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The Parallels of Existence

As I sit here at home in Brixton, South London, living in a council estate which I am

privately renting; I am thinking about my childhood which was spent living on another council estate in Brixton in 1980s.

Ten years after austerity I am thinking of what has become since the banking crisis that caused a near collapse, in some ways my life has come back to where it started. Sitting here allows me to reflect on the parallels of my existence I have learnt a lot in the interim space. After watching Black Audio Film Collective's Twilight City, I remarked to a friend how pertinent the film felt in relation to the current political and cultural climate. We agreed and noted on our upbringing and how it felt like we were reliving the key moments of the film.

Captured on 16mm film, Twilight City (1989) is narrated by a young woman, Octavia who receives a letter from her mother Eugenia, who is seeking to return back to UK after living in Dominica for the past 10 years. For the duration of 52 minutes Octavia relives her observations with a tone of hurt, she is reflective of how the city landscape of London has changed and old grievances come to the forefront.

It is within this context that I find myself reflecting on the duality of Octavia’s narrative with my own experiences, in 1989 the Conservatives would have been in government for a decade at that point, I would have been eight years old and in some ways nothing much has changed.

In 2020 the UK is still being governed by the Conservative Party ten years after a banking crisis engulfed the world; discrimination is pervasive, police brutality is rife, mental health services have depleted, libraries have been closed to save money as well as youth clubs and early learning centres leaving our youth with no alternative outlets, poverty has increased since 2010, health inequalities and a lack of employment opportunities have been exacerbated by 10 years of austerity led by this government .

Not to mention the implications of COVID-19 and Brexit. COVID-19 has brought to the forefront existing problems that had been swept aside as an inconvenience; this virus is causing havoc with the infrastructures that once held sacred, the NHS.

The list is exhausting and extensive.

These stories are not new and only echo the stories of discrimination that haunted my childhood growing up in 1980s which are now echoed in the childhoods of my nieces and nephews. When will the echo stop? I knew from a young age that I was Black as my parents would tell me constantly, I found it hard to disseminate my Blackness once I came into contact with the outside world. There seemed to be friction, a tension between how my parents spoke about my Blackness and how the world spoke to me about my Blackness.

The formative years of my childhood were spent growing up on a council estate in Brixton with my parents and two siblings. I had no idea I was working class until one day I had an accident at school and one of the school assistants had to take me home because they couldn’t get hold of my parents, this was the age before the internet and mobile phones.

We came to my estate, which was grey and covered in graffiti and rubbish, there was always a weird smell, usually of cigarette smoke that stained the walls. She looked at me and said, "You live here?”, I replied “yes” and pointed at my flat which was located on the second floor. She looked horrified, the tone of her voice was pity and, at that point I felt awkward and ashamed. I knew that something was wrong, with me, with my family and with the space that we inhabited.

This middle aged white woman, probably ten years older than my parents had, I assume, never come into contact with a council estate like this before, I assume she had only seen places like this on the TV or in the newspaper. I say this because if she was aware of how some of the kids at my school lived then she wouldn’t have been so shocked. I was seven years old and, I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what had happened but my intuition knew that my working class black identity was seen as a problem.

Her discomfort became more palpable as we approached the front door of my flat, my dad answered the door, he was at home working on his portfolio as he was applying to start an undergraduate degree at Goldsmiths University of London. She didn’t come inside and I can’t remember talking to her again after this incident.

During that time, my childhood home was not desirable; this was soon to change during 1990s when gentrification ushered in new residents and sky high rents. This is reflected upon in Octavia’s narrative as she laments how she's feeling ostracised by London and that feeling of being 'left behind’ is something that I can relate to.

Cycling through Brixton and Peckham I notice every plot of land being inhabited by new buildings; housing developments, coffee shops and restaurants everywhere, with a certain clientele that does not seem to be inclusive. I remember once walking home in Peckham last summer and seeing two parallel words in opposition. One side of the road a younger mostly white crowd was indulging into plates of small food and expensive wine. The opposite side of the road had small Black children running around whilst their mothers worked in Black hair dressers, two young Black men chatting, playing Afrobeat music from a sound system. These two communities sat in such close proximity physically but were worlds apart. They didn’t seem to even acknowledge each other. I found this site jarring and this is a recurring scene that I have seen around London.

With every generation the narrative of our lives shifts slightly, but never to a point where the central core of certain issues are acknowledged and attempted to be fixed. Racism, sexism, discrimination against the LGBTQI+ community, asylum seekers and immigrant communities are battles that are still being fought by some, whilst some rescind and carry on as if nothing has changed. If their lives are not affected why should they care? Silence whilst others scream to be heard.

We see this tension play out between Octavia and her mother, who joined the Conservative party and reserved her energy for the church almost going into herself and seeking solace from the ritual of religion, whilst her daughter demonstrated and pushed for equality for marginalised friends.

This tension is played out now when we look at how the Black Lives Matter movement is counter argued with the argument All Lives Matter; white fragility and silent complicity empowers white supremacy meaning that the same battles are being contested 30 years after Twilight City was released. Twilight City is a living breathing archive, an artifact that is not redundant but speaks to us of our experience, providing context for what has come before us and where we find ourselves now and possibly where we could see our future.

Words by Marie Smith

Second and Third images are photographs taken by Marie Smith


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