‘This is my lifestyle. Work work work then go home.’
– conversation among strangers, Bristol Harbour.
I wake up in Jackson’s front room in Easton, north-east Bristol. It’s been a warm and cosy welcome from the city so far, a distinctively laid-back, liberal place that stands out for its cool, calm bustle and plethora of ambitious street art. It’s a vision of what British cities could be. Much of its built environment is similar to other cities, from the terraced townhouses of Victorian family life to the technocratic Austin Maxi utopias of car-centred road planning. The malls like Cabot Circus could have been built in any other city south of Aberdeen and north of Southampton, and the regenerated harboursides with their cobbled paths, hipster boozers and art galleries are lovely but, in fairness, nothing unusual. No, wandering around Bristol yesterday as the afternoon became the evening, I encountered a city that charmed me with its ambience and mood. Music, art and conversation felt not simply possible here, but inevitable; freely created, exchanged and shared. There’s life all about the place. It feels like it would be a very hard town to be parochial, bigoted, or just plain dull in. That is wonderful.
Jackson dashes out after improbably little sleep to help a friend decorate. I’m realising that the older I get, the less I can tolerate less than six hours’ kip. There was a time when I’d go to work with little more than five, ready to hit the high-stress coalface and attempt to prove some kind of validity and worth in places where having no personal life or weird anxiety tics were positive signs of personal commitment. You get em! Now I can sleep in ‘til nine or eleven if I choose. Bristol’s my business, and my CV’s so chequered that I’m no longer burdened with the delusion of aspirational employment. These travels are taking place in a hole in time, sustained by small pots of money that come with conditions whose implications I’m ignoring right now, as I climb into my least-smelly clothes whilst sipping a herbal tea. Untethered to a deadline or obligation, to a pressure to pay an inflated bill or appease a miserable boss.
This is the closest I’ve come to a feeling of freedom. To awake without haste, with the possibility of doing exactly as I please. I could stay in Bristol today or just depart, sack it off, venture south, or west, as I please. I could travel to this gallery, or that bar, or stay right here, among the books. I could seek out and talk to whoever crosses my path of the four hundred thousands of dwellers of this cool little city. There are no plans except those I set for the day. A batwing smile stretches across my face.
I talk to Joe before he leaves the house. He’s a support worker for people with learning difficulties whilst he completes an MA in International Development. ‘I think it’s a good balance, I’m happy with where I am right now’. These are young people committed to helping others not out of a sense of life-purpose but as a feature of their own happiness. Their ideas and activities are the anathema of the average elected MP. It’s been a pleasure once again to spend time with calm and grounded people who have let me into their home without any conditions, out of generosity and friendliness. Travel remains as much a discovery of people and places, and I’m buoyed and delighted by the frequency of kindness I encounter each day.
I head under the godawful M32 motorway that divides Bristol’s east from its west, a catastrophe of town planning that cuts a wall across the city for the benefit of the car-driver. I happily lose myself for a while in the north-western suburbs, circling around St. Werburgh’s, Montpelier and Stapleton before cycling through to St. Pauls. The street art and graffiti, shabby Victorian terraced townhouses, ramshackle old squares and Afro-Caribbean takeaways remind me of my home, Loughborough Junction, as it was around ten years ago. But something’s different too. Areas like St. Pauls and Stokes Croft feel even more laid-back. I can’t picture a road rage incidence or a gang of teenagers attacking another, as one can, and as can be seen, back home. It’s relaxed and chilled here, something I’ve felt all across Bristol so far. Jackson’s suggestion makes sense of it. Bristol isn’t a place you go and see, but somewhere you’re in and experience. This seems to be what makes it special, its laid-back, tolerant, unpretentious way about it. And it recurs again and again. People across these islands have sometimes told me about Bristol. It’s a place commonly praised and loved, almost as much as Liverpool. But why? I feel like I’ve found the answer.
