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Archive for the ‘Saint Peter’s Square’ Category

At the end of January I went to see a colleague of mine at the John Rylands Library on Deansgate. I’d been meaning to for a while, but it’s too far away from where I work to be doable in a lunch hour so I waited until I had a week off instead.

I got the bus into Piccadilly and felt rather depressed as the bus turned off down Whitworth Street and went past Legends, now boarded up and poised for either demolition or partial restructure. Then I walked through Piccadilly Gardens to Mosley Street (honoured by John Cooper Clarke in one of his more lugubrious works) towards Saint Peter’s Square. I feel quite bleak about the redevelopment going on there too – the Library, Library Theatre, Peace Gardens, Metrolink…

Library Walk by cantwont used via a flickr creative commons licence.

Library Walk by cantwont used via a flickr creative commons licence.

When it’s redone the council are glassing over Library Walk, one of the most architecturally beautiful walkways in Manchester. Not only do the architect’s and the council appear to be deliberately blighting a really nice bit of Victorian architecture, but the council also intend to put a new Peterloo memorial plaque on the gate. It will be the 200 year anniversary of Peterloo in August 2019, and to mark this event with a plaque honouring the death of 17 people and the severe injury of 700 more for demanding the right to vote, on a gate obstructing a public right of way adds insult to injury. Not only have Manchester City Council for years had an extremely euphemistic blue plaque marking the massacre, they’re also now revealing a massive irony deficit.

Despite its reputation and Victorian gothic splendour, the only time I’ve previously visited the Rylands was for a staff meeting about three years ago. Though, as I discovered when I was making my way there, I’ve a pretty good idea of how to find it because it’s been on at least one of the protest march routes I went on in 2011.

The Rylands Library has the misfortune to be situated next to Emporio Armani, which is itself next to RBS. Old meets new… They have  a combination of old and new within the Rylands itself, but they’ve preserved as much of it as possible so there’s lots of old glass and a lot of the old gothic building. I really enjoyed my visit, and I take my hat off to Enriqueta Rylands for founding such a long lasting legacy both to her husband, John, and for the people of Manchester.

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Feral underclass against the Tories

Feral underclass against the Tories

Today was the big march/protest in Manchester, called by the TUC but supported by a much wider base of groups. The main march was from Liverpool Road off Deansgate to GMEX where the Conservative Party conference is being held this week, but I’d heard that there was going to be a feeder march from University Place on Oxford Road and, given I’d enjoyed marching with the students last year, I decided to march from there instead.

The crowd by University Place didn’t seem that big when I arrived, but the police were out in large numbers again. Having said that, I think a lot of the mounted police were there to clear Oxford Road before moving on to other parts of the main march. We also had official observers this time, who were clearly labelled as such, and who were giving out ‘bus cards’ containing legal advice and phone numbers in the event of arrest.

The students had a giant black bird-like creature, made largely from bin bags and held aloft by giant poles. It had a pair of scissors for a beak and was called ‘The Culture Vulture’. There was also two or three mobile sound systems, a few people with drums, and quite a few protesters with dreadlocks. I’d say that the crowd was a mixture of students from both universities, academic staff, and unionists from both universities, plus some sixth formers and members of the public. Around half eleven a particularly boisterous young NHS contingent arrived, and my friend laughed upon getting a text from one of his friends to say that said NHS contingent had arrived fresh from chasing Tory delegates around the back of their hotel. Another of our friends arrived as the speeches were going on.

The speeches were a bit of a mixed bag as a lot of the speakers were from student groups, or the student union, and as such weren’t necessarily practised public speakers. The woman from UCU was probably the best, and there was also a speaker from Unison. The last of the speakers was an impassioned sixth former from Xavarian College, who was still speaking as we slowly began to form up and move out onto Oxford Road.

By this point we’d begun to collect an impressive amount of leaflets and flyers for various groups, including one for the current Jarrow March, which is taking place 75 years after ‘Red’ Ellen Wilkinson led the original marchers to London. The march is going on now, and whilst not passing through Manchester, will be passing through Sheffield next weekend. It is due to arrive in London on the 5th November, and the final leg of the march will be from Temple Embankment to Trafalger Square.

