Occupying London (for an evening)

I started my new job last week. Not that I did any actual work, because it was an induction week, which meant three days sat in meeting rooms in East London attending a series of presentations and watching instructional DVDs (the one “teaching” us good manual handling practices featured Diane Youdale, a.k.a. Jet from Gladiators, still looking as good as ever but who could do with a bit of coaching in reading an autocue), and two days up in Manchester having my company’s top brass outlining the dizzying breadth of the tasks my manager and I have to tackle and the “quick wins” they expect us to achieve. (My favourite moment was when someone in all seriousness described these as “low-hanging fruit”.) The evening before my early morning train up North (mitigated by the complimentary breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs I got for travelling first class – it was cheaper when I booked the tickets, honest!) I went to a lecture on the Landscapes of Governance project, given by Andrew Reynolds and Stuart Brookes of the Institute of Archaeology at UCL.

The project website will furnish you with all the key details of this important research endeavour, which has been running for two years with another year still to go. I first learnt about the nuts-and-bolts of the methodology and resultant typology last Spring at a University of Cambridge Continuing Education day school, although 10 months down the line and they are starting to formulate some more synoptic conclusions as to the nature of assemblies in the early medieval period. Although Surrey is not among the counties and regions subject to an in-depth appraisal of its Hundred meeting-places and other evidence for assembly sites, it was noted as an area of very regular hundredal geography, as if it had been established/imposed in a planned manner at a later date than elsewhere (perhaps closer to the time of the Domesday Survey). The role of the Weald as one of a number of “significant geographical determinant factors” in explaining this pattern was also mentioned.

I didn’t have an opportunity to write about Landscapes of Governance before, during or after my little sojourn to Manchester. Fast forward to Friday evening and I happened upon something completely different to write about – the Occupy London camp at Finsbury Square. Fast forward again and here I am, sat on my sofa, proceeding with the belief that I can combine the two into a single, meaningful post. If you’re looking for a piece written by a medievalist about the Occupy camp, who exactly lives in it and why they are there, then I can’t and won’t compete with Alaric Hall’s wonderful account of his time spent at Finsbury Square. What follows, while also based around personal experience, shall deal more with a few opinions I formed about the camp itself and the faint echoes some of these may have with matters medieval.

From what little I know of the immediate surroundings of London in medieval times (gleaned entirely from my trip to the Guildhall Museum) what is now Finsbury Square was then a marshy area – hence Moorgate and Moorfields – that only became a focus of activity when any standing water hereabouts froze over in winter and was used as an extra-mural ice rink. The square was laid out as a new residential enclave in the eighteenth century, became an adjunct to the City in the early 1900s and, as of 22nd October 2011, has played host to one of the London incarnations of the global Occupy anti-capitalist (and specifically anti-banker) protests. This took on added significance – and inhabitants – following the removal of the more prominent camp around the western end of St Paul’s. The combination of the two protests has not been without its problems, with the influx from St Paul’s bringing a different, drink-and-drugs culture to the more thoughtful, responsible encampment Finsbury Square. I’d seen this article in The Guardian outlining the friction, and such tensions – not to mention intoxications – were much in evidence the night I stopped by. It was mainly, no make that entirely, centred around a group of three or four guys who’d knocked back far too much cider (why is it always cider?) and took exception to those performing on stage, and even more unreasonably to those people who told them to shut up and/or leave the tent out of respect for the performers. Cue much cursing of Finsbury Square, and one guy spending the rest of the night shouting “FUCK YOU ALL”, as well as seeming to imply that the protest would be more effective if everyone else, be they St Paul’s or Finsbury Square, left and let him continue his being-a-shouty-drunken-arsehole tirade on his own.

As hard as it is to believe, it wasn’t the cuss-soaked shouting which made me stop by Finsbury Square that evening. Rather, my eyes and ears were drawn to a singer (I’m ashamed to say I’ve forgotten her name) playing on a small stage in a cobbled-together marquee on the edge of the camp. I only intended to stop by for a few minutes (I had a pot of jellied eels to eat for dinner; little was I to know that they are one of the least-palatable foodstuffs I have ever tried) but it transpired she was playing as a part of a music and poetry benefit for Occupy (times are tough since the much more prominent St Paul’s camp was wound up). The poets were engaging and enthusiastic, although the verse was a little on the predictable side (you could try it for yourself by picking ten words from the anti-capitalist lexicon and weaving them together in rhyming couplets). Among the musicians, I was most excited to see Attila the Stockbroker, if only because of his stage-name. True to form he delivered a masterclass in politicised punk-poetry, yet ended up being schooled by a young pretender, Dizraeli, “the half-daft missionary who forced folk to marry hiphop” who had cut across town from the South Bank especially to perform at the benefit. However, for me both were eclipsed by the lovely Rachel Rose Reed, who touched on (among other things) the Poll Tax Revolt of 1381 and the Kentish rebellion led by London Stone-thwacking Jack Cade in 1450 in a song ostensibly about a train journey from Cannon Street to Blackheath. (I would like to add that she’s worth catching for many more reasons than her incorporation of medieval history into her oeuvre.)

