In Finsbury Square, a whiff of revolution is in the air. But only of the mild sort
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Friday 28 October 2011
A cardboard sign urging drivers to "BEEEEP FOR CHANGE!" is tied to a lamppost in Finsbury Square.
Other signs greet bemused tourists. Henry Ford is quoted: "It is well that the people of the nation do not understand our banking system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution by tomorrow morning."
If there's a whiff of revolution in Finsbury Square, it is of the mild sort – a whiff more of lentil stew than gunfire.
Protesters who have occupied this patch of London since Saturday, as an overspill from the St Paul's demonstration, are polite, employed, articulate middle-class people aggrieved by the global financial system.
Take music teacher Ben Sellars, 25: "I'm lucky enough to be in work but I'm here to support friends who've lost their jobs because of government cuts." Like fellow protesters, Ben reels off their requirements: "Higher tax for higher earners; companies should pay the tax they owe; more money to be spent on the welfare state.
"We're not proposing solutions," he adds. "We're providing a platform for high-level discussions." Those discussions have recently come from an unexpected source. On Wednesday, two bankers gave a talk here entitled Confessions of a Merchant Banker and were listened to with respect.
"They told us bankers also feel like slaves of the system," said Ben.
Forty tents take up the bulk of the square, like a sleeping, multicoloured hippo. In pride of place is a huge yurt made from calfskin with a beautiful beechwood double door.
Under a rainproof canopy, a multi-faith shrine displays Ganesh the Hindu elephant god and Chinese lion deities. Buddha holds a crucifix.
A key figure is the group's spokesman Allan MacDonald, from Toronto, who teaches in Luton. "I'm angry because the Government can find money to bail out banks and wage wars but not to keep libraries open," he says. "The last state school I taught in was falling down."
Some would like to see the movement as a Western version of the Arab Spring.
"The first day we had people talking about 'Tahrir Square, City of Westminster', says Allan wryly. "I was interviewed by CNN and Iranian television."
Inside the large kitchen tent, behind trestle tables groaning with coffee paraphernalia, an army canteen cauldron is steaming. "Last night we had North African couscous, tonight a guy from the market's coming to cook vegetable curry for 80," says Ross Harwood, 34, a Cornwall carpenter who used to make West End theatre props.
"We stick to a vegan diet because we haven't facilities for keeping stuff cold."
Locals and visitors have been generous with money and food, while Starbucks lets demonstrators use their lavatories and hold meetings in the dry.
"I don't think we'd accept donations from Tesco," muses Ross. "We're cagey about whom we accept from because of the danger of being co-opted."
Such as? "Innocent, the smoothie people, wanted to help but they're owned by Coca-Cola, so we said 'No'."
And Starbucks? "Starbucks is a monster," says Ross, simply, "but the media team love them."
It seems clear Canadians form the backbone of the protest. But everyone says Occupy London has no leaders, just "facilitators" to keep things moving.
It is easy to dismiss the demonstration as a stage set rather than revolution – except it is impossible to disagree with the protesters' views and their excitement is infectious.
"I've never seen anything like this," says Ross, waving a hand at the field of tents. "A little chunk of democracy."
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