We have been in London this weekend, primarily for one reason - the Unite for Europe march on Saturday.
Those that know me well know I am extremely opposed to Brexit and I thought I must make my voice heard at this important demonstration. This view was only enhanced in the wake of the terrorist attack in London on Wednesday, which just added to my determination that democracy and more specifically the right to protest are important principles to be upheld. I doubt it will change anything, but it's important to be a thorn in the side of this unsympathetic and callous government as much as possible. So we headed down on Friday evening, delayed due to a train being cancelled meaning we had a nice hour in Friends of Ham too, arriving just after midnight at the ibis hotel in Wembley. I had hoped a few more people could have come from Leeds but with birthdays this weekend and alternative plans, it was a tough decision to prioritise this, although I do feel we made the right decision.
We didn't stay up particularly late as we had an early start, with the sun streaming through the window of the hotel restaurant as we had our breakfast. We then made our way to Park Lane via Green Park tube station, where we saw a number of people bedecked in EU flags congregating. We decided to follow them to the Hilton, where the march was slated to take place, arriving ten minutes later where I wrapped my own EU flag around myself. Here we waited, soaking up the atmosphere and reading the wide range of amusing placards that people had made. In a way I regret not doing so myself but I didn't have time and couldn't think of something overly witty to say. The march was far bigger than the organizers had anticipated, with up to 100,000 lining the streets, up from the 25,000 estimate. This meant we ended up waiting on a roundabout outside the Hilton hotel for over an hour and a half, during which time Geo met us, who was traveling independently. I had tried to get a furry contingent to go, but there hadn't been much response, although we did hook up with Skavi later and Patter went on the march too. Geo admitted that had we not been going, he wouldn't have done either, so that was a good thing while a large number of people stopped to take a picture of his 'stages of the apocalypse' T-shirt.
The sheer tide of people was overwhelming and with the glorious weather it was hard not to feel optimistic. It was good to see a good demographic of people there too - Brits and Europeans, young and especially old - and the feeling was one of celebration but also defiance. We sang happy birthday to the EU to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome while we got chatting to a number of people including a nice lady from Leeds who had canvassed in my parliamentary seat of pudsey in the 2015 general election. She told me some very interesting things, as Wolfie and Geo walked away, leaving me and the lady having a nice chat for twenty minutes. As we were done, I had to go searching for them as they were a good way further down the march, while simultaneously I was trying to keep in contact with Skavi who had come down with the Liverpool contingent but due to them arriving late, was well towards the back of the group. In the end we met up with him outside Parliament Square in the shadow of Westminster, at a time after which I had found Geo and Wolfie. I had feared my frustratingly weak bladder would come into play but we stopped off at McDonald's as we marched while the drums and music added to a carnival atmosphere.
One major advantage of the march other than the sense of hope it gave me was the ability to see famous London sights close up without having to worry about the traffic. With the roads closed, we could see the Whitehall architecture, Downing Street, the Cenotaph, Trafalgar Square and indeed the Houses of Parliament itself close up. We stood on Parliament Square for two and a half hours as we watched a range of speakers talk about Brexit and it was hard not to admire this beautiful building, with its gold cladding glistening in the sun. Where we were initially it was difficult to hear but we soon moved into a better position, just to the right of the statue of Winston Churchill. Sometimes our view of the large TV screen was obscured by people's placards but by and large we got to see and hear everything. Some speeches were exemplary, such as Tim Farron and Nick Clegg, who was sporting a rather sexy black jumper. David Lammy's impassioned and determined oratory won the day though (Mandela would have been on our side, Churchill would have been on our side), while Farron's induced a teary response such was its power. There was a range of speakers there though, including poets and celebrities, with Patrick Stewart sending a special TV broadcast in support. The Spanish nurse was incredibly powerful, saying his passport may be Spanish but his heart is British, while a number of Polish activists spoke too. A lot of the organizations I follow - Scientists for EU, the European Movement and Britain in Europe - were also there while a small number of speakers did fall a bit flat, particularly the angry "Brexit is racist" guy towards the end. There was a lot of cheering and a whole load of applause at various moments of the talks, while as people left I crept closer and closer to the front. It did feel like a huge family, and it made me feel that I was not alone, and thus more positive about the future. Everyone was friendly and one broke was even dishing out free vegetarian curry. We lost Geo for most of this, he went wandering nearer the front early-on, but we did meet up again after the speeches were done.
