This blog got its name from a book I failed to write.
It was July 7th 2005 and, as news came through of the terrorist attacks on London, I was in the middle of an anti-G8 protest camp in Scotland. For the past week, I had been weaving in and out of different groups of campaigners, from the Make Poverty History march to a collective of anarchist hill-walkers, from the Black Bloc kids fighting with the police at Gleneagles to the Edinburgh leg of Bob Geldof's Live8 concerts.
After staying for James Brown's last encore at Murrayfield, I ended up spending the night on the steps of Waverley station with a group of teenage concert-goers who'd missed the last train home - and it was there, in the early hours of July 7th, that I had a conversation which brought my puzzlement into focus. "What I don't get," said the girl from Middlesbrough, "is these anti-G8 protesters. I mean, why do they want to stop the G8 making poverty history?"
Here was this intelligent young woman, trying to make sense of the world on the basis of what she saw on the news and read in the papers, and she'd decided that the anti-G8 protests must be some kind of pro-poverty campaign. It was at once insane and an entirely understandable conclusion.
The next morning, back inside the police lines at Stirling, I was still thinking about that conversation when the news from London spread through the camp. The mood changed in moments. People clustered around wind-up radios, listening to the live news reports, or tried to call friends and relatives to check that they were safe. The confirmation came through that this was being treated as a terrorist attack.
A few minutes later, I heard the BBC presenter interview a terrorism expert, a man called MJ Gohel. Yes, he said, this looked like a coordinated attack, but we mustn't be too quick to point the finger of blame: it could be Al Q'aeda, but it was "equally possible" (those were his precise words) that this had been done by people protesting against the G8.
For months, I kept going back to those words. You had to tread carefully, in the context of so much horror and grief, to place significance on one pundit's off the cuff opinion. Yet what I wanted to know was how it became thinkable for a "terrorism expert" to put the anti-G8 activists on a par with Osama bin Laden as likely suspects for an act of mass murder.
So far as I could tell, the only deaths with which the anti-globalisation movement had been associated were the shooting by Italian police of a young protester at Genoa, and the self-immolation of a Korean farmer during the protests at Cancun. Anyway, I had spent months hanging out with these activists - and, while the more militant believed in the destruction of property and picking fights with the police, even this minority had no taste for violence against innocent civilians. In that respect, they stood in contrast to the leaders gathered inside the Gleneagles Hotel, among them the architects of the invasion of Iraq. Anyone suggesting Bush and Blair might have a hand in the London bombings would (understandably, I think) be branded a conspiracy theorist - yet the anti-G8 activists had somehow become plausible suspects.
This plausibility was, I felt sure, part of the same distortion that had confused the girl from Middlesbrough. Somehow the spectrum of protest I had seen on the ground in Scotland was polarised, in the media and the language of politicians, until it seemed like two opposed forces - the moderates and the extremists. I started writing about this, trying to work out how it came about. Plenty of the activists I talked to were happy to believe it was a deliberate policy on the part of the media - yet I had worked in BBC newsrooms and I knew that such "paranoia" (as journalists saw it) was part of why activists were treated with suspicion. At the same time, I was fascinated by the way that elements within the different groups of protesters seemed to contribute to the polarised portrayal - most obviously, in the iconic (if accidental) contrast between the "infamous" Black Bloc anarchists and the white-clad Make Poverty History marchers. (None of which excused journalistic laziness or political cynicism.)
As the summer went on, it became clear that something very similar was happening in the portrayal of British Islam in the wake of the bombings. Muslims were divided (by the media and politicians) into "moderates", whose leaders were happy to be photographed shaking hands with government ministers, and "extremists", who were evil and beyond reason. It was striking how this mirrored the representation of campaigners in the run up to Gleneagles - Geldof with his arm round Blair's shoulder, while police chiefs thundered warnings about the dangerous and irrational anti-G8 protesters...
To cut a long story short, I wrote a first draft of the book over the summer and, after some delay, found an agent who wanted to help me get it published - but as I tried to act on her advice, the project seemed to lose shape. To be honest, I wasn't ready to write a book - I hadn't grasped the disciplines of form which apply to a project of that scale and are quite distinct from the ability to write a half-decent sentence or paragraph. But every now and then, when I watch news reports (such as those from Germany last week) or hear a politician speaking, I am reminded of those themes and find myself wishing I'd managed to give them the treatment they deserved.
Sunday, 10 June 2007
This blog got its name from a book I failed to write.