A Week in the Saddle – Occupy Norwich

(Draft – it’s 2:30 and I’m tired, so I’ll post it now despite probable mistakes!)

I hadn’t been back to stay since I’d left (about three weeks in I decided I’d take some time out to work on essays and portfolios). I’d popped by every so often on my way to-and-from university to check up on everyone, make sure that everyone was all right and whatnot, and to talk to the new people that had joined the protest. Last Monday I decided I’d stay again for the week.

What follows is a description of my experiences – it is important to remember that I write as an individual, and my words are not indicative of the movement itself.

Monday

Morale was pretty low. The weather was miserable, and it had become bitterly cold. Extra tarps had been secured around the gazebos to protect the protesters from the wind, but it would seep in through the gaps at the bottom, whooshing around between the walled tarps and ceiling before hurrying off through the open entrance. The camp breathed when the wind rolled in – a cyclical in-and-out | in-and-out. The walls pulsed, loose odds and ends on tables would fall to the floor, leaflets would scatter.

There were a number of familiar faces at the camp, some people there had been there from the beginning. I met the new faces, and a good number of them seemed to be pulling their weight despite the weather. Everyone was knackered – that was apparent – and the cold, miserable weather was only making things worse. For some, it was hard enough pulling themselves away from the chairs set about in the gazebo’s to talk to the glitter-eyed public, all full of Christmas spirit and warm words.

I had a seminar in the afternoon. Afterwards I cycled back, set up my bedding and did some washing up in the kitchen. Then I went out for a Philosophy Social, and when I came back I sat up with the others and talked politics, health care, and gossip.

Tuesday 

Apparently someone turned up on Monday night/ Tuesday morning with a dog. I had been asleep at the time, but the dog had wandered into the yurt and started stepping on everyone there who had been sleeping. The guy who owned it was someone we knew apparently, but those that had been woken up were not impressed by the dog’s antics.

Then, at around seven in the morning a fellow that had been staying with us decided to practice the accordion (a very fine instrument, I must say) outside. This lead to further irritation – particularly by those that had been woken up already by the dog. At that point, one of the group claimed he had had enough and walked off f’ing and blinding into town. He came back half an hour later with further loud profanities which, rather ironically, woke up pretty much everyone.

We tried to calm him down, told him he just needed some time out (he’d been there pretty much from day one) and some sleep. He calmed, and decided to leave but told us he would only be coming back for the workshops he lead. He would no longer be camping.

Now, the problem with camping in the cold is that if you wake up it takes a damning amount of time to get back to sleep again. When asleep you are unconscious of the cold – and it is only when it reaches a dangerously uncomfortable level that you wake up. At that point you feel more than inclined to climb out to warm yourself, but when you are woken up unnaturally and find yourself just that little bit cold, or uncomfortable, then it can take up to or over an hour to get back to sleep again.

Many of us were up at about six, or seven on Tuesday. We made tea, some of us cleaned up the kitchen, and I tried to help out with the bins and water management but had no idea what the system was. So I let it alone, and decided I’d talk to the guy who was sorting it all out later to find out how it all worked, so I could give him a hand.

That morning we talked to a great number of the public. Morale was pretty average and the weather was okay, so all in all it wasn’t too bad. I had a nice discussion with a lady who had heard about us on the radio and she gave us some honey. I asked her where she had got it and she told me that she kept bees! I was amazed, and wanted to talk to her longer about bee-keeping, but she had to do some shopping.

I had another seminar, then cycled back in the dark. We held a GA and discussed taking an action in support of the Occupy Everywhere! action taking place on the 15th. We agreed that the camp needed re-organising and a good clean, and that two/three of us would be attending the Edinburgh Occupy Assembly. We discussed what happened Monday night/Tuesday morning and the fellow that had left, and how to avoid this happening again. Turns out that the night watch had been lacking the last few days – people hadn’t been doing the jobs allocated to them, so we needed to reinforce the fact that these things need to be done. The fellow who had left had also expressed concern that the camp had become more of ‘a homeless camp than a protest’ so we discussed that for some time and decided that his comment was one made in passing anger, but that there was an element of truth in what he said – a few homeless people had moved in, and whilst they weren’t causing any problems and were quite interesting to talk to they seldom understood why we were there.

