By royal decree: the zombie orgy is off

The royal wedding demanded a topsy-turvy carnival of sex and symbolic slaughter, says Camilla Power, but trying to exercise a human right to ritual participation landed her in jail

May 4, 2011

It’s May Day morning, and I’m wondering whether to head to Clerkenwell on the day when pagan, anarchist and socialist hope springs eternal. If I step on to the Green, I am liable to arrest under bail conditions imposed on me after my 25 hours’ detention in Lewisham Police Station from about 6pm on the eve of the royal wedding last week.

What did I do to be banished from the sacred May Day space? Nothing…yet. I was picked up in one of last week’s pre-emptive raids during what’s become known in “activist” circles as “The Great Royal Wedding Purge”. In this, the police went around and arrested people whom they suspected of thinking about doing something.

These arrests have been written about in terms of democratic rights to free speech. From my perspective, it’s about the human right to ritual participation. My work as an anthropologist combines Darwinian and Durkheimian models on the evolution of ritual as the necessary condition for language. Performative deeds precede and provide the necessary scaffolding for speech. In activist mode, I put theory to empirical test, helping create ritual street theatre to move into and around politically contested spaces, at ritually charged “cracks” in time, establishing symbolic presence. As part of a motley crew known as the “Government of the Dead”, I’ve worn silly costumes, devised ways to hang and decapitate effigies, spilled fake body fluids, committed “cannibalism”, cast spells, body-painted, sung and danced badly.

Last Thursday evening, several cars and vanloads of police swooped on a south London street corner to round up a theatrical troupe. They picked on someone who happened to be wearing fancy dress; then they ringed around my close friend and colleague Chris Knight, a professor of anthropology – known for his top hat and vampire blood Baron Samedi routine. I ended up handcuffed in the back of a police car. As a friend pointed out later, it took more police officers to arrest us than it did to arrest the Krays. What theatre.

I was under suspicion of conspiring to cause a public nuisance. But what had I done? No ritual had yet been performed. The police wanted to know about a superbly crafted guillotine, decked with red and red-and-black flags either side of the legend “Some Cuts Are Necessary” and louchely associated with a caricature dummy Prince Andrew, adorned with a cardboard Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order. (This august decoration was in fact pinned on to the flesh and blood Andrew by his mum in an investiture on 26 March. No one noticed the goings-on that Saturday at court. Some royal rituals are best kept under wraps, it seems.)

After the ritual drama on the street came the procedural boredom of the booking-in – and then the royal dungeon: under fluorescent glare that never acknowledges circadian rhythm, you do best to drift into a numb doze. As Victor Turner says of such liminal states of sensory deprivation, you enter “the realm of primitive hypothesis”, where you have power to take apart and put together the world as you know it in novel combinations. Could it be that the Royal Household – amid all the Kate & Wills mania, images plastered ubiquitous as Maoist icons of young love – felt challenged? Could they be sufficiently challenged in their pageantry by our cardboard cut-out, straw-stuffed constructions held together with cable ties and gaffer tape as to let fall to their inner cabal? They would not be amused by any rival rebellious spectacle. The police, smarting from the anarchist poke breaching Charles and Camilla’s body politic, would have scrambled into action.

The Government of the Dead is versed in low-down mummers’ tricks for transforming corpses into the stuff of feasts. It regularly rehearses a Rabelaisian carnival of bloodshed and dismemberment, ruthless slaughter “transformed into a merry banquet”, as Bakhtin puts it: “bloodshed, dismemberment, burning, death, beatings, blows, curses and abuses – all these elements are steeped in ‘merry time’, time which kills and gives birth.” “EAT THE BANKERS” was the slogan under which top-hatted Chris Knight/Mister Mayhem zombie-walked, urging fellow zombies to “snack on bankers’ brains” at the April 1 G20 Financial Fools’ Day Banquet at the Bank.

On May Day 2010, the righteous justice of the Government of the Dead was visited on the leaders of the political parties. Processions came from each Party HQ to occupy Parliament Square. Conservative Party leader David Cameron and his Liberal Democrat counterpart Nick Clegg were hanged, presciently side by side, from a sturdy gallows. This occupation became Democracy Village, a tented premonition of Tahrir Square, which held the ground until forcibly evicted on 20 July.

Democracy Village occasioned the Government of the Dead’s initial brush with royal power during the State Opening of Parliament on 25 May. As the royal carriage rolled by, Queen Tracy, a homeless woman of regal bearing, dressed in Elizabethan costume, delivered an Alternative Queen’s Speech, which was drowned out by the tolling of Westminster Abbey’s bells.

This was truly a “world turned upside down”, with those lying in the gutter looking at the stars. Royalty channels cosmic alignment between heaven and earth, ensuring that monarch and people move in step through cycles and seasons to keep the cosmos turning, bring the rains and make the kingdom fertile. According to Max Gluckman’s thesis on rituals of rebellion in traditional sacred systems, where the system itself is not in dispute, dramas of rebellion and role reversal turn the world upside down only to return it right back to where it was before. The implication is that if the rebellious ritual is not tolerated, as ours wasn’t, the system does not at all feel sure of itself.

As the medieval lower strata of grotesque revelry mirrored and symbolically destroyed the authority of officialdom, the ritual shadow world demands its fair share of power. The Government of the Dead as Rabelaisian agitprop asserts its rites in polarity to the rigid ceremonial of royal protocol. The slogan of the Government of the Dead – “the only good government is a dead government” – sounds fundamentally anarchist. Yet it derives from an idea common to many cultures across the world. Those who live in the world – eating, drinking, having sex – are susceptible to the temptations of the flesh; only once dead, as ancestors, can they be trusted. To join the government, you must be dead. We agitators are mere agents, our comings and goings governed by lunar time and tide. The Government of the Dead seeks to restore lunarchy – rule by the Moon – to humanity, with ritual, sexual and economic exchange switching by lunar phase. Let the shadow world government take the power for one phase – say, waxing moon, the official world in waning.

When the government was informed of the date set for William Wales and Catherine Middleton’s marriage, it was aghast. The dying days of the moon of April prior to May Day was cosmologically catastrophic! No truly royal couple can marry fruitfully except at full moon, the honeymoon time. Dark moon conjures menstrual blood, kinship, witchcraft – all antithetical to marriage. May Day is the time of popular fertility rite, not sex between newlyweds, but group sex of the lads and lasses in the woods and fields. The government realised that it had a cosmic duty to supply the necessary erotic elements to avert this threat to fecundity. We scribbled down the ritual formula:

Royal Wedding + May Day holiday = Right Royal Orgy.

How this was to be achieved, the agents weren’t certain, but it had compelling logic. In the event, the Zombie Group Wedding, Queer Resistance Flashmob and fertility rites around the statue of Eros promised a solution.

Except the event was prevented; the agents of zombie orgy chucked in a dungeon; the guillotine impounded under counter-terrorism laws. The Government of the Dead is now gravely displeased.

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