Letter from London: The Demo

It was very English to call it “the Demo,” and no wonder the pet name stuck, conjuring up a specter of “demos,” the people (sometimes pejorative), but on the other hand “democracy” (good), which withstood the test of the demonstration. Small family-style states are fond of making up diminutives, whose effect is to diminish, domesticate; compare “the telly” to big gross American “TV.” Yet the peculiar fact about the October 27 dual march was that it was organized and directed by aliens in competition with each other: Tariq Ali, a young mustached Pakistani, leading the way to Downing Street, and Abhimanya Manchanda, a middle-aged clean-shaven Indian, to Grosvenor Square.

For the English, these rival pied pipers were difficult to swallow, let alone assimilate. A well-fleshed, plaintive humorist of a police sergeant sought to explain his obscure sense of injury relating to the Demo, which in principle he did not exactly oppose but saw as a conflict of rights: the right to push your pram, undisturbed, down the Strand on Sunday and the right, slightly less hallowed, to march. We were standing in a pub near a central London police station on the eve of the demonstration. What stuck in his craw, he confided, leaning forward and lowering his voice, was “those foreigners.” “It’s the bill you’re paying for Empire,” I replied. He appreciated the point (English fair-mindedness) and laughed. The discussion continued. I made some feeble joke about seeing him tomorrow, in jail. “You don’t mean to say you’re going to march?” “Certainly!” “Stay home and watch it on the television. Take my advice.” He made a face, leaning forward in another burst of confidence and wrinkling up his broad manly nose. It wasn’t the “pushing and shoving” he minded in those demonstrations. “It’s the B. O. Phew!”

Just then, a police siren blew. “That’s my tune,” he said, grinning. Then another. Outside, cops were racing out of the police station, pulling on their coats, clapping on their helmets, and boarding police wagons. The sergeant hastily left his pint of lager on the bar. We left our drinks too and ran. A large force of alarmed bobbies was converging on Westminster Abbey, where some pink-cheeked, tow-headed schoolboys from Manchester, wearing red and white scarves, in town for the football match, had been apprehended on the sidewalk; their average age was maybe fourteen. A flash had come through that some unknown persons were breaking into the Abbey; possibly one or two of the little Manchester rooters had tried to climb the fence. In a minute, the police, embarrassed, were returning to base. In preparation for the Demo, they had been sleeping in at the police station, with a barrel of beer, occupying it, in short, like the students on guard at the London School of Economics. Both sides were nervous; gloomy, and gay. It worried me that with all that beer the police might have hangovers the next day, which would make them irritable …

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