Therapy at the London Occupation
So, it’s a freezing night and I’m sitting on one of those reclining cushioned patio chairs, under a bulb powered by a generator. I’m wearing all my clothes like the homeless so I’m feeling rather bulky but reasonably warm. There’s a sofa piled with sleeping bags, another camping chair and a little table with a battery lamp on it. I have a fleeting image of traditional psychotherapy – someone lying on the couch, talking. Really? Here? Do we zip up the tent for privacy? That seems a bit weird.
I’ve just come from the tail-end of the Rev Jesse Jackson’s speech outside the front of St Paul’s. I’d missed the main part and when I arrived, he was saying phrases in a kind of mesmeric chant with pauses and they were being repeated by the audience, particularly by the black members. The phrases seemed to be almost a whole long list of good thoughts, comforting and encouraging phrases, balm for the beleaguered. The audience murmured them back. I left when the press began to ask questions, and sought out the welfare tent.
It’s slightly warmer here than six inches further outside. I’m not alone. A young woman studying anthropology has been given the job of filming ‘welfare’ at the Occupation, she’s asked permission on the googlegroup and done everything ethically about explaining what she’s doing – and she’s been very helpful – showing me how to put the light on, and filling me in with what’s been going on in the Occupation. She wants to capture, she says, the ordinariness of the occupation in its day-to-dayness rather than the dramatic events and key discussions. She is uncomfortable with the thought of having anything as formal as an interview, so we’re just chatting and I don’t really know if she plans to interview me or whether she’s actually here to ‘do some counselling’.
The tent is round the side of St Paul’s out of the main action – and as the time passes from 4 to 8 that night, I watch the crowds of office workers swell and then die away again as they hurry towards the tube on this cold night. They look over, sometimes. I smile, give a wave. Shyly, some make eye contact and look as if they’d like to smile back. One or two women – well-to-do, mature – give in to their impulse and come and talk to us. They ask, wistfully, plaintively, do we think the Occupation will achieve anything. Oh this is counselling too, I think.
One man in an expensive black coat and white silk scarf – do posh people still wear them, then? – shouts at us to go away. The young woman with the camera says when she’s been here before the welfare people have ‘huddled together’ and not made contact with the passers by. I wonder about this, about why they don’t and why I do.
J turns up. J asks if he can sit with us and can he leave his suitcase in our tent for safety. It’s very heavy. The young woman had said that one of the things she had noticed about the welfare tent was that you couldn’t tell when people came what they were there for. It’s an interesting question. She meant that when a person turned up you didn’t know if they wanted or needed counselling or welfare – or whether they were there for company, or any other reason, and that that must be very different for us counsellors. I agreed it was but that even with ‘usual’ counselling people are not always sure what they want, it’s not always easy to know, and perhaps if people pitch up at the welfare tent and want to chat – for any reason and for no reason – counselling or something that might be a new way of thinking about counselling might take place.
J tells us he is going to do a turn for the Occupation and acts out some of the things he will be saying. He’s against the monarchy, he’s for ‘multilevel farming’ which turns out to mean a way of managing livestock for fertilisation of the land and providing work suited to different levels of people’s capability, he’s very worried about the loss of biodiversity… and he’s going to have a word with the archbishop about his scruffiness. He gives us snatches of his turn: “Bonnie Prince Charlie (monkey noises, chimp gestures) the King of the Great British Banana Republic…” I realise eventually – so slow on the uptake – that he’s talking about Prince Charles. He’s got a suitcase full of bits of blackboard painted with symbols. Round discs with happy and grr faces on either side. Bits of blackboard that represent Westminster in the gutter. Blackboard swords and other weapons that have what J thinks are more peaceable symbols on their obverse: hammers, tape measures… He will use these in his act. He’ll be wearing a monkey mask. It will be at 9 o’clock tomorrow morning – “earth dawn” – and he alone can save us – he can save the UK in 21 days, “no ifs, no buts, no messing about”, Europe will take longer (60 days) and the world a 100 days. J asks what I think of his claim that he can save the world. I say the problem will be convincing other people, and it might be hard to do it alone. He asks if he can smoke and we say yes. What, even if it’s funny tobacco? He rolls a very thin roll up. He hasn’t had a drink for 3 months but today he’s got to psych himself up he says, sloshing some whisky into his cup of tea from the half bottle in his jacket, pausing, and then adding a judicious extra drop. The Occupation is a no-drink, no-drugs space. The young woman and I don’t intervene.
