“First of all, the wilde heades of the parish flocking together, chuse them a graunde captaine of mischiefe, whom they innoble with the title of Lord of Misrule; and him they crowne with great solemnity, and adopt for their king.”
Philip Stubbes: Anatomie of Abuses (1583)
Chapter 1: Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside.
It all began, for me, in Margate, Kent, at an Anti-Nazi League demonstration called in opposition to a National Front march. My first protest.
Well actually it wasn’t my first protest at all. I’ve done a lot of protests in my time, like a lot of people my age. CND marches, anti-apartheid rallies, the Poll Tax protests, the Miner’s strike, a road protest or two. But all that was a long time ago. There comes a time when a veteran protester has to hang up his Doc Marten’s, slip on his slippers and settle down to the good life in front of the box. I mean, I’d done my noisy bit. CND may never have persuaded NATO to give up it’s Nuclear offensive capabilities, but the anti-apartheid movement had certainly played its part in the downfall of apartheid South Africa. I was one of the many millions of assorted political persuasions who regularly lent their feeble voices to the resounding chants of the eighties. “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out!” we would cry, emboldened by the presence of so many of our peers, enjoying the camaraderie, the closeness, the raucous, rebellious, carnival jollity of life on the march. London was all ours for a day. For a succession of days.
Anyone who wants to know what the atmosphere on a large march is like: imagine a crucial football match, the play offs for the second division, say. Now imagine your side is playing. Now imagine that your side has just scored the winning goal, in the last minute of the game. Imagine the roar that goes up, the roar of raw humanity. And then the march from the ground to the station where all the special trains are waiting. That’s it: the cat calls and chants, the blare of trumpets, the colourful costumes (your colours, your team), the feeling of belonging, of being part of something greater than yourself, all heading in the same direction, banners blazing, the feeling that you are all, young and old, black and white, Christan, Moslem or Jew, on the same side, the right side, the winning side. That’s the feeling.
I remember one march in the eighties, either CND or anti-apartheid, I can’t remember now. I was with a few friends. It was massive, maybe a half million people. My friends and I joined the march about half way along and marched for half an hour or more before going to the pub. We spent two hours in the pub, getting drunk, and then when we went out, the march was still passing by. That’s one huge football match.
“Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out!” we sang as we joined the tail end.
I can’t remember any other slogans. The “Maggie!” chant did us for the lot. It served to rid the world of apartheid. “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out!” It was a barrier against the nuclear threat. “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out!” It kept the Miner’s in their bitter struggle for more than a year. “Maggie, out! Maggie, out!” Finally, and to everyone’s consternation, it served to oust the woman herself, when the Nation’s outrage over the Poll Tax took it’s toll on the unswerving woman’s popularity. Finally even the Tory party agreed with us. “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out!” they joined in, sneakily, behind her back, before politely telling her to her face that she would have to go. And then she was gone, in a welter of tears, in the back of a black limo, and it was over. Another good slogan lost.
Actually some friends and I revived it briefly later, during a road protest in our town. One of our company was on remand and was likely to be jailed, the first person to be caught breaking the notorious Criminal Justice Act. This was in 1994. His name was Iggy. So we marched to the courthouse through the streets of this medieval cathedral city, crying, “Iggy, Iggy, Iggy, out, out, out!” People were looking at us as if we were nuts. It was a slogan gone ironical, chanted entirely for our own amusement.
Yes, I’d done my bit. Maybe I’d not been at the forefront of CND, but I’d collected for the Miners on the streets of our town. I belonged to a club, with a spare back room, and we began to put on benefits for a number of causes. Our anti-apartheid money went directly to the ANC. We gave money to the Nicaraguan Solidarity Campaign, to the Miners, to the James Connolly Society (an IRA front, as we later found out). We had a “Russian Night” where we fed people Borsch and invited the Communist Party to attend. They were wonderful people: earnest, sincere, intense old men, with beards and waistcoats. We sang the Red Flag and the International, once, twice, a dozen times (such rousing songs) and put “Glasnost” and a hammer and sickle on our noticeboard outside.
