Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Order your copy here.
Some weeks back, in the first days of late-stage lockdown, I found myself in Notting Hill Gate, the once-boho, now just mega-monied West London district synonymous with tourists, Sienna Miller, complicated frappe-yoghurts and all manner of Cool Britannia tat.
It was one of those feverish early summer afternoons when the city seems to finally spread its winter-clipped wings, so I was half-expecting a certain hullabaloo on the streets. But as I made my way from the influencers’ paradise of Portobello Road towards Hyde Park, I stumbled on a level of chaos I hadn’t been prepared for: a vast procession of bodies making their way down the high street – all whistles, banners, costumes and placards.
I knew right away who they were: the anti-lockdown brigade, which, by this point, had morphed into the anti-vaccine brigade. Intrigued, and slightly thrilled, to be seeing civility turned on its head like this after months of wandering through deserted streets, I moved towards the traffic island and started gawping.
The crowd was astonishingly ordinary: pensioners, boomers, teens, crusties, rastas, mums with kids in pushchairs. There were people in football shirts, people in harem pants, Rotary Club bigwigs in elasticated trousers who you never would have imagined going to any kind of protest – until now.
With them came a bizarre arsenal of paraphernalia: hazmat suits, alien masks, giant syringes, flares, flags, smiley-face insignia and Guantanamo-style orange jumpsuits. There was something festival-esque about it all, like finding yourself in the weird end of Glastonbury. A couple of blokes swinging six packs of Fosters by their hips had taken to bellowing “freeee-dom!” at the horrified bystanders. Yet their battle cry lacked the genuine anger you find at most protests. This was more like something you’d hear at The Darts.
A large man in a wheelchair, wearing a deeply-unofficial Newcastle United trucker cap, was ranting at his beleaguered-looking carer. “We don’t want to be bloody communists!” he assured her.
What struck me was just how pedestrian the whole thing was… and how much fun everyone was having. Here was a sizeable section of the British public – apparently fighting against a New World Order-sanctioned mind control programme – but treating it like a day at the races.
Unlike most demonstrations, this wasn’t direct action from the directly concerned. It was what behaviourists might call the “margin of dissent”. It was Joe and Jill Public, sick to the back teeth of government, the media, Covid and banana-bread liberals – and making a day out of it.
Because, really, this wasn’t about vaccines, or even lockdown particularly, beneath the surface. It was just another instalment of the rapid weirdening of the British public. A jolly-up for the Radicalised Normal.
There is an often-challenged belief that the people of this country don’t do anything too rash. In the concluding part of his centrist call-against-arms The Making Of Modern Britain, Andrew Marr suggested that Britain’s greatest strength is never going too far in any one direction, never voting for a totalitarian or a crank, or embracing the delusions that some nations have gone in for.
While it’s true that we’ve never quite had a Rodrigo Duterte or a Rand Paul in Number 10, a lot of us don’t recognise this idea of a safe, sensible nation. In fact, I’d say that the British public – for all our global reputation of snootiness and aloofness – loves a good old panic. When I think back to the mid ’90s and the news cycle of my youth, it now seems like an infinite succession of flip-outs, hoaxes and moral scourges. Everything from joyriders to bogus callers, child snatchers, chat rooms, video nasties, alcopops and unattended luggage bombs. I can vividly remember my school circulating an official notice about LSD-soaked transferable Simpsons tattoos doing the rounds in local playgrounds.
Despite the pleas from conspiracy debunkers and upholders of logic, these things still ignite. And in a day and age where a Facebook account is a household appliance as common as a wireless once was, things can really spiral out of control.
In the early days of 2020, a conspiracy movement that had been brewing for some time went into overdrive: 5G. This government-backed push to bring greater connectivity around the country was taken by many as a sinister population control measure. Then, when the novel coronavirus appeared on the horizon, the two concepts were thrown together in a paranoid mesh of conspiracies and a phenomenon was born.
Things moved astonishingly quickly as a few wild Facebook posts soon blossomed into a full-blown criminal damage wave. In the UK alone, there were 87 separate arson attacks on 5G towers by October. In East London, a video of a young woman accusing a pair of confused cable engineers of murdering people’s mothers with 5G “kill switches” quickly went viral. Michael Whitty, a 47-year-old dad of three, airport worker and food bank volunteer from Liverpool, was jailed for destroying at least one mast, with evidence of other attacks found on his phone. In court, his parish priest spoke in defence of his character.
Then suddenly, almost as if the masts had been discontinued, the 5G lead went cold and lockdown itself became the issue. As people began to realise this was no “short, sharp”, stop, when the pub tables started to gather dust, when the squat racks started to rust, a movement began to spawn.
While GMB and the BBC showed us endless footage of rainbows chalked on driveways, fringe media channels like TalkRadio did the very opposite. They assembled a ragtag group of journos, TV personalities and discredited health professionals determined to question, antagonise and attack the official version of events.
