Kettled: a march on parliament
‘A travelling incarceration. Immobile inside the train, seeing immobile things slip by. What is happening? Nothing is moving inside or outside the train. The unchanging traveller is pigeonholed, numbered, and regulated in the grid of the railway car, which is a perfect actualization of the rational utopia. Control and food move from pigeonhole to pigeonhole… everything has its place in the gridwork. Only a rationalized cell travels. A bubble of panoptic and classifying power, a module of imprisonment that makes possible the production of an order, a closed and autonomous insularity – that is what can traverse space and make itself independent of local roots… Outside, there is another immobility, that of things, towering mountains, stretches of green field and forest, arrested villages, colonnades of buildings, black urban silhouettes against the pink evening sky, the twinkling of nocturnal lights on a sea that precedes or succeeds our histories.’
(Railway Navigation and Incarceration, Michel de Certeau)
Some horses wandered back and forth unhindered, across a farmer’s field under pylons chained. Nothing much else happened when the train stopped on the outskirts of Minehead, bar the horses being intrigued by the presence of a weed beside their lush field. Most passengers just read while the horses advanced, the chance to see them spurned, the printed word preferred to the world now visible if they turned. The train started up again, I had grown a moustache and it was early December. It was the day of the tuition fee vote, to be precise. Being a politically apathetic member of the IPod generation, I was surprised to be on a train heading towards Nick Clegg and his lying mouth. The train we were on was packed full of students not walking to parliament. Selfish consumerist non-marchers, like I once was. I felt pity for them, using uni only for a few years of hedonism and a fast track to loads of money. We sat up high in our comfy seats, banner folded away, sneering and talking quietly about politics amongst ourselves. In particular we talked about the cuts to public services not being about a lack of money in the system but about the desire to privatise. We talked of sensible alternatives, such as increasing all fees by a little, taxing tax-dodging multi-national companies headed by obscenely rich individuals, and even under our breath, wholesale revolution. Over the hum of the early train to Paddington though, we could heed faint murmurings of discontent, at our wasted journey. Students should not have the time apparently, to protest on behalf of the workers who do not have the time. They should be studying, or doing what they had been widely portrayed to do over the past ten years: Wasting time and money. Free thinking; thinking outside of the lecture notes box, is not allowed. And what was the point, was the general feeling we got from the carriage. Gideon and Dave had the liars – formerly the liberals, who I like many of the students around us, had voted for – along with the whole country, over a barrel. The four of us were not marching to parliament for purely selfish reasons though, as was often reported and purported. Tuition fees were what the coalition wanted the protest to be about. The further privatisation of education and the selling of a future, was not even the sole reason that we were marching – despite it being a very good reason to march on its own. There was a far greater, more powerful movement bubbling up, at the smashing up of Tory HQ that we wanted to be a part of – involving all classes, all workers, all unions, and indeed all people who disliked living under a polarizing, unfair, succession of governments. We were all in this together, fighting the swingeing cuts, not just us spoilt university kids. We held also on to some hope, as the train rumbled along, that the party formerly known as the liberals would listen to us once we got to parliament square. And not sell the soul of their party to the right, condemning themselves to election oblivion; in the process allowing all politicians to hang on to a shred of dignity. Well lets hope so, as we had come a long way and left the safety of Devon, Coleridge and the Quantocks behind. Travelling quickly towards and passing through Jefferiesland, down Brunel’s old GWR. The track followed the ancient Ridgeway for a while, cutting through the landscape, along with the m4. Edward would have tramped all over this ridge of chalk, thinking of a world after the London I hurtled towards – after privatisation, after protest, after people: I like to think how easily Nature will absorb London as she absorbed the mastodon, setting her spiders to spin the winding sheet and her worms to fill in the graves, and her grass to cover it pitifully up, adding flowers – as an unknown hand added them to the grave of Nero. Travelling backwards, head in hand, in a thinkers pose, I gazed beyond the glass at the smooth seemingly unending landscape – so ordered, so plain. The train stopped again, for some unbeknown reason. Beyond the pane of the packed train, a lonely cow sat in solitude in a field. Separated from the other slack-jawed fat cattle, crowded around the gate, mindlessly grouped to wait, discussing the latest trait, hoping not to be late. Making a break for