As I have said before, the geography of the Non-Stop Picket is broader than the few square metres of pavement occupied by anti-apartheid protesters outside the South African Embassy. Certainly that’s the most obvious way to think of where the Non-Stop Picket was, but for me the Non-Stop Picket was produced and sustained through activities that took place in a constellation of locations beyond that stretch of pavement. There were the network of locations in which City Group activists protested against apartheid; there was the group’s office and the various venues in which the group held meetings to plan and organise its activism; and there were various more mundane sites around the West End that sustained the Picket.
I am thinking here of the various cafes and pubs where picketers went to eat, to warm up, to use the toilet, or to relax after a shift. Some of these venues were constants throughout the four years of the Non-Stop Picket, some (particularly several of the pubs) only welcomed the custom of picketers for a short period. Which venues people used also varied throughout the day and throughout the week. During the day, most days, there was a steady flow of picketers in and out of the Breadline cafe on Duncannon Street. Picketers would pop in there for take-away teas and coffees to warm themselves up on cold, wet days. Often groups of the younger picketers would hangout there gossiping, especially at weekends. Breadline had the advantage of being cheap and the staff were (mostly) friendly and sympathetic to the Picket. A pricier option was the cafe in the Crypt at St. Martin-in-the-Fields church, also on Duncannon Street. The Crypt had the advantage of toilets; and, while many picketers would eat there or chat over coffee, many others would sneak in just to use the toilet when they needed to.
For those picketers who socialized with other activists from the Non-Stop Picket, many evenings were spent drinking in pubs around the area. Over the four years of the Picket, many different pubs within a short walk of Trafalgar Square were popular with City Group activists. Although it is fair to say that City Group, especially when drinking en masse, were not always popular in those pubs and it was not uncommon for the group to be barred from local pubs. A full account of the pubs frequented by Picketers will have to wait for another time, though.
The options of where to eat, to pick up a hot drink or use the toilet were more limited for those on the overnight shift. For them, coffee runs meant a trip to the all-night cafe near Leicester Square. When their options were limited, picketers often faced ethical dilemmas about where to patronise. As Francis recalls,
I’m ashamed to admit that we would often go to McShit after the nightshift as it was the only place open. I can’t imagine ever going there now.
In the last 24 hours, I have been thinking particularly about one local food outlet popular with picketers who wanted a cheap nutritious and filling meal. If that was what you wanted, the place to go was Gaby’s Deli on Charing Cross Road – the first place I ever ate falafel and still, to my mind, the best. I’ve been thinking about Gaby’s in particular because I have just learned that it is facing closure after nearly 50 years. Westminster Council has given the owners of the building permission to replace the independent deli with a chain restaurant. So, uncharacteristically, I find myself having common cause with Boris Johnson in wanting to save Gaby’s. Please join the campaign to save Gaby’s – in some small way, it helped sustain anti-apartheid activism in the 1980s and is part of the social geography of the Non-Stop Picket.