Charlie Gilmour

Posted on July 25, 2011


Charlie Gilmour, 21, outside Kingston Crown Court

Charlie Gilmour, notorious student provocateur, has been sentenced to 16 months in jail for his actions at the Parliament Square protests on December 9, 2010.

The right-wing press are cheering, no doubt.

I was there that day, and I also happened to spend some of it (unwilfully) with Gilmour. We’d known each other fleetingly from university.

I wrote an article the next day – ominously, just called “London” – remembering the experiences, but I never published it online. (I didn’t want to become an informant for the likes of the Mail, and didn’t think it was fair on Gilmour considering the media storm that was very quickly all around him.) I was reading Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night (yet again) at the time, and so thought it would be a good idea to break up the piece – reportage on the one hand (objective as always, you understand), and then self-conscious gloss (in italics) below it. Very original, you see.

It began:

After arriving at St Pancras I had dropped my bags off in left luggage. I couldn’t man the barricades with a laptop, books, pen and notepad and an iPod. I considered taking them all, books excused. But it wouldn’t be right – would it? – and I didn’t want them to get lost or broken, or anything like that, you know. But these otherwise revolutionary tools, they were sharpened – MC5 on Recently Played (psyching-out on the way down) and dissident literature with a bookmark in. Prepared for the battle ahead.

You get it.

The section featuring our Gilmour went:

After meeting my girlfriend at Embankment, we moved alongside the river until we reached a pink bus with a soundsystem near Westminster Bridge. What sounded like a classical concerto suddenly soared into Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’, a soundtrack for marching and running at police lines in slow motion. Meanwhile a weird mixture of police, RMT and student groups from across the country were gathered in front of a massive police barricade made up of tens of armoured vans. May be 100 people stood or sat at the barricade chanting, with spirit and seemingly without purpose, other than for the odd camera kicking around or just, you know, for the solidarity of it all. There was no way through here.

Going back the way we came, we bumped into a distant acquaintance from university. It was Charlie Gilmour! 

Gilmour, second-year History undergraduate at Girton College, Cambridge and son of famous adoptive-Papa, is now most (in-) famous for climbing the Cenotaph and dangling off the Union flag like a right twerp. The image stayed front-page news for weeks. He’d just done this when we met him. His brothers in arms (proper Cambridge leftists yah) seemed happy to offload him. Apparently the night before, the Cambridge “delegation”, based at HQ in UCL, had been disgraced by Gilmour as he shoved drugs up his snout or down his throat, ran around naked and generally made a “political” tit of himself. The other Cantab-ists must have been going into battle, back toward the pink bus, so – gratefully, it seemed – left Gilmour with us. Ta! 

But, back to it:

Gilmour seemed in high spirits that were more chemical than political. Walking like a San Francisco freak, hands riding invisible waves of colour and sound, our dandy looked every inch the hip revolutionary.

“I just want to destroyyyyy…let’s throw something in the river”. Since the inanimate river Thames was responsible for so much that day – it would later witness the kettling of 2000 on Westminster Bridge close to midnight – this seemed so prescient and true. May be it was the prophecy of the acid.

“I’m getting some really weirrrrrd looks off people, Tom”. Off me, for one. But, undeterred, the clot thickened.

“We need to go and meet my friend Balthazar man, he’s fucking fan-TAS-tic”. An upper-middle-class hallucinogenic drug-end I’m guessing.

“Well, before I was just running up to police and screaming Byron poems in their faces!

There’s a video on YouTube of him doing this, and it is everything from embarrassing, soul-destroying, pathetic, self-indulgent, bourgeois, annoying, embarrassing, stupid, and every inch the indulged Cambridge thing to do, a student living out his libertine tastes in history and literary on his well-groomed and carefully-chosen garments (Saville Row, you know!) and words. His enunciation is shit too.

“I just want to destroyyyy…DesTRoyyyyyyyyyyy…peaceful protest is boring, let’s go and wreck something”. By now we were walking down a desolate Whitehall. Scattered protesters – students, elderly women with walking-sticks, school children – were returning from the earlier march, their placards hanging a little disconsolately now.

Whitehall looked disturbed. Between pockets of lonely protestors lay only sad, empty concrete, watched by hundreds of police with nervous authority. On side streets opposite Downing Street tens of riot police were gearing up, hidden from the protestors further up the street.

