6.08.2008

Tube Protest: Last Round on the Underground

by Molly Kenney

Just last weekend, London culture changed forever, and in classic British style, drunken riots marked the occasion. Thanks to London’s new Tory mayor, Boris Johnson, alcohol consumption on the city’s metro system, buses, trams, and Docklands Light Railway became illegal on June 1. Londoners were unhappy — and drunk.

While such public drinking seems ludicrous to residents of U.S. cities, drinking alcohol of all types in public is ubiquitous in London. The only person I’ve ever known to get stopped with alcohol was my friend Doug, who was drinking Stella Artois while on his way to meet me. A foot-patrol cop grabbed Doug by the arm and forbade him to drink Stella in public if he wanted to call himself a man.

A few weeks ago, Mayor Boris announced his plan to curtail Londoners’ previously unalienable right to get hammered on public transportation, and Londoners got angry. Using Facebook and various social networking sites, “Last Round on the Underground” was planned to mark the final night, May 31st, before the new law took effect. Organizers called Londoners to join them on the Tube’s Circle Line, which loops around downtown London and Westminster for a drunken ride until midnight, the BBC reported.

As an incredible testimony to the power of online networking and Londoners' love of booze and riots, the Circle Line was inundated with drunken travelers. Thousands of people filled underground stations throughout the city, and six stations, including my own Liverpool Street Station, were eventually closed for crowd control. The BBC News reported assaults on Tube staff and police and 17 arrests, as well as Tube cars full of drunken Britons chanting “Boris is a wanker.”

During all this, my friends and I naively thought we would stroll down to Liverpool Street Station for a quick hop on and off the Circle Line. So with my bottle of wine and the boys with their large pack of beer, we headed for the station. However, the station had already been closed. When we arrived a crowd of about 2000 people were drunkenly climbing signs, singing incoherent songs, and waving clothes they’d removed from themselves or friends. Lines of British police stood watching them and looking mildly concerned (after nine months, I get the impression that British police do little else). Investment bankers’ expensive champagne and vodka mixed with the cheap beer and cider of East End residents and students, and everyone slipped and sloshed about with enthusiasm for the celebration and bitterness at the end of an era. The whole scene was a messy, ridiculous, alcoholic disaster, like any other night in London but with more people, more anger, and fewer Tubes running.

Unfortunately, I did not bring a camera to capture the “Last Round on the Underground” or the drunken riot as it spilled out into the streets. (Others, however, captured some of the pandemonium on video for YouTube.) I do, however, have plenty of glass still stuck in my shoes from walking through the fray of flying bottles. A week after the new law took effect, Liverpool Street Station is almost clean. But the anger and drunkenness of Londoners, reminded every afternoon and evening that they cannot drink on public transport, remains.

(The photo of revelers/protestors at the Baker Street Station on the London Underground is by Annie Mole of London via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License. You can see more coverage of the aftermath of the protest on her website, Going Underground, a renowned blog about London's Tube. To see satirical coverage of the Tube protest from The Daily Show, please check below.)











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