On Friday afternoon Mary was busy cooking. She had invited some people for dinner and wanted to be prepared before they arrived. At four o’clock she was marinating tomatoes. Mary took her time, preparing each dish slowly, chopping the vegetables precisely, with care. She was planning to make several salads, an elaborate pie, a vegetable dish, and a cake for dessert.
When I lived in large communal squatted houses, we used to have cooking rotas, one of the great clichés of Life on the Left in the 1970s and 1980s. I pretty much dreaded it – who didn’t - even though I rapidly succumbed to vegetarianism. But the food was good! Even though we scavenged for free fruit and veg at Nine Elms Covent Garden. But that’s another story.
‘But what did happen?’
‘The police told them to stop it, so they did. They got sent home and told not to bother us again. Of course, they left quietly, but the irony is that the first bloke doesn’t have a home to go to — that’s why he was so angry.’
‘Oh Jesus, Finn, what a job. You’re not doing anybody any good are you?’
‘Well, I do manage to get some files sorted out. A few people end up properly housed. I had several successes this week.’
‘Good for you. Hand me that garlic press, please.’
By eight o’clock all of the work was complete and the pie was in the oven. Charlotte had come in covered with DIY grime and was upstairs having a bath, Finn and Mary sat at the kitchen table drinking wine. At about quarter past eight there was a knock at the door; Mary got up to answer it. She returned to the kitchen with Irene and Karl.
Irene and Karl. I was wondering when they were going to arrive.
By six o’clock when Finn arrived, the meal was well under way. He took off his dark glasses and helped, roasting sesa¬me seeds and hazelnuts while entertaining Mary with stories about his week at work.
‘And then this other guy came running in shouting, “My flat is so damp I’ve started a mushroom farm!” so Bev called the police.’
‘He called the police?’
‘Yep, he picked up the phone and dialled 999 and they were there about five minutes later. Both of the blokes were fit to be tied by then. The first one threatened to smash the glass and come over the counter to get Bev, but since that seemed difficult he attacked the second bloke instead. They were rolling on the floor punching and kicking by the time the filth arrived. I closed my eyes, I didn’t want to watch what happened then. Calling the police always provokes them.’
‘the filth’ – this always makes me laugh.
‘Ah hello, mateys,’ said Finn when he saw who it was. ‘Have a couple of stubbies, pull up a chair. Where’s the kangaroo?’
‘Mary,’ said Irene, ‘you’re not seeing him again are you?’ Mary nodded gravely. ‘Pity the poor woman, Karl, pity her. She knoweth not what she doth.’
‘You Australians are all so educated,’ said Finn in his best approximation of an antipodean accent. ‘Would you like a glass of wine?’
‘I’ll have beer,’ said Karl.
‘I’ll have some wine,’ replied Irene.
‘So, I see you two are still in mourning,’ said Finn.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘You’re always dressed in black.’
‘Ha, ha, ha,’ said Irene slowly, casting her dark, eyes at Karl. ‘Black enhances our romantic pallor. Besides, it matches my black hair and sets off Karl’s blond, as you can see.’”
‘Oh, of course, that way your entire wardrobe matches your hair. As well as your boyfriend’s. Very complex. Mel¬bourne must be quite a town.’
‘Shut up, Finn,’ said Mary sitting down next to Irene. ‘How are you?’
‘Don’t mind me,’ said Finn to Karl. ‘I’m always rude when I’m nervous. Where did you get those fantastic black trousers?’
‘Irene made them.’
‘Great.’ Finn slumped down in his chair, concentrating on his drink. He had not seen Karl and Irene for months. They were Mary’s friends and he felt awkward about the way he and Mary kept breaking up and getting back together. Embarrassment often made him loud and abrasive; in calmer moments he referred to this kind of behaviour as ‘Going American’.
Oh good, another chunk of dire dialogue. A few very clunky jokes too for everyone to enjoy. Sigh. Also, where do they get the money for all the booze? In fact, where did we get the money for all the booze?
While Finn brooded, Karl and Irene talked to Mary. They had recently been to West Berlin and Mary wanted to hear about an exhibition they had seen. There was another knock at the door. This time Finn leapt up to answer .it. A few minutes later he was followed into the kitchen by a friend of Charlotte’s. Michael surveyed the room full of strangers with obvious alarm.