Such was my total, absolute and unswerving commitment to the International Proletarian Struggle for World Revolution and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (such ringing phrases demand capital letters), such was my undying commitment to the overthrow of capitalism, that I even vaguely (for about ten minutes) considered joining the Communist Party. The trouble was in deciding which Communist Party, exactly, I should join. There were about two dozen by this time, each one resolutely declaring itself to be the one, true and only vanguard party of the working class. There was the CPGB (Communist Party of Great Britain), the CPGB [M-L] (the Communist Party of Great Britain [Marxist-Leninist]) and the New Communist Party (this one distinguishing itself by being made up entirely of Old Communist supporters of the Soviet Union). Then there was the Morning Star group, which went on to form the CPB (Communist Party of Britain), the Democratic Left (the rump of the CPGB in the eighties), the CPGB (Provisional Central Committee), a tiny grouplet who jumped in and grabbed the CPGB name when they saw it hanging around without an owner, the RCPB (Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain) and the RCPB [M-L]) (Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain [Marxist-Leninist]). Finally there was the B&ICO (The Britain and Ireland Communist Organisation), which, having an unusual number of members of northern Irish background, used Stalin’s work as a basis for arguing the Two Nations Theory re. Ireland – i.e. north and south Ireland were two distinct nations and should stay that way. They also managed in a similar convoluted way to support Thatcher’s war with Argentina over the Falklands. No matter what the position, they would try and find a “Marxist” way of supporting it. If they weren’t actually conceived by some joker in MI5 then they ought to have been.
And this is not to speak of the numerous Trotskyite factions, the RCP, the SWP, the Militant Tendency (the Revolutionary Socialist League), the WRP, the IMG, the Sparticists etc. etc. etc.
So many to choose from. Like trying to pick out tins of soup in the Supermarket.
In the end I joined the Labour Party instead. Which would be a joke if I could think of a punchline.
Then I continued the struggle. Firstly with the Poll Tax protests. Our little group marched to London by way of Rochester, following the line of the original peasant’s revolt. It took three days. We made it on to the front page of the Morning Star. We marched glumly through the empty Kent countryside till we came to a sleepy village, and then shouted and sloganed our way through that. It took a while to realise that, actually, the villages were empty too, this being commuter country. A few startled dogs were impressed, however. Maybe I even imagined myself to be Wat Tyler for a time (there’s a Tyler Hill nearby where we started our march), except that I didn’t really want to be executed. We made it to the main march in London, singing songs we’d made up along the way, then I did a quick shifty slip when I saw the police horses gathering and knew that there was riot on its way. Got the train home with two of my friends.
The Police horses are always brought out when they want to engineer a riot. The police are trained experts on crowd control. They’re also trained experts on how to get a crowd out of control if they want. Police horses work every time.
Then there was the Criminal Justice Act of 1994, which was aimed at suppressing the lifestyle choices of New Age Travellers, ravers, squatters and road-protesters. The march and rally against the Criminal Justice Bill (as it was) on May 1st 1994, was in the name of the Advance party, and my name was one of three recorded by the Metropolitan police as sponsers of the march. That was an auspicious day. Brilliantly sunny, we managed to gather maybe ten thousand people for a march from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square, where, to the music of the Rinky Dink bicycle-powered, mobile sound system, we ekkied and drank and danced in the fountains for hours. Why aren’t all revolutions like this, we thought? And somewhere in everyone’s mind that day, an idea was formed.
Maybe they could be. Maybe the revolution is a party in the street.
But, as I say, all that was years ago. There’s something a little unseemly, perhaps, in the sight of a middle aged man with a beer-belly pretending he’s all at one with the revolutionary youth. There comes a time when dignity demands some patient reserve. We can’t all be fired-up with indignation at all the injustices of the world all the time. Or, if we are, there are other ways of going about curing them. Like becoming a bar-room philosopher, maybe. The revolution can wait till closing time.
Then something brought me back. Something was calling me.
It’s part of the dark charm of this vile, violent world we live in that so many of us can be so disengaged. We live, those of us in the West, in comfort and with the illusion of security. We hear stories of massacres, of torture, of great simmering hatred but that’s over there, in another country. Those are other human beings. What can any of us do? What’s the point of a march and rally through the streets of London over massacres in East Timor, or racial hatred and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia? What has that got to do with us?