We decided we’d try to bring them in to the community more, tell them who we are and what we are doing with more clarity, and tell them that – though they would be unable to sleep here the first night – if they came along to a few GA’s and put in some input, then we’d be happy enough for them to stay. We also agreed that tomorrow would be an intense camp-cleanup.

Wednesday

A whole day at Occupy, at last!

I woke up early with some others. We cleaned the kitchen, sorted the bins, and sorted the water. Then nobody really did anything.

We couldn’t sort out the yurt because there were still people sleeping in it – and there was no point working on the office area until the yurt was also being sorted, as inevitable things from the yurt would have to be put in the office (and vice versa). We talked to the public, and I found a box of old newspaper articles focussing on the occupation in Norwich, London and the US so I made a pastiche of news reports on two pieces of card and placed them on the front desk.

They got a fair amount of attention, and it was interesting putting all the articles side-by-side seeing what we were doing in relation to London, and then in relation to the U.S. I talked to more members of the public including a gentleman that worked at Lampeter Uni in Wales teaching Philosophy. I came back from Aberystwyth only a year ago, so we talked about how unfortunate it was that Philosophy had been dropped at these institutions. He expressed concern with modern philosophy, he said that a great deal of it was very conservative in its movements, and then I brought up Derrida and Zizek as ‘hopefuls’, and we agreed that there are still those out there that are a little more radical, but that their numbers are few and far between.

I popped to the Forum to update things on Facebook and check my email. When I came back everyone was awake and sorting out the yurt.

Awesome.

I cleaned out the office area, and sorted all the piles of paperwork out into relevant piles. There was tons of stuff, from bookmarks advertising a radical bookshop to leaflets encouraging the public to switch to credit unions. There were letters to-and-from the council, messages of support from the public, paintings done by little kids, CD’s of interviews taking with the BBC, books of addresses, phone numbers, events and a whole book dedicated to GA minutes.

It was everywhere.

Towards the end of the day this guy I’d only met the day before – an anarchist complete with punk jacket, heavy boots and piercings came up to me and asked if I needed any help. This really made my day – because just the day before I’d been speaking with a member of the public outside who was planning to do a short video piece on the Thomas Paine statue that we are camping nearby, and how he thinks Thomas Paine would agree with the action we are taking and how sad it is that he has been set in stone in an incredibly consumer-focussed area. We were talking about the filming when the anarchist came by and said some very odd things along with some profanities. Me, and the member of public with me was quite confused by what he had said, and afterwards I was concerned that we had people on site that really had no idea what the occupy movement was trying to do, or to say.

I could recognise that, as individuals, we all have our own views but I like to think that I make that clear when I am at the camp – that my ideas are my own, and not anyone else’s – but the way the anarchist came across was the complete opposite, unfortunately. So him turning and asking me if I wanted any help was hopeful news indeed, it looked as if we could come together a little more.

We found a Christmas tree, and put it up outside the camp. We found Christmas lights, and put them up inside – linked them up with the bicycle gen. and managed to get them lit up. All in all it was a fantastic day – we had high hopes that things would keep moving, that we now had energy, and we would keep it all rolling. One of our group posted on the group that our camp had had a ‘youth takeover’ or somesuch! It was quite funny.

That night some of the older lot came down to admire the lights. Then some teenagers popped by around ten who knew some of those camping over. They seemed okay sorts; full of life, hope, and youth – and brought more to our then-dwindling conversation. Then they left, leaving all of their rubbish behind, including a half eaten pot-noodle on the sofa that someone later sat on by mistake. It meant cleaning the sofa, which, though not a big job in itself meant getting my hands wet, which then meant my hands would be awfully cold for a good few hours. This irritated me.

