Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Voices from the Occupation: Inside the School of Ideas


Picture by @HeardinLondon
 While Occupy London’s St Pauls camp looks set for its last night, ahead of an appeal decision tomorrow – a new Occupy London site has opened to Occupiers and local community.  The School of Ideas has sprung up in an abandoned school in the heart of Islington, minutes from Old Street Tube.  Today’s article is about spending an inspiring, random and hilarious afternoon there on Sunday 19th February 2012.

A Little about the School of Ideas


 Picture by @HeardinLondon
Moorfields School has been closed for three years, since it merged with a local school Prior Western.  There was initial consternation about the occupation amidst claims Occupy London was preventing affordable housing being built on the site.  However, these claims proved false.  The land belongs to Southern HousingGroup, who had their initial plans to replace the school with luxury homes refused by Islington Council on the basis that affordable homes were needed in the area. Southern Housing Group is appealing the decision, and while it submits a revised plan with a greater mix of housing - it has recieved permission to demolish the school anyway. 

TheSchool of Ideas is an evolution of the Bank of Ideas, recently evicted from its site in a UBS Bank owned building on Sun Street, Hackney.  The Bank of Ideas held over 400 workshops, lectures and discussions, opening its doors to local youth and community groups to use in the absence of suitable premises elsewhere.  It also launched the Free University Campaign in association with supporting academics, which has continued its courses despite the closure of the Bank of Ideas. 
 The small former primary school is nestled amongst high rise apartment blocks in a side street of City Road, Islington – a stone’s throw from Occupy London’s Finsbury Square site.  Islington is a choice location as it one of the most unequal areas of not only London, but the UK, with vast wealth and poverty living cheek by jowl.  

Picture by @HeardinLondon
Painted disks adorn the wooden fencing around the site, painted with inspirational quotes or intentional statements, such as ‘Reclaim Love’ or ‘Occupy the World’.  A chalkboard sits on a chair at the entrance – “Come have a brew and a chat!”
As we enter site, there is a sign, formerly of Finsbury Square which stands red and white like a fire alarm- ‘In Case of Emergency – Pitch Tent’.  The Occupy London initial statement is written in black ink on a yellow board and stands to the right of the entrance.  The self drafted good neighbour policy and rules of use for the School are on the left.  The school building is painted friendly yellows and blues, withered trellises run parallel. 
The School has 10 classrooms, and according to the School of Ideas website “It has been opened to the public for the free sharing of ideas and solutions, to help solve the pressing economic, social and environmental challenges globally and locally.”  The SoI invites artists, performers, creatives and thinkers to host events at the site free of charge to all, which promote creativity, debate, critical thinking and community. 
In recent weeks, Occupation Records and the Outreach Working Group hosted the enormously successful School of Rockupy events.  Supported by Kate Nash and Sam Duckworth (Get Cape, Wear, Fly); Occupiers and children from the local community came together to write a song in a day with a message.  Seeing the Banking Crisis from the lyricised point of view of a seven year old child is a pretty breathtaking experience.  I heartily recommend visiting future sessions of this as it forms part of some great work, energised and invigorated by Occupier Jamie Kelsey-Fry, to reach out to schools and the children of the UK.
A Glorious Day and a Fine Welcome

Picture by @HeardinLondon
 I came along to see the new occupation but also to attend a poetry workshop with Pete the Temp, professional performance poet and Occupy London’s poet in residence.  I hadn’t written poetry for some time, but was inspired by the idea of creating poetry within the Occupation.  As Pete said on the day ‘Occupy is full of poetry. The banners, the posters, the reclaiming of buildings and public space.  The whole movement is rich with it’.  I came with a friend of mine who is also a professional performance poet and published writer – Sophia Blackwell.  I was keen to see Occupy through her eyes, both as a poet and as someone who had limited contact with the Occupy Movement, outside of my own impassioned musings.
The doors opened into a bright wide indoor space with red couches, small round tables and a bright blue pod at the far end entitled ‘The Cafe’.  I see a familiar face manning the reception desk; he lets us know Pete is in the building, and that I can make a much needed coffee in the cafe while we wait.  There are several people milling around.  It’s a hands in pockets cold day, but brilliant blue sky and lots of light.  People are warm, eyes meet as people pass and smiles cross faces.  I note that this is certainly an improvement on the general reception on arrival at the Bank of Ideas, which could leave a person feeling like a spectator as folk whizzed by never glancing up at you or providing a welcome.  We were definitely made welcome and at ease.
 While I was rolling a cigarette, a brown skinned man with long black hair pulled back into a pony tail settled next to me.  He asked me if I wanted a foot massage.  I was fairly hungover from a quite heroic consumption of red wine the previous evening, and the idea of laying back and having my feet rubbed appealed.   The cold however made me disinclined to remove a single article of clothing.  The matter was neatly cleared up when he confirmed he had a ‘unique’ technique for foot massage: using not his hands, but his forehead.  I thanked him for a good chuckle and left him to it.
 Take a tour of the School of ideas here. 
Poetry with Pete the Temp
    
