Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Finsbury Square Occupy London protest

Finsbury Square is five star accommodation compared with St Paul's. There's plenty of space, and grass rather than cobblestones, so the campers here don't have to stick their tents down with gaffer tape.

Clem, 17, polite, cheerful, comes from Harrow. He's at college studying music in performance - guitar, keyboards, voice: 'It makes people happy.'

He gets the first, wheeziest drawing of the day.

'Do you know about Greenham Common?' I ask him.
'Yeah. The Suffragettes.'
'CND? The Aldermaston march?'
'Educate me.'
I need to leave my assumptions at the door. But there aren't any doors here.

The kitchen tent is bulging with food, much of it donated. Robert says he is 'pretty new to England': he grew up in Australia. He plays jazz guitar and is going to train to teach English as a foreign language. 'This is one of the biggest global protests ever - 980 cities worldwide are involved,' he says. 'I'm making a kind of dhal. It's got lentils, cardamom, clove, curry leaves, cumin, turmeric, no chilli as some people don't like it, ginger, garlic, onions, carrots and potatoes. And a little salt.' The camp isn't vegan though. The freegans go out to forage in the evening.

'How long are you staying?'
'Until we're forcibly evicted or we change the world, whichever comes first.'

Someone walks in. 'What's for breakfast? Smells lovely.'
'It's lunch.'
'What time is it?'
'Twelve thirty.'

Marianna, who is also working in the kitchen tent, grew up in Italy and is half French, half American. She thinks the camp is important for 'people who are not likely to join. People who don't agree and can't envisage an alternative - it gives them an idea that an alternative is possible.'

Outside, protesters are using a megaphone to address passers-by. Rhodri, who is 'working within it all', says, 'I'm not sure it'll change anything but it's a fresh opinion.' He likes gardening, the theatre, being with his family. He says that's all rather ordinary. To me he sounds content and blessed.

'Will you draw me next?' says Adele, who works at Progress Software round the corner. 'They won't change anything. They're giving it a good go though.'

Adele's colleague agrees. 'Fair play to them. It'll make no difference whatsoever. It'd be nice to think so though. I'd say keep going. Not everything happens in a day. They'll make people more aware of injustice. I don't agree with what you're doing but good on you.'


B, another onlooker, says, 'I'm so glad I'm not 15. The new world is starting in 2012 and it's gonna be horrible. Nostradamus said that in 2011 the economic state of the world will be down and there'll be rioting in the street. Take me now Lord! Hold on to your soul, let love grow.'

On the edge of the group of onlookers are three of the pantomime villains. 'I'm being sketched,' David says to his companions. 'Not really,' I say. 'You moved.' He moves back to where he was to allow me to carry on, but after a few seconds he says, 'We have to go now.'
'Where do you work?'

Francesca has been megaphoning the pavement crowd. 'I was educated at the International School in Milan and then went to Japan with my family. I finished my masters in international development in September and now I want to learn more about the world.'

Her friend Simon is visiting the camp: 'If you're not careful your options narrow very quickly and you start to wonder how people can do anything other than academic or business jobs.' He is an American, working for the Nigerian government.

Francesca is living in a squat in Tufnell Park and works with Squash (Squatters' Action for Secure Homes). She plans a nomadic life.

'This camp started organically,' she says. 'There was a march then some people said, camp! Working groups started. Leadership doesn't necessarily mean being in charge. The kitchen and dealing with donations were the first things to be organised, it was really fluid.'

If there is a leader, I don't find anyone who claims to know, or who is bothered about not knowing.

Some snatches:

'There's no leader here but there is at St Paul's.
'Who's the leader there?'
'I don't know.'

'Will there be a third and fourth camp?'
'Someone said the South Bank and Canary Wharf but I don't know who's in that group.'

'Is anyone in charge?'
'I think it's the guy wearing the bunny ears.'

Angella-Dee says: 'I've lived on a peace camp in Cheshire. It's character building. You can live without money. I've been an anarchist all my life. They've only just caught on here.'

Greenham Common? 'I was there too. We started all these rumours that we'd dug tunnels into the RAF airbase.

'And I was at Beanfield. But you mention it now and you're talking at a blank audience. We got mashed up by the police. They smashed the shit out of us and put us all in prison. Here' - she glances at the police vans parked nearby - 'we just get looked at.'

A note for spotters: her bike is a copy of a Schwinn cruiser, given to her by a film editor who won it in a competition.

A little girl comes up to me and says: 'Do you know where my real mother is?'
But then a young woman strides over and says: 'I'm her legal guardian. Her real mother is over there.'

It spits with rain. A disembodied hand reaches out from the bottom of a tent flap and stubs out a cigarette.

Inside the first-aid tent is the quasi-religious hush of needlewomen. Three girls are stitching yellow and black letters to electric blue mesh. It's a banner which will say ALL POWER TO THE SPARKS. It's for tomorrow's demonstration of electricity workers. I crassly ask Alexa what she does 'in real life'. She says: 'This, in different contexts.'

I meet a man from Suffolk on his second visit to London: 'I looked round and thought, the buildings get that big? I don't like London. Everyone's hard apart from the people here. My wife says I go back Friday or not at all. Why don't you stay at the camp? We've just had 12 duvets donated.'

An electronic piano has appeared in the kitchen tent which is getting very jolly.

I wander along to the library, a few open-air shelves of paperbacks. Imperial Ambition by Noam Chomsky, One Day by David Nicholls, Cityboy: Beer and Loathing in the Square Mile by Geraint Anderson, Flying by Kate Millett (which would have been to hand at Greenham), Things Can Only Get Better by John O'Farrell.

