As you can imagine, returning to normal office city life after being out there on the front line is quite a strange experience. It’s is both strangely difficult and worryingly easy to adapt back into this world. When you are confronting it, when you are considering it directly, when you are staring down the barrel of it, then it becomes visceral, it becomes jarring, it becomes real. But most of the time, as with all things, you’re not staring down the barrel all the time, you’re not directly confronting anything most of the time. You’re just doing those little tasks tasks that every day requires, you get into a routine and the days just past. Then perhaps when you go to bed you have a moment where you forget your day a little and get an opportunity to reflect, to remember other moments you’ve lied in bed after a day that maybe had been completely different to this one. These bed moments you don’t really remember, but have experienced enough times to imagine. In these moments you can reflect, reflect on just how much your life has changed. But before you can dwell on all that for too long, you sleep, and the winds of time blow you forward once more.
Sometimes these little moments of reflection can come at the least expected of times. I was doing some work recently which involved visiting a few factories including one that made massive industrial fans (http://www.beatson.co.uk/). The factory was full of the sound of these whirring fans, their blades cutting through the processed air smoothly and rhythmically. Listening to this sound took my straight back to the sound of helicopter blades spinning behind my head as gripped my camera and my head and ran into a new country, a new war zone, a new life. I don’t have anything nearing PTSD, but I had to take a moment in that factory to gather my sorts and reflect for a moment and gather my thoughts, because after the life I used to lead and the massive change I’ve been through, I’ve got a lot of thoughts to gather…
One of my first jobs as a reporter outside of my home country was in, of all places, Belgium. As you can imagine, heading into my editors office with a head full of Asia, Africa and South America (you know, places where stuff happens) I was not to happy when he handed me a ticket for, of all places, Belgium. But it was an opportunity I still had to take, so I headed over there.
What I found was a beautiful city with a long history. What I found was a western European capital city with all the culture and heritage you’d expect. What I found was, somehow, both fascinating and boring. From the perspective of a critical historian the most interesting thing about Belgium and Brussels is how both where built through an especially brutal colonialist project which Belgium in some ways has managed to hide away from its public image these days, where it clings to the UK and their ‘British Empire’ firmly and deservedly so. But Belgium’s crimes are often forgotten.
I live in Liverpool now, and regularly travel over to Brussels, people should make the trip more often I feel, I’ve found great ways of parking before my flight from Liverpool to Brussels and great ways of finding cheap flights and all that kind of stuff so the journey is really pretty affordable. I go because Liverpool and Brussels are too cities with a dark history of reaping huge and brutal wealth from the African continent, but in very different ways. Their different stories are also told very differently by the architecture, structure and culture of the two cities. Liverpool’s slavery history is well known and it attempts to confront it through its International Slavery Museum and what not, but it still has statues of slave owners and people who were involved in the slave trade around the cities with captions like ‘built orphanages’ and ‘cared for the cities blind’. These people where experts in philanthropy as public relations. Philanthropy as a lie.
I grew up in a very old New York. A New York that has been all but lost by now. A smoky, young, poor, dirty, beautiful, shimmering, romantic New York. A New York actual people could live in and move too. I lived in the city that created the myth that people now spend their millions pretending to live in today. I grew up in the real thing. I grew up in the city Marilyn Monroe had her skirt blow’d up in. I lived in the city where Muhammad Ali mocked and danced. I lived in the city where Frank Sinatra made it. I lived in the city Woody Allen couldn’t help but fall in love with over and over again.
I used to run round those streets, I was walking to and from school on my own from 8 years old! The freedom allowed to kids and all young people in the city those days would be unthinkable today. I guess appropriately so. But it sure sucks the soul out of a city. It’s a crying shame that we people can’t just be in the city and live freely. I feel that a lot of it is a matter of perspective and stupid, stupid fear. Fear sings from the pavements in New York City these days. Back then people counted themselves as people on the up no matter what there situation, with one eye back on the depression the only way was up and we all felt like we were going up, up, up.
Where as now it is a constant struggle with no success and no relief. Even the rich are scared and sad, and the poor are scared and desperate. And why wouldn’t you be? It’s a damn scary and desperate place and a damn scary and desperate life.