On May Day 1978, Finsbury Park played host to an unusual party. A yellowing flyer for the Anarchist Picnic (dedicated to “all prisoners rotting in the world’s jails”), now in the archives of the Bishopsgate Institute, urges freethinkers to bring their own food, drink, musical instruments and kites, promising in return “mass football (N London v S London)” and a Punch and Judy show.
A picnic seems an apposite choice for anarchists – a meal exempt from the usual formalities, sweet and savoury mixed in a glorious jumble and eaten supine on the ground, often with scant regard for “table” manners or even cutlery: as the anthropologist Margaret Visser puts it, “a thrilling reversal of normal rules”.
A brief rummage online produces a recent “picnic protest” against Windermere parking charges, an “axe the bedroom tax protest and picnic” in Margate, and innumerable munchie-heavy cannabis “picnics” in support of drug legalisation from Surrey to Sydney.
The 2009 picnic protest against Heathrow expansion, conducted on the floor of Terminal One, was particularly sumptuously catered for, with a journalist reporting “scotch eggs, Carr’s water biscuits . . . wild-rice salad, a broccoli and brown pasta dish, couscous, cupcakes and beautifully made cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off”. (The slogan? “Climate change is no picnic”.)
There are fewer green issues on the menu, and less broccoli, at Kentucky’s annual Fancy Farm Picnic, where politicians come to canvass votes, often by pledging their support for the local coal industry, from an audience visiting primarily for the nine tonnes of barbecue pork and mutton.
But politicians love their barbecue, too. President Obama soured his already fractious relationship with Congress last year by cancelling their customary White House picnic, usually held in early summer – “in time” (as the congressional commentator David Hawkings explains) “for the afterglow to shine favourably on some bipartisan deal-making in even the most rancorous election years”.
Whether that was to blame for the subsequent government shutdown is unclear, but this year it’s back on – scheduled for 17 September, just a week before the House breaks up for the midterms, and “essentially too late, in other words, to ratify before the election any legislative breakthrough that might get scrawled on to the red-checked tablecloths”.
Britain also has a proud history of political picnicking; in its heyday, the Northumberland Miners’ Picnic attracted speakers such as Arthur Scargill, John Prescott and Clement Attlee. Now it seems we’re reduced to feminists scoffing sushi on the Circle Line to protest a woman’s right to eat in public, in the wake of the risible “Women Who Eat on Tubes” Facebook furore.
And yet, around the world, people are still fighting for the right to protest at all – last year several Vietnamese activists were arrested at human rights picnics in public parks; and in the Islamic state of Algeria, hundreds risked their freedom at public picnics during the Ramadan fast. More recently, demonstrators against the Thai military coup were reduced to giving away their food under the slogan “Sandwiches for democracy!”, after the park where they had planned to hold a picnic rally was sealed off by the authorities.
Lest you doubt the power of the picnic, in August 1989 the Iron Curtain was lifted briefly to allow a pan-European picnic on the border between Austria and Hungary. Six hundred East Germans managed to escape through the open gates – an event Helmut Kohl later described as hammering the first brick from the Berlin Wall. It fell three months later. Perhaps a picnic can change the world, after all.
Next issue: Nina Caplan on drink