The Sharp End: The view from St Paul's

Dave Waller and his sleeping bag spend 24 hours in the cathedral's new tent city.

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Time to don the poncho, stick unconventional objects through my earlobes and destroy capitalism, as I sample how things are run at the Occupy London protest outside St Paul's Cathedral.

The camp's already been going a week when I arrive and, walking past the cathedral's northern side, I'm plunged deep into an improvised world of elaborate hats, rollie-smoking, and the wearing of non-conformism on what is starting to become a heavily soiled sleeve.

A closer look reveals people of all ages and races, and several temporary institutions that help the camp's flow of knowledge. There's a legal tent, an information centre and a kitchen. As a bloke takes to the mic, singing Dylan-style ballads about bankers, I stumble upon the camp's library, named Starbooks after the global coffee giant it's pitched in front of. Its founder is the dreadlocked Ashley, a carer by day, who envisioned a place where like-minded people could meet and exchange ideas. And, yes, people are standing in the sun talking economic models as others read, make enquiries or donate books - everything from hefty political tomes to Jesus and His Times. That's one for the thinning ranks of the St Paul's top brass.

Our first task is to tidy the 'reference section' - one compartment of a two-man tent. I remove a beer can. Ashley finds a bag of weed, which contravenes the previous meeting's decision to ban drugs and booze on the site. Medicinal purposes, I suggest.

Ashley quickly gets bored of tidying and I wander next door to the Tent City University marquee, where I stumble upon a lecture on sustainable communities.

In front of the cathedral steps, a bearded man is leading one of the group's general assemblies. 'Organise yourselves into groups of 10 and discuss what's on your mind,' he says. A representative of each group then feeds back to the others on the mic - these include a kindly grandmother, an eastern European woman I'm sure no one can understand, and a guy who should feature in the Stone Roses reunion gig.

Giving everyone a voice has its downsides - the process of recapping every single matter of business goes on for about an hour. If this is the future of decision-making, it'll take the firm of tomorrow two months to sanction the ordering of Post-It notes.

It's hard to know what their banker targets make of all this, not least because they're too busy raking it in down the road to come and have a look. The protesters are a bit light on answers, but from where I am standing that's not the point. 'This helps educate people about what's going wrong and gets them seeing things from another perspective,' says Ashley back at the library. Let's hope his nan appreciates the sentiment: he's meant to be decorating her house.

I decide to check out the kitchen, walking past an alfresco barber and chair. 'It's about creating the kind of world you want to live in,' he is saying to his punter. The kitchen tent is full of piles of donated veg and rice, and big pans bubbling on stoves. I meet Hannah, a market researcher from Islington, who's busily chopping garlic. She tells me she's stayed overnight when she can, but she has to balance that with the day job. I ask her how the kitchen functions. 'I don't know,' she says. I'm not sure anyone does, but it manages to feed free meals to 500 people a day.

As night falls, the mood becomes more intimate. Back to the Tent City University for some storytelling. I'm on a cushion chatting with a girl from the UAE and an actress who's here because the camp's presence made her realise she's a 'political ignoramus'. We're 'edutained' by the UK's young storyteller of the year, and a middle-aged woman nervously recites a Tennyson poem about King Arthur. A lawyer by trade, she's representing the camp's legal interests. 'It's more of a motherly role,' she confides.

Even a bloke warbling into a didgeridoo doesn't entirely rob me of respect for strangers getting together to discuss how to create a better world - a view not shared by the guy who bowled in just before I left, arguing that 'we all have problems, we just don't go round pissing people off'. Others have been more sympathetic: one passer-by bought an apple from the kitchen for £20. Now that's the sort of margin capitalism would be proud of.

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