I remember everything as though it were yesterday, memories etched into my mind; six of us sitting on the fire-escape of the old hospital; the gardens of the Actor’s Church below, spring blooms teetering on the edge of life, reaching for the sun. I loved it up there, away from the hordes, resting between shows. Crab said it was his favourite place in the West End, one of the few where you could have a reefer in peace.
Evy laughed when I told her how doting Aiden had become, bringing me flowers, smoking outside, and whether it was a trick of the light or just the company I was in, I remember wishing I could take that moment and hold it safe it my hands forever.
* * * * *I went to Kennington Park in the morning and by lunchtime there was masses of people everywhere, really crowded. I didn’t think that many people would turn up and more joined in on the way. It was unbelievable, even the sun came out. Of course we took the kids, even made a picnic. A lot of us was pushing prams, hanging on to the older ones, trying to keep everyone together. We all felt, well, passionate about it, you know. It was like they was just taking the piss out of us. We was protesting for our children, just like we’ve always had to.
Yes, I was angry. I just don’t get how you can justify arresting a man in a wheelchair. I mean, for fuck’s sake, what was he going to do exactly? Not only that but they wouldn’t let us move. Whitehall was shut off both ends and, well, I can’t see that the police thought it through to be honest. They couldn’t have done, could they?
* * * * *
I did time for it yeah, and I’d do it again if I had to. It was wrong, totally wrong. The saddest thing is we couldn’t get to that bitch who started it all in the first place.
I remember the kids was crying because they was hungry but we just got swept along with the crowd. We couldn’t go nowhere. If the cops hadn’t blocked the roads and started everyone off panicking, we could have all been sat in Trafalgar Square listening to Tony Benn and having our picnic instead of running for our lives.
* * * * *
* * * * *We were in Covent Garden deciding what to do with our final afternoon in London before going home to Marseilles. It was a beautiful day, but hot. I wanted to sit and watch the performers, do nothing, but my wife kept complaining, saying we had too much to do before our flight the next day. In the end we watched the performers for only a few minutes before taking the metro.
We did not speak to each other again until the evening, when we saw what had happened on the news in the hotel. All those people hurt. Antoinette said how lucky we are that we argue so much.
* * * * *I was discussing a new juggling routine with New Boy when we were disturbed by the sudden appearance of a rather large and nasty looking police helicopter. We were submerged in its shadow, deafened by the whup whup whup of the rotors as it hovered bizarrely above the church garden. I saw the colour drain from Chloe’s face, hands instinctively covering her belly. Crab was looking around frantically for somewhere to stash his tin full of prime home-grown, and I must admit it took us a while to register the fact that the occupants of the chopper didn’t seem in the least bit interested in us, despite the fact that there must have seen the six inch reefer, wind torn but nonetheless, still sticking out of New Boy’s curled mouth.
The thing that got me was that I was having to pay the tax just like they were, and it was a damn sight more than the old rates were. But you can’t elect a government and cry about what it’s doing. They voted her in, well someone must have. I was just doing my job, trying to keep the peace when all hell’s breaking loose, peace that wouldn’t need keeping if those lazy bastards had jobs. It’s bad enough when you do the football matches but I wasn’t prepared for what happened that day. I’d had the training, read all the books on crowd control but when it comes down to it, you’re fighting for your life, just like everyone else.
* * * * *
I think it dawned on me that the chopper wasn’t there for us around the same time that I noticed the smoke coming from Trafalgar Square. The sky was getting blacker and blacker and it got real cold. Aiden didn’t look too fazed at all. ‘New Boy,’ he said, ‘I wonder what excitements London is bestowing upon us today!’ And then he smiled at Chloe, but I thought she looked scared. In the end I grabbed Hannah and we all followed Evy and Crab down the stairwell. Thinking back, I guess we shoulda just stayed where we were, huh.
* * * * *
The lads who tried to clear Whitehall came up into the Square and I can’t say what happened next. No really. I can’t. All I know is that what felt like total chaos was really highly organised. Them, that is. They had the easy bit, running through the streets, chucking missiles, causing damage. There was only 2,000 of us at first, against I don’t know how many of them. Only a few hundred of us had short riot shields, and all our equipment is defensive. We didn’t have a hope in hell of stopping them.
* * * * *
The crowd just sort of sucks you in really. I don’t know what happened. I can’t explain it. One minute I was, like, completely normal, just walking along carrying me banner, all proud and that, and the next I just got caught up in the mood of it like.
* * * * *
Me mam and dad went nuts. ‘Son,’ me dad said, when he came to visit me, ‘You’ve acted like a total twat and now you’re gonna have to suffer the consequences. Even a copper didn’t deserve that.’ I just felt ashamed in the end. It was like something else took over me and I just saw red. I’ve never been involved in anything like that before, or since.
It’s an odd thing to see smoke rising out of the city in such copious amounts. It’s not something I ever expected to see in my lifetime. London. Burning.
* * * * *
They were selective in their looting. This was no public rally, no attempt at using their voice to protest in a safe and civilised manner. I believe that the rioters were always intent on causing destruction. I believe that the rioters had no intention of staging a peaceful protest against the Poll Tax, had no intention of walking quietly to Whitehall, had no intention of delivering a petition free of violence. This was nothing more than an attempt by anarchists and thugs to cause the most damage possible. There is no doubt in my mind that this demonstration was always set to become a riot, which was why my advice was to prohibit any form of public demonstration, rally, gathering or otherwise in Trafalgar Square or anywhere else. 491 arrests were made.
