The little boy lost in the lonely fen,
Led by the wandering light,
Began to cry, but God, ever nigh,
Appeared like his father, in white.
He kissed the child, and by the hand led,
And to his mother brought,
Who in sorrow pale, through the lonely dale,
The little boy weeping sought.
From William Blake: The Little Boy Lost
Last night I watched the news for hours consecutively, something I have not done, since, maybe since 9/11. I have in general found the news, and in particular its representations of British Politics to be death-defyingly boring ever since Tony Blair came to power in 1997, grinning like a banshee. Oh, I stayed up all night to watch his arrival on our stage, that is for sure. But by the next morning apathy had taken me over so completely that I pretty well detached from Politics, with a big P, altogether, and the Media with a big M.
But yesterday my interest was piqued once more. The sight of dusk falling on London, as MPs went home, or to drink in bars to drown their sorrows or celebrate their victory over the fees vote, whilst the police and the students braved the weather and faced each other down, was totally compelling viewing. We all know this is the media age and always will be now, until the electricity runs out and our laptops die a final death and the TV screens go black. We are stuck with it. If it’s not mediated it doesn’t happen.
So maybe the students and the police were just acting as ‘media age’ demonstrators would, and gave us the images they knew would be circulated around the globe. That picture of the crowd, tired and weakening, shuffling along westminster bridge like a herd of ants, flanked by police at either end, with their only chance of rebellious escape a plunge into the icy Thames, will stay in my mind for a while. Not to mention the more obvious photo-opportunities of Camilla’s face as she exited her limo, having suffered possibly her first ever unhappy encounter with subjects of the realm, and the masked anarchists taking a shovel to the latticed windows of Government buildings.
I was, rapt, as rapt as I had been when I sat, hungover on my sofa, watching that plane career into that Tower, over and over and over again. But also I was a little bit perturbed.
It is easy as you get older to look at young people as ‘lost children’. I expect every adult in every generation ever sees youngsters in that way. Normally I am actually in awe of young people I meet and talk to, who seem much more clued up, cool and pragmatic than I was at their age. But last night I wanted to take them all in, give them some soup and, sat on my rocking chair with my blanket round my knees, tell them some home truths. About how the world was, how it is, and how it is likely to continue to be.
The fact is a lot of these kids might have been actually ‘lost’ for much of the day yesterday. They were tearing round London, straying from the planned route of the demo, being chased and contained by police unexpectedly. If you stopped and asked them where exactly they were they wouldn’t have been able to answer I expect, not without checking their Foursquare or their GPS anyway. When I used to go on demos in the-cough- 1980s, we would arrive at set meeting points on coaches, to be greeted by stewards, who marked the way all along the route of the demonstration, accompanied by police. Then we’d normally end up in Trafalgar Square for speeches, maybe a bit of a scuffle by the Trots, and go back to our coaches, where we’d finish our sandwiches and tinnies and be home like little cinderallas by midnight. If I had have been there yesterday, in unfamiliar streets, not knowing which way to turn, or not being able to get out and back to where I was supposed to be to get home, I think I would have been terrified. I expect some of those kids were terrified. Not just of the potential violence of the police, but of the fact that they were lost.
And of course being lost is also figurative for the demonstrators of today. I am not saying my generation knew what the fuck we were doing exactly, but we thought we did. We had A Plan. We were socialists, revolutionaries, trying to bring Thatcher down and supporting the workers in their struggle against international capitalist exploitation. We were also trying to end Apartheid, save the coal industry, liberate Chile, stop nuclear proliferation, and the really idealistic amongst us were also saving the whales and the earth. Not to mention getting laid and getting drunk. We didn’t all agree, but we knew why we didn’t, and we had conferences and aims, and hustings and motions, and policies. I know. We were a bit full of it.
But if you asked every single one of those young people marching yesterday why they were doing it, what their longer -term political goals were, who they did or didn’t vote for, what their political affiliations were, who their allies/comrades/friends were, I expect you’d get some blank faces, and some complicated, confused responses. They might have to check their phones for what was being said on twitter, or by their friends on facebook. They might not be able to answer. They might seem lost. Some members of this ‘children’s crusade’ such as the journalist and cariacatured cartoon character, Laurie Penny, celebrate how this movement has ‘no leaders’ and no aims. But I think she is romanticising the alienation and sense of powerlessness that these protestors are expressing.
Where will these young people be in six months time and what will they be doing? I am not saying they won’t be doing anything. But, if they are still wandering aimlessly round the streets of London, the batteries running low on their i-phones, their twitterfeed empty of direction, if the cameras and the police have got bored of chasing them, and they are just lost boys and girls, I won’t be surprised. But I will be there with my soup and my stories and my sad sighs.