And the problem is, of course, in trying to identify the culprits. Is it something abstract and obscure, like “human nature” or capitalism? Despite my years hanging round on the periphery of left politics, despite having chanted the stirring indignant poetry of the Communist Manifesto to everyone, and reading, and being entirely unable to absorb, about two thirds of the first volume of Capital, I still had no idea what capitalism actually was. It’s some sort of a system, isn’t it? Something to do with money? It makes some people very rich, and… er…. some other people poor. With that level of political analysis at my disposal, it’s a wonder I never stood for Parliament. Parliament is full of people with the same level of political sophistication as me.
Capitalism is an attitude of mind, a form of consciousness, a form of believing. Call it what you will. It has its institutions in the IMF and the WTO and the World Bank. Its army is NATO. Its cabinet is the G7 meeting of the seven most industrialised nations. It is a One World Government run by, and on behalf of the Party of the Ultra Rich. It meets in secret to discuss its plans. Its specific goal, its long term plan, is to own everything. To do this, it creates separation, it creates lack, it creates need, it creates desire. The need and the lack, the separation and the desire are all part of the same system. It recreates its processes in everyone, as a mindset, reinforced by fear, and it rewards people’s compliance by giving them money. Buying into the money system is buying into a process of abstract death. The power resides, not in people, not in living, breathing, walking, talking, laughing, crying beings of flesh and blood and bone, but in a number of abstract entities called corporations. The corporations are administered by living beings, who come and go, who live and die in the normal way, but the corporations go on forever. They are, to use a phrase I picked up from Noam Chomsky, “Immortal Corporate Persons”.
A chilling phrase. It reminds me of the Emperor in Rome, or the Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt: god-like beings with the power of life-and-death over the populace, institutions rather than individuals, passing on the rights of the institution from Father to Son, so remote, so abstracted from the normal thoughts and feelings of human beings that they don’t care if others live or die.
No subject in Egypt was allowed to look at the Pharaoh on pain of death. He was god, the personification of the natural order. His statues were immense.
It was the Pharaoh’s job, by ritual magic and by sacrifice, to ensure that the waters of the Nile rose every year to flood the plain, to make it rich with life-giving nutrients. And then one year the Nile didn’t flood. Instead it shrank. And again the next year. And again and again and again, over a succession of years, until all the stored grain was used up, and the population was desperate. And then they looked at the Pharaoh, and instead of this god-like being of impossible height and power, they saw a scrawny, wizened human being, painted like a whore, dolled-up like a statue.
Like citizens of ancient Rome or of Egypt, we are enthralled by the logic of their institutions. They make images of themselves, like gods. Coca Cola or McDonald’s or Nike. We believe them when they tell us that globalisation is inevitable, that poverty and want are inevitable, that the world-economic system is like a tide that cannot be reversed, that it is a force of Nature, not the work of men.
The Empire never ended, as Philip K. Dick used to say.
Isn’t it time that we looked at their faces?
Just another sunny day in this cheerfully run-down sea-side town. Belle and I go for a cup of tea on the balcony of an octagonal cafe on the promenade overlooking the beach. A cool breeze means we have to keep our coats on. There’s a few other protester types in and around the cafe. You can tell by their shaved heads and crombies, the ear-piercings, the air of knowing superiority: the Socialist Worker’s Party are in town. Still in the same costumes I remember from years back. A whole new generation, but they look exactly the same. Everything about them speaks their state of mind. The intensity of debate, huddled over a cup of tea, the mystical/elemental truths of Marxist Leninist theory dressed up as hard-nosed political realism: dreams of the barricades and armed insurrection between drags on a roll-up. What romantic young man, the fires of indignation still burning in his heart, hasn’t thought like this from time to time? Revolutionary fighters for justice, guerrilla theorists of the Class War, all of them, every one imagining that he might be Che Guevara one day. Che Guevara in a crombie and Doctor Marten boots. I like them. I’ve always liked them. I like the way they call each other comrade and even—for a while—believe it. Comrade is one of my favourite words.