But not everyone likes Bristol. And I’m not talking about the Bristolians, mind, who tell me about their (at times adopted) homeplace with unusual affection. Its openness has been confused with laxness; its liberalism, mere permissiveness. Owen Hatherley recently called the place one not ‘all that bothered by anything … a permanently stoned centre of alternative culture’. I have no problem with the city’s pleasure in itself, and Bristol seems to be having a damn good time, but then cities are not competition entries for our affections. At different times they match our moods and needs. He sees a city ‘all over the place’ with a ‘general air of torpor’, with streets that ‘seem to encourage a sense of chaos’. Who knows what mayhem might happen if a city’s worthy citizens lacked an ideological pretext for enjoying themselves…
But is there something a little too complacent and self-absorbed about the radical culture of the city? Stokes Croft is a good place to put that question to the test.
From St Pauls I rejoin the bottom of Gloucester Road and into Stokes Croft, a stretch of road that gives this surprisingly small area its name. There’s a plethora of street art all around, even more so than the abundance that adorns the edges of Victorian terraces and the sides of Sixties and Seventies’ Seifert-school office high-rises across central Bristol. The city’s a superb place to look up and around. There’s Nelson street where the buses congregate, a side-road slither with some extraordinary stuff anywhere you care to lift your eyes. This city’s the place where Banksy was born. Whilst other local councils continue to erase or paint over his politically contentious or ironic stencils, Bristol City Council has put together a walking tour and has made efforts to preserve his works across the city.
Edges of this political radicalism remain. The people of this area deserve a gold star for being the only neighbourhood to resist their area being Tescoed. Back in April 2011 there was a community riot after Tesco opened one of their ubiquitous Express stores on nearby Cheltenham Road. Hundreds came out to make their feelings known about the attempt of a supermarket chain to close local businesses, poison the young and the poor with cut-price junk food, and turn their area into yet another fucking boring clone neighbourhood. They gave it a fair try, turning out in two nights of rage over the course of a week, trashing the store and making a communal stand. The Tesco remains, but what’s more prominent is the leftover protest graffiti and the sustained appetite for independence.
I have no truck with cheap supermarkets – the only way I’ve been able to afford to eat on this journey is by buying cut-price cereal and tortilla wraps, and my daily travels mean I’m well familiar with whichever supermarket’s running the best deals. Out-of-town supermarkets inevitably killed local high streets, their convenience and superior buying power provided cheaper goods. And who can resist a bargain? Unverifiable hunter-gatherer myths about some prehistorical human nature I have no time for, but there’s something deeply and inexplicably pleasurable about finding and bringing home the cheapest… whatever.
But this modern glut of ‘Local’ and ‘Express’ stores on your doorstep charging more than the poor sods at the Costcutter they’ve just bought out? There is no need for them, nor are they cheaper. They are a plague which thrives on this nation’s collective somnambulance, drifting into its reduced section and Costa coffee in search of things it never had a desire for. Few would admit that they are pleased and happy to permit a predictable and pre-programmed series of images and products to compose the overwhelming entirety of their imaginations and desires. Some traits of these islands’ emphasis on self-sufficiency, empiricism and self-deprecation remain. Yet here they are, and we are, shopping in them, headphones in, hands sanitised, cocooned from anything strange, dirty or unpredictable that might disrupt our dreaming.
But look around and breathe in the pleasing difference here. Stokes Croft hasn’t lost itself in the way the average inner city suburb has. Beneath the street art there’s more than enough hipster cafés to cater for the average start-up media company’s lunchbreak. There’s art galleries too, painfully aware of themselves. But then there are also just as many takeaways and off-licences. Besides the hipsters with their tweaked taches, mock-nineties Seattle hobo beanies and expensively-schooled accents, there are down-and-out street drinkers, drug users, and people just getting on with things. And unlike my home area of Loughborough Junction, there’s not so much sense of juxtaposition here. There are (or were) parts of Coldharbour Lane where, if you listen carefully on a dark night, one can tune into the dreams of the Home Counties-bred media interns actively anticipating the dispersal and disappearance of the neglected, superfluous local poor (these ‘up and coming’ areas, just imagine the prices! Daddy’s investment paying off). Believe me, I’ve seen them at the front of anti-gentrification marches, truly the first at everything. But I don’t get that with Stokes Croft.
