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Shag Camp

I went to the Climate Camp last weekend, on Blackheath, next to Greenwich Park, a brick’s throw from the Royal Observatory. The camp is maybe a 150m-diamater circle, with a metal fence around it, filled with tents. You have to enter through a steel gate, over which hangs a sign saying ‘Capitalism is crisis’, and under which crusties sit on straw bales, perusing the new entrants like monkeys outside a Hindu temple.

They are on ‘gate watch’, to make sure the police don’t enter. The Camp for Climate Action handbook, which you pick up as you enter, tells you: ‘Whatever you have to offer, from vegan cakes to tripods, do come to the defence centre and be a part of making our vision of a community free from authoritarianism a reality.’

You then enter a welcome tent on the left, where a lady in her late 40s gives you a brief induction. She tells the new recruits about the various ways you can join in. First, pitch your tent in the neighbourhood you’re from – there’s a London area, a Midlands area, a West Country area, a Scotland area, and one guy on his own next to the fence who I think is from the Isle of Man. You camp with people from your own area so you can network and start an ‘affinity group’ for local direct action.

You can also be on food duty , washing up duty, (’but not if you’re ill, we don’t want everyone to get diarreah’), wellbeing duty (’going round, checking out the tranquility centres, checking on the welfare of the camp’), dismantling duty (the tents, not the state, sadly), and so on. She also took pains to point out you have to pee in one place and poo in another. Bladder control is key to the revolution.’Any questions?’

‘So what are you trying to achieve?’ I asked, like the snotty little journalist I am.

‘Well, it’s not ‘you’. Hopefully it’s ‘we’, she replied. ‘We’re here in London, the centre of the financial system, because we’re opposed to the financial system. We think it sucks. We don’t want to reform it, because as soon as we start to debate that, we get into arguments, and it hurts my head.’ She banged her head to illustrate this. ‘But we agree that we would rather the present system…’ collapsed? ‘…went away’.

She was a veteran of direct action. She’d helped set up – and dismantle – the Kingsnorth camp, protesting against E.on’s plans for a new coal-fired power station there. ‘My personal favourite’, she confided, ‘is superglue. I like gluing myself to things’, she said, as if confessing a fetish. ‘I’ve always wondered about that’, said a well-spoken lady on her right. ‘How do you come unstuck?’ ‘Turn that video camera off and I’ll tell you’, said the woman. A young black man videoing the induction dutifully turned his camera off. ‘You use soap and water’, said the woman.

Next to me, John, a young revolutionary from Northampton, shook his hands. I looked at him. ‘Just practicing my hand signals’, he explained. He pointed to a page in the handbook – Hand Signals for Group Discussions. Waving both your hands expressed consent. Imagine a whole revolutionary group doing it. Mass jazz hands. Trostsky, Lenin, Stalin. Jazz hands.That old revolutionary rag.

A T shape meant you wanted to make a technical point. The largest moon of Jupiter is Ganymede. That sort of thing. Your two index fingers raised meant a direct response. Two fingers up the nose meant a blocked sinus.

‘We used these in Manchester Uni’, John told me, ‘when we occupied a lecture room to protest against the occuption of Gaza. Took us six hours to draft a letter. But we won.’ You won? ‘We got the university to agree to send all their spare stationary to the university of Gaza, which had been reduced to…rubble, I believe is the appropriate word.’ Jazz hands.

I wandered around the camp with John.We looked out at Canary Wharf in the distance. ‘Beautiful’, said John. ‘I know it’s the centre of capitalism, but it’s still beautiful.’ A plane flew overhead. ‘Amazing. I love planes. I know they cause climate change, but I still love them. I mean, that plane should not be in the sky. It’s a miracle.’

I think John suspected I was an evil undercover capitalist and so was trying to ingratiate himself by appreciating every visible manifestation of capitalism. ‘What…political persuasion are you?’ John asked furtively. ‘Centre left’, I said. ‘That’s a good place to be’, he nodded. Phew!

Reggae played from a bicycle-powered sound system. The various neighbourhoods were gathering to have lunch: plates of brown rice with vegetables. Others were assembling to put up the main tent, in which bands would play, ideas would foment, and discussions would be held on such topics as ’seedbomb making’, ’sing and dance for change’, and ‘Greenwich Common: Rape, policing and prostitution’.

