Camping in London: in which Alaric gets out of the ivory tower for a change

Another of those long, long blog posts. Sorry world! You don’t have to read it, but I really wanted to write it out.

I like camping. I even think of the municipal campsite in Helsinki as a home-from-home; my first ever commute to my first ever full time job started from my tent. So if I could choose a form of protest, camping would be a natural winner. And when people pitched outside the Stock Exchange, I felt they had to be onto something.

In case you were already wondering, this particular protest isn’t against capitalism. One of the irritating aspects of media coverage of the occupation is that they keep calling it anti-capitalist: a one-word way to kick the whole business into touch. Some of the folks are anti-capitalist, and good on them. Someone has to be. But the really consistent point is that it’s a protest at thirty years of surging inequality—in British society and in the world. Or to put it positively, it’s a shout from citizens to government that we want greater equality, and if someone deigns to offer it, we’ll vote for it.

Obviously for the US, not UK, but it's a great image. For Britain cf.

Not that I’m willing to give up my job to make this point—and of course I shouldn’t have to be: political protest shouldn’t be open only to the unemployed or destitute. I certainly wanted to do more than moaning to my friends in the pub; and I wanted to discover more than I can by reading the (nonetheless worthwhile) Occupied Times of London. I saw the explosion of debate and innovation which the 2008 financial crash unleashed in Iceland, but thought, as Britain started to pull out of that recession, that beyond admitting to ourselves that the state can’t run on borrowed money forever, we’d wasted a good crisis; I didn’t want to waste it again. And I didn’t want to just stand in lecture-halls telling my students how the fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman opens with a biting indictment of the City of London, and over-worldly churchmen at St Paul’s, before launching into a witty but intense exploration of the corrupting power of money—as if none of this was going on right there, right now.

So, as early on Friday as I could and much later than I hoped, I finished work and got the train to London.

Passing through St Paul’s

Occupy London has some great and informative websites but none seemed to say what you should actually do to participate. Which I suppose is appropriately anarchistic, but not being very anarchistic by character I was a bit worried about whether I’d find any space in a suitably occupied area. The occupation outside the Stock Exchange—and coincidentally but more infamously St Paul’s Cathedral—seemed likely to be full, but still like the obvious starting point. I trudged up from the Underground and found, hugging the cathedral in the dark, rows of dome-tents packed in between the tea tent, a soup-kitchen looking tent, a big space fenced off for fire-access, a meditation tent, a book tent; and people thronging the pavement: commuters heading home, beardy middle-aged gents perusing the books, foreign tourists trying to find their way, a priest; even a few studenty dreadlocky looking types, the kind of people I once imagined university would be full of before I actually went to one and discovered that having a pony-tail was considered radical.

Finally, the info tent—but before I could get any info, a lass asked if she could interview me for some media project, which seemed to be part of Catch-22. Why was I here? Inequality, and the need for a socially and environmentally sustainable economy—and Piers Plowman of course. Did I have a message for the bankers? I thought about it, dimly aware that this was the wrong question but not sure why, and said no, but that the point of coming down was to talk about the problems and start finding the right questions as well as the right answers. A little crowd had gathered and afterwards a Spanish-sounding gent asked me to spell the name of the poem so he could look it up later.

Overall, I didn’t get a great vibe at the Stock Exchange site. Someone helpfully suggested there might be a space for a tent, but as I picked my way through the darkness asking for directions, the kids seemed sort of offhand or distant. My prospective neighbour muttered away, mostly to himself, apart for a moment of lucidity to ask for a light. The folks in the info-tent were great, but harassed and hard-pressed. Eventually a guy who was clearly totally well-meaning took me partway to Finsbury Square and gave me some directions which were about as helpful as Piers Plowman, V, lines 556–629 (if you haven’t read them, don’t worry: they won’t help). Realising I’m just about to find myself back where I started, I ask a passer-by who turns out later to be a lawyer on secondment to RBS if she knows where Finsbury Square is. ‘I do—I’m going that way actually.’ Then a thought strikes her and she looks at me suspiciously. ‘You’re not going to the protest are you?’
‘I’m afraid so.’
‘Ah well, you won’t like me then: I’m a capitalist’.
And so my slightly maniacal frustration with the ‘anti-capitalism’ label starts; and, as I chat to this girl, so does my realisation that the media’s banker-bashing is just as much a part of the problem. I met a lot of friendly, interesting, defensive, exasperated financial sector workers this weekend.