A group of about 15 of us gathered around the room.  Pete gave a warm, wide eyed welcome to us all; including a young woman in a stained white jumper who grumpily walked in, collapsed between us on a red couch and promptly fell asleep.  We did some warm up exercises involving diaphragm stretching, impersonating motorcycles and speedboats, and jumping around.  It was great; I went from peering sleepily through half opened eyelids to guffawing and bouncing about like a five year old in about five minutes.
We did the introductions.  It was a varied crowd; some known professional & amateur poets from the circuit, some occupiers who had written a lot over the years, some Londoners who had heard the workshop promoted at events through the week...and some folks who’d never written a thing before but wanted to try something new.  We were asked to share one interesting experience from our week as part of our introduction.  My personal favourite was a pretty looking young man called Aaron who told us he’d done a gig in the week which had gone really badly, the audience had even started a slow hand clap.  Pete was sympathetic, assuring him that sometime it’s you and sometime you do get a bad crowd, the slow hand clap would suggest a troublesome crowd.  The following conversation reduced me to tears of laughter:
Pete: What was the gig?
Aaron: Ah I was playing the organ
Pete: Oh fantastic, you play the organ?
Aaron: No I play the guitar, but I just wanted to hit the keys and make some interesting noises.
 The idea of a grown man, setting up on stage then battering random keys on an organ simply to share his enjoyment of the discordant sounds that came out, while a confused audience turn feral, is still bringing a smile to my face today.  There is something hilarious, eccentric and charmingly childlike about this; sort of analogous to the whole Occupy Movement really.
Pete then led us through two exercises.  In the first, we wrote two lists; one containing five things we love and the other, five things we hate.  Several people commented that they didn’t really ‘hate’ anything but there were things they didn’t like or didn’t inspire them.  We took a few minutes to write the list and then got given two minutes at a time to write non-stop about an item from either list.  Pete then asked people to share what they’d written that they were proud of, even if was simply one turn of phrase or a sentence that worked for them.  Some were literal, some were thought provoking metaphor.  Some were delivered with stuttered nervous voices, others with gusto.  But they all said something about the loves and hates of the person that wrote them and each got discussed and appreciated after they’d shared.
Next we were treated to a rip roaring live performance of Pete the Temp's epic 5 minute long Occupy based performance poem ‘Spartacus’.  It describes the launching of Occupy London at St Pauls; the anger, the passion, the humour, the neo-classical pillars filling up with posters and banners, passing groups of gargoyle bankers. It is broken up every so often with him calling ‘I am Spartacus!’ to which the audience yell back ‘I am Spartacus!’  It was energetic, with a galloping rhythm and rise and fall tone which made it feel as much a song as a poem.     Although 5 minutes long, the poem went by in a flash.  It was so good; you really did want yet another verse and another.  We were then set another challenge.  We each wrote the five senses as headings in our pads, and were given 25 minutes to walk around the School of Ideas, noticing the sensory responses, jotting them down, and composing a poem based on this to perform to the group when we returned. 

