At the Poachers Arms: being realistic

Realistic blood money for realistically bloody treasure

The legendary Poachers Arms is a pub which is always open, can be found just round the corner from anywhere, and where the regular patrons make no pretence at being respectable citizens.

It was a Saturday on the thirteenth consecutive night of rain and the Poachers Arms was to be found on an unfashionable side street off the cripplingly fashionable Hoxton Street. I stepped gingerly over the puddle of water spreading from the umbrella stand by the door and into the usual convivial atmosphere around the bar.

“We’re thinking of building an ark,” said one of the regulars. “Where do you think we should build it?”

“It should be somewhere public,” I said. I ordered a pint of Poacher’s Pipe-dream then explained: “Part of the point of building an ark is to remind people that the punishment for their decadence approacheth.”

“I work in a museum,” said a woman who had come in the door just behind me. “Plenty of space there. We could get it sponsored by BP – everything else is.”

“Yes, I’ve often wondered about that,” I said. “It seems weird for public institutions to take advertising from companies that do so much harm.”

The woman looked affronted. “We turn bad money into good,” she said. “We’re using them really.” She turned to the barman. “A gin and tonic please.”

“Why do you think they spend the money though?” I said. “They wouldn’t do it if they didn’t get some kind of PR or political gain from it. They presumably think they are using you.”

The woman shrugged. “I see you’re some kind of idealist,” she said. “I’ve learned to be realistic. We need the money. They have it.”

I turned to Downer Dave, one of the regulars at the bar. Downer Dave is so called due to his unrelentingly negative, or as he calls it, realistic, take on the world.

“Who’s being more realistic Dave?” I said, then to the woman. “This is Downer Dave by the way. What’s your name?”

“I’m Louise.”

“So who’s being more realistic Dave?” I said.

“You,” said Downer Dave. He looked at the woman. “They’re using you. Sorry.”

“Hey listen,” Louise put down her drink and held up her hands. “I think the world shouldn’t be so crap but I just don’t think you can change it. I used to work in the House of Commons. It was horrible. It’s an oppressive building and the people who work there are weirdos. But change it? Please!”

“She has a point,” said Downer Dave.

“I’ve worked in government too,” I said. “In international development. And they thought I was ‘unrealistic’ too. Problem with that is that they were trying to solve a political problem – global poverty – with technical solutions. Imagine thinking you could solve a problem of too little power by taking decisions on behalf of those people. So that word ‘realistic’ is a tricky one – it often is when people use it politically. Who was being unrealistic there?”

“All of you,” said Downer Dave. He turned away and asked the barman to put on some lively music. “I’m depressed now,” he said, casting a glance back over his shoulder at us.

Louise looked at me, started to say something, stopped herself, raised her glass and clinked it against mine. Without another word we parted, and I moved deeper into the Poachers Arms, my damp clothes steaming gently in the warmth.

At the Poachers Arms: what to do about governments

The legendary Poachers Arms is a pub which is always open, can be found just round the corner from anywhere, and where the regular patrons make no pretence at being respectable citizens.

On a Tuesday night of plummeting temperatures I came upon it on the corner of two narrow streets in Bloomsbury. Rain was blowing around the streets in cold gusts, threatening to freeze in mid-air but for now still flooding the gutters. The lights behind the timber-framed casement windows had never looked so welcoming. I entered to the glorious smell of roast pork belly. Thomas, the oldest barman in the world, served me a pint of Slipshod and shouted through to the kitchen for a plate of food.

I sat at a table beside a middle-aged man reading a paper and young couple, the woman wearing an office shirt, loose tie and trilby hat.

“It’s disgraceful!” said the man as I sat, looking up from his paper. “The government!”

“They usually are,” I said, taking a sip of Slipshod. “What do you suggest?”

He shrugged. “It doesn’t seem to matter who you vote for. They’re all at it.”

“Do you think you would be any different?” I said.

“I’d do a bloody sight better than those worthless twats!” he said. “Course,” he added, “I probably don’t have the tact.”

“I don’t think anyone would be better,” said the woman with the trilby hat. “I think it’s the conviction that you would do better that is part of the trouble.”

“So it’s better to leave them to it?” grunted the man.

