Speaker by Various Artists


Planet History: Becky Nunes

by Becky Nunes

In this project to periodically republish the most memorable work for Planet magazine, the title I edited – alongside a brilliant, creative group of friends – in the 1990s, I've focused so far on the writing.

But photography was an equally important part of Planet. The large format of the magazine gave photographers, experienced and otherwise, a great canavas for their work, and the editorial philosophy was permissive.

One of the photographers who came into Planet's orbit was Becky Nunes. At the time, I think, she was getting work as a product photographer and she brought the technical skills of that work to what she did for us. She was always a delight to work with; the opposite of a prima donna.

Becky continues to work commercially, but has also developed an amazing portfolio in art photography and film. She's been the head of the Photo Media department at Whitecliffe College since 2011.

These are her words and images below. None of the Hero photographs have been published before (we used another shot by Becky, of Michael Parmenter on a trapeze, to accompany the interview I did with Hero coordinator Rex Halliday). The issue that appeared in, Planet 7, 1992, was dedicated to the memory of Frank Hori Churchward (the father of our fashion editor, Rachael Churchward, who spent his last weeks in the bedroom at 309 Karangahape Road, Planet's office and Rachael and Grant Fell's home) and "AIDS sufferers worldwide".

Thanks Becky. RB


The Minka Firth/Guadalupe cover

I had the privilege of shooting around three covers for the magazine. This was always epic; the physical scale of the magazine cover was huge, and printed in full glorious colour, unlike most of the work inside, thus equal amounts of kudos and pressure. However this image is hands-down my favourite, for several reasons. The main one is that the beautiful woman conjuring up our Lady of Guadalupe is Minka Firth. Minka was a talented photographer, mother and eco-warrior at her very untimely death from breast cancer, and it makes me happy to see her immortalized there.

 The Sony ad

One of the things that was great about the Planet crew was their no-genre-snobbery approach to commissioning and making work. Fashion, product, portraiture, illustrative photo-collage, it was all recognized and celebrated long before the “official” fine art photography world caught on. It was at Planet that I began to work with clients whose advertising dollars supported the publication. However we got to do the ads the Planet way, and at the time this seemed somewhat radical. 

The Hero 2 pictures

Planet was a big, diverse, supportive whanau giving voice to those previously more on the margins. At this time there was quite a public stoush between civic Auckland and what would now be called the LGBTQI community, and Planet gave lots of editorial space to celebrating the latter. Photographing Hero2 was pretty technically challenging; it was practically dark inside the massive boatshed on Princes wharf, and performers swung on trapezes illuminated by glitter balls. Overall though I  remember it as a pretty incredible celebration of freak-flag-flying in the face of bigotry, and a great party.


Planet, along with Murray at RipItUp, gave me the opportunity to indulge professionally in my main passion at that time; live music. I got to meet and photograph lots of talented musicians, but I’ve chosen these two as highlights. Kim Gordon was and still is one of my idols, and even in a mediocre hotel lobby somewhere in the inner ‘burbs she still radiated Riot Grrl power. And the huge talent Emma Paki; her song 'System Virtue' still gives me chills. 


Planet History: Taking Tea with Quentin

by Rupert E. Taylor

This interview with Quentin Crisp is part of a series of articles republished from Planet, the independent magazine I edited in the early 90s from a base at 309 Karangahape Road, along with Grant Fell, Rachael Churchward, Fiona Rae, David Teehan, Paul Shannon, Mere Ngaigulevu and others.

Inevitably, you forget things, and over the years I've looked at the cover of Issue 12 (Summer 93) and thought "what did we do about Quentin Crisp?". Turns out it was this gem by Rupert E. Taylor.

Thanks to Leo Rae Brown for offering to re-type this and future articles to get them out of the memory hole. RB


“Shit!” I yell. “When do the banks close here?” “Oh, about four I think.” I'm staying in New York briefly, with friends Shelly and Joost who have just moved into a new apartment, on my way to London. Anyway, it's 3.15, so I rush out down the hall, stairs, stoops and away, my first venture out alone in New York

'I won't get lost,' I'm thinking, 'cause the banks are on 2nd Street, so I'll just stay on 2nd.' I'm walking hurriedly up 2nd street searching for the bank. Have I missed it? Have I walked past it and not noticed? God, so much to look at, I love it here. Oh look there's Quentin crisp having lunch … Quentin Crisp!!?? He caught my eye, I wave, he nods a similar nod to that of the Queen of (shit!) England. 'My, my,' I'm thinking, 'I should talk to him. No Rupert, he's eating, you can't interrupt him. (Shit! I've missed the bank – closed 3.30). Go on, go and talk to Quentin, Rupert, you're not in New York every day'.

