The Million Mask March took place on November 5 with groups gathering around the world in a hat tip to Anonymous and an F you to the authorities. I’d never been to one of these Anonymous gatherings so I went into the city to see what it was all about. There were ominous warnings of violence in the day or so leading up to the march.
This year we have strong reason to believe that peaceful protest is the last thing on the minds of many of the people who will come along.
– CHIEF SUPERINTENDENT PIPPA MILLS
It seemed like shit might have been about to get real, if the press and police were to be believed. On the night itself, the headlines came thick and fast: Clashes! Violence! Arrests! Battle! Chaos! It sounded like London had descended into a warzone. But what I saw over the course of maybe three or so hours was more like one of those awkward freshers week parties where everyone goes out on the town together and gets blind drunk before shenanigans ensue.
First things first, there were a handful of unnecessary incidents. Some muppets set fire to a cop car. Others threw bollards and fireworks at police and their horses. A woman was then punched for protecting those said horses. That all happened and it was deplorable. It dominated the coverage by the mainstream media while the journos out on the night with their hard hats got the meaty photos they could use to frame the whole event.
But many reporters appeared to miss that for the most part, the Million Mask March was just 3,000 people wandering aimlessly, occasionally shouting. Essentially, this was the whole point of the march: that there was, in fact, no point. It was disorganised and peculiar, so much so that on the night we often found ourselves just kind of standing around.
No path to follow
There was no clear route that the group had in mind, so everyone just walked, following whichever person at the time had decided to take on the task of navigating. Every now and then, the police would swoop in en masse to block off a road off and make sure we didn’t go up it. This led to a bit of shouting and name-calling. “Jobsworth” was a popular insult.
There were a lot of police and from what I saw they looked to be largely in control. They were generally pretty chilled about the whole thing. I didn’t see them starting any trouble or acting aggressively. It was much like previous demos I’ve been to in the UK where the protestors are the ones trying to provoke the cops. But even then, most quickly realised that these attempts were futile, so the group would start walking again.
As the night drew on, there were concerns that we were all going to be kettled as we were herded through the city, but I didn’t find myself or the people around me trapped at any time. At one point we happened upon the Mockingjay premiere, which led to a little confusion. There was an elaborate fireworks show outside the Odeon that caught the wandering attention of more than a few protestors, who stopped to take the atmosphere in. This frustrated a few of the marchers, who tried to rally everyone together again.
Pick n mix protestors
The protestors themselves were a mixed bunch. A lot of them were wearing the masks, but many weren’t, or else they had them on backwards so you could still see their faces. I was maskless and nobody gave me any grief. Some people put a lot of effort into their costumes, modelling themselves on V. One guy took it a step further and came as Gandalf.
There were lots of students, some skinheads, a number of punks and the occasional wrongun, can of lager in hand, who you could tell was itching for something to happen. A few times I heard someone say we should try and start some fights. Indeed, some of the more hardcore marchers were getting annoyed at how monotonous the proceedings were becoming. “Let’s do something,” I heard a few shout.
This “something” manifested in the form of people throwing bollards, jumping up and down on lorry trailers, and pushing over temporary fencing and orange barriers. Some stood in front of cars with their hand-written placards and only let them pass when they got a thumbs-up of approval. The placards were one of the highlights of the evening, each emblazoned with a message for the powers that be, but it all seemed a bit half-arsed. Even the chants struggled to really catch on. There was almost an attempt to storm a police line at a location where we clearly outnumbered the cops, but in the end nobody could be bothered.
This lack of drive might have come from the hodgepodge of reasons people had for being angry: pedophiles, Palestine, the monarchy, the rich, the government, bankers, housing prices, inequality, student fees, TTIP, surveillance. There was no shortage of causes. The overall message? The system needs overthrowing.
Between the occasional sounds of whistles and a Lord of the Rings-esque war horn, I heard conversations about how there were “too many yuppies” taking part, while others questioned the motives of their fellow marchers, suggesting they were just there to get a few good snaps for Facebook.
A couple of lads tried to disrupt traffic by blocking the roads with barriers and bollards. This pissed off most of the other protestors, who would then dutifully clear the roads to allow cars to pass once more.
That kind of summed it up for me: there were a handful of people trying to start something, but most people just weren’t interested in trouble. The bulk of us were happy to limit our anarchism to breathing in the fumes of the oft-photographed smoke flares and walking in the road rather than on the pavement. I actually heard someone shout, “Don’t walk on the pavement. There’s a perfectly good street. We’re here to cause disruption.” And so it went on.