Thursday

Despite going to bed early the night before I didn’t get much sleep at all. For some reason I couldn’t get warm at all.

I ‘woke up’ at about six, and me and another guy continued re-organising the camp. We wanted to open it up a bit more, so that the night watch could watch over the whole of the camp easily and more comfortably. It made everything we’d just tidied up a mess again, but by nine everything was taking shape again and just needed minor cleaning.

The weather was pretty awful. Grey skies over grey buildings build on grey foundations, and though the Christmas lights were trying hard to keep everything happy and colourful it wasn’t working. Last night the Christmas tree had blown over, and I’d moved it into the yurt to keep it safe only to find three or four people in there listening to music and chatting. When I put the tree down some drunk girl leapt on it yelling ‘I love Christmas trees!’ I was not impressed. The whole thing fell apart and all the branches became bent out of shape. All the decorations went everywhere and we had to clean up all the baubles that had been crushed underfoot.

No drinking on site has always worked fine, but why this drunk girl was allowed in I don’t know…

So we had no Christmas tree to cheer us up, the rain meant we couldn’t put the cardboard signs out, and the wind kept blowing all the other signs down/a little down the road so we were constantly running out into the rain to pick everything back up again. The place itself was a lot cooler though. we had little doors and a curtain in the kitchen which we could pull open to see out of the camp and talk to the public through.

We had an interview with Future Radio Norwich, which went okay (considering we were all very knackered) but made it apparent to me that a good few of those I had seen around the camp that I thought were pretty ‘read up’ were not, and that worried me a little.

The rest of the day I worked my way through Derrida’s White Mythologies, using a blackboard to get the main ideas down as to the similarities between value metaphor and modern thought. It seemed interesting, and I figured it could be used by the money workgroup at a later date. Whilst I did this, pretty much everyone else except two others sat on the sofa’s drinking tea, eating noodles, and gossiping.

I suddenly felt very alone.

I realised then that the reason many of these people were not ‘read up’ is because they hadn’t read up. We had a whole bookshelf full of political books: on anarchism, socialism, economics, climate change, political movements in the 20th century, banking, corporate practice, the collapse of societies, the role of universities, etc etc. I wondered why they hadn’t picked them up.

Some of them had jobs and didn’t have a great deal of time to read books, but many of the others had nothing to do at all. If they were so interested, then why did they not pick up the books? If they didn’t like reading, then surely they would at least be willing to talk about it more? I wondered where all the energy of yesterday had gone, why had it all slowed down so much so quickly?

Then I realised that they were only interested insofar as it was related to the camp; to their own comfort. Now, if we were trying simply to build a new society within an old one, then this would be fair enough (that is, until their comfort begins to force others into discomfort). If we were to create a society of-the-world then people could do whatever they wanted with their spare time.

But this wasnt just a society within a society, we were people building the society in a way that questioned the larger society we found ourselves in. The donations, the food, the coming-together and the sleeping at the camp were, for me, there in order to give us more time to question – to think – to tackle the errors of larger society, so that if a new one was born then we’d have some idea of where to go – of where to move – for the betterment of all.

As it was, we had built a community that had grown comfortable with itself, but was not bouncing ideas concerning wider society around enough. Not enough for my liking, anyway. It seemed that out of all of those hanging around at the camp – only three of us would get involved with the public – the others didn’t really seem to know what the movement was about, or couldn’t articulate it enough. I felt bad then, for myself as well as for others. We had attracted people to the camp that believed in our fundamentals – the banking crisis, the folly of the government in relation to the crisis, the error of the crisis itself – but not in the thinking-about, of tackling the issue.

