Just passed Holly Johnson on Piccadilly (Frankie Say Get Angry) #26march It was impossible to judge the scale of Saturday's March For The Alternative by being in it. A sea of banners and placards and people, both ahead and behind, twisting around far too many street corners to be seen [photo]. All the usual left-wing suspects were here - the Marxists, the communists, the RMT - but outnumbered by a wider coalition of more ordinary folk representing organisations and services under threat nationwide. The unions had a massive presence, unsurprisingly, with flags and tabards and inflatables suggesting a substantial amount of pre-planned branding. Several slogans raised a smile, others a cringe, but the default option was the simple "No Cuts" street sign. The atmosphere was peaceful - I'd describe the crowd as cheerfully livid - with only the occasional group of fired-up students chanting heartfelt anger. Marchers passed Fortnum and Mason without blinking, and The Ritz without casting a second glance. Passers-by had nothing to fear, and several American tourists wandering out of their Mayfair hotels looked more confused than agitated.
Citizen Ed saying all the right words but not quite igniting the crowd #26march The rally in Hyde Park peaked too early. By the time the Labour leader emerged onto the stage, the great majority of protesters were still somewhere back on Piccadilly, or Whitehall, or even passing the official start on the Embankment. Those present listened as Ed gave a lengthy speech praising the day's action and damning the cuts [photo]. Applause filled his pauses as planned, and most at least nodded in response, yet his politically-correct rhetoric somehow failed to inspire. Master of ceremonies Tony Robinson had a much better idea of how to work a large crowd, introducing a succession of union leaders and sympathetic commentators. Each lambasted the government's state-shrinking agenda, most demanding absolutely no cuts rather than fewer. The crowd will have been galvanised by their words, with much to think about and to act upon, but this was preaching to the converted, and the Government won't be shifting an inch as a result.
The queue for fish and chips is longer than the queue for baguettes #26march (and still they come) As with any major event in Hyde Park, a small army of catering vans had turned up to feed the crowd. Not as many as I'd have expected, and a little more mainstream than any vegan or noodle-friendly marchers would have liked, but they did a brisk trade. Those vans to the left of the stage did best, because most of the crowd stopped marching a few hundred metres early rather than trooping round to the far right of the stage where there was hugely more space. Families and nationwide contingents settled on the grass out of earshot of the PA system, some with picnics they'd bought themselves, others with fivequidsworth of French loaf. A family of four marched on tiptoe between the groundsheets, with youngest son leading the procession on the vuvuzela. A group of health workers from Bolton paused and posed so that a Unison steward could take their photo to prove they were here. And still the crowds poured in from Hyde Park Corner, come to join the party, and oblivious to any action that might have been going on elsewhere. [photo]
Riot police in helmets and balaclavas are lined up on guard outside Claire's Accessories, Vodafone and River Island on Oxford St #26march Every December, Oxford Street is pedestrianised to allow for easier Christmas shopping. UK Uncut achieved a similar level of segregation on Saturday, simply by targeting protests on several retailers they accused of tax avoidance. Most had moved on by the time I walked down the street, but there was still ample evidence that this was no normal afternoon. The line of riot police outside a shop selling accessories to teenagers - that was highly unusual, unless dark blue headgear and hi-vis jackets had become suddenly fashionable. These footsoldiers were probably protecting the 'evil' mobile phone outfit nextdoor, just as they were lined up outside Boots and BHS and another Vodafone further down. You'll have heard that several protesters were masked, but so were the police. Two eyes and a nose were all that peered out through the hole in the balaclava, although that was still sufficient to offer help to various non-threatening members of the public who stopped to ask for directions [photo]. Impending menace and unspoken threat, sure, but with traffic stopped and most stores trading as normal, an excellent shopping opportunity.
UK Uncut have mobilised a hessian warhorse and a band of angry students at Top Shop Oxford Circus, to the sound of carnival drums #26march Half past three, and the planned flashpoint for further protest was Oxford Circus. Its X-shaped pedestrian crossing had completely disappeared, covered by an army of mostly-students and a throng of intrigued onlookers. Right at the centre stood the Trojan Horse of the Apocalypse, a symbolic cloth creation owned by the "Armed Wing" of the TUC [photo]. On a given signal the protesters stood up and roared, and a sequence of drums rang out down the tarmac outside Top Shop. Its façade bore the paint-splattered scars of a previous skirmish, but by this point a protective cladding of riot police prevented anything more than than an audio attack [photo]. Flags were waved and slogans hurled, but the worst civil disobedience I saw was nothing more than a red t-shirted bloke armed with a loudhailer shinned up a traffic light. Indeed I'd seen no violence of any kind anywhere, as I'm sure was the case for the great majority of West End visitors on Saturday.
Meanwhile a very different (and better dressed) breed of students pours off the tube at Putney Bridge. Beer anyone? #boatrace Five miles west, the 157th Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race drew large crowds to the banks of the Thames. Whereas events in the centre of London had been mostly dry, out here alcohol was very much the order of the day. Bright young things stood on the promenade at Putney with a bottle in hand, watching not very much happening on the river during several hours of pre-race build-up. Those on the Embankment were closest to the coin-tossing action, whereas the Fulham bank boasted beer tents and a miniature fairground in Bishops Park. There was no political activity here, bar a well-mobilised campaign by the 'YES' referendum lobby addressing spectators politely with enamel badges, leaflets, and ad-man smiles. A trade union tabard here would have looked as out of place as a rugby shirt in Hyde Park. Different clientèle, different priorities.
Two boats just rowed past with either Oxford or Cambridge in the lead, and a flotilla of small craft behind. The party's over #boatrace I made my way upstream where the foreshore was quieter, settling eventually beneath riverside flats opposite the Harrods Depository. Various residents had gathered on the balconies to watch the race go by, many hosting parties to celebrate the great event. Their shouts provided the first hint that the race was approaching (thank you BBC1), soon confirmed by a rush of white on the water as the two boats approached. Maybe it was possible to distinguish one university from the other, but I certainly couldn't, not even as the eights passed by almost but not quite simultaneously. "Oxford! Oxford!" went the cry from somewhere above, in an accent more City than estate, rising to a crescendo which suggested that the result of the race somehow mattered. The race moved swiftly by, pursued by an unexpectedly large number of motor launches, until all that was left was a rough echo of backwash [photo]. Time to disperse, and to drop the plastic beakers and wine bottles in the recycling on the way home.
This afternoon has thrown up convincing evidence that Britain is divided into losers and winners #26march #boatrace Two crowds of approximately a quarter of a million people, both rammed with students but with all ages represented. At one gathering, a concern for society and a fear for the future. At the other, cheers of celebration and a long standing sense of tradition. The protesters in town didn't care which boat of Blues had rowed fastest, and the revellers by the river weren't especially worried by cuts to the public sector. I genuinely hadn't been expecting the contrast to be so sharp, but the polarity of the two events was inescapable. While some are about to lose, it seems others have already won.
What's on this weekend? Spring Into Summer Saturday 30 & Sunday 31 May
40 free guided London walks. Purley Festival Friday 29 - Sunday 5 June
Bunting week, below Croydon. E17 Art Trail Sat 30th May - Sun 14th June
250 arty Walthamstow things.