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

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On Wheels

A new poem by Patrick Mackie

The hills swarm and soften towards the end of the day just as
flames do in a fireplace as the evening
loosens and breaks open and lets out night.
A nasty, grotesque, impatient year ended,
and the new one will be bitter,
tired, opaque. Words wrangle in every inch of air,
their mouths wide open in stupid shock
at what they have just heard every time they hear anything. Venus,
though, blazes with heavy wobbles of albeit frozen
light. Brecht, who I like to call my
brother just as he called Shelley his,
has a short late poem where he sits by a roadside, waiting
while someone changes the wheel on his car,
watching with impatience, despite not liking
either the place that he is coming from or
the place that he is going to. We call it
connectivity when in truth it is just aggression
and imitation writ ever larger. Poems, though,
are forms of infinite and wry but also briskly
impatient patience. Brecht’s poem seems to end,
for instance, almost before you
can read it. It wheels. The goddess is just a big, bright
wilderness but then soon enough she clothes
herself again in the openness of night and I lose her.

Patrick Mackie’s latest collection, The Further Adventures Of The Lives Of The Saints, is published by CB Editions.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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