London is a world by itself; we daily discover in it more new countries and surprising singularities than in all the universe besides. There are among the Londoners so many nations differing in manners, customs, and lifestyles, that the inhabitants themselves don't know a quarter of 'em. Imagine, then, what an Alien would think of such a motley herd of people, and what a diverting amusement it would be to him to examine with a traveller's eye the remarkable things of this mighty city. A whimsy takes me in the head to carry this stranger to some parts of the town with me; no doubt but his odd and fantastical ideas will furnish me with variety, and perhaps with diversion.
I will therefore suppose this Alien dropped perpendicularly from the clouds, to find himself all on a sudden in the midst of this prodigious and noisy city. At first dash the confused clamours of the Southern quarters stun him, fright him, and make him giddy. We have arrived in Brixton, so shall we drift aimlessly around the busy market stalls on Electric Avenue, amongst an infinite number of different people and machines, all in violent motion, hurriedly going from this way to that?
My Alien, being an inquisitive sort and not too concerned with any hurry of objects, wishes to be taken to some place not to be found on those terrible tourist guides, and therefore we make the direct way to that great place of noise and tumult, the Anarchist Centre at 121 Railton Road (1). Along the way I lecture him briefly on recent events in the area, namely the process of gentrification of the very street we were now walking.
"And so you see my friend", cried I to him, "that though they build new homes and shops, these are only benefits for those that can afford them."
An expression of puzzlement on the face of my companion, I venture further with my explanation.
"This program of urban renewal, called here City Challenge, is to be regarded as a plan to connect people to the dictates of the market. Spending power is a prerequisite for participating in this vision of a bustling, busy community of happy shoppers and workers, but if you are lucky enough to be without employment, then the lifestyle designers trust that the refurbished picture house will keep you amused."
"Now", say I to my Alien, "is not all this social control, setting the boundaries for what shall be deemed permissible behaviour?"
The astonished traveller replied, "Without a doubt, there are plans afoot to make a majority conform to a life of wage slavery and senseless consumerism."
So seeking some seeds of sedition, we entered the infamous Centre, wherefore, to rest ourselves a little, and recover our ears from the deafness which the confused noise of the street had occasioned in 'em; and at the entrance of the room, according to ancient custom, saluted the handsome young people at the bookshop, and took our seats. But we had no sooner placed ourselves, than a gentleman whose clothes were in mourning for his extravagance, came and sat down beside us; and perceiving us to be strangers, under pretext of civility, accosted us with discourses relating to the town etc.
To begin, he recounted some statistics concerning the matter of housing in the country as a whole, there being 175,000 vacant council houses presently in need of repair, there being over 818,000 empty houses in Britain, that the number of homeless could be as high as two million. Then he regaled us with the true facts of the matter, that homelessness exists not because the housing system is not working properly, but because this is the way that it works; that houses remain empty because this is the way the market functions. For most of us, he told us, live in someone else's' architecture, places we had no control over the design or building of.
"So how do you propose to change this wretched situation?" said the Alien.
"Why, with an anarchist-communist revolution, of course!"
And then he proclaimed a diatribe full of ideological propaganda that we both had become accustomed to. So many contradictions fell from the mouth of this would-be-an-oracle, with his hat buttoned behind, that the judicious Alien was in haste to be gone to a place where he might have more instructive discourse. Wherefore we left our impertinent and his abstemious comrades, and taking our leave of smoke, noise and nonsense, made the best of our way down to the River Thames, without making any other observations, than that there were too many cars about.
"Our government seems to care more for cars than homeless people. In 1987 the Department of the Environment announced a budget of £23 billion for new road schemes over the next ten years, whereas between 1980 and 1990, spending on housing fell from 2.5 billion pounds to 1.6 billion."
And after a happy deliverance from the brawling concert of traffic, we made our passage by St. James' Park and over The Mall, and entered in 6 Carlton House, to attend a meeting of the Royal Society.
"While I behold this town of London", said our contemplative traveller, "I fancy I behold a prodigious schizophrenic. The streets are so many hidden agendas, wherein the people circulate. With what hurry and swiftness is the circulation of conspiracies performed?" "You behold", cried I to him, "the circulation that is power, but it moves more briskly in the hearts of the citizens; they are always in motion and activity, their study and labour is always about profit and their only pleasure earned by buying those commodities they worked so hard to afford."