My plate of roast pork belly arrived, borne by the ancient Thomas. “Can’t leave them to it,” he said. There is nothing wrong with his hearing even if his joints aren’t what they used to be. He slapped the plate down in front of me. “I’ve been around a while. They’re all mad, the politicians. Mad as hares.”

“I don’t think we need them,” said the woman as Thomas departed. “I think we can create new ways of doing things ourselves. I don’t want to run the government.”

I got busy with the food as the newspaper reader and the be-hatted woman sparred.

“So,” said the man. “You think we should just leave them to it.”

“No,” said the woman. “You don’t have to pay attention to the government to do something about it. If you create new ways of doing things it challenges the power of those in charge.”

“Takes bullets to challenge that lot,” said the man. He picked up his paper as though that were the end of the conversation.

“It might, in the end,” said the woman. “But I don’t think that should be the first resort.”

“Wasn’t suggesting it should be.” The man looked annoyed at the misrepresentation of his position.

“Thing is,” said the boyfriend of the woman in the hat. “I think the structures of government and economics that exist now will corrupt anyone. The trick is to get power away from them.”

“How?” said the older man, putting his paper down again. “Who should have the power?”

I swallowed a mouthful of pork, gravy and potatoes. “Perhaps you need actual democratic structures that are different from those that exist now,” I said, wanting to be helpful. “And you pull power towards those structures.”

“You’d still end up cock-waving at each other,” said trilby hat.

“Then maybe you need to reshape the existing structures,” I said, piling apple sauce onto a forkful of pork. “You don’t choose between the state or not-the-state. You change the nature of the state. But you still need other forms of organising to do that.”

“What, a party?” said trilby hat suspiciously.

“No, no,” I said. “It would only betray you. Something less hierarchical. And not one organisation. Many overlapping forms of organising aimed at undermining the usual form of organising a government.”

“Isn’t that what I said?” said the woman.

“Nope,” said newspaper man, butting in again. “You said you should ignore the government. Doesn’t seem like such a good idea to me. God knows what they’d get up to.”

The woman in the hat looked between the two of us. “Okay, if I did say we should ignore the government I didn’t mean it. I don’t trust the fuckers.”

Her boyfriend nodded as though thinking about something for the first time. “So maybe we do need organisation. Not like parties or anything. Just channels for attempts to distribute power better.”

I raised my glass of Slipshod. “Here’s to multiple channels for our rage. Home-made gutters for the rain of dissent.”

The newspaper reader grunted and nodded toward the window. “It’d better be warmer than this, that’s all I can say.”

“That’s up to you,” said trilby hat to him with an overly sweet smile. “You’ll be the rain.”

At the Poachers Arms: large scale organising

The legendary Poachers Arms is a pub which is always open, can be found just round the corner from anywhere, and where the regular patrons make no pretence at being respectable citizens.

It was a Saturday night in the Poachers Arms and the local screamo revival trio Meaningless Fucking Meaning were dominating the ambience of the pub from the occasional stage in the corner alcove beside the fireplace.

Regulars and visitors filled every square inch of breathable space and the bar staff moved around constantly and quickly, making eye contact only with the customer of the moment.

I took my pint of Colonel Despard and squeezed and bounced myself to the garden door. The garden, which is a different shape each time you go there, was yard-like today and filled with people. The noise of human speech, loud as a flock of gulls was, at least somewhat quieter than the rendition of Aristocratic Corpse Longings from behind me.

“I hear the neighbours have called in a complaint,” said the Blairite man standing next to me.

“It’s only for one night,” I said. “I don’t think people should never be inconvenienced by other people.”

“Maybe they’ve got kids,” said the Blairite.

“And maybe they can’t resist using the apparatus of local government to their advantage even though they bitch about the council tax 364 days of the year.”

“A bit late for political talk isn’t it?” said the Blairite (who I had not yet discovered was a Blairite).

“Nonsense,” said a woman in front of us, spinning around. “If you can’t support your political views with four pints inside you then you don’t believe them. Take me. I’m an anarchist and I’ve had six pints and I can still explain that anarchy doesn’t mean chaos but organisation of society without structural violence.”

“I’m a Blairite,” said the Blairite. “But I’ve had three pints and I can’t explain it.”

“That’s fine,” I said. “No one could. This is my first and I have no clue how you could begin to explain it.”

