The Wild Wild West End

As I arrived in central London today, I realised I could have chosen a better day to go and have my hair done. I unwittingly booked an appointment at my Soho salon – just off Oxford Street – at the same time as about quarter of a million protesters walked along said street to deliver a powerful message about the government’s cuts in public spending.

The police got jumpy, the protests got messy and what the Guardian website described as a “generally good-mood” became “soured by violent and destructive attacks on symbols of wealth including the Ritz, banks and a luxury car dealer and an occupation of Fortnum & Mason”.

I couldn’t catch the bus from my area to Tottenham Court Road, as I would usually do, as all the roads around Oxford Street were closed. I caught the tube to Bond Street and emerged at the Oxford Street exit directly into a heaving mass of shoppers, onlookers, riot police and protesters.

I turned right out of the tube station and shuffled along in the midst of a mass of humanity for about ten minutes before I realised I was walking in the wrong direction. I turned around and shuffled back through those same relentless crowds, and walked towards the Soho salon.

There’s a kerfuffle in the crowds and I hear the faint chanting of “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” in the distance. As the singing gets louder, I realise that Boots (a health and beauty store) across the road has been closed; it is fronted by police in riot gear, and a bunch of protesters dressed as walking wounded, with “blood-stained” bandages around their heads, are singing the oddly bizarre Christmas song to the grim-faced police officers.

I discover most of the large stores are closed and fronted by riot police. Many smaller shops have boarded their shop fronts. It’s an odd afternoon of business as usual, shoppers out for a bargain, against a backdrop of one of the largest protests in the past ten years.

I walk a little further and faster, trying desperately to look discreet and remain under the radar. The growing crowds, mounting evidence of riot police and chanting protesters all around, are just plain menacing.

I think, “I shouldn’t be here, I shouldn’t be here, I shouldn’t be here”. I soon hear police whistles, raised voices and, as the police storm a crowd of people in the middle of the road, a mass of humanity surges forward in my general direction. I see a sea of people, I see no space to go and I seek panicked shelter in the doorway of a nearby shop. A police officer tells a buggy-pushing dad that it’s not safe to be on the street with a buggy. The panic dissipates as the police presence recedes and the protesting crowd continues on its set path. I unclench my jaw and breathe again.

A little further along the road, I see a crowd gathered around an inordinately tall man. He is dressed in a fluorescent yellow worksuit and I assume that he is a side-tracked protester. People are taking photos of him; he is inviting one gentleman to feel his leg to see that he is not wearing stilts, and cameras click all around. He must be seven foot tall. What a bizarre diversion.

Eyes back on the road. I continue through crowds that ebb and flow. In the midst of an ominous flow I decide to step away from the main street. I walk down past the London Palladium, past Liberty and, with Carnaby Street in my sights, I turn into my chosen street in Soho. It’s quiet down that road, except for a protester walking towards me bearing a banner that reads: “Nick Clegg is a chopper”. I am so glad to enter that familiar doorway and find solace and shelter in my cosmopolitan hair haven.

I greet the multilingual receptionist, and, with a dramatic sigh, I tell her I could’ve found a better day for my hair appointment. She looks at me with a confused smile, until one of her colleagues says, “Oh, right. The protests.”

I am shown to my seat by a young Greek stylist, who settles me down, capes and covers me, and offers me coffee. I ask him if he’s seen what Oxford Street looks like. He tells me he went to the Apple store earlier (excuse me all you Apple-geeks for not knowing this, but apparently some new gadget was due for release today), and he was amazed to see such a crowd of people waiting to get into the store.

“Crazy, hey?” he says to me.

I realise we are speaking at cross purposes and, after acknowledging the stress of an Apple-storming crowd, I tell him about the protests and that they are becoming quite heated. He tells me he has no TV so had no idea what was happening, and asks me if I know why the protests were happening. We have a short discussion and then he says to me, with a sad and wry smile,

“No matter how bad things get here, they will never be like Greece.”

He says that that was the worst time of his life, when the streets of Athens were a burning, destructive mass of economic protest. Every time he returns home, he tells me, more shops have closed down and more businesses are struggling. He is due to fly home again tonight, and he’s unsure what sights will greet him this time.

My Bulgarian hairstylist, bubbly and constantly smiling, glides across to take care of business. I drink my coffee and remind my shoulders to subside. I begin to relax.

Half an hour later, four siren-blaring police vehicles storm down the quiet Soho street in front of the salon. Hot on the wheels of the vehicles are about 20 sprinting youngsters, dressed in black and wearing face masks. The hairstylists who don’t currently have scissors in hand all rush the front door and watch the action. The seriously gorgeous Australian owner of the salon watches out of the shop window and shouts, “Go, ninjas”,  as his scissors fly this way and that.