But Margate is full of its own kind of garish frivolity, all the fruit machines in the amusement arcades on the front chiming out their jingles: all the light, the colour, the happy screams of kids on the switchback rides in Dreamland; people strolling arm in arm along the promenade engrossed in quiet conversation, or just taking in the sights. There’s a trendy vicar who keeps passing us, in mirror shades, making a show of his dog collar. And up ahead, the Anti-Nazi League banners are starting to gather, and, on the opposite side of the road, the Union Jacks and George Crosses of the National Front supporters. We spend some time on “our” side of the road, meaning, we’re with the Anti-Nazi League and the SWP, but, after a while I suggest we move over. I want to hear the conversations on the other side. We’ve got our stickers on. Mine says, Black and White Unite and Fight, while Belle’s says, Smash The National Front. So we take the stickers off, and then we’re just a middle-aged couple strolling across the road to get a hot-dog. I decide that my hot-dog will serve as a magical talisman of protection.
There’s a couple of brave young women on that side too, trying to hand out stickers, but no one wants them, and a gaggle of shaven heads in a shop doorway, looking serious but mean.
The differences between the shaved heads of the NF and the shaved heads of the SWP are subtle, but noticeable. It’s odd how they ape each other. The hair cut is the same, but there’s just a touch more detail in the accoutrements: an extra earring here or there, a badge or two. I’d say that the SWP are a little more stylish, but that’s probably my prejudice. I’m impressed for all that, at the enduring quality of the skinhead style, born on the football fields and council estates of England, when hippie was the fashionable norm, with its odd mix of rude-boy cool and Mod aggressiveness. Fighting clothes. And I’m pointing all this out to Belle as we move on up the line towards the centre of action.
I have to add, at this point, that the vast majority of working class people—for whom the skinhead style is merely a convenient haircut—are neither fascist not communist. Most of them couldn’t give a damn either way.
I wield my magic hot-dog to ward off the air of crackling violence. No one would dare come near me with this in my hand.
And then we’re standing there, watching and listening near a road barrier, and there’s three blokes looking at us through the corners of their eye. “Plain clothes policemen,” says Belle, and we move away again.
And now another observation. The National Front will be coming from the station ahead. They will pass down the road with Union Jacks on the right, and Anti-Nazi League banners on the left. Somehow we’ve all ended up in our proper places in this radical melodrama.
Back on the other side—the sunnier side, I feel—we’re approached by one of the organisers who wants us to sign a petition against Fascism. “Well all right,” I say, “I can’t argue with that. But I can’t see it making much difference. Who’s going to listen?” He invites me to an SWP branch meeting in the town. Someone from the local rag is interviewing an old Jewish man about the holocaust. He is very quiet and dignified as he speaks. Someone else sells me a copy of Searchlight, the radical anti-fascist magazine. All of this goes on for a very long time. The Anti-Nazi Rally started at one o’clock. The Fascists won’t be here till three.
Belle and I take another walk, to find a pub. All the pubs are shut.
Honestly, all this political activism can be very wearing at times.
In the end, though, the National Front turn up. We can hear them up by the station, chants and banners streaming in the wind, and the atmosphere begins to heat up. A woman comes up, whispering frantically. “Pass it on, we’re going to block the road, stop them getting through.”
“Where are they marching to, exactly?”
“To the clock tower.”
It’s about five hundred yards.
And now they’re moving in a tight-knit gaggle, police vans in front and behind, surrounded by riot police, with a Union Jack, a Welsh Dragon, and several George Crosses, singing Rule Britannia. There’s about a hundred and fifty of them. And, on the other side of the road, about a hundred and fifty of their supporters, and on our side about the same number of ANL, with, another hundred and fifty or so ranged across the road now, stopping the march moving forward.
Belle says, “they make me so angry.”
I say, “why? This is a National Front national rally, and they can only get a hundred and fifty to come. That’s pathetic.”
I’m fascinated. Fascinated in the way you can be fascinated by a peculiar disfigurement. Unpleasant, but you can’t take your eyes off it. They’re like an organism that’s risen out of the subliminal sea full of all the despicable deposits of human hate. They’re huddled together in this strange lump, all legs and arms and ears, like some many-headed, many legged, mutant being, heads severely shaved, with the ideologues (older men in smart suits with grey hair) under the banner in the front, and when they’re not singing Rule Britannia they’re shouting threats and abuse at the opposition. “Kill the reds, kill the reds, kill the fucking reds!”
