The Chelsea Flower Show
is held at the bottom of the street the bus travels to take me to where I mostly like to shop, though what has become of Kings Road in the last few years is a sort of lesson in pre pandemic slump and post pandemic stall. Lots of gone gone gone and very little happening that makes you straighten your spine and smile.
A friend who doesn’t like crowds reminded me of the dates of the CFS. Ever hopeful, I went up there on one afternoon, thinking I am not in any hurry, I’m sure it will be fine … and walked into an ants’ nest, people scattered all over the immediate and surrounding area like Smarties with feet.
I tried not to feel proprietorial – my shops, my streets – but I didn’t feel comfortable. So I bought satsumas and took the bus home. It took forever but we got there and while we drove I began to wonder. I was almost afraid. Well then, what was I afraid of ? Numbers, noise, invasion of personal territory … yes … but when did this begin to happen ?
When the Chancellor came up this week with a package apparently aimed at people worst hit by the cost of living rises and widely estimated to be worth £15 billion pounds, I heard my mother’s voice in my ear – “I can’t imagine a billion anything” she said. “Not a billion eggs or a billion cabbages – still less a billion pounds.”
Thank heaven she can’t see the current madness.
And I started to wonder – what was my earliest experience of the crowd ? As a Special Constable, Pop helped park cars at Ayresome Park during football matches, but my first crowds were small affairs like Bonfire Night or a jumble sale and Bertram Mills’ Circus.
I went to markets and flower shows though as neither of my parents liked crowds, they didn’t much come my way.
I first saw crowds in London to which I came when I was 17 but London was so big, that if there were crowds in one place, you could avoid them in another. There was always a quiet place. And the crowds had reasons, shopping, street markets for food, plants and animals, antiques and curiosities,
or the queues to see Breakfast at Tiffanys when it was new.
John Kennedy was shot when I was living in New York and I remember people all over the street, and that continued throughout the days of mourning that followed, as if people desperately wanted to see other people in a kind of social looking glass – sort of if she’s there, and she’s all right, then so am I.
Film of masses in Russia or China or Nazi Germany seemed overwhelming, of an almost dreamlike quality. I knew that the Third Reich had fallen but China and Russia were far away, enormous and far away. It is one of the historical sleights of hand of emergence of nation that until very recently, I had no idea – and I bet other people don’t either – of the size of the Americas – any of them. Perhaps you have to want to see it. And if those enormous countries had enormous populations, they also had vast open spaces where there was nothing at all.
Nowadays the millions and billions of other people communicate through the social media
whose positives and negatives are at best about equal. What is truly unsettling is how human beings use it, repetitively, addictively. They enjoy the sense of all the other people – a kind of “I’m with them.” And even a human crowd can be benign or threatening. I suppose you only read it retrospectively if it doesn’t harm you. And you can hide in it.
I was told that the biggest crowd I ever spoke to was a quarter of a million on a Right To Work march in the 1980s. But it may have been far smaller. I know that if you work with a crowd, even it’s a couple of hundred people at some charitable or social function, you only have sense of them collectively. They make up the audience which is an animal you as the speaker have to manage. So I feel lost in the crowd as I might entirely alone.