diamond geezer

 Sunday, December 06, 2009

A tale of two Londons

It's Very Important Pedestrians Day in Oxford Street. Shopping is king, and cars and buses can jolly well scuttle off somewhere else. Up at the far western end, a weedy stream of traffic is being diverted and funnelled into Wigmore Street. Alas nobody has managed to rephase the traffic lights, so it's a long wait for the green man at the pedestrian crossing. A team of crack safety wardens with megaphones are attempting to stop the public from nipping across the gaps in the traffic using their only available weapon - angry sarcasm. They bawl and shout at any overkeen shopper who dares to cross on the red man, hellbent on keeping the remainder of the crowd on the pavement through fear of embarrassment. They'd describe their stewarding activities as health and safety, whereas I can't help finding it mindboggling patronising. There are no Very Important Pedestrians here.

VIP day outside SelfridgesBut the rest of Oxford Street (and the whole of Regent Street) forms a traffic-free zone, permitting an abundance of pre-Christmas shopping without fear of being knocked down by buses and taxis. Instead the tarmac is filled with carrier bags, and chatty couples, and ladies in high heels attempting to dash from store to store in as short a time as possible. In case shopping isn't enough, a certain amount of on-street entertainment has been laid on. Some gold-painted stiltwalkers, the odd unicyclist, a troupe of dancing drag queens, that sort of thing. Nowhere near as much as last year - the recession must be biting - but sufficient to inspire the occasional excited mobile photo to send to the folks back in Bromley or Cheam.

carollers in Regent StreetSuch car-free activity doesn't come cheap, so a variety of sponsors have been wheeled in to brighten up the day. There's a Vodafone van, and a Nokia village, and even a Cadbury igloo where you can queue for free chocolate (solid and/or hot). Alvin and the Chipmunks will be along later, with their DVD to flog. But pride of place goes to top contributor American Express, whose minions are everywhere spreading the good news about flexible credit. They've installed benches in the centre of the road where you can rest your feet surrounded by promotional messages. They're offering a unique gift-wrapping service from a souped-up trailer - free only to those with an American Express card (and at least one gift). And they're handing out free carrier bags, thousands of them, in reusable black with a none-too-discreet blue logo. The irony of giving out "environmentally-friendly" bags is lost on the recipients, who willingly grab one prior to stashing it in their pile of unused ecobags under the sink. Money talks.
   The Wave, passing 10 Downing StreetThe Wave is in full flow. A stream of blue-clad protesters streams along Piccadilly. They're angry, but they're politely angry, and they're making their way slowly to Westminster to be visibly angry there. The Government needs some climatological backbone, they reckon, and encircling the House of Commons (via Lambeth Bridge) ought to provoke this. Most are carrying placards - "Coal Kills", "I Vote To Change Climate Chaos", or whatever else was pre-printed by the the various organising cooperatives. There are an awful lot of placards, which one only hopes will be recycled at the end of the day.

The stream flows on and on. These aren't the unwashed eco-protestors some might expect, though they're hardly the sort of folk you'd expect to see car-free shopping in Oxford Street either. Blue overcoats are de rigeur, and blue gloves, even the occasional electric blue mohawk. One man has come wrapped in a blue duvet emblazoned with dolphins, and he cycles up and down in the slipstream alongside the slowly-strolling walkers. Another particularly enterprising group have constructed a wave machine out of sheets of plywood and several metres of swishy blue fabric. It rumbles erratically along the street, pushed by five folk in careful synchronicity, and from the front the wave effect is relatively convincing. Every so often a cry goes up to maintain the momentum. "What do we want?" "Climate Justice!" "When do we want it?" "Now!" Even though the phalanx passes the very end of 10 Downing Street, it's unlikely the shout is anywhere near loud enough for Gordon to hear.

The Wave on Westminster BridgeAs 3pm approaches, it's clear that a substantial number of protesters aren't going to reach Parliament Square in time for the grand finale. Way up front at the main bridgehead on Westminster Bridge, the chief organisers are holding court from the top of a double decker bus. Their public address system is strong enough only to address folk on the nearside of the bridge, so the great majority of protesters further back round the final loop hear nothing. There's a vaguely motivational speech, I'm not quite sure from whom, thanking the crowd for their presence and wittering on about "the windfarms of recompense". Then, following muffled bongs from above, one minute of loud shouting erupts in the general direction of Big Ben. An attempted Mexican wave across the bridge rapidly fizzles out, and a second time, and a third, but press cameras should have seen enough to get their key action photo. It's raining now, and those who've brought blue umbrellas are suddenly able to put them to good use. The weather may be out of our control, but hopefully the climate can be tamed before it's too late.

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