Now Gilmour was called over by police standing by, for his earlier misdemeanour. 

Gilmour later confided to me he was clambering up something that he thought was “I don’t know, some symbol of just, government shit”. Other students in the Cambridge (and national) press later agreed with Gilmour that they hadn’t known what the Cenotaph stood for, or what it was (other than a statue) – much to the consternation of the right-wing press.

`The police searched him. Good job he’d huffed all that acid. They did find a pair of pliers though, his justification being: “Well I’m an insomniac and I just find these things in my pockets when I’ve been awake for days” etc. etc. I also definitely remember him saying “Sadomasochism is my thing”, but can’t remember the context, or why anyone would say anything so ridiculous. There was a bit of a telling-off by a young buck of a copper, about the war and freedom and things.

Mean while we spoke to the other police surrounding Gilmour. Some seemed in good-enough spirits, one female officer said the fee rise was “high, very high” but that the actions of students in the square wasn’t on. The other male officer with her wasn’t so cooperative.

After profuse apologies and a subtly-attempted name-drop (did you know Gilmour’s dad was in the Floyd?) (which didn’t work by the way), the police eventually let him go with a caution.

About 200 yards up from where we were walking a mass of bodies, protestors and riot police were enmeshed at the entrance to Parliament Square. Suddenly a surge of shouting rose up and here and there scattered groups broke through the police line, running back down Whitehall. A good 50 black-clad PCs ran to meet them. There was confused screaming, running in all directions; as the police strove to block any stray students in, creating a makeshift police line held together by heroic hand on bum-bag.

“Go, go!” shouted Gilmour, as we stared with undirected adrenalin. I laughed. He’d already run in – valiantly, he thought, but where or why he didn’t know – and exited, as ridiculously as he had entered.

Evidently I wasn’t particularly sympathetic to Gilmour on the day. His entitled, rather selfish behaviour in the midst of a protest about education, the widening of the gap between rich and poor, and the unaccountability of the Thatcherite Con-Dem coalition, irritated me. It rode roughshod over the involvement of “scattered protesters – students, elderly women with walking-sticks, school children”, because a national mainstream press in the pockets of government policy were looking for scapegoats. In Gilmour they found all they wanted.

Compare Gilmour with Bryan Simpson, for example. Simpson, and a student at the University of Strathclyde, was woken from his bed and arrested at 6am on November 24. The detainers of the so-called “Scottish leader of the mob” were English police officers (from Cumbria). Simpson is an articulate critic of the Con-Dem coalition, as well as police treatment of student protestors. He has never apologised for his actions. Has he any need to?

Unsurprisingly, Simpson was only really picked up by the leftist press. He did not fit the bill the Establishment was after.

Gilmour, on the other hand, became the zeitgeist of the whole day, and then, the whole movement – a figurehead for all us ungrateful, philistine bastard-children hordes of the welfare state. Images of him fist-pumping in front of red flags, as well as the infamous moment he climbed the Cenotaph in the military boots and coat of the South-Eastern fashionista, remained seared on the national retina for weeks and months afterwards.

He was described as “long-haired”, with the patriarchal prejudice of the besuited Fifties, along with that of the Thatcherite Eighties. But worse still, Gilmour was used by the government, press and police as a representative of the student movement. And what an easy target – privileged and monied – all he could do in the face of the media’s moral duplicity was apologise.

And apologise he did, for his own “moment of idiocy”. But Gilmour’s sentencing is not a win for justice. It is a blight on a society that “celebrates” democratic protest while eating up its children that practice it. Contrary to other beliefs, our fathers and grandfathers died for the rights Gilmour was – admittedly, quite jauntily – practising; lest we forget it.

Gilmour’s transgressions were largely symbolic. But symbols are all our press needs – Cameron and Lansley visiting an NHS hospital with sleeves rolled-up, Saddam Hussein’s statue draped in the star and stripe; this time it was the Cenotaph, clambered up for a matter of seconds, that served them.

A media hate campaign galvanised the middle-class Establishment. Press outrage is always followed closely behind by public, and this was all it took to sentence a student with such a draconian punishment. Draconian in how it so clearly aims to intimidate the rest of a vast anti-cuts youth movement into silence and conformity.

Posted in: Politics