Flow my tears

by Esther Leslie
23 November 2010

I know the city’s water cannot stop its flow, but it can be re-routed. I saw it in the streets around Moorfields Highwalk – ‘We are replacing London’s Victorian water mains’ – and I saw the men spraying neon symbols on roads, dashing forwards to mark the tarmac only when the traffic lights glowed red, the vehicles’ current stopped for a moment. I know there is a world below that pipes and flows ceaselessly and so must be diverted elsewhere. I imagine its detoured gurgles now gushing mellisonantly from those high speakers, making weeping sounds that splash into ugly space, mingle with the damp air and smash on the sharp wind.

I know that tears may never stop – even if they might be myriad, old, sighing, sad, forced, true or from a lover – but I do not know if capital ever stops its flow. I don’t know how it moves or what is its pace. The City is closed for business, the only (so-called) life (read: commerce) here insane, insane, in Sainsbury’s. But the markets don’t stop – the derivatives keep on deriving – without the latte-troops. The shares do not stop being shared (but not too much) even when those fat doors are slammed shut for the weekend and the building broods alone (save a security guard or two).

In two different decades I went to stop the city. We failed. I wonder if these laments that echo in alleyways bouncing off the mirror glass and impassive office surfaces –'Farewell, all joys', 'No nights are dark enough for those / That in despair their lost fortunes deplore' – have any room in them for our old chants against war, oppression and destruction: 'OUT, OUT, OUT'. Or for our social deficits, the sadnesses of decades of defeat, as the great god Money swelled and never stopped his swelling, until he burst, burst his banks. 'More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise'.

We need our tears of mourning too – on Cornhill a newspaper vendor dies in the milieu of anti-capitalist protest, one last memory the blow of a police baton. City life wells up again afterwards. Capital continues on its course. It flows like the river... no, it doesn’t. It works otherwise. It makes abstract. These glimmering sounds and the search for them in dreary streets brings back what was once there, but is there now only as token on the streetsigns, no longer seen or felt or licked. The songs return to us a tangible city of Milk, Bread, Corn, Pudding, Poultry.

In Change Alley and Tokenhouse Yard, the naming left clues of what was to drip drip drip into the puddle that is our world. Pathways of concrete things now cluttered up by arbitrary symbols in concrete. A silent Boots – with not a shoe in sight – facing off a dead Commerzbank, from whose name Kurt Schwitters, montagist, tore Merz, a name for all his art. Art cuts in, tears out, makes specific again, stops the flow, holds up something, some sound, for a bright moment of reflection. The unlife of the city returns, after art.

Tears. I can’t be doing with all the tears after split milk. ‘Keep on keeping on’ was the old political chant. Tears not sloppy drips, but rather tears as cuts, as rents. Cuts, rents. Deeper, deeper. Sky-high, unpaid. We are back in the money language again - our words are false-hearted, two-timing. These Elizabethan notes – airy – meld with notes – bankish. Those river banks freeze into vaulted banks.

The money keeps flowing, even on the weekends, re-routed into language, just as it is channelled down a zillion electronic rivulets, unlike the river, which cannot be, and which is but a grey and cold mirror of our current ache. ‘There let me live forlorn’. No, no, let me and mine ‘swell so high’, unlock our silent throats and cry, cry out.


Esther Leslie is Professor of Political Aesthetics at Birkbeck, University of London and, together with Ben Watson, runs Militantesthetix