“But I will say,” said the Blairite, “That I don’t think it would be possible to do without the state. If only because some violent minority would get in charge.”

“Very different from now,” said the woman, her eyebrows raised.

“Touche,” said the Blairite.

“But I know what you mean,” I said to him. “I think the existence of the weapons we have now means that you need large scale organisation, if only to ensure the nutters don’t end up in charge. And you need organisation to move resources around the planet in a useful way too.”

“See, a state,” said the Blairite.

“That’s a failure of imagination,” I said, taking a sip of Despard. “Why does large scale organisation have to look like a state? It could be completely different in form, in mandate, in principles…”

“And would your hypothetical organisation mediate disputes between neighbours on noise levels?” asked the Blairite.

“Who knows?” I said. “Who cares? I can sure as hell imagine one that wouldn’t randomly start wars in Middle Eastern countries.”

“I’ll drink to that,” said the woman.

The Blairite hesitantly raised his glass, almost looking over his shoulder as though to check that his friends weren’t watching. “Me too.”

At the Poacher’s Arms: on progress and tedium

The legendary Poachers Arms is a pub which is always open, can be found just round the corner from anywhere, and where the regular patrons make no pretence at being respectable citizens.

Last night I found it beside a small railway station on top of a hill. I joined another regular at the bar and ordered a Lochyloch single malt whisky to start the night off. Macy the barwoman poured me a double shot for the price of a single and when I thanked her she looked offended and informed me it wouldn’t happen again.

I got talking to the Regular about this and that, and someone he knew who had once sat on a spiked iron railing and slightly lacerated some essential parts of his digestive system and had afterwards said it was the most interesting thing to happen in his life. I could see his point, I said, ignoring the snigger at the unintentional pun. The Regular couldn’t, and claimed that boredom was a disease, especially when the world was becoming a better place.

“Is it?” I said.

“You can see the data,” he said.

“That depends partly on what you choose to measure,” I said.

“Infant mortality is falling across the world.”

“But,” I pointed out, “It’s not a good measure because billions of dollars have been poured into precisely getting that figure down. It doesn’t mean people’s lives have improved in other ways.”

“But our standard of living has improved,” said Macy.

“For some people, in some places,” I said. “But inequality increased in Britain all through the Labour years. In the meantime things having been happening that are difficult to pick up in the data.”

“Like what?” said the Regular.

“Like a shift in power to concentrations of corporations and a shift in thinking funded by those with the money. I think this means things are going to get worse for most people in most countries for a good couple of decades. What’s happening now is a new thing. It will be hard to stop.”

“What do you think we can do about it?” said the Regular. I know his views on politics. He doesn’t think it a good use of his time. With which I don’t entirely disagree. It isn’t a good use of anyone’s time.

But Macy broke in, “People’s lives are full of other things. Full of the everyday things we have to do. Work, going food shopping, all that stuff we don’t get any choice about.”

“And people will do what they are motivated to do,” said the Regular.

“So we leave it to the people motivated by money to run the world?” I said.

“We’ve got lives to live,” said Macy.

I downed the Lochyloch – a waste of good whisky but I had to fortify myself for a boring speech – and said “But this specialisation is what dooms us. Your job is pulling the pints and changing the barrels. Their job is making millions of pounds and they fuck up the world. The compartmentalisation of roles is screwing us. In the meantime those few people have formed a very effective power bloc and the only way I can see to break it is for the many people with little power to unite against them.”

“But in the end it’s about changing the terms of the debate,” said the Regular.

Macy absent-mindedly poured me another Lochyloch as I said, “In a way, but that isn’t just a matter of persuasion. You have to exert power. You think the directors who got 50% payrises last year while our wages stayed static and lost out to inflation can be ‘persuaded’ things should be done differently? The organisation of power against those in charge and changing the terms of debate are one and the same thing.”

“I get off at 12,” said Macy. “I don’t know what to do to change anything, and I need to be in bed by 1am cos my next shift is at 11am tomorrow.”

“I don’t know what to do to change it either,” I said. “None of us do yet. We’ve got to talk about it.”

“And talk and talk and talk and talk,” said a voice to my right. I turned to see another of the Poachers Arms regulars. “God you three are boring. Can’t a man have a drink in peace? I’m going to order a pint of anthrax to kill myself in a minute if you lot don’t stop.”

