The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has at last spoken on the issue of the great St Paul’s Cathedral controversy, which has so far seen the departure of both the Dean of the cathedral and its canon. Dr Williams lamented the loss to the church of both men but added that the ‘issues’ raised by the protesters outside the church ‘remain very much on the table’. So not just on the table, but very much on the table. Somewhere near the centre of the table, perhaps, just to the left of the candlestick. Dr Williams did not describe the table at all, but I have taken the liberty of assuming it is a large and robust wooden table, with a leg at each corner.
But what are these important issues, then? I wandered along to ask some of the protesters last week but am not much the wiser now, to tell you the truth. I understand that they are unhappy in a somewhat ectoplasmic, indefinable sense, that they are averse to ‘what’s going on’ and how society is organised. But probe a little deeper about what precisely has upset them so and the argument sort of melts away into the ether, like a homosexual congregant facing an African bishop.
One chap I spoke to believed that the mess we were in was the consequence of us being dominated by giant reptilians from an alien planet. As he expounded his theory a number of other protesters, who had gathered nearby, began to remonstrate that this sort of nonsense would detract from the very serious point they were making, and urged me to ignore him. Another man hastily pointed out that my interlocutor was speaking allegorically, so I asked the man if he was speaking allegorically when he talked about alien lizard creatures and he said, no, he meant alien lizard creatures.
So I moved on and spoke to the man who had been doing the remonstrating. The real fault, he said, lay not with lizard-beings, don’t be so stupid, but with a race of psychopaths and sociopaths who run the economy, the banks, the military industrial complex, the world etc. These people, he said, were descended from Pythagoras, who had stolen the secret of fire from Mount Olympus. I am not terribly clued up on the ancient world but I had thought it was Prometheus who stole the secret of fire. Pythagoras was more about maths and the transmigration of souls, but there we are.
Anyway, at this point I began to wonder who their dealers were and if maybe I could get a phone number. Later I was told that this was the lunatic fringe — the lunatic fringe of a lunatic fringe. But at least these two nutters had some sort of explanation, some analysis of why things were so bad and what one might do about it (kill the lizards/psychopaths, basically). The rest had none at all, and I searched and searched, desperate for a critique or analysis and preferably one which confined itself to the human domain.
One comparatively articulate chap, who described himself as ‘an academic’ (and I just bet he was, probably teaching your youngest politics at some red brick), told me that my questions were wrong, that they were the sort of questions that someone like me would ask, that they were in effect disempowering questions. Hell, that’s a bit rich, I thought — all I had been asking was what’s up, what do you think is wrong, and what should we do about it. But this last question was unfair, apparently; it wasn’t the job of these protesters to say what exactly they wanted, merely to whine incessantly that they didn’t like how things were at the moment. I was told this repeatedly: we don’t know what to do, but we do know we’re unhappy.
In other words it was a kind of mass alfresco sulk, a morass of inchoate largely leftish grievances, a perpetual incoherent gripe about everything, as if they had all at the same time been afflicted with PMT, or maybe adolescence. Prod a little deeper and they weren’t keen that bankers got lots of money and that they, and people like them, got rather less money. They did not agree that we lived in a democracy because if voting changed anything they’d have abolished it, ha ha. They didn’t like Rupert Murdoch, multinational corporations, armies, capitalism, alien lizard creatures, me or David Cameron; they didn’t like the fact that ‘services’ had been cut by the government and they very much wanted someone else to pay for those services to be reinstated.
It struck me that the protest would have been rather more focused 20 or 30 years ago, when Marxism was still seen in some quarters as a viable critique of society. But given the retreat of Marxism, all that was left was the vapid moaning allied to some quasi-spiritual toss about how society shouldn’t judge a person by the amount they earned (I didn’t know ‘society’ did), that there was more to life than mammon. Well yes, I’m aware of that, but I’m not sure why one would need to camp outside a church to protest the fact.
I ought to point out that the overwhelming majority of those I spoke to were implacably middle-class. The man who said he was an academic likened the protest to that of the Chartists, which made me choke with incredulity. I mean, the Chartists knew what they wanted, and they wrote it down. In a bloody charter. That’s how they got their name.
Later the ensemble were treated to some aimless wittering from a supportive Guardian journalist, which was when I made my excuses and left. Issues on the table? What issues, what table?