Worshippers of Mammon swing by here in their commute between the Tube and the trading screens of banks a minute away, while other pilgrims make for The Maker, symbolised in the soaring dome of Wren’s magnificent cathedral, where salvation doesn’t come cheap either – a blasphemous £14.50 entry to enter this House of God, if you don’t mind.
And for a few weeks in October and November, this thriving Starbucks got busier still, as the Occupy London movement descended on St Paul’s for the anti-capitalism protest, which outlasted the fraternal protest in New York’s Zuccotti Park, cleared in mid-November.
No matter that Starbucks symbolises what the Occupiers rail against – third-world exploitation and the “corporatocracy” – it also had things going for it: clean toilets, free WiFi and sockets to recharge laptops and mobiles.
But no longer. A showerless four months on, there’s nary a protester seen here. As electricity bills soared and the WiFi – and the bathroom – overloaded, management took an executive decision that crusties, as London’s Mayor Boris Johnson describes them, are not welcome. So a gross of portaloos was donated for the 350-strong camp. They are self-regulated, rather as the Occupiers say the corrupt City is. But in the battle to tame capitalism, there are casualties.
So, as they wait to be inevitably evicted by a patient state, no more espresso and clean loos for the land-rights-for-gay-whales crowd, and friends. Today, Starbucks is back to doing what it does best, purveying overpriced lattés to the bland clad in Dockers chinos and Zara knock-offs.
For a posse of Chinese tourists, Occupy London is an experience of something they don’t have back home – democracy and freedom of expression. Not that they seem exercised by such matters; they’re grumpy that their view of a storied church they’ve crossed the world to see is blocked by the camp’s 100-odd tents. I ask the Filipina barista serving them what she makes of the shivering anarchists and activists, many saying they do for the likes of her, the cheap third world labour Big Business likes. She shrugs and smiles mutely. I think it’s the first time she’s had cause to much notice them.
The British media, too, have mostly stopped noticing Occupy, and that’s proving fatal. St Paul’s’ protestors are now just another London fixture, and that’s no longer as interesting to the pooterish Daily Mail, which preferred to demonise them as dope-smoking hippy radicals, when they weren’t demonising them as homeless fringe-dwellers. Save perhaps the left-leaning Guardian, the media – as Occupy London sees it – is part of the establishment cancer. Like the Church (“The Synagogue of Satan”), any government, the shadowy Bilderberg Group, the monarchy, the City and Big Business, the media is not to be trusted. So the Occupiers have tried to bypass it, going direct online to fellow travellers with perhaps the most impressive, logistically speaking, aspect of the camp: its technology tent.
This is a three-metre-by-two-metre bivouac at the camp’s edges, a cigarette-stained riot of blankets, car battery-powered generators and encrypted WiFi, its satellite-derived provenance a state secret. Thanks to the body heat of the dozen or so people crammed in here live-streaming the “global revolution,” it’s also the warmest place in a camp where open fires are banned for safety’s sake as temperatures plunge to zero.
The movement’s donated laptops (the camp gets about £1,000 a week in hand-outs from sympathisers) are manned by people including Matt Horne, an ex-soldier who served in Iraq, who now helps convene Veterans for Peace. Problem is, his passionate advocacy on YouTube has attracted few hits.
Horne says he is prepared to spend the rest of his life fighting this cause, and perhaps even from this tent. “We are not going anywhere,” he insists. “We will fight any eviction attempt to the European courts and beyond.” Though the movement has lost a court-instructed eviction notice, which it’s now appealing, London’s July Olympics loom as a medium-term publicity target. I ask him what would constitute a job well done, enabling him to go home. He says “a fairer, more just world, one that’s not based on profits before people.” Matt will be livestreaming here a long time.
Outside, in the impromptu Occupy kitchen, the chai may not not be trendy, soyed or cardamommed, it may even be called tea, but it’s got one thing over the Starbucks version: It is free, just like the soup, stew and bread also being ladled
out. Which is also why Occupy London has become occupied by London’s homeless. I ask one of the rough-sleepers why he’s here. “I’m against them,” he says. Who precisely, I ask. “You know, all those fuckers workin’ in the banks,” he says without much conviction. Was he one of them, I venture, who lost his job in 2008? “No, mate, I’m from Bournemouth, I’ve come here to get some free grub with my friends.”