The demonstration was over by 4:15pm and everyone dispersed, buoyed by what we had seen. As we walked to Marble Arch, where Skavi's coach was picking him up, I endeavoured to thank evert police officer for stewarding the event, particularly under difficult circumstances based on events earlier in the week. There were no flash points aside from a group of five tired old men unfurling an Islamophobic banner on the side of the street as we marched, which I guess is their right to do. As we walked back, we admired the wide range of London sights while I also got to point out where the Reform Club is on Pall Mall. The walk back took us about half an hour through the warren of London streets before we popped out on Oxford Street, not far from our destination. The pavements were rammed here and progress was slow as the sun was shining directly in our eyes, but we still got to Marble Arch with about half an hour to spare. Needing a sit down and with no good bars in the area, we ended up in Pret A Manger, a place I've never been but one by which I was quite impressed. The ham and cheese sandwich was lovely while the coconut hot chocolate was unique but by no means distasteful, with the flavour complementing the chocolate quite well. It was good having a catch-up after the march, just the four of us, not to mention a sit down after seven hours on our feet.
As 6pm approached, we said goodbye to Skavi and walked back down Oxford Street, intending to call off at Brewdog Soho on the way to Leicester Square and a Chinese restaurant that Geo knew. In the end, Brewdog was absolutely rammed so we bypassed this and went straight for food. Perhaps Geo had hyped this up somewhat but it wasn't particularly good, highlighted by the fact that they gave us cooking wine warmed up instead of sake as our drink. They did provide some shrivelled dry plums which were supposed to add sweetness but it was particularly appalling. The service was rude too, although I had been told to expect this, while the food once it came was alright but not hardly stellar. I had beer so avoided the sake fiasco, but the chow sien pork was fatty and cold, the black bean beef chicken uninspiring and the sweet and sour chicken not crispy enough. Geo admitted that they were off their game, and the meal was perfectly fine drinks aside, but it was hard not to feel a little disappointed by the experience. From memory I also thought I had been there before but I'm not 100% sure. If I did, it didn't stick in the memory.
After this we were free for the evening, opting to go to gentrified east London as that's where I know more about the bar scene. After some research, I noted a place called Mother Kelly's underneath the railway arches in Bethnal Green which was quite easy to get to based on where we were. Half an hour later we were there and while it was busy inside, there were enough tables outside to get a drink. It was a little cold and we subsequently moved under the heaters, and then inside, as it thinned out later on but it was worth it to try beer from a number of breweries we hadn't heard of before. gir was one of these from Norway and they had good stuff while we also got some free samples from the artisan sandwich stand Madame et Monsieur, with their signature Croque Monsieur something to die for. We were playing it pretty relaxed but decided after about an hour to go to the tap room of the Redchurch Brewery, which was just down the road. On the way we noticed a number of cyberpunk types and there was a lock in in a warehouse that people were sneaking in to. The Redchurch Brewery was just down the road and the tap room wasn't too busy, meaning we could sample a number of their sour beers and beer sticks in relative comfort. Geo was enjoying trying a range of different beers while I enjoyed speaking to the bar staff here who told me that they do brew some beers on site and others elsewhere. The barmaid was a geordie and enjoyed working there while we enjoyed sampling some brews from an up-and-coming brewery that is just starting to become known in Leeds. We had hoped to do the Bermondsey Beer Mile and BrewDog Homerton but time in the former case (the bars all shut at 8pm) and distance in the latter put paid to that.
By 10:30pm, Geo wanted to go home, and as it is quite a distance for him, it was understandable. This saw us head off back to Bethnal Green tube and then to Liverpool Street where we had to wait for the Chesham train. We could have got an earlier train to Wembley but we decided to wait, as we were all heading in the same direction anyway. This was a good decision as we could continue our evening, chatting about the day before we had to spilt once our stop came up. In the end then it was a fantastic day and a worthwhile one too. I'm glad I went on the march as it made me feel I'm not alone and it has given me a greater determination to fight this. I'm also glad we managed to make a day of it and although I wish a few more furs could have joined us, it was great that we managed to get a small group together.