Unpoliced and unwashed
Ed Luker considers how a time of sanitised domesticity has changed our attachment to the weird, the unhygienic, and engendered a longing for liminal spaces
I miss the weirdos of my past. In the endless waves of nostalgia that have defined the plague, I loiter in lost weirdness: the discomforting thrills of unhygienic squats, sharing drinks with sweaty strangers on industrial estates at 5am, being bored to death by the conspiracy-theorising of someone who gave you the end of their cigarette, and snogs with someone whose name you fail to remember under the glare of emergency exit signs. And in the sanitation of lockdown life, I crave dirt.
At the beginning of the plague, we, the homebound, washed our hands. It was a civic duty. Around this time I watched Clare Denis’s High Life (2018), a film about Robert Pattinson being sexy while looking after a baby, but in space. Each time I returned to the flat, I imagined myself as R Pats re-entering the spaceship. Taking off my outside clothes, supplies in hand, stoic in my new isolation. I would not be broken by the extremity of the experience, in this space dock of life that orbited normality. Looking back, in some way I had lost my mind.
Sanitation became sanity. And now I remember it as the opposite.
Today, my palms are dried out and sore, despite a moderate amount of moisturising. I wonder: “Are they having some sort of flashback?” Is the epidermis re-living the fears of an early plague routine? And, looking at my red hands, so much of this period has become integrated into my sense of what is normal that I find myself lamenting the loss of the weird: all that life that doesn’t want to fit into the world of work and money, that refuses rules, wanting to exist outside of them. I look on social media and ask myself, “When did we start loving rules?” But I know that some of the rules are good.
My dreams lurk among the weirdos of my past: the squatters, the skateboarders, the junkies, the crazies, the dropouts, the antisocials, the daydreamers, the living dead. Callum the Mancunian bin-tek wizard, Llew the antifascist hippy ket addict, Tree the wool-wrapped hunt sab. How are they? How often do they wash their hands? Do they still go to the raves? Are they anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, great-reseters, or Bill Gates truthers?
How much has this period sunk itself into our chests, and how much has that constant re-adjustment inalterably changed our relation to what is normal? In this constant fear and sanitation, I yearn for a return of the weirdness of my past lives. How does weirdness persist? Where will the new weirdness emerge?
I have found myself writing a novel, partly based on when I was 21 and lived in an anarchist squat in Berlin, submerged in an outsider’s utopia. I read books about squatting, about dropout cultures, about queerness, about sex and danger, and about the minimal freedoms of pre-gentrification, before the expense of property broke culture: Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist, David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s So Many Ways To Sleep Badly, Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. In these books I find comfort in the persistence of the weird and the weirdos, in the inalienable weirdness of people’s desire for others, their pleasures, and their desire that things could be better, as desire itself is continuously in excess of a reality that won’t meet all our needs.
I think of all the weirdos sneaking out to see their friends and indulging in a life with others. I see teenagers getting high in the park near my house and think ‘good for them’, I cycle along the canal and see all the boaters continuing to be weird, too, their boats covered in microchip panels and houseplants and shit graffiti. And when I think of all the weirdos I have known, all the weird places I have been, all the weird experiences I have had, I realise: weirdness is social. It’s about a full sense of experiencing another person.
The other week an old friend from university tweeted in reminiscence of the weirdness of our fresher’s experience. The rite of passage for most Sussex undergraduates in 2005—in a decade defined by its persistent cultural insignificance (even The Matrix, a very 2000s movie,was released in 1999)—was to take seven pills at a rave in the downs, surrounded by crusted, dreadlocked, deadbeat warriors and ketheads jumping up and whipping their locks in the face of fearful eighteen-year olds to drum’n’bass, while dogs ran rampant through bonfires and some people got their phones jacked by teenagers from nearing estates if they strayed too far from the party’s epicentre.