So I do.

I walk through the door of the cafe and straight up to him. “Mr Crisp?” I ask rather nervously, but confidently loud. “Yes,” he replies, looking me from head to toe. “Uuummmmm ...” I stand not quite knowing what to say next. “For goodness sake move my shopping and sit down,” he says. “Okay. Thanks.” I sit down and look at this man. From my chair it's almost as if he is somehow dragging me closer. I move the chair further into the table so I can get closer and look harder. He has applied his blusher, a sort of rose pink, not too bright, below the outer corner of his eyes in small filled-in circles, rather clownish and not subtle. He is lightly powdered and his eyeliner has been applied with a very shaky hand; there's a hint of eye shadow, powder blue. His hair is plainer than I would have imagined. Mauve in the grey from his hairline, fading into silver-grey, both sides swept up to join in the middle, like two waves meeting in a windy sea, captured in a photograph or still life painting.

“Will you join me?” he asks, his dancing hands rolling together towards his sandwich.

“Okay,” I reply, still bemused by the whole scene. He calls a waiter, who toddles off with the sandwich and returns with it cut in two with an extra plate for the unexpected guest.

“I'll have a black coffee too, thanks.

“Thank you,” I say to Mr Crisp. “My name is Rupert.”

“And mine is Quentin.” He looks at my eyes, and I his. He has old eyes, soft and grey-blue. I liked them and lapped it up every time he looked at me which, as he only did occasionally, was an extra treat.

“I thought you were amazing in Orlando,” I say. “You were great, I especially loved the opening scene with Jimmy Sommerville singing on the bow of the boat.”

Quentin laughs: “Thank you, thank you. Yes, Mr Sommerville, (he starts singing in falsetto) singing very high in falsetto.” He is leaning back in his chair, his head tilted back, singing and performing. Heads are turning in the cafe and I'm loving it. “Yes, that damned scene went on all night,” he says. “Up and down, up and down we went, 'cut' they'd yell, and I'd think 'no, not again', and we'd have to start the scene from the beginning. Up and down, up and down. The poor men rowing. Of course they weren't proper actors y'know, actors wouldn't be seen dead rowing like that. They were extras with big chests. Poor fellows. Then before I knew it, someone yelled 'dawn has approached us', and sure enough dawn had approached us – we'd been going all night and it didn't stop there.”

Did you prepare for your role as Queen Elizabeth? Did you study for the part?”

“Oh no. Not at all. They picked me up from the airport and drove me straight to the set and that was that. Y'know some people do that. Some actors, they go and become a nun or something, but I'm not really like that, in fact I wouldn't call myself an actor.”

“Oh, I would Mr Crisp. I think if you can put on a costume and slip into the part of the character as immediately as you did, I would definitely call you an actor. I thought you played the part beautifully.”

“Thank you, Rupert.” Talking to him and watching his hand and expressive face, his dramatic voice – oh yes, he's an actor alright.

“What about The Naked Civil Servant?” I ask. “Was that a very close portrayal of your younger life? Did you like the way John Hurt played you?”

“Oh yes, indeed. Mr Hurt was wonderful and you know, by the time he had his makeup on and was dressed, I was very surprised, because yes, he really looked as I did when I was younger. I remember one day he said to me, 'I'm dreading this Mr Crisp, how the hell am I coing to play you?!' But then after he had been made up he approached me and said, 'I know I can play you now Mr Crisp, do you know why? Because I feel veerry pretty!' (he laughs). Y'know they were just so thorough about everything – everything had to be just right. They made me draw pictures of my close friends at the time and they would colour them and ask me if it was right or not. Yes they were very thorough.”

“Were you paid lots of cash for the movie rights Mr Crisp?”

“Well, no, I was paid £350 and they paid me to be a technical adviser – no, not lots of money.”

“I found The Naked Civil Servant very sad and quite disturbing. Did people really do those things to you? Were they really that harsh?”

