Where scholars become workers

Peter Maurin’s vision of scholars and workers written for the spring issue of the London Catholic Worker. The outbreak of COVID – 19 delayed the mail out of the newsletter so I am posting this editorial here. 

Peter Maurin

For this issue of the London Catholic Worker there is a theme: the work of our hands, or, indeed, just plain work. Peter Maurin, founder of the movement, had much to say about work and workers. Dorothy Day describes him as a ‘workingman’. One of 24 children, raised in a peasant family in France, he had tried homesteading in Canada, and joined work gangs in America before they met.

In Easy Essays, the series of declamatory poems he published over and over in the Catholic Worker newspaper, Maurin describes his vision of ‘scholars and workers’ living together and learning from each other, in farming communes and ‘outdoor universities’. The scholars would learn to use their hands and become ‘dynamic’ and a ‘driving force’ while the workers would learn — it’s not so clear what the workers would learn. Although he repeats this pairing many times, it takes a bit of imagination and further reading, to see who these scholars and workers might be and the work they’ll be doing.

Dorothy Day writes in her introduction that Maurin was wary of ‘class consciousness’ and didn’t like the use of the word ‘worker’ in ‘Catholic Worker’. He saw the houses of hospitality and farms as communities, that would build ‘a new society in the shell of the old’, a vision of equality that would benefit everyone. The scholars and workers will join communities, along with ‘down-and-out’ businessmen, academics, college professors. Perhaps in nineteen thirties New York these were the people who weren’t used to mopping the floor. ‘In the Catholic Worker/ people learn to use their hands/ as well as their heads.’ (See left hand column)

Day writes also that Maurin was ‘literal’. Through ‘daily practice of the works of mercy’, the scholars will become workers. They will be feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, literally by hand. Scholars will do the manual work and learn from the manual work. This remains the main business of a Catholic Worker house.

These days in London, the scholar and the worker could easily be one person. Scholars take menial jobs. Everyone’s a worker one way or another. College lecturers and pizza delivery drivers, catering staff and cleaners all struggle to get by on a zero hours contract. Employees forced to work such long hours they are unable to care for themselves, can install an app. that will summon a cleaner, a driver, a nutritious meal even someone to buy a birthday present, which creates even more precarious jobs.

At the London Catholic Worker, at least, this working with the hands and the head person is one and the same. When Urban Table first started, I remember a certain volunteer. He reminded me of a character out of Absolute Beginners, with a slightly greying quif and cigarette trousers. He did the manual work of the soup kitchen as if it was nothing, tossing the tables and chairs around, washing up and wiping down, all the while keeping up a stream of jokes, film sound tracks, and celebrity gossip. Being new to volunteering, I thought: here is someone who really knows how to make light work.

Over ten years later, all sorts of PhD students and businessmen come and volunteer at Urban Table. A few make heavy weather of chopping onions or avoid the washing up. But I’ve heard some say they learn something new every week: that carrots can be black or yellow, as well as orange, that potatoes are not a staple and that a meal is not a meal without rice. Nothing focuses the mind like hearing one of the guests outline his budget for the next two weeks under Universal Credit.

The ‘daily practice of the works of mercy’ is not just humanitarian work. Here I encourage you, the reader, to reflect on your own experience of working with your hands. In this newsletter there are several examples. Ghazal Tipu, an office worker, interviews an activist cobbler. Margriet Bos ‘looks into the kitchen’ at Giuseppe Conlon House and sees cleaning, fixing and building. While mending sleeping bags, Anne M. Jones, is faced with the injustice and cruelty of the refugees’ situation in Calais. Johannes and Nora both talk of the effects of this work on their own mental health.

For myself, waking in the small hours at the local night shelter, I discover fears I haven’t been attending to: fear of intimacy, of cultural misunderstandings, of humiliation – I’m sometimes treated like a servant – and awkwardness at my own house – owning privilege.

Dorothy Day writes, ‘Love casts out fear, but we have to get over the fear in order to get close enough to love them.’

