Letter from London: This Fenced-Off Narrow Space Assigned to Me

Whitehall is of course not just the heart of government in London, it is the centre of protest. Flares get thrown and police horses hit with glass bottles. Far-right demonstrators ‘guard’ statues. Many know the poll tax riots of 1990. That said, we have seen nothing here like those hordes of Trump supporters storming Congress. Right now Just Stop Oil protestors lead the news but their violence is mostly aggravated commuters and there is a contentious new Public Order Bill passing at speed through Parliament heading their way. Protest when peaceful is a sacred right, and, I grant you, can be obstreperous and noisy. Parliament said noise pollution affects quality of life and has been linked to health problems. John Berger said protest and anger derives from hope.

I don’t much like confrontation. I resent polarisation. Just two reasons I have hated politics so much of late. Jeffrey St Clair touched upon this kind of disinclination in his essay ‘The Retail Carrion Feeders of Rural America’ from his book ‘An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents’ with the late Alexander Cockburn. In it he meets up with old friends in southern Indiana at a place he knows well but at the time of writing is in sudden and serious decline, telling the reader he rarely talked about politics, usually finding it the most boring topic on earth. Even at my first ever protest I had to bring work into it rather than leave it just to politics. We have so many institutionalised people. Politics, especially, thrives on them. My first protest took place on a simple and open patch of windswept dunes close to Dunbar in Scotland more than 40 years ago. It was at the site of a planned nuclear power station at a spot known as Torness Point. I recited to roughly 3,000 people a 3,000-word poem I’d written, coming in at a tidy one word per person, I may have joked at the time. Among the sand dunes and reeds was a young and gifted Irishman called Robin singing Irish ballads through a prematurely grey beard, including one about only a river running free. None of us made a difference. The power station was built. In phantasmagorical fashion, the only thing to nearly shut it down several years later was a large intake of jellyfish. People say true change has to come from within. I guess I just didn’t have the right nuclear power station inside of me.

At least there is such a thing as advancement in a protest-free zone. More recently, I was about to visit my outstanding friend Godfrey Devereux at a yoga retreat he was running close to Angoulême in France when I was badly bitten by two wasps above the left eye. I tried not to protest. The only sunglasses I could find for the train journey in order to save the world from my rather horrific swelling was a giant Haight-Ashbury-style pair with a generous flower-patterned frame. I looked like a latter-day Merry Prankster. It was my second trip down there making a film on a budget and largely out of love about the epic journeying of someone — Godfrey — within. This was a tall order but I learned much from the experience. During a third trip to a similar event run again in part by Godfrey and the prodigious Olivia Crooks in Spain outside Barcelona, one of Godfrey’s students from Germany who worked in theatre spoke of the importance on a stage of an actor finding the light. Thinking about this last week, while thinking also about protest, I took down my copy of Jack Kerouac’s ‘The Dharma Bums,’ a book Godfrey recommended to me in my teens. (Everything connects.) Godfrey has a print edition of his book ‘Radical Ecology’ out soon in which he explains among other things the possibility of feeling secure in a big bad world. In Kerouac’s book, I was interested in the character Japhy Ryder — based on mountaineer poet Gary Snyder — enjoying the same kind of security pinpointed so brilliantly by Godfrey. Though different in their stories and their telling, I feel sure he and Snyder would agree on one thing — the longer the friendship lasts, the more it inspires — just as too much fury and anger in physical protest easily spoils the party. Maybe it is all about finding the light.