They are hemmed in by riot police, shields and batons at the ready. The Nazis are trying to be chummy with the cops, calling them “officer” and the like, but the cops just look away. It wouldn’t do to be seen being friendly with any Nazis.
One young woman keeps leaping into the road, screaming “Nazi scum!” at them. The police keep shovelling her back. And then she’s pushing forward again into the road, leaning her trunk forward and dangling her arms: “Nazi scum! Nazi scum!”
“Go fuck yourself,” someone shouts back at her.
“Shut up, yer ugly,” she replies.
“Can you stay on the pavement please,” says the policeman.
“Oh, yes, sorry,” she says, politely, in the English manner, before leaning back into the road and starting again: “Nazi scum! Nazi scum!”
Belle and I are both Brummies, so we’re ashamed to learn that most of them are Brummies too. There’s a large George’s Cross at the back, with Birmingham City Skins scrawled across in black letters.
Someone else shouts, “go away, we don’t want you round here, this isn’t your town. Why don’t you go back to Birmingham?”
This woman has acne. One of the Nazis notices. “Er look, spots!” he says. Such is the nature of the political debate.
Someone else, a burly fellow with a square cut chin, like a 60’s comic Batman, is winding up one of the NF people by making a little waving motion with his hand and looking him in the eye. He’s saying, “come on then, if you think you’re so hard.” He is doing this repeatedly while his NF opposite number is getting in a frenzy. A policeman notices and tells him to pack it up. But there’s no law against looking at someone, and the little waving motion, low down, from his hip, is subtle but unmistakeable. “Come on, come on, I could take you out any time.”
Meanwhile it’s stalemate at the front. The police vans are inching forward, but making very little headway. A high ranking officer with a megaphone arrives and asks people to clear out of the way.
No one does.
Scuffles break out.
Riot police move forward, shields and batons raised.
Someone gets his shirt ripped.
The line gets broken but then reforms a few yards further down the road. And on and on like this. Every inch, every yard being fought for.
The three slogans are: “the National Front are a Nazi front, smash the National Front”, “Black and White unite and fight” – this one being singularly inappropriate, having nothing to do with Kosovar Albanians (but then, I don’t think any one could come up with a rhyme for Kosovar Albanians) – and the last one: “Police protect the Nazis,” said in a sort of nyer, nyer kids chant.
I tried, “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out,” but people were giving me funny looks.
And then the best line. Someone is standing on the pavement, looking at the sad spectacle of all these jobless Brummies, with their harder than hard stance, their childish aggression, like a confused fit of pique, having to stand so close to each other to gain a sense of identity, having very little else in their lives, and he says, “Hey look everybody” – pointing at them and laughing – “that’s the Master Race!” Everyone laughs with him.
Belle notices that one of the NF supporters on the other side has a kid on his shoulders. She’s being encouraged to scream hate abuse at the commies.
We’ve also both noticed that the police look exactly like the Roman battalions, and that they use the same tactical moves. The whole thing begins to take on a timeless air, as if this was a war being fought out in eternity. It’s even more appropriate, as this is Mars Gate, an old Roman port and garrison town.
The struggle goes on, inch by painful inch, down the parade of this out-of-season seaside town, until it gets to within about 20 yards of the clock tower, when the police decide that a tactical retreat is in order. A cheer goes up from the ANL front line. The NF never made it to their final destination. We’ve turned them back in their track. It is, at least, a symbolic victory.
Belle and I go for sausage and chips in a cafe. Then the pub across the road opens up, and we go for that pint I’ve been gagging for.
The pub is full of middle-aged leather boys, the Margate chapter of the Celtic Warriors, dressed in neat leathers, with their hair tied back in pony tails. One of them smokes a pipe. And it crosses my mind, for a second, that, had they been real Celtic Warriors, as opposed to a Motor Cycle Chapter merely bearing the name, it should have been them fighting the Roman Battalions.
Haven’t things changed?
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