A night out with the Occupy London protests - Part One

Posted by Alexander Hay

We decided it was as good a night as any to see the Occupy London protests. True, the weather was cold, but it was also dry and there was no wind to make it even colder.

Imagine this but colder and darkerMeeting at Old Street, we headed down to Finsbury Square first. Here the underlying theme of the night first emerged. The protests looked scruffy but were in fact well-organised and disciplined.

But I was more surprised by the essential smallness of the protests. By that, I don't mean insignificant, but rather, how small the tent city at Finsbury Square seemed when surrounded by the huge financial buildings and inner city infrastructure around it, how outnumbered the people in wooly jumpers and faded t-shirts were by people in neat blazers and scrupulously ironed skirts. Three men in dinner jackets and bow ties walked past us just minutes away from Finsbury Square, and it was if the protests weren't happening.

So why was the City of London so up in arms about the protests? I mused that they dealt in symbolism rather than physical scale or weight of numbers. When you make your money speaking in oblique slogans or making a living from abstract algorithms and money that technically doesn't exist yet, you are by definition going to care about symbolism and the meaning of things rather than their reality.

A relatively small tent city or two within staggering distance of Silicon Roundabout and huge, slick bank headquarters represents a vast challenge to the There Is No Alternative ascendancy mindset that defines the rich and powerful today. All it takes to ruin a whitewashed wall is a single, tiny grubby fingerprint, and the City of London knows this all too well.

We carried on towards St. Paul's. A large building loomed as we walked towards the Cathedral. My companion moaned bitterly at the ugly block of geometric banality they'd built up on top of the excavation site she'd had to endure back in her archaeology days.

St. Paul's finally became visible. It by contrast was a majestic building. Huge and grandiose, but restrained and measured enough to avoid being absurd or pompous, it was an ideal place to have a tent city because it was the best backdrop to any event ever. It looked liked it was designed to provide a perfect setting to dramatic moments in our history. Of course the protesters were going to set up there! Nothing has ever been gained by occupying Slough Bus Station.

As we neared the camp, one thing was certain - they weren't hurting local businesses as had been claimed. The bars and restaurants looked lightly populated, but anyone who knows the area will tell you that business on a Tuesday night is exactly like this, the illusion reinforced by the ghost town quality the City acquires when the pubs, bars and restaurants close completely at the weekends when all their custom goes home.

We were now at the camp. Again, I was surprised having somewhat irrationally imagined a vast shanty. Instead, what I saw was a reasonably sized encampment of slightly grimy and tatty looking tents that were nonetheless orderly and sensibly placed. If anything, the protesters' passion for being well organised was impossible to miss, as a fenced off corridor linking the Cathedral with its fire exit route was scrupulously respected, with tents at either side, but none daring to intrude on the space itself. A notice from the committee in charge of the protest requested that no banners be put up on the fence and so only pictures and A4-sized protest posters were put up on its sides.

Interestingly, a lot of these were quotes from the Bible, condemning greed and usury. The Christian symbolism of St. Paul's and the spectacle of clerics arguing, and sometimes resigning, over what Jesus would have wanted had not been missed by the protests, and it was a curious sight to see the Church of England at the heart of a serious discussion after so many years of genteel irrelevance.

As we toured the tents, including an outdoor library, a 'university' and a small kitchen, not to mention one that came with its own full sized piano, we read all the posters and messages put up on nearby pillars and walls. Here the diverse nature of the Occupy London movement made itself clear.

[Click HERE for Part Two!]


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Alexander Hay

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