‘A popular uprising that starts at the nearest Tesco. It’s possible. There’s a hunger for violence, that’s why sport obsesses the whole country. Everyone’s suffocating – too many barcode readers, too many CCTV cameras and double yellow lines.’
The author J.G. Ballard has a pre-cog for every occasion, an extreme hypothesis for how our docile disaffections and dormant desires might unleash themselves. Apathy, anger and an aching boredom are festering; distrust and cynicism grows, whilst the only dream left is the house, career or holiday you’ve been storing up your hopes and denying your impulses to somehow accumulate. It’s unlikely, but somehow you’ll be the lucky one, right…? Consumerism is all we have left today, Ballard warns. We are not merely window-shopping for the next phone or laptop either. He writes in his final novel Kingdom Come (2006) about how a huge shopping-centre in a British suburb in the near-future becomes the focus of a fascist uprising. Bored, deeply bored, disaffected citizens of suburbia are swept up by local sports fixtures and a paranoid English nationalism that spirals into racist attacks against non-whites, paranoia about crime, and a weird attachment to the Metro-centre mall, its TV channels and its TV presenter face, David Cruise. Are these masses manipulated by their capitalist overlords? Ballard’s argument is more subtle and historically sound: they are troublingly if passively complicit. They enjoy discovering new feelings of freedom through expressions of collective, impulsive violence and group emotions. The sleep of reason produces monsters. And with no other political model or vision to challenge the paranoiac xenophobia and thick-headed ignorance that is leading a lot of people across these islands to embrace forms of nationalism that reinforce the establishment, Ballard’s pre-cog is genuinely chilling, I think.
Stokes Croft, like Bristol more broadly, feels like the exception that reinforces the rule, in the way that any cosy and self-marginalising counterculture reinforces the sterility of the mainstream. I sit in Hamilton House for a coffee, in what appears to be a large multi-storey office block now delightfully repurposed into a thriving communal institution. The staff are remarkably eloquent, though dress as if they’ve been forced to forage from the Sunday night store-bags of a Scope shopfront. The centre has many community activities in its space as well as a gallery, exhibition area, and live music in the evening. Some may seem a little risible, or just a lot of fun, depending on your temperament, and it’s a lovely place to spend a few hours making a single coffee last out and simply thinking, or writing, and bothering passers-by to join in the awkward jazz of unfamiliar group conversations. There are all kinds of people around me, from people with serious mental health problems meeting their support workers to plum-voiced students excited by poverty exotica. I’m besides architecture professionals working together to design projects over lunch, to local fellas sipping a pint of flavour-free lager at 11am in the morning and ranting sheer misery about the mothers of their estranged children.
‘Maybe I’m not destined to be with a woman’.
‘They always want to talk about how your day’s been at work’.
‘“Fucking shut up man!”, I just want to be quiet, mong out, my zone … 18 years is like a life sentence, you’d get that for murder.’
Never let the generosity or mystery of love and loving turn into… that. And later, on the same table:
‘Like a roundabout, with a Communist style estate, really grotty stairs … it’s the most amazing decor I’ve ever seen’.
The glorious Loughborough Junction estate in the words of the easily-impressed, affluent hipster. Poverty exotica, ripe for curation by Brian Dillon. It’s amazing who you can meet when you start to slow down and throw out the easiest and most open of questions. Stokes Croft is a curious place. Give me a week and I’d grow to dislike it, but in the neighbourhoods around it remind me of where I’ve come from. Bristol’s the first place I’ve passed through that I recognise myself in, that I feel myself living easily in. There’s even a People’s Republic of Stokes Croft, though peel away the faux-revolutionary stickers and it seems like another pisspoor property developer’s ruse to big up the area. (If you insist on calling anywhere a ‘quarter’ then I will insist on ignoring you). Still, that’s a gesture more homely than anything else. South London is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake, but there’s a certain relief in a nightmare resuming a repetitive track.
