Saturday, 12 November 2011

Crisis? What Crisis? City, St Paul's, Students, Tony Benn and Tea

Salvador Dali, the artist, might've liked how London turned surreal again last Wednesday (9 November).
At the Guildhall in the morning I listened to property developers, planners and architects ponder the City of London's office development pipeline.* 
  After a lunch attended by the outgoing Lord Mayor of London, I sauntered to St Paul's Cathedral to see if thousands of students marching against rising tuition fees and public spending cuts would link with Occupy London protesters camped outside the great church in protest (above photo).
  Police re-routed the marching students away from St Paul's. However, I did bump into one of Britain's great tea drinkers at the foot of the cathedral steps. Tony Benn, seemingly on his own, was sporting an anorak and bearing a rucksack on his back. 
   Tony Benn (below) entered the House of Commons in 1950 and left 51 years later. During that time he had held four cabinet posts and twice contested the leadership of the Labour Party.
  In his political heyday, Tony was reviled by the right and revered by the left as the darling of the Labour Party's left-wing. Supporters often say 'Tony Benn was the best Prime Minister Britain never had'.
   I watched Tony do a TV interview. He then listened intently to two young men giving him the benefit of their views.  Typically, he responded with "don't give up" and "don't let them get you down".
   I greeted Tony at the foot of the St Paul's steps and we shook hands. I reminded Tony of his calculation that he reckoned to have supped over 155,000 cups of tea in his lifetime. "I still drink a lot of tea," he replied, still smiling at a sprightly 86.
  We chatted briefly about the protest, wealth distribution and wireless communications. As we parted, others recognised Tony and approached him. 

I veered down Ludgate Hill away from St Paul's. Squads of clunking riot police thudded down Fleet Street to block traffic at Ludgate Circus. 
   Other clumps of coppers thumped up Farringdon Road to head off students on Holborn Viaduct. No less than four helicopters hovered over the wedding cake spire of St Bride's and incessantly hammered the air. In this moment, London's political economy began to look a little more like crisis-torn Athens. 

I looked back toward St Paul's but could no longer see Tony Benn who often told denigrators over many years: "If you don't want to talk about socialism, let's at least talk about capitalism."
  Few listened. Now, in 2011, three years after the banking collapse and in the middle of the sovereign debt crisis, everyone is talking about capitalism. 
  The students' clamour distracted my thoughts yet again. A gaggle of young girls in the middle of the march poetically chanted at riot officers. "Hello cop - You're so cute -Take off your riot suit!"
  A genteel banner proclaimed: "Down with this sort of thing". 
I looked at my watch. 
Four-fifteen in the afternoon in London in the middle of the world economic crisis. 
 Why am I so thirsty? 
Tea-time, of course.

* Guildhall City of London event hosted by New London Architecture.

Paul Coleman, London, November 2011

Photos: Copyright Paul Coleman, 2011. No re-use without permission.

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