Finsbury Square

Info tent on Sunday evening

But eventually Finsbury Square turns out to be pretty nearby, and there on the corner is this info desk, manned by a clutch of tea-drinking over-30s looking types. One’s about my age, but has had a much harder life; she read Wilkinson and Picket’s The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (Penguin, 2009) and hasn’t looked back; she’s been at the occupation for a few weeks. Another’s an Oxfordshire grandmother type: a bit of a cut-glass accent and an air of girl-guide fortitude, her trousers tucked into her hiking socks; arrived on Wednesday, popping home on Saturday to see to some bits and pieces. And a gent with snazzy glasses and a bike helmet that he never removes shows me to a lass from ‘housing’ who finds me a little corner that’s just been vacated. Two Hungarian gents in the kitchen tent serve me up some still-almost-warm curry, and I go back to the info tent to find out what I can do.

Turns out the washing up’s been done; everyone’s excited because a new occupation has just started a hundred yards or so down the road, in an empty building owned by the Swiss bank UBS, now rechristened the Bank of Ideas; so Finsbury Square is quiet; and I’m invited to sit at the info desk. ‘But I don’t have any info’, I think, before recalling that this has seldom stopped me in the past. I suppose I stayed on the desk from about eight till one, talking to other occupiers, saying good evening to passers by, and sometimes getting to have proper conversations with them.

That set the tone for much of my weekend really. I liked being on the info tent so I mostly stuck at it. I met a lot of folks, and talked with people from a broader range of backgrounds than I have in years—maybe ever, in such a small space of time. Sometimes people who just want to bend your ear, whether about the ills of the world or about why they despise your protest. But often they were really serious discussions with people who, in their different ways, were really informed. On Friday I shared the desk for a while with a nice lad from Huddersfield (there are a lot of people from Yorkshire) who’s trained as a motorbike mechanic but been out of work for eighteen months. Later I shared it with an eighteen-year-old on her third stint of homelessness, whose fiance is in prison till 2013, up from St Paul’s for a rest; she was friendly, sober but inarticulate, and busy practising her new-found skill of making ash-trays from beer cans. It tells you a lot about me that I found it easier to talk to a passing Chinese guy despite his creaky English: university-educated, sharp suited. We talk for twenty minutes about education’s role in social mobility; nepotism; and the rule of law. I even had more in common with three noisy, drunk, affable British-Italian looking lads who stopped to try and convince me to have a shouting match sometime after midnight. The one I talked to most was a BA-educated hard drugs dealer with a diamond stud in one ear who had a clear idea of what capitalism is and was doing pretty well out of it. Meanwhile, some guys who look like they’ve come from an Indian restaurant turn up with a couple of buckets of left-over curry and a big bag of chopped up baguette; I guess I owed my Sunday-morning croissant to a similar source.

If Finsbury Square was a natural feature, you’d call it a frost hollow. A shaft of sunlight from between the buildings on the west side slants briefly across the site for an hour or so on Sunday: the condensation on your tent from one night is still there the next. But Saturday sees a guy turning up to donate a huge load of waterproof foam sheets to put under the tents. Lots of people pass through the site, some having fun—peaceably enough—and maybe half helping with one thing or another; the tents aren’t all full all the time, but clearly see plenty of use. The people who seem to be there nearly all the time look a bit frazzled: good people who’ve been working really hard in difficult conditions for at least a month now; I was worried about them. Some are studying or working at the same time as occupying; some are looking for part-time jobs in the area. But the place strikes me as well kept. I did a litter-pick on Sunday morning and had to work hard to find anything really: a few tissues, some bottle-tops, quite a few plastic tie-bindings. A path made of woodchips, half paid for by the occupiers, half provided by Islington Borough Council, keeps the thoroughfare of the site from getting muddy. When my sister came over on Saturday evening, I felt proud as I showed her round.

The Bank of Ideas

Saturday and Sunday the occupation was busy because, coincidentally, people from nineteen or so of Britain and Ireland’s thirty-odd occupations had come down for a conference at—as it eventuated—the Bank of Ideas. At first I was a bit disappointed that I was spending so much time on the desk, when I could have been going to lectures and seminars, either at St Paul’s or at the Bank. But I did make it along to a few, along with a friend from Leeds University who was also in London that weekend, and they were at worst good and at best really impressive.

My favourite was a discussion with Nick Shaxson, author of a book that’s been on my meaning-to-read list for a while: Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World (Bodley Head, 2011). There were 150–200 people there. A really good speaker, with really interesting things to say. By some measures half of world trade—clean and dirty—passes through tax havens. That’s trillions of dollars lost to citizens; and to some extent lost to the productive economy generally. It makes the people of Greece look like model taxpayers. Rather than co-ordinating efforts to recover these losses, governments mostly (quietly) compete to offer companies loopholes and havens; though the USA has at the same time taken some stands (inter alia against UBS). I struggle to imagine that the economic benefits of providing loopholes and havens overall outweigh the losses to the taxpayer. Indeed, Shaxson sketched an argument that the now familiar concept of the ‘curse of oil’—the power of a single natural resource to unbalance enonomies and to corrupt states, such that citizens would have been better off without having the natural resource at all—can be applied to the financial sector too.

