Letter from London: All the Young Dudes

Photograph Source: Donald Judge – CC BY 2.0

The looming general election sits where summer used to sit. It now blocks out the light. It locks up all the bikes. It steals the bucket hats. It talks of rain. Even the football at the forthcoming Euros feels faintly hijacked.

Thank goodness for our own distractions, such as a gig in Brixton last night. Whatever else, the city has music, not to mention open air festivals. A mixture of young musicians and old music legends were gathered in this one small venue. On the way back, London felt how it used to feel. The clubs and bars of Brixton were brimming. Peckham was like a creative hotspot. The Tories might have declared they wanted mandatory National Service but the young were already celebrating the possibility of their demise in a mere six weeks.

Just over ten years ago, close to where we live, Lee Rigby was murdered. He was the 25-year-old British soldier and drummer of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, who was hacked to death in nearby Woolwich by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale. Woolwich was once home to the Royal Arsenal where much of Empire firepower was created. Rigby was returning to his barracks after working at the Tower of London when he was killed. It was on the tenth anniversary of this that I suddenly heard a mass of motorbikes on the road outside. Some flew national flags, others carried Lee Rigby’s name. I thought of Thom Gunn’s poem On The Move: “In gleaming jackets trophied with the dust / They strap in doubt – by hiding it, robust…”

There were actually for me a couple of odd coincidences about the late Lee Rigby. One night on a breather from Afghanistan I was in a local bar where a group of men downing English beer told me they were in the TA (Territorial Army). I mentioned that I had just flown in two Chinooks, one Black Hawk, and a fixed-wing Hercules with British soldiers to and from Lashkar Gah. One of the men appeared younger than the others. A part of me — when I see him again in my mind’s eye — still wonders if that was Lee Rigby.

The other peculiar note for me was that when I saw a picture of one of his killers, I felt sure I had seen him before. In fact, I wondered if I had not spotted him at a local newsagent or post office — it was a local story all round — or somewhere similar. I am full of inadequacies but faces I have a tendency to remember. I believe this one person made an impression not just because of their distinctive straight-lined features but their discomfort at having to serve somebody, as well. Today, alas, white extremists still jump on the Lee Rigby bandwagon. Four years ago, Rigby’s mother had to eloquently request such people ‘stop using his image and memory in such posts as he was a lover of all of humanity. Every race, gender, creed, sexuality and colour.’

The artist Yinka Shonibare is presently showing at the Serpentine South Gallery in Hyde Park, describing itself as ‘the suspension of boundaries, whether psychological, physical, or geographical.’ The first time I met Shonibare was on a boat travelling up and down the River Thames to and from a Royal Academy dinner at a converted riverside building. Shonibare is the son of wealthy Nigerian parents who lived in London until he was three before returning to Nigeria. As far as I was concerned, his reputation came before him and his famous wheelchair moved about the deck skilfully. It was just after starting art school in London that Shonibare came down with transverse myelitis, a disorder caused by inflammation of the spinal cord, resulting in one side of his body remaining paralysed, despite his impressive physio regime.

Shonibare is a remarkable person in so many ways. We spoke of West Africa. I told him I only knew Ivory Coast and Ghana. He mentioned the civil war in Nigeria and remembering having to lie down on the floor. He had previously said he was fortunate as a person because his job was also his lifestyle, and he didn’t consider art to be work but therapy. (As a caveat, he did once also say to be an artist, you had to be a good liar. ‘There’s no question about that,’ he told BOMB magazine. ‘If you’re not, you can’t be a good artist.’)

When on another occasion I visited his well marshalled canal-side studio in the East End of London, he suggested he never saw his identity as simply Nigerian. He told me he also linked it to French Continentalism, Thatcherism, Activism, Derrida, Baudrillard, the British cinecultural Black Audio Film Collective Smoking Dogs, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, the civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements. There was for sure no white male monopoly on aesthetics here. He was also the most perfect host.

With this general election now called, I can’t help but think of Shonibare’s sculpture End of Empire. Talk about opening things out more. This is a complex work in which the heads of two well-dressed figures are made out of globes. They sit on a mechanised seesaw while the seesaw itself is a nod to Victorian industrialism. The brightly coloured suits are made of Dutch wax textiles with their own colonial backdrop, in their case Indonesian-style batik prints made in Dutch mills and sold to 19th-century Nigeria. The globe-heads are meant as the two sides of the First World War and the coloured textile designs were designed to signify African territories once held by Europeans. The seesaw’s swinging motion is deliberately slow, suggesting consistent realignments or recalibration, or just the inevitable shift towards end of empire.

With all this electioneering bluster about mandatory National Service, Home Secretary James Cleverley, like Rishi Sunak, appears to have no faith in today’s young. The same can be said of Nigel Farage. I have faith in the young. I think the young here are terrific. I listen to their music. I note their manners. I see their stoicism. I acknowledge their absence of prejudice. I sense their ease with technology. I salute their disgust at injustice. I celebrate their fearlessness. I know they can have a wickedly good time. They don’t need conscription. They need conscription like a man of peace needs a war. No, I cannot remember a single moment when this country has been so ripe for change. Maybe Sunak calling the general election was a gift for the young after all.

Peter Bach lives in London.