There was a legal advice tent, a police monitoring tent, a bicycle-powered smoothie-maker. ‘Amazing’, said John. It was like a mini-festival. But where was the beer tent, the burger van? No burger van. That’s capitalism. Capitalism is crisis.

‘Yeah, but, you say capitalism is crisis’, a press photographer asked his media chaperone (a boy who could be no more than 22, but already had a beard and a fiery Daniel Cohn-Bendit-esque demeanour), ‘but when your parents die and leave you a nice house, what are you going to do, give it away?’

‘I think you’ve got a false impression of the people here’ said Cohn-Bendit junior. ‘Most people here aren’t rich.’

‘Yeah, I can’t relate to that at all’, said a girl media chaperone.

‘I mean, my father’s a counsellor and my mother’s a nurse’, said Cohn-Bendit. ‘And if I was rich, I’d rather be rich and against coal-fired power stations than rich and not.’

‘Yeah, but this must have all cost something’, said the photographer.

‘It cost about £40,000′, said Daniel coolly.

‘So that’s capitalism.’

‘Capitalism is about more than money.’

‘Well, what is it?’

‘Capitalism is the complete exploitation and subjugation of every living thing on this planet’, said Daniel with terrifying certainty.

Hmmm…problem with taking on ‘capitalism’ is you need a serious alternative. And the campers don’t have one, not since the collapse of Marxism. You can take on lots of specific things – the bail-out of the banks, the destruction of the environment – but to blame all of these things on ‘capitalism’, without having a systematic alternative to ‘capitalism’, seems to be tilting at windmills. The USSR wasn’t a capitalist system, China is not a free market system, but these systems give (or gave) just as much of a f*ck for the environment or human rights as the West. Probably less of a f*ck.

If the protestors really wanted to smash the system, I pondered, why didn’t they smash up the Royal Observatory nearby. What more oppressive imperalist symbol could there be than the Greenwich Meridian? Who were we to enforce our own rigid sense of ‘Universal Time’ on the assorted tribes and tribulations of the world? Smash the observatory, end time.Capitalism would be thrown into disarray. Job done.

Still, the camp looked fun. There were some radical cuties there. John pointed me out one pretty girl, bright eyes, heart full of hope, jumper full of cleavage. ‘She showed me how to work the bicycle-smoothie maker’, he said.’Amazing’ I said.

And for a second, I was jealous of John spending the next few nights in the camp. I bet he meets some really hot women, I thought. A bit of cider, a bit of Antonio Negri, who knows what could happen. Indeed, the camp has already got the nickname ’shag camp’ from some NGO workers. How many people, I wondered to myself, join sects, cults, and radical cells not out of a serious belief they will radically alter society, but just because they want to get a bit of lovin’.

Childish things

I’m in Faro tonight, on the south coast of Portugal, staying the night in a hotel on the harbour, after a great wedding of my friend Mike and his bride Anna. It was in a town called Serpa, about two hours north from the coast, where Anna grew up.

It’s a fairly small town, only 10,000 people, with sun-bleached squares and sleepy stray dogs sniffing at doors. At the dinner, I was sitting next to a young guy who’s in charge of the Serpa theatre. I have to say I envied his existence, in a small community where his life and work really matter. He said he liked the idea of London life – ‘being connected to the big world’.

Yes, well, I don’t feel that connected, though I did get a comment from the famous Guido Fawkes yesterday, on a blog post I wrote about ‘smeargate’. That’s about as connected to the big world as I get.

Guido’s the blogger who exposed that whole sorry scandal, which sadly involves Derek Draper, the former spin-doctor who left government in disgrace a few years back over a lobbying scandal, and re-invented himself as a psychotherapist. He invented the phrase ‘politics of well-being‘, by the way.

I met Draper at Demos two years ago, when I was talking to them about setting up a programme on the politics of well-being. He seemed friendly enough. A pity he got dragged back into the dirty games of power, like a moth to the flame…

His name is mud now, with his beloved Labour party completely disowning him. But let’s not forget he helped to bring in the Improved Access for Therapies policy, which will hugely increase the number of therapists working for the NHS. That’s a genuine achievement.