Shaxson’s exposition of how hard it would be to change the tax haven system is telling: everyone’s doing it. Any high-street shop you walk into’s doing it. Probably a good many charities are doing it. Probably my pension fund is doing it. We’re wandering in this maze as much as the vilified bankers.

I very much doubt any management gurus have read this far, but I suspect they could learn a lot about facilitating discussions from the Occupy movement. I saw these hand-signals for the first time on videos from St Paul’s, and have now used them too. Rather than having a chair faced with a sea of raised hands, and discussions interrupted by applause or booing, participants communicate with the facilitator and each other through simple but effective hand-signals. Effectively, you can have verbal and visual dialogues going on at the same time. I can’t imagine my colleagues going for this, but department meetings wouldn’t half run better if we did…

Who do you exclude?

An intense discussion throughout my visit was about the difficulties caused by homeless folks and criminals converging on the occupations. It was high on the list for the occupations conference, and I learned a lot from their discussion. My impression is that young women tend not to sleep at the Finsbury site, because they’re worried it’s unsafe.

The Finsbury site doesn’t actually have many really homeless folks. There are signs up saying ‘No alcohol, no drugs’—a decision born of experience, and of course not strictly adhered to; but useful leverage if people get unruly. As I talk to the drug-dealer and his friends, a sweet and well-meaning, but alcoholic and incoherent occupier lurches over to find out what the noise is about and almost causes trouble himself. ‘I see where you’re coming from’, says the drug-dealer to me as we carry on discussing the economy, ‘but he’s hardly a good advertisement for you is he?’ I take his point; but at the same time, what sort of campaign to reduce inequality would exclude the homeless—themselves a product, Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain informs me, of Thatcher’s government—especially at a time of rising foreclosures?

Outside the Stock Exchange, these issues are writ large. A better known site, it’s attracted more down-and-out folk; and as I said, I felt less comfortable there than at Finsbury Square. The City and some of the canons of St Paul’s complain that they’re denting revenue at the cathedral. Protesters struggle to help them, and worry that they’re bringing the movement into disrepute.

But at the same time, down-and-out folk are exactly the sort of people that any serious Christian should be trying to attract to a cathedral. And their presence at the occupation isn’t creating a problem: it’s merely making it visible—to Londoners, tourists, and cameramen. In its way, that’s an important achievement of the occupation. And, for some of these people at least, St Paul’s or Finsbury Square is suddenly a place where they can find a supportive community. The Glasgow occupation turn out to have a similar problem, and asked Glasgow City Council to help them direct people to treatment. Not our problem, say the Council, lying through their teeth. A visit to the Council by a couple of protesters with a video camera swiftly rectifies the situation. You can try to move down-and-outs off camera, or you can try to help them. At the smaller occupations, people don’t really have any choice other than to send them away; but at the bigger ones, helping is possible.

On Saturday, a guy with ‘legal observer’ on his orange dayglow vest sweeps in on his bike with copies of the case for eviction served at the Stock Exchange site. One of the protesters leafs through it shaking his head. ‘We’ve really got to tighten up our act’, he says. I see his point, but don’t think he should be too hard on himself. Check out the photos from the document at the Daily Mail report. My kitchen looks worse, and I’m going through a phase of housepride. If that’s the worst the Daily Mail can manage…

What did I learn, and did I do any good?

Although you wouldn’t know it from the rambling above, this is really what I wanted to sort out by writing this. But it’s still the least thought-out part of the post!

I was hopeful about the Occupy movement when I went down to London, but also apprehensive. But I came away thinking that it’s a really positive thing—so far at least. I stretched myself as a person as well as having some really good intellectual discussions; in a startlingly brief time I felt like part of a intense—if transient and fragile—community. It was way more stimulating than any academic conference I’ve been to for years. You should go and talk to people at Finsbury Square. It’s public space! Use it. And catch a lecture, seminar or discussion at the Bank of Ideas. I’m definitely going back.

The Occupy movement, to my mind, has already done a lot of good. In Britain it has—coincidentally but productively—forced the Church of England to take a public stance on the causes and consequences of the financial crisis. And for those of us who want to be like Jesus, it’s pretty clear what he would do. Took some of the churchmen a while to work it out, but hopefully that is in itself progress.

