The Life & Death of Youth
A short story about love, death, youth & revolution spanning the tumultuous 2010s in London.
I moved to London in September 2010. Queen Mary University. Fuck knows what I was supposed to be studying. The busy lecture halls and packed seminar rooms were quickly dissipated by the smog of East London back alleys, lock-ins at smokey boozers, jazz clubs at four in the morning, raves at five, and sunrises on the Camden Lock.
After a childhood spent in small-town suburbia, the draw of the big city was overwhelming. Intoxicating.
London was where life happened. But the almost nightly abuse of the body, the single-minded dedication to cheap hedonism, quickly left a void inside. Life had no meaning outside of the pubs, clubs, drugs and tubs I’d find myself staggering out of.
That all changed in the summer of 2011. I was in a flat-share with some other uni dropouts, smoking weed, playing guitar and reading battered library copies of Marx, Malcolm X and other political radicals. “The police shot some black guy on the street, we’re rioting in Tottenham” shouted one of the neighbors. We made the swift journey to Tottenham Hale where my life was irrevocably changed. What I witnessed there was freedom. Dirty, bloody, angry freedom. The people had risen up, unshackled, uncontrollable, uncontainable. Like a tidal wave crashing through London, shaking the world and its masters. And that night I knew what would fill my void, why I had made the pilgrimage to London from my leafy, conservative homeland:
By the end of 2011 I had fallen in with some anarcho-communists who had introduced me to the Occupy movement. “Capitalism’s fucked” they said, “it’s up to us to build what comes next”. Like Saul on the road to Damascus, I had undergone a blinding conversion. I spent the winter of 2011 in and out of tents by St Pauls. During the day we sang, and danced, and spoke of the new world that was about to dawn – and at night we did it all again. It was during one of those nights that I first met Persephone. Her eyes like burning stars. We made love for the first time on Christmas Eve 2011.
By February the following year, the City of London and their thugs had evicted us. Occupy was over. The revolution I could’ve sworn was coming, its immaculate conception in Tottenham those many months ago, hadn’t materialized.
I had just turned twenty-one, and my parents had only now realized that I had been to maybe two lectures in my three years at uni (one of them was actually a mistake, I had walked into an animal anthropology lecture by accident). Persephone and I moved in together later that year. We both got jobs, paid rent to some Canary Islands landlord, and in our spare time continued to attend rallies and protests. It was a long couple of years and the void slowly creeped back into my soul. Or maybe it had always been there? From the moment my mother bore me?
We spent those days as best we could – long walks along the Thames, chain-smoking, gazing up at the starry sky, Persephone’s eyes as bright as the cosmos themself. “This life, this love, this river has to end… But for now, we have all the time” she whispered into my ear as we made love on our flat balcony.
By 2015 that love had run its course. We fought more times than we made love. Persephone was tired from waitressing gigs and wanted to go back to uni to finish her studies. In my desperation to fill the void, my appetite for illegal substances had returned. The night she left was the first time I did crack. I found these two homeless guys in Covent Garden and invited them back to my place. I knew it was stupid then, but the void was growing stronger. A black hole in my soul, threatening to swallow my entire fucking universe. I think I was hooked from that first dirty inhale, followed in turn by the blissful, majestic exhale where suddenly the whole world’s a dream, physical form dissolves, and the spirit wafts through a realm of abstract warmth and light. Maybe this was my Vahalla? Maybe this was where the dead revolutionaries went when the battle had been lost?
But it wasn’t meant to be. At the beginning of the summer, one of my old friends from Occupy came over. He didn’t know about the crack, but he still knew there was a fire in my belly. The fire from Tottenham. He told me about a man who was running to be leader of the Labour Party after Miliband’s loss earlier that year… A man by the name of Jeremy Corbyn. “This is the revolution” he said.
We were all so young. It was strange that we had put our hopes in a guy pushing seventy. Still, that summer was electrifying. Corbyn packed out everywhere he went to speak. Suddenly ideas I had only heard uttered in Occupy tents and anarcho squats were buzzing around London like a pop song on the radio. “You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming” wrote Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet-revolutionary.
And I knew it: we were the fucking spring.
On September 12th, Corbyn won the leadership election and immediately afterwards we set to work. I became one of the national organizers for Momentum, a grassroots organization set up to support Corbyn during his leadership bid. With a parliamentary party full of vipers, and a media with the knives out, we were quickly thrust into the trenches. “I can’t believe we’re now an ‘ism”, remarked one of the younger activists during those early days, “we’re making history” she continued. “No” I said, “history begins when we win”.
Going into 2017, we were jubilant. I remember speaking to old miners and activists from the 80s, beaten by Thatcher and exiled into silence for decades, telling me “we couldn’t do it, but you can. You can bring the revolution”. Young and old came together, bonded by the same ideals and the hope for a better world. We laughed, and cheered, and hugged, carried on a wave of history propelling us into a future we thought we could see – a future where poverty and injustice were but shadows of a former, darker world. The night of the 2017 election, when the media announced that exit poll, was the happiest I’d been since Persephone and I had split. My mind lingered for a moment on Persephone… How she was. Where she was now. And if she were thinking of me.
But in spite of the joy that sprung from the hope of a coming world, my addictions continued. I went from crack to heroin, lurking in the shadows like a vampire as I desperately searched for a new vein to inject into. By 2018, with the movement split over Brexit, our collective joy was quickly dampened by the grinding, crushing gears of parliamentary wrangling… I spent day after day in the cold, gloomy rain during that 2019 election, knocking on doors, preaching the word, but deep down I knew what was to come… The revolution had failed. Again.
I spent that Christmas with my family. They had all voted Tory. It was awkward. I looked Persephone up on Facebook and saw that she had finished uni and become a high-flying lawyer at some corporate firm. I messaged her asking if she wanted to meet for coffee in the new year. We met at a Starbucks in the city in mid-January 2020. She told me about this virus that had been spreading through China. I’d never heard of it. I wanted to tell her about my void, about how it had always been there, and how I think it had torn our relationship apart all those years ago… Instead we discussed politics, like old times. “The destiny of all revolutions is to fail” she told me, “not because the people are bad, or their cause isn’t just – but because to change the world, first, you need to learn to live in it”.
That night I found my last vein. I died of an overdose. The last image in my mind was of Persephone.
Her eyes like burning stars.
“This life, this love, this river has to end… But for now, we have all the time” she whispered into my ear as we made love on that balcony, many years ago.