Hollywood Ending

Exactly a year ago in an artical entitled Once More For The Road, I thought I put an irrefutable case for a riders union. I finished by offering to run a Blue Peter-style meter, to provide readers with a visual monthly indication of the level of interest. The problem is any Interestmeter or graph needs to have at least two dimensions, but by the time I next sat down to write, all I had was a baseline with a big zero written alongside it. I thought of all sorts of smartarse ways of presenting my 1D model and giving you the readership a good bollocking for your apathy and total lack of foresight, but in the end I decided to drop it. I figured that if that’s the way life is nowadays, the last thing you need is me nagging you when you’re sitting down for a dump. Instead I wrote a piece about stuffing bikes while ogling redheads, beautiful breasts and a range of similar distractions – and I got stacks of feedback!

This confirmed something I’d suspected all along and at the same time let me off the hook. I’d given it my best shot and there were no takers, so I was free to get on with the more hedonistic bits of life with a clear conscience. It wasn’t like I’d started out with an “I’m alright Jack, sod ‘em attitude, I’d really tried. I had to because I believe to my marrow in the principle of strength through unity. I was raised on a diet of Sunday after-roast TV films like It’s a Wonderful Life and The Grapes of Wrath, which reinforced the idea that if we all pulled together and worked cooperatively we could overcome any adversity – and I bought it all, hook, line and sinker. Even today the scene where thousands of slaves stand up one at a time and declare, I’m Spartacus! still brings a lump to my throat, because corny or clichéd as the idea may be, I know that ultimately it’s true: united we stand, divided we fall.

In the Sixties and Seventies when the chant of “The workers, united, will never be defeated!” rang out, the men and women who shouted it knew it was true and so did their employers. That’s why post 1979, Thatcher’s number one priority was to smash the unions, because none of her government’s serious long-term policies (policies that irrevocably changed the face of this country) could be enacted until that had been achieved. The 1984 Miners’ Strike was the last pitched battle of the class war – and in case you missed the news, our side lost. The Tories threw literally billions at it, because they could not afford to lose (although if you read Seumas Milne’s staggering The Enemy Within you’ll realise just how close they came to defeat). After the miners, Wapping was no more than a skirmish. The printers were out and there were always going to be more than enough police to ensure that, with the help of TNT, Murdoch was able to punt out tits and the Times, with the absolute minimum of overheads for maximum profits.

It’s hardly surprising that folk nowadays are less inclined to believe they have an ability to affect their own lives when so many things are simply imposed on them by outside interests. Apart from massively expensive fictional stories produced on celluloid by some of the richest multi-nationals on the globe, you rarely see examples of ‘People Power’ winning through – not in real life; not these days. Which is hardly surprising when you consider how effectively big business, politics, and the media have stitched everything up in the last twenty years. Even on the rare occasions when there have been victories against the status quo, it’s hardly any great surprise that the media Barons (i.e. some of the richest and most powerful people in the world) chose not to make a song and dance about it.

That’s why Roger asked me to write this piece. Although it has absolutely nothing to do with bikes, it’s a 100% true story about a community taking on the Big Bad guys – multi-nationals, politicians and property developers – and beating the arrogant sonsofbitches! The reason I was asked to write this is because I’m proud to be a part of that community and to have done my own tour of duty in a fight, which for some has lasted as long as the First World War!

I’ve lived in Crystal Palace along with my family for the last nine years. I’m a North London boy gone native and I love it. Aside from the area’s stunning views across London (Kent, Surrey and even Essex on a clear day) its greatest asset is a real sense of community. My boys walk to their tiny primary school in five minutes, as do most of their mates. It’s a local school and the kids who go there represent a perfect cross-section of the local population. Their parents’ social standing ranges from single mums on council estates, to loaded but liberal professional couples in big houses across on the Dulwich side; but if you saw the boys and girls doing their kiddie thing at playtime, you’d struggle to say who belonged to whom.

I’m not claiming I live in Shangri-La on the high slopes of Upper Norwood, but considering we’re bringing up kids in London in the 21st Century, I really can’t grumble. So when I found out six years after moving to the area that there was a plan to build an enormous multiplex about fifty feet from my patio doors I was more than a little perturbed. Especially when I found out that I, along with the rest of the local population, had already been consulted and apparently we’d all agreed it was absolutely fine and groovy. The more I found out the more it reminded me of the beginning of the late Douglas Adams’ Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, when it was announced that the Earth was about to be demolished to make way for an Intergalactic Highway.

They planned to build the 20-screen horrorplex – the biggest in the Southeast – on the site of the old Crystal Palace, alongside the TV mast at the top of the park, which would require clearing the highest tree-lined ridge in south London. I’m hardly a tree hugger and I love going to the cinema. I’m certainly no NIMBY (there’s a Care In The Community home less than twenty feet from my front door for Chrissake, and a number of the residents seem to have conditions that require them to scream and wail on a semi-regular basis, but that’s community, I can live with that). But when some arrogant Masonic hand-shakers in Bromley decide that me, my family, and all the other insignificant people in the area are going to get shafted, simply because developing our park is too good a business opportunity to miss, and that when it came down to it, the only choice we had was whether we took it with or without lubrication, my first reaction was to say: “Are they bollocks! and my second was to find out where to join the resistance

The Eco-Warriors (that’s crusties to you) fought them heroically in the trees and their tunnels, which kept the issue in the media spotlight and galvanised community support. The Crystal Palace Campaign (the Great and the Good of the Dulwich Set) arranged and/or financed many events; more significantly, they fought the development along every conceivable avenue of the political and legal systems, and although they were denied at every level, as long as they were slapping appeals in, no trees on the site got chopped. Then there was Diane Barker, a local single mum, who got Legal Aid and took the British Government to the European Court for failing to carry out an environmental assessment – and won!