* * * * *
* * * * *We simply wanted to go home. It was a nightmare. We were caught in Trafalgar Square around 4 o’clock trying to get out but the crowds were too dense. It was all I could do to stay on my feet at times. They must have closed all the exits by then because people were beginning to stampede. You could feel the panic go through the crowd like a Mexican Wave. I remember going under the crowd and James letting go of my hand, and when I felt myself being hurled up again, I was confused when I saw a large bald man staring at me. I don’t know what time it was when the fires started but it was really scary. Men were up on the scaffolding at the side of the Square throwing bricks and bits of scaffold and the next minute it was just thick black smoke and the sun went out.
The darkness seemed to subdue everyone for a little while. I thought it would be over then and I could just get on the tube and go home, but then the smoke cleared a bit and it all started again. I thought I was going to suffocate or get smashed on the head with a brick. I was terrified. I was trying to climb up the church railings of St. Martin in the Fields, to see if there was any clear exit route when I promised God that I would never ever go to a public meeting again if only He would get me out of this in one piece.
I woke up in hospital with 23 stitches in the back of my head. James later explained that he had watched a mounted police officer hit me with his cosh in ‘self defence’. Apparently I was mistaken for a rioter. No one ever apologised even though all charges against me were dropped. I can still remember the smell of the blood on the pavement.
No, I don’t believe we were specifically targeted at all, despite your insinuations. A vast number of cafés, bars and restaurants have been attacked, not just McDonalds.
* * * * *
I think, given the situation we were faced with, that our police force was exemplary in the management of the crowds that day. Trafalgar Square has a capacity of 60,000 people, yet we estimate that there were closer to 200,000 there on the day of the riot. No further comment.
* * * * *
When we got down the stairs and onto the Piazza it was mayhem. There was mass panic; people screaming, running all over the place. Some of them had blood dripping down their faces. It was sickening, really. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. There was just this sound getting louder and louder, and none of us could place it. Crab looked at me, and then at Evy, and then I heard New Boy muttering, ‘Guys, I think we should get out of here!’ I don’t remember much after that, except the sound of Aiden’s voice as he grabbed me and dragged me to my feet.
* * * * *
We like London very much. We came to see all of famous historical sights with group from my country, Japan. We like very much to go Covent Garden and watch performing people. We were in front of crowd, and I was filming man on unicycle. I thought when he cycle away that it is part of show. We wait for them to come back but then we hear horse’s hoof on stone.
* * * * *
Yes, we very shock to see police on horse. They charge into Covent Garden and it was very noisy. The horses slip on pavement and lot of people running. We got lot of video. People were screaming. Lots of things in air. We have very good film when fire-extinguisher go through window of shop.
Then we had run also but we did not know where run to. We find ourselves by public lavatory and Akiko help those of us who can climb up gates. Nobu make crying. I keep camera run for long as I can but Seiko hit by brick and we had try stop bleeding.
I thought it was really exciting. I mean, to have news like that break right under your nose is a gift for any reporter, let alone someone trying to make a name for themselves. We missed the main event in the square because we’d had a meeting that afternoon with one of Bicksy’s cronies. Bicksy was my photographer. ‘It’s only going to be a little gathering,’ he’d said, ‘hardly worth us covering it.’ Christ, did I give him hell for that. Anyway, by the time we walked through to Charing Cross it was dusk. The police had managed to get some barriers up and hordes of people were walking around, bathed in the eerie light that was provided by burning Porches and Jags. There was thick black smoke pouring up into the air, the choking stench of petrol. It looked random at first, but you could see that the only cars that survived were the ones that had seen better days already. I thought, this is what being in a civil war must feel like.
* * * * *
In the end the piece I wrote was rejected. Too biased apparently. ‘If you want to write crap like that, write fiction,’ said my editor, but I saw the police drag anyone and everyone into the back of their vans. It was indiscriminate violence. I saw a young policeman take a scaffold pipe across his back, buckling under the force of the blow, but I ran out of sympathy when another’s cosh came towards me. I held up my press pass and cowered waiting for the blow but it never came. I thought I’d react differently but when it came down to it I just couldn’t stop shaking, and when I saw Bicksy was on the floor unconscious I just stood there staring at him. We lost the camera and all the pictures in the end. I just wanted to get out of there but all the tubes were closed and it was safer to stay put than risk being hit by anything else.
Later we heard that a woman had been trampled under the riot horses in Trafalgar Square while other people were mown down by the riot vans that drove into the crowds. How can you be objective? I thought, if we were in China or somewhere we’d all be dead now.
I think it very terrible because everywhere is such a big mess now, but for me, it turn out very well now, because the seguridad will pay for all the fixing, and I had lot of things already that need fixing in the restaurant, so is okay for me.
* * * * *
I heard that loads of people had looted Denmark Street before the police got there. I was gutted. By the time I got there, people were walking round with new saxophones and keyboards, the lot. There wasn’t so much as a plectrum left. Why am I never in the right place at the right time?
* * * * *
* * * * *The crowds and the police were gone as quickly as they arrived, a wave of devastation in their wake. Covent Garden looked like a war zone. Shop windows smashed, broken glass everywhere. I had a lucky escape, Aiden tells me, falling like that, taking such a sharp knock to my head. A punk skiffle band we hadn’t seen before struck up an improvised song about The Battle of Trafalgar and we sat on the low wall of garden on the corner of Russell Street in shock, drinking take-outs from the Market Tavern. I remember sipping orange juice in silence while we watched the last of the casualties drift away down the narrow streets.
I told Aiden I was fine to stop him worrying, but I knew she had gone, because I couldn’t feel her moving anymore.