Vax vobiscum: Piers be with you

Emma Goldman recalls an encounter with Piers Corbyn on the day Prince Philip died

Thursday, 7th April — By Emma Goldman

Piers Corbyn

Piers Corbyn

RETURNING from a walk across Kensington Gardens on the day Prince Philip died, I headed down Portobello Road.

As I approached the end, where the Westway hoops over the market from Ladbroke Grove, a space during lockdown cavernous and empty, I saw a tall, stooping man on the opposite pavement. He was eating a takeaway from a cardboard box, had a large phone pressed to his ear, and was frowning intensely. It was Piers Corbyn.

Piers started to walk around in small, concentrated circles, eating, talking, eyes cast to the ground. His grey overcoat was threadbare, ill fitting, the wide hem at the bottom falling from its stitches.

Metres away, under the Westway, a commotion was breaking out, a crescendo of shouts becoming threatened punches. Men started running to join what appeared to be two fractious groups. In the chaos, there was, or maybe there was not, a flash of silver, which could, or could not have been, a knife. A middle-aged woman, two canvas shopping bags swinging heavily from her hands, pounded towards them.

“Stop it! Stop it now!”

Piers continued talking into his phone. Should he, or should be not, join the crowds mourning Prince Philip in town?

He wanted to call for an inquiry, he said. Because, had there been a cover up? Had Prince Philip in fact died of the vaccine? A younger man slid next to him. Small, taut, moustachioed, with olive skin, dark hair sleeked in one throw over a small dome of skull, he shook his head vigorously at Piers.

“If you join them,” he mouthed, “they’ll make it all about you. They always do.”

Piers looked up and nodded, perhaps sorrowfully, perhaps thoughtfully. Carefully placing his takeaway box into the nearby, overflowing bin, he turned back to the phone.

“We absolutely need an inquiry,” he said.

I was close enough now to see his long, discoloured teeth, and the bits of food stuck between them. His greying hair was thick and wild, his eyes ironic and somehow kind. Under the Westway, the altercation paused, the groups still half-squaring up to one other but fists lowering. Soon, people began to disperse.

A shaven-headed white man in a string vest and jeans made as if to walk away but then abruptly turned back. He stuck his middle finger up. It was a schoolboy gesture but the air tensed.

The woman who had run to the midst put down her bags. With her palms, she pushed the straggling groups away from one another.

“Go home and have your tea!”

“Where are you now?” Piers asked into the phone. “Outside the palace?”

Passers-by started holding up their own phones, not to Piers but to the smouldering Westway feud. The moustachioed friend stepped near to me.

“What does Piers actually believe about the vaccine?” I asked him impulsively. “I can never find anything about what he says. Only articles slamming him.”

Standing opposite him, I felt a sudden frisson. It was the presence of my younger self, not seen for years, seeking out revolutionaries, plots, and State conspiracies.

“Has he been silenced?”

He looked at me. I must be truly naïve to think that Piers, almighty threat to the status quo, could ever be truly silenced. But I was unstoppable.

“I want to make up my own mind about him. Can you help?”

Piers was still on the phone. As his friend studied me, he appeared to be weighing up whether or not to answer. I was obviously very stupid.

“Piers believes the global pharmaceutical companies,” he said at last, “and the technology companies, are using the pandemic to line their own pockets and exercise social control.”

A sense of bathos filled the air.

“There must be more to it than that,” I began.

Piers, now off the phone, wandered up.

“We need to get down to the palace,” he said to my interlocutor.

Just at that point, I saw the shaven-headed, middle finger raising man, sprinting towards us. He had a tattoo of a thorny rose down one arm, piercings in his ear, and a stud in one nostril and his tongue. Stepping forward to hug Piers, he nestled his face in his shoulder.

“You’re always welcome here, Piers,” he grinned and his gold teeth flashed in the sun.

A woman approached. In her 30s probably, wearing a white vest and shorts, and, down one of her bare, black arms, a tattoo of a dragon.

“Grenfell lives,” she said to Piers, who nodded eagerly. “We are the community.”

Turning to me, a smile lit up her face and she took my hands as she spoke.

“Go spread the love.”

Over at the Westway, the groups finally melted away.

Piers and his moustachioed friend wandered away up Portobello Road to join the Prince Philip crowds in town and demand an inquiry.

As they grew ever smaller in the distance, I had the faint but real notion it was all of it theatre, that what Piers really enjoyed was the spectacle and the stage.

I pictured him arriving home later, shedding the threadbare coat costume, pouring a drink, considering his performance, and hoping that the audience had got their money’s worth.

Emma Goldman is a writer, theatre critic for the Oscar Wilde Society, life model and English teacher at Central Foundation Boys’ School in Islington

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