Covid#14 – Party Time (2 July 2020)

A couple of weekends ago, I fell foul of the law. Potentially. In semi-honour of my half-Finnish roots, I had a picnic at Wormwood Scrubs to celebrate midsummer. Aware of the legal risks, I may have been reckless with my invitations. It’s a criminal offence to participate in an outdoor gathering ‘of more than six persons’, and a few too many turned up: at least twenty persons. The arguable crime was aggravated when a couple of QPR supporters, excited by Finland’s blue and white flag, came over to chat.

In my defence, Wormwood Scrubs is a windswept wasteland – more blasted heath than midsummer night’s dream – where no virus particle can hang around for long. Besides, I really wanted to party. Zoom Gloom had been gathering, and I was keen to engage physically with multiple acquaintances. Things never got as wild as I’d have liked. Memories of solstices past flickered through my mind – a screening of The Wicker Man in 2017, a walk across hot coals in Helsinki before that – and I imagined flaming effigies and leaping bonfires after sunset. Toying with taboos felt wrong this year, though. As the wind grew chillier, we finished my cinnamon buns instead. Those of us left standing when my flag was furled – a safe six, at last – headed to a friend’s garden to shiver a little longer.

It was a transgression ahead of its time. Within a day, thermometers were soaring, and al fresco celebrations erupted nationwide. By the middle of the week, campers and sunseekers were heading in their thousands to beauty spots and beaches around England. Liverpool’s Premiership win then unleashed festivities across Merseyside. Streets all over London bubbled into get-togethers, and police vans sped about dispersing open-air parties from Kingston to Hackney Downs. On Thursday, Wormwood Scrubs itself became a dance-floor, as hundreds descended on my picnic spot to rave the night away.

Images of crowds, confrontations and litter mountains provoked disapproval from all directions. Lots of people worried that the authorities were losing control, and a couple of tweeting anarchists I came across saw the opposite: an emerging ‘biosecurity state’. An ultra-sceptical acquaintance thought it obvious that the government was behind it all, pursuing hopes of herd immunity it only ever pretended to abandon. The most influential voices of outrage sounded almost impartial by comparison: as infuriated by the sunbathers and ravers as they had been about Black Lives Matters protesters and, early in the lockdown, people in parks. The Daily Mail reported that beaches across Britain were submerged in debris and laughing gas canisters (‘hippy crack’), while the prime minister warned that beachgoers in Bournemouth were ‘taking too many liberties with the guidance’. Anticipating a lockdown deregulation that he’d just announced, Boris Johnson said it was ‘crucial that on July the Fourth we get this right and we do this in a balanced way and we recognise the risks’.

Though the apprehension sounded reasonable, it was anything but. Two weeks before Johnson’s 23 June announcement that ‘our long national hibernation is beginning to come to an end’, a trusted associate called Andrew Griffith – his former chief business advisor, now a Tory MP – had urged him to ‘sweep away’ almost every pandemic-related economic restriction on Saturday 4 July, and label the occasion ‘our own Independence Day’. Friendly newspapers were briefed accordingly, and the Daily Mail was among several that predicted our liberation in advance – on what they duly called Independence Day, or ‘Super Saturday’.

Audiences less amenable were given treatment less friendly. Police commissioners weren’t contacted at all, and Downing Street ignored a direct plea from the Police Federation that pubs reopen on a weekday instead. The government’s concern about overcrowded beaches in Bournemouth was correspondingly hollow. Boris Johnson’s genuine attitude had been on show in parliament three days before, when Brighton’s Labour MP flagged up the similar risks facing his seaside constituency; the prime minister contemptuously told him to ‘show some guts’.

The implication that we should be gearing up to celebrate on Saturday is rather mystifying. Though Johnson is strangely loyal to the United States, he’s also a cynical English politician – and to many people whose support he’d ordinarily court, ‘our own Independence Day’ is a disaster in the making. Tim Martin of Wetherspoons is predictably pleased, but Greene King pubs won’t even start reopening until Monday, while the chairmen of the Police Federation and the Metropolitan Police Federation angrily foresee ‘a perfect storm’ and ‘apocalypse.’ Even traditional Tory cheerleaders are hedging their bets. ‘Barmageddon!’ equivocated The Sun.

So why the concern to facilitate a monumental booze-up? Plots are easier to assert than prove, but I’ve imagined a masterplan that’s at least plausible. Dominic Cummings is notoriously fond of disruption, and he apparently fancies himself to be a deep strategic thinker. He might have calculated that drunken disorder is most likely to break out in urban areas where Tories are already unpopular – and that if it does, Johnson could pose to his core supporters with very little downside as a champion of law and order. Subsequent arguments about relaxation of the lockdown could also serve as a useful distraction. Cummings has just initiated a restructuring project he’s been contemplating for years, taking steps to abolish DFID and politicise the senior civil service, and the less that anyone focuses on those seismic institutional changes, the happier Downing Street will be.

That’s more hypothetical than your average conspiracy theory, especially because the pubs haven’t opened yet, but unhinged speculation seems appropriate to the volatile mood. In my own corner of North Kensington, midsummer was followed by quite intense madness. The street parties last week regularly ended with emergency response teams calling time on crowds of drinkers, and police helicopters circled overhead on at least two nights. Late on Wednesday, someone was shot on Portobello Road, and Saturday saw a stabbing. Now that temperatures have sunk ten degrees, the streets and skies are quiet all over again, but Independence Day could easily draw the crowds back out. And though the weather for Saturday looks iffy, it feels as though the summer party’s just getting started. It certainly won’t take much to persuade Londoners that it’s time for a drink. Maybe even a little hippy crack . . .

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