Tuesday, March 31, 2009

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.


Vincent said...

Yes, I think what you demonstrate in this nostalgic vignette is how hard it can be inflaming the British to street violence. The big battles are fought afterwards in the media, accusing one another, disputing the numbers and so on.

The way to turn things ugly is to start attacking the police, of course, and this is what the most determined minorities try to do.

I believe, though, that the Miners' Strike was the really ugly affair. That went on for a year, like a small civil war.

Still Life Living said...

I like the clear-plastic police shields and bobby clubs. And the horses are a nice touch. Makes me think of the knights of old. I guess flourescent green is the new armor. I just wish I had seen them save the damsel in distress. Just goes to show that happy endings only come in Hollywood.

Vincent said...

It was a little like that outside the Royal Bank of Scotland today. I wasn't there of course, TV was enough.

MarcLord said...


yes, I hope it conveyed that sense. It was more apparent to me why they were angry than the post lets on, but the comparison with what I saw and "The Battle of Trafalgar Square" beggars belief. My guess is the police must've done something stupid to rile the crowd up, or a small cadre of anarchists scared the police. Kinda like "The Battle of Seattle," which I was at as a participant.

Probably the biggest mistake of all was closing the pubs. Now that'll tick any bloke off on a Saturday night.

MarcLord said...


I don't know about Hollywood but the entire Brit press went all Fleet Street on it. As stated above the police must have over-reacted, then the mayor or somebody went round the bend by closing all the bars, which of course sent ten times as many angry people out into the streets. Real smart.

MarcLord said...


have yet to see the footage, but heard the editor of the Independent giving a radio interview this morning, she said the whole thing was rather remarkable and apparently no one got hurt.