An email of headlines comes in:
Buyout multiples rise on technology bet
Private equity takes steps towards transparency
Banks are back in takeovers

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Occupy London protest outside St Paul's

I walk through St Paul's cathedral to the crypt cafe and find myself tearful for complex reasons, but the acceptance found here, the sense of freedom of worship and the freedom not to worship at all are at the heart of it.

Saskia says she felt very safe sleeping in her tent outside the cathedral last night, surrounded by others and not far from the banner saying CAPITALISM IS CRISIS. 'This is the first time I've been able to take part in the international debate,' she says. 'It wasn't possible while my daughter was growing up. And now we've got the technology. I've just been texting protesters in Hong Kong.'

A well-groomed man introduces himself as a reporter for Iranian television and asks if he may interview Saskia. She declines, as he is not clear about who and what he represents. We say we are surprised that, as a journalist, he claims not to have heard of women such as Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani who may or may not still be sentenced to death by stoning, and whose lawyer is reported to be in prison. He looks away and says that all states have their own problems. Then he smiles a lot and flatters my drawing. I ask to draw him. He declines. I am told he has been there every day of the protest. What's his brief? Out in this febrile atmosphere, is it deranged to think that he's trying to portray Britain as a dump, to discredit our comments on human rights?

Representatives of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals are handing out chunks of vegan sausage on sticks. Abi (aka StopFortnumAndMasonFoieGrasCruelty) speaks on behalf of Carmen, an amiable upright pig: 'We just want people to stop and think about how corporate greed affects the way animals are treated. They are suffering every day to make people a profit.'

Tom, a hitch-hiker planning to go to Argentina, Venezuela and Alaska, intends to change his name to Marcus: 'It's a tribute to Marcus Aurelius - I admire his philosophy. I haven't thought of a decent last name yet. We're campaigning for honest jobs. Bankers get bailed out by billions of taxpayers' money. Under Cameron, people getting made redundant can't get jobs any more.' Tom/Marcus is sitting with the Anonymous section and tells me that the tents are divided into clusters of different groups - 'A united states of activism.'

A group of women with babies is gathered at the foot of the steps. Amy is breastfeeding her daughter, five-month-old Faelyn. She says: 'I brought the baby on the tube with all the commuters and there was a nappy explosion so I had a naked baby to hold up - look! Then I was blowing bubbles down the carriage.'

She is in for the long haul: 'The world is being stripped for plastic McDonald's toys which hold attention for about a second. I'm going to support this movement constantly until there is some achievement or change in the government high up. The only other option is to watch everything slowly sink.'

She is sensitive to the dangers of giving out an 'anti' message (I think of Groucho Marx singing: 'Whatever it is, I'm against it'). She says: 'We need to say what we are for. We're trying to find a positive message that explains the negative.'

Amy beams at Faelyn: 'I wish you'd sit in your pram. No, I want cuddles all of the time, mummy.'

A genial man in a grey suit says he wants to offer his support but can't identify any protesters, so I direct him to the Anonymous group nearby. The protesters are indeed rather low key and compete for space with journalists, tourists, gawpers, exhibitionists, the normal homeless population and 15 students from Middlesex University on an animation course, sent here to do street drawing.

Constable Brockwell is cheerful despite his unflattering portrait: 'The protesters would be here anyway so it's best to work in partnership.' He has had a quiet day. 'I got someone on a mobile phone, that's been the highlight.' He's referring to a motorist who will have got a £60 fine and three points on his licence. I ask Constable Brockwell what he would do if I complained about some amplified musicians who have just struck up in front of the cathedral and he points out that they are on private land.

The cathedral is losing money from visitors and cancelled events because of the protest - the takings are said to be 70% down. 'But the money isn't real,' trills a girl making posters. 'Can I borrow your pink crayon?'

Tarek is a sous-chef from Swindon. His specialities are mashed potato and bread-and-butter pudding - the secret of the latter is half single cream, half double. 'There's a revolution going on all over the world and I want to be part of it.' Tarek has been involved in the internet planning of this protest for the last month. He is German but left his home country because he found it racist.

I am cold to the bone. As a police inspector said to one of the campers: 'You don't need a fridge.'

Monday, 10 October 2011


Several muscly men from Claire's entourage help her to move house. I deal with some light stuff. Two disco balls, peacock feathers, her grandmother's musical sewing table, white Cupid wings and a retired fan-dancer's fans, folded in their long narrow box. As Claire lifts the lid they ripple expectantly.

We carry her gear down the concrete staircase of a condemned block of flats, puddled by a leaking washing machine. Shortly after the flat door is locked behind her, someone breaks in to steal the copper piping.

Claire. Writing tender or in-your-face poetry, scanning my bookshelves for Rochester, studying prosthetic and film make-up at university (amphibious humans; guillotined French aristocrats in exquisitely authentic wigs); strong, maternal, fearless; lacing her breakfast coffee with milk, honey and brandy; whipping up her prom dress at my birthday party on a South Kensington veranda to display her tattoos.

Claire is the star of a suburban weekend life-drawing house party. We all have to cross a busy road to get to the pub. Claire sticks out her bosoms to halt the traffic in both directions and like ducklings we cross safely in her wake. 'Now I know what it felt like to follow Moses,' says Rebecca.

Claire phones her grandmother in Blackpool to reassure her after the riots in London: 'I'm in the countryside and we've been sitting in the garden.' (Claire was posing outdoors while the rest of us scurried inside to fetch stoles and cardigans for ourselves.)

A conscientious hostess, I chivy the giant homing bath-spider into a plastic jug and chuck it out of the window. 'Can they fly?' says Claire.