it the lonely cow stood up, came over to the train and stared in for a while at the herd in the pen, munching away, groaning. I gorped at the cow now sat back down content having a think, while the train remained delaying our slaughter. I thought of Edward writing Adlestrop his most famous poem on a train – ironic really that his most famous poem was written about train travel, when you consider the days and days spent walking and his general dislike of trains. When I looked out again a few moments later the ridge of chalk had given way to the jumbled suburbs of Reading. Beyond there the green fields we shot by were red and brown houses and grey concrete platforms of minor stations, like Adlestrop. Yes, I remember Adlestrop – The name, because one afternoon Of heat the express-train drew up there Unwontedly. It was late June. The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat. No one left and no one came On the bare platform. What I saw Was Adlestrop – only the name And willows, willow-herb, and grass, And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry, No whit less still and lonely fair Than the high cloudlets in the sky. And for that minute a blackbird sang Close by, and round him, mistier, Farther and farther, all the birds Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. My own imaginary of England, was swamped by thoughts of privatisation, protest, and people – the immediate events that were about to transpire when we stepped from the relative comfort of the train. I was about to walk on parliament for a cause with thousands of others; all attempting to stop the commercialisation of learning and the selling of knowledge only to those who feel they can afford. I chose not to take a back seat as usual and watch as people, courses, universities, whole areas, were priced out of the market. Instead I unfurled my banner and marched to save historic institutions and faculties from closure, to give poor kids from poor towns the chance to read a degree somewhere, if they so wished, to shout education in itself is a good thing, market forces will only discourage the arts, and to frankly stick my two fingers up to this policy. The spirit of the Fellowship and their preservationist walking ideas have rubbed off on me over the years, as well as 68. The Fellowship preserve by walking; we were aiming to save age old institutions, by doing the same.
We joined the back of the moving crowd at Russell Square. Very near a church hall where an Edward Thomas study day was once held. On the study day I drank tea and ate cakes, whilst we spoke of the cafes frequented by writers and poets. A lot of them were around and about the bit of the city that we marched through on the day of the vote; when I chanted, held a banner, and strode past those same bourgeois cafes. Different days, different walks. The march was a pretty cheery affair. We took in the sights, Trafalgar Square and a vast line of unbothered police, Horse Guards Parade and a single curved line of unaffected police; we even stopped to take photos and talked at points. The amount of people and the noise was awe inspiring down the cavernous echoing streets. We were sure they would hear us in parliament. Waves of cheering would crash towards us as walls of sound and chants would break out intermittently about us. They say cut that, we say fight back! Education is a right, not a privilege! Huge banners surrounded us and floated and rippled in the wind, dwarfing ours. No one was without some sort of message to send to the politicians. Big Ben was in the distance now – forward and onward to parliament square. Bag the banner for now. The crowd became tighter and louder as the clock loomed above. We squeezed in just about. To our right the Houses of Parliament revealed themselves above a sea of heads. We walked towards them, around the crush, and on to a grassy knoll. From which I could have taken out whomever I pleased. Before us was the whole landscape. A column of protesters, all converged on the left hand side of the square – a bottle neck they had been forced in to. A line of riot police, shields and batons, backed up with a line of horses flanked them on the right, along with metal fencing. A line of buildings, the treasury etc, flanked them on the left. And a line of riot vans stopped them dead ahead in the middle distance, before the river. While still more bodies were trying to squeeze in. The huge numbers of people had nowhere to go. More and more were coming down the run off route we had taken. Scuffles were breaking out between the riot police and the swelling backlog. I say scuffles. Batons were hitting unarmed heads forced forward by sheer weight of numbers. After about ten minutes or so the crowd began to get restless in the face of this needless aggravation and caging in by the riot police. Protesters expecting a ruck had come prepared. Thick padded book shaped banners were used as shields and pushed up against the thin line of riot police. One of them had Spectres of Marx, Jacques Derrida painted on it. And the run off area we were stood in watching the rough and tumble was now inundated with a sea of people. With a rush and a push from behind, we fell forward on to the street and in to parliament square. We were now unwittingly boxing the line of riot police and