With Charles and Camilla and the revolting students
IT was a scene where one could imagine a plague of locusts had been and gone through.
Shop windows were smashed. Seemingly indestructible street bins were tossed on their sides, split open, clearly the implements used to break the windows, where graffiti emblazoned with the words 'Pay your taxes' and 'Why should we pay for your crisis?' was plastered all over the smashed remains. This was Topshop on Oxford Circus last Thursday evening in the midst of the student demonstrations in London.
The citadel of retail London, at all times massively populated with taxi cabs and buses, tourists, civilians and workers, is scary enough at 5pm when the massive volume of workers suddenly stream onto the streets. Add the chaos of a mass demonstration, hundreds of riot police and a royal cavalcade, and you think, what more can this situation take to explode into something truly nasty?
Well, as one who lived in London during the Iraq war and constant IRA bomb threats and attacks, the thought of course, springs to mind -- perfect timing for an Al-Qaeda, terrorist attack.
And while the student demonstrations were valid, they had turned violent, and the police's real fear was: Would some lunatic fringe take this golden opportunity to cause real damage and hurt a lot of innocent people?
Historically the IRA used "my enemy's enemy is my friend" for opportunistic attacks. It would make sense. Fortunately, nobody did.
But trapped as I was in the streets, amongst a surreally distanced crowd, voyeur-like, interested only in laughing at the focus of the students' attacks and using their camera phones to photograph what was going on, I wanted to get out from what I felt was a potentially sinister set-up.
I take my hat off to London policemen and women. They were extraordinarily calm in such a volatile situation. Talking to the public, not making a drama out of things even though Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall had just arrived, visibly shaken. The glass of their car was cracked and paint-splattered as they had been sitting ducks in Regent Street while trying to make their public appointment and getting caught up by the demonstrators on Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly.
To be within two feet of that vehicle just minutes after the attack, as I was, brought home the nature of the irrational violence and the feeling of exposure Prince Charles and Camilla must have felt.
Being there on fashion business, like many people working in retail, this was my place of work. And knowing how dire things are in retail already, this kind of stuff does threaten to undermine jobs, as well as the reputation of just protest.
I can understand the students' rage. There is something sickening about a government that makes claims before coming to power that they will not tolerate fat cats who don't pay taxes. And yet they appointed Philip Green, owner of Topshop, to advise them on cost-cutting measures. A man who paid himself a dividend of £1.2bn in 2005 and paid it to his wife's address in Monaco to avoid paying £300m in tax.
What difference would that £300m have made to the British exchequer? According to some it would have built a couple of secondary schools, or paid for the employment of several thousand people for that year, who would in turn contribute more revenue to the exchequer. It could have paid for many students' education.
Yet a further irony in this, is that Green is probably keeping London fashion talent going as he sponsors New Generation at London Fashion Week, the only real initiative to help promote young talent in a hugely commercial, competitive market.
And this week his business was attacked by the young people who normally patronise his shop, and who could well be looking for his patronage in a few years.
Oh the complications of it. Like everything in this crisis we are in, no one is clean. No one is clear of responsibility. Even the students, who finally took action, proved themselves not as pure as they would like.
But was it really they who turned it all so violent? Or was it a group of militant, anarchic, activists out to use them as a cover and an opportunity to attack the commercial establishment, as well as the government?
People in Ireland fear that we will be next to experience such violence and mayhem. We have to protest and highlight injustice, hypocrisy and deceit, otherwise it will run amok, unchecked, as we have already experienced. But we also must watch whom we protest alongside and make sure we are not used by other people's agenda to cause even more destruction to our livelihoods.
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