Nineteen Years Ago Today, I Was Here
At the Poll Tax Riots in London. Where Obama is right now. It was a Saturday about 3 o'clock and I was striding south through Trafalgar Square, past the fountain late to meet my Affection on the steps which still lead down to the lapping Thames. We were set to interlope as guests of a wild Italian countess I knew, off to a yacht tethered before the Chiswick Bridge. As I learned, it sat at the finish line of the annual Cambridge Oxford Boat Race.
The Boat Race starts four miles upriver and couldn't be seen so Maria and I didn't care a whit who won or lost. As their straining hypoxiated oars and coxswain's calls drew closer we drank free Moet Chandon while alumni strained to see and we laughed, "Oxford or Cambridge is ahead!" We had hit it off with a couple about our age. He was a charming Lotus salesman originally from East London and she had been spun off by some gaping cyclotron which threw her from her parents' shire into the City. We were there to be young fast and pretty despite our common class and although long shots, we were mining the opportunities in Margaret Thatcher's England. We agreed to keep going.
Walking past those lions and Nelson's victory column I was the only person amongst perhaps forty thousand, with far more pushing in, who wore an open white dress shirt and camel hair coat. Notices I hadn't read warned to expect a rabble of thugs. More than anything else it looked like an overcrowded leisurely middle class picnic at Brighton and Hove. People lined the available walls and steps, setting down blankets on the stones, they had baskets, there were groups and families all comfortable and orderly. It was densely packed but they let me pass as if through a parted sea, no animosity. What I most remember is how many of them were eating leisurely, like for a party requiring good manners and stamina. The pervasive scent of tea was evident, sometimes strong and sometimes less but never leaving. It was a civilized gathering, a very English revolution and there had been some quiet resolution which was not addressed to me.
We disembarked from the yacht to a lawn party at a house by the bridge, had a good time and left, and our taxi ride into the West End around 8 PM was complicated by mobs, broken bottles, blocked streets and burning cars. Apparently the picnic was pissed off. We went to the Ritz two blocks off Piccadilly and debated class warfare, whether violence was required or not and I don't remember my position. Hopefully I argued for restraint.
We said our well-lubricated goodbyes, exchanged cards as couples and never saw each other again. Maria and I held hands and we walked straight through the centers of discontent. They say 5,000 people were injured, Piccadilly blitzed and half London looted. They had closed the pubs yet we walked undisturbed back to my hidden hotel in Covent Garden which if you look it up had burned too and we didn't see a damned thing along the way except people like us and so we slept between our high-thread cotton sheets like sinning babies. To this day they blame it all on Anarchists, as to why Thatcher's government fell. I don't agree.