Then the postman came by with cards – the first post we had had on camp – and we all got excited and I cheered a little. I went back to work, and sat listening to John the busker which brought me down again. He played well, and sung some very well known songs, but his set seemed to vary between the popular-happy and popular-love related songs. There was a 40:60 split, I’d say, between the themes of the songs, and whilst the happy ones cheered me, the love ones really ruined my mood. I found myself thinking of things I shouldn’t be thinking of, and getting internally upset. I was tired, I was cold, and I felt somewhat alone – and these things together are never good.

Later, another person I’d known from the start popped back to the camp. he pull me aside from the others – which was odd enough in itself – and when we were out of earshot he asked me whether I had any contacts at any other occupations. I told him I did, and asked why he wanted to know. Turns out he wanted to get into something ‘more serious’, he felt that the occupation at Norwich, although very helpful, was starting to loose momentum. He wanted to be more ‘engaged’, and the small, fragmentary nature of the Norwich camp wasn’t a suitable enough environment for reform. he wanted to go somewhere bigger, somewhere where he felt he could really engage in change over that of washing other peoples dishes. I agreed with him – as I too lusted for more – but recognised that, at somepoint, the dishes have to be done (this would plague me later). I told him that any camp would probably accept him, and that I wished him the best of luck.

I went back to camp and moved my work outside so that the public could see what I was doing and help me out with it. I ended up talking to a religious German gentleman about political movements in relation to religion, and subsequently got pulled away from my work. It began to rain but we continued to talk. I realised that all our paperwork was still outside, but figured that one of the seven or so people standing outside  the camp would gather up the paper resources on show (and hopefully my own on the chair) and put them inside.

They didn’t.

The seven people that had been ambling around outside hadn’t moved anything. They had, however, gone inside themselves. All of my work on the blackboard had been washed away, the petitions were damp, and all of my pages of work had stuck together, and the ink had run. I went inside – a little angry – and thought I’d just sit down and take some time out. I’d have a cup of tea, some food, and feel a little better. Besides, I thought, we were all suffering from a lack of sleep, we were all very cold, and the rain was unrelenting. It was miserable weather, and we found ourselves in difficult circumstances, so just surviving was something itself. I made myself some tea, and then looked about for a saucepan I could use to cook my noodles in. I found the one I had used earlier – I had put some hot water in the bottom afterwards so that, if anyone else needed the saucepan, then it would be easier to clean (as someone else had helpfully done before my use). I found it, I cleaned it, then I turned back to the stove.

there were about 3 pans sitting there. All of them had had noodles in them, and one of them had noodles burnt to the bottom. None of them had any water in the bottom so as to make them easy to clean. I realised then that out of all of those at the camp at that time, most of them would leave by five in the evening to go home and then, out of those left, about 3 would be left to wash up. I would be one of them, and, as much as washing up is all fine and dandy when your washing up for yourself, or one or two pans that have been used to cook a large meal, difficultly washing up four burnt-on pans was a bit of a joke.

So I did what anyone would do. I went home.

Summary

Occupy Norwich still has a large number of people behind it that really want it to move forward. There have been difficult times (as with anything), and this is one of those times. It will not be easily fixed, but nothing is really unfixable, and even if they are we find other uses for them, we have to be flexible and creative in our approach. We are learning as we go, and in learning we must also discuss – perhaps teach (although, to teach has an implication of power within it, which should be absent from the teaching process itself) – with/to the others as to how we have got to where we are now. What have we done? What are we doing? What do we believe? What are our approaches? Perhaps we have moved in the wrong way – perhaps we have made a mistake somewhere down the line – but that should not stop us.

We must pause, we must reflect, we must deconstruct that we have taken for granted. We have done our best, but we can always do our best again in a different way.