It strikes me that China is a case in point when it comes to both the institutionalised and what are now growing numbers of protests there. ‘China’ means the middle kingdom, as many people will know, or centre of the universe, and while I speak no Mandarin I have long enjoyed what I know of its poetry. Recently I have been re-reading translations of Li Po and Wang Wei, in between watching on social media protests about the country’s zero-Covid policy. An odd blend, I grant you, but useful for the purposes of this Letter. A few weeks ago most of the world’s high-profile protests were coming out of Iran, though coverage of these in the States were said to be scant. There have been protests about zero-Covid policies here in London outside the Chinese embassy. (The Chinese now want to build one of their largest diplomatic missions in the world close to the Tower of London.) In China itself the state response has been to manage or snuff out what they can. A few days ago a large numbers of riot police wearing hazmat suits were seen for the first time. We forget that not all Chinese people will know of the relaxation of restrictions in the rest of the world. Also, one former Tiananmen Square protester — Tiananmen Square having provided one of the most iconic images of protest — stated that the new crowds were nowhere near as organised as they had been, with little coordination between the different protests. No mention was made of the fact they were fast-evolving and more than likely entering a realm in which they will become impossible to predict. Of course it was Jiang Zemin who died last week at the age of 96 who took control after the Tiananmen Square crackdown. While today’s expressions of civil disobedience have not been seen since president Xi Jinging took charge a decade ago, surveillance is sufficiently evolving to have many of those protesting receive a phone call from the authorities shortly afterwards. As of last week, it was still hoped that the stepping up of vaccinations for older adults will ease some of the tensions. No oner should wish violence on anyone. Globally, there have been 135 significant anti-government protests since 2017 with 23% of these lasting for more than three months. I have stood alone in Belfast during one anti-riot training session with the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) and again with the ANP (Afghan National Police) in Kabul. Not once during either did it seem like anything other than extreme crowd control. It didn’t come across as personal. In the same way that I made soup last week. After a while these tiny eruptions began exploding on the surface. I knew it was time to turn down the heat. A further and much broader perspective was granted by Li Po: ‘We sit together, the mountain and me, until only the mountain remains.’

Another film I made saw me attend a gathering of protesters in Lewisham in south-east London. I must have shot about two hours of footage that day but in the end used only about 10 seconds. It did mean that while editing I was able to imagine I could read what I believed to be at least some of the thoughts of the people there. There was sharp sunlight and everyone was standing in the same spot for ages. Despite the sun, it was cold and people were stamping their feet to keep warm. I was amazed at how at peace everyone seemed with one another. It was clearly ‘other people’ upsetting them. Everyone was there to save what they believed they could of the NHS (National Health Service). That was the intention and feelings both on and off camera were very real. (Oddly enough, as a loose aside, never real in feature film demos are over-tidy placards.) It was only when everyone headed en masse to a round of speeches on a stage at a nearby park that ceaseless shouting and chanting and banging of drums began. It was like the sudden muscularisation of an argument and as such less interesting to me somehow. Today, of course, all things NHS are significantly worse, if that can be possible, and the government remains in utter denial of this. A huge day of industrial action is due to take place in London among nurses, ambulance drivers and hospital staff on December 20. And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would say.

I was delighted to hear my New Yorker friend was back in town. I realised on my way across the capital to see him that I could never picture him at a demonstration. I was intrigued to know why this was and asked about his childhood in New York and if he’d seen any demonstrations then. ‘I remember all these long-haired people protesting about Vietnam outside the Mayor’s Office,’ he said. Of course, we now know that the anti-Vietnam protests peaked in 1968 after the Tet Offensive when the North Vietnamese basically proved to the Americans the war was unwinnable, but I was led to believe it was the protests which influenced just as much the decision to bring the troops home. The oldest of my friend’s two sons is the same age that my friend was back then: ‘He asked questions about the protest at the Iranian embassy.’ They live close to it in London. Mind you, not all barricades have to be physical. In the course of a normal day, I know my friend will always draw certain lines. He cannot and will not tolerate racism for example and like me would have been appalled by the new 88-page report on the London Fire Brigade, including one nauseating story of a black firefighter who found a noose above his locker. Such acts invite rage. Rage is a problem. But it can also be understandable.

Finally, some people, I believe unfairly, talk a lot over here about virtue signalling as if it is the only reason people ever say something that they strongly believe in. So-called mainstream media appears to have little time for protest. Not unless it can be represented as sensationalist spectacle. We have seen lots of accusations of virtue signalling at the World Cup. Such arguments come across as burly and seem to me fruitless ones to make. Yes, people probably do feel better about themselves when they take what they believe is a stand on something. Yes, humbug we can all suffer from. But should not people feel at least in part satisfied when defending what is often the truly vulnerable? All I know is that we are going to see a lot more industrial action over here in London over the coming months and little of this will be done for show. Last week the chief executive of Shelter reckoned a million private renters were at risk of being kicked out of their homes this winter. More will follow, they claimed. Tenants in London experiencing ‘rent gouging’ and rent increases of up to 60% since 2019 were protesting at the weekend, demanding rent freezes by the government. I don’t like any of this. It makes me feel uneasy. It is always the weakest who suffer most in such circumstances. Some of the protests may even lead to stronger expressions of frustration. Worse, brand new diametrically opposed sides may emerge. This does not mean people will cower or hide. ‘To sin by silence, when we should protest/Makes cowards out of men,’ as American author and poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox once wrote.

Peter Bach lives in London.