Be afraid, Debenhams, very afraid

Observations on protests

It is a bitterly cold night in the depths of Suffolk. Anyone with any sense is inside, in front of the fire with their feet up. I, however, am standing in a deserted car park watching a man dressed as a monk calling down the wrath of God on a department store.

The monk, holding a wooden cross in front of him, is not alone. Behind him stand four other monks and five medieval knights. Four of them support on their shoulders what looks like a coffin, shrouded in a blue flag and topped with a plastic crown. Around them stand about 30 onlookers, some enthused, some bemused, all very cold.

"Debenhams PLC!" pronounces one of the monks loudly. "Anathema! Anathema! Anathema!" respond all the others. Some people in the crowd giggle self-consciously. A gang of sullen teenagers on motorbikes who have been doing wheelies around the car park gawp at us.

"We declare that nothing they build on this land will ever bear fruit," cries the monk. "We declare those who despoil St Edmund's town will themselves be despoiled!"

"Amen," mumbles the crowd hesitantly. The monks and knights incline their heads, lift their torches higher, turn, and begin moving in slow procession towards the local branch of Boots.

"This is not about 'development'," Alan Murdie had told me earlier in the day, "it's about greed. Corporate greed." We were sitting in a pub in Bury St Edmunds, where Murdie had been explaining to me why he and his colleagues, who prefer to remain anonymous, had decided to take radical action to prevent their town being "blighted" by an £80m shopping development. The local council, in cahoots with a development company called Centros Miller and the department store Debenhams, intends to have the mall built on what is now the car park, and which until recently was a historic cattle market.

St Edmundsbury Borough Council says the development will save Bury from retail decline. Murdie, a local legal consultant, says it will destroy it. "This is a spiritual town," he said. "Although it's been badly mauled by modern commercial development and the expansion of big business, it still remains - just - a town on a human scale. And it's human scale that matters."

Campaigners against such developments can be expected to organise a march or even some form of direct action. What they rarely do is what Murdie and his colleagues, who call themselves the Knights of St Edmund, have now done: unleash an ancient religious curse on those they accuse of blighting their town. And woe betide anyone who thinks they're joking.

"This is not Harry Potter stuff," warned Murdie. "There is a little-known section in the Book of Common Prayer known as Commination, which we will be using in this ceremony. We will be calling on St Edmund to protect his town and its people, and to punish those who violate it." Murdie, like many of the other knights, is a committed Christian. And he believes that curses work.

The ancient curse of St Edmund - the last Anglo-Saxon king of East Anglia, martyred by Danish invaders - claims a long list of victims, including King Svein Forkbeard, legions of treacherous or impious abbots and priests and, most impressively of all, Henry VIII, who having abolished the monasteries was said to have died in agony from syphilis, screaming: "The monks! The monks!"

I asked Murdie what the usual effects were. "Death, insanity, destruction of property and venereal disease," he said cheerfully. What if the board of Debenhams were to start dropping like flies? Wouldn't he feel guilty? "Well, if it's God's judgement on them, they have been warned. We gave them a formal notice via our solicitors."

The developers and the local council have tried hard to dismiss the knights as a bunch of harmless cranks. But the knights aren't going away. If their use of ancient ritual to tackle this most modern of problems doesn't work, they have other tricks up their sleeve, which may include taking the council to judicial review.

As for the efficacy of the curse, I called Debenhams and asked whether it had started having an effect. "We're not commenting on that," said the press officer. Oh go on, I said. "We're all fine," said the press officer. "Though I am feeling a bit tired. But no, no comment."

www.paulkingsnorth.net