I cross through the Bearpit underpass and back over to Broad Street, peddling gently from the north towards the centre of the city. The words and images painted on the walls are socially conscientious in nature, but I see few signs of poverty or struggle, overt or concealed. My time free, I decide to lurk around Bristol’s wide and lazy lanes, dashing up to a doorway to inspect a feature, asking a stranger for the time, and then an opinion, gazing up at the sunny late-summer skies to judge the mood of the weather, the superego of the British Isles, before pedalling around again, pissing off pedestrians.
The Palestinian Embassy is situated on Broad Street in an older part of the city. Occupying several floors of a small and cramped slither of a building, it tells the story of a people who were systematically removed from their lands and home. Over 1947-48 alone, over three quarters of a million Palestinians were forced to leave by Jewish militia. Since that time what little land was partitioned to the Palestinians has been rapidly whittled away to the current untenable situation, a large open-air prison. Yet the areas that comprise Israel and Palestine is no larger than Haiti, and its population only twelve million. Just over half of its population is Jewish, yet the Palestinians are crammed into only 21% of its territory. Estimates vary, being necessarily hard to call, but anything from 4 to 7 million Palestinians are thought to live outside the country in another kind of diaspora.
In Arabic, they call it ‘an-Nakba’, the catastrophe. Whilst to call an-Nakba the ‘largest planned ethnic cleansing operation in modern history’ is, I think, deeply offensive and wilfully ignorant of the facts of the Holocaust, this is one of the very few sites where the Palestinian perspective is put across. And, oh my, perfidious Albion! Some extremely disingenuous, dishonest and utterly Machiavellian communications by various British foreign officials during and after World War One gave the impression to both Arabs and Zionists that the state of Palestine would fall into their hands. The Embassy has been here for over a year and a half, with support from the local council. It tells this story and others, and sells Palestinian-made goods, like olive oil, soap, and Jackson’s freekah. It’s a friendly, open and welcome place, and well worth passing the time in.
From there I cycle down to Corn Street, surveying the sweeps the old Georgian architecture of a city also built on the back of the slave trade. Trade was a two-way process, and African slave traders sought guns, cotton, copper and brass items and glass jewellery in exchange for the captured peoples willingly sold. Whilst guns were produced in the Midlands and other items traded with Europe, the wider Bristol area produced brass in abundance, as well as coal, sugar, and later tobacco, railways, and aircraft. As with Hull and Liverpool, there was as much mercantile opposition to the abolition of slavery as there was high-minded liberal support. But Bristol seems far less troubled or traumatised by it than those towns. There are no hand-wringing monuments by the docks or apologies in the city histories. Complacency, perhaps? But by the early 19th century the city was already struggling to keep up with its northern rivals anyway. And perhaps it relates back to the city’s underlying non-conformism, expressed less in gesture and more in mood. Its people are the attraction.
John Wesley established his first chapel here in this city. The ideas that would later become Methodism, with their emphases on personal redemption, social service and care for the poor, strike me as fundamental in establishing the later communal links and traditions of trade unionism and early Labour party membership, and it’s something I’ve been trying to explore and hint at on these travels. We’ll find out more about the extent of Methodism as I move further south-west.
I wander around St. Nicholas’s markets and peer at the unwanted second hand book stalls and jewellery stands. One stall sells t-shirts in the local dialect, Brizzle. To speak proper Brizzle proper, you’ll need to drop your Hs and emphasise your Rrrs, drawl your phrases and allow phrases to rise and fall in pitch, often ending needlessly with intonation. Do the Bristolians actually speak like this? Well, predictably few do, and some of its features aren’t unique (‘theirselves’, ‘proper good’, ‘I looks at’, ‘we was there’, ‘casn’t’) but vernacular corruptions that appear in other dialects. Others are used ironically, like ‘gert lush’, ‘how bist?’, ‘hark at ee!’ which contain old English forms – how be’est thou? But it’s the accent, and the mood, that remains. There’s a certain pride in being part of the tribe, however ironically, and it’s a good thing. In an era of growing cultural homogeneity there’s something gert lush, boss or fackin mustard about people being proud about the towns and traditions they’re from.