Their influence soon became tangible. In a summer of protest, people took to the streets, first rallying for the health of their businesses then disputing the very idea of a lockdown. This soon became altercations about the numbers of dead, the existence of the virus and eventually the vaccine. By now, in summer 2021 it’s morphed into something they’re calling #SmilesMatter, a lockdown-centred but somewhat catch-all protest movement that’s become an almost-weekly carnival of rage and disillusionment on the streets of London.
Aside from minor celebs, has-been former pop stars and sceptical scientists, the movement has its own homegrown heroes, normal people from normal places doing incredibly strange things. Sinead Quinn, a hairstylist from Bradford repeatedly refused to close her salon, claiming that Covid-19 didn’t exist. Debbie Hicks, organiser of the “Stroud Freedom Rally”, is facing trial for filming on a Gloucester hospital ward. And the proprietors of Circ D Play, a children’s soft play centre in Liverpool, hung a copy of the Magna Carta in their reception, citing ancient freedom laws in response to the government’s tier system.
This was very strange territory indeed – both sympathetic and unhinged. What started as a group of people concerned about state overreach and a closed economy had segued into worrying rhetoric. Previously sensible citizens now found themselves aligned with the wider anti-vaccine cause, a lobby which had long been gathering steam in the US but had made little ground in a nation reared with an endemic trust in doctors. When the journalist Peter Hitchens – a long-time lockdown critic – received the vaccine, he was pilloried by his ex-admirers, like Dylan going electric. “Open the pubs” had become “I don’t want George Soros tracking my movements”.
Yet, they aren’t always totally off the mark. Within hours of “Freedom Day” beginning, the Prime Minister confirmed the government was seriously considering introducing vaccine passports for public events – a piece of legislation that would impact civil liberties in a manner not seen in peacetime. The smiley face army was, in essence, right. But by now they had abused too many doctors and nurses, and bottled too many coppers, to earn that vindication.
To establishment media figures and the “stay home, save lives” believers, these people are a disease in themselves; a heinous collision of fringe “science” and football-style hooliganism. But the sheer size of the movement and the social make-up of the crowd suggests it’s anything but an aberration, rather a straight-up slice of the populace in 2021. And if they’d bothered to look hard enough, they would’ve seen it coming.
By 2020, David Icke, so long derided as a national figure of fun, the loony’s loony, had been quietly gaining a new wave of admirers, speaking at obscure but well-attended marches and doing interviews on laddy lifestyle podcasts like Brian Rose’s London Real and Anything Goes With James English.
On Facebook – the perennial hotbed of the Radical Normal – Icke-influenced memes about freemasons, false flags and “crisis actors” were becoming commonplace, jarringly nestled alongside albums of sixtieth birthdays and deceased dogs. Personally, I watched more than one acquaintance fall into the mire. What started as a few posts about secret societies quite quickly escalated to: “Raheem Sterling teaches children demonic symbols”.
Even QAnon, the most American of all conspiracy movements, has its admirers here, as do pseudo-cult The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, Scientologists, ethno-nationalists, “Generation Identity” and all manner of groups in direct collision with Marr’s “sensible state” ideal. In 2019, “Freedom For The Children UK”, a quickly-assembled Pizzagate-adjacent group, gathered in Huddersfield, with photos showing one little boy cheerfully waving a sign saying “I’m not for sale” and another attendee who’d scrawled similar on the back of a mobility scooter. Greenham Common it ain’t.
In May 2020, when stories of “Eastern European” men snatching children off the streets of London began to spread, a vigilante group was formed in Enfield. Similar accounts of men in vans developed in County Durham in July, with the police force taking the unusual step of publicly debunking the story. Local paper The Chronicle stated: “The force is now speaking with local residents to confirm the validity of the further rumoured incidents but urged people not to accept social media speculation as truth.”
Much has been written about the rise of conspiracy theories in the 21st century, citing Trump, Russian disinformation farms and the like. But, really, you don’t have to believe in little green men or Hillary Clinton eating babies to find yourself sliding into the berserk. Look around you, and you’ll find all kinds of actually-quite-weird responses to the world we live in.
There is a gamut of hysteria in this country that encompasses everything from village hall spiritualists to dressing your children up as Captain Tom, recreating a scene from the Battle of Passchendaele in your front garden, weeping and waving an EU flag in Parliament Square or ripping your shirt off and defending some long-ignored bronze bust of an East India Company trader.
You don’t have to grow – or shave – your hair to be a weirdo anymore. Some of the hardest ideologies and maddest schools of thought are there, just waiting for you to come along and pick up a placard.
But then, this all might just be a very natural reaction to the world we live in. In strange times, people become strange. This widespread mistrust of the official narrative can be an understandable by-product of a system geared towards collusion, corruption and, occasionally, genuine sexual abuse. When Prince Andrew is forced into admitting an Ickeian daydream like flying on a billionaire paedophile’s private plane, it’s incredibly tempting to give up on the rational world.
Britain is becoming a far more mystifying and susceptible place than many would like to admit. And the people leading this charge of the weird aren’t necessarily the ones you’d expect.