A few times the mass splintered into confused sub-groups and it seemed like a lot of people had gone home as it got towards 9 pm. By the time we got back to Trafalgar Square, the group I was in had really thinned out, so I decided to leave as well.
My initial feeling after the march was one of confusion, but then the more I thought about, I came to realise that this confusion and apparent lack of direction is really the essence of the Anonymous movement. There are vague notions of justice and equality holding together a loose web of activism and uprising, but there is no single issue or driving force, so anything the group sets its collective eyes on is fair game. In that sense, I think it's pretty cool, but when it takes a singular, physical form in something like a march, it can be difficult to know know what to make of it. This is perhaps why the media so struggles to define the movement.
Who needs definition these days anyway?
This is going to be one of those “when I was young” blog posts. I’ve got to that kind of age now. A lot has happened in 32 years. We may not have hoverboards yet, but what we do have is a huge, monstrous mass of data and information at our fingertips courtesy of the World Wide Web. Pretty much every song, book, movie, TV show, journal article and news story is there for us to access on our phones, tablets and computers. Think about how alien this concept would be to us back in the 90s. It would have blown our minds – and I’m pretty sure it’s actually ruined my brain here and now in 2015.
A love for life
Do you remember what it was like to buy a cassette tape or CD (or a record, even)? For me, it was a near religious experience. Going to the local HMV was incredibly exciting. CD shops were essentially massive, real-world versions of Spotify. They were a portal to a world of amazing music. I’d spend hours just browsing, making use of the listening station, carefully deciding what to buy.
I’d make my purchase and walk out of the shop a champion, the proud owner of something I could actually hold in my hands and begin a wonderful relationship with. Sitting on the bus or in the car on the way back home, I’d read through the sleeve notes and admire the artwork and any surprises I might find inside the case (there was once a Fun Lovin’ Criminals single that had a picture of loads of naked women in the sleeve notes).
Back home and the first listen was a magical experience. If I’d bought an album, there would be maybe 10 or so songs I’d never heard before. If it was a single then there would be remixes and instrumentals and perhaps even an acapella (what was the point?!). Either way, I had something that was mine and that I would be able to treasure for years to come.
Each CD and cassette would be listened to countless times. I got to know every song in my collection. I knew all of their names and in exactly what order they appeared on an album. It was an intimate experience. Those were joyous times.
Fear of a modern world
What frightens me is how different my relationship with music has become. I used to make lists of my top 50 or 100 songs of all time. I could make these lists with ease. But if you asked me to write a list of my top 50 songs over the last five years, I would have no idea where to start because my brain has been completely overloaded.
Thanks to Spotify and Soundcloud and Bandcamp and Youtube and more, I listen to so many new songs on a daily basis that I find it difficult to remember most of them. I used to take pride in my collection of tapes that became CDs that became mp3s, but now I don’t even need to download a file because I can stream everything. I deleted most of my music collection because it was a waste of space.
Becoming an idiot
The relationship I have with music today is a more fleeting one. I will listen to something once and if I like it, I’ll pop it in a playlist and forget about it until it turns up on shuffle at some point in the future. If I really like a song, I’ll listen to it on repeat for a while before relegating it to playlist territory.
Whereas before, I’d go out with my Walkman or Discman with a single album and just listen to it repeatedly for the whole day, now I listen to a seemingly unlimited number of songs and albums in a single day. It’s completely melted my brain because there’s just too much of it and as a result I have a very a short attention span. I’m becoming an idiot. Maybe we all are.
Streaming is making me stupid. Perhaps it’s because I’m a dimwit, but there must be other people out there who secretly crave a regression back to the 90s when we still actually bought shit and didn’t just pay for subscriptions to everything.
It’s time for me to get a haircut. I really can’t put it off any longer. I don’t know how long it’s been since my last one, but in that time I’ve gone from having a neat, tidy style to letting it grow out a bit to trimming it myself with blunt scissors to getting my wife to have a go to now looking something like the scruffy 21-year-old I was a decade ago.
The problem I have is that I need to go to a new hairdresser. It’s a walk into the unknown. When I lived in Thailand, I used to go to this salon in a mall. It was familiar and straightforward, despite the weirdness that comes with getting a trim in Thailand, like multiple rinses, head massages and confusing conversations.
