I went to London on Saturday. In truth I had gone up simply for a break from the routines of home life and had planned the journey some time earlier. However, it happened to coincide with the Pope's visit. With this in mind I'd decided that I'd go to Hyde Park in the evening so that I might witness the spectacle and commotion.
The first time I saw any papal activity was at around 10.15am on my walk from Victoria Station to Westminster. As I strolled along Victoria Street I noticed a large mass of people blocking the way ahead. They were facing not towards me, nor away, but to the side, towards the sight of Westminster Cathedral. The only way to pass them was through a narrow sliver of pavement, about one or two persons wide at most, which the police ensured was kept free so that people might walk from one side to the other.
The crowd itself was probably around 500 people. And soon it was around 501, for I joined near the back. I heard the voice of His Holiness, as loud and clear as a thunderclap. However, this was simply due to the wonders of technology. The Pope was inside the Cathedral, whose doors were closed to us. There was however a video and audio link, the screen so large that I could capture his every gesture. Not that there were many gestures to be seen. And the words, though spoken clearly, were the same platitudes you get in any sermon,
More interesting than the Pope (in my opinion) was the crowd itself. They were from all around the world (though there were, as may be expected, a lot of Irish voices) and given the density of Vatican flaglets and the intangible sort of devout intensity that pervaded, it was clear that, as a non-believer, I was in the minority.
The crowd were friendly too each other - one taller man happily letting a shorter man go in front of him to get a better view. It was nice to see a friendly crowd, not in a mawkish heartwarming way, but because every other time I see a crowd they tend to be loud, vocal protesters with all the unpleasantness, emotional baggage, pigheadedness, insecurity and dogma that the average protester brings with them.
One man loudly asked one of the policemen when the Pope was due to come out. "About ten minutes" said the copper. "Pardon!" shouted a man. "About ten minutes!". The questioner then admitted to having a hearing problem, and thanked the policeman.
I stayed for about fifteen minutes but based on my limited knowledge of liturgy, I deduced that the ceremony was nowhere near the end. Also, there was no guarantee that the Pope would leave through that entrance, although there were a square-formation of young people waiting not far from the door, dressed in blue/yellow robes as if they were part of a choir or a youth organisation.
About seven and a half hours later on my return walk (from Oxford Street towards St. James Park) I noticed a temporary barrier had been erected across the length of The Mall. The famous lines of Union Jacks were interspersed with the flag of the Vatican City. Crowds a few persons thick were hugging either side of the barriers. The Pope, it was said, would be coming down this route on the way to Hyde Park
The police were not letting people go from one side to the other. Fortunately one American woman was pushy enough (verbally, not physically) to allow a small section of us to cross to the other side. She had a friendly rapport going with the police officer, and joked how British policeman were soft, and that in New York or Boston the policemen would not have allowed any sort of negotiation at all. "STEP BACK LADY" etc.
Now in St James Park I took a spectator-point on the steps of some statue. A few other people had had the same idea, but it was worth sacrificing 5 metres or so of proximity for a better view. The police were on full pestering power, and two people standing near me were questioned. I did not hear what the conversation with the first person was about, but the second one was apparently in trouble for crossing the barriers without permission. The two argued for about 10 minutes and, I believe, the man was eventually given only an informal caution.
It wasn't for around forty minutes that the pope's entourage arrived, although we were able to tap in to the audio clues around as he approached. The hovering news helicopter was slowly beginning to hover nearer to us. People who could see around the corner of St James Park (to which I was fairly close) were starting to take photographs down their particular vista. Preceded by several security vehicles and police motorbikes there came... The Popemobile! From his familiar dome turret he waved, along with two other ever-presents who always seem to be in the Popemobile with him. I reckoned the speed of the Popemobile to be extremely leisurely, around 5mph (you will excuse my constant flicking between metric and imperial).
What happened next was madness. Having caught a good glance of the Pope I thought I might try to keep up with the vehicle. 5mph is only a light jog or a long-stride walk, so it wasn't too much of an effort and I didn't have anything to carry. Naturally, as I looked ahead I assumed I was the only person doing this. It wasn't till I looked behind that I found that dozens if not hundreds of people (as they came around the corner of St. James Park) were doing the same as me. It was the craziest thing I have ever seen. Imagine a Disaster Movie - hundreds of people running away from the space-monster whom is rapidly consuming downtown. It was that sort of feeling. It was madness, no other word for it.
This bizarre spectacle continued for about four minutes, until the park stopped and the security barriers curved around to stop us from travelling any further along the Papal route. Along the journey I saw many crazy, some stupid things. There were a number of professional photographers who, armed with stepladders, mounted themselves somewhere in front of the pope in order to get a good shot of him once he crossed the path of their lens. Then they would get off the step-ladder, take another sprint slightly further up, and repeat the ritual.
Though my own running was that of a sneering, rational spectator, it was clear that there was a strong sense of excitement in the running crowd. It was all rather haphazard, and a few people (including a young girl) fell over during the scramble, although as far as I am aware nobody ran over each other - it was not quite crowded enough to be a stampede. Mind you, there might have been some trouble as some people, in their rush, were ignorant enough to run behind some of the police horses. For those not aware, you must run in front of a horse, not behind it. And certainly not through it.
Amidst the crowd and the running I saw two people, a man and a woman (or a boy and a girl, I suspect they were about my age or slightly younger) stop to embrace each other. Though I couldn't help but shudder at the melodramaticism of it all (it's not bloody VE Day) at the same time I found it very sweet, and from their smiles afterwards it looked to me as if it was the first time those two had kissed, and they seemed very excited.
It was only afterwards that I realised just how despicable and weird the whole ceremony I had just seen was. This man, The Pope, a mere mortal, seemed to have the following of a God or a popstar. I could never imagine Gordon Brown (or for that matter any other Prime Minister, including Winston Churchill) being able to attract such lunacy.
Tuesday, September 21, 2010