J chats on about his plans to save the world – he worries that we might not be ready to hear his real views because they are mystical and involve magic – and being Jesus and not from this earth. He kindly fetches us cups of tea, though. I think to myself that if anyone in real distress – what do I mean? – did come round the corner to our lonely Welfare tent because they wanted to ‘do counselling’, that J might put them off a bit, and it doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere soon. But no-one does, anyway.
We speak to the big security guy dressed in black with the mobile phone – he tells us that there are security guys sleeping in the tents behind our tent, so we’re to know that we have support ‘if anything happens’.
The young woman asks if I want to be part of her project and I agree. We move the light so that it hangs just over my head and I have to hold the flex to keep it from swaying which is giving the film a rather horror-movie effect. This is better, though, than illuminating my face from below with the battery lamp – even more horror-movie like. We decide it’s ok for J to join in too. What’s my background? Why am I here? How is it different to doing counselling in my usual setting? Inside, I panic, rolling my eyes at the thought of committing myself to ‘a view’. What if I’m wrong or an idiot? Look I’m a counsellor because I prefer listening to having views of my own, dammit. My inner me gives me a shove and says, do it for once, and then I’m out there, saying things – bits from a Quaker past – living adventurously – bits from Socialism – capitalist system really really doesn’t work even though I’ve spent my life trying to play the game and just can’t pretend anymore, need for change, old Left unable to adapt but inescapable the need for a genuine uprising of working people and Occupation isn’t it – bits about moral duty towards the younger generation left to live in a world that is frighteningly without work, hope, even survival – bits about wanting to explore what a radical view of psychotherapy might mean, could the occupation space be an environment in which to practise that idea? Fortunately, J reminds us that he is the solution to these problems – he is going to save us, it will take 21 days, we’ll see, tomorrow, 9 o’clock, earth dawn, on the steps of St Paul’s. When I say that the occupation is an opportunity for me to experiment…. I was going to say in a different way of being in community with other people… J pounces on the word. You shouldn’t, he says firmly, experiment on people. He begins to talk about psychiatric interventions with people with mental health issues, and is knowledgeable about drug therapies and also about electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) which, he says, works, in the short term – calms you down, he says. The young woman says she thinks it’s wrong even so. J says he has drugs to keep him calm. I nod.
We settle into a tolerant threesome as J rattles on – I watch the passers by, wonder what the time is, muse about sitting in a tent in the middle of London hoping to do something useful. Is this useful? Is it useful to talk with people in a different way? Shouldn’t I know some answers by my age? We are joined by the other counsellor, F, who is a drama therapist. He is small, neat and quiet and concerned that Welfare seems to be doing so little for the people in the occupation. He wonders if it would be possible to run a group. The young woman says some people are thinking of doing this at one of the other London occupation sites. There are regular Monday evening meetings for welfare people at which issues and plans are discussed – F says he’s attended one. The young woman informs us that there is another occupation site being set up in Hackney. P, another counsellor, stops by briefly on his way to pick up his daughter from university. Sorry, he can’t stop tonight, but he’ll be around the next day – will the young woman be there then?
A young man comes by with a carrier bag. Are we first aid? No, we’re welfare. First aid is next door but there’s no one there. There should be – it’s supposed to be 24/7. He’s from a hospital – he’s brought toothbrushes, some first aid stuff, a plastic flask for clean water. Would we give it to the first aiders when they come – from R? From X hospital? Yes of course.