For my part, I helped start the Boycott UCI group, and our mission was to fuck with UCI’s public image by drawing attention to their involvement in the deal. We formed the group after a demonstration in March 1999, when over 1,500 members of the local community turned up at the Empire Leicester Square, before marching on Downing Street and handing in a massive petition; and members of our team have been picketing the Empire once a week ever since. We focussed on causing UCI maximum embarrassment and we’d turn up whenever the media were in attendance (i.e. at premieres) or we’d send out press releases inviting them to a variety of stunts from birthday parties outside the Empire each March, to a National Boycott UCI Day, when supporters and flying pickets descended on UCI cinemas and multiplexes right across the UK.

Whenever I was involved in a public demo, picket or whatever, there’d be loads of lovely caring folk queuing to sign our petitions, but the ones that really lifted my heart were the bad guys and cynics who’d initially stride past like you’re some pathetic placard-wielding saddo, before catching a tossaway line and turning back. It always went something like: “Hang on, run that by me again. This lot are going to build a fucking great cinema with 20 screens – what’s the point in that, when they don’t even make 20 good films a year? – in Crystal Palace Park!? Isn’t that the one with the dinosaurs and the kids’ farm and all? I remember going there on a picnic with my primary school – pukka park. That’s a load of bollocks, where do I sign?

While that isn’t a direct quote, it’s a reasonable distillation of the sort of response I tended to get from Londoners who were initially uninterested. I found that if you could just get past their assumption that you were an anorak with nothing better to do than try to save the planet, invariably they’d listen and the issue spoke for itself. But ultimately I didn’t mind what people thought I was because, in common with many of the people involved in the action, my life had been ticking along just nicely until all this shit came along. Which was why we were so determined to fight it. It wasn’t a question of property prices, I wasn’t planning to sell, I like where I live and I wasn’t about to allow commercial interests to just waltz in and ruin it. At times it was a struggle to maintain the struggle, but I always found reassurance in the certain knowledge that the community, united and with right on its side, really would never be defeated.

I met many people who actively supported our cause, who would declare point blank that they were doing so on a matter of principle, because in reality there was absolutely no way this development could actually be stopped. The sums involved were simply too big (megamillions) so it was obvious the fix had to be well and truly in. Besides, Bromley Council had already fronted up over two mill for the Eco evictions, and Central Government were planning to plough regeneration money into it, so it wasn’t going to go away. It was simply a matter of time until the dodgy coalition of undeclared vested interests won through and stomped all over the local population’s interests.

While the forces of evil (government ministers, councillors, the developers and UCI) may have put it differently, that’s precisely the line they’d maintained all the way through. It was going to happen, because there was simply too much riding on it. Then a fortnight ago, entirely out of the blue, Bromley released a press statement saying they were throwing in the towel. Alright that’s not how they put it. They dressed it up in all sorts of bollocks and stated their biggest concern was for the local people who would now be unable to get crap minimum wage polyester uniformed jobs in the development, but the bottom line was inescapable – they’d quit. We’d run ‘em and scored a major popular victory!

When Russell Crowe led his gladiators to victory in the recent Oscars, it was simply the latest, most expensive version of the old ‘United We Stand line that Hollywood has been cynically churning out since it first recognised that mug punters like to see that sort of stuff, because like glamour, it’s something that seems to be missing in their everyday lives. I was already involved in this fight long before Ridley Scott’s epic hit the screens and I didn’t need a more refined, formulaic re-hash of the impossible dream. I’d already got the moral in Frank Capra and John Ford’s versions as a kid. They’d convinced me such a victory was possible, I’d just never believed I would actually be a part of one

There’s a line in The Enemy Within which really struck a chord when I first read it: “Many said they would do it all again and many had clearly enjoyed the experience; they had lived at a pitch, physically, intellectually, morally even, which they could not expect to again, and which most who have not undergone war would never emulate. George Orwell, who was wounded in the Spanish Civil War, made a similar observation when recalling his time on the Aragón front: “… One realised afterwards that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable. One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug.”

Although our battle for the high ground in Crystal Palace hardly bears comparison with the life or death struggles those quotes refer to, they kept flashing through my mind as I came to terms with what we – a community who should have been powerless to resist – had achieved. Our dogged fight really had drawn in people of every age and background, from designer-clothed toddlers to hard-up pensioners and we all knew it was us who’d cracked it, not the politicians who grovel for our support once every four or five years.

By the time you see this, another General Election will have come and gone and you’ll know which bunch have been most successful at sucking up to the ever-dwindling number of people who still believe the political process holds any relevance for them. Given the overall climate and Roger’s moans last month, it’s unlikely that many of you will have bothered to set off early, or have taken time at the end of a hard day to cast your vote on the long shot that it might have any noticeable impact on your life – and to be honest I wouldn’t blame any of you who arrived at that conclusion. It’s ironic that the more involved you get, the more you realise that politics is nothing but a front to ensure that business is free to get on with making profits.

You won’t have seen our victory splashed all over the press and TV because, unless it’s featuring at a multiplex near you, ‘People Power’ really isn’t any good for profits. However, if you’ve any doubts about the effectiveness of a united front, next time you’re out in the open somewhere in London, take a look up at the Eiffel tower of the south and check what’s alongside it. What do you see? An ugly concrete monstrosity or a couple of hundred trees? Right, now tell me what a community can’t achieve when they stand together.

In case you missed the news, our side won this one!

Be careful out there

Carin’ Sharin’

This article first appeared in issue 46 of The Rider’s Digest in June 2001 and later as the 11th chapter of The Carin’ Sharin’ Chronicles


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