It is with much trepidation that I emerge back on to the street, newly coiffed. I look up and down the street and decide which way to go. I turn right, and right again and eventually end up heading into the eye of the storm. I realise Piccadilly is not my desired destination and turn to go back to Bond Street. I walk through thick and thin crowds of people, some with banners, some with face masks, all animated, all looking exhausted and all, it would seem, heading towards Bond Street station. The air feels heavy with tension.

I get on to the tube and I stand all the way home. I see a young guy, tousle-haired and anxious, looking through photographs on his camera. I watch along with him for a few minutes and see a range of blurred, close-up and random photos of protesters. A few sight-seeing photos pop into view, showing token protesters in the foreground, and he seems to be searching for that right shot. I couldn’t work out if he was a paparazzo or a tourist. I conclude that he must be both: a tourazzo.

I get home, and I realise how relieved I am to feel safe. I turn on the television, and see that an element of the protesting public has gone ballistic in Piccadilly, smashing ATMs, hurling metal grates into bank and shop fronts, spraying graffiti on building walls, letting off fire crackers and, ultimately, starting fires in the streets of central London.

Right now, I have no idea where this will end. It’s been an afternoon full of cops and yobbos. I’m so glad to be home.

Sunshine signing off for today.

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50 thoughts on “The Wild Wild West End

  1. Brits sooooooo understated. “violent and destructive acts” The mood of the crowd “soured” say what? This situation in Japan is “uncomfortable” Huh? The slaughter in Sudan is “distasteful” Huh?I think Brits need a lesson in appropriate use of appropriate adjectives. The raging fires encouraged tenants to remove their sweaters. Huh?

  2. The British press have been known to add fuel to the fire in aspects like this, but they do seem not to like to report the dutiful citizens of England as being violent – for me, it was the Oldham, Bradford and Burnley riots a while back. In France, the papers said England was on the verge of a civil war between whites and Muslims. In England, it was very much glossed over and continued armed police presence went unreported.

  3. Sunshine–
    what a terrifying afternoon…I can’t believe you didn’t turn tail and tube home (as I would have done–I don’t do well in tense situations)
    I loved your descriptions, as always–and the oasis of the salon was quite welcome, I imagine…interesting the others’ take on what was going on.

    I am singing in happiness that you are safe…
    during the WTO riots in Seattle 10 years ago…a bystander walking through was in the wrong place at the wrong time…and clubbed to death.

    be careful–and beautifully coiffed.

    blessings
    jane

    1. I should have done that, jane. I was fine but the uncertainty and the fear of what could happen next – and getting caught up in it all – was distressing. Has this news made it to the US? Thanks for your concern – much appreciated.

  4. Major yikes! I’ve been gone all day and so haven’t heard one bit of news. Will have to turn it on now. I’m glad you didn’t get any closer to the mayhem. Years from now, you can tell people that committment to your haircut overrode removal from harms way. I can relate.

  5. That is a wild story! Especially because of the different viewpoints all around – it’s like everyone was living a different story. But now you have one of the best haircut stories ever!

  6. It all seems so uncharacteristic for London, doesn’t it? Not the London I spent so much time in, anyhow.
    We were in Istanbul a few years ago and all of a sudden we found ourselves in a stream of angry, shouting people. We were pushed and crowded down a street until we suddenly came face to face with Riot Police, in full uniform. We managed to break away from the crowd, and bolt for our hotel. Once safely inside, we found out that the crowds were the fans of two rival soccer teams, all coming home from the big game!
    I wonder what these crowds would have been like if they were all protesting government cuts!

    1. It’s become quite characteristic of London over the past few years, sadly, Margie. I understand the protests; I don’t understand the destruction and chaos that go with them. It must have been scary being caught up in the middle of rival soccer fans – gosh. Glad you escaped that unscathed!

  7. I felt quite a bit of panic reading this, how scared your must have been.
    Is the yellow worksuit like the blue overalls our labourers wear here?
    tourazzo … I like that 🙂

    1. It was a panicky time, Cindy. I’m glad I got home okay. The yellow worksuit is worn by road workers and labourers (fluorescent so they can be seen in the dark), and the riot police also wear the jackets over their uniform. It’s not a uniform, but is usually worn by people who need to be seen, or distinguished from others in a crowd, I think.

