The sun blazes, so I’ve put on my sunglasses - an achievement as they’re prescription and I constantly forget to wear then. I’m walking through the city centre, through town, wondering what this day may hold - my sketch book is burning a hole in my back pocket. The street is packed, people have come out for the weekend, and the weather. Amongst all the people I hear the beginnings of a chant. A memory stirs of student revolution and I look around for the source. It’s not apparent, but I notice police are standing at the corner of a street, and, with no other real purpose I follow the law.
Before I know it I’m stood opposite the rallying point for a pro-Palestine march. Now I have issues with the nuance of this millennia old conflict, but I’m damn sure the recent conflict has seen way too much death and destruction, and the reasoning behind that looks… well, inadequate to the say the least. I’m no Zionist, but equally I have enough history to acknowledge the horror and the debt due to the Jewish people, so any discussion of who did what and when will get messy. So I’m inclined to say the position that blowing up innocent people is wrong is possibly the best place to start.
And there they are, a group of people grouping together to protest the bloodshed, to support Palestine’s right to exist and to ask the government to do more. Now although there are issues with in this grouping, on the whole I think what they are doing is admirable - and I’m more than aware of Britain’s place in getting this whole thing started, and how quickly we got out when it got tricky. So I start to sketch the assembly. There are a mix of people and ethnicities - white middle class parents with their children, Arabs and Asians devout or otherwise, men, women, and the obligatory SWP presence (which makes me feel strangely nostalgic). They are chanting, waving placards and banners, and there is the stark symbolism of carrying a coffin.
As I sketch each new line and scribble I find something new - the mingling of the police, the nod of a head, who is organising - not just the people with the megaphones. Slowly I see the random groupings moving into position, finding a connection with the people around them. It strikes me I am beginning to notice the people ‘among us’ and am pleased that this may link to a series of work I am producing (before admonishing myself for being such a parasite, and then rapidly coming to terms with that).
Then I hear it. Someone over the road from me shouts: “Whose streets?” A banal question that pisses me off on so many levels. To start with the obvious it is a cry from the EDL, the implication being that our streets need to be defended - not from this group of politically aware, but diverse people - many who are senior citizens, but from the ‘tides’ of immigrants who apparently threaten our streets; I don’t know, maybe they walk around with pick-axes and pneumatic drills, so that when we’re not looking they can undo all the work our civic authorities do with paving and suchlike? A more considered answer to the question surely has to consider the basis of funding the streets, and then the notion of collective ownership. For if we are not to assume a collective societal ownership of the streets, then we need to reflect back onto the ways in which local councils gather revenue for these streets and are forced to conclude that the owners of the streets are tax-payers; but then we must also conclude that this ownership is not equal, nope - the streets are the property of those that have contributed most towards then, and must be allocated in such a manner. Thus when his compadre, (sorry friend - a word of Spanish origin is surely inappropriate here) shouts “Our streets!” I am tempted to ask for copies of his tax returns so that he can validate such a claim. If he can’t, we are back to the notion that the streets are a public thoroughfare, a place to meet and mingle, and for many of us a place to try and survive the night. Which also makes me wonder if it’s his bloody street could he not show some human compassion and help the people who live there!
By now I have finished my first sketch and moved ahead of where the march must go, to be able to draw more of the scenes to come - aware now that there will also be the presence of the EDL today - the dynamic duo having moved on to their own little soiree I’m guessing. The march arrives by the Monument, and again my pen moves through the listeners, the speakers, and the throng of people that make this a public space - an open dialogue. Banners wave in the wind and the Georgian architecture becomes an amphitheatre. I am finishing a sketch, when a note of discord strikes up from around the corner, and I hear the bellow of the EDL.
Nipping through an alleyway I find myself behind this group, and again begin to sketch. Here they are gathered - ranged in front of a police line, somehow enraged at the gall of these people to consider the plight of people in a country thousands of miles away. The cheek of them to consider that we as citizens of the world have a right to be concerned at the deaths of children and innocents. At this point thought I do feel some relief, my sketchy knowledge of this situation is now, it is clear, more detailed than I thought, as the EDL seem to have a problem with the PLO - at least this should be Hamas? As for their obsession with the IRA, well my internal map nerd is now weeping. This is rage, but uninformed and, frankly a bit proud of that.
I return to the main square to see the stewards have rightly chosen to ignore the interruption, that the police are keeping both sides apart, and that the speakers have more of interest for the marchers than the EDL. Once again I let my pen find out more.
The thing is, I get insecurity, I get hopelessness and frustration, and I realise that competition and crowding makes people tetchy - you don’t, can’t, always win. But when we start talking about not enough space, or the wrong type of people I get historical twitches and a massive sense of hypocrisy, living as I do in a country that made its fortune through emigration, through exploration and crucially through appropriation. An island people that sought to go away, to find what was over the horizon and sailed with the force of colonialism. We have much to answer for, and much is in the past, true, but as a country surely we have to make a virtue of this past and ensure that if you want to have British values, at the forefront are diversity, tolerance and acceptance.
(The sketches are in drawing section if you want to see them, I've put them in order - for some reason I couldn't imbed them in the blog - sorry.)