Covid-19 has scrambled all our worlds and the meshing of private lives with public troubles has never been clearer. Rebecca Solnit has written of the emotional ‘terra incognita’ that crisis conditions can elicit but proposes that, ultimately, hope wins out, instigating us into co-operative, pro-social behaviour. The initial social response to the pandemic shows she might be right.
A now-familiar ‘superbloom’ of ‘life giving’ work, new mutual aid networks and upticks in volunteering and community organising has been revealed or emerged across many pandemic societies. This is heartening for those of us who believe that a re-organisation of economy and society in more humane directions is urgent and possible.
Ranged against this hope is what I want to focus on here: the sheer scale and intricacy of the interpersonal, sociological and political work required to protect, sustain and expand these collective infrastructures in the face of accelerating social trauma and intensified division; work that intersects with highly uneven geographies, uneven distribution of resources and capacities and violent counter-projects.
The tone of this short piece is informed by what geographer Ben Anderson and colleagues call the ‘modes of uncertainty’ which, they argue, shape our responses to disorienting contemporary crisis events; modes that are not affectively fixed and which are conditioned by ‘legacies, (non) belongings, and (non) attachments’.
In what follows I ‘stay with’ my own mode of uncertainty as it surfaces in the places and relations I inhabit during my lockdown. As the call and need for solidarity of multiple kinds resounds, I work here towards an engaged sensing of the tensions and ambivalences this throws up for each of us, albeit in ways that are deeply gendered, classed, raced and embodied.
An uncertain smile
Lockdown seems to pull us across different registers of feeling about others: flushes of intense solidarity, pangs of suspicion and moments of welcome, painful or surreal detachment. When elites seem to circumvent this instability, they are met with righteous fury. During the first weeks a few of us on my London housing estate distributed mutual aid slips offering help to self-isolating and vulnerable residents. This was logical and good citizenship, but I still had to push past a complex set of feelings about being a meddling do-gooder.
A few days later a local elderly neighbour called and asked me to collect her medical prescription. I set off eagerly but went to the wrong chemist. By the time I found the right one, it was closed. It was a Friday and she had needed medication for the weekend. I trudged home a mutual aid failure. Later that night, I received an SMS from another neighbour: ‘we are fine but thank you so much for your viral kindness’. I cringed.
Josie Sparrow argues, through a Marxist frame, that, as we stumble in emergency conditions, to cross and try to dissolve social thresholds structured by everyday border regimes, fear, petty divides or numbing transactions, our alienation from ourselves and each other is exposed. Such alienation breeds a set of affective risks and vulnerabilities as we try to extend ourselves towards each other in ways that we did not or could not before. Social thresholds on estates like mine are ambiguous.
There are 24 blocks that tend to be inhabited by either ‘private’ leaseholders or ‘social’ tenants (although these labels are less clear-cut in reality) and owing to ‘densification’, the estate was built with very limited communal space. As we watch each other clap care workers from our private balconies it can feel like a trapped, sarcastic riposte to ‘streets in the sky’ dreams. In this context, social interaction tends to be limited to small cliques and occasional, poorly attended, meetings about our landlord whilst there is a degree of mistrust that can become quickly racialised.
As lockdown wore on and patterns of dwelling and mobility around the estate changed, the WhatsApp groups got bigger while smiles, nods and furtive chats accumulated with parents, like me, eking out play space for children with mysterious neighbours I had never met before, with elderly residents looking for a quick natter and with caretakers recounting the latest structural fiasco. The uncertainty of lockdown gave these encounters weight (how long might we have to do this? Might we all be back here again in a few months?) and filled them with careful signals and questions as we negotiated new relational ground.
Less positively, we were informed in May that our buildings were in breach of post-Grenfell building safety regulations. Immediately, a cohort of private security / fire wardens were stationed in affected buildings. Quickly, complaints circulated that the wardens were not socially distancing in stairwells, had poor English and had been seen snooping around landings. Our hastily configured new norms of familiarity and open-ness were apparently being contravened and our paranoia and surveillance was being externalised.
Hit the north
The population of the estate is the pan-global mix you would expect in an inner-London suburb and encounters with each other can reveal all kinds of mobilities and hinterlands. One afternoon, as my son raced round the communal ‘garden’ on his scooter, an elderly neighbour regaled me with tales of growing up with the Krays, his love of Finnish metal music and his lament for the likely fate of our local pub. He asked about my accent:
‘What the fack are you doin’ livin’ ‘ere?’
Good question. My uncertainty around being pressed into new relations of local familiarity or solidarity on my estate is probably also because I am not ‘local’. During lockdown I have been thinking a lot about where I grew up; the pandemic renders the worlds we know newly vulnerable I suppose. But I also wonder what meaningful social solidarity might look like there, in Glasgow’s post-industrial suburban sprawl, amid still-sharp religious, class and territorial divisions. In the late 1970s and 1980s, it was the kind of place aspirational Glaswegian baby boomers who grew up in the inner city or on post-war housing schemes (council estates), moved to once they had kids. It also had a scheme of its own; built near a local colliery which was closed in 1983.
There was evidence of something approaching a local collective sensibility: the Labour party was dominant, at school we all knew that Thatcher was a ‘milk-snatcher’, and my mum was part of a ‘babysitting circle’ that held occasional socials (a Tupperware ‘party’ is one early memory). That said, it was also an area with few social spaces outside of the two churches and, from where people tended to travel elsewhere for work, shopping and leisure and families chose their ‘publicness’ carefully.
I also reflect on this economic and social geography when reading this recent piece on how the pandemic could transform commuting patterns thereby helping to reverse regional ‘brain drains’. It contends that this might help suture fragmented identities and communities by reducing the need for economic migration within the UK and, therefore, reduce the flow of gentrifying incomers to London. I try to conjure a coherent internal response to this proposal that can take protective account of mobilities, identities and solidarities. I struggle.
Our current research project is attending to these crunching dynamics within towns and cities in the English North but must do so amid intense and shifting population vulnerability, and powerful nationalist and communitarian voices looking to flatten and violate complex multi-polar social worlds. As borders are tightened further and we are pressed into ever-decreasing circles of ‘solidarity’ and ‘belonging’, the case for qualitative and ethnographic research has never been stronger.
Whilst I was writing this piece, a message came through in my school-friends group chat that one of our primary school classmates had just been found dead in his home. We had lost touch, but we knew he had been involved with drugs for years. An eyewitness (my friend’s sister) saw another of our old classmates led away from the scene in handcuffs. It was a grim reminder that parts of Glasgow still have some of the worst poverty and mortality rates in Europe, no doubt exacerbated by lockdown. I think about what these two were like at school and I smile thinking about us all guzzling our free milk before it was ‘snatched’; the boys all competing to get the cartons with images of boxers or footballers on the side.
I think loftily about intensifying distinctions around physical and moral ‘hygiene’, who is ‘essential’ and who is ‘disposable’, who gets access to meaningful care and who does not, who is pressed into providing that care and who is not. Who can feel uncertain and who cannot? I think about solidarities stretched across time and space. I think about estates and suburbs, private lives and the communal pull. I think about cities and their satellites.
On our estate there are two blocks owned by private property investors. Airbnb tourists used to trundle cases to and from there but not now. My phone buzzes again: a teenager was stabbed last night outside one of these blocks. That explains the sirens. I think about hope, new boyhoods and keeping it together in this place my son will remember as his first home.
Andrew Wallace is a University Academic Fellow at the University of Leeds. He works on the ESRC-funded Northern Exposure project and is currently writing a book on the politics of solidarity for Zed/Bloomsbury. He tweets at @wallazio.
Image by the author