The pavement outside my house in London is scattered with rubber bands. I tilt my head to give myself a better view and notice that they’ve been strewn everywhere, up and down the street. I step on bands twisted into ghoulish faces as I begin my run to the small patch of scrubby forest near our house, crushing a rubber number 80 on the way back down the hill towards home.
My boyfriend explains, looking up from his computer from our makeshift working-from-home setup (two desks squeezed into a bedroom), that the postie unloops the rubber bands from her stacks of letters and discard. She’s on the clock, so there’s no time to save them—not even a second to place them around her wrist. This is a shame because I would like the sight of thousands of jostling rubber bracelets covering her arm from wrist to shoulder, representing the letters, flowers, books and t-shirts from China she had delivered that day.
Usually these bands would be picked up by children on their way to school, walking, laughing, chatting, trailing their hands along the fences in our street. Once, in a moment of teenage exuberance, one of them fell into our hedge. From the window where I was working, I chuckled, then felt ancient. The children collect the rubber bands, and make them into large rubber band balls.
I know this because when I was a teacher, those rubber band balls bounced across my day, along with balls made of Blu Tack some of my students scavenged in the quiet moments when they escaped my gaze. One ball was so heavy that the small, skinny armed student had to drag his book bag along the corridor to bring it into our classroom. ‘Please don’t touch my Blu Tack ball, Rosa’ he’d say as I helped him hang his bag on the hook marked with his name. I never did.
But at the moment there are no children to collect the rubber bands so now they speckle the street. There are no planes either, so the street is alive with the song of small British birds. The birds cheep loudly; their beaks remind me of pen nibs. The collared pigeons go shoop shoop, so different to the wartle-ortle of the Sydney maggie.
The rubber bands tell me something. Before coronavirus, the rhythm of my life was disconnected from the place I lived. Working on a history PhD, I would travel each day from wherever I was to the library, the archive, the places where time is stored. If I was in a new city, I’d try and develop a favourite café, so I could get a coffee from the same place. When I got home, I’d go for a run in the evening. If I covered the soles of my shoes in red paint every day of the working week, you would see little deviation from one day to the next. Often I would leave the library or the archive and on the commute back to my house, my mind would still be tangled up in the feminist periodicals of the late 1960s and 1970s, all the way until I got to my door. I doubt I noticed a single rubber band. I doubt I noticed a bird. It didn’t matter if I was in Sydney, London, or Cambridge, I was mostly in my sources anyway. I was thinking about the small rhythms of the lives of the people I was writing about, so I was necessarily less present in my own.
The same went for politics, which always seemed to happen elsewhere. I would move through space as quickly as time would allow to go to a demonstration, to attend a planning meeting, a reading group, to meet my beautiful friends and other like-minded people. My neighbourhood was just a place to rush from, a place disappearing out the window of the tube, a place to run through to shake off the day so I could leave again in the morning.
During lockdown I re-read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and was struck by how rooted the two main characters are in their neighbourhood, how much these few teeming streets captured my interest. While the books were interested in speaking truth to patriarchal power, they located this power in the family but also in networks of the neighbourhood. Both main characters had lived in the neighbourhood all their lives, with parents who had done so too. In London, when you’re renting, it’s hard to invest time and interest in your neighbourhood knowing that at any time, and probably quite soon, you may have to move at the whim of a richer person whose pockets you line.
But now the archives are closed, and the past that I spread out on tables and write about is locked up. So I must be content with the small slices of that history I have captured on my computer. Staring at my screen in a different country, I can will myself to smell the lovely, musty, airless archive smell, punctuated by the librarian’s 11am banana, but it doesn’t really come.
But my old, happy rhythms have been replaced with a two-step full of potential. I have recently become involved in a mutual aid group. After lockdown was announced, 2000 groups sprung up across the UK. I met my neighbours, and now our lives include each other. On Monday night, distant but connected, we meet over Zoom to discuss our ideas for how we might, as a community, respond to the health, economic and social crisis that is deepening. We put leaflets through the doors of everyone in our area. We pick up shopping for people, and if they can’t afford it, it is bought from the collective pot. We pick up prescriptions from the pharmacy. We offer a friendly chat on the phone for anyone who needs it.
The mutual aid group has shown me that my neighbourhood is full of its own interesting rhythms, like the rubber bands and the birds. But, also that more and more people are queuing at the local food bank, which now serves over 100 people a week. There are so many people who, in the fifth richest nation in the world, are kept so poor that they don’t have enough food. Sometimes those at the back of the queue miss out on fresh vegetables and meat, and there are never enough nappies or baby food to go around. Through mutual aid, I heard about a family two streets away who were about to be evicted, even though eviction has been made illegal for the time being.
But as these trying local patterns come into relief, so do the solutions. It becomes clear that we, as a group, as a neighbourhood, have power, too. These problems experienced individually are in no way the individual’s fault. So, we write to big companies asking for donations and we advocate for our neighbours to get housed successfully. When we get sick, we too call for shopping. In the meantime, the mutual aid seed swap goes round and round, door step to door step, my carrots for your apples, my catnip for your turnip. Like the shoots of our new corn plant, the seed swap has doubled in size in a few weeks, from one biscuit tin to two. There’s plenty to go around. There are enough wildflower seeds for us all to grow a meadow.
Other people have different experiences. Mutual aid is shit, people tell me, people snitch on each other, people judge each other. People call the cops or act like cops. Mutual aid, they roll their eyes, more like neighbourhood watch. In no way has it been all rosy in my mutual aid group. There have been difficult discussions. Of course, it is disappointing to see your neighbours behave this way. And it can be deadly to have the police called to your neighbourhood, if you are a person of colour.
But when you have privilege, like I do, and a space to talk to others, why not stick up for people? Why not stick around and try and change people’s minds? I wonder what is radical about only speaking to people who think the same way as you. But I also wonder where this cynical urge to squeeze these new networks into the same old boxes comes from, to see them as a new version of the same old, oppressive pattern. Before the pandemic, I hardly even knew my neighbours, and certainly not the power of my neighbourhood. And now I do. And that’s something.
Consider my neighbourhood’s biggest flex: in response to the brutal murder of George Floyd in the United States and racism in this country, people in my mutual aid group organised several socially-distanced protests. One neighbour, Monica, messaged the Whatsapp group: ‘with all that is going on, it’s time to take a stand.’ I spoke with another, Sonali, who had been central to the organising. Sonali explained, ‘People of colour have already been bearing the brunt of austerity disproportionately, as well as suffering under a racist hostile environment.’ The ‘hostile environment’ is a set of policies which seeks to embed the misery of borders in everyday life, where papers are routinely checked before migrants can access essential services including healthcare and housing, where those without the ‘correct’ papers are charged upfront for many hospital procedures and subject to forced deportation and indefinite detention.
Sonali continued, ‘Now people of colour are disproportionately dying of Covid-19 as well, and the structural racism that underpins this is being erased from reports . . . including erasing recommendations on how BAME [Black and Minority Ethnic] people can be protected.’ Attentive to the fact that many who were vulnerable to Covid-19 may not want to attend a mass demonstration in central London, Sonali and others, ‘hurriedly set up a Black Lives Matter Facebook page’ specific to our neighbourhood, and put out a message via local mutual aid networks ‘encouraging people to self-organise small, socially distanced protests,’ and to send photos which could be uploaded to Facebook. This would stand as an ‘ongoing digital record of the strength of feeling and solidarity with our black siblings facing racist violence, here and in the US.’ There are plans to found a local chapter of Black Lives Matter and ‘to continue, as a grassroots, community campaign against racist violence.’
On top of the grief and the losses of Covid-19, we are about to face a social crisis which is likely to be as bad, or worse, than the Great Depression. In the UK alone, the predictions are for six and a half million job losses. Despite assurances that this crisis will not be treated the same way as 2008, there are whispers of more austerity and deepening cuts planned. Mutual aid has the power to expose the way these cuts affect us and those around us on a day-to-day level. They allow people to give and receive support—material and empathetic—from friendly strangers and those who live close by, and they make resistance at the level of the neighbourhood possible.
Amongst the tragedy, Covid-19 has extended the formerly small, sweet and deep rhythms of my life, connecting me to those I share space with, to their care and their power. I need them, and perhaps we need each other, to face what comes next. So, I step into my neighbourhood. I collect the rubber bands in my skirt and loop one around each seed packet, sealing them shut for the next person.
With many thanks to Sonali Bhattacharyya and Monica Lucarelli Kariuki.
Rosa Campbell is completing her PhD at the University of Cambridge. This project considers the global history of Australian womens’ liberation She has written for The Independent, Novara Media and Overland, amongst others. She has just finished a children’s book about International Women’s Day. She tweets @rrrosavalerie