Someone brings us a plate with a bacon roll on it. It’s supposed to be for the person in the first aid tent but there’s no one there. He goes away and then comes back. You might as well have it. The young woman and I share it between us. We sit on, our hands and noses getting cold, gossiping about the welfare meetings and individuals’ comments. W had said at the meeting that the therapists might need the occupation more than the occupation needs the therapists. I think that a good challenging comment – why am I here? Why do I think I need to be here? I’m OK about admitting my countertransference, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t actually be articulated and thought through. Does the occupation need a welfare tent? It thinks it does but what does it want one for? On the googlemail come various ideas – shouldn’t we be teaching the occupation about wellbeing – someone has a website and a business that trains people in wellbeing. He’d like to offer his services.
And then our meditative little group is interrupted as sparky dangerous energy arrives, first with the arrival of Angel, the dog (‘like Bill Sikes’ dog – yeah, Bull’s Eye’), followed by Angel’s owner and his friend, and then their girlfriends. Angel, like any dog, occupies our space with aplomb, and eventually settles on the sofa between F and the young woman, accepts the petting that the young woman and I offer, while F leans away and looks rather worried about his coat. Then Angel’s owner, tall, in his thirties, lean faced, missing teeth, talking fast. He adores his dog, he says, in a charming admission of soppiness, as he shakes my hand and welcomes me to the occupation as if he owns it. Yes, she’s spoiled, I love her to bits he says as he crams himself without seeking leave into the sofa on the other side of F who is now squashed between Angel and Angel’s owner, and looking rather alarmed. Angel’s owner rapidly produces a big spliff and asks J for a light. He admonishes J for his greed at wanting to share the spliff and lectures him for a while on the etiquette of having to wait until he’s offered but that he will relent now and let J have a turn. Meanwhile, Angel’s owner’s friend is standing in front of us wearing a body length blanket torn into tatters. He looks even more Dickensian than Angel the dog. He’s declaiming (accurately) – for no obvious reason – the speech from Macbeth about man’s brief hour upon the stage. He puts particular emphasis on the nihilistic last words, “Signifying NOTHING”. What a literary pair they seem to be, these rather alarming young men with their lack of teeth and their racing-car speediness – completely out of it.
The young woman murmurs to me that she’s feeling uncomfortable about the drugs and alcohol abuse that we now seem to be hosting, with the two waif-girls in the background, saying things that I’m not able to make out. I say to the young woman that I could go to the information tent if we felt we needed to get some support but what I am hoping to do is say to Angel’s owner that perhaps he could go and smoke somewhere else because we’re the welfare tent and we need to keep the space open for others to come and they might be put off. Would I say this? What would Angel’s owner say to me? Could the situation escalate? But as is the way of their lives, news comes via one of the waif-girls that ‘something’s happening’ and they all disappear in a flash to ‘sort it out’. Like a whirl of leaves in an eddy, they’re gone.
We settle back into our quietness. The passers by are fewer in number. Our breath hangs in the air. A reverend comes by and we talk about the Occupation. “I’m from the North and I speak bluntly.” He it was who admonished St Pauls’ for closing their doors to the public. J asks him if he knows the archbish. The Rev says drily, ‘Not personally.’ He thinks that St Pauls should have talked theology sooner and related itself to the aims of the occupation but now he is disappointed by the occupation’s failure to think about ‘the theology of occupation’, The occupation people had said they would but have cancelled. He wonders if the occupation now represent anyone but themselves. We discuss the meaning of ‘occupation’ – it has bad associations for people of his (my) age, he says. The young woman has been on ‘reclaim the night’ marches and we wonder whether it helps to think about the meaning of claiming spaces back for people, about the original intention to occupy the City space rather than St Pauls, about what it means to be ‘in people’s faces, unignorable’ by just being there, about not having to have a pre-set agenda. The Rev is finding it difficult to tolerate J’s interventions about how he has come to save the world, 21 days, tomorrow, earth dawn.
We check the time – it’s nearly time to close the tent. I share my chocolate. The young woman and I give up on the ‘interview’ promising that perhaps we’ll continue another time and she packs away her camera. We disconnect the light bulb and zip up the tent. J has found a bed for the night in the first-aid tent. He packs up his blackboard bits and stows his suitcase in his new home. We wish him well with his act tomorrow morning. 21 days. Earth dawn. On the steps of St Pauls.