Jon, a recent graduate with a first-class degree in Philosophy from Leeds University, had not aspired to work as a private security guard protecting Paternoster Square in the City of London. He feels lucky to have found work, but disapproves of the private ownership of public space (POPS). This is exactly the situation in Paternoster Square which is owned by the Mitsubishi Estate Company. It is one example of the growing trend to privatise hitherto freely accessible public spaces, not only in London but nationally: the Duke of Westminster owns thirty-four streets in Liverpool city centre.
Jon enjoys working the night shift alone: the square, under lockdown, is even quieter than before the pandemic, and he’s free from the mindless banter of colleagues. He has a small office but most of the night he walks his patch, relishing the sounds of the metropolis, the shifting weather and a sense of freedom.
One night, Jon sees an elderly man dressed in many layers of sacking and a woollen hood, leaning on a stave, staring at a sign on a nearby wall.
Intrigued, Jon asks. Can I help you?
What’s it say? Never learnt my letters.
Jon, baffled, explains, This is a private space and if you cause trouble I could arrest you for trespassing.
Trouble? Private? Trespassing? I’m a drover; came through here with my herd last, ooh, when was it? 1697 it was, when this St Paul’s was consecrated just after the Great Fire. Common land this was. Trespassing? Who says?
You can’t be over three hundred years old, Jon protests, his mind reeling.
The drover laughs. Course I ain’t. I’m a spirit, heard the place been stolen from the common people.
The sound of thudding metal interrupts Jon’s efforts to reply. He turns, sees the cause of the noise, and, terrified, flattens himself against the wall.
Them sheep be a bloody odd-looking lot, bint they? the drover asks.
Elizabeth Fink’s bronze sculpture ‘A shepherd and five sheep’ clang and thud across the square while Jon repeatedly mutters, This isn’t happening.
Ah, the drover says, here’s the others coming now.
Jon stares wide-eyed as a throng of men and women clothed in ancient dress shimmer ethereally in the moonlight as they silently float through Temple Gate.
The bronze shepherd halts, and though its lips cannot move, it speaks. Its voice reverberates with the heat and fire of the forge. We are risen for what was stolen.
For what was stolen, the spirits echo.
Freedom must be restored, the shepherd thunders.
Freedom must be restored, the spirits chant as they vanish, light as gossamer.
The bronze shepherd and the five sheep return to their plinth.
Only the drover remains. Laughing, he asks, Am I under arrest?
Even if I could, I wouldn’t. Did this happen?
The drover hands Jon his stave. When in doubt hold this proof.
Jon, now alone, thinks, Maybe I’m not going mad but getting sane, and as John Berger wrote, ‘There is no freedom without action.’
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© Phil Cosker 2021
Phil Cosker has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work. All rights reserved; no part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted by any mean, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise without the prior permission of the author.