Feb 5, 2008

The Arcades Project #2: Westminster

[The Second part of a new project to map various parts of London, if you have any recommendations of places I should make a visit to please do let me know]

Victoria Tower Gardens is a peculiarly unprepossessing kind of a place, especially for Westminster. An anaemic slither of green between the river and the road, a thin wedge of almost-park tapering off into nothing. Unlike most of London’s other parks it isn’t big enough to revel in its own marvellous green expansiveness, instead the whole of this apologetic triangle of land seems in thrall to the great wall of Westminster palace that rises like a threat behind it. Gazing up at its smug gothic grandeur you’re liable to miss the crowded plinth that squats by its base until its right on top of you.

Rodin’s flurry of haunting dark-grey figures, The Burghers of Calais, seem every bit as clumsily placed as the park itself. What are they doing here, these abject French nobleman, cluttering up a park so close to centre of English power?

Edward III laid siege to Calais and let it devour itself from the inside out – starvation, disease. Fear. Finally the city came crawling. Edward offered to save the city if six of its leaders would present themselves to him. Inside the desolate walls six wealthy leaders came forward, stripping themselves down to their underclothes, thick Hessian nooses hung on their necks in preparation for what they assumed must happen to them now. Out of the city they traipsed towards the waiting armies, somewhere between the outfoxed, ridiculous rich men of early Chaplin films and the ashen-faced wraiths in the dock at Nuremberg.

Rodin didn’t want his figures placed on a plinth. In truth they’re imposing enough anyway, their enormous hands and their theatrical expressions of anguish and defiance dragging them away from portraiture and into myth. To stick them on a plinth anyway seems a strange thing to do. They stand there almost meekly, cast into shadow by the Palace, such a bombastic symbol of power. It’s as if the Westminster holds them up delicately in the palm of its thick gothic hand, this little band of figures a tiny example of the powerlessness of defeat, the spoils of victory. Jean d’Aire’s look of rigid defiance hardly seems to matter in the face of such smug indifference.

The same could be said of Brian Haw. His little caravan of affordable dome tents and charred baby posters seems at first almost pathetically hopeless, Haw himself sat there in the middle of it all, his jaw set firm in exactly the same way as Jean D’Aire’s. This Technicolor monstrosity and its earnest slogans seem to be treated with the same embarrassed smirks as Greenpeace protesters in dinghies trapping themselves between whaling ships, and earnest middle-aged socialists marching through the streets of London. As an anachronism. As politically naive. As a joke. As a waste of time. I have stood nonchalantly outside a theatre in Edinburgh laughing with the crowd as protesters in matching T-shirts march against the G8 through the streets of the city.

When did caring about things go out of fashion? When did not giving a shit about anything become a position of strength?

Its now of course illegal to protest outside our own parliament, unless you have a licence – effectively transforming protest into theatre, as comedian Mark Thomas has shown with a series of theatrical satires more potent than anything dreamt up at the big theatre just across the river. We have been banned from protesting in front of our own parliament – only Brian Haw left, a designated mourner for a disappearing movement.

The politicians would have us believe we are have turned from besiegers to the besieged. That there is an invisible army ever encroaching on London, on the country. An entity so terrifying our laws are not capable of coping. We need identity cards, and terror warning systems, and more time to question suspects (90 days or 42 days or whatever the government can bargain themselves into… their protestations for the importance of one figure forgotten in their acceptance of the next). We need stricter stop and search powers and less need for explanation of why someone is stopped (to cut down on the paperwork). We are facing the threat of a legion of freedom-haters (except for those in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan who are invited to walk with Princes and dine at number 10). Yet who will be accountable for all this? Who will walk out of the gates of Westminster Palace with the noose around the thick noose hung around the neck? Not Tony Blair as he waltzes off to become a peace envoy to the region he declared war on.

Blueprint for a Show

I want this to be something incredibly simple. Something that could be done without a licence in Parliament Square. Something that slips fuzzily into the grey area between the government’s Anti-terror legislation and its obsession with its own public image – after all, half the reason for introducing the protest zone in the first place was an attempt to evict Brian Haw for largely aesthetic reasons.

I also want something that slips between the public and the protester, something that implicates the apathetic public. The protest equivalent of the opt-out organ donor system - something that turns an everyday act into an act of protest. What is the one thing (other than Brian Haw) that you can guarantee to see in Parliament Square? People taking photos.

The idea is very simple, possibly too simple - possibly still too much protest and not enough theatre. Maybe on this occasion that’s a good thing. For one day, on the hour, every hour from one in the morning, people will be invited to come to Parliament Square and as Big Ben strikes they will take a photo of the Houses of Parliament. Then they will disappear. They can come only once or they can continue to return throughout the day. What they absolutely must do is convince as many people to come with them. As many as possible. This would only ever work in large numbers.

Hopefully as the day progressed people around Parliament Square would begin to acknowledge that something strange was happening. Police would have little ability to arrest or question such a nebulous and fluctuating mass and besides, anyone can claim simply to be a tourist. It would also hopefully with enough people begin to have the same effect as those scavenging groups of Paparazzi do outside expensive London restaurants. Luring in the inquisitive and the nosy, tantalised by the fact that something is happening here and they don’t know what it is. Their attention is drawn to the object of everyone’s fascination– the houses of Parliament, implicating them in this invisible protest. More people are drawn through curiosity, each hour the crowd returning stronger, word of mouth spreading. And what stares back at them every time. Nothing.

Parliament in its own haughty indifference is a more than adequate political statement.

1 comment:

FrenchBen said...

Interesting blog, even though the posts are a bit too long to be easily read during the working hours. :-)

I recommend you visit the Smithfield market area, right behind Barbican Tube. There's some really old stuff and private courtyards, Smithfield itself, paved streets etc. I think it's cool.