Tea at Terminal One: a very civilised sit-in against Heathrow expansion in 2009. Photo: Rex Features
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Felicity Cloake: How your picnic hamper can change the world

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.

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

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

HELEN SLOAN / THE FALL 3 LTD
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The Fall is back - and once again making me weary

Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should pull the plug on it at last. Plus: Damned.

It is with much weariness that I return to The Fall (Thursdays, 9pm), the creepy drama that still doesn’t know whether it wants to be a horror-fest or a love story. I’ve written in the past about what I regard as its basic misogyny – to sum up, it seems to me to make a fetish of the violence committed against women, a preoccupation it pathetically tries to disguise by dint of its main character being a female detective – and I don’t propose to return to that theme now. However, in its early days, it was at least moderately gripping. Now, though, it appears to be recovering from some kind of nervous breakdown. If in series two the plot was wobbling all over the place, series three has misplaced the idea of drama altogether. Nothing is happening. At all.

To recap: at the end of the last series, Paul Spector, aka the Belfast Strangler (Jamie Dornan), had been shot while in police custody, somewhat improbably by a man who blames him for the demise of his marriage (oh, that Spector were only responsible for breaking up a few relationships). On the plus side for his supposed nemesis, DSI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), before he fell he led them to Rose Stagg, the ex-girlfriend he’d locked in the boot of a car some days previously, and she is going to live. On the minus side, Spector’s injuries are so bad, it’s touch and go whether he’ll survive, and so Gibson may never see him brought to justice. Of course, the word “justice” is something of a red herring here.

The real reason she wants Spector to live is more dubious. As she stared at his body in the ICU, all tubes and monitors, her expression was so obviously sexual – her mouth opened, and stayed that way, as her eyes ran over every part of his body – that I half expected her to reach out and stroke him. Just in time for this nocturnal visit, she’d slipped into another of her slinky silk blouses that look like poured cream. (Moments earlier – think Jackie Kennedy in 1963 – she’d still been covered in her love object’s blood.)

The entire episode took place at the hospital, police procedural having morphed suddenly into Bodies or Cardiac Arrest. Except, this was so much more boring and cliché-bound than those excellent series – and so badly in need of their verisimilitude. When I watch The Fall, I’m all questions. Why doesn’t Stella ever tie her hair back? And why does she always wear high heels, even when trying to apprehend criminals? For how much longer will the presumably cash-strapped Police Service of Northern Ireland allow her to live in a posh hotel? Above all, I find myself thinking: why has this series been so acclaimed? First it was nasty, and then it was only bad. Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should join Gibson in the ICU, where together they can ceremonially pull the plug on it at last.

Can Jo Brand do for social workers in her new comedy, Damned, what she did a few years ago for geriatric nurses in the brilliant Getting On? I expect she probably can, even though this Channel 4 series (Tuesdays, 10pm), co-written with Morwenna Banks and Will Smith, does have an awfully inky heart. Hungry children, drug-addict parents, a man who can go nowhere without his oxygen tank: all three were present and correct when Rose (Brand) went to visit a client who turned out to be a woman who, long ago, had nicked her (Rose’s) boyfriend. Ha ha? Boohoo, more like.

Damned is basically The Office with added family dysfunction. Al (Alan Davies) is a hen-pecked wimp, Nitin (Himesh Patel) is a snitch, and Nat (Isy Suttie) is the stupidest and most annoying temp in the Western world. This lot have two bosses: Martin (Kevin Eldon), a kindly widower, and Denise (Georgie Glen), the cost-cutting line manager from hell. And Rose has a plonker of an ex-husband, Lee (Nick Hancock). “I’ve been invited to the Cotswolds for the weekend,” he told her, trying to wriggle out of looking after the children. “Is that why you look like a knob?” she replied.

Jerky camerawork, naturalistic acting, a certain daring when it comes to jokes about, say, race: these things are pretty familiar by now, but I like it all the same.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories