It is 9AM and I am in Wapping. This, like so many things, is Nigel Farage's fault. Nigel Farage, the face of an evil crow whittled into a red bowling pin, is leading a flotilla of boats from Southend to Westminster, and I am tagging a long with a secretive posse – known only as "The In Crowd" – who are going at him with dinghies in protest. A protest for a protest. A flotilla on top of a flotilla. Crouch to the ground and pick a handful of soil. Run it through your fingers. Taste the land for the very last time. War is coming, my boy. Nigel Farage and 35 fishing trawlers are bringing war.
Nobody really knows what to expect, though, so right now we're all just milling around with M&S sandwiches and fractured walkie talkie reports of the location of the main flotilla, and the reasons for this sort of disorganised inaction can be broken down two ways:
i. This was all organised very last minute – by volunteers, at about two days' notice, and everyone is unfurling big "IN" banners and trying to figure out which boats in the dock they can affix them to, and;
ii. It's hard, truly, to know what to do when a fucking flotilla full of pro-Brexit fishermen – a flotilla full of pro-Brexit fishermen – hard really to know what to do with them when that happens. I'm scratching my head over another time a major political decision was made on the number of boats floating semi-menacingly down the Thames. It feels like it was never. It feels like this has never been an issue before. We are, quite literally, in foreign waters here, figuring out just quite what to do when Nigel Farage leads 35 fishing boats down the Thames. I mean what the fuck. What in the fuck.
The main concern in Wapping is whether this is illegal or not. Volunteer Laura doesn't know. "We're trying to figure that out," she says, squinting out towards the water. "I've been trying to figure out the law of the river for the past couple of days and... yeah, it's unclear." There is an insurpressible feeling of naughtiness around Camp In, like sixth form students about to perform a really spot-on impression of the headmaster at an all-school revue. "We just, really, want to represent a different point of view," another volunteer tells me. "We don't want Farage to just dominate the debate."
The vague plan is this: the In flotilla, made up nominally of seven boats – four nippy dinghies, one of which I am going to be sat on, in a lifejacket and sunglasses, being photographed from every fucking angle by BBC News like a shit James Bond; one very large barge arrangement which we put a load of 'In' banners on and then never see again, and for all I know that thing could still be moored in Wapping, shouting at specks on the horizon; a larger In boat, which I still don't quite understand why I wasn't on, that had snacks and drinks and Bob Geldof; and then a spy boat, a secret In boat in with the Out flotilla, which will do a heel-turn somewhere around the Thames Barrier and unfurl "In" banners in amongst the Out fisherman – will go up against Farage's real flotilla, his 30+ boat flotilla, a flotilla that assembled at 3AM this morning somewhere up near Southend. The In flotilla will, at Wapping, mobilise, nipping just in front of the Out flotilla as it trundles towards Tower Bridge, waving large white "In" flags and... sort of... getting in photos, a bit? I don't really know. Nobody can quite figure out how to put their life jackets on, so the idea of sending a flotilla of dinghies out to kill Nigel Farage somehow feels fantastical. Turns out you have to swivel the sort of connector socket in and through the— listen, it's not important.
The hushed tone of naughtiness is bought to attention literally immediately, when the River Police skid to a halt in front of our moored dinghies and ask us what we're up to. The Out flotilla is minutes away, we are told, and the fear prickles that maybe the police will just block us in and make us watch from the dock. No, though: we're told that, though we have the right to protest – or whatever this is, it feels a stretch to call seven small boats and one yelling Bob Geldof a "protest", exactly – we have to keep out of the channels of the larger ships passing through in case one runs us over and we die. "Safety first," we are constantly reminded by the River Police. "We are only thinking of your safety." It's sort of like a metaphor. They are the EU, and we are an unchecked market trying to manufacture our own fireworks and children's toys.
Then a big boat comes into view and I suddenly think: damn, maybe Britain is actually brilliant.
It's sort of strange, the way my feelings unfold throughout the morning. At certain moments, it truly feels like a weird, contactless battle: In boats are flying hither and yon, buzzing in front of Out trawlers and up through the channels, back around, looping in again, occasionally shouting "In", a synthesis of war, like if they did paintball in boats. Other times I look up at the lead boats towering above me – the Christina S and the Indianna are especially impressive, particularly when the Out camp moors them to the side of HMS Belfast, and it legitimately looks like the perma-docked war ship is really, really mad about fish – and think: fucking hell, they really are making a point. Out here, on the waves, everything suddenly seems in sharp focus (helped, obviously, that there is a very literal us vs. them situation going on, and each side has flags): the Europe debate is an uncomfortable one, and everyone is truly coming at it with their own agenda. as evidenced by everything from the rift in the Conservative party to the woman on Waterloo Bridge today who saw us, stopped, and then got four squares of Union Flag bunting out of her handbag and sort of weakly waved it. Who carries four squares of Union Flag bunting around with them? Or am I the odd one out? Is everyone just holding four squares of Union Flag bunting, at all times, waiting for the right time to utilise it? Is Britain really this divided? Has Brexit really got us all this twisted?
Farage was on the Thames today with Fishing For Leave (FFL), an independent pro-Brexit campaign set up by the fishing industry and supported today by a number of fishing trawlers. FFL are coming to the Europe debate from here: that the UK fishing industry has become a pawn in negotiations between Britain and the EU, that other European nations have been favoured and politicians' promises broken, all to the detriment of their fisheries and, in turn, their industry. "Stocks have depleted and many coastal towns have gone into economic and social decline through the loss of thousands of jobs," they argue.
I almost feel sorry for them before they start using special fisherman hoses to try and spray us with water (GREAT BRITISH WATER, FROM THE GREAT BRITISH THAMES) and another really radge guy in a Vote Leave T-shirt half-cocks a bucket at us, yells "TAKE THAT FLAG DOWN OR YOU'LL GET IT!", then tries to throw the bucket at us, quite spectacularly misjudges the distance, so basically just threw some water in the Thames. Later he will try again. He also missed. For the third pass he just gave up with the bucket and yelled "GET A JOB".
By now the mood is souring. Bob Geldof's Party Boat has turned up and is blasting "In With The In Crowd" – the only pro-Europe song that exists, apparently, judging by the number of times he blasts it out of the side of his boat, and when I say "it" I mean a 30-second snippet of it, I am not convinced Bob Geldof did not rock up to the Thames today armed with nothing more than a long boat and an iTunes preview – and, in response, the biggest trawlers are honking their trawler horns and the smaller ships are armed with airhorns. It just turns into a loud, wet traffic jam. I am trying to stay neutral throughout all of this – I am, after all, primarily a servant of journalism – but I finally cave in and wave at a class full of schoolchildren in neon backpacks on a day trip to Tower Bridge. It is a lovely moment: they all leap and cheer and wave back, and for half a moment my cold heart melts. Behind them, a well-dressed and kindly older lady does the wanker sign at me. Fair play, madam. Fair play.
It's surprising how many people have opinions they want to yell. A group of builders wanted to yell one, but I didn't really hear it. Down to Westminster, another surprisingly well-dressed lady in her mid-40s – honestly, she looks like she could've been one of Lord Sugar's assistant on The Apprentice, a sort of substitute Karen Brady – waves a home made sign and calls us all "traitors"; a man in the high tower of a tall ship gives us a distant thumbs down. A smaller FFL boat comes near and our skipper, Graham, tries to engage in some friendly fisherman banter. "Where have you come down from?" he asks. "That way," they say, faces emotionless. I don't mind living in a Britain without Europe, lads, if we absolutely must, but I sure as hell don't want to live in a Britain without banter. What's the point.
At one point the flotilla-on-flotilla fuckfest turns into a big watery semi-racist Mad Max, with Out ships going back against the tides to loop back around with Nigel Farage (Immortan Joe), who is creaking down the river with a bunch of press (War Boys) in the direction of Westminster (the Citadel). Some FFL supporters try and mount Bob Geldof's Party Boat (the War Rig) for parlay, while Geldof himself (bloke on a bungee string playing electric guitar w/ fire coming out of it) is yelling through a PA about Farage's European Parliament record. Hoses and buckets abound. The entirety of Westminster Bridge is packed with supporters singing "Rule, Britannia!". I am truly expecting an old lady to ride over my head on a motorbike here. And there, in the midst of all the chaos, is Nigel Farage looking sad:
I feel a weird pang of sympathy for Farage here. It's as if he literally didn't expect anyone to go up against him bringing a flotilla of massive ships down the middle of the Thames. Geldof is haranguing him from his loudspeaker – and it is loud, this thing, and Geldof keeps shouting "FRAUD" at him, and Nigel Farage hasn't got a speaker he can hit back with, so he just sort of stands there, as nobly as a half-newt half-man truly can, posing for photos on the prow of his barge – and he has no response. He's only down here to support some fishermen and have a bit of a flotilla laugh along the Thames. As Channel 4 News's Michael Crick noted, Farage's quoted response is, "fancy Bob Geldof coming to laugh at poor people". The divisions of "us" and "them" are no more pronounced than when Bob Geldof is shouting down a lonely Nigel Farage across the Thames on some boats.
I ask our skipper, Graham, a number of questions over the course of the flotilla, mainly how in the fuck you get Tower Bridge to go up and down for you (you call the Harbour Master, Ryan, the man who keeps coming at us with a long darting boat and yelling "PORTSIDE"), but on the way back to St George's Wharf he speaks for the first time unbidden. "I'm quite neutral about it all, actually," he says, which seems quite baffling for a man who has volunteered his time and his boat to drive a load of Vote In protestors in front of Nigel Farage all morning. "In, Out: everyone has their own agendas." Farage is here because he hates Europe and loves fish. The fishermen are here because they want to keep their jobs and have their often ignored voices heard, off the side of a big ship. The In Crowd are here to offer an alternative voice. Bob Geldof is here because Live Aid isn't really happening this year and he needs something to do. And there, in amongst it, amongst all the waves and buckets and truths and half-truths, among all the printed-up-at-incredibly-short-notice flags and squares of bunting, in among the traitor chants and the wanker signs, there's something more: a fractious, contentious issue, one that's truly dividing the country. Was anyone convinced to vote Out because they saw a load of boats on the Thames today? For the love of everything I hope not. Was anyone swung by a few "In" dinghies? Similarly: no. But people care about our status as part of the EU – care enough to get in a flotilla at 3AM in Southend about it, care enough to volunteer their morning to shouting at Nigel Farage, care enough to download a 30-second preview clip of "In With The In Crowd" to their iPod – and this referendum is bigger than you think.
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