From the markets I cross back towards the harbour, along Welsh Back and besides the Byzantine features of the red-brick Granary building. I cut over the Georgian sobriety of Queen Square and pause by the Arnolfini gallery, where a young man sketches the bobbing boats around the floating harbour with lazy diffidence. Locals sit and talk on the picnic benches in the late summer sun. I cross over towards the harbourside, following a railway line that leads towards Brunel’s S.S. Britain steamship and a number of timber kiosks advertising local boatrips. In the distance are the multi-coloured pastel houses of Clifton and Whiteladies in the distance, adding to the air of overall charm. Nothing’s being cauterized or plain erased from Bristol in the way of the northern cities, south Wales or Glasgow. It retains much of its history without giving the passer-by a history lesson. And though perhaps it could be, it is not troubled by its history, and neither attempts to justify or apologise for its past. Instead, the effect is one of relief and levitation, one of relaxation. One could imagine a positive future scenario for a city like Bristol, and where else can this be said of any urban area in the British Isles, with the exception perhaps of Manchester or Glasgow?
I follow the harbourside round, much of it still a working harbour. I peek into the workshops of the boat-builders by Underhill Yard, then take a stop at the Grain Barge, a floating boat-boozer and base of the Bristol Beer Factory. As I sip on the local sauce, the vessel is gently rocked by passing vessels. I write, catch up with relatives, and take some time out, soaking in the conversation, quietly absorbing the city.
‘Alex you cannot do that, you cannot think that, it’s no good doing it in French’. Two horsey women are complaining about either a PA or an au pair, and the great difficulties of being a second (or third?) home owner in the Mediterranean. ‘You cannot speak in French, I will not allow it. This is England. No one speaks it here.’
I cycle over the Avon to the south side of Bristol and to an inner suburb called Bedminster. My second couchsurfing host for the city lives here and his name is Pat. It’s a more lively area than the chilled out areas of the east. As I wander round I watch kids on bmx bikes harass and bully a drunk down-and-out who finds refuge in a chip shop. After meeting my host I head back out to Asda to pick up some key supplies, like cereal, kidney beans and a small bottle of Jura superstition whisky, before returning.
Pat tells me about his love of Bristol, having been brought up in Cambridge then worked in London (‘me and London did not get on’). A stressful and demanding job was not what he wanted, so he spent a year and a half travelling, spending time in Australia, before coming back to Bristol where he’d originally studied at university. He loves the city, and takes pleasure in showing visitors around the sights. And one can see why, with its laid-back and gentle ways, its vibrant cultures, and those lovely buildings all about the place. What matter? Bristol isn’t fussy, precious or pretentious about it. Perhaps it’s a bit too chilled, almost sluggish, lacking that acerbic wit and buzzing energy of Liverpool, or the swagger and dreams of Manchester, or the worldliness of Glasgow, the heritage vanities of Edinburgh, or the unpretentious, hard-working and mental dexterity of the West Midlands. Time feels a teeny bit slower here.
If one needs that, this is a good place to be. For me, I still need my cities to roar a bit, to hurt a bit more. Everyone tells me that in their city my bicycle, or parts of it, will be stolen. In some places it’s feasible, but seemingly not here. The bicycle is fair game for the thief in any city, but I’m usually warned about its vulnerability in cities where it is most safe, like here, or Cardiff. Which goes back to these strange cultural condition of fear. People are most afraid in situations where they are most safe. I need more passion and edge from a city, and this place is too content for that. Passion requires conflict, a degree of injustice, or suffering, or impossible hope, or restless desire. It’s a strange thing to say one wants, but in its absence, one no longer feels so alive. And what is it Goethe says? ‘One can stand anything except a succession of ordinary days.’ Well…
We eat together, chat a little, then both take an early night.