Monday, 15 May 2017

Of Boats And Brothers And Metropolitan Recognition

A few weeks ago, on 8th April, I attended a demo in London, "Boats Are Homes", organised by the National Bargee Travellers Association. Of all boating groups this one attracts more controversy than many and I have to admit that after my encounter with a number of the members I cannot fully decide which side of the argument I follow. On the one hand, they have some amazingly helpful, well-informed and committed members, who certainly seem to know their stuff. A couple of the members of their executive have been really supportive of our own campaign in the Middle Level. Without their input I would not have had a clue where to start putting my own arguments together in our attempts to modify what in Parliament were called "Draconian" measures by one MP during the second reading. The main argument one hears against the NBTA is that the campaign they are waging against some of the activities of the Canal and River Trust (CRT) supports wasters and scroungers who don't wish to pay for a recognised mooring. That kind of derogatory and inflammatory language is rarely helpful and it does appear that CRT are often exceeding their remit according to the law as set down in the 1995 Waterways Act. As with many causes these days, though, I cannot work out where the reality lies. 

It was from the organiser of the Boats Are Homes demo that I received an invitation to come and speak to describe our own campaign on the Middle Level. I have no idea of the ratio between those who choose to speak for a cause and those who have spokesperson status thrust upon them but I am definitely in the latter category. I have already described how I have been playing catchup with the campaign and the history associated with it. To have to speak in front of an unspecified number of people at a demonstration in London is not something I ever expected to be doing and the prospect filled me with trepidation. I spent most of my spare moments in the week leading up to the demo researching, reading and making notes. I filled about thirty pages of an A4 notebook with bits of information, charts, diagrams, lists, dates, asterisks and arrows and it wasn't until the day before the demo that I thought I had better start putting the speech together. Around midnight I finally thought I had finished. I read my speech through and found I had exceeded my allotted time by fifteen minutes. There followed a festival of striking out of lines and paragraphs. At three in the morning I had to call it a day. I fell into bed and resolved that I would have to continue the next day - three hours later.

The train to London was packed and I perched on a luggage rack juggling and balancing books and papers and continued a vicious editing of my text. Finally there seemed little left to edit, so I could do no more. I arrived at the meeting point in Villiers Street and met the group assembling in the park. I found a couple of people I already knew, but they were busy setting up for the event. When things kicked off some speakers read from their notes, others improvised. Some on the programme didn't actually show up. I had specific points I thought it important to make, but I hadn't managed to make a bullet point version of my notes. My performer instincts kicked in though and I felt the audience would be less interested in a read speech than one delivered to them. I kept my notebook closed and hoped my preparation would prove thorough enough to meet the demands of the occasion.

I got through it although I have no idea whether what I thought I said and what the crowd heard were the same things. I remember looking at my notes afterwards and realising there were points I had wanted to make which I had forgotten to raise. I also realised I had laboured other points - an image of overcooked Brussels sprouts comes to mind.

Following the speeches there was the march ... to Downing Street and Beyond ...! Petition with 35,000 signatures delivered, more speeches, more marching. It was the weirdest march I had ever participated in. The obligatory samba band had been replaced by an ensemble of djembe players playing a simple mono-rhythm on instruments that were in clear need of tuning. Some of the chanting was of better quality than I had heard on other occasions, indeed some of the chants were better too. I particularly liked,

"One, two, three, four. Where are we supposed to moor? Five, six, seven, eight, we just want to navigate."

What really made this march unusual was a distinct lack of police interest. We paraded unaccompanied along some of London's busiest and most sensitive roads - just days after the attack along Westminster Bridge and the murder of PC Keith Palmer - past the front of the Palace of Westminster to Smith Square where we delivered our second petition; this time to DEFRA requesting that they take more interest in how the the £39m they give to CRT is used. At that point the demeanour of some members of the entourage became a little more extemporised and the organised bits of the day had clearly come to a stop. I suppose I am like everyone else and I approve of individualism until someone else's behaviour starts to make me uncomfortable. We had no more business to conduct so that's when I left.

It seemed churlish to travel all the way to London and not honour Old Father Thames, so I went to sit on a bench in Victoria Tower Gardens to enjoy the view, quaff some water and nibble some nuts. As I walked back past the gates of Westminster I felt moved to offer condolences to one of the policemen on duty on the loss of his colleague. A couple of other officers overheard and thanked me. I have experienced many occasions when trust in the police has been seriously undermined, but no one should have to experience what I imagine they were going through.

What I wasn't expecting was a call, four days later and at just seven hours' notice, to return to London for another demonstration. This time it was a different cause and a different location. Sadly it was a location with which I have become familiar during the past few years. The small space outside the Russian Embassy in Kensington has seen demonstrations in recent years over the treatment of LGBT communities in Russia and other places within its sphere of influence. While President Putin has made a point of telling us that Russia has a long and proud history of tolerance and protection of sexual minorities we have also seen, under his watch, the creeping influence of religiously inspired homophobia.

