The buzz of rebellion
Commentator and stand-up comedian Mark Steel has presented several radio and television programmes, and appeared on Have I Got News for You and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. In 2006 he published 'Vive La Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution', and in 2000 stood as a candidate in the London Assembly elections.
Friday 05 March 1999
For 18 months the fees appeared to be meekly accepted, confirming that students are not the section of society most noted for their sense of urgency. They'll tell you they're in a real state right, 'cos like basically, they've got to get a 4,000 word essay written and, like, basically, actually handed in by tomorrow morning. You say "That's outrageous. When did they give it you to do?", and they answer "a year ago last April".
But suddenly, students are demonstrating and occupying buildings in protest against the fees. One of the most enthusiastic of these occupations is at Goldsmith's College in south-east London, where my partner, a mature student, last weekend joined in an occupation of a lecture theatre.
The issue which finally provoked the protest was a letter to eight students who were having difficulty paying the fees, informing them they were no longer allowed on the college premises. In the classic manner of bureaucratic letters which impart devastating decisions, it consisted of three and a half curt lines, followed by a huge blank space. The blank spaces on official letters are to let you know how unimportant you are, and that as the writer dictated it, they were thinking "I'll just be a moment wrecking someone's life and then I can go to lunch".
So 300 students took control of the psychology wing of the college, barricaded themselves in, renamed one room the "Stephen Lawrence Lecture Theatre", and renamed the toilet the "Ben Pimlott room" after the head of the college. And distressingly, they're far more organised than students are supposed to be. You might imagine that an occupation would consist of hundreds of dribbling, squinting forms, emerging from sleeping bags to meander across chickpea-stained plates and half-burned joss-sticks, to ask each other whether they've missed Teletubbies. But instead they're kept tidy by the cleaning committee, secure by the security committee, and educated by the academic committee.
But amidst the organisation and enthusiasm, the authorities have hit back. They shut off access to the occupied building, insisting that no- one could enter unless they were a "blood relative" of a college resident. So to visit I had to conduct an elaborate series of subterfuges, making me feel like an old Soviet dissident. By the time I arrived, I felt I should tell the committee I was to be known only as the oblong one, and that my message should be "the owl and the pussycat have gone to sea".
The college hierarchy also informed nearby residents to beware of the occupiers, because they believed (falsely) one of them was responsible for "the burglary of a bathroom". Maybe detectives should have been sent round to say to everyone "Alright sonny, have you got a receipt for this toothpaste"?
On Sunday evening a meeting of all the occupiers took place, filling the lecture hall with a frenetic sense of energy and anticipation, which physically jolted you as you entered the room, like an invisible forcefield on a dodgy planet in Star Trek.
Comedian Rob Newman and delegations of local teachers and council workers spoke in support and were cheered, as was anyone else who said anything at all. Everyone who spoke waved their arms, beamed with confidence, and got at least one big laugh. And immediately afterwards the corridors crackled with students eagerly filling out rotas, huddling into committees, chalking things on boards, saying "right, cool" and then walking off in an earnest hurry, and arranging deliveries of chocolate spread. "It's like a festival", said Kerrie, who'd been all night on security, attended a meeting at 8am, and was so excited she spoke for over five minutes without a single punctuation mark.
But the most striking part of this atmosphere is the sense of a release of bottled-up frustration. Possibly without realising it, the students are symbols of a widespread mood. They're against the tuition fees, but they were against them last week and the week before. The difference is that until the occupation, they felt betrayed by the New Labour whose victory they'd celebrated, but had no idea that anything could be done about it.
But no-one could be as exuberant as these students solely from staging a protest against fees. The occupation has provided an outlet for all the other disappointments with New Labour. One student I spoke to was livid about the bombing of Baghdad; another was astonished at the latest restrictions on asylum seekers. The priorities differ, but the overwhelming feeling is that this is magnificent, because at last we're doing something. "It's about everything that winds you up", said Andy, "whether it's the fees, or the Government or because you've split up from your girlfriend". Though I'm not sure how you incorporate that last one into the list of demands.
But imagine if it caught on, and offices, fire stations and supermarkets had sleeping bags scattered around the floor, while the workforce sat in a corner debating which was the best album by The Smiths.
And there's something brilliant about the occupied building being the psychology department. Because if anyone shouts that the college has been unfairly disrupted, the occupiers can put on their calmest voice and say "Hmm. Have you ever considered that this anger is a sign of your own insecurity?"
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