Saturday, 26 November 2011

Another Saturday with Occupy London at St Paul's

Liz Beech is a writer and artist working in Starbooks, the St Paul's camp library. 'I lived at Greenham Common for five years and came out profoundly changed. I was committed to non-violence as a really strong way of resistance and demanding to be heard. In the immediate aftermath of later protests that descended into violence I went to encampments offering non-violent direct action workshops, to be met with derision and an ageist agenda.   

'But here for the first time I feel there's a real opportunity to revive non-violent protest - no one is going to pick up a breeze block and throw it. There are some people here with mental health problems but there's no strategy to commit violent acts. At Greenham, some women couldn't manage non-violence if they were being taunted by police or soldiers, but we'd help them, encourage them to move away.'

I coo over the portable manual typewriter Liz has brought to the library: people are invited to type their thoughts about the protest. It's an Erika, a robust German Democratic Republic model which is surviving the violent protests of a first-time user who can't work out how to return the carriage. Liz won a national short story competition when she was 17; her prize was an Olivetti Valentine but we agree that it's too glamorous to bring to the camp.

She wants to put four typewriters on the South Bank next year to gather people's recollections of The Queen's 60-year reign. Last year she had five typewriters at Glastonbury for people to write collective novels, contributing up to ten lines each and seeing only the previous ten lines: 'People were queuing up 24/7, we had to give them Scrabble and crosswords while they were waiting.' The camp library is saturated with novels and her wishlist is more poetry, non-fiction, art, politics.

Liz ( goes back to Shepherds Bush at night, 'But I'm here for as long as it takes. There's a collection of us making something happen in all the diversity of it. Including people I might find very difficult.'

Saskia was the first person I drew at St Paul's. We talk about the changes since the start, notably the influx of fragile, defenceless people: 'If you're being inclusive, you have to include them,' she says.

The camp also attracts EDL members: 'They can come here,' says Saskia, 'but they don't scare us and they can eff off. We don't feel the fear.'

I talk to an anarchist: 'I don't believe in changing the system but creating an alternative in which everything is free for everybody. I read social anthropology at UEA and I left at the time the Twin Towers came down. I believe it was an inside job to create the myth of terrorism. All institutions are corrupt, it's unchangeable.'

In the tea tent, someone bashes out The Red Flag and a selection from Queen on the twangy pub piano.

It's Jo-Jo's second day here. 'Draw her like a princess,' says a man sitting next to me. Jo-Jo makes sure that Angel, a scary-looking dog, is warm under a blanket. 'It's a good laugh here,' says Jo-Jo. She is young and I don't want to pry.

During the afternoon ambulances visit twice to deal with people in the first aid tent.

Debra has been here for three weeks. She says she contracted pneumonia on the site; is on the waiting list for three operations; is anaemic; a loner. She parts her clothing to show me the foil blanket around her torso.

She met a man at the camp; took him home but didn't trust his friend; needs to see him; he has no fixed abode; he appeared in court but she doesn't know what happened as he has no contact number; he makes up as The Joker. If she finds out about him she can leave.

The light is sinking and a cold blustery wind is lifting tents from the ground.

A first-aider puts his arms round a tense young man locked in an obsessively repetitive stand-up routine. A shaven-headed man with a copy of What Freud Really Said is haranguing protesters.

Two men walk up to the camp: 'Where can we donate?'

Monday, 21 November 2011

Quick return to St Paul's

I get an email from the camp: 'One of the occupants at St Paul's has asked if you would like to re-do her portrait. She was very taken by it and was devastated that it was destroyed... I do not know her name but she has orange hair.'

The picture had suffered a mishap during ablutions - it's hard to manage a rolled-up cylinder of cartridge paper in camp conditions.

The girl is Jess. I find her eating noodles in the busy welfare tent which welcomes homeless people drawn to the camaraderie, free food and non-judgemental atmosphere. 'I'm going to get the picture scanned and send it to my future husband to show him what I look like,' she says. I think of portraits sent to Henry VIII on behalf of prospective wives. Someone gives her a box of fat pavement chalks. 'I'll do hopscotch,' she says.

I go to a lunch reception nearby and three of us carry the leftover food back to the camp. The professional chef running the kitchen tent makes a huge fuss of us, embracing us and lifting us off the ground. 'LOVE' is spelt out in tea lights on the food counter. A drunk rushes into the tent and pretends to vomit over the counter. He is tolerated.

Two volunteers unpack the food that we brought:
'Oh dear, pork pies.'

Outside, Dame Vivienne Westwood looks cold but is cheered when she warns the crowd not to reject the artists of the past.

Friday, 11 November 2011

The St Paul's Cathedral protest camp on Armistice Day

A homeless man shouts 'SEX!' from the top of the cathedral steps.

People are massing on the wide concourse. Just before the clock strikes eleven, the crowd forms a huge irregular circle holding hands, leaving the centre bare. At the last second new people slot into the circle on either side of me. The person holding my right hand is behind me. I can't turn round to look as I might make a noise dropping the sketchpad clamped under my arm, so I am holding hands firmly with a stranger I can't see, in perfect trust.

Clerics from the cathedral stand at the top of the steps. The Last Post is played. Then the silence is intense; passing traffic is irrelevant. Prayers are said after the two minutes. The circle is slow to let go hands. (And this evening, a woman tells me that one of the canons on the steps said that he'd never seen anything like it and thinks they should repeat it.)

People sit down in the circle, meditating and humming while in the centre a man blows giant bubbles.

I go to the Tent City University, a marquee where the Rev Paul Nicolson, chairman of charity Z2K, is giving a lecture on poverty and debt: 'Parliament is reducing welfare by £18 billion, hitting the poorest citizens very hard at a time of rising prices.'

Paul reflects on the two-minute silence: 'My favourite uncle, Major Oswald Segar-Owen, who'd taken me for a ride in a Bren-gun carrier at Aldershot, was shot by a sniper in Calais which was being defended to enable the escape from Dunkirk in 1940. I was eight. I also remember a very wounded German pilot who landed by parachute in our garden after his plane was shot down.

'And I remember John Lloyd, a private soldier who was a prisoner of war in Nagasaki unloading a boat when the atomic bomb was dropped. He was in the hold and the blast went over the top. He never recovered from what he saw when he got out of the boat. He used to join me for prayers for peace at Turville, my former parish. He suffered from radiation poisoning. Having had one leg amputated he refused to allow them to cut off the other one. He died long after the end of the war but suffered dreadfully for the rest of his life.'

The person who was holding my right hand turns out to be Venetia. This is her first day visiting the camp. Next Monday she starts work as a fundraiser at Unicef and in May she will have a baby.

Any hobbies? 'Upholstery - so far I've done one armchair and dining chairs. It's an old craft, tinkering away, and restoring old things is really green. I learned how to do it at the School of Stuff in Dalston.'

Jess comes up.
'Can I draw you?' I ask.
'Can't afford it,' she says.
'That's OK, I give them away.'

She usually sleeps on the streets in Stratford, East London.
'A mate told me about this place.'
'Have you made friends here?'
'Yeah.' She smiles. 'It's one big family.'

Her skin is pale and she has slept badly. 'It's cold, and there was someone playing the sax all night.'
'Didn't anyone try to stop him?'
'Yeah, but they couldn't.'

A smart woman comes up: I guess that she could be holding down a job in Paternoster Square but she turns out to be a social worker helping Jess.

I cross the road to the bus stop. Some well-fed Americans emerge from Gourmet Burger Kitchen. 'Let's go get a look at Swampy,' says one. They head for the camp, smirking.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Back outside St Paul's Cathedral

I ask Kai, a tourist from Singapore, what he thinks of the Occupy camp outside St Paul's. 'It's more moving than anything in Tate Modern. The most striking things I saw there were political comics made during Nazi Germany. Art with a message is better than art for art's sake.

'I come from a closed society built on fear. I hope something good will come out of the demonstration. I've always wanted something like that to happen in Singapore to shake people's minds a bit, to break them out of the crazy money-making cycle. But it's hard for anything to happen.'

'What would happen to demonstrators like this in Singapore?' I ask.
'Oh, they'd be put in jail. Problem solved. Let's find another victim.'

'What work do you do?'
'It's pretty evil but I'm an advertising copywriter - using words to move people.'

Kai is collecting impressions from people he meets. He hands me a tiny notebook and a pencil, and asks me to write on one page.

'I've got toothache and a cold bottom,' I write. 'I know a secret.'

I hover by a man with long ginger hair sitting by the library (open-air bookshelves), wanting to draw him, but the reek of urine from a nearby tree deters me and I withdraw.

Gillian is holding her son Atticus, named after the lawyer in To Kill a Mocking Bird. She and her husband are visiting the camp for the day, from Twickenham. 'I love it here,' says Gillian. 'The session in the university tent was all about forging a new education system. They used the example of a co-operative already set up in Lincoln. We were thrashing out what people want, and the idea is that people pay what they can afford. Teachers and students form a consensus about what should be taught. It's starting at university level but they're discussing how it can be done for tiny little ones.'

To draw them I am sitting on the chilly pavement, using a copy of The Occupied Times as insulation. A middle class man hurries by holding a child, possibly his son, by the hand. He looks down at my half-formed sketch. 'Is that good or not?' he asks rhetorically, and pulls the child along. He needs someone to give him a critical opinion. But would he seek a critical opinion of the first critical opinion? I don't mind if he thinks my picture is good or bad, or if he likes or dislikes it. But I want him to know what he thinks and likes.

I find Andi having a row with his partner about a pair of trousers during which his cigarette gets bent. He is wearing a Boris Johnson mask around his loins. 'I find Boris amusing. I think he's done a lot for the movement. It's beyond a joke. That's why I'm wearing him where I am.'

He slides the mask down from his groin and off over his jeans so that it can be nearer his face for the drawing.

'We are the highest form of consciousness. There is new evidence that we make a decision 30 seconds before we are aware of it.'

I ask how the cross came to be on his forehead.
'It was put there on Hallowe'en. I'd like to turn it into an ankh.'

A whipper-in for the next talk at the camp university approaches us: 'It's about legality and sex workers. Boris isn't invited.'

'He'd be ideal, man,' says Andi.

I say I know one of Boris's father's ex-mistresses.

Andi turns to his partner. 'Have you been to the loo for me yet?'
'No,' she says.
'I'd better do that now then.'

It's getting dark. I peer into the tech tent which is bright inside. Tangles of red electric leads are clipped on frames, like vein clusters around bones. Four young men are working intently while a generator roars.

A couple of minders are outside.
'Could I sit on the floor in the tent and draw for five minutes, please?'
'Sorry, no, there's a lot of stuff that needs to be protected in there.'

A madman has been strutting along the cathedral steps and haranguing the crowd monotonously all afternoon. At the top of the steps are two lovers disengaged from everything. I crash into their serenity to ask if I can draw them, but I can't get enough light on the paper and I lose the will to finish the sketch. The lovers are Andre, a Geordie, and Kartar, from Walthamstow.

Snug in the pub, Ye Olde London, clusters of protesters are making plans, using laptops.