“The world needs more mischievousness,” says Paul Saville, mayor candidate, chai seller, serial botherer at council meetings and, erm, magician.
We’re next to his Chai Cycle mobile tea station talking about his style of activism and his often fiery clashes with the current mayor – including the moment he secretly filmed George Ferguson telling him to fuck off just a few yards from where we are now.
“That day down in the Bearpit, it started off very simply where I was asking him questions – human being to human being,” Paul says, the picture of utter calmness.
“The guy didn’t want to speak to me and I felt that it’s his responsibility to be accountable. Three and a half years later since the Bearpit thing and the whole of Bristol has become very disillusioned with Ferguson’s leadership.”
Whether Bristol is fed up with Ferguson or not is a moot point, with the bookies holding him as an early favourite. One thing the current mayor has always contested is that Paul was “harassing” him that day in typical style.
So where did it all start for one of the city’s most well-recognised protesters, and what’s led him to challenge his old foe for Bristol’s top job?
Born in Poole, Paul was brought up in Bournemouth by his mother. “I grew up without a dad. My mum looked after me – I love my mum a lot,” he says.
He went to school, albeit only “partly”. “My rebellion started very early. I think I started asking questions when I was about 11. The question that drives my life is ‘why?’
“If someone tells me something, I want to ask ‘why? why is it that way?’ At school I think I just asked it too many times.”
Secondary school went a similar way. “I found mainstream education really challenging, I found it really constricting.
“I didn’t like how we were told one thing and we had to accept it.” He got through school, but didn’t achieve any C grades or higher at GCSE. He partly attributes this to his rebellious nature and partly to his cannabis use, which acted as a trigger for a mental breakdown while still a teenager.
“Long story short, I did end up smoking weed a lot during my teens and, eventually, at about 17 or 18 I had a mental breakdown and was admitted into hospital in Poole with psychosis. I was in there for about two-and-a-half months, three months.”
He had become homeless twice in the run-up to the breakdown and took two-and-a-half years to get himself on the straight and narrow following his trip to hospital.
He eventually studied a nursing access course in Bournemouth and was recommended university by his teacher.
Paul ended up in Bristol in 2007 where he attended UWE, studying sociology and criminology.
“I ended up in Bristol thinking ‘what have I done?’ because I come from Bournemouth where everything was clean and shiny and touristy and I came to Bristol and it was graff, bass music and an interesting place.”
Someway through his four-year course, in 2009, Paul first tasted infamy when he was caught by police drawing chalk messages on the pavements.
He wrote “Liberty. The right to question it. The right to ask: Are we free?”; and, “As the buildings go up, the wages go down” near the Broadmead Podium and The Galleries car park.
He was taken to Trinity Road police station, locked in a cell and forced to give DNA, before being summoned to court, only to have the charges dropped. The story and his picture ended up in all the national newspapers.
“For me it was an exploration of public space, private property and who owns what,” he tells me. “Seeing what the boundaries are. Chalk disappears.
“It was a great win for liberty, common sense and other artists. Now if you go around Bristol, not everywhere, you will see people doing chalk art largely left alone now,” he adds.
He tells me his first taste of activism was before that on a Zombies Against Consumerism march through Cabot Circus.
“I’d never been part of that,” he says. “I’d been to Stop the War where I met Jeremy Corbyn for the first time, but I’d never felt part of a community – which is what we have in Bristol.”
But where does his activist spirit come from?
“Basically, during that time, the breakdown and everything like that, I could have either gone one of two ways – possibly dead or possibly in prison.
“I was being looked after by the NHS, and the support networks helped me when I was down and I couldn’t work. And the education system gave me that chance to learn stuff I actually thought was to interest to me and helped me build my life back
“All the things that have happened to me and affected me, to me it’s really important that we defend those things.
“I care about people, you know what I mean? At the end of the day we are all linked and an injury to one is an injury to all.”
I suggest that he often not so conscious about other people when in the throes of one of his now well-known – and often shouty – rants at public meetings or events.
“There’s a reason for that and that’s because the council aren’t listening,” he says. “The council doesn’t listen to anything Bristol people say.”
So, what clicks in his head to push him over the edge at some of these confrontations? “Politicians, lies deceit and dishonesty. A mistrust in the people who are represented to lead us.
“Sometimes you’ve got to speak up for what you believe in. Some days you’ve just got to say things as you mean them.”
He says the council at the moment has effectively become a dictatorship. “At the end of the day it’s about standing up. If I’m mayor I want to make sure Bristol City Council is reminded that they work for us, that we pay their wages.”
He says the council has no accountability – especially the high-paid, unelected service directors. “They’re the one’s whispering in people’s ears at these meetings. It’s increasingly frustrating to see decisions being made over people’s heads.”
We move away from his serious protesting side for a moment to look at how else he sees himself. “Chai seller, ice cream seller, artist and activist, and magician,” he says.
Magician? When did that start?
“Well, it’s more of a realisation,” he says. I ask him to show me a trick.
“It’s not really that kind of magic,” he says. He explains his idea that art is magic, and concedes it is not strictly magic – “not in the kind of showbiz sense”.
“Well, for me art is magic,” he repeats. He gestures to his Chai Cycle and adds: “The fact that this is just a pile of wood on a bike with a stove on the top. You can make things happen out of nothing.
“I’ve seen people make fantastic stuff out of nothing, from the rave scene to parties to protests. It’s all creation.”
We return to politics. He says he believes in power of the people and eventually getting to a place where we no longer need the council and the institutions that go with it.
He understands he is an outsider in the election, but sees the bigger picture. “The point for me about running for mayor isn’t about winning. It’s the process that’s the real win. It’s making sure that the issues I’ve been speaking about; the high pay, Green Capital accountability – all of that stuff – are spoken about.”
However, he points out that Ladbrokes had him at 200/1 and he is now at 100/1. “Jeremy Corbyn when he was going for it was 200/1. Everyone said he was unelectable, but he did it. Mad things can happen.”
He returns to his more natural cynical position. “What I’ve found is that this election is a charade. It’s a selection not and election. You can quote me on that – selection, not election.
“The political parties have lots of power and then Ferguson has lots of money. I have no money. I have a group of friends around me at the moment who are doing their best.”
His crowdfunding campaign raised the £500 needed to register as a candidate, but he was still (at the time of interview on March 10) looking for more help covering the fee the council charges to put his face in the election pamphlet.
So, on his first day in office, what is the plan? “Call in the service directors, 27 of them, and make them justify their jobs and look at a pay cut. Burst the myth of austerity.”
I catch a smile and a glint in his eye and suggest he’s not always being serious. “The thing is, politics has become a very boring and stuffy affair.
“For me the whole Jermey Corbyn thing has breathed some colour and life into that and I’ve taken great inspiration from that political awakening.
“The council meetings are very boring. Who in their right mind would listen to a council meeting for eight hours?
“Politics doesn’t have to be boring, stuffy and excluding. It can be inclusive, it can be about having a laugh. And you can, you know, have fun.”
Bristol24/7 is hosting a mayoral hustings featuring all candidates at The Lantern at 7pm on Thursday, April 28. Entrance is first come first served. For more information, visit www.colstonhall.org/shows/mayoral-hustings/