What interests me about the Occupy LSX encampment is not that it is outside St Paul’s Cathedral – in reach of sanctuary, as it were – but that it is outside a Blacks adventure store. This branch of Blacks was presumably established to sell adventure gear to City boys and girls off on their thrill-seeking holidays. It struck me that the Occupy camp completely subverts the purpose and meaning of this store, and many others like it. Let me explain why.
Following up on this piece for the Guardian on adventure clothing, I’m going to generalise wildly here and propose that in the 2000s camping was reinvented by the fashion for extreme sports. Previously the domain of soft-focused memories of soggy budget holidays with the parents, camping – and the great outdoors generally – was adrenalised. Dudish hotspurs jumping off mountains in Pepsi Max adverts and the ubiquity of North Face parkas on city streets were simply symptoms of the new craze for extreme sports. For as much as the economic boom years boosted tourism across the board – from weekend city breaks to epic “finding yourself” wanderings – what sticks in my mind is the salesmanship of the adventure holiday, and all that technical equipment that facilitated it. The beach was for drones – Alex Garland saw to that. True individuals went ice-wall climbing, base jumping, jungle trekking or as far from the madding crowd as they could get. There’s a queue up Mount Everest? Right, I’ll walk to the South Pole then. All that technical gear, with its illusory hyper-performance that went far beyond the conditions that most punters would ever subject themselves to, was aimed essentially at the search for isolation.
What to make, then, of a camp pitched on cement pavers outside the London Stock Exchange? “Sous les pavés, la plage,” goes the old Situationist slogan (Beneath the street, the beach). Well, in the 2000s, the beach was over-crowded. The ultimate leisure zone had become merely another rush hour. We struck out in search of new frontiers, wrapped in our breathable Gore-tex membranes and our Meta-Flex trail running shoes. And yet the Occupy camp suggests that the new frontier is right here, on top of our very own “pavés”. The extremes yet to be conquered are not natural ones but social ones. The new frontiers are in capital cities and cities of capital. Equitable co-existence, wealth distribution, a balanced economy, the recovery of the welfare state – these are our new summits, and Gore-tex won’t help us scale them.
Given the extent to which the collective mood has swung behind the idea of “the 99%”, I can’t help but notice the prevalence of individualistic isolationism in our politics and entertainment. David Cameron’s decision not to sign a new European treaty last month harked back to Britain’s late-19th-century Splendid Isolation. Whether it was indeed bravery or merely hapless negotiating, Cameron received a hero’s welcome from his Bullingdon bodies (and let’s face it, probably more than half the country, who like nothing more than when we stick two fingers up to Europe). The interests of the City were to be protected at the expense of European solidarity, naturally.
However, it is not Cameron who best epitomises this isolationist streak but another old Etonian (and the son of a Conservative MP): Bear Grylls. Most often to be found on the Discovery channel, in nightly repeats of his programme Born Survivor, Grylls has adrenalised isolationism. He is the man who makes Ray Mears look like a total wuss. Indeed, what better illustration of the image overhaul that the great outdoorsman has undergone than the shift from Mears to Grylls. Mears “survived” his way through the 1990s as the chubby scout leader who could make a nice campfire, fill his billy can with bush tucker and then reward himself for a hard day’s foraging with a nice cold beer. He was like the fun uncle you wished you’d had. Grylls, the product of the 2000s, arrives on location by diving out of a helicopter, landing next to rattlesnake and then biting its head off. (I’m exaggerating: as every Grylls fan knows, you cut the head off and then bury it before chomping into the raw body – this is one of his nightly rituals.) Isolationism is his raison d’etre, and the more remote the better: the middle of the Borneo jungle (not the edge, the middle), deep in the Namib desert or underneath an Alaskan glacier. If no man can survive there, Grylls will prove that he can. Just him. And his camera crew. And his support team, with the snake venom and the Snickers bars.
You only have to watch a few of these programmes to realise that they all follow the same formula. The rituals of survival revolve around fire, water, food and shelter. The fire is not used for cooking (no need for that), it’s used for exploring a cave, knee-deep in bat shit – in other words, for finding food. If Grylls sees a big hairy spider on the cave wall, his first instinct is to pop it straight into his mouth. What sets him apart from you and me is not the fact that he does it (people will do all kinds of things for money), it is the lack of hesitation. Scorpion? Delicious. Mainly, though, he lives off snake. I’ve never seen a man eat so much snake. On occasion, Grylls will urinate into the snakeskin, tie a knot in it and save it to drink later. Even that most bourgeois of entertainments, the cookery programme, has been recast as an extreme sport – Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall meets Jackass.
The Occupy movement, which we might now broadly call the 99% movement, has a healthy sense of destiny. It has the zeitgeist on its side, it has the confidence of superior numbers as well as social media and the precedents of the Arab Spring. And yet, oddly, the nation still has a soft spot for counter-revolutionaries: for the hapless hero Cameron and the survivalist show-off Grylls – the old Etonian isolationists. It’s only natural. Compared to the sheer escapism of Born Survivor, the Occupy LSX camp can only offer a collection of increasingly dirty tents. As Hakim Bey admonished, the Temporary Autonomous Zone (or TAZ) is best kept a temporary phenomenon. It needs to shift and redefine itself constantly lest it degenerate into a grimy camp with no sewerage, at which point its message may become less effective.