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7 May 2001

A performance on the barricades

John Lloydjoins the May Day protests in London and finds himself in the middle of a TV show that see

By John Lloyd

It was a day on which the Trotskyists were a welcome sight: a powerful sign of how bad politics has become. At noon, on 1 May, by the off-Piccadilly office block that houses the London branch of the World Bank (once the site, a plaque reminds us, of the Carlton Hotel in whose kitchens Ho Chi Minh, “founder of modern Vietnam”, had worked in 1913), the Socialist Workers Party had come early and set up its familiar mechanism for mobilising the masses. A woman on a bullhorn chanted: “One two three four”, and the disciplined among the crowd answered: “World Bank screws the poor!” “Five six seven eight,” she went on, and they replied: “World justice cannot wait!” Posters proclaimed “F**k Capitalism!” – a curious remnant of left propriety.

This was welcome because, though idiotic, it had a focus. Nothing else had. As various other streams converged on the site – the cyclists, the anarchists – the scene settled into what the rest of the day would become: a crowd mostly composed of demonstrator-spectators, many with expensive cameras, who waited for the confrontation that bolder souls might have with the police. There were no speeches, either there or anywhere else; no programme of symbolic demonstrations known to all. There was no effort, except in the sodden literature handed out by the (relatively few) far leftists, to connect with the working class; no presence of mass organisations; no explanation for the largely bemused or frightened bystanders.

It was revolution as victimhood. Three young lads, who looked like sixth-formers, confronted a policeman who had stopped them. “What’s the fucking good of a fucking demonstration when you can’t go where you fucking want?” said one lad. The policeman was amused. “I’m afraid you can’t,” he said. The “debate” went on for some minutes, at that level. As the cyclists came down the road, a sergeant said to the crowd: “Can you move in please? Move against the wall.” A young woman shouted: “Fuck! Fuck! Up against the wall! Up against the wall!” A little way away, one man pointed to the roofs of buildings, on which were police observers. “Look, police marksmen! Fucking marksmen!” he shouted, pointing. There was no sign of any weapons whatsoever.

The crowd had left the World Bank to its own devices, and surged up Regent Street to rally at Oxford Circus. When they did so, the police moved in upon them from all four sides of the area – blocking off Oxford Street east and west of Oxford Circus, and Regent Street to its north and south. Lines of police held the 2,000 or so in; then there was a gap of some 50 metres; and then more lines of police, holding back the 1,000-2,000 more who milled around outside of the central crowd. It was impossible to leave.

In that dank, packed mass, the spectators outnumbered the activists by ten to one. They were mainly in their teens and twenties, and shifted this way and that in search of action to observe. A few of the more purposeful rolled joints in the lee of the Benneton shop, and smoked. The police presence was overwhelming. Their demeanour was mainly polite, at times friendly. A young man, blonde dreadlocks flopping about a bloody face, staggered back from a scuffle into the crowd, and reeled against the police lines. An officer said, “Come over here! Do you want medical attention?” “Fuck that!” replied the man, going off into the crowd.

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The set pieces were timid affairs. On Great Chapel Street, one of the streets feeding into the northern part of Regent Street, the crowd surged forward as a thin line of police retreated, leaving three of their (empty) vans surrounded. A fire was lit near one. The crowd surged back. “Run! It’s going to fucking blow,” shouted one. But the fire was never applied to the van, let alone pushed into the petrol tank.

It was England, and wet. The nearby cafes, nervously guarded by private security, did a good trade. There was nothing to fear – except the more pathological of the demonstrators, who were not much in evidence and were anyway wholly focused on the police. The Oxford Street and Regent Street branches of Starbucks, a perennial target, remained unboarded and for a while open, as did Benetton – though the latter would, at least in earlier manifestations, have claimed style kinship with the “Revolution” banner carried by some of the demonstrators.

You were left with nothing but depression; a dull sense of having seen not revolt, or resistance, or anything approaching an alternative – but instead a TV show that had run on without script or direction for hours. The entertainment media had produced these people, and contained them within its narratives. The depression was amplified by the realisation that you had seen them not as part of a social movement that might change anything, but bolted on to society, wholly absorbed by its cameras and its microphones and its e-nets.

Earlier that morning, I had gone to a little ceremony on the corner of a street running along Hampstead Heath. It was the unveiling of a plaque to George Orwell, who had worked in a bookshop on that site and lived, rent-free, in a room above the shop. The shop had served as the model for the dingier, poorer place in which Gordon Comstock, the hero of Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying, had worked while struggling to be a poet.

There were perhaps 75 people, largely in their sixties or seventies, standing about the pizza shop it has now become. The writer Alan Plater, who had written the script for the Aspidistra film, gave a little speech, saying that Orwell had written the book in hatred of the advertising world, “the most contemptible feature of modern society”. That, said Plater, explained why the film had been critically panned – the critics could not take its message.

I thought the film a good and quite faithful rendition of the book; but Plater was wrong. Slashing attacks on modern society, if done with stars and a sense of drama, are routine now. The media ceaselessly scan the “counter culture” for images and trends – indeed, they seek, at least virtually, to be a part of it. Aspidistra was the product of an age in which words meant something, and the slogans and themes of advertising campaigns – then just becoming a craft – could seem, to a literary man, horrifying. But the insight was ageing, like Plater’s audience. Now words as powerful as “Fuck” and “Capitalism” can be put together on a poster – and mean absolutely nothing.

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