The occupations have also given representation in the media to a large number of voters—and non-voters—who are not willing to return to business as usual. Of course it’s attracted bad press as well as good press, but that’s a free(ish) society for you. And despite the diversity of views on offer, there’s a coherent message that these people want to reduce the inequality which has been growing throughout my lifetime. This media presence is at least to a small degree helping to alter the parameters of the public and political debate. Politicians are more likely to consider how to reach out to these voters; and the voters themselves, finding their concerns articulated, are less likely to roll over and die.

And the emergent banner of greater equality is giving some shape to other activities too. I’m not particularly comfortable striking on November 30th to defend pensions. I can see my union has good points in its pension dispute, and, recognising that people are better off in unions than out of them, I’ll dutifully forego a day’s pay to strike on this point. But I don’t have an upbringing in which striking is seen as a good or noble thing; it’s easy for strikes merely to look self-interested; and I have spent my adult life waiting for a politician finally to bite the bullet on dealing with a diminishing workforce paying the pensions of people who might spend a third of their lives in retirement. But an overall need for greater equality: I can really get behind that.

And so could almost everyone I had a proper conversation with, standing on the corner of Finsbury Square. Obviously a self-selecting crowd. Still, some people were pretty negative:

  • You’re lucky: Britain’s a democracy. So stop complaining. (Well, of course we’re lucky. But there’s no point having a right to protest if you never use it…)
  • You’ve made your point. Now give me my park back. (I sympathise with this one: obviously it’s a bit ironic if a park effectively becomes the private property of some campers. But then the three local ladies from some Islington photographic club who came round to take photos seemed to be enjoying the local colour, so maybe it’s swings and roundabouts.)
  • I agree with what you’re saying, but there’s no point trying. (Sigh. The most common so far. But things have sometimes changed for the better in the past, so maybe they can again. One of the big concerns in Piers Plowman are salesmen selling underweight or low-quality food products—it reminds you how lucky we are to have a well regulated retail sector, in which you know a kilo of apples is a kilo, and can expect to prosecute people for giving you food poisoning and find the rule of law upheld. Now we just need to extend those principles to finance…)
  • ɡeʔəfʌkɪnʤɔb wæŋːəː (Usually shouted from the window of a passing taxi.)

But of the thirty or forty passers-by I had proper conversations with, sceptical, abusive or supportive, almost all agreed that they wanted a society where the poor are richer and the rich are poorer than in ours: RBS lawyer, financiers, drug-dealers, Chinese guy, homeless guy, middle class couple emerging from dance performance, puzzled tourists. The one exception was a Scottish financier with an I-pulled-myself-up-by-my-bootstraps story who was, like, why should I help anyone else when no-one helped me? Sigh. Probably says it all.

Of course, the question follows of how you achieve that equality. I’m all for the state getting out from debt—though it might have to be patient about it. I came away convinced (for now) that many—at least—of the current cuts at the bottom of society will wind up costing us more as we deal with the health and social problems they create, the loss of the Education Maintenance Allowance being a case in point; that in the long term there’s massive scope for tightening up on tax avoidance by companies and the rich (and that if companies choose to go elsewhere I’ll be glad to see the back of them). Regulation of property speculation, with a tax on unoccupied buildings, sounds like a good plan; the 1980s wizardry of financing growth in consumption through credit rather than growth in productivity was, by contrast, a bad plan. The Tories are right to put good teachers at the forefront of education reform, and could conceivably be right to direct money from universities to do it… All this, and seven times more. Much of the list from the Finsbury Square ‘alternatives’ board shown here seems pretty sensible; even the wacky-sounding bitcoin has been taken seriously enough for (admittedly sceptical) Economist coverage. And much of what is sensible is perhaps even politically achievable.

Of course, for me all this needs to play out against a backdrop of an increasingly sustainable economy—which means working out how to increase equality, and at least preserve wellbeing, while reducing consumption. Both working that out and convincing people to implement it is a much taller order—perhaps impossibly so—but it’s no doubt a matter for another post. For now, I’m glad some people have made a big, visible push in the right direction.


About alarichall
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2 Responses to Camping in London: in which Alaric gets out of the ivory tower for a change

  1. There was a great quote from someone (can’t recall who, nor find the reference..) commenting on how Occupiers are asked to present solutions or alternatives to the present situation: this is not a requisite for voicing criticism, for just as you can return a dish in a restaurant without specifying what should’ve been done (“should’ve kept it in the oven for 10 min more, and whisked the yolks first rather than just blending them in”), surely you can point out that Things Are Wrong in the political and/or economical system without having a solution at hand. That’s what politicians are _for_.

    Anyway, well done, sir! Looking forward to further reportage.

  2. Pingback: Occupying London (for an evening) | Surrey Medieval

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