‘Hello. Charlotte’s upstairs in the bath,’ said Mary. ‘Have a glass of wine.’ She introduced herself and the others.
‘I think I’ll go upstairs and say hello to her,’ Michael said. When he left the kitchen there was a silence for a moment and then everyone spoke at once. Mary began fiddling with plates and cutlery, Finn poured out more drinks while Irene babbled cheerfully about Berlin. After a few moments they all relaxed and Charlotte and Michael came downstairs. Mary put dinner on the table.
‘Great food,’ said Karl appreciatively. ‘Have you heard about our latest project?’
‘What, some huge new sculpture with flashing lights?’ asked Finn.
‘Sort of,’ replied Irene. ‘Something even bigger than that.’
‘We’ve got jobs on a building site,’ Karl said, pausing.
‘Aren’t you an electrician?’ asked Finn.
‘Doesn’t that mean you’ve always got jobs on building sites?’
‘Yes, but this is no ordinary building site.’
‘What is it then?’ said Michael boldly, speaking for the first time.
‘It’s Battersea Power Station,’ said Irene. ‘You’ve heard that they are turning it into an amusement theme park with rides and shopping and skating? Well, Karl has got a job as an electrician and I’m going to be doing some design and decorating work on it.’
‘Great,’ said Charlotte solemnly. ‘That’s just what the area needs.’
‘Isn’t that a bit mundane and commercial after Sculptures in Utero, Nos 1, 2, 3?’ asked Finn.
‘Not at all. There’s masses of money and equipment. Karl is going to be the main electrician for the section that has the rides in it.’
‘Great,’ said Charlotte, ‘just what your career needs.’
‘I’m going to design a part of the same area.’
‘I guess,’ said Finn, ‘this means you’ll be going to a lot of fun-fairs in the future. Research. You’ll be eating a lot of candied apples and pink fairy floss. How interesting. I can see it now, the headlines back home, “Anarcho-Syndicalist Punk Artists Make Good With The Ferris Wheel Abroad”. I imagine you’ll be buying a second home after this?’
‘We’re quite happy with the one we’ve got,’ Irene said.
‘Right,’ said Mary. ‘This sounds a bit odd. What are you two up to?’
‘Well,’ said Karl, ‘we’ve got plans. I figure there is a lot of potential in this arrangement, Irene. designing, me planning and working. We could do pretty much what we wanted in our little corner, provided the plans are accepted by the others. Pass safety inspections, etc’ He and Irene both fidgeted with excitement.
‘Battersea Power Station is my favourite building in the whole of London,’ said Mary.
‘Mine too,’ said Charlotte.
‘I hate it,’ said Michael. ‘It’s so big, I bet it’s horrible to live near.’
‘I believe,’ said Finn, knowledgeably, ‘that type of architec¬ture was called “New Brutalism”, a neo-Fascist style popular in the 1930s.’
‘Really?’ said Mary. Finn nodded.
‘They should never have sold it in the first place,’ blurted Irene angrily. ‘It’s a monument to Industrial Britain. Amuse¬ment parks are so tacky.’
‘We’ll make it beautiful again,’ said Karl dreamily. ‘We’ll clear away all the. grime from those chimney stacks, we’ll clean out the boiler room and “restore the parquet floors in the control room to their former glory. We’ll get rid of the pigeons and the rats, bolster up the foundations and those great brick walls, polish the leaded windows and get’ all the clocks working again. Have you seen it inside? It’s a mess.’
‘Well,’ said Charlotte, ‘is this your idea of a contribution to the economy?’
‘It’s like all the pits in the North that they are turning into mining museums,’ Irene said, ignoring Charlotte’s comment. ‘Gone are the great dirty industries of the past. We’re stuck with the sterile silicon chip and plastic industries of the future.’
‘Christ, Irene,’ said Finn, ‘you sound like you’re going to ask us to pray.’
‘If you think it’s such a terrible idea,’ said Mary, sounding confused, ‘why have you decided to work on it?’
‘You could always sabotage the plans,’ Michael said qui¬etly while pouring himself another drink.
Irene and Karl looked at each other. ‘The scale is mind-boggling,’ said Karl. ‘That’s what appeals to us.’
‘We figure we can use it to make some kind of statement,’ added Irene.
