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In a perfect world

‘Knowledge is very important in anarchistic thought. It’s different from other things. If you give someone half a cake, then you only have half left, but if you give them your knowledge then you still have it all, and they have it too, and even more you have learned something from teaching it. If you share knowledge, it grows so much more quickly. And knowledge is freedom.’

F and I shared a compartment on an overnight train from Berlin to Vienna. His oversized shirt and trousers were covered in paint, but not in the smudged, tradesmanish manner of artists and decorators. The splodges were so thickly laid on and overlapped, shaped into long droplets and spreading, multicoloured blots, that they were clearly deliberate. He was quite dirty, his once-white socks blackened and pungent, his hands and face grimy and his hair stiff with grease. His nose ran constantly, spreading unchecked and making his top lip glisten as if he was sweating, and his eyes watered, but this apparent mild ill health did not seem to affect his excellent high spirits.

He was very friendly, and very sincere, proffering me anarchist journals and speaking a great deal about his ideals with the zeal of an evangelist. He was slightly embarrassed by his English, explaining that he didn’t often get a chance to practise it. He was a little hesitant, and occasionally muddled his ‘v’ and ‘w’ sounds in that way which German speakers are reputed to yet almost never do, but was otherwise actually very articulate. I had a feeling by his vocabulary that he had read a lot more English than he had heard.

‘I have been staying two weeks at a sqvatted house in Berlin. Working on some projects, mainly in Kreutzberg. There is a lot of alternative culture there. On Saturday we visited a pig factory – a huge farm where there will be hundreds of pigs. Just imagine it, nearly a thousand pigs!’ I didn’t quite get whether this pig farm was one of the ‘projects’ or a bad thing, but anyway he seemed most excited by the experience, and it turned out that he did not often leave Vienna. In fact, he said this was only the second or third time that he had taken a trip out of town since holidays with his parents many years before.
‘It is difficult. When I go away I always worry that I am missing something, but then I’m missing something by not going away too.’

‘I do not believe in the capitalistic way’, he explained. ‘Inside my head there is this idea of a kind of Utopia, without money or trade systems. It seems impossible, but that’s because you can’t help but think of things somehow constrained by the constructs of the system we have. But if you imagine a completely different way… no-one has tried it, and I think it could work. People need time to do the things for themselves, to make themselves feel happy. I believe that. I believe the five-hour working week could be a reality.’

F was willing to admit, however, that the working week was not his particular area of expertise, having in his own words ‘not earned a cent in my whole life’. He existed through a mixture of modest state handouts and charity from his friends and family, and fed himself by going through the bins outside supermarkets at the end of the day.

‘There is so much food there. As much new-baked bread as you could possibly eat, and lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. I am always finding strawberries and grapes. Think about it’, he said with a wide smile, as if delighted by the strangeness of the world, ‘These things are grown in Africa, flown hundreds and thousands of miles, just to be thrown away, or eaten by me. People are bringing food from Africa and giving it to me for free.’ I could not help but agree with him that put like that it sounded crazy.

‘It is a crazy world that we live in’, said F thoughtfully. ‘A very interesting world, but a crazy one.’

F’s sense of kindness was his guiding characteristic. He kept offering me various items of food from his bag, and at one point, during one of our periods of silence, while he read a subversive magazine and I gazed out of the window, he saw me beginning to fall asleep. At once he jumped up from his seat.

‘Look, if you pull the chairs out like this you can make them into a bed and lie on them, and it’s much cosier. We should do it now before you drift off, otherwise you will ache when you wake up.’

In fact I went and bought a cup of coffee from a man in a tiny room at the end of the train, who microwaved a plastic bowl of water to make it, then we continued chatting. F had just the week before been to a large anarchist congress, which he said dismissively was ‘not that good’. When probed as to why, it turned out that some girl had come forward with an idea, and a man present had demanded for some reason that she get naked. Oddly enough, the girl had complied without making a fuss, then carried on talking, but it pained F to see what he regarded as disrespectful behaviour.

‘The other problem is that most of us are male and middle class. But the ideas we have are all for the workers, and about the workers, and until they get involved, and more women too, it is difficult. At the moment, people work hard so that later in their life they can just work harder, in a job with more responsibility. When they get older, they should be taking more time for themselves, not working more. We need more working class people to understand.’

When we were not talking he had a sheet of A3 paper, on which with a great deal of care he was drawing tiny, intricate patterns of swirls and arrows in a variety of colours, some with fluorescent or glittering ink. This was his Berlin painting, he told me, and he had to finish it before he got back to Vienna. He spent twenty minutes or so doing a much smaller one then presented it to me as a gift. I took out my brush pen and liner and drew him a cartoon in return.

‘When I was in school’, he said, ‘If I tried to draw an animal, it came out as a caricature; if I drew a person, it was a monster. I would have never thought that I could paint. But I have found my way to art.’ He gestured to his clothes and his drawings. ‘Everyone can find their way to art, because art is for everyone.’

‘My problem’, he went on, ‘Is that there are so many things I want to get involved in. I want to work in anarchist politics, but also I want to work in permaculture. And for permaculture there is a lot to learn – you have to spend several weeks at least. And I love art. I am teaching some people to paint tomorrow.’

Dozing off in the half-darkness of the compartment, I thought about how one man’s dream is another’s nightmare; how some would tell you that our obsession with complexity and unwillingness to accept the pursuit of happiness as a simple ideal are what keep us from it, while others would say that life’s infinite complications, mysteries and insoluble nature are central to its being worth living.

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