“Oh yes! They were, very nasty people. Of course, getting beaten up during the Second World War was a horrid thing, but yes, people used to grab my hats and throw them on the road and jump on them. I didn't know what was wrong with them, as far as I was concerned I was doing nothing wrong, but the English most definitely did not like it, they are so bloody conservative, people would come right up to my face (he starts talking to his hand which he's holding up to his face) and say, 'who the bloody hell do you think you are anyway Quentin Crisp?' And I would say, 'I'm nobody, nobody at all, what is wrong with you?' Oh no, the English are very conservative, unlike here of course.”

“How long have you lived here in New York?”

“I've lived here as a legal alien now for 12 years non-stop. I paid thousands of pounds and begged for years to be able to stay here. People here talk to you, people on the street say, 'Hello Mr Crisp', people here are very friendly and want to talk to you and find out about you.”

“Do you live alone?”

“Yes, I do, as I have all my life, in a one-bedroom flat. That's how I've always lived. I share a toilet and bathroom with five others. I'm living in probably the only, or one of the only, boarding houses left in New York, on 4th/East Avenue. Y'know, these days people call anything an apartment – a tiny box, they'll put a gas cooker in one corner and a shower box in the other and call it an apartment.

“Will you look at that rain, look at the puddles, that's about six inches of water there. Y'know, the drain system here is dreadful, I mean I know New York is built on a large rock, but wouldn't you think they'd have better drainage?”

“What do you do in your spare time? When you're not performing or giving interviews?” He laughs. “People are always asking, 'Mr Crisp, What do you do when you're not on telly or in the movies?' I say, 'My dear, I'm only on telly or in the movies for four minutes here, five minutes there, what do you think I do? I do what you do – I fry an egg, clean the lavatory or write a letter.' People are so funny.”

“Do you go for walks?”

“Oh no, I hate walking.” He looks blankly out the window, silent for a few seconds. “Y'know, I don't think I've ever been for a walk. Oh, I go to the shops or I'll walk to get somewhere, but no, I've never been one to 'go for a walk'. I have a friend who lives in the country and he's always asking why I don't go and stay and I say because I hate all that grassy stuff and leaves. It's just not me, I love the city. Y'know, just the other day I was walking to catch a bus and I walked past this big black man who was looking at me in a rather surprised way. He said to me (laughing), 'We've sure got it all on today, honey.' Well, I laughed and said, 'Yes, we have haven't we?' It was very funny, I like people here.”

“I went to Wigstock on monday,” I say. “It was amazing, 20,000 people dressed up. Drag queens, transvestites, wigs galore, great acts and entertainment for eight hours. Ru Paul performed. Did you go? Do you go out to clubs here?”

“Oh no, no. What I can't understand is this; how can a man have a frock on, stockings and a full face of makeup and a wig, all the business and still have a beard on his face? (laughs). I just can't understand it. Of course, drag is very fashionable now and there are some good ones, but no, I don't go out.

“We'll, I'd better be off and go home now. It's been lovely chatting with you, Rupert.”

“You too, Mr Crisp, I'm so pleased I've met you and thank you for talking with me.”

“It was a pleasure. Goodbye.”


I walk up to the counter with Mr Crisp and observe him as he pays his bill. He says goodbye again, this time turning around to have a final look from toes to head. I smile, he leaves.

I ask to pay for my coffees, of which I have lost count. “No, no,” says the waiter. “Mr Crisp paid.”

I later found out that Mr Quentin Crisp was very poor and did not own a lot of money – on the bones of his arse was how it went. Thank you Mr Crisp. I owe you one.

Originally published as Fairytales of New York: Taking tea with Quentin, in Planet 12 (Summer 93), by Rupert E. Taylor.


Extinction Rebellion is not a cult (but ecstasy for the people)

by Anke Richter

Yoga gurus and cult leaders – I’ve seen a few. Two weeks ago, I unknowingly joined an alleged new-age cult at the Kāpiti coast, together with a giant kraken and some neatly dressed pensioners who would make any book club proud.

They were among the two hundred people of all ages preparing for a week of worldwide protests by Extinction Rebellion (XR). It kicked off in Wellington with rebels temporarily shutting down the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and gluing themselves to the Lambton Quay ANZ branch with “climate crime scene” tape.

The next day, a Māori XR commando squirted tomato sauce on James Cook’s plaque and decorated the statue of Richard Seddon outside Parliament with a ball and chain. Melbourne rebels sang and danced in the streets to 'Staying Alive', turning civil disobedience into “disco-bedience”. Meanwhile in London, a man had broken down in one of the many protests, overcome by emotion – shaking, crying and clutching a photo of his two little children. Mothers holding babies filled the streets.