So what general conclusions can I offer about Occupy Finsbury Square? Firstly, the presence of such a large number of tents and temporary structures like the one housing the evening’s performers and their audience doesn’t feel so out of place in the heart of London as you might imagine it would do. I was never a fan of the presence of the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp around the west end of St Paul’s; it smacked of the Church being picketed and picked upon having been caught flatfooted (or just plain impotent) while the real target a short distance away on Paternoster Square sat back and congratulated itself on mobilising its security with sufficient alacrity as to prevent the protestors from achieving their original goal. Camping at Finsbury Square, on the other hand, makes more sense. There was something quite special about looking out over a low roofscape of tents, the sort of thing that you normally associate with filler montages from summer music festival coverage, and seeing in the background not the sky or trees but Eric Parry Architects’ 30 Finsbury Square, perhaps London’s most convincing recent essay in marrying architectural articulation and visual stimulus with the constraints of corporate identity and planning policy (shamefully, almost all of the lights on each floor were still on long after 9pm).

I understand there have been complaints from some quarters about the perceived loss of public space to the Occupy camp, and on the face of it this seems understandable; it cannot be denied that public open space is a precious commodity in any city centre. But part of the reason I stayed so long that Friday was that I had taken a shortcut through the camp on my walk home a few days previously and received smiles and greetings from some of the campers – hardly a disincentive to accessing the square, even if throwing a frisbee is out of the question for now (the boardwalk of wooden pallets traversing the muddier areas of the camp is similarly a boon for those not wearing appropriate footwear). I wonder if the same people complain about the long-term loss of access to two-thirds of nearby Finsbury Circus, currently taken up by one of the massive boreholes for the Crossrail tunnels. Finsbury Square is a curious patchwork of uses, with portions of it taken up (occupied, if you like) by a bowling green, a bistro restaurant, and the entrance to an NCP underground car park – all of which as far as I could tell remain in operation. It’s a far cry from the likes of Russell Square which I had walked through on the way to the talk at UCL, and while I am not in any way versed in Lefebrvian discourse on the meaning and significance of space, it was interesting that only the previous weekend I was speaking someone who passed comment on the undemanding, even uncaring use the British make of “average” urban public spaces when compared to our continental European counterparts.

Do I think the Occupiers should be given leave to remain there indefinitely, like the CND protestors at the gates of Greenham Common we used to drive past on the way to seeing relatives on my mum’s side of the family in Oxfordshire? What semi-permanent structures and infrastructures might evolve over time if given the chance? It’s already billed as being an “eco-village”, and I would love to think this idea might be allowed to take root, but with the Golden Jubilee and the Olympics on the horizon I fear the Occupy camp will be swept away in the name of international visual amenity. However, from a medieval point of view at least, its suppression may not be such an unpalatable fate. The Finsbury Square occupation was initiated as a “general assembly”; indeed, according to the Occupy Finsbury Square website, a meeting of this name is held in the camp twice daily. The phrase which is eminently connectable to the subject matter of the Landscapes of Governance project and hence the Monday night talk. Important assemblies of the early medieval period, both secular and religious, were convened to formulate and/or enact things of great importance, but it is clear that they often took place at sites which were not permanently occupied – oh look, it’s that word again – and so required the erection of temporary structures like tents to accommodate those who were in attendance. This point has been made by a number of scholars in recent years, such as by Ryan Lavelle in his reconsideration of the witan meeting at Grateley in Hampshire and on page 279 of John Blair’s The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society. Once the business in hand had been completed, the site was packed up and people went their separate ways. Maybe it shouldn’t be about the number of days the camp remains in the square, rather the quality, applicability and durability of the ideas the Occupiers generate while it is there. However long it lasts, I wish Occupy Finsbury Square the very best, and highly recommend you too make some time to drop by and see what it’s all about.

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About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Anglo-Saxon, London, News, Occupy, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Occupying London (for an evening)

  1. alarichall says:

    Wow, what an interesting post. Thanks for the link. I haven’t been down to Finsbury Square since Christmas and really must get back.

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