horses in who had stupidly stood there bashing away unaware. Not good. Thousands of people were now surrounding a group of about twenty horses. We were in very close proximity to hooves and we had no idea what would happen next. And then we heard it, the clattering of hooves and the dashing of terrified squealing bodies in all directions. I held on to one of the girls who had come with to stop her being swept away. Adrenaline pumped through me, followed by fear, as a horse crashed within feet of me – its rider struggling to keep it under control. It looked like it was going to rear up at me. The front hooves were slamming in to the floor one after the other rapidly, like a pair of pneumatic limbs. I could go no further. A cast iron spiked railing was at my back. I stood in front of a girl and held up my hands, expecting my feet to be crushed – bone splintering under the weight of the incredible specimen. But the horse just continued to slam its feet in to the ground a few feet away. And the helmeted police rider continued to lean back as far as they possibly could, tugging at the reins trying to wrestle back control. I moved along with my back to the railing. The horse followed, still threatening to shatter my extremities. Other humans were tripping over each other to get away. It was a surreal moment. Everything slowed. Sound and movement continued around about but I did not see or hear it. My mind emptied and concentrated on one thing only: The horse and not getting crushed. I thought for a moment I may actually have to fight a man on a horse. They had squared up, leaving me with no retreat. The outcome would most likely be death though and I would be portrayed as a trouble maker. So I continued to slide along with my back to the railing trying not to alarm the wild beast. Its eyes covered; lifeless, heartless, abused. Robocop atop it was the same. I would need rebuilding after this like them. Metal rods fitted to my walkers and lifters. The horse, rider and I carved a tunnel through terrified protesters, and eventually reached a clearing. It went off down a street perpendicular to the one we marched down originally. All the horse rider hybrids had done the same. Rumours of a trampling were filtering through to my shaking body. Eyes dilated, muscles tensed, fists clenched. Just show me a bloody pig. I’ll rip its head off instinctively.
The police and the horses had retreated. We were left to chant amongst ourselves under a gnarly old tree. And face the houses of parliament and a ring of riot vans and riot police. The crowd visibly calmed. Big Ben crept towards three and vote time. Someone climbed a pole and did some aerial dancing. And the metal fences were removed and we wandered the square. It had the feeling of a festival. We contemplated getting some food. But we wanted to see how this would unfold. Instead, deciding to stand just away from the riot police, beside the gate of the church. We were standing about chatting as a line of riot police followed by a line of horses came up from behind, from the road down which they had just left. The riotous protesters at the front, facing parliament, got wind of this turned and charged towards them. We charged too. What was going to happen? Was I about to run under a horse? Have a couple of metallic hooves forced though my spine? The crowd stopped luckily, in the process stopping me in my tracks. Whose streets? Our streets. Whose streets? Our streets. Whose streets? Our streets. I shouted this as loud as I could and threw my fist forward as I said it – caught up in the general psyche of the crowd at that moment. A flare was thrown. I cheered heartily as it hit a shield. Fences were passed over the top of the crowd in an organised fashion and placed between the horses and us. And other missiles, anything people could get their hands on were thrown towards the shields – none hitting flesh or bone. The crowd edged forward again. It figured it was safe doing so as the horses were backing off. Little did it know that the horses and their crafty riders were simply about to charge at the front row of defenceless bodies. All hell broke loose. People scrambled back in the other direction, falling over each other again, to the relative safety of the raised square and its monuments. I saw a news camera in the middle of the action, reporting the unfolding events; the presenter talking in to it, saying that the protesters were unhappy about the police handling of the situation. A gross understatement, if ever I heard one. We were livid. The incompetent decision makers of the force had stoked initially and then stoked the dying embers for one last flame up. I was not too keen on the individual members on the ground either after seeing the way they had almost enjoyed the confrontation, not seen since the days of firms and football hooliganism. They lacked a good old tear up down the east end in their lives. A mass brawl to get their teeth into; where they could inflict pain with a mechanised emotionless cool to their hearts content, against a load of tooled up wide boys. We were just frightened, defenceless, apathetic youth remember though, who had been given no option but to engage and become angered. Oh Cameron, back to the 80s within weeks of government: You silly, silly boy; you clever, clever Tory.
