This is the trade union contingent on the COP26 demonstration in London yesterday, bearing down on the Bank of England from the North along the otherwise deserted canyons of the City of London. Behind the magnificent purple banner was a corps of massed drummers whose deafening hammering had us all bouncing. A smaller brass section behind them struggled bravely to compete. This was only my second time in Central London in the last two years. The rush of colour, noise and the exuberance of meeting old friends in person – having got used to seeing them on zoom – was almost a sensory overload; even without the bands. On the way down on the Metropolitan line a woman speaking loudly was making me flinch; so two years of being reclusive and living in a narrow range bounded by Tesco in the West, Sainsburys in the East, Morrisons in the North and never venturing South and getting used to a limited range of sounds – the steady menacing rumble of a neighbour’s Harley Davidson being counted out in the morning and in in the evening – the squeals of night time foxes and chatter of our local big wing of jackdaws – has made me a bit too attuned to quiet for the “return to normality” that we’re not going to get.
Outside the Bank, a crush of marchers in different sections – from Gay to Faith – streaming past from one side of the road to the other. Mostly young. Lively and friendly. Immediately behind and above the marchers is the solid Georgian architecture of the Bank, from the early days of capitalism when they thought they had to emulate classical styles to give themselves standing. Above that, the soaring glass towers of neo liberalism, expressive of the way wealth and power is being pumped up, up and away from those of us on the streets, higher and higher, faster and faster, to the 1% and the 1% of the 1%. Immediately in front of a banner reading “In God’s Name DO something” a small boy earnestly reads the Beano.
Marching through the middle of the City past many of its labyrinthine hidden gardens and snaking alleys, I keep expecting to see a sign for Scrooge and Marley. On past St Pauls and up the slope of Fleet Street – the silent ghosts of Newspapers Past haunting the old buildings; the black 1930’s art deco modernism of the old Daily Express HQ seemingly in mourning for itself. The DC Thomson London outpost is still functioning – and proudly proclaims Sunday Post, People’s Friend, People’s Journal and Dundee Courier in its brickwork; three of which are still being published. But the old bustle, the pubs and chapels thronging with half cut journalists and compositors are long silent.
On the pavement by the Law Courts, walking in the opposite direction in more ways than one, an impossibly elderly gentleman who must be at least 90 years old, wearing a three piece suit in a cloth of grey so soft and clean that it looks as though he has been montaged inside it, strolls past with slender elegance and a slightly disparaging, possibly alarmed, look; his poise barely disguising his fragility.
Outside the Ritz, a queue of smartly dressed middle aged men and women stand waiting to be let in for afternoon tea. Immediately behind them, a homeless guy lays on a sleeping bag in the pose of Michelangelo’s Adam on the Sistine chapel; staring out at them and us with studied balefulness, and munching on a Snickers bar.
Standing on the other side of the road from this contingent, I can’t hear what they are chanting properly. It sounds like NO TOILETS! NO PIZZAS! then something inaudible in rhythm. Crossing the road to hear properly it turns out to be “No nations! No Borders!” and a call for reparations to the developing world for the damage the CO2 that the rich in the rich world have put into the air we share has done. Why my brain took those sounds and turned them into the words I thought I heard may indicate an unhealthy preoccupation with personal bladder comfort and feeling hungry.
The balloon has gone up! This is the National Education Union inflatable that acts as a rallying point for NEU contingents. Behind the drummers, still thundering along Aldwych, NEU banners from Islington, Brent, Ealing, East London, Redbridge and Lambeth jumbled along with banners from the UCU, Unite, RMT, PCS, BECTU and many more.
As we swarm into Trafalgar Square, filling it all the way up the steps and across to the National Gallery, a middle aged naval officer in full dress uniform, a row of medals you could play marimba on swinging on his chest, a cap full of scrambled egg and a proper Senior Service beard marches briskly up the far side, wife in tow looking nervously at him sideways as he stares straight ahead, away from The Admiralty pub, which was full of full dress other ranks, one or two of whom chat earnestly to some demonstrators, expressed that view that “we’ll be all right if we get enough nuclear power”; which I suppose would serve to keep their missiles in warheads.