Europe & The Near East 2007

Joining the protest

Andy and I jumped on an early train in order to take part in the cycle protest that was to precede the main marches and demonstrations against ‘Climate Chaos’.

Arriving at 9:40am and with a supposed leaving time of 10:00am from Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a couple of miles away from the station, we quickly hopped on our bikes and swung into the city traffic. No wonder bike couriers flourish in big cities — it’s very easy to get about the place very quickly, if you don’t mind letting slip things like lane etiquette, stopping at traffic lights, keeping off the pavement, etc…

After overshooting a couple of junctions and improvising somewhat with the idea of one-way systems, we rolled up at the rendezvous on the stroke of ten. Luckily things took a little longer to get organised, as is often the case with large conglomerations of people, and it wasn’t until closer to 11 that we made our way, en masse, out onto Kingsway, amidst thousands of tinny bells a‑ringing and horns a‑honking.

Hundreds of cyclists poured from the little alleyway onto the wide, empty street of Kingsway, while bike-mounted police officers brought the traffic to a halt. Free-wheeling down towards the Aussie embassy, I was content to drift, enjoying the hypnotic whir of hundreds of pedal-powered wheels rolling along the road — punctuated with localised bouts of bell-ringing and whoops of glee from the sun-bathed cyclists — as the traffic came to a standstill around us. The glorious morning sun filtered down and the experience was of passing through a surreal, alternative, yet sadly temporary version of London; infinitely more peaceful and beautiful than its normal self.

Most of what can be seen above is a single contraption, bestowed with the name ‘Rinky-Dink’. It’s a marvel of inspired and talented D.I.Y. engineering. The big green climbing-frame trundled through the ranks of cyclists like a beast out of Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam and Professor Branestawm’s combined childhood fantasies, incense-sticks burning and folk music erupting from somewhere within its abdominal region. Two men pedalled at the front, while one old man reclined on a saddle at the back, pedalling away at a flywheel which, in turn, generated enough power to operate a fascinating array of electrical equipment. Everywhere there was wonder: solar panels, diagrams, lightbulbs, wind turbines, pieces of old bike welded together and painted green, flags, and adornments and decorations galore. And the message was overwhelming: look what we can create if we put out minds to it! And what could you do, given that determination?

We descended on Trafalgar Square at about 2:30, and I was reunited with 3 old university house-mates for the first time since graduation in 2005. Not a lot changes between people who have been together in that environment, no matter how much time has passed.

The gathering in the Square was very much a let-down compared to the impact of the bike protest. We had shut down central London and sent the message we came to give. That same message had been strong in the air at Grosvenor Square, where the bike protest came to an end and we had congregated before marching to Trafalgar. But here, amidst a sea of tourists and passers-by caught up in the occasion, and with no further action to take, we were fed a line-up of popular rock bands and big-mouthed celebrities in a manner depressingly similar to Saturday morning television. The crowds pacified, the cause obscured, the point missed. Who was there to listen, and how were we meant to say anything?

We left briskly, and the final 20-minute dash through the traffic-laden streets, hopping up kerbs and over junctions, dodging between cabs and buses, was enough to remind me why I’d rather be on a bike than behind a wheel.

2 replies on “Joining the protest”

I will reply to the outpouring of colour, incident and bike horns, by telling you a little of a different day in London Town on the 4th November:

On Saturday the 4th Nov 2006 I went to the climate protests in London. I travelled up on the megabus (much better than the rumours allude) and arrived early, which pleased me greatly because I was dreading the walk from Victoria through the tangle of unfamiliar citylife. My printed GoogleMap directions proved awful, but luckily a charming lady in Victoria library had hand-out, fold-out street maps detailing the location of the London Library network (what, there aren’t tunnels connecting them?) This map saved me from resorting to further pubic transport. It also allowed my arrivals to be early for the rest of the day, which allowed me to spend lunch in Russel Park (nr Camden), and an hour or so wandering through the (freaking magnificent) British Museumm, before joining the other protestors for the ‘student’ protest.

The street had more police in it than protestors when I arrived, and for a while I loitered, despairing that perhaps the whole event would damp squib. Before long, though, the numbers had risen and a small crowd of banner-bearers appeared with a look of vast intent. There were beards and whistles and more old people than I’d presumed. After more loitering and flyering of my Ecotricity leaflets (some had already signed up!) I was herded into a corner by some strange-eyed youths who insisted I sign-up for some leftist party or leave with my views shredded (I’m actually quite pro nuclear power you see). Anyway, the numbers rose and rose and I begun to wonder who would organise this horde of empassioned laymen. In the end an ‘artist’ (rumours abound; he might not have been) with a mega-phone arrived, and made sure we were all gathered with his huge sun, cloud and temperature-symbol banners aloft. (I got to hold a tether for a giant sun — and felt like a Blue Peter presenter) After much whistle blowing, inspired salsa drumming, and foot-tapping, the procession finally began to move. Spirits, which had been flagging in the cold and grey, broke free and hollered and chanted and begged for ears and understanding. There were a lot of us. Two lads on stilts wearing wolf masks ran (yes really) amongst us. They roared. The police looked like they’d seen all this before last week. Perhaps they had. Cameras rolled and voices called for onlookers to ‘join us, join us’.

Eventually we reached trafalgar square. Our entire parade, which I’d thought invincible, was broken and dispersed by its own kind. Without the force of numbers and the passion of the united ideal, a lot of us, myself included, became disorientated by the sheer disorganised chaos of 20 — 30,000 people with banners trying to ge their thoughts heard whilst listening to far-off speeches (“we’re here to save the planet”. 3 claps.) from various celebreties and other known persons of dubious credibility and stature. I wanted the clear-eyed conviction of a Richard Dawkins-type lecturer. I also wanted a coffee and promptly found myself one. I didn’t even ask if it was fair trade. On the way back with my coffee I was grabbed and asked questions by a camera man for TV. I gave a good, informed answer, but screwed up the second one, so they let me go. Never very good on my feet. Especially when pressed.

Fortunately my sense of disorientation was helped by our having a minor university reunion in the crowds, like being on a raft on choppy seas. The reunion drew people I’d known from various years of uni at different times together in a pressed huddle. Some of them were there for the reunion and not the cause, but they were ok about it. It was odd, considering the event, but happy. We talked of bikes and ignorance and giant flowers, and then I had to rush off to catch my return. My mission was accomplished, my face and presence felt. I walked back to the Megabus terminal talking to a friend about many things, cabbages and kings.

On the bus my exhaustion arrived and so I fell into a dirty, dusty slumber, whilst two girls from Bournemouth played gameboy advance and did homework noisily.

My protest gave me these insights:

- you don’t have to tip or burn cars to make yourself heard.
— protestors are friendly but often quite closed-minded.
— it’s easy to join a protest; you don’t even have to make your own banners.
— the megabus is very useful, and it DOES have a loo onboard.
— I’d do it again.

    It was rather a surreal experience, thrust into this dreamlike situation with hundreds of other cyclists, gently rolling through the streets of London.  It was a glorious morning, the wintery sun creating a warm glow all around us. There were all sorts of different types of people there, whooping, shouting, and ringing their bells.  One couldn’t help but join in with the collective spirit and energy.  The vulnerability of the group in the harsh intense London environment was eye-opening like a rebellion by the people against the inorganic architectural monster we created, a shaking of the gates of the establishment, walking the dormant controlling creatures within.  The people were like a cheeky spit in the face, a momentary gibe at the smug face of the government, representing something deeper than spin, media and politics, the cause to attempt to understand and  reduce the effect of humans on the natural evolution of the state of our planet.

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