The first Easy Essay is called, ‘Blowing the dynamite’. Maurin says, accusingly, that the ‘scholars’  – yes them again – have placed the message of the Church, ‘in an hermetically sealed container and sat on the lid.’

The next work for the works of mercy, then, is to teach us to love.

Where scholars become workers

Pigeoncote

'Iridescent sexual exhibitionists'
Pigeons

Pigeons are the first ‘critter’ guides in Staying with the Trouble, Donna J. Haraway’s exploration  of survival in the time of the chthulucene. [i]Pigeons are her ‘urban neighbours, iridescent sexual exhibitionists.’ They appear in her writing as  creatures of the Empire, spy pigeons, carrier pigeons, pigeons that recognise themselves in the mirror, pigeons that can identify objects from a helicopter.

In Haraway’s story, racing pigeons and their trainers are put to work measuring air pollution in Los Angeles while in Australia artists build nesting towers to help bring pigeon manure to the rewilding of a piece of ancestral land. In Caudry, France, Matali Crasset, an industrial designer, is commissioned by the local authority to design a pigeonnier. Haraway asks how, ‘when the best biologies of the twenty first century cannot do their job’ we can develop ‘response-ability’, back and forth, like a game of cat’s cradle.

Tagging along after Donna, pigeons are to be my guide too. They are nearly my bedfellows after all, building nests yards from my window, importing bird fleas, bringing manure into my garden. I wake to the rattle flap of wings, the pinkish sigh of feathers whiffling the air, throats bubbling like the sound of a coffee pot.

Five, six, twelve, seventeen pigeons are roosting, preening, courting, billing and cooing, turning circles on the corner of the empty cinema next door. On the parapet where the mortar’s worn away, and the bricks look like teeth, they strut up and down, peck at each other. They perch like Batman on the rooftop, head and shoulders against the sky. Or they roost in the blocked up windows, like dollops of grey paint, that also come in cream, mauve, brown. The biggest male makes a train of his tail, jerks his green neck feathers back and forth along the back wall of the disused Savoy Cinema.

A shapeless hangar of a building, it’s not possible to tell how big it is from the outside. Its Art Deco canopy has been destroyed. The foyer is now home to Class barbers and a tattoo and piercing parlour. In the corner, now the Tava Ocakbasi restaurant, a Rasta couple sold reggae records and knitting wool. The basement, variously named the Snooker Lovers Club, the Magnolia Banqueting Suite, Epic Dalston, has been used for club nights, Hindu weddings, Afro-Caribbean wakes, bar mitzvahs, Turkish circumcision parties and a Sunday flea market. To the rear is a flat, home to some Bulgarian Turks, a recording studio, an electricity substation. The last film to be shown, in 1984, was Scarface.

One afternoon, a slight figure in orange duffle coat and striped scarf knocks on our door and introduces himself as Auro. ‘I’ve just got the lease for the old cinema,’ he croons persuasively. ‘We’re talking to all the neighbours.’ He gives me his number and says to text him day or night. ‘If you’re unhappy about anything ….. no trouble at all.’ The local paper reports a budget of several million; the restored venue is to be as big as the Roundhouse.

Auro invites us to an open weekend. A small group of enthusiasts, we climb up and up the emergency stairs, picking our way over drinks crates, spare bar stools, lost umbrellas, arriving at the very top of the balcony.

The smell of pigeons is so overpowering, it even has a colour, a chalk white grey. In the gloom that filters through holes in the plaster ceiling, the original proscenium arch stands oddly truncated, as if flooded by the floor below.

The one empty space left, the largest, is the space for film projection itself. The void left by the projection of heroes, heroines and villains onto the screen has always been unusable, it turns out. The lonely individualist, the hunter gatherer hero, remains trapped in his pyramid of light. The real reason the building has  never been demolished and remains semi derelict, I learn from my partner, is that the owners are a Turkish family trust. Should the building be sold, the funds would be divided into unfeasibly small amounts of cash.

There are thumps in the street, van doors banging. Auro knows how to do things. He books parking spaces. Articulated lorries deliver thick cables, scaffolding tubes, sound equipment. Security men guard the vans. Sound checks begin at three. He boasts to the local press that he has cleared out six hundred pigeons and a sea container load of manure.

