Monday, 4 March 2013

Occupy Norwich: One Year On

Now, over a year since it was vacated by Occupy, Norwich’s Hay Hill feels a little bit like the park after the funfair. On any normal day an empty half-acre or so of pigeon-pecked paving slabs and overflowing litter bins, Hay Hill’s four-month-long encampment by Occupy  demonstrated the potential public spaces have to be transformed from bland arenas of consumption into multipurpose, community-led forums of free expression, debate and dissent. In a world in which human traffic is so closely monitored, orchestrated and controlled, spontaneously occupying space en masse (purposeful smart-mobbing) is a highly creative act: an effort to overcome and reconfigure patrolled space that is on a par with the leaps and bounds of urban freerunning.

One of the many beautiful things about a movement like Occupy is that – to borrow Marshall McLuhan’s most famous phrase – the medium is the message. Occupy’s manifesto is visual. It was enough to simply stop and look on the camp, at the delicateness of its structure, the fragility of its materials, the thinness of its walls.

We’ve all spent a night in a tent, slept out under the stars; we’ve all felt that sense of exposure, of openness, a heightened sensitivity to the world around us: sounds, light, smells. Point is, the ad hoc simplicity of Occupy Norwich’s camp – its exposure to the elements, to people, to the world outside – was the fabric of its argument. Think of Thoreau, his self-built cabin on the banks of Walden Pond, or the hidey holes children make in copses from whatever they can find, and you’ll get a good grasp of Occupy’s imaginative innocence.

Hay Hill itself is a kind of pulmonary valve in the beating heart of Norwich, pumping shoppers like moneyed haemoglobin into the city centre’s economic muscles: Chapelfield, Castle Mall, St. Stephens Street, Gentlemans Walk. Occupy Norwich couldn’t have chosen a better place to set up camp. The presence of a replica shanty town and all that those makeshift settlements connote (poverty, filth, squalor, insanitariness) in the middle of one of the UK’s top ten shopping cities was bound to turn a few stomachs. The exposed reality of a shabby two-man tent set up before the ethereal edifice of a major retailer causes a kind of vertigo in the brain, a thought-provoking doublethink that neatly slices to the heart of the problem of wealth disparity across the globe.

The camp has been dismantled for a year now, true: but Occupy is a movement. There’s power in impermanence, and part of Occupy’s strength is its mobility, its manoeuvrability. It can be assembled in a matter of minutes, taken apart in a matter of seconds. Even when it has been broken down into its constituent parts (tent poles, folded tarp), it has the potential to come back to together again at any moment, suddenly and unexpectedly, in any city, in any location, anywhere in the world.

Occupy Norwich elicited various responses locally, and it seemed everybody saw something different. My response coalesced around a childhood memory.

When I was six or seven years old, I went through a common rite of passage: I got lost in a department store. Bored by shopping, I had wandered off into the labyrinth of fabrics. Unable to see above the clothes rails, all I could make out were a dozen or so disembodied heads bobbing like buoys on a sea of mass-produced clothing. Heads with odd facial expressions: disinterested, sleepy, almost robotic.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a hand reaching out for me. Figuring it was my mother’s, I instinctively reached for it. The fingers, when I clutched them, were rigid, cold to the touch. I noticed a slit where the hand was screwed to the wrist, the jaundiced hue and dead-smooth texture of the skin. I craned my neck, peered open-mouthed into a mannequin’s life-like fake eyes: two solid moulds of coloured plastic gazing fixedly at a spot a few inches to my right. Looking at me, but not.

Pausing for a moment to look on the oasis-like quietude of Occupy’s camp (less than a hundred yards from the same store's entrance), the memory came to me like some kind of private parable. In the midst of all that shopping shtick, where, in spite of dense crowds, attention is focused on goods and brand-names rather than on other human beings, camp-life felt intimate, human, benign. Exchange was of ideas and opinions, not money and goods. In a continual state of flux, the camp was adapting to its environment, changing shape, becoming something different every moment. Human interaction was genuine and spontaneous, not guided by the forced pleasantries and calculated fakery of barter and exchange.

Call me romantic, but Occupy Norwich seemed to me the most human and innocent of gestures, as simple and profound as a human hand being held out to you. On its own, a slack flap of tarp wasn’t going to solve the world’s problems, but Occupy had at least got me thinking about my immediate environment in a new way. Occupy Norwich drew my attention to something that had been nagging me for a long time but which I had never been made fully conscious.

In spite of the way our ideologically blockaded cultural space encourages us to put ourselves and our own desires first, hindering us from seeing the wider picture, the possibility for us to cultivate mutually supportive, cooperative and socially beneficial relationships with other human beings is always closer than it appears.
Michael Durrant was born in Norwich. After spending time living and working as a bookseller in Wellington, New Zealand, he returned to Norwich and is now a student of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.

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