It is my belief that the camp at Norwich is still doing a very good thing. It reminds us in our wanderings that there are greater issues happen around the world that we don’t dare to tackle. We have grown accustomed to hierarchy, that those in power are the only ones that can do anything, that intelligence, or birth, or money, or family puts them above us – but this is not true. We can all be wise people, and wisdom is far more valuable (ha ha! Ironic) than any of the others. It’s pleasant to know that there are others there that are willing to listen, that are trying to change things even if they do not know what to change it too. We must recognise that sometimes we must do things we don’t want to do for the betterment of others, in the same way that others would hopefully do to us; we must rebuild this sense of community, and in doing so we will find ourselves – perhaps we will find that it is in the doing that we find value, as opposed to working some dead end job everyday because we know we will get paid at the end of it.

We must act like Sisyphus, in the word of Camus: “The struggle itself…is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” We must struggle, and though we may perhaps never achieve our aims, at least we have acted. We have made, and we have tried towards betterment.

I will continue to help, of course, and things will get back on track. Where we go from here? I don’t know, nor do I care – the question implies finality, a finality we can never attain. We struggle on in betterment, that’s all I can say.

(I’ll be working on a more theoretical/philosophical analysis of the occupy movement soon, should be interesting…)

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3 thoughts on “A Week in the Saddle – Occupy Norwich”

  1. That all sounds familiar! The pile of washing-up. The cold. The ups and downs from hour to hour. The hangers around. The pile of washing-up. It’s all so true, especially now, two months in and a couple of weeks before Christmas.

    But there is/was a lot more to Occupy Norwich. Meeting people of all ages, social status and walks of life and realising that, like you, they think we need some fundamental changes to society. And more than that: 80 – 90% of the people walking by think the same! Realising that you’re not alone; at least until it comes to the washing up.

    On a different note, I feel compelled to point out that the statue is not, alas, Thomas Pain but Sir Thomas Browne. However, while not the wonderful Norfolk radical (veteran of two revolutions) Sir Thomas Browne did say “A slave to Mammon is not servant unto God.” – which if God is taken to represent the general Good, accords as well as it might with what we stand for.

    1. Ah Thomas Browne! Not Paine! It must have been the copy of ‘Rights of Man’ on the bookshelf that confused me!

      There certainly was a great deal more to Occupy Norwich – and elements of that still exist, just in an unfortunately small way. I think the cold makes things difficult, as does the eventful nature that is this time of year. I loved the talking to people, and I have had some really heart-warming discussions with others as well as some very clever ones, and its been great building this space where people feel that they can engage – a space that was previously unavailable.

      It was brilliant, I loved it – and it still has its brilliance, but that brilliance has become overshadowed by a lack of manpower (disgusting word, I know), by the morale-busting cold, and by a lack of enthusiasm. I’m sure it can be fixed, these things take time after all…

  2. Really good writing!. These reflects my feelings exactly. On the face of it a lot of the people staying there are up for fighting for social justice but in practice all they want to sit down and relax to have a chat. I was only there at weekends, I did night shifts, the washing up, the organising, going shopping for things that were needed (quite frequently out of my own pocket). I put so much into this and all I got back was abandonment and probably plenty of gossip around my back about how bossy I was. I tried, I swear I did but in the camp there is an elephant, knocking over things, eating our food, drinking our hard sourced water, letting everything get wet… but I felt I was the only one willing to get the elephant out. From the beginning I believed that I rather have 5 campers that are doing what they should do than 20 that get things done once in a blue moon… I lost my patience, my willingness to keep trying and my faith in people. I fear that is now beyond recovery and believe it or not I am fighting with myself not to go there and tell everyone that needs to hear it a few truths… but I wont, because I will feel judged and unsupported like I have done many times before… I left the camp with a broken heart and very little hope that it would get any better. I am heart broken cause this could have been wonderful… I was one of the 6 that camped the first night and I was so full of energy an enthusiasm but as is happens apathy is like a sponge… it sucks the energy of everything around it. And lets not forget we are in Britain, were you have the largest population of invisible elephants in Europe…. we need to be honest with each other, but that was not allowed… god forbid we upset anyone or ask anyone to leave. If they once spoke to one person that is good enough for weeks… why would they be motivated to do any more?

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