28 April, 2008


Sister Anna will carry the banner

I wrote the following the day after the Olympic Torch's rather less than auspicious progress across London but never posted it, mainly because for various reasons I was too pissed off to be bothered. Neverheless, as it is an eye-witness account it might even at this late stage be worth "reading it into the record", if the reader will forgive my hubris. You never know, as the Torch nears the end of its fatuous odyssey, I might be able to provoke a bit of random abuse from indignant Chinese blogsurfers. Winding up the Albanian Kosovars recently was quite fun.

I hadn't intended to take any part in the Olympic Torch farrago, but as I exited Westminster Underground station, the Old Bill were starting to set out cones at the junction of Parliament Square and Whitehall, so I diverted from my intended route and sallied forth down Whitehall to have a gander. A remarkably peaceful crowd of at least several hundred (probably considerably more; it's hard to judge from the middle of the crowd), chanted and booed vigourously and waved their banners. One or two "streakers" broke through the police line and one entreprising chap raced through on a pushbike before being manhandled to the ground and carted off in a paddy wagon.

Later, I repaired to one of Messrs Wetherspoon's establishments nearby, where I spent an hour or so watching the progress of the Torch on Sky News. I found their reporting slightly disingenuous, or at least at variance with my own experience, which is what originally prompted me to draft this post. Sky News referred to a hard-core of Tibetan protesters and wrote off the others as "rent-a-mob", in so many words. Now, I can only speak for the little bit of the event I saw in the flesh, which was the the Torch's departure from Downing Street and other activity in the immediate area. To me, "rent-a-mob" conjures up disaffected or rootless and largely young people, mostly me-too wannabe Trots and SWP types, with a ready penchant for a spot of general violence and vandalism on the slightest pretext in order to "get back at the System", usually with no clear idea of what "the System" might actually be. The majority of the protesters actually present in Whitehall were middle-aged, middle-class Guardianistas. There was a general air of genteel disapproval, rather than violent hatred of the authorities. A sort of Posy Simmonds social outing more than anything else: let's take young Tarquin and Jemima down to "the Demo", then afterwards neatly fold the banner, put the flyers in the recycle-bin and off to the nearest Fairtrade coffee shop for a well-earned skinny latte. There was a modest presence of yer actual Tibetans as well, who were also well-behaved if a little more acrobatic.

A sprinkling of people, mostly families with children and bemused tourists, wandered through clutching pro-Olympics flags and balloons (largely handed out by some Samsung-sponsored stand in Trafalgar Square, I think -- why Samsung?) These people were politely ignored. True rent-a-mobbers would have at least abused and possibly physically attacked them.

The Sky News reporter also concluded that the Great British Public, who might otherwise have flocked to watch the event and cheer on the Torch, had stayed home because of the inclement weather. Again this does not accord with my experience. There were plenty of people about, both tourists and locals. They just weren't interested and were going about their business.

As I passed through Trafalgar Square about 13:40, a counter demonstration supporting the Olympics was allowed into Whitehall. I say "counter demonstration", but in fact it was a rather half-hearted and silent procession of local Chinese behind a couple of main banners. I got the sense that most of them were there out of a sense of duty and/or social inertia rather than conviction.

On the Charing Cross Road, next to St Martin in the Fields and outside what used to be the 24-hour Post Office, stood a group of a few dozen protesters displaying static banners and handing out leaflets. These were anti-communist Chinese, who were taking the opportunity to complain about the behaviour of the Chinese Communist Party through out its period in power.

In Gerrard Street, the heart of London's semi-official Chinatown, people went about their business of buying and selling food and getting in each other's way. Apart from a couple of small flags, and I am talking about perhaps half a dozen people out of several hundreds, there was no evidence of any interest in the day's events, apart perhaps from some generic bunting and paper lanterns probably left over from the Chinese New Year.

In summary, and from my own very small sample, London's response to the Olympic Torch procession was either to protest against it, mostly peacefully, or to ignore it completely. People I chatted to were either dismissive of the event or simply uninterested. The only person to show any positive animation was one of the Wetherspoon bar staff (a young Black lad), and I suspect he was just bored and glad of the distraction.

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