Picture by @HeardinLondon
A few people drifted away during the exercise, and a couple joined, and by the end a good group of us were able to regroup and share our work.  One guy compared the sensation of clearing the crust from his eyes in the morning, to wiping false impressions about the world from his eyes by joining the Occupy Movement and being a part of the School of Ideas. There was also a bread and toast analogy which I have yet to quite get to grips with, but the moment I do I’ll let you know!  They are the same apparently.  A teacher called Jane found the idea of us being in a school particularly evocative – imagining childhood energy retained in the fixtures and fittings of the building feeding into the Occupiers by osmosis.  Sophia wrote a stirring and slightly haunting piece comparing the raising of a child’s hand to ask a question in class, with the occupiers raising their hands to ask questions for the world – she finished ‘If not you, who? If not now, when?’
A bespectacled occupier called ‘Trigger’ gave a muted performance of a worthy piece which read like his eyes passing over the shout outs in posters in the building ‘Stop the War’. ‘Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!’, and so on, finishing on ‘Squat the Lot’.  Pete spotted the missed opportunity in the poem and requested Trigger perform it again but with pride, at twice the volume and utilising a wider range of tone of voice.  Trigger happily complied, pulled himself up from the couch to stand for the second performance which was a world away from the first.  He got a big round of applause and some great feedback including suggestions on how to improve upon it.
One woman, Chrissie, didn’t manage to complete a poem but had made a series of notes which she was inspired to take home with her and turn into a poem.  Her notes included a statement on how the nurturing of children in school is ‘real industry’, as opposed to the false economy outside.  This started a vigorous discussion around the hijacking of words and semantics by systems of power in order to promote policies which deliver quite the opposite.  Examples cited were growth, profit, industry, wealth, productivity and anarchy.  Pete spoke of his surprise when he found out the word ‘radical’ is derived from ‘roots’, and means something natural, almost returning to core of what matters – and how that word has been seized and made a pejorative term. 
A middle aged man called Martin with a pockmarked face and gravel voice created a 10 minute spoken word performance based on two torn out newspaper headlines.  One said ‘Whitney Houston: I’m can’t wait to meet Jesus, he is so cool’ and the other read simply ‘Valentine’.  No description I can render here is going to do this moment justice. So reader, I will leave you with that curious expression on your face and move along.
 Finally, all poems exhausted, we shared a thought about the shame of losing all we’d created that afternoon.  Various ideas were mooted.  I offered to share the experience via my blog, and we’ll be seeking to publish the writings in the Occupied Times.  Happy with our plans, we said our goodbyes and all went our separate ways, thanking Pete and each other for a precious few hours of creativity, laughter and random asides. 
It was a great afternoon. Sophia and I walked merrily away, recreating moments of it aloud to each other in the streets as we headed towards St Sepulchre to listen to my wife play in the London Gay Symphony Orchestra that evening. 
There is a lot said about Occupy, but it is in these less newsworthy moments that I truly fall in love with the movement and its power to bring people together.  To open our minds, share our vulnerability and create community.  As much as we are busy reclaiming abandoned buildings, we are reclaiming abandoned hopes, values and aspirations.

THE END

Poetry from the Day – Inspired by the Sights, Sounds, Smells, Tastes and Feel of the School of Ideas

The School of Ideas, by Sophia Blackwell

This place is a classroom of raised hands.
It is everyday. It hums like a soft machine.
Its walls beat like wings.
It is primary colours, words like fridge magnets,
Innocent, chunky, easy to move.
It is a polite notice, an empty chair,
A handful of scrap paper.
It tastes of paint and radiator dust,
Sugar in sticky trails.
Chalk and glitter linger on my tongue
Like the end of a festival,
The dust of a new world.
The building laughs and whispers like bored children.
Outside, the winter sun
Gathers its strength up slowly.
This place is hopscotch.
This place is a dropped glove, waiting.
This place is an arm, a hand, a finger raising.
If not you, who?
If not now, when?

The School of Ideas, by Scriptonite

The teachers left the classrooms
The teachers left the classrooms
Their mugs mould in the staffroom now they’ve left to run the banks
The children are revolting
The children are revolting
Their tiny voices haunting as they ditch their toys for tanks.
Brixton flames, like Beirut
Pundits blame. Police shoot
Parents shrug, Wine bars close
Holes we dug. World we chose.
The bins are overflowing
The bins are overflowing
Flowerbeds are overgrowing without caretaker to tend
The climbing frame is rusty
The climbing frame is rusty
Abandoned desk grow dusty.  Finger paintings warp and bend.
Then come light. Then comes hope.
Overnight. In they broke
Children grown, now ask ‘why?’
Join their hands, Occupy.
The classroom is awakened
The classroom is awakened
The School is overtaken by the children keen to learn
The children are debating
The children are debating
They’ve given up on waiting for the teachers to return.



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