Five years ago this month world leaders at the G8 summit were promising to 'Make Povery History', something seemingly forgotten today as the demand to 'Make Poverty Compulsory' to pay for the global crisis takes precedence.
On 2 July 2005, there were big Live8 concerts in various parts of the world in support of the anti-poverty campaign. I went to the London one where, among others, Madonna, REM, Elton John, U2 and The Killers played. To say I saw any of these would be an exaggeration, more accurate to say I caught a glimpse in what was one of the most alienating musical spectacles I have ever got caught up in.
It was a free concert, but the site was completely enclosed by a massive fence. This was frustrating on the way in, when people had to queue for at least an hour to get through one entrance in a huge boundary, but was even more annoying on the way out. We left early, but were refused exit from most of the marked exits having been told that these would only open at the end. We had to go all the way back to where we came in (in the north of Hyde Park, quite a walk) to get out. It felt very claustrophobic. As I discussed in relation to a similar experience at another festival, this kind of crowd control for free events is a relatively new development. Up until at least the mid-1990s, big free festivals in parks were invariably open access and attracted huge crowds. If things got too crowded, people regulated themselves by spreading out over a larger area or going home.
Inside Hyde Park, it felt very much like the crowd were there to be extras for the TV show. The volume was low for a gig/festival, which destroyed any musical atmosphere, and the screens were out of sync with the sound. Bizarrely people only seemed to get animated when there was a camera pointing at them, perhaps because they felt so remote from the event. Every time the camera swept over the crowd people went mad and started cheering.
A gathering of 250,000 people demanding the abolition of poverty would be pretty amazing, even if the politics of the organisers were dubious. But it didn't feel like that - rather it was an assembly of atomised individuals self-consciously taking part (participating is too strong a word) in a media event. We'd only been there half an hour when we heard the couple next to us say - 'we've done it now - lets take some photos to show people we were here, and go home. We can get a t-shirt on the way out'. That summed up the event, along with having one of the richest people in the world, Bill Gates, talking about abolishing poverty from the stage. He got a cheer as a celebrity, with my lone boo seemingly unheard. Nothing surprizing, but depressing nevertheless.
Five years later, making poverty history remains as remote as ever.