  8. What a frightening afternoon. I am so thankful to read that you are safe. I can’t imagine what it must be like to walk into a riot area not knowing what to expect next. I love the term “tourazzo” as well. I’m afraid I might fall into that category with my new camera as my constant companion. I prefer to take pictures of places rather than people so I wouldn’t qualify for papparazzo.

  9. How terrifying for you, Sunshine! You’re so much braver than I’d have been, hair appointment or not. And yes, I realize it’s incidents like this that make wonderful fodder for our novels. BUT life is too short as it is to accomplish all we want to do, without having to brave the craziness of other people’s emotions! Glad you got your hair done and arrived safely home.

    1. Thanks, Debbie. I wasn’t trying to be a hero, or gather fodder to write about; I was torn between thinking I shouldn’t be there, and thinking I had every right to be there. It was a weird space for me. Also, it was so crowded on Oxford Street that it would have made no difference if I walked to the salon or if I walked back to the tube.

  10. What a frightening experience! I once got caught up in a small riot and it was terrifying. I jumped on the nearest bus and found myself lost, but I felt safe.

    I’m so glad you’re safe.

  11. Amazing post, Sunshine, very Kate Adie! You were right there in the teeth of the action! Fabulously written, dramatic and my heart was in my mouth for you…very pleased you got out of it all safely.

  12. I would definitely have turned tail and gotten back on the tube straightaway! Glad your safe, sound, and even more lovely than usual 🙂

  13. I’d heard about these protests briefly on the news. What a crazy, scary experience. Made all the scarier since you weren’t expecting it or participating in it. Glad that you got home unscathed.

  14. Hi Sunshine,
    I just finished reading an article about this on http://www.theblaze.com. I immediately thought about you. (We don’t get cable, so I don’t know what is being said on the news.) I am so glad that you are OK after such a terrifying day. I thought of all the beautiful pictures that you recently posted, as I was watching the reports of the clean up. I may sound crazy, but I believe that what happened in Greece, and what is happening over there, will soon be happening over here. We have already had protests happen in Wisconsin, and protests are being planned for Ohio (my state.) But, even though the reason for the protests may be different, I believe the same people are organizing/funding these protests: liberal progressives –
    “workers of the world unite”. Bill Ayers, George Soros, Francis Fox Piven, (Piven and Cloward), to name only a few. The list is long, and they have a plan that is frightening. Google any of those names and see what you find.
    I’m glad you are OK. Stay safe.

  15. Your post is better than any newspaper article. Your first hand experience on being stuck in the thick of it had me glued to the screen. I cannot imagine what it would be like and don’t really want to experience tension like that.
    You’re very lucky to have been in and out of London unharmed.
    I think it’s crazy what is happening there. The protests I can understand but the damage and destruction only makes financial matters worse for taxpayers. The masses destroying things will pay for it themselves over the coming months. What’s happened to the UK?

    1. I only know what I saw and what I experienced, which was not the worst of what happened on Saturday. Unfortunately the largely peaceful protest seems to have been overshadowed by the vocal and violent minority.
      Thanks for visiting my blog – good to meet you.

  16. Wow, Sunshine. This whole tale sounds almost like a fever dream…a nightmare. I’m glad you’re safe. And just as importantly, what an expertly constructed story–the contrast of the violence in the streets to the posh and blissfully unaware interior of the salon.

    Excellent post. WordPress should have Freshly Pressed this one! Stay safe in London.

    1. Thank you, Maura – what kind and generous things to say. Wow.
      It was a weird afternoon, and the more I think about it, the more weird I realise it was! I was sure glad to be safe.

  17. What an experience! I imagine it was a bit scary, but at the same time, heightened your senses to new levels. It is a strange feeling to be on ‘alert’. Thanks for sharing, and glad you made it back to your home safe and sound … and hope it didn’t get too out of hand that anyone was hurt.

    1. It was quite an experience and I felt quite shaken – and relieved – when I got back home. It is weird to be on alert, you’re right.
      Good to see you over here again – thanks for coming by!

  18. Oh gosh, I remember being caught up in a protest in London a couple of decades ago, and that wasn’t nice either… my sympathies. Hopefully by now, you’ve recovered? That’s one of the downsides of living in London (which I’m glad to say I don’t, anymore. I prefer rural life now), particularly if you decide to go to the west end at the wrong time… Things happen there and can turn bad quickly.

    @Carl. Brits are good at understatement, but it still gets the point across. At least to each other. American does big statements, we do small. We still have the same emotions.

    1. Thanks, Val – I’m completely fine now, thanks. I’m glad you understand how it felt – not fun, is it? I can imagine how much you enjoy the rural life after living in this big city.

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