That this condemnation comes from men who lead the orthodox churches and adorn themselves and their best party frocks with jewels and all manner of sparkly things amuses me. What is not amusing is the effect their preaching has on the lives of their innocent targets. Pronouncing their abhorrence of men who find love and companionship with other men seems also at odds with their belief in a supernatural being who commanded his followers to love one another. Many Pride marches have been banned in Russia and their version of our old and deservedly discarded "Section 28" (Section 28 of The Local Government Act 1988) bearing the grand title, "for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values" has led to the rise of anti-gay sentiment. A further consequence seems to have been to provide justification for the activities of unpleasant groups like "Occupy Paedophlia" who openly and mistakenly equate homosexuality with child abuse and who operate by luring gay men on to false dates where they are attacked, abducted and subjected to hours of  humiliation and torture before being released. Film of their victims' experiences is then posted to the web. Allegedly at least one person has been killed during this treatment. It is only a matter of time before more die if this continues. However the demo called on 12th April was for activity which has gone much further along this path of oppression.

The Republic of Chechnya, part of the Russian Federation, is a muslim majority region and the leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has both denied there are gay men in his country while rounding them up to place them in recently opened concentration camps where they are being tortured, interrogated and killed. Families are apparently being told to come and collect their offspring and "deal with them" or the authorities will do it for them. Families have been conditioned to see it as their duty to protect "family honour". Unfortunately simply having a gay man in the family apparently brings dishonour in the eyes of a significant proportion of Chechen society. Clearly, sexual minorities in the Russian Federation are under attack from religiously motivated sources of multiple origins.

I knew nothing about it beforehand but, on the day of the demo, at eleven in the morning I saw a notice that there was to be a vigil, demonstration and speeches along with the laying of a wreath of pink flowers in seven hours' time outside the embassy of the Russian Federation. Fortunately I had nothing else on that day, so the only arrangements I needed to make involved getting to the station for another trip to London. The organiser also mentioned that he needed volunteers to steward, so I volunteered, never before having done anything like it. I arrived at 5pm as requested for a stewards' briefing, which mainly involved being told to help keep part of the pavement open, so members of the public could get through. I was given a regulation yellow excruciatingly visible jacket to denote my new dogsbody status and chatted to the five or six other people who turned up. Then the reporters appeared. I was asked for my reasons for being there by someone from Pink News. This surprised me. I never realised that Pink News actually had reporters. Every article I have read seems to have been cut and pasted from somewhere else. I was, therefore very pleased to see with my own eyes some evidence of independent news gathering. There was also a reporter from BBC Radio One Newsbeat, who was on a mission and a strict time limit. There were only about four of us present when she first arrived. She had forty-five minutes to collect audio recordings and edit them into a report before transmission that evening. That indeed was pressure. She seemed keen, but relatively unflustered by a demand which I am certain would have turned me into a nervous wreck. Among the four of us gathered were three boaters, so we had plenty to discuss amongst ourselves. The others were all at least thirty-five years younger than me. Guess who was not interviewed by the Newsbeat reporter. When I pointed out that if she was looking for audio copy she might want to consider widening her demographic she started as though she had just noticed the old geezer in the crowd of the young, the edgy and the beautiful and asked me a couple of perfunctory questions. I don't think she had actually pressed her record button, but I no longer felt ignored.

From modest beginnings, the crowd grew. Last time I was demonstrating in this spot I was part of a crowd of about fifty people. This time the people kept on arriving and I am pretty certain there must have been at least a thousand people at the demo. I found it an overwhelmingly emotional experience to be part of a community that could organise and muster this amount of support on a Wednesday in less than twenty-four hours. I truly experienced gay pride and solidarity on this evening. After speeches, our final act was to file across the road to the gates of the Embassy and lay the pink flowers that many of us had brought with us on a pink blanket folded into a triangle that was deeply symbolic of another time in history when gay men were rounded up, herded into concentration camps, tortured and killed.

I mentioned that I had never performed stewarding functions before. I was a little nervous about this part of the occasion. I spoke to the handful of the police officers who had also turned up. I suspect that, contrary to the previous Saturday, it was politically expedient for a visible police presence. I asked how stewarding functions might be most usefully carried out. They mentioned helping to keep a pathway along the pavement and trying to keep people off the road. During the event itself, the police were happy to be a quiet presence and by the end they were saying that this was a good event and there had been no trouble, especially considering the unexpectedly large turnout. I would like to thank the people who were on the receiving end of my reminders not to block the passage of others. Contrary to my fears, everyone was courteous and helpful. It can be done.

As the evening was drawing to a close and demonstrators were dispersing I was returning my yellow jacket when I fell into conversation with a young policeman who had apparently grown up in Norfolk, but who now obviously worked in London. We compared notes about places we knew and our experiences of the demo. Then he turned to me and said, "I have to ask you this, but three of us have noticed you and we all know you from somewhere. Where do we know you from?" I pointed out other occasions when I have been accosted by people who were convinced they have seen me somewhere that I don't recall ever having been. "I must have one of those faces, " I answered. Being recognised as a familiar face by three members of the Met was the only worrying part of the evening. I can see I shall have to be on my best behaviour when out in public. I've been noticed ... I wish I knew where from. Maybe they are all secret ceilidh dancers or fans of dissident songwriters.

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