What is it? Mentally, I am here. Mentally, I am in the Manor House Warehouse District, London, with a fridge under my stairs. Mentally, I am wondering exactly which step my ancestors took that led us all to here.
At first, we were a roaming people. We crawled across ice caps that formed between continents. We kicked sand over fires and moved on. We were wrapped in rough furs and made rudimentary tools that didn’t come with us. We left bodies behind to decay. Thousands of years passed. In time, our ancestors came to understand agriculture, the importance of planting crops and tending to them; harvesting according to the movement of the Sun and the Moon. We built huts. We dug trenches. You can feed a village with a good plot of dirt and clean water and some focus. Safe under a roof beneath the stars, we began to tell stories and make up music. We needed more things to have names on them so language started to evolve. When you build a hut out of mud, dig a river down into your field and sleep in the same place for three years in a row you start to feel of the land, like it is yours and you are its. This is what caused wars. Small ones, at first – a nearby settlement, a passing tribe – but soon you realise you need specialised warriors among your ranks, as much for protection as for attack. And you need someone to have dominion over them, some form of hierarchy, of order. A good farm leads to a small war leads to the need for a king. A rich field full of bountiful squashes is the first tiny domino that leads to society, and look where that’s got us.
Soon we’re building things out of rocks: temples, squares, altars, houses for the fine ranked people, and gates to keep the rest of them out. A mountain range over from here, another people is doing the same. You trade goods with them but you do not like it. Your king parlays with their king but the tension is there. One night, under darkness, your warriors sack their city and take it. Blood is offered to the gods. Five good years and one bad one. Your grandmother dies in the centre of your hut. She built it along with the 50 people who first stopped moving here. Now you peer outside at the city they’ve built next to you. You have learned to bury your dead. You have learned to cry with sadness. You have learned to chant, and pray and hope. When your grandmother was born, nobody had beads. Now that’s all they fucking make. Beads, beads, beads. A war-scene carved in a trinket. Wheat is grown then pounded into flour that is sold at the market to make into your bread. For the first time in your life you try salt.
When you watch an enemy soldier squirm for his life before he is slit from the throat with a knife (the knife, forged iron with an ornate carved handle, is beautiful: a work of true craftsmanship), you stand in the square and think: the world is improving at an unthinkable rate. Language has evolved now and shaped your thoughts and now you have a lot more of them. The temple is replete with beautiful murals that took the town’s finest artists years to paint. When the king dies, gorgeous flowers are gifted from nearby alliances to dress his coffin, his golden casket a sight to behold. Technology has evolved: wheels, aqueducts, trebuchets. Within these walls you are one town, one community, one society. You are protected by the warriors who are massaged with oils and cocooned in mansions. You are thousands of years away from it, but you can see the green shoots, here: language and art and craftsmanship are all evolving, a renaissance tips around the corner, and soon there will be a new age of gorgeously-shaped thought and enlightenment. You’ll be dead but they’ll mark the spot where they bury your body. Eventually, they will pave that land for a road, which an army from a continent away will force your ancestors to build.
Two days before you die you stare into the inky sky studded with stars and gasp with a single dry rasp. Out there, ancient gods are stirring. They see the shape of the future and the past all at once. You are one star-bright atom on their horizon, but they smile down on you. You have a place here, amongst all this. You worked your hands down to bones and you were true. Out there, unimaginable magic and ether. Soon, you will turn into particulate and join them. Perhaps you will be born anew.
Things are speeding up now: wars are a good reason to travel, and there have been many of them. Gold and silver and turquoise and bronze. We pull more beauty out of the earth by force. Mansions, churches, cathedrals. Castles, fortification, moats. We build our cities and fill them with people and hire an army to protect them. One ruler ensures a good supply of wheat and oats and water and salt and gold and spun-fabrics and ale. Sometimes there is a siege and everyone gets their throat cut, OK. Sure, a lot of the poverty-stricken underclass do die muddy in the street. Sorry but if they cannot afford the fourpence and eight it costs to raise them, should they really have children? The lord sings in his manor. He married well, a French woman bought over here for weeks by a boat and a carriage, and his three young sons and one young daughter will keep his house long after he has died and been reborn. We love them, we love them, we love them. In there they have balls and feasts and visits from the monarch. One day he disappears – his castle empty – and ten days later you see why: an army marches over the hill again, swords drawn, and leave you all muddy in the streets.
By now it feels like we’ve faltered. We have the fine things, right? We have the farms and the food and the trade connections and the language and the art and the army. Where’s, like… why are only like 1% of people actually happy? You go to church and drink warm ale once a week and raise your good family and die, and nothing was really good about it. Your sons and daughters go to the same church and drink the same ale and have the same-named children and die, and you watch on with the old gods and don’t see any of them smiling. Soon there is steam and trains and metal and factories, and the sky grows charcoal above them. But why do the lords know when to move so many weeks before the rest of us? How are their daughters’ daughters’ daughters still dancing at the ball?
Now we have towns and concrete and petrol stations and Milton Keynes. Nobody knows how to use a sword now, because guns are so efficient. Every child goes to school but not in a way that really understands them. Towers stretch glimmering up into the sky. That was the chance, I think, just at the cusp of the Industrial Revolution: when science and industry started moving into hyperdrive, and we invented and created systems unthought of, and raced into a new future without holding a beat, and kissed the face of the Moon along the way. That was the last chance to make a society that, like, worked. Now we have iPhones and Salt Bae and 'Cristiano Ronaldo’s car collection', sure, but are we ever really better off?
Mentally you are back in Manor House. You read the SpareRoom advert closely. “Spacious Studio in the Warehouse District,” it says, and you have to wonder when ‘spacious’ started to mean that. “Brand new fridge integrated into stairs to save space,” it reads. “Washing machine outside to save space.” The great lie society sold us in the 70s was that there was a normal and civilised way to live and everyone would one day have a chance at it. Now it’s fifty years later and the population has barely gone up but the washing machines now sit outside to save space. Is this really better than your ancestor dying in the hut she built? “Within the warehouse district there are often club nights and parties as well as BBQ’s and social events,” the advert says. “It’s very easy to meet people and make friends. Gas & electric bills are shared between this flat & the flat next door as they share the same services.”
You make friends with the person in the half-flat next door because you both agree to cool it on the heating a bit this winter so the landlord doesn’t have reason to raise the rent. You go to a BBQ because it’s been a thin month and after paying the £1,100 a month this costs — I fucking know — you’re reduced to trying to hustle a couple of chicken thighs away on a paper plate so you can eat today. As ever, as it always was, as it has been centuries thus and it will be for the scant centuries we have left, the lords dance in their mansions. Your fridge is under the stairs to save space. The day we stopped roaming and made society instead was a fundamental mistake.
Where is it? Manor House.
What is there to do locally? Nothing.
Alright, how much are they asking? £1,100 PCM.