Barack Obama in London

Confronting the Beast

Recently, outside London's 10 Downing Street, I was handed a pamphlet displaying a mugshot of Barack Obama. The President's face was surrounded by photos of other desperados: Blair, Bush, Brown, Sarkozy, Cameron, Merkel. They were all, the pamphlet told me, Wanted By the Shariah Court for Crimes Against Muslims. On the back was a list of those crimes: Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, and "the propping up of Apostate Regimes," by which, the authors explained, they meant the United States practice of supporting dictatorships in Muslim countries.

If you set aside the overblown rhetoric: "the puppet Karzai" "the pirate state of Israel" the "murderous US campaign", the "concentration camp Guantanamo Bay", and if the writers had edited out the calls for Shariah and complaints about "secular kufr law", they would have been expressing a view widely accepted in respectable circles: that American and Western foreign policy in relation to Muslim countries has recently proved to be rapacious, unscrupulous and corrupt.
The protestors began unfurling banners, and the scene got interestingly heated. The group set up a chant, a provocative one in the circumstances: "Obama watch your back, Osama is coming back." Having recently had Osama bin Laden gunned down in his own bedroom, Obama could afford to smile and ignore, but many in the crowd were incensed. It was particularly rude, those around me indignantly agreed, given that the President himself was due to arrive in his custom-made limousine, The Beast, for a sunny afternoon barbecue with the Camerons.
Whitehall was blocked off, the crowd was densely packed, and scuffles started to break out. In a segregated section of the protest, chastely separated by a line of black banners, Muslim women in burqas shrieked, without any sense of irony, "Freedom! Free speech!" A drunken infidel, reeking of booze, seized hold of one of the banners and was hit over the head with a book by a bearded youth.
Meanwhile the Secret Service men watched silently and the British police began to clear the pavement to allow the convoy to swing in, and the shouting rose as Osama and Obama fans squared off. You could see the plain-clothed Secret Service agents cruising near the protest, wires trailing from their ears. At the gate to Downing Street the Secret Service men sported suits with lapel pins, shaven heads, goatee beards. When the convoy arrived it was possible to see the President smiling and waving through the dark window of The Beast, safe in his armoured glass case, inviolate, invincible.
"It's just wrong," someone said that evening, "that a single person requires so much outlay." We were at the Independent Foreign Fiction Awards. The prize had just been won by a young Peruvian writer, but all eyes were on his escort, the satanically handsome Peruvian cultural attaché. "It's obscene. Not only The Beast but the level of security." I agreed, in a way. The Presidential convoy was, American-style, grossly supersized. I'd been running into Obama all day; if he kept following me around like this I'd probably be arrested for stalking. That afternoon on Birdcage Walk I'd been startled by sirens and the roar of the high speed motorbikes that were the outriders for The Beast, and here he came, the Emperor with his elephants, amid his tanks and armoured cars, guarded by the soldiery. He swept into Buckingham Palace; there was a lull and then suddenly women began screaming, sending the crowd scattering in alarm, but it was only Prince William in an ordinary car with a single jeep behind, pulling in for lunch with his grandma.
"They screamed," I said, "like he was One Direction." No one was listening; the Peruvian cultural attaché was walking by. My sister, the editor, peered at her i-Phone. Earlier she'd been summoned to Westminster by one of her authors, ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, and had texted "Shit! Have to go to Parliament and am wearing my sneakers." "Am busy with the President myself," I texted back. London, city of ancient stories: beauty and beast, prince and pauper, rising heat, deepening cuts, the Prince's wedding 50 million pounds and along the high streets in blazing August the children of the poor begin smashing the glass. Over the great circle of the city's eye the summer sky, vibrating with sirens.
First published in Metro Magazine NZ