Saturday, November 13, 1982

Stepping out

It was after one when we got to London and we immediately rushed to Itchy Park where the marchers were assembling. We expected to have to chase them up Brick Lane but we were relieved to find a few hundred people with banners still milling around listening to a speaker. Barry met a few of his friends there – Carl Cotton (from last night), John, and another bloke, Doug. I liked Doug a lot; with his jerky rapid mannerisms he reminded me of Penny’s boyfriend Conrad. We found Shelley almost straight away; she’s been staying with a friend at London Poly. since Friday. She gave us a big smile when she saw us. Then we were all marshaled into a rough column three or four deep and moved raggedly off.

At first I was right behind an enormous red banner and so couldn’t see a thing, but Trevor got Stu and I to carry it instead and we marched on, Stu and I carrying the fluttering red banner edged with yellow emblazoned with London Polytechnic Student’s Union - Direct Action Is The Only Way. We were flanked on either side by blank-faced PCs, our column headed by a police crowd control van. Photographers rushed around us snapping pictures.

As we wound our way up Brick Lane raggedly chanting “Afia to stay,” “Smash the Racist State!” and even “If you hate all bobbies clap your hands,” we were gawped at by crowds of Saturday shoppers who stopped and stared. I looked to the policemen at my side for any reaction but found none, maybe the faintest of cynical smiles flickering across march-hardened features. Brick Lane was long and narrow and reminded me of Musgrove Road back home with its tatty shop fronts and dirty windows; curious faces visible down side streets as we passed, turned in our direction and caught mid-action, loading vans or walking by, hearing the chants and looking round, like I’ve done many a time, seeing the shambling procession pass in the distance with banners and ill-timed slogans.

We passed the boarded up and blackened house where Afia Begum’s Bangladeshi husband was killed in a fire in March, falling into silence as our ‘cheerleader’ explained via megaphone the circumstances of the case. Then we emerged out onto a main street flanked with shops and lots of people. We got a hostile reception from some of them: one middle-aged woman gesticulated with across her face; others scowled darkly or muttered barely-audible comments (“bloody disgusting”; “just another set of bloody lefty do-gooders. . . . “). I didn’t feel happy. I'm not a Marxist and this was a Marxist-organised march, red-bannered and chanting, creating obvious disharmony among the Saturday afternoon crowds.

Eventually we reached a park and held a small 15-minute rally, our banners arranged in a semi-circle facing the open back of a lorry. Several people spoke including Afia Begum herself through a translator, then a striking Asian worker from Slough who in halting tones thanked us for our support and urged us to help out on the picket lines at Heathfields.

The police drifted away to their vehicles and the marchers gradually dispersed. Nine of us headed for Carl’s house in Wanstead, and this we reached as it drew in dusk, a small cramped terrace shared with other people, although I only saw a dark-haired girl who treated us with sour looks and minimal conversation.

It was incredibly messy and the doors and walls were covered in messages written in marker with arrows explaining their relevance. Strange. Carl’s room was quite small and contained a bed, a slate-topped desk and a stereo, a shelf of mostly political books (mainly on Marxism): a copy of Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? lay open on the desk. Someone rolled a joint and we sat there smoking and talking or reading magazines. I flicked through one, a glossy, well-produced publication that was sponsored by the IRA. It was filled with calm descriptions of IRA operations, photos of mortars being primed, the North Armagh brigade on patrol in combat jackets and black hoods, etc. The “War News” section sickened me with its abrupt and clinical accounts of “executions” and car-bomb detonations (“a UDR man had both his legs blown off”). No comment on the twisted immoralities of the situation, or questions as to why there's a necessity for so much bloodshed.

It was dark outside now and we went in search of fish and chips and bought bottles of cider for later, and everyone had just got settled again when Shelley whispered I should ring Pete to ask him if it was be OK that a few of us come over to stay the night at his place. This I did: he said yes, but said there was nowhere for everyone to sleep so all nine of us couldn't come. Barry & co. decided to stay and go to an RCP social nearby, which I didn’t fancy. Revolutionary songs? Impressions of Stalin?

So Shelley, Doug, Stu and I stepped out into the bitter night air. As we walked up the street Lindsey ran out of the house and caught us up. We hung about for a taxi which cost £7.70 between the five of us. I was the only one with any money.

We were dropped in Camberwell, near Brunswick Park; Pete’s house, no. 34 Bennington Circle, is in a small row of elegant whitewashed houses. We met his Mum—his younger sister watching TV—then up several flights of clutter-choked stairs to his room, which could only be reached by squeezing between piles of furniture. His bedroom was superb, a chaotic jumble of furniture, magazines, books, kites, and clothing, with scarcely enough floor space to stand on. The walls were plastered with posters and hand bills from the Groovy Cellar, The Clinic, etc., and he has two beds (one double, one single). Hanging in a wardrobe in one corner we could glimpse his famed array of psychedelic shirts.

We set off to a party, a birthday celebration for a friend’s younger brother, where we sat on the floor among hordes of fifteen and sixteen-year olds, most of whom sat round the living room table laughing and talking amid blue haze of cigarette smoke. I thought of Western saloon bars, poker games.

Shelley and I had a long conversation about her suicidal feelings of last week. She told me that she feels so easy among all of us now and that Pete really did save her life that night for she’d felt in the mood to do anything: “I would have done it!” What could I say other than the clich├ęd platitudes about suicide not being worth it!? She said she’d felt desperate once more at Carl’s, and I suddenlt remembered seeing her seated on the floor with her head down, her hair obscuring her darkened face, as everyone laughed and drank cider. “I couldn’t have stayed in that place. It was awful.”

Soon the joints from a homegrown plant were being passed round and we were mingling with Pete’s friends (Tony, Robin, nameless girls), Pete laughing and shouting and gibbering insanely at people, rushing around from group to group just like he does at Watermouth. The party reached its climax, and then everyone moved out into the hall and started to leave and I felt wrecked and cold and fell wearily onto a settee in another room, using my coat as a blanket.

When we got back to Pete’s house his Mum had put the chain across the door, and so we stood for ages in the freezing cold as Pete fumbled with the lock, whispering hoarsely to try wake his sister. Door open, I crashed gratefully into a warm bed.

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