I picked up so many leaflets and flyers that, very quickly, I had to start decanting them into my bag. Upon arriving home and emptying my bag out I found three ‘Occupy! 2/10 Manchester Against The Cuts’ flyers, two flyers advertising a single by a band called Marivaux Horns, the profits of which will go to the student hardship fund, one flyer for an SWP meeting on Marx, Crisis and Revolution, one which was a timetable of discussions by the Northern Communist Forums at the Friends Meeting House, one flyer for the NHS Health Bill protest next Sunday (9th) in London (a protest called by UK Uncut, which is supported by Unite, Right To Work, Health Worker Network, and the NHS), one for the co-ordinated strikes on November 30th, another one about the 30th November but from Right To Work, one from Youth Fight For Jobs about the Jarrow March, and a massive Coalition of Resistance Newsletter.  When I emptied my pockets out, I also found DAN – the Disabled Peoples Direct Action Network (email contact only, to join the mailing list, danmail-subscribe@yahoogroups.com , and the Education Activist Network as well. I think I missed being given a few here and there, but had my friends and I emptied our bags out and compared notes, I think between us we would have had everything.

There was a young cub reporter from Key 103 moving around the crowd  by University Place, and that crowd was a lot bigger by the time we set out at about 11:50. Whilst there were a lot of people with cameras by University Place, the media seemed fairly low key and the police seemed friendly.

Progress down Oxford Road was slow and a bit clumsy, mainly due to the size of the group I think. We got approached by a woman from the BBC not long after setting off, who asked us if we were students. Two of us exchanged looks whilst the other confessed, yes, he was a student. They went off towards the very back of the march, but from what he said later his answers were probably too intelligent and literate to get used.

I’m not very sure of the route we took, but I know we turned off Oxford Road by McDonalds and started heading towards Deansgate. There seemed to be a period where it felt as though we were going round and round the town hall from various directions, but it’s probably more likely that we just went down every side street possible between Oxford Road and GMEX. Deansgate was good though: Our feeder march ended up in the middle of the whole march, which stretched all the way down Deansgate.

Culture vulture in flight on Deansgate

Culture vulture in flight on Deansgate

The Occupy! set peeled off at Albert Square whilst everyone else continued marching towards the party conference at GMEX. It was around this point that some protesters spotted some Tory delegates leaving their hotel and swarmed towards them, chanting ‘SCUM! SCUM! SCUM!’ and waving placards. We were near the back whilst this was going on, so we didn’t actually see much, just some men in suits trying to get through the crowd and a swarm of people in front of us.

The media were very much in evidence throughout the march, as were the police, and there was a helicopter overhead constantly throughout. Was it a police helicopter? or did it belong to Sky News?  As we passed GMEX both media and police were present and visible in high numbers. I noticed that the nearer we got to the conference the older and more expensively dressed the journalists became. I also, throughout the march generally, noticed two different police forces (GMP and Lancashire) plus Tactical Aid and police CCTV vans, all in significant numbers. I had my picture taken and got filmed a lot, so I made a big effort to look smiley, approachable and peaceful.

By GMEX

By the time we came to GMEX we were very, very strong...

Some of the marchers had brought their kids with them, and I spotted a toddler asleep on her mums shoulders at one point. I also spotted marchers representing Unite, UCU, the NHS (including a contingent from Leeds), and some WOBS (no, we didn’t know either, but it sounded cool) from Sheffield.

When we passed through Saint Peter’s Square there was a confusingly delivered call for all banners to be lowered until we were past the tramlines, which we eventually worked out was so that no one with a particularly high flying one would get themselves electrocuted by catching it on the overhead wires.

When we got past GMEX, the field was full of stalls and a stage had been set up at the far end for the speeches. We were starving and in desperate need of the loo by then though, so we headed over to Piccadilly for food, tea and relief.

Afterwards we headed back over to Albert Square to see how the occupation was getting on, and passed a group of people just off Saint Peter’s Square, who were petting and feeding the police horses. It probably did nothing for the animals digestions, but probably helped their nerves.  In Albert Square there were quite a lot of people sitting around whilst a smaller group played football as a soundsystem played Junior Murvin’s ‘Police And Thieves’.

After a bit of this we headed back towards GMEX, but people were heading back over to Albert Square by then as everything by the conference had finished. We  saw a very exuberant and slightly scary group of figures in David Cameron masks at this point, and not long after whilst we were heading back to Albert Square we got snarled at by a bloke in a grey suit, ‘If you push that in my face I’ll ‘ave yer!’ being the broad translation. This was ironic in that the incident occurred as we were strolling along with our placards unconsiously held at half mast, not really protesting demonstratively at that point.