The comfort I took from going to that salon made the anxiety of getting a new haircut bearable. I didn’t need to worry about any of the points of contention that appear in front of me now. It’s not like I can ask my wife to come with me for moral support. Because that’s insane. Nobody needs their hand held while they get their hair cut.
Sussing out the place
I’ve seen a few barbers on my street. For the last few days I’ve been making mental notes of the setups of each one as I walk past to help me come to a decision about which to pick. The one closest to my place is always full of young lads getting their lad haircuts. It seems more like a social club than a hairdresser’s. That one’s off the list.
There’s another that has a huskie in it and a similar ensemble of lads, albeit a little older than the first place. It’s too busy inside. Plus my dog has a thing about trying to fight huskies every time he sees one. So that’s off the list, too.
A third hairdresser’s, a “barber shop”, as I should call it, looks relatively welcoming compared to the others. There’s hardly anybody ever in there, but the people I’ve seen having their Barnets cut come out of the shop looking like they mean business. The barber himself, a young British Asian chap, appears to what he’s doing and he has all the equipment and stuff that he might need. This, this will be my barber.
The day arrives
I’m not going to call – I don’t phone anyone other than my wife and mum. I’ll just walk in and see if he can either cut my hair there and then, or else make an appointment for later. But I have to do this after it’s had time to sink in and I can really build myself up to it. I’ll also need to chat about my plans with my wife to get some reassurance that this is actually a good idea.
I’ll go in on Friday afternoon, I tell her. It’s the end of the week and near the end of the day, so it’s something I can work towards. I have a photo I took after my last haircut so I can show him that picture without having to really explain myself.
I head out to the street and walk up the road towards the barber. I wonder if the people I pass notice that I’m in need of a haircut. The closer I get to the shop, the more my mind races and I become increasingly aware of everyone on the street. They all have tidy hair.
Through the door
I’m at the door now. It’s a big moment as I turn the handle and walk in. The barber will clearly be able to see that I’ve left it so long to get this done.
He’s already cutting someone else’s hair, a chap maybe 20 years older than me who actually doesn’t have much on top to start with, but what he does have looks all right in an ashy kind of way. I take a seat and the barber says he can do me next.
As I’m sat on the large, black, leather couch, I want to see the barber perform. I think he looks professional. I reckon I can trust this man to give me something that won’t necessitate two weeks of wearing a hat.
I have some time to myself to think now. Why do I hate getting my hair cut? What is it about the experience that feels to me like nails screeching down a chalkboard? It’s the feeling of being at the centre of attention in a situation in which I’m somehow vulnerable. It’s the process of being in a spotlight and unable to escape.
I have to bring my trail of thought to an end because it’s my turn to don the weird backwards cape and sit in the hotseat. The barber politely asks me what I want. I mumble something about desiring it to look how it does now, only shorter. This sounds too vague. I need to get my phone out and show him the photo. The pic wasn’t really taken at the optimal angle so it’s about as much use as my description. He says he thinks he knows what I mean, so I will have to trust him.
And so it begins
I sometimes imagine that I’m getting my hair done and halfway through I realize it’s a disaster so I run out of the shop with half a haircut and try to get away. I won’t be doing that here. Whatever happens, I’ll figure things through.
The cut begins. He doesn’t wash it or anything, but just sprays some water on. I washed my hair this morning but I wonder if it's unusually greasy or if I have bits of toast in it. Do the backs of my ears look dirty? I didn’t shave. Maybe I should have shaved for this.
We’re keeping conversation to a minimum. I’ve told him I live just up the road and that’s about as far as we’ve got. I’m content to just sit here in silence, but I have to find ways to make my face look like I’m happy with the job he is doing.
I can imagine nothing worse than cutting someone’s hair and knowing by their facial expression that they are unhappy with how everything is going. How do I look content without appearing unusually happy?
I decide to occasionally do that weird half smile people do when they fold their lips in on each other and push them tightly together. I’m trying not to frown as I do it. Every now and then I give an approving nod. He seems OK with this.
I think I like where this is going. My hair is starting to look how I imagined it would in my head. This is an enormous relief. We’re almost done. Do I want some wax in my hair? No, no, don’t worry about that. I’ll do it when I get home and can properly assess the situation. I think I like it, but I don’t want to stare at myself in the mirror for too long here.
