We were at the Manchester anti-war demonstration on Saturday 23rd September 2006 — and we've got proof! The BBC chose this photograph of our group's banner to illustrate its website report of the national demonstration: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/manchester/5373128.stm
Our group assembled outside Wimbledon Station in the early morning, five hours before we were due to arrive in Manchester. The WDC/CND banner had been especially prepared for the occasion using an assortment of tent-poles to hold it up instead of its usual sturdy wooden supports; the jury-rigged nature of the arrangement meant that one pole was actually longer than the other! However, the important thing was that in this guise it could be taken to pieces for easy storage during our long journey, a decision which turned out to be a very wise one — a bonus was that it was lighter than usual to carry, even if the marchers did have to hold the poles at different heights....
When we arrived at Euston Station, well ahead of time, it was to find Wandsworth Stop the War Coalition already in full possession, with an assortment of placards and banners prominently displayed. Early-morning commuters were left in no doubt as to the purpose of this assembly, as the concourse filled up with groups from across London and as far afield as Watford. We set up our own banner as a rallying-point for those members of the group who had travelled independently to Euston, and waited for our chartered 'special' to arrive — the twelve-coach "Peace Train" hired for the day to carry hundreds of protesters non-stop to Manchester.
Personally, I was quite surprised to learnt that you could still hire special trains for a day's outing — this one clearly hadn't been in regular service for some time! The carriages were provided with ash-trays in the arm-rests (plus tables, cushions and luggage accommodation of a pre-privatisation standard of luxury, I might add), the buffet car looked as if it had come out of a steam-age excursion train, while the engine at one end ('by special appointment to Her Majesty the Queen') had seemingly been retrieved from the Royal Train for our benefit: it was the oddest collection I'd seen in years, but it was all very well organised and a great improvement on travelling up the motorway in a series of hired coaches. The organisers' gamble paid off, as our group for one certainly wouldn't have made it up to Manchester otherwise.
Our energetic neighbours in Wandsworth Stop the War Coalition had reserved an entire carriage for their group, and having bought a dozen tickets from them in turn, we were welcomed to join them. Soon the inside of the carriage was lined with posters, leaflets were being distributed up and down the train, and newspapers were unfolding right, left and centre as a trainload of campaigners settled down to make themselves at home for the next 3½ hours. We sped rapidly northwards through alternate mist and sunshine, accompanied by constant reminders of an earlier age in the shape of the nearby Grand Union Canal. I spent much of the journey rehearsing with the Socialist choir who were practising in the centre of the carriage; from time to time passers-by on their way down the train to the buffet car would stop and join in enthusiastically, while the two small children belonging to the family opposite could be heard singing along, note-perfect, to the strains of the Internationale! Sadly I was not able to join the choir during the march itself, as I was needed to help with my younger brother and assist in carrying the heavy WDC banner.
Our arrival at Manchester Piccadilly Station was greeted by brilliant sunshine and a warm breeze that was more like a summer's day at the seaside than the heavy rain that had been forecast earlier in the week; I kept subconsciously expecting to find the (non-existent) seafront around the next corner. Marshalled up in the road outside the station, the London contingent — reflecting the general composition of the day's marchers in its joint assortment of CND members, Stop the War campaigners, trade unionists, and other activists and protesters — set off with our own police escort on a feeder march to Albert Square where the demo was to begin. We must have made quite an impressive sight as the police cleared the way for us, stopping traffic, trams and buses and warning those with banners not to let the poles get too near the high-voltage tram wires overhead: not a problem commonly encountered on the more familiar route to Trafalgar Square! For the seasoned marchers among us, it was fascinating to be travelling through unknown streets for a change.
The centre of Manchester comprises attractive Victorian buildings cheek by jowl with towering modernistic blocks, which makes a very striking contrast. Albert Square itself is dominated (as I ought to have guessed) by a pinnacled red-brick memorial to the Prince Consort, and the vast cathedral-like Town Hall, a gigantic Gothic fantasy in High Victorian style that resembled a felicitous offspring of Notre Dame and the Houses of Parliament. By its front entrance we set up our banner and staked out a small area of pavement allowing us to sit down.
My first reaction on entering the square had been that it was a very small demonstration by London standards, but I soon realised that our contingent had been among the first arrivals. By the time we mounted our second expedition in quest of the public toilets (which proved to be located just off the corner of the square, very well-appointed, and constantly cleaned by an active attendant — a lesson in civic pride London would do well to learn from) the crowd was already becoming uncomfortably dense, and we had considerable difficulty getting back. From the stage, the announcers were constantly announcing a welcome to each new banner seen coming in, from Penzance to Glasgow, and we felt slightly miffed that Wimbledon had not merited an individual mention; however our efforts were amply rewarded later that day when the BBC chose a shot of our distinctive yellow banner to lead its website report on the march — see above.
At about two o'clock the march was finally assembled and ready to leave, after detailed instruction had been given on how to proceed at the time scheduled for the 'die-in', which was to take place at half-past two. But the numbers in the square were so great that our part of the march had only just left by half past, and although we kept wondering when and whether the die-in would occur we never did see any sign of it. Just as well, really, since the police horses had been down the entire route ahead of us, and the roadway was none too clean as a result: I have to admit that I for one wasn't too keen on the idea of lying down in it.
Of the march itself there is little to be said, for it was much like any other, deafeningly loud with megaphones and the sound of drums, so that I soon found myself with a sore throat through having to shout in order to make myself heard by those at my side. We had our usual struggle with the heavy cloth of the WDC banner, which lacks the top cross-pole that prevents more modern banner designs from sagging in the middle, and is thus very hard work for the bearers to hold constantly stretched out and hence legible. In the bright sun we were soon very hot, and some of the party could be observed to take refuge in the patch of shade cast immediately behind our banner! The strong breeze presented problems of its own, since the dense fabric caught the wind like the canvas of a large sail, and gave every indication of desiring to fly back to Wimbledon under its own propulsion, with or without the banner-bearers left trailing forlornly in its wake.
We circled all round the conference centre, where I learned to my disappointment that Tony Blair and co. were not actually present to be inconvenienced by us, since the conference was not due to start until the Sunday, and finally made it back to Albert Square