Reading the tweet, I recall another squat rave in Brighton, a year later, in an abandoned old people’s home; gabba filled the twisting corridors, party-goers exchanged stories about the best opium in Goa and four day squat raves in the Czech Republic, again, dogs ran rampant; while I was not a crusty, too clean cut in my Nike trainers, arguing about Marx and ethical consumerism with someone who’d try and sell me a pyramid scheme, these squat raves were a heady intoxicant of danger and excitement, and perfect for nosebleeds and dancing. That night the atmosphere of sunken dread and dawn apocalypse was fulfilled by a police raid. To the clatter of riot shields and barking dogs, sirens flashed as munted crusties spilled into the streets, entering into a futile stand-off with the police.
When SOPHIE died, reaching for the fullness of the Athenian moon, I listened to BIPP on repeat for days. She was a true weirdo. I first heard the song at a squat party in a raggedy anarchist gym in Oval. I didn’t know many people there but was thrilled by the sense of being around others in this dark and sweaty room. I was mostly indifferent to the music. But as BIPP ripped through the speakers it was such a gorgeously weird sound it transfigured the room, unleashing the muscular shimmers of a room full of freaks. How I yearn to dance in a room full of freaks again.
The squats, warehouses, van parks, and field raves of my late teens and early twenties were often the opposite of sanitised spaces. Their inhabitants took great pride in their filth, their vulgarity, their opposition to cleanliness, often in a way that disgusted me. In the last gasps of the alter-globalisation movement, many of those nomads of the future desert, those luddites of digital assimilation, the coming normalisation, had to leave Brighton as the scenes became infested with harder drugs, squatting became more heavily policed, and the council kicked people out of their vans and caravans.
When a load of weirdos left Brighton across 2007 and 2008, the city felt the more boring for it, even if I didn’t want their world, In the plague, I miss chatting to any weirdos. I miss chatting to some dim eco-anarchist or playful hippy. I miss disagreements and obstinacy in conversation that arises beyond the online space (a space degraded by performative hyperbole and aggressive loneliness). I miss all those mad bastards you meet in the world who believe contradictory things (because we all believe contradictory things) and ramble shite at you, but fundamentally you know they’re alright and you’re alright and you could love them in some way because you’re in the same weird, mad place trying to find joy in all the chaos.
Do you ever wonder what happened to all the anarchists in England? All the crusties? All the drop outs? I do. I loved them, their commitment to carving out an edge to live within, but I saw how easily it all tipped into a madness and impoverishment that only broke people.
In the decade that followed the crash, some of the youngers from these scenes, we relished our exposure to the weirdness and hatred of sanitation of the generation above us. It was an educational experience. We learned through hedonism and escape what real pleasure was, what real sociality was, that we could just do it ourselves, take everything we wanted, and we learned of the frailty of living at the margins, too. We knew where we wouldn’t find happiness and we saw the emergent catastrophes on the horizon. We gave up on dropping out because we thought: ‘well, not everyone can just drop out.’ We wanted to live in houses with central heating and so we’d pay for it with 60% of our income, to landlords who hated us.
My generation, we did squats and climate camp, and we did the anti-war movement, and then we did the student movement, we joined anarcho-syndicalist organisations and we left anarcho-syndicalist organisations, and some of us did MAs and PhDs and got lecturing jobs, and some of us trained as facilitators or community organisers or worked at activist NGOs, and some became activist lawyers, and some of us went to Rojava, or Palestine or even Libya, and some of us moved to Spain or Italy or Germany, and translated the texts of revolutions past. And some of us even trimmed our hair and tidied up our principles and worked for John McDonnell; we thought about how to extend ourselves into a world that we hated because we loved the people in it, and all around us, without us noticing, the world placed ever more demands on us: tidy up, mature, cut your hair, be presentable, explain yourself, pay your rent, wash your hands. Exhausting.
We may be clinging on to the regimens of normal, the new normal, the old normal, the persistence of the old normal in the plague normal, while all around us billions of pounds fly above our heads, markets crash, debts expand endlessly, property wages its war on people, and authoritarian leaders and monopoly capitalists scheme new plans for domination.
In England, we’ve received permission to buy alcohol outside. Eventually the plague will end, and the reign of property will continue, and the war of debt on people will continue, and the demand for normality will continue. And among those demands to assimilate into the new regimen, we will find each other in the dark, in new social relations, still weird, a bit broken, in the new light of a familiar world. And perhaps in this weirdness, our social relations, we can help each other to learn how we move out of all of this.