Truncheon versus idea: Student protesters in London on 9 December.
I was startled to see a giant mock-up of my book in use as a shield at this week's demonstrations – but it's actually an appropriate defence.
It's a very strange thing to watch a policeman take a truncheon to a book – particularly when that book is giant-sized and being used as a shield. On yesterday's student demonstrations, amid the smoke, fires and police horse charges, one group of students in the vanguard had made mock-ups of various books, including Brave New World, works by Ruskin, Joyce, Adorno, Ivan Illich and my own book, Pip Pip.
Radical writing is often described as being at the intellectual barricades, but here at the protest, metaphor became reality. The books were not only at the barricades, they were the barricades, behind which the students could both take shelter and push forward; could "transgress" across the police lines while the truncheons fell on the books, not the demonstrators. The scene embodied something profound: ideas do shield people, and those who dislike the status quo can find protection in words of subversion.
While the MPs discuss the issue as if money were the only thing of value, the students know that ideas, too, are a precious resource, and that they are being denied access to them by the very people who, for a generation, benefited so enormously from free university education.
Brave New World describes a scene where babies are conditioned by electric shocks to hate books and flowers. Flower-power and word-power, two of the incendiary forces behind the events of 1968, are being reenacted on the streets of London today. The events of 1968 were, crucially, driven by the civil rights movement and some of the angriest protesters this week – including the student holding my book – were black. Rightly furious about the theft of their future, they are at the vanguard precisely because they know the Huxley-esque cruelty of class systems and institutional racism that oppress young black people.
Pip Pip is a manifesto for time, against clocks, for the politics of carnival, against uniformity, which is why, I imagine, it was in this Battle of the Books, where the vanguard of students was led by the rebellious revelry of a circus clown. When they clashed with the uniformed police, the scene recalled Huxley's "standard Gammas, unvarying Deltas, uniform Epsilons".
The Battle for the Books was an eloquent protest and a witty one, which mocked the dumb language of the status quo speaking only with the brute, blunt force of the Truncheon while the students performed the lively subtlety of Idea.