By PETER HITCHENS (edited)
Every crank, dingbat and fanatic in Southern England has found his or her way to the camp by the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. Whatever your cause, it has a pavilion here, especially if it is a lost cause.
There’s a Buddhist shrine next to an arrow marking the direction of Mecca. Che Guevara, that old mass murderer, has his image on display. There’s propaganda against the ‘persecution of sex workers’. The Socialist Workers Party, those latchers on to every passing procession, have a stall that looks a little too neat and tidy for the occasion. Bolshevik discipline doesn’t really mesh with the world of Twitter and dope.
There really are signs against ‘capitalism’, a word used only by people who still think you can change human nature, which you sort-of can if you have concentration camps and an effective secret police.
And there are other placards enquiring rather aggressively: ‘What would Jesus do?’ People who ask this question always assume that Jesus would agree with them. Well, I suppose it’s possible. But what would He agree with, exactly?
Stand here long enough and you will be pinned to the wall, or to a pillar, by lots and lots of nice but rather silly people.
- There’s the man who thinks we invaded Iraq to punish it for not having a central bank.
- There’s the man who thinks the clue to the greed of the City somehow lies in the Channel Islands.
- And there are dozens of recently fledged experts on the wickedness of the City itself, though it is clear that this is a new concern for them. They are thrilled to have discovered that the City of London Corporation is so fantastically undemocratic. They had no idea that such wickedness still survived, and that they can be against it.
- There’s the slender public schoolboy with the looks of a tragic Thirties poet who, handed a megaphone, emits five minutes of the higher drivel about nothing in particular. ‘We are the people,’ he claims, adding: ‘We have forgotten what and who we are.’ Speak for yourself, sonny!
- And in these less religious times, battiness takes new forms. A dreadlocked man in a Rastafarian hat and glowing red trousers rages about world citizenship to an audience of perhaps 12, including me.
- In the mighty porch of the cathedral, a group of furry people are listening to a man play the guitar. I am reminded of Tom Lehrer’s song: ‘We are the Folk Song Army. Every one of us cares. We all hate poverty, war, and injustice . . . unlike the rest of you squares.’
I’m sure that if I had waited long enough, I would have been taken to one side by enthusiasts for flatulent diets, speakers of Esperanto, or persons who think that The Key To Everything is to be found in the measurements of the Great Pyramid.
My nostalgic side hoped to run into advocates of opening Joanna Southcott’s box, which was supposed to be unsealed at a time of grave national crisis, in the presence of all the bishops (it was eventually found to contain an old lottery ticket and a horse pistol). But such enthusiasts are scarce nowadays.
Later, as darkness and drizzle fall, and a general meeting of stupendous, award-winning tedium gets under way, I am reminded of that forgotten horror of the Sixties, the ‘teach-in’.
The people’s representatives (if that is what they are, as they don’t represent me) take an unbelievable amount of time to approve a bland statement about Egypt. They are, it turns out, in favour of democracy and against repression.
When I ask one – who has lectured me lengthily about the wickedness of the banks – what his qualifications are in economics, he concedes with a self-mocking smile that he doesn’t have any.
Where do they come from? It’s hard to tell, though a lot are obviously students with vague timetables. One says he works with autistic children, a rather noble calling. Wouldn’t he be doing more good if he went back to that? He doesn’t think so. To him, this is more important.
It’s impossible to dislike most of them, though I have to admit I carefully avoided the squad of four gaunt men with hollow heroin-abusers’ faces, dressed in war-surplus fatigues and kicking a football around.
And I tried not to meet the stern gaze of the astonishing bearded preacher, who strides backwards and forwards across the cathedral steps, expounding his own version of the Gospels, for hours and hours and hours.
If haranguing were an Olympic event, he could harangue for Britain. The only trouble is that – because he is always on the move – you would have to follow him backwards and forwards for several miles to follow his argument. As it is, you get a snatch of it and then it fades away, and then it starts again.
The camp is scruffy, ugly and dispiriting. The last time I saw so many of these bubble tents was in Mogadishu in the middle of a horrible famine, when many of them contained dying babies.
Now you can’t tell what or who is in them because they’re mostly zipped up tightly. Not having my own thermal-imaging device, I cannot be sure, but in several hours at the camp I saw little sign of life among the tents. (Photo actually taken with thermal imaging camera showing 90% of tents unoccupied at night.)
There’s a lot of sensitivity over the heat-sensitive pictures which seemed to show that most of them were empty by night. ‘They falsified it,’ a determined young man tells me, in between thrusting pamphlets at me and giving me a forbidding reading list.
Nobody made any great efforts to deny that a lot of cannabis was being smoked. If there really was a war on drugs, I suspect the police could devastate the camp by simply enforcing the Misuse Of Drugs Act 1971. But of course there is no such ‘war’, and the police aren’t interested.
There’s quite a lot of smoking of ordinary cigarettes going on, an interesting reflection on a generation that prides itself on not being fooled by corporate greed and consumerism. So why did they fall for that bit of it?
It was time to go into St Paul’s itself. I had hoped for Evensong, the most beautiful and potent service of the Church of England.
It would have done the campers good to listen to the haunting, 2,000-year-old words of the Magnificat: ‘He hath shewed strength with his arm. He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.’
Someone might then have explained to them that this was a promise of eternal justice, not a programme for government. Alas, it was some other modern service, its bare, plastic language weirdly out of tune with the clouds of medieval incense and the gorgeous feudal robes of the clergy. And the sermon, like so much of the Church of England, was infected with modern Leftwingery and talk about ‘equality’, which sounds nice in theory but always ends up very nasty in practice.
From outside the giant doors, you could just hear the bearded preacher roaring distantly, like the sea.
And I contrasted the great classical majesty of the cathedral, one of man’s most successful attempts to combine reason, science and hope, with the chaotic, self-righteous festival of drivel outside. Yet there’s no doubt which of the two is closer to the mood of the modern world, more’s the pity.