I raised my glass. “To the end of tedium,” I said. “Especially mine.”

We clinked glasses.

At the Poachers Arms: growing numbers

The legendary Poachers Arms is a pub which is always open, can be found just round the corner from anywhere, and where the regular patrons make no pretence at being respectable citizens.

The other day I found it operating from – of all places – the north wall of St Paul’s Cathedral. I ordered myself a pint of Winstanley and watched through the doorway some hippies being friendly to police officers. A man sitting next to me introduced himself and we fell to talking about large-scale organising for a different political system that would give us more control over our lives.

Within moments he admitted to being a ‘Blairite’, a crime for which he seemed unrepentant, but this was the Poachers Arms so I made no comment. In the true Blairite tradition he said he thought that left and right needed to unite in order to change the world.

I suggested that if he meant the promoters of right wing ideology who used their money and power to impose their self-interested ideas on others then I could not join him in his quest for global unity, but if he meant Daily Mail readers then actually I agreed. We then had a discussion about whether you could divide the rich from the comfortable working class or middle class at some particular level of income and decided that you couldn’t. I pointed out that there are, however, reasons why particular people, including powerful people and even those on low incomes, will always support the status quo. It was important to understand, I suggested, that there would have to be movement without having everyone on board.

This bothered him a little, as though he, like the hippies outside, thought that the whole world could sing together in harmony. He didn’t want to pursue the matter though, instead taking a sip of his pint of Cromwell and gazing around for a moment until he hit on a new topic.

My new friend seemed worried about one particular idea he had heard doing the rounds: the idea of bringing other people into the ‘movement’ for change. This was too much like conversion for his liking, and I agreed.

“People will join in large numbers if and when they feel pissed off enough,” I said. “I don’t think there’s much point in trying to persuade them to take action before then.”

“Ok, that’s good,” he said, “Because I was starting to feel a religious vibe around here.”

“I do think that people experimenting with politics right now, without mass support, are important,” I said. “When more people are tired of being made poorer, they will be joining a core of people who already have experience organising.”

“As long as the education process isn’t going one way,” he said.

“Since those people active in politics in this country hasn’t brought about a new world lately,” I said, “I think that everyone needs to learn from each other.”

He raised his glass in agreement. I drained mine and left. Outside the Poachers Arms the police officers were stopping and searching a homeless man.

At the Poachers Arms: consumer power and debt

The legendary Poachers Arms is a pub which is always open, can be found just round the corner from anywhere, and where the regular patrons make no pretence at being respectable citizens.

Yesterday I was sat in the Poachers just across the road from the occupation at St Paul’s Cathedral and over a pint of Very Hairy Badger got talking to a man with an Australian-English accent. We got to talking about how we could organise long-term to oppose the financial and political structures that are currently squeezing us.

His suggestion was that a large organisation of consumers could gain power over banks and utility providers by withdrawing from them, one corporation at a time, until they were forced to restructure themselves, or the politicians were forced to restructure them.

While I half-liked the idea, my response was that consumption is structured as an individual activity and it is very difficult to built collective action around it. For instance any threatened bank/corporation could drop prices and the effort to abandon them would be undermined by people having to maximise their use of their resources as individuals. I also suggested that it would require quite a large amount of people to be involved to really threaten the existence of a bank or corporation and building towards that would be difficult on the back of a distant promise of power.

He accepted this was a problem, but asked whether an idea I had mentioned – that of organising debtors against their creditors – didn’t have the same problem. Aren’t debtors just consumers, after all? And wouldn’t organising around debt suffer from the same problem that it is structured as an individual burden?

As I drank my pint I found I couldn’t immediately disagree with him, but thinking about it afterwards I thought that perhaps debt is not the same as other goods we buy. It is money, not a good, and as such is pure fiction backed up by force, and so it exposes the way our economic system works. Organising around it would reveal the power structures like nothing else. But it would also require long term organising, and could be undermined by people making individual choices they need to make.

As I said goodbye to my companion at the bar we both understood that no problems had been solved. But in the Poachers Arms problems are not just for solving, problems are for uniting around within the embrace of a Very Hairy Badger.