After more than a thousand arrests in the UK alone, the BBC stopped reporting to not cause more disruption. Someone got on top of a plane at Heathrow. Over in Berlin, a controversial politician warned young school strikers to stay away from XR’s piraty pranks. Her safety concerns were not because of physical danger. Jutta Ditfurth, co-founder of the Green Party, now on the far left and an abrasive voice even by German standards, called the apolitical action network an “esoteric doomsday cult”. She tweeted that the movement is "anti-intellectual“ and acting hyper-emotional instead of rational. 

The global Greta hating and XR bashing has come from neoliberal and conservative camps as well as the radical left, the latter accusing XR of being too white (make that racist), tame or elitist. But in Germany, only the far-right AfD party branded Extinction Rebellion a “climate cult” – and also declared its full support of a fossil fuel counter movement to the school strikes. “Fridays for Hubraum” was started by car fanatics and instantly gained half a million followers. 

Since XR is now being attacked by both extreme ends of the political spectrum, it must be doing something right which transcends all agendas and appeals to a simple human denominator: survival. If the concerned German politician would have come along to the Paekakariki Holiday Park, she might have found that the training weekend that took place there was one of political activism, even if two kitchen helpers went to meditate during a break and a yoga session was held. 

The overall vibe was friendly, fun and undogmatic. Someone brought a ukulele along. No-one gave me a hard time for arriving by car. Although the food was mostly vegan, there was some milk and cheese at mealtimes – organic, not by Fonterra. My mission for the rebels was to go shopping: finding police hats, pink ribbon and magenta dye for a performance piece with mock arrests. 

Their ethos, pinned to the wall on brown paper, was more in line with the principles of Burning Man and Non-Violent Communication (NVC). It mentions self-responsibility and “radical inclusivity”. No shaming and blaming of individuals – they want systemic change from the top. Hate symbols like swastikas on a US flag aren’t tolerated, nor is swearing at police officers. Instead, local organisers and their artistic helpers like Nelson photographer Jose Cano create a wave of love with visual imagery that they hope will catch on.

The first morning started with a powhiri. Rebel Haimana Hirini stood barefoot on the wet grass, holding a talking stick towards the sky and thanking his siblings: the trees, the mountains, the water. New Zealand’s XR branch has translated the three demands of Extinction Rebellion – tell the truth, act now, lead by Citizen’s Assemblies – into te reo Māori and wants to add a new one: decolonization and recognition of indigenous rights.

What Jutta Ditfurth and the European radical left dismiss as “new age” is in fact the spiritual foundation of many indigenous cultures which are directly affected by the destruction of our dying planet. If those critics are comfortable with Māori, Aborigines, Mongolian shamans or Native Americans referring to higher powers and the interconnectedness of all species, but ridicule the same sentiments if Swedish or white American teenagers express their fears, then it only goes to show their arrogance and inert racism towards non-western cultures by not taking them seriously. 

If the politician calling XR a cult had ended up in the tent for the “Truth Mandala”, she might have fired off more furious tweets. “The Spiral” was written out on a blackboard with a pretty floral drawing, explaining the emotional stages to move through before we kick into action: Gratitude that “brings us back to source”, then “honouring our pain”, finally “seeing with new eyes” and “going forth”. 

It sounds esoteric but is psychological, if not therapeutic. If XR works like a religion, then not as opium for the people, but ecstasy. MDMA can open hearts, heal trauma and bring out empathy. 

“Regen” is short for “regenerative culture”, from massages to cacao ceremonies: the XR wellbeing sector to prevent burn-out and create more connection. I missed the few body-mind offerings for the NVDA (non-violent direct action) training where I practiced breathing deeply and staying calm while being yelled at, for instance by people who cannot get to work. One group was painting hourglass symbols on flags, with endangered birds as an endemic note. In the evening, we sang chants: “The children have spoken – the earth won’t be broken”. 

Sea Rotmann is a sustainable energy advisor and originally from Austria. She put on a kraken costume to introduce us newbies to the “rebels without borders” – not for fun, but because her “spirit animal” is a harbinger of ecological disaster. The Wellington marine biologist has been obsessed with the ocean since she was a child, then studied the dying Great Barrier reef for her PhD. She saw first-hand what is happening to the ice shelf on an expedition to Antarctica in 2016. 

