New rakes: little progress

An encounter in St Pancras after a day trip to the sea gives Emma Goldman an idea what visitors think of the capital

Thursday, 26th May — By Emma Goldman

John Sadler beer Street

Illustration: (with apologies to Hogarth)

THE bar on Botany Bay, a sandy cove just round the headland from Margate, serves its first cocktail. It’s blue as the sky pegged over our London daytrip. In front of us, children play in rock pools or paddle in lapping waves. Straws in our mouths, we let the sun dry our skin from the first swim of summer. The cliffs are chalky and sheer, the coastline empty.

lthough the bay does not have the glamour of its larger, flashier neighbours, it is also free of music and crowds. All is idyllic save for the departing family next to us who leave pizza wrappings and empty beer bottles in the sand.

Beer bottles are also there to greet us when we arrive back at St Pancras. They are being carried aloft by a group of about six or seven young men, well dressed in a low-key kind of way, shouting in well-spoken tones, and with low-key, pricey-looking haircuts. As we follow the railing away from them, their bodies blur. A kindly, white-haired old man appears, heading to the station entrance, holding the hand of a child. Some of the youths jostle him, making him suddenly centre stage.

He gives one a sprightly shove back and the child stares up with wide, bewildered eyes. Seconds later, both have disappeared. The original group splits into two, fists up, bottles dropping to become puddles of shards glistening in the evening city sun.

Almost as quickly, sirens sound and blue lights flash around the corner. The occupants of three vanloads of police race towards the fray. Passers-by either step round in that nonchalant, London way, or hold up phones to record it.

The police arrival serves to unite the brawlers. Turning at once into a single pack, they rush. An officer goes down and four young men surround him, pinning him to the ground. They are pulled off by other officers to the jeers of a now surrounding crowd.

“Police violence.”

“I’m recording you.”

Someone jumps on a policeman’s back and starts pummelling him before being dragged off by one of his colleagues. The jeers increase.

“Police violence.”

“I’m recording you.”

Having witnessed plenty of State violence, from that inflicted on the 80s striking miners and print workers, to the following decade’s handouts to the poll tax rioters, to being ferociously yelled at myself for stopping on my bike in a lockdown park, to the unspeakable Sarah Everard vigil, I anticipate more of the same. But as young man after young man runs in attacking from behind, I am struck by the police restraint.

“No training!” a nearby man shouts. “Come to Sheffield where they train the cops properly.”

I ask what he means.

“The one in the middle,” he says. “You can tell from his body language he’s carrying so much anger. Police should be trained not to carry anger.”

“But he only pulled someone off his colleague.”

“He’s carrying anger. I’ve studied body language and I can tell these things. They train the cops properly in Sheffield.”

“Get off him! Get off him!” a passing young woman screams drunkenly, swaying on vertiginous heels, clutching her friend’s arm for support and holding up her phone. “What are you arresting him for? Police violence.”

The well-dressed young man who leapt on the policeman and pummelled him is indeed being handcuffed. He raises his face but the intended spit dribbles, falling on him alone.

“You can just tell he’s carrying so much anger,” the man from Sheffield repeats, pointing at the policeman who is chatting to one of the unhandcuffed offenders.

As more young women in heels scream at the police and hold up phones, the sun hesitates on the horizon, a terrier sniffs at the broken glass, and the youths mostly calm down. Two begin joking with the officers and one puts his arm flirtatiously around a newly arrived policewoman. The handcuffed offender who spat stares from his position on a bench, his face blank.

“What happened to the kid?” someone asks. “And the grandad?”

The terrier yelps, jumping back, its dark snout dripping red.

As we walk away, the sky is cold and unlit. A one-legged man sitting in rags by the learned walls of the British Library raises his elderly face. The sole of his upturned foot is black with grime, and he holds out a creased and dirty palm.

I imagine I have arrived at St Pancras not as a Londoner back from the coast, but as a tourist from the continent. Having made it through the stringency of UK passport control, I have found myself not in the anticipated land of the Beatles and the Queen, but rather a place of class-defying mindlessness, punch-ups, and unutterable poverty.

Hogarth, thou should’st be living at this hour.

Emma Goldman is a writer and English teacher at Central Foundation Boys’ School in Islington

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