From the Fortnum & Mason ruckus to a Radio 4 panel show, Laurie Penny's double life has never been so chaotic or contradictory...
It's a balmy Thursday evening and I'm on the balcony of a swish editing suite in Fitzrovia, staring down into one of those scraped-out dead spaces hidden behind security walls all over London. From above, you can see it properly: 50sq ft of barren gravel with a rusted surveyor's tower at the centre. 'It used to be a hospital, but some property speculators bought it out then they went bust,' says my companion. He tells me the name of the hospital. I lean out over the expensive decking to take a closer look, and say, 'That's where I was born.
These days, I live in two cities. In one of them, I'm a precariously employed young person. I associate with activists and jobless workers in squats and cramped, overpriced flats rammed with empty cereal packets and internet cables. People eat food out of skips and wear out their trainers running away from the police. In the other, I'm a media luvvie and mingle with people who take taxis to events that have name tags to make it clear something important is under way. TV and radio programmes are made, editorial meetings are held, and networking takes place in large glass buildings. More than any other city, London is a chimera, a human monster stitched together from overlapping lives. Sometimes there is irritation at the seams.
Two weekends ago, I reported on the riots in Piccadilly and Trafalgar Square from behind the police lines. I saw young people beaten by officers of the law while offering passive resistance to police tactics. I saw workers and students running through the streets in masks and hoods, throwing paint bombs at bank branches. I saw my best friend marched out of a peaceful occupation inside Fortnum & Mason, as refined diners took tea amid the chanting of slogans and hanging of banners. My friend is a conscientious young man who would never hurt anyone. Across a solid wall of police officers, who shoved me away when I tried to get closer, I watched him dragged out of a holding pen, handcuffed and taken away. He later told me he was made to strip to his underwear and sit in a cell in a white paper jumpsuit for 17 hours, with no food or legal advice. Observing the mass arrest of a peaceful protest group outside the vandalised frontage of the world's most upmarket grocer, my first thought was: 'How did it ever come to this?' My second thought, because I am a Londoner, was: 'I need a bloody coffee.'
So I did what any Londoner would do at a time of trauma and confusion. I stumbled into the nearest Pret A Manger, paid far too much for a fix of caffeine, and stood fingering the fruit bars surreptitiously while I waited for my order. Warm jazz was playing. Two well-dressed women were sharing a falafel salad, their feet nestled among oversized bags from Liberty and Selfridges. Behind them, past the familiar branded stickers on the shopfront, you could see Jermyn Street burning. As the police chased the black bloc past the windows, I sucked down the scalding liquid and tried to stop my hands shaking, making a mental list of how many of friends had been hospitalised or arrested. The shoppers continued to gossip, oblivious. Across the road diners briefly stood up from their meals, snapping pictures on their smartphones of kids charging down Piccadilly with flaming Union Jack flags and placards that read: 'Where's my future?' London has always been two cities, but now they are tearing apart, and the wound is red and inflamed.
Two days later, I take my friend, still shaken from his encounter with the law, to the launch of the Orwell Prize at a legal firm on Fleet Street: a glittering set of offices high above the city. We wear name cards and nibble at salted peanuts, and talk to a lot of important people who write about politics for a living. We listen to a genteel debate, sitting down a little stiffly because our legs are covered in baton bruises from the scuffles in Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly. We walk home by the river, smoking.
Last week we walked along the same route with half a million others on the 'march for the alternative', and the Embankment echoed with the noise of whistles and drums and floats and pushchairs rattling on the pavement. The streets are now clean. The placards have been picked up, the slogans about revolution in the mind scrubbed off the statues. A few commuters run for the bus on im-practical heels. I light a roll- up, the flame flickering in the wind. My friend cups his hands around the flame, making a little cave of brightness in the dark. I inhale