Sunday, 11 December 2011

Occupy London at St Paul's: in the supply tent

Saturday morning. A tall blond man emerges from his tent holding a large mirror and fools around preening himself in it.

Feathers are ruffled in the kitchen tent: the Calor gas supply has run out and no one can find the number for the man who delivers the canisters.

'What about Blacks?' I ask. The camping supply shop is a few yards away.
'The City of London Corporation says they're not allowed to talk to us.'

I find an assistant in Blacks. I am compelled to wonder under what circumstances he might be articulate. In a burning building, perhaps. But they don't have enough gas.

Back in the kitchen tent there's a big sign saying STONE SOUP, one of my favourite stories and recipes. Janick from Normandy, the mirror guy, yells, 'The Queen is coming in five minutes, guys. Don't be late.'

He puts a clean newspaper on the chair with a professional flourish before I sit down to draw. 'I get work in the hospitality industry,' he says. 'When I do that I have my hair in a nice bun.'

Men are peering at what's in a cooking pot.
'All I can see is ginger in there,' says one.
'He's got too many girlfriends,' says Janick. 'He needs a lot of ginger.'

Janick is one of those well-organised backpackers with a collapsible bucket, bicycle, trailer and stove, travelling the world fuelled by Kerouac, Borroughs and Jules Verne. 'I like photographing tribal people, minorities.' He's been on the road for 24 years but when his parents are more frail he will live close to them.

'At school I was called Janick le Planeur, the flier, not too much into reality. The newspapers say we are a magnet for vulnerable people but it's nice to be here, to give some help. We can't forbid alcoholics.'

'Get out of my xxxxing kitchen,' yells a man to an interloper.
How many times have I said that, or wanted to.

'The curry will come by courier,' sings Janick. It's better with his French accent. The gas arrives.

Then scar-cheeked E walks in, assesses the situation and takes charge. He marches me to his territory, the supply tent, where I become the cabaret and E becomes my manager. He arranges a queue of willing sitters. It  becomes a chaotic production line.

As a rule, my most enthusiastic, co-operative and intuitive sitters have been street-sleepers, addicts, the dispossessed. They are faceless and need to get in someone's face in order to survive. When the day-and-night job is about living, and sleep is not without threat, there isn't usually time or energy for altruism or a bigger cause, although some have enough spare capacity to help comrades.

I've also learned that ex-convicts reveal themselves by worrying if I've got enough drawing materials to last the session.

The supply tent contains clothes, shoes, sleeping bags, blankets, hot water bottles, toiletries, bin liners. They are short of alcohol wipes and lavatory paper for the Portaloos.

Things Can Only Get Better blares out from Radio 1.

A challenging big blonde woman, not from the camp and just the safe side of feral, rifles through the clothes and takes something.
'We ask for a donation if you're not from the camp,' says E.
She claims that she is.

Robbie, from Bristol, piles on extra garments from the supply tent. He is wearing three hats.
'You remind me of Dan Leno,' I say.

A young Iraqi with a degree in international relations appears at the tent flap to donate a large bag of Greggs doughnuts. 'I was in the Iraq war. I will voice you anywhere I go,' he says.

When the football comes on the radio I plead with E, but he says: 'You know boys and their football on Saturday afternoons.' I think of Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, at the end of which the protagonist is trapped in the Amazon jungle reading Dickens aloud to Mr Todd, in perpetuity.

'You are not a name but a number,' I say to E. I need to work on that.

Anon has never been seen in camp without his mask.
'Why do you wear it?' I ask.
'To make myself attractive to women.'
'Are you Tony Blair?'
I'm not the first person to ask that.

Later, E shows Anon's picture to someone else: 'You know who that is. Well, no one knows who that is but you know who that is.'

I ask Max from Walthamstow why he sleeps in the cold camp at night.
'It makes more of a point.'

Jimmy, a Scouser, has been sleeping on the steps of St Paul's for ten years and embraces his new family of campers. 'I'm a street sleeper, not homeless.' He works in the kitchen tent and tries to calm troubled new arrivals. He is a traditional wayfarer. 'I walk to Oxford and back. It can take me six weeks. Can I kiss you?'

A man appears at the entrance to the supply tent. 'Do you have to listen to this commercial music at full volume?' he pleads. 'I've come here for the peace.'
E looks away. The man goes. 'He's got mental health issues,' says E.

'Ew,' I say to Ricky, 'Why have you got those plug things in your ear-lobes?' I quote the picture restorer's mantra, never do anything irreversible.
'Older people don't like them,' observes E.
'Well, you wear glasses,' Ricky says to me, unconvincingly.

I have done eight hours here, feeding my addiction. I feel like a clockwork toy running down. I wander through the darkened camp.

The cream felt yurt, which shelters women and children, blew down on Thursday night but was reassembled today. A man is lying with his head inside the yurt flap, his thinly-dressed body outside on a piece of cardboard, courting hypothermia. E and Lee deal with him, a young Spaniard. 'Women and children only.' Bewildered, he takes up his bag and his cardboard and wanders off, yelping and howling.

I hear from someone else that she was woken up in the yurt at 5am by a man sitting next to her saying, 'Is this all right?' No it isn't. There is another story of a woman's tent being slashed open with a knife.

A girl is making a beautiful miniature tree from masses of new shiny copper wire.
'It's going to be a children's wishing tree,' she says. 'I started it at the UBS building but things got a bit political there. It's better here.'
'Where did you get the wire?'
'From the building.'

Matthew in the tech tent
Fast forward to general assembly minutes, 3 January 2012:

Comment: What strategy has been devised to protect Occupy movement from alleged copper theft?

Bank of Ideas: We have been discussing this. I’m not an expert on legal issues. They are devising a strategy. Some copper has been apparently been taken. The people who did this have left and are no longer welcome. Somebody said the record will show that Occupy London acted to stop the copper being stolen.

Daniel from Australia

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