But it was not to end there. For there was one last trick the police had in store. Just to rile the crowd up some more. Darkness had descended and the vote was taking place. The wind was whipping across the square too and the festival atmosphere from earlier had been blown away. It now felt more like a war zone. Helicopters whirred above and riot vans sealed the perimeter. We looped the site to find a way out. We were exhausted and just wanted to leave. I had not eaten since breakfast or been to the toilet. Police stared impassively at us behind shields, as hundreds of us implored them just to let us go home. No reaction. No sympathy. We were not human. We were only criminals. But I thought students were the future? Anyway, it was useless. They were not going to listen to the whimpering girls. We are the kettled generation. Once apathetic, now just ignored. One last loop was taken to settle on a waiting point. There were rumours going round that they were letting some protesters out along Whitehall. When we got there it turned out only reporters and politicians were being allowed through. This was as good a place as any to wait though, so we did. As more and more protesters got wind of the rumour though, the crowd around us began to swell. Until we were being crushed by our own against a line of shouty riot police and railings. We were squeezed to boiling point. Anger seeped over as we shouted at the shields to let us through. It was no use though they stood fast. When the crowd realised this they took matters into their own hands and gave the thin blue line no choice. We pushed them back slightly and now had the upper hand. It was a choice between letting us out peacefully or hitting out indiscriminately. Luckily they had the sense to let people out down the pavement, slowly. Then they stopped this out flow. And the pushing and shoving started up once again. Not protesters causing trouble, simply people wanting to disperse to their homes. The most dangerous part of the whole day was now about to unfold – the bit where we cheated death. We were face to face with the line of helmets and behind them was Whitehall. All of a sudden we were jolted forward by an immense pressure. Terrified everybody at the front screamed for it to stop. Before us was a pit, dug out for the relaying of pipes. So that is why the police chose this street! A couple of feet from falling into it and inevitably being crushed by the weight of the crowd, word filtered back of the impending carnage and somehow the mass of bodies stopped itself. Hundreds could have been crushed. Catastrophe averted, just. We breathed a sigh of relief. The riot police looked as relieved as the rest of us, as they were going in there too – they quickly ushered people down the pavement once more, guarding the hole, no longer stoic.