He shows me what the back of my heads looks like with one of those small round mirrors. Yep, yep, that’s the back of my head. That’s exactly how it looks. Great, thank you. The backward cape is removed and he brushes some stray hairs from my shoulders. I have to pay now. It’s £9 but I should give him a tenner because he seems like a nice chap. Maybe I should tip more. I don’t know. But before I can figure out this latest conundrum I’m out of the shop and walking back home.
Anyone who sees me now will know that I have just minutes ago had a haircut. What do they think of it? I walk a little faster, catching my reflection in shop windows as I go. I think I look all right. I’ll need to take a picture, though, and send it to my wife, and also take some better shots for next time I get a cut so I can have this replicated.
Back home now and I spend some time in front of the mirror. This has all been worth it. It’s over now. I don’t need to go through this for at least another three months. I could possibly stretch it even longer if I get into one of my long-hair moods.
For now, all is well in the world.
Nothing reminds you that it’s Christmas like images of sad African kids or abandoned dogs. That’s what Christmas is now, right? It’s the time when all the UK’s leading charities get together to ruin holiday TV and make us feel bad about feeling good for being snuggled up with our loved ones while watching Jurassic Park and back-to-back episodes of Coronation Street. I’m not saying raising money isn't a great idea, but I’m just fed up with the way these so-called innovators go about doing it at this time of year.
Before anyone gets a bit rowdy and suggests that I’m being selfish and uncaring for not wanting these adverts to ruin my own Christmas, I just want to put it out there that I work for what is generally regarded as being a pretty big charity, Plan International. So it’s not that I’m ignorant about the issues at hand or I don’t think they’re important. I do understand the need to raise money to get this work done and I’m more than happy for this fundraising to go on in the few minutes between The Snowman walking in the air and melting in a puddle on the ground, but for the love of God, the messaging has to change.
Heal the world
I was only at my mum’s for about a week and in that time I was bombarded by pleas to save African families, to rescue lonely dogs, to fix the ebola crisis, to deliver clean drinking water for all and everything else you can imagine. There are just too many of these adverts to take seriously. Everyone is after £2 a month to do this and that, to put smiles back on those miserable faces, but how are you supposed to pick who you give money to? That’s the key here.
What these adverts are trying to do is make you feel as guilty as possible by showing how utterly shit life can be so that you will pick that particular charity to donate to. Cue camera shots zooming in on the faces of crying children. I HATE this. It’s so demeaning and pathetic. It’s like we all got in such a fuss about the whole Band Aid 30 thing and then we completely ignored all our own advice and went back to objectifying the subjects as if they’re idiots.
We clearly haven’t got out of the mindset that poverty porn is what sells. It’s like Comic Relief all over again. If we as a sector can be so creative and innovative when it comes to social media campaigns and producing neat little videos for online audiences, why does it all go out of the window when it comes to television at Christmas?
You can throw the argument at me that this is the most effective way to make money. But then we’re getting into murky territory and we’re essentially no different than a firm like John Lewis, who do most of their yearly business over Christmas off the back of a television advert.
But wait, there’s a difference there: the John Lewis advert, and the adverts of every high-street retailer you can think of, was a joy to watch. It captured our hearts and imaginations and made us all want to buy penguins. Well, kind of. But you get my point. This was storytelling at its very best, crammed into a couple of minutes of air time that stays with the audience long after the Rovers Return has called last orders.
Stories to tell
All the charities work with real people (or dogs) who have real stories to tell. These people are their own agents of change. I want to hear from them. These adverts should be empowering. They should be memorable. They shouldn’t be the blot on Christmas. There is way more to these people than sad faces, depressing music and serious-sounding voiceovers. This exploitation is just lame.
The message being sent out is that everything is terrible in Africa or wherever else these adverts are filmed. The creativity and spirit that goes into things like Save The Children's Christmas jumper ad is completely lost when the subject matter gets a bit more serious.
Charities across the world do amazing work, but when you reduce it to this whole £2-a-month thing (I know the dollar handles serve a purpose), you oversimplify what is really a very complex issue and this does a disservice to everyone, from the aid workers to the people they are working with to the audiences themselves. We’re effectively saying that people won’t give money unless they feel extremely guilty.
I get that poverty porn works, but it’s sending all the wrong messages and signals out, and these are messages and signals that the development sector has been bending over backwards to try and change in recent years. It just all comes undone at Christmas when the voices that matter get well and truly lost in the sludge. If we can’t think outside of the box at Christmas, as we seem capable of doing the rest of the year, then we’re just going to perpetuate stereotypes.
Isn’t it time we changed the channel?