Rotmann gave an introductory talk about the non-violent principles of XR, their mass-mobilising philosophy (“hope dies, action begins”) and the state of the world to come: “Shit is just starting to kick off”. The climate is not warming, but heating. We got all the facts and numbers. “A dying ocean is a nightmare we cannot fathom”, especially in this coastal country and with climate refugees from the pacific islands. No Elon Musk is going to come and whisk us away. “The clock has gone past 12.” She wiped away tears. So did I. 

I thought of Paraparaumu beach where I had walked that morning in the early sunshine, watching birds, water lapping on the sand and shells.  And of my sons – one now a vegetarian, the other one sure that he will never have children. “Dr Sea”, as everyone called her, closed her laptop. “Thank you for sharing your grief. I love you.”

I also saw wet eyes in Wellington when the mourning brigade in red robes and white faces appeared there. One of the performers, decorated as Mother Earth, nursed her baby while she stood on the steps of Parliament, looking straight out of Wearable Arts. It was powerful, heart-breaking – and stylish. The XR newsletter uses similar images and emotive language: “compassion; awareness; courage”, “We’re a movement unlike any other”, “you’re not alone in this”. 

Apocalyptic scenarios, group intensity and woke jargon – this is also cult material which was discussed in July at the annual International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) conference. Cult researcher Yuval Laor from Colorado has researched the nature of fervour for his PhD and upcoming book, “The Religious Ape”. What I took away from his lecture was that being in a cult – or a “high-demand group”, as is the preferred term among experts – works similar to falling in love: an awe-induced state of limerence that opens us to exploitation, coercion or manipulation. 

How does Laor see XR in the cultish context? Are the XR rebels inducing fervour by sharing grief, riding the trauma wave together and pulling in celebrities like Michael Stipe and Keira Knightley? Yes, he says, but fervour is neither good or bad in itself. “Cults, by definition, are bad, but there are positive groups that resemble cults.” He mentions the French underground resistance in WWII as an example. “Inducing awe is a good way to influence people. When the situation is dire, it would be negligent not to use awe to inspire people to change.” 

Bestselling writer Jonathan Safran Foer says in his new book We Are the Weather that we know about the climate catastrophe, but we don’t believe what’s coming – similar to his Jewish family in Poland. Everyone in the village knew in 1941 what the Nazis were up to, but only his grandmother felt terror, packed her things and fled. The others thought that things would turn out okay somehow. They were all killed. 

Extinction Rebellion is based on hard science but works with emotions. That’s not cultish but smart. 


Disability and the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse

by Hilary Stace

The Royal Commission on abuse in care is very significant for the disability community. For many decades last century, thousands of disabled children, and adults who managed to survive, were locked away from families and communities. This was not for anything they had done, but for the perceived threat their impairments posed to some powerful people who believed that disability was caused by ‘tainted heredity’. 

These widely held but false scientific beliefs held that impairments, particularly learning/intellectual disability and mental illness, but also other conditions such as epilepsy, were signs of genetic inferiority. These supposedly hereditary physical and intellectual defects caused consequent moral ‘degeneracy’ making disabled people less ‘fit’, threatening the ‘fitness’ of the rest of society.

Powerful politicians, doctors, public servants and others decided that disabled people must therefore be segregated from mainstream society to prevent their reproduction. Laws such as the 1911 Mental Defectives Act started the requirement to report and classify disabled people. Later, psychopaedic institutions such as Templeton or Kimberley were developed.

The IHC was founded in 1949 by parents who did not want their children sent away to institutions and instead wanted education and other facilities in their local communities. However, the children and their families faced much stigma and discrimination.

Despite the advocacy of these brave parents a government committee in the early 1950s recommended that the current institutions (‘mental deficiency colonies’) be expanded and parents encouraged (or coerced) into sending their disabled children to them by the age of five. A decade later a government documentary suggested that one in a thousand children should be in such places because of disability. There are families around New Zealand who didn’t find out that they had a missing family member until the institutions started to close in the late 1970s.

There are not many survivors of those times. Lives were often short and sad. But there are numerous reports of children denied identity, education, or contact with families, and exposed to physical , emotional and sexual abuse. The ‘back wards’ of the institutions were often places of horror. We need to hear and acknowledge this history to ensure such things never happen again.

The Royal Commission is working out how best to hear these stories, and to reach and welcome anyone who wants to talk to them, within a safe environment. This is the first inquiry in the world to cover all types of abuse in a variety of settings. It wants to hear the stories of disabled children, but also children who were sent to youth justice or abusive foster homes or experienced abuse in faith-based care. The main focus is 1950-1999, but survivors, family members or staff from outside this era will also be heard. So, coverage is large and complex.

One of the five Commissioners, Paul Gibson, has lived experience of disability and has long been an advocate for an inquiry into historic abuse through various roles he has had in the disability community including with DPA and more recently in the Human Rights Commission. For several reasons, stories of disability abuse are harder to find and hear than some others and need champions. 

The Royal Commission is highly political. The last government fought against the idea, but in Opposition Jacinda Ardern promised an inquiry and announced the Royal Commission in early 2018. Despite its independent status there are numerous and sometimes competing agendas going on. In addition, abuse is messy and complex – and abused and abusers may be the same people. To hear and acknowledge abuse it is necessary to share human vulnerability, which is not easy when we are used to adversarial hierarchical systems. 

Many people are working hard to make this Royal Commission work, but it will take time and the road will not be smooth.

You can find out more or register to talk to the commission through their website:



Catalonia, interrupted

by Robert Southon

Two years have now gone by since the Friday afternoon when my university-student son and I headed out of our Barcelona flat to a nearby primary school, designated as a polling station for the vote that was to be held the following Sunday: the referendum on Catalonia’s independence from Spain on October 1st, 2017. 

Why were we going to the primary school two days before the vote? To keep it open. The Spanish authorities had declared the referendum illegal, and had spent several weeks carrying out aggressive police raids, making arrests and censoring media and internet in an attempt to stop the vote organized by the Catalan government. Yet they had failed. 

So now it came down to whether people power could prevail over a central government which had simply turned its back on the whole issue for five years, while a massive grassroots movement had taken root wanting a vote on Catalonia becoming its own independent state within Europe.

On social media in the days before the referendum, appeals circulated to keep the schools and community centres open for weekend activities, so that the police would be legally unable to close them off. And folks turned up, all weekend – at our Escola Drassanes, and at hundreds of other designated polling stations across Catalonia. 

Those 48 hours were the most intense community happening I’ve ever been part of in our inner-city neighbourhood. All sorts of people came out of the woodwork and between comings and goings it was a glorious improvised mixture of playing ping-pong, sharing meals and standing up to an authoritarian state. Yes. The last of these, because on referendum day morning, the sense of being under assault was brought to a climax as thousands of Spanish police simply barged in and unleashed violence on ordinary people all over Catalonia. They didn’t stop the vote. They just disrupted it at about 5% of polling stations and bashed a hell of a lot of human flesh.

After that, how could things possibly ever be the same again? How could people carry on supporting a state whose only response to a reasonable democratic demand was orchestrated police violence? It would be turkeys voting for Christmas.

And yet the overall sensation at the close of the polls was tremendous, of having achieved something very important ourselves. The referendum had taken place, and it was not in the end the Catalan authorities but the people themselves who had brought it about and protected it. And gosh, how we celebrated – not only at places like Escola Drassanes, where the police never showed up, but at most of the centres where they did. “Hem votat, hem votat”, people roared. “We have voted, we have voted.”


We're two years on here in Catalonia, and as I write we are awaiting the imminent announcement of the verdicts and sentences in the Spanish Supreme Court mega-trial of 12 political and civil leaders who worked to facilitate the referendum and independence process. And if I am to explain how things are, I’d start by saying that, in daily life, Catalonia is as easy-going and relaxed as ever, in general. But politically, it’s as though we’re simply caught in a freeze-frame of one of those classic referendum images, of Spanish police batons poised in the air, ready to swing down on Catalan voters. 

When the images of police violence first went round the world, it was easy to feel that a red line had been crossed: in the heart of the EU, a government was mistreating its citizens and its democracy. So the international community would surely react, and a reluctant Spain, that had buried its head in the sand for five years, would now start to address the problem politically. The idea that the referendum would lead to talks, rather than instantly to full independence, was implicit in the plan.

Yet Spain simply clamped down, the EU didn’t react, the Catalan government lost the initiative while waiting, and the Catalan public, for all its energy, went home quietly at the end of the day as leaders suggested, even on the afternoon when the Catalan Parliament actually made a declaration of independence. On the other hand, the Spanish authoritarian steamroller, which had grunted into life in September to send 8,000 police to Catalonia with their batons and rubber bullets, now gathered speed.  

And although so much has happened since then, it has really all been that same photo: the administration of punishment, and the threat of worse. First, via a destructive six-month period of direct rule from Madrid. But mostly through continuing judicial action, justified under the “rule of law” but mostly just criminalizing a whole sector of the population: throwing independence leaders in jail to get them out of the way (denounced as unlawful by the UN, rejected by courts elsewhere in Europe) with hundreds more people either still facing trial or under investigation for their referendum roles. And a complete stonewall, under successive Spanish governments, to even acknowledging that Catalans might have a legitimate political demand – with at least two million voters supporting it, and a vast majority of Catalans telling pollsters they want to resolve the issue through a referendum. Yet the Spanish state’s ironclad constitution doesn’t allow it, so end of story. Spain, under pressure, has simply retreated into the centralist ideology of national unity that Franco left well entrenched at the end of his four-decade dictatorship. 

Yet, for all this, many Catalan turkeys are still voting for Christmas. Support for Catalan independence and its parties has not suddenly increased since the referendum; it remains only marginally larger electorally than the anti-independence bloc. So this is another sense in which the situation is frozen: we now have two polarized political blocs, but they don’t engage in meaningful politics on the major issue that separates them – since all the pro-Spain forces, both here and in Madrid, say it would be unconstitutional to even consider it. Meanwhile the independence camp’s actions are constantly stressed by the judicial repression. We’re not going to move towards any solution as long as this toxic political tension is maintained. 



But, glory be, a new phase now begins, and it’s tailor-made by the Spanish authorities to raise the political stress even further: the court verdicts, with a general election to follow a month later. The ground has already been prepared: last month, a 500-officer operation by Spanish police arrested nine Catalan independence activists on extremely vague “terrorism” charges, which instantly sent the entire Madrid-based media and Spanish political parties into feeding frenzy-mode Catalan terrorists! What a coincidence! What better way to prime the Spanish public for the verdicts in the country’s biggest trial in recent history, in which violence is the key point upon which the main charges stand or fall? 

The four-month trial of 12 Catalan pro-independence politicians and social leaders was farcical. The principal accusations, rebellion and sedition, respectively depend by definition on “violent uprising” and “tumultuous uprising” from the independence movement. Those never took place, and have never existed in the 21st century Catalan movement. The only violence seen was from the police on 1st October.

Some laws were certainly broken in the referendum process – there was disobedience of court orders, a serious enough matter but not enough to send anyone to prison. But beyond that, the court case showed that the 2017 referendum process in Catalonia managed two extremely powerful things: firstly, it challenged Spanish legality but in a way that was peaceful, juridically smart and based on broad democratic principles; and more unfortunately, it wounded Spanish nationalist pride to the point where the establishment closed ranks and resolved to put a stop to this business, come what may.

Thus, legal experts expect guilty verdicts and sizeable jail sentences for people who have been protagonists of Catalan public life both as capable leaders and admirable human beings. Naturally, there will be a huge reaction from Catalans, both in the independence movement and beyond; new protest platforms organizing mass civil disobedience have appeared in recent weeks, and hundreds of extra Spanish police are once again being sent to Catalonia. The pro-independence parties have been fraught with division lately on where they go now, but, as in 2017, the clumsy action of the Spanish authorities might once again galvanise people to put their bodies on the line to protest the manifest injustice and break the political log-jam. For better or for worse. 

And that’s just it: cynical though it seems, the Spanish establishment is counting on the reaction, and counting on being able to control and discredit it. Because the next matter on the political agenda is the Spanish general election, to be held on November 10th. It's a repeat of last April’s election, called by acting PM Pedro Sánchez’s Socialists because they couldn’t form a good enough coalition.

Their clear electoral strategy is now to reject the support from Catalan parties which brought them to power in 2018 and go the other way. They will take a tough line on Catalonia to gain the handful of seats from the right that they need to improve their parliamentary arithmetic. And Spain will see it live on all channels from here until the election. Can plucky Pedro challenge and slay the evil Catalan dragon in the nick of time, bring peace to the kingdom and be crowned new ruler? That reads like a fairy tale of course - and we know about fairy tales.