so it’d be great if I could have it now, thanks, is what I wanted to say. ‘Ok, what you neeed to do now is just wait here, until it’s ready and someone will bring it to you, mkay?’ He checks the order that has been sat on the side the whole time and brings it to me with a flourish of contempt. This job has made me think twice and three times about how we treat the people who are largely invisible to us but who bring us things, sweep up, stack shelves, drive us around and service our needs as consumers while we are thinking about how important we are. ‘Why are you wearing a mask? You’re not worried about that corona-virus are you? I can’t hear you!’ the man at Five Guys asked me on a Saturday at the start of March while the world was stuttering into the realisation of the looming catastrophe and I began to think it wise to wear a mask when inside restaurants. Two weeks later and the country, and almost whole world was in lockdown.
And the corona crisis crept up on us, from seemingly distant rumours in China, to quarantined cruise ships, even when it was Italians singing on balconies it seemed like it we were insulated from it, such is the conceit of living on an archipelago in the North Sea, but there’s no such thing as isolationism these days, and before we knew it even Cabot Circus was shut down. At least the impending catastrophe was tinged with hope and excitement at the start. It’s been a long strange year. The intense sweaty heat of early August broke the night I swam in a fishing lake in Pensford, and the heat gave way to storms and rain. And the dark gloom on an evening augured autumn by the end of August. I rode past Motion, months silent, one single light on in the garden flickering on the river, the cranes stretching into the sky, their arms topped with tiny red beacons. What are they building? Who’s going to want to live in city centres after this? I wonder if our hope will survive the winter.
I’m reading Mourid Barghouti and he’s teaching me to abandon romantic yearnings for something that never was. He grapples with the idea of Palestine, with a longing that he realises is for a time, not a place, and that the cruel winding of time had made a mockery of his yearnings. He says, ‘I did not turn my back on romance because of a fashion in art; it is life itself that has no task but to destroy the romanticism of humans. Life pushes us towards the dust of reality.’ Life will turn your dreams to dust and then back into trees and they will live longer than you. Mahmoud Darwish described his laboured coffee ritual in Beirut where he wants to make his morning coffee and read the paper while fighter jets soar overhead and he ponder how his building is a target of snipers and he imagines his own funeral. ‘Why did i choose to live in Beirut?…. I don’t want to die under the rubble, I want to die in the open street.’ And there’s another line from Memory and forgetfulness that used to be stuck in my head:
وَتشَابهتِ أنتِ وقهّوتي بَاللذه والمَرارهْ والإدمَان
And I don’t even drink coffee any more. Mourid Barghouti talks about how he cares about his houseplants in each new place he finds himself during his long exile. ‘Sometimes I support some of their branches with special sticks, and sometimes I tie them to transparent threads that prefigure the way the plant would want to grow. I give them light and air and friendship and then I leave. I always leave.’
In my last days in Bristol I took a friend up Avon Gorge to climb Morpheus, the classic easy route up the Sea Walls. I haven’t climbed trad regularly for years but I figure it’s a Vdiff, how hard can it be, you’re virtually scrambling up parts of it. I read and re-read the route description. Some polished sections, some rusting piton protection, sounds like standard Avon Gorge climbing. My friend has climbed outdoors once or twice but has never placed gear so I’m fully in the lead. I tackle the smooth boulder problem finger crack start, fix the anchors and bring them up, showing them where to clip in and making sure I can clip out easily, then go up again and veer wildly off route, going right instead of left, ending up at the bottom of a boulder problem above two ledges. I place gear and bring up the second, but I know I’m in the wrong place, even left of Gronk, and tell her to anchor onto a bush and put me on belay while I climb down and set a new belay. I get back onto Morpheus but the whole escapade takes up quite a bit of time and the sun catches us before disappearing behind Leigh Woods on the other side of the gorge. It’s a beautiful moment but I’m too busy thinking about the route and the anchor situation to dwell on what the sunset means: and end to the daylight. I haven’t got my head around it being early autumn and mid September not mid July. I get to the top of the second pitch and anchor in to bring up the second and we contemplate the dying light. My friend sings to distract herself from the impending fact that we’re in the middle of a cliff in Avon Gorge with no torches or headlights and on a route I’ve never climbed before. I look up at the chimney pitch and read the description again. Should be fine, I say, and you’re tall so you’ll be fine. Yeah, it’ll be fine. I head off, heaving myself up the chimney pitch, clipping the age-old piton and forcing myself up on my elbows and knees before grabbing the flake. The piton is at my feet now, don’t think about it, you’re on a solid flake. No time to place gear, and I head on up to a tenuous rocky corner where I get three tenuous pieces of gear in for an anchor, including one thread that pulls if you stand above it, a nut that pulls from one side and an ok-ish nut that I can’t quite see but seems to hold. It’s approaching full darkness. Calm the shaky limbs, check the anchors again – I think they’ll hold. Two climbers who’ve been doing single pitches down below shine a light up to us. ‘Are you ok?’ one guy shouts up. Yeah fine! I shout, though I’m starting to worry. Ok! He shouts back, and they leave. I bring my friend up and get her anchored in. Ok, don’t stand there, stand here, and I start fussing to myself for distraction. Darkness is fully upon us, but at least she’s anchored in. I watch as she puts me on belay and come out of the anchors. ‘Have you ever climbed in the dark before?’ she asks nervously. Yes, I lie. I look up at the remaining cliff. I can’t see anything except a few bushes catching the light from the street lamps down below. I read the description, it says climb underneath the bush. Ok, I know where I’m going, I lie. I start up the route hoping for best, and climb the 20 or so metres with one sling around a tiny bush, using my knees wherever possible because my legs are shaking. I set up anchor at the tree and shout down, I’m at the top! We both sit for a while at the top, recovering our breath and thankful to be on solid ground. That’s an Avon Gorge Vdiff for you, though if it was light the whole way it would have been a lot easier. We walk down the path through the goat area and cycle back down the gorge, under the Suspension Bridge, and drink a pint at the Nova Scotia.
And that’s it from me as a courier in Bristol, for a short interlude anyway. I’ll be writing here on my old blog about what I’m up to in Athens.