The presence of the homeless has caused issues for the movement. At one level, they’ve been embraced as victims of capitalism, cast out by a pitiless system, society’s embarrassing detritus for whom no-one takes responsibility. Says “Arthur” – named for he of Excalibur fame -volunteering at the movement’s information tent: “They are welcome here. They are homeless for a reason, you know.” But there is concern and frustration that the homeless burden Occupy’s core message, so they’ve been gently coaxed away from where the core philosophies are batted around, in “general assemblies” and at the “Tent City University,” where lecturers of genuine calibre have inspired protesters.
Still, Arthur warns that the City bucks who swagger through the square on Fridays after a skinful and like to give the crusties some lip and biff “should remember that they are only a lost job away the same plight when the system spits them out.” That doesn’t seem to exercise the corpulent Jack-the-Lad owner of an Audi A5, which had the misfortune to break down on his way to dinner. As he waits for the AA, he chortles, “Really, someone should just clear them away. They are a fuckin’ embarrassment.”
Barnaby Raine doesn’t agree. At 16, he’s dressed in the uniform of Westminster School. Set in the grounds of Westminster Abbey, the school is one of Britain’s most prestigious secondary colleges, a passage for the country’s established elite to Oxbridge and beyond to power and prominence. With its emphasis on academic rigour, its high-achieving alumni is lustrous: seven Prime Ministers and myriad statesmen, writers, intellectuals and philosophers. The founder of the Bank of England was an Old Westminster, as is Nick Clegg, Britain’s deputy prime minister, as was, fittingly, Sir Christopher Wren, designer of the temple soaring above us. It’s a serious school for those presumed if not entitled to be going places.
As Barnaby and Arthur nod in furious agreement about what’s ailing the planet, “Sir,” Barnaby’s well-dressed economics teacher, is waiting a metre away and drinking it all in. “I feel as a teacher, that it’s important for me to open them to different perspectives on capitalism and social responsibility,” he says. “I don’t find a lot of resistance to these kinds of ideas in the classroom at all.”
Not that Barnaby needs much encouragement. Marked by some as a future prime minister and already profiled by The Independent, he is a cause célèbre in left circles after his impassioned address to the Coalition of Resistance national conference 18 months ago.
Barnaby tells me that “in the wider country, there is a lot of sympathy for the idea that in 2008 we had a huge systemic financial crisis and nothing much has really changed. Still today, bankers are picking up multi-million pound bonuses in banks that are owned by the taxpayer.” Indeed, a week later, Stephen Hester, chief executive officer of the Royal Bank of Scotland that was bailed out by the British taxpayer in 2008, was awarded a £1.4 million bonus, only to waive it as the nation’s bile boiled into disgust. This should’ve been a win for Occupy London, but the protest got little credit for percolating the national revulsion over the million-pound-plus City payments. Those flames were fanned by politicians occupying the debate.
A few tents away, ”Aaron” of the hacktivist group Anonymous, cheerfully hands around chipolatas fried on a gas cooker by a man in a Guy Fawkes mask. Aaron’s named himself after the Old Testament priest famed for his eloquence. As he dissects mankind’s ills, arguing for root-and-branch corporate reform and deeper regulation of banks, a dozen passersby have gathered. But it all seems a little undergraduate. I feel like I have to rush off in a Kombi to a student union concert. There’s no talk of China’s emergence, of Putin. About as global as the debate gets is someone from Chicago remarking that Obama is a puppet.
Aaron says Occupy London is the public expression of Britain’s “silent majority.” At the very least, their occupation of St Paul’s “has made Britons think, made them aware,” he says, pointing out that before Occupy, it would be unthinkable to read the Archbishop of Canterbury’s defence of the movement in a Financial Times op-ed, as Rowan Williams penned in November. As we speak, I see a billboard promoting a week-long series in the FT, “Capitalism in Crisis.”