Albert Square later on

Albert Square again

Things had livened up a bit by the time we got back to Albert Square again, but the rain was coming down quite hard by then. People danced to the sound system, now playing old school rave, under canvas held aloft on poles whilst protesters in harnesses scaled wet lamposts to hang banners. One of the banners already hung on the opposite side of the square read ‘If they won’t let us dream, we won’t let them sleep’, a reference to an idea put across on their flyers: that if enough protesters were in the square by nightfall, they would try to maintain a presence in the square throughout the night and see that the delegates in their nearby hotels didn’t get any sleep.

If you won't let us dream, we won't let you sleep

If you won't let us dream, we won't let you sleep

The police presence was robust but friendly at the point when we left, but I don’t fancy the occupations chances of an all night knees up: too many police, not enough protesters.

I overheard a nice conversation on the bus on the way home between a group of sixth formers who’d been on the march and one of their friends, who hadn’t. The one who hadn’t told them his mum had voted for David Cameron, and he freely admitted that he probably would have done too because he “didn’t know anything about politics”. But since the election, and the protests, he’s done a lot of reading, he’s educated himself, and now knows a lot more about politics. He’d had a deadline though, so he hadn’t marched.

One of the group of boys who had been on the march got off at the same stop as me. He turned off down a side road just before I reached home, still carrying his placard.

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In the hot and humid early evening of yesterday, I trundled down Oxford Road in pursuit of food after work. 8th Day doesn’t seem to be doing evenings now that a substantional chunk of the students have gone home for the summer, so it was the Cornerhouse for me.

From the Cornerhouse I meandered towards Saint Peter’s Square, which is currently under seige because of the metrolink extensions (not started yet, so far as I could tell) and the radical overhaul of the entire area by Manchester City Council. The library and the library theatre have already fled the carnage, the war memorial and Peace Gardens are to be moved. In a few years time the place will be as unrecognisable to the average manc as it would be to a survivor of Peterloo today.

Matt Smith (no, not that one) local historian, political upstart, and – apparently – deputy manager at a branch of Asda, chose this day to mark the occasion of the Peterloo Massacre, a tragedy which occurred on the 16th August 1819, a hot day much like the 5th July apparently.

As with many of the various re-tellings and analysis of Peterloo (a dark satirical reference to the much celebrated victory over Napoleon at Waterloo, which occurred close enough to Peterloo to be in the minds of many at the time), Matt’s piece was an overview coupled with an exploration of the parallels between life for the average person in 1819 and now. There are parallels: a struggling economy, high food prices, and a overwhelming sense that things are going in the wrong direction and the wrong people are being made to suffer… But I always think it risks devaluing the importance of what happened in Saint Peter’s Fields (as they were then) on that day in August 1819 if we overconcentrate on the parallels with today, interesting though they are.

Having said that, Smith did an admirable job when it came to explaining the flaws of capitalism as a model (he likened it to a bus being driven over a cliff, with the surviving passengers having to pay the driver to buy a new bus, which  then gets driven over the cliff again, and the process is repeated ad neauseum) and the Rotton Boroughs style political arrangements of 1819 (Manchester had a population of approximately 1 million, only 145 people could vote, and only 1 person could stand as an MP).

You certainly couldn’t fault Smith on enthusiasm and energy, particularly during his agit prop moment as a smug Tory M.P complete with Lib Dem sock puppet, and I did enjoy his description of being filled with hope for the future of political protest upon coming across two men, who had previously been scrapping on the pavement, united by a common hatred, pissing up against a giant billboard of David Cameron just prior to the 2010 elections.

Matt Smith is not The Doctor, but you don’t need a sonic screwdriver to talk about history and politics. If it was 1981 I can’t help but think he would have joined The Gang Of Four instead…

The event is part of the Not Part Of Festival, a fringe festival in Manchester which runs parallel to Manchester International Festival. The name is an abbreviated way of saying ‘Not part of Manchester International Festival’, sort of ‘Off, off Broadway’ or perhaps ‘Off, off Saint Anne’s Square’ in this case.

I picked up a leaflet about the campaign for a proper memorial to the massacre, in which 18 people were killed and over 600 people were injured by sabre cuts and trampling. The previous memorial has always been deemed euphemistic and inadequate, and many, many people, including Mark Thomas, have  joined the campaign many years ago to have it removed and a proper memorial put up instead. With the re-development of the square, the council have promised a new memorial, but doubt is being expressed as to whether it will be any better than the previous one.  If you would like to read more about the history of Peterloo, and about the campaign for a decent memorial to the events, please click here.

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