Several months on and the six hundred pigeons are living on the outside, at the mercy of cats, crows, passing seagulls, nesting kestrels. There have been sightings of a peregrine falcon. Wing claps like a carpet beating, a call to order. The flock takes off, circles the nearby blocks, swoops back up again, onto the parapet, onto the roof.

Except for the bookings that were already booked before he cleared out the pigeons, nothing much has happened in the disused but by no means empty Savoy cinema. Online Auro laments: gentrification means no more spaces for creatives like him to be creative in. He calls out the ‘municipalities’.

Faced with the nightmarish Doomsday narrative, beloved of climate change activists, where technology can’t help us and God won’t save us, I look for other narratives. In my reading I hunt for signs of hope. Donna looks for what she calls SF, string figures, ‘scientific fabulations’ to sustain and guide us into not ‘posthuman’ but ‘compost’. Instead of a doomsday narrative, we will become part of the ‘oddkin’. Stories of the chthulucene invoke the multi species ‘becoming-with’, creating stuff, breaking bread together, necessary for survival.

[i]Chthulucene, an impossible to spell made up word of two parts, chthonos meaning ‘of the earth’ and ‘kainos’ meaning time. We are nearing the end of the ‘anthropocene’ and the ‘capitalocene’.

Pigeoncote

A star fish, a lighthouse, a city and a submarine

Last night, as Londoners, in 30 degrees of heat, began to dream of going to the beach, MPs voted 472 to 117 to continue renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system. Theresa May, our new prime minister, seemed almost to slap the dispatch box with glee, when she said yes, she would press the button. She has already written the letter we are told, by hand.

In Parliament Square, waiting for the vote, along with the sensible families who had brought beer and pizza, I had a vision of one of those drawings of the seaside you find in children’s books. In the drawing there’s everything you might find on the beach: seagull, starfish, lighthouse, boat, sailing boat, water-skis, below and above the water line. In my version I added the Vanguard nuclear submarine, everlastingly prowling around. As any child knows there’s only some of these things. The fish and starfish and crabs are invisible, unless they’re dead and get washed up by the surf. This submarine is also invisible but real enough.

The majority of MPs have voted that we must have Trdient, on constant invisible patrol beneath the sea, so we can be safe , so we can have a holiday, so we can keep ‘our way of life’. I wonder often if they really think that. The fact that SNP and Plaid Cymru don’t think this gives me much hope. I wonder, with all the other members of my family, what is the matter with all the MPs who seem to be afraid of the power that they have, of the possibility of real change. They prefer to keep on with the absurd, even though the rest of us don’t need any military experts, lawyers or faith leaders to tell us that Trident is useless, illegal and immoral.

Highly respected activists and politicians spoke out on the podium last night, as they have been doing for years and years, including my own MP for Hackney North, Diane Abbott. But the BBC showed in its report a choir singing terribly. Anti Trident activists are woolly, nutty people who can’t sing it seemed to be saying. Those who voted for the motion tell us that to get rid of them would be foolish. It is playing politics with people’s livelihoods. No one ever asks what kind of a livelihood is it that prepares for mass destruction.

I read some of the comments the day before the vote. Our Trident submarines they seem to be saying, under the hash tag #Trident, are patrolling night and day, keeping us safe night and day. Out there beyond the starfish and the light house.

No one ever says what kind of a beach holiday it is that calls for mass destruction. There’s nothing like a day on the beach watching the huge waves crashing in from across the Atlantic to remind us how connected we all are, that the same sea, where we paddle our sunburnt toes, stretches out to the West, joining together all the countries. The same sea is hiding the nuclear submarine that we have to pay for.

The nuclear arsenal is necessary, we hear, in case someone, some city, threatens us. But which city no one knows. Mercifully, Theresa May has no idea which city. But we do know that it would be a city, here, on this planet, in this world. And we do know this is the only world we have.

A star fish, a lighthouse, a city and a submarine