Monday, February 26, 2024

Just Another Protest in London, Except When It’s Not

We’ve been to London and England several times in the past 12 years. We have a hotel that feels like home (slightly more luxurious than our own). We like the theatre and the museums. We like exploring literary and royal history. I like early morning walks around St. James’s Park and Piccadilly. The Charles Dickens Museum. The Samuel Johnson House. Taking the train to Oxford, Salisbury, Canterbury. The Imperial War Museum. The National Gallery and the smaller art museums like the Courtauld.  

You could spend six months there and not exhaust the things to do. 


You also have to be prepared for the protests. I would say the “inevitable protests,” but that would be redundant. At times it seems everyone comes to London to protest, even if London has not to do with what the protest is about.


Typically, it’s an animal rights protest. Each September, there’s London Fashion Week, held in both February and September at the British Fashion Council’s show place on The Strand near Somerset House and the Courtauld’s Museum.  I can’t count the times we’ve unintentionally walked into a protest at the September event. Everyone is usually polite to passersby, and we’ve never had a problem other than feeling some discomfort at walking through a yelling, chanting crowd.


Trafalgar Square is also a popular place for protests. It is a major traffic thoroughfare, with Whitehall, Charing Cross, and The Strand converging there. It’s a great place to tie up traffic and get attention. Yes, we’ve occasionally been caught on a stopped bus in unmoving traffic. We get out and walk. Climate protests have also become popular in both Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square a few blocks down Whitehall. 


Our own hotel has sometimes been involved in protests. It’s a popular place for Asian dignitaries, and once the Dalai Lama was there during our stay. He attracted protesters and supporters in equal numbers. While we were there last fall, the prime minister of Bangladesh arrived for government meetings. We heard the chanting and noise out on the street, even though our room was well in the rear of the property. Hotel security guards helped us navigate arriving and departing at the hotel. 


Protest outside Parliament

Until recently, the most worrisome time had been September 2012. We’d returned to London for vacation after a gap of almost 30 years. The Summer Olympics has just concluded, and the Paralympics were just getting underway; the marathon ran right in front of our hotel. And we attended the big celebratory parade with a couple of million other people, cheering and waving our little British flags. 


One morning, I went downstairs to get a newspaper from the hotel concierge. He heard my American accent and suggested I might consider avoiding the US Embassy, Parliament Square, and protests in general for a time. “I understand they’re targeting Americans,” he said. 


The US Embassy in Libya has just been attacked, and the ambassador and several others brutally murdered. The controversy was raging back home over what the government should have done; the Secretary of State and the President had apparently opted to do nothing, and people had died. And it was an election year. What prompted the protests against America (and Americans) in London was a statement by the President’s office that the Libyan embassy attack had been prompted by a movie about Mohammed being made in Hollywood. That statement ignited the protests in London, overshadowing what had happened at the embassy. 


We avoided the squares for a few days. We had no trouble. 


This past week, more protests happened in London about the war in Gaza. What’s been happening underscores what we noticed last fall – things were changing. London felt different than it had during our previous trip in 2017.  And it’s not just us tourists. The highest levels of the British government are now involved, and at risk. 


Top photograph of Trafalgar Square by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona and lower photograph by James Eades, both via Unsplash. Used with permission.


Some Monday Readings


2024 and the Invasion at the Southern Border – Roger Kimball at The Spectator.


Taking the High Road: The liberal arts have a future – Nadya Williams at Law & Liberty.


The State of the Culture, 2024 – Ted Gioia at The Honest Broker.


Who is Reading Even for Anymore? – Kat Rosenfeld at The Free Press.


10 Years of A London Inheritance.

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