The trench continued up Whitehall and two by two we squeezed down what was left of it. Where the road was not ripped up a line of plain clothed police were ushering people into a crowd. Everyone explained how they just wanted to leave. We were dragged towards the mob though and pushed into it. The girls were manhandled and sworn at. It was possible to squeeze around the crowd who had been told to assemble outside the treasury. So we did. Yes! The road ahead was clear. Pleased we spoke of food and a toilet. And it was at this point that I realised I had lost my phone in the skirmishes. At least I wasn’t dead though was the philosophical response of my comrades. The phone could be replaced. Who cares we were out of the kettle! We could get a pint somewhere before getting the train back. The street ahead was so clear. Eerily clear in fact. In the distance though through the darkness, we could just about make out a line of shiny figures and beyond that a line of taller shiny figures – helicopter search beam reflecting off their heads. What were they doing? Just as we got within ten yards of them to ask for directions of how to get out, they charged at us. I twisted severely and legged it back in the direction I came. The other three did the same, until the line of rampaging stampeding equine human beings suddenly stopped. Oh, it was all a game they were playing – a power struggle that we were unwittingly caught up in the middle of. The cavalry retreated and prepared for another charge. And some young girls walked up to the slowly moving tide of infantry now spread across the road and begged to leave with tears rolling down their faces. One in particular was getting close to the line and pleading with them. An officer broke rank, extended his arm upwards with force and hit the girl square in the in the face with his shield. She was toppled like a rag doll and thrown over her friend who had sat down in the hope they would stop advancing. Face bloodied. Arms and back bruised. Skull bashed against concrete. She gingerly got back to her feet. We edged back slowly with her, shouting at them for their callous actions. Nothing, just that blank expressionless face again, or an occasional sneer and a warning that we will be next. Unexpectedly, the riot police parted speedily and perfectly synchronised, allowing the horses through to trample and to terrify again. A woman clutching a baby had to dive into the open door of a building, opened seconds earlier by a security guard, only for her, to avoid being pummelled. The rest of us were left to be hit, pushed, and kicked backwards, as the riot police infantry division entered the fray once more. We limped away battered and bruised; a small group of defenceless people who simply wanted to leave. The trouble makers were outside the Treasury. These officers of the law knew that. It will all be covered up though, even had it resulted in death. We gave up hope of ever leaving the kettle and ever getting back to the safety of the town. And sat despondently on the cold hard road, with the rioters on one side of us and the riot police on the other, considering whether to sleep and piss there or not. I did a recce of the immediate area. I was just imagining seeing images of me pissing against a building, in the morning newspaper, with a caption of outrage, when I saw to my left a line of plain clothed officers. They were defying the mindless thuggery of a proportion of the riot police and letting protesters calmly and quietly out onto Embankment. I ran back over to the others. In no time we were leaving through a gate, as we left we thanked the smiling faces for their good deed. The river and freedom beckoned. I would have swum across it if it was yet another kettle that we had unwittingly entered. On Embankment there was a rally taking place – some NUS politician type, talking about lighting candles, oblivious to the suffering of peaceful protesters just behind the stage. We thought about watching it but we were desperate to get away from this horrible place. Just beyond Embankment station, a feeling of relief swept over us. Real people were going about their daily business. Hello suited, bespectacled, briefcase carrying gentleman, quaffing champagne, it is so good to see you. We entered the bar the gentleman sat in and downed a pint. There was a television in the corner. It had the vote on the left hand side of it and the ugly scenes we were only just witness to on the right. People asked us questions about the day and we were only too happy to reveal the extent of the violence. Their eyes wanted more. They had a lust for this sort of stuff. So we told them about the huge trench down Embankment in which hundreds could have been crushed, the girl being thrown to the floor by the shield of an officer, the baby almost being crushed by stampeding horses, the whole damn lot, the whole bloody mess. And they loved it; they were hanging on our every word, with a mixture of shock and awe painted on their ugly mugs. The count was back. We had lost. But at what cost: Clegg had promised some favours down the line that turn out to be lies too, and our whole democracy turns out to be a fallacy, as thousands protest peacefully but are kettled. Maybe I should just go back to being apathetic. That is what the brutal police tactics are aimed to do though isn’t it; to put people like me off protesting, put me off having a voice. They may just have got it horribly wrong this time though. If we were not angry before the day of the vote, we certainly are now – a whole generation seems to waking up and becoming politicised. About time some would say. In the newspaper the next day none of the events written up in this account were ever mentioned; I read about a prince and his bird taking a drive through a load of protesters, attempting to mow them down – some sort of royal game apparently. A pirate related to a member of a psychedelic band, swinging from a flag on acid, thinking he was still on a boat. And, oh yeah, a police officer pulling a man from a wheelchair and dragging him across the street whilst the rest of the gaggle of police officers watched on – presumably because the protester had glued his wheels up, sick of having a form of propulsion to get about.
Preston, January 2011