My Alien had indeed heard of the Royal Society and those schemes this powerful institution had advanced to maintain the machinery of society. So we took a free tea and compared our notes.
"Founded in 1660, and, two years later, receiving it's Charter from the restored King, Charles II, the Royal Society promotes the interests of the ruling class in that supposedly objective zone of Science."
"Yes indeed", I replied to the learned Alien, "and we should also contemplate the origins of this institution, formed so soon after the collapse of the revolutionary regime and the restoration of the old order, one wonders what secret alliances were formed preventing further upheavals to the ruling class. Surely this Royal Society represents the newly appointed power of intellectuals, artists, and scientists to explain and organise the world, installing the cogs of rationality in the clock-work machinery of control."
We then listened for several hours to a merry multitude of top boffins pronouncing their conclusions on ways to make use of their Chaos Theory. All of these revolved around attempts to obtain results from predicting the behaviour of various mathematical models. Practical applications were being made in the forecasting of market behaviour.
At tea-break, I mentioned to my Alien that in 1671, Georg Monck, the Duke of Albermarle and the Great Architect of the Restoration to the throne of Charles II, published 'Some Directions for the Preventing of Civil Wars'. In this text, the esteemed General laid down four principles, the first three of which were reliable control of strategic forces, one religion in the state and a rich public treasure, while the fourth was the diversion, occupation and domination of the hopeless poor. I suggested to my Alien that we should add a fifth tactic, a hierarchical, male-only secret society that confers merit, status and power on its members - Freemasonry. Every founding member of the Royal Society was a mason.
Growing tired of this babble of scientists, we left the Royal Society. Walking from hence, I had leisure to ask my Alien his opinion of all that he had seen.
"Now", say I, "is not all this hodge-podge, a pleasant confusion and a perfect amusement?"
The astonished traveller replied, "Without a doubt, the undigested chaos was but an imperfect representation of this congregated huddle, this city of London. But what most amuses my understanding is to see that nobody really knows what in Heaven's Name is going on."
And with this thought in our minds, we retired for a round of Chips and Beans in one of London's very excellent greasy Cafes.
Thus we prattled away our time till we came in sight of a noble pile of building, which diverted us from our former discourse, and gave me the occasion of asking my friend the Alien his thoughts on this magnificent edifice. He told me he conceived it to be a King's Palace, for he could not imagine so stately a structure could be designed for any quality inferior. I smiled at his innocent conjecture, and informed him this was the Invisible College, an institute dedicated to dissident pursuits.
"In truth," said the Alien, "I think they were mad that built so costly a College for such an insurgent society," adding, it was a pity so fine a building should not be possessed by such as had more noble causes. It was a mad age when this was raised, and no doubt the chief of the City were in great danger of losing a sense of their own importance, so contrived it to further some mysterious scheme of their own ancient seminary, or they would never have flung away so much money to so useless a purpose.
"You must consider," I said, "this stands upon the same foundation as the Monument, and the fortunes of a great many poor wretches lie buried in this ostentatious piece of vanity; and this, like the other, is but a monument of the City's many and varied contradictions, instead of its power. Come let us take a walk in, and view its inside."
Accordingly we were admitted through an iron gate, within which sat a shaven-headed chap of a very pale colour, leaning upon a huge rubber-stamp pad. We turned in through another iron barricade, where we heard such a pounding of printing presses, clamouring of strange and experimental sound machines, ranting, hollering, singing and rattling, that I could think of nothing but Don Quevado's vision, where the damned broke loose, and put Hell in an uproar.
The first fanatical-headed wretch of this strange and mixed family that we observed, was a merry fellow in a baseball cap, who was talking to a small band of students about an army of anarchists that he had at his command. Then clapping his hand upon his forehead he swore by his crown of moonshine that he would battle all the stars in the skies but he would have some dancing music. In the interim came a gentleman with dark sunglasses and a mobile telephone to stare at him. "No wonder," said his Ariel Majesty, "that the dancing is so scarce, look there's a rogue carries more money with him than I, that am Prince of the Air, could hope to earn in a twelvemonth."
"If you are the Prince of the Air," said I, "why don't you command the Man in the Moon to give you some music?" To which he replied, "The Man in the Moon's a sorry rascal; I sent him for a sound system and some DJs t'other day, and he swore by his bush, he could not find anyone. But I'll be even with the rogue. I expect a cloud laden with ravers and revellers to be sent me by the Sun any day, and even if his fingers are in bigger pies, that insidious racketeer will not get a piece."