Anyway, back to Serpa. Anna’s father is a short, stocky man who used to be a bullfighter. In Portuguese bull-fighting, they don’t kill the bull – instead, at the end of the fight, one plucky fellow walks slowly towards the bull, then when the bull charges, he jumps on the bulls horns, and the rest of his crew pile up behind him until they stop the bull in its tracks. Anna’s dad was that plucky fellow. Mike, meanwhile, is a very keen ultimate frisbee player. Wonder what the dad makes of that.

The service was, thankfully, Anglican – I was grimly prepared for a four hour Latin epic. One of the readings was St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians:

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child. Now that I have become a man, I have put away childish things.

I thought of my friends who have got married over the last two or three years, and indeed, they do seem to have grown up, to have changed, become more serious. I, meanwhile, have yet to put away childish things.

It’s strange going to weddings in your early thirties. I went to a wedding two weeks ago, and I was one of about four single people there. It was slightly better yesterday, but only just. I spent about an hour trying to chat up one of the few unmarried women there, only to be told by Mike she was a lesbian.

The guests included a lot of people I was at school and university with, including some I haven’t seen for a decade or so. I found myself humming Mad World: ‘All around I see familiar faces / Worn out faces’, but in fact, people seem to have aged well, and I found them all as charming and fun as ever. My school produced some likeable people.

Most of them are married. I got mixed reports about its blessings. One newly-wed seems to be quite startled by it – he says his wife is far more neurotic now than she ever was in the five years they were dating before they got hitched. On the other hand, I got a lift with another couple, from Faro to Serpa, and the wife called back to London to check on their five-month-old baby (it was the first time they’d left him for the night), then after the call, her hand quietly went over to her husband’s hand, and held it. It was very beautiful, and I felt a lonely old bachelor in the back.

Another couple showed me photos of their four-year-old girl, who looked charming. I think it will get harder and harder, not having a family, when my friends’ children are all around that age – at the moment, most of them are a year old or so, and there’s not much to envy in having a kid at that age, frankly. They just cry, eat and shit. When they’re three or four, however, they’re little personalities, saying funny things and being amusing. You get to see their personalities develop. I’m sure I’ll be very jealous.

It’s funny though – I’m sure half the pleasure of having children is that, actually, you get to be a child again, to enjoy the pleasure of childhood play. So in fact, when you’re married, you actually dust off your ‘childish things’ and use them again. What did St Paul know, anyway.

I was struck, this evening, by the words ‘bride’ and ‘groom’. It’s never hit me before, but where do those words come from? Is it implying that the lady is a horse, who when she gets married takes the bridle, to be led around by the groom? So marriage is, what, the equivalent of breaking in a filly?

It sadly rained yesterday during the wedding, but it was a beautiful, hot day today, and I enjoyed the long (long) bus drive from Serpa to Faro. It took an hour and a half in the car on the way up, but a mere four and a half hours on the way back down, on the ‘Express bus’.

Still, it was a lovely drive, winding around the green fields, past the horses grazing and nuzzling each other, past a falcon soaring over a field, past a stork in its metre-wide nest, past the swifts breaking over the long grass, the clouds watching over us, the sun bleeding out into the great wide sky. How wonderful it is to be alive.

I felt particularly good to be alive because I thought I had cancer last week. I’m a complete hypochondriac – this is the second time I’ve thought I had cancer this year. My GP, Doctor Malik, is beginning to smirk when I walk through the door. Anyway, once again my fears were proved wrong. Hooray, I’m healthy! That’s the good thing about being a hypochondriac – the constant fears of your imminent demise mean you gain a constantly-renewed appreciation for existence.

On the bus drive down, I listened to Calvin Harris’ new song, which is great (video below), and to the latest edition of In Our Time, about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which features my old tutor from Worcester College, Oxford – David Bradshaw. Good to hear his voice again, I have completely lost touch with him.

The discussion reminded me what a fine book it is. David pointed out that, in many ways, it is more utopian then dystopian: Huxley was genuinely worried about the collapse of European civilisation, and thought society needed to become much more controlled, including controlling population through eugenics.

I wonder if climate change will force us to live in more controlled societies. If the population of the UK rises to 100mn, as we take in climate refugees, and we are all crammed into mega-cities, and forced to control our eating, reproduction, travel and energy consumption, how would we cope with that level of social complexity, without serious outbreaks of crime and violence? Perhaps state-sponsored soma is the answer. We can all sit back, shoot up, and think of England.

Well, enough ponderings, here’s Calvin Harris: