Saturday, August 15, 2009

Why Don't We Do It In The Road?

My Woodstock moment came on Easter Saturday 1958. I'd heard about the "Ban the Bomb"march on the BBC. Organised by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, it had started from Trafalgar Square on Good Friday and was headed for the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment outside Aldermaston, a village on the other side of Reading, my home town.

I had come out to see it go by, standing in the cold by our bus stop on the London Road. A few neighbors had come out too. It was late afternoon, already getting on for dusk. And then we saw them coming down the hill, not many, a few hundred, their flags and banners drooping in the rain. The snow that had fallen on Good Friday had turned to classic, cold, English rain. It was the coldest Easter in living memory.

My heart was thumping hard, not just because of the banners, the raised voices and ragged chanting but the fact that they were all walking in the road. I was thinking what will happen when a bus comes down the hill, behind them, one of the big double decker Thames Valley buses. As we so often say now: it was a simpler time. People did not walk in the road. On Friday and Saturday nights when the pubs closed at ten thirty then a few unruly, lower-class citizens might lurch along the gutters but that was it. The first march for nuclear disarmament in 1958 was the first time the British had taken to the streets since the hunger marches of the thirties, when the starving Welsh miners marched on London.

As the marchers got closer we could see their banners said all kinds of things: Unite Ireland! Independence for Cyprus! There were elaborate Trade Union banners, embroidered like something from a church among the anti-bomb and peace signs. Our little group by the bus stop were the only bystanders in sight so we got the full force of the column starting to chant: "Come and join us!"
And I did, the only one, heart thumping harder, like a village boy swept up by the soldiers to go fight for the King. Though afterwards I always liked to say modestly, yes, indeed, I had been on the first Aldermaston march, one of the pioneers, first of the few.. I usually didn't add that it was basically because we lived just round the corner from the London Road and I was home from college, on Easter break.

The reasons why I wanted to ban the bomb, fight the cold war and work for world peace were quite personal, even selfish. Some of my best friends were young Communist Party members. In 1956 I'd gone to Yugoslavia, just shy of eighteen and spent the summer in the Peoples' Socialist Republic with two pen pals, two school girls from Belgrade. I came back, glowing with the discovery that many young American students were to make when they volunteered to help harvest the sugar cane in revolutionary Cuba: sunburnt, handsome young party members made one think twice about the evils of communism.

Then almost before my summer Adriatic tan had faded, Russian tanks were grinding into Hungary to put down the Hungarian revolution and any idea of a warm and friendly communist was dead.

But here on the march a few months later, were people who I felt for the first time understood how complex things were and yet how full of possibilties life was. All you had to do was not bother what people thought, not care about being respectable. I'd been swept into a group of marchers who didn't care: a young doctor from Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. Behind us an older couple, Quakers. Two dark young men with the "Independence for Cyprus!" banner. A very serious man with a beard and maybe his students. They were all incredibly friendly and, even the English, totally uninhibited. We chanted Ban the Bomb! And Come and Join Us! all the way into Reading in the twilight facing the same little knots of dazed and disbelieving people watching us go by, that I'd just left.

Sunday morning I didn't wait for a bus; I walked into Reading and found the marchers, found my group, my Singhalese doctor, outside St Lawrence parish hall. We started off for Aldermaston, the village in the Thames Valley with its Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. Word came down the line when we reached the tall wire fences: march in silence. The place seemed huge. There were clusters of men in uniform behind the wire, with dogs and guns. It was the first time I'd seen guns in England.

And when I got home for the first time when I listened to the BBC, I knew things they did not or refused to acknowledge. We were not a few rowdy students, a group of naive housewives pushing prams fifty-two miles through the good old English rain. The next year the BBC could not dismiss the march. We were sixty-thousand leaving Trafalgar Square. There were bigger and better banners and ones proclaiming all the towns and cities represented and bigger and shinier badges with the CND logo.

But I wore my little one given to me on that first Easter Saturday, the international symbol of peace, the semaphore for N and D, which began life on drenched and drooping banners coming from Trafalgar Square to Aldermaston on that first Easter march against the bomb.

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