We then moved on till we found another remarkable figure worth our observing, who was glancing through a window, eating a plateful of chips and beans, and talking all the while like a carrier at his supper, chewing his words with his victuals. All that he spoke was in praise of chips and beans. Chips were good with beans, and beans were good with chips, and chips and beans were good together, and abundance of such stuff, to which my friend and others stood listening.
The next amazing object amongst this complex fraternity was a scholar of Psycho-Geography, in Essex, who was possessed with melancholy, but was very inoffensive, and had the freedom to roam about the College. He was a very mathematical man, which is thought to be his one great contribution. My friend the Alien walked up to him, and introduced some talk, to divert himself with a few of his extraordinary extravagances.
Another agitator who had liberty of ranging the College caught hold of the Alien's arm, and expressed himself after this manner: "Dost thou know, friend, what thou art doing? Why, thou art talking to an inventor of numbers, who has so many equations in his head that he cracked his brains about his own graphs and diagrams." "Prithee," says the Alien, "what is the occasion of your visit here?" To which he answered. "I have joined this particular establishment to represent the interests of the Invisible College that presently enjoys the support of the Comune di Bologna; for all these Invisible Colleges combined are merely the shadow of a shadow of the one true College for the Invisible Brethren."
We peeped into another room where a fellow was as hard at work as if he'd been treading mortar.
"What is it, friend," said I, "thou art taking all this pains about?"
He answered me thus, still continuing in action: "I am trampling down all possible belief systems under my feet, lest they should rise up and fly in my face. Have a care they do not fright thee, for they look like demons and are fierce as a family of hungry gorillas, but that I keep them muzzled. Therefore get thee gone, or I will set them upon thee." Then he fell a-clapping his hands, and cried, "Belief is the enemy, belief is the enemy" and thus we left him raving.
Another was holding forth with as much vehemence against government, as a brother of Commonwealth doctrine rails against plurality of livings. I told him he deserved to be hanged for talking of such absurdities.
"Now," says he, "you're a fool; we in the Invisible College have as much privilege of speaking our minds, within these walls, as an ignorant dictator, when he spews out his nonsense to a whole parish. Prithee come and stay here, and you may talk what you will, and nobody will call you in question for it. Truth is persecuted everywhere abroad, and flies hither for sanctuary. I can use her as I please and that's more than you dare do. I can tell great men such bold truths as they don't love to hear, without the danger of a whipping post, and that you can't do. For if ever you see the Invisible College persecuted for speaking of truth, or a lawyer whipped for lying, I'll be bound to prove my wig a wheel-barrow."
We then walked into the women's apartment to see what seditious vagaries their wandering imaginations would move them to entertain us withal. One incredible object that happened under our observation was a beautiful, blue-haired lady, who looked as wild as an angry cat, and all her tone was, "Time is -- the Invisible College; time is - the Invisible College." A man who sat recording her with a tape machine, and listening to what she said, must needs be inquisitive what time really is, and asking her, "What's the time, love?" She hastily replied, "Time is manufactured by judges and expressed in the language of justice..." She was so pleased she had sold him a bargain, that she fell into an extravagant fit of laughter in which he left her.
Having well tired ourselves with the frantic humours and rambling ejaculations of the Invisible College, we took a turn to make some few remarks upon the looseness of the spectators, amongst whom we observed abundance of intriguing. A huge representation of the writing trade was in attendance, including journalists, reporters and commentators on culture of all ranks, qualities, colours, prices and sizes, from the velvet scarf to the Scotch plaid petticoat. Debates of all sorts went off, for there wanted not a stimulating consideration amongst them. Every fresh comer was soon engaged in a discussion; though they came in single they went out in large groups; 'tis a new Grub Street now the old one's ploughed up, where a writer at any hour in the day may meet with conversation for his purpose; 'tis as great a convenience to London, as the bars and cafes to Paris, where any stranger may engage a philosophical discourse at a small expense. All that I can say of the Invisible College, is this, 'tis a centre for insurgents, a meeting place for hacks, a sure market for marginals, and an absorbing walk for loiterers and others without employment.
Since The Alien's visit to Brixton the Anarchist Centre has been evicted and converted into expensive private accomodation. And this process continues throughout London - witness, for example, the undertaking at present to 're-brand' the Elephant & Castle as 'South Central'...now what would The Alien make of that?