From the Rift Valley to Worthing, the raucous sound of protest

Robert Winder's Notebook
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As musical instruments go, the horn of the sable antelope is fairly rough and ready. If you blow into the hole carved near the point, a low moo echoes out of the other end, almost a yard away. It is a lofty, solemn sound - like a steamship in fog - but not very subtle; there are not too many concertos for sable antelope horn. And it is a noise heard only rarely in our political landscape. But at lunchtime on Thursday you could hear it booming around Westminster's Parliament Square, as part of a noisy musical protest by Jubilee 2000, the pressure group campaigning to cancel the debts owed by the world's poorest countries. Since a high proportion of these are African, it was appropriate that the antelope horn should provide the bass note.

The horn brought a far off, Rift Valley quality to the occasion. It was given to its owner when he was eight, at a Benedictine monastery in pre- war Tanganyika. Now it was being used to rouse Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

And it was only one of an amazing array of musical instruments. Trumpets, recorders, flutes, party hooters, tambourines, drums, waste paper bins, tin whistles, bottles filled with pebbles, clashing knives, saucepan lids, banjos - a lively ensemble and when everyone blew at once it was rousing and raucous. One man from Worthing puffed into an antique bugle that had once been carried by a cavalryman at the Battle of Balaclava. "Here," he said, pointing to a crack below the maker's name (Lafayette, Paris). "There's the dent where he fell off his horse."

Across the lawns of Westminster, 40 or so MPs inspected red balloons with the national debt scribbled on: Kenya pounds 36m, Philippines pounds 29m, and so on. But the event didn't really make the next day's papers. The stakes are high in publicity these days, and although the PR stunt has fast become our preferred debating method, it takes quite a lot to attract a camera crew. But Jubilee 2000, which this year has formed human chains in Birmingham and Cologne, is a little unusual. A coalition of dominantly Christian charities, there is a churchy flavour to its proceedings and processions. And there is not much less fashionable, these days, than a church.

Still, three or four thousand people converged on Parliament Square from all over the country: Taunton, Manchester, Watford, Sussex, Hemel Hempstead, Dorset and all points south. "The Isle of Wight says Drop the Debt!" declared one placard, calculated to make Gordon Brown tremble.

The marchers were relatively elderly. Some were veterans from CND, but many were anything but career campaigners. They had brought sandwiches along in plastic boxes, as if they were going to a cricket match. Some leaned on walking sticks as they limped round the Treasury, and glanced sympathetically at the aged soldiers making their annual pilgrimage to the Cenotaph. Every now and then the reflexes of modern campaigning broke through - "What do we want? DROP THE DEBT! When do we want it? NOW!!". A surly touch. But for the most part it was decorous and festive, a holy alliance with clashing gongs and cymbals.

It is proving hard to resist, this modest evangelism against the debt burden. President Clinton has already pledged to cancel $5.7bn worth; Jubilee 2000 is shrewdly pressing Blair not to let anyone steal his moral thunder. It helps that it is a fairly irresistible cause: the arguments against it - that handing taxpayers' money to the banks who made the bad loans in the first place might not be the best way of helping the world's poverty stricken - sound measly. Jubilee 2000 compares itself to the anti- slaving abolitionist movement of the 19th century, and the human chain did indeed feel less like a modern protest movement than a surge of old- fashioned Christian charity. Not too newsworthy, and pregnant with ironies - it looked awfully like the forces of conservatism so recently chastised by Blair - but as redoubtable as they come.

And Jubilee 2000 has secured the all-important pop star backing. This week Bono, of U2, was being given a special MTV award in Dublin by Mick Jagger, along with a message from the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan praising his work as "an artist and activist for the poor". Sometimes, of course, the backing of celebrities has comic twists. David Bowie recently popped up on the radio to press this very case. "As the great Immanuel Kant said," he declared, "`Man is born free and is everywhere in chains'." It gave rise to a nice radio moment. "Kant?" said the nimble presenter (Ian Payne). "I thought it was Rousseau. Don't get in too deep, David." But that's publicity for you. It would be pedantic to think that a philosophical faux pas undermined the moral argument.

Outside the Treasury, children wore T-shirts proclaiming their national balance sheets - "I pay you pounds 1.2m a year, Bolivia", or "I pay you pounds 3.9m a year, Ghana". They held out piggy banks to the passing secretaries and civil servants stepping out to lunch, and every time someone emerged, the hooting, drumming and whistling rose to a crescendo. Whatever one thinks about protest movements, it must have given these hungry economists at least a small pause for thought. But perhaps it only encouraged them to reflect that this is what it might be like, say, to take a penalty for England at Hampden Park.

If the Treasury officials grabbed sandwiches, they probably came in plastic. In the 19th century, they would have been wrapped in a cabbage leaf. We often think that nipping out for lunch is a relatively recent phenomenon, a tribute to our racy metropolitan civilisation, with its dizzy emphasis on smart new food emporia, coffee bars and so on. So it was sobering to see, at the Museum of London, evidence that our eating habits have changed little in 500 years.

In Tudor England, eating out was by no means a luxury; it was a necessity, especially for the poor. And fast food was the norm. Only the baronial elite had their own kitchens; the rest had to grab snacks from barrows and stalls on the street. Oyster shells (from Colchester) littered the roads like crisp packets, but on the whole the Tudor diet was essentially bread, cheese and meat - which gives rise to the alarming thought that the cheeseburger has been around for longer than we think. Back then, it might have been flavoured with ambergris, the stomach lining of a sperm whale. Perhaps - though this is not recorded - they even called it an amberger.

Nor is the recent boom in coffee houses such a big deal. London's first coffee bar opened in 1652, and was such a success that a decade later there were 300 of them. Charles II tried to suppress them; Charles III, when the time comes, will probably be happy merely to suggest that the farmers get a decent price for their beans. The craze for mineral water, too, began in the early 18th century. Fresh water was hard to come by, so it was sold in bottles or elegant vases, rushed from the sparkling springs in idyllic rural spots such as Islington and Clerkenwell.

The Museum of London exhibition makes many such points in a trim space. It features a Tudor banana skin recovered from Southwark, a square of gingerbread purchased at one of the frost fairs on the frozen Thames in 1814, and a currant bun baked in January 1820. There are also recreations of the amazing heron pies and swan pies without which no 16th century feast would have been complete. But food, on the whole, is perishable. In 1629 more than 700,000 pineapples came to London, but the only trace now is a single pip unearthed in Spitalfields 10 years ago.

The one modern invention of any note is the restaurant, and even this has quite antique roots. Until the 19th century, businessmen met at dining rooms, or did their "immoderate quaffing" at pubs; but there was nowhere for both men and women to go together (not to mention somewhere women could go alone) until the first French restaurant opened near Leicester Square in 1815. Women, as the saying went, wanted "next to nothing, pleasantly served", and so the restaurant grew up, primarily in the great station hotels. There were celebrity chefs almost at once - Escoffier, Alexis Soyer and Louis Ude (clearly the Marco Pierre White of his time: cartoons depict him growling as "Rude Ude"). But in 1900 there were only 150 restaurants in London; today there are around 6,000. So perhaps we have come a long way, after all. We can truly say that ours has been the out-to-lunch century. At the juice bar on the way of the museum you can buy a muesli lassi. Quite what archeologists of the future will make of this remarkable Swiss- Indian concoction is anyone's guess.