‘A statement about what, if I may ask?’ said Charlotte.
‘The Vindication of the Working Classes, a blow against capitalism and the Government, retaliation for the removal of London’s self-governing powers, the repression of homo-sexuality, the new tax laws, the fact that the power station has been replaced by nuclear energy, the dismantling of the Welfare State, Art, Boredom ...’ Karl paused.
‘Christ,’ said Finn, ‘and all this time I thought you were a couple of fun-loving Australians. I never knew you were political.’
Michael looked tired. ‘Sounds a bit naff to me.’
‘What?’ said Karl. ‘Naff? Just when everything is becoming really ugly — refurbishing warehouses into luxury flats, their feeble attempts to make modern architecture subservient to the past — you think trying to make a statement sounds stupid? What are people without money supposed to be doing?’
‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ mumbled Charlotte. ‘It’s only another bloody theme park. It’ll probably provide lots of jobs.’
‘The majority of people in this country have never been better off than they are now,’ said Michael. ‘I don’t approve of what this Government does but don’t you know that when Battersea Power Station was running it produced a great cloud of smog that hung over South London all the time? The fogs, where do you think they came from? You know what conditions are like in most British heavy industry? Appalling. And what about the rest of the world? Where do you think the money that propped up British industry came from - the Caribbean, Africa, India, black and Third World people, fucking slavery, man. Isn’t that a bit more relevant?’
‘Oh my god,’ gasped Finn, ‘more politics.’
‘Shut up,’ said Karl, turning to Michael. ‘Are you accusing me of being racist?’ Irene drew in her breath sharply.
‘Don’t be so sensitive. I’m just saying I think your ideas are a bit simplistic. Working on the power station is a great plan. Guarantee your immortality. You’ll have made South London more fun. It will be a wonderful analogy for British society. Say you’re doing it on behalf of all of us immigrants and the children of immigrants, Australian, Canadian, West Indian alike. The Empire goes Disney. I never did like the ugly building anyway.’
‘We are looking to make an artistic statement here,’ said Karl tersely. ‘I never said anything about politics. Art transcends politics.’
‘Oh sorry,’ said Michael, ‘I misunderstood.’
Mary rose and began to collect the dishes. Finn helped her as she made coffee and brought out the cake. Talk drifted from the power station on to other things but no one could stop thinking about Karl and Irene’s new jobs. Around midnight Michael and Charlotte got up to leave.
‘Listen,’ Michael said, ‘good luck with Battersea Power Station. Let us know when it’s near opening time. We’ll have a party.’
‘Thanks,’ said Karl. ‘See you then.’
Wow. Okay, there’s a lot to parse here. Living in Vauxhall, as we did, we were all horribly fond of the Battersea Power Station. In the 1980s there were two great construction projects that captured our imaginations. First was, of course, the Isle of Dogs and Docklands, which became Canary Wharf, one of Thatcher’s Enterprise Zones. I used to go to the Isle of Dogs with my friends in the early 80s before construction began; we’d ride around on our bikes and romanticize the wasteland. It took a long time for Canary Wharf to succeed and its status as a kind of North American-style adjunct to the City’s financial district means that it still isn’t a part of town I frequent, but that’s because I’m not a banker, and none of my friends are bankers either.
The other great construction project that obsessed us was, of course, Battersea Power Station; but unlike Canary Wharf, this project has absolutely failed to thrive and has gone through countless takeovers and buy-outs and planning applications. It pops up in the news every now and again as someone else takes it over and then fails to raise enough money to do anything with it.
But to me in the 80s the building was emblematic of so much – the decline of industry, of course, but also, a failure of imagination of sorts. I went on a tour of the building shortly after it was de-commissioned, before whoever bought it knocked so much of the actual building down. It was truly a thing of analogue 1930s beauty – the control room was all hardwood parquet floor and big round dials and shining pipes. The idea of turning it and all its riverside splendour into a theme park and shopping mall was depressing when all around it lay a part of London that was quite seriously deprived and gloomy.
This chunk of text kind of encapsulates everything that is both awful and wonderful about WMD. Some very bad writing, but lots of energy and ideas. We really did have conversations like this. We really did talk about slavery and class and art and ideas.
However, the idea that a couple of artists would get such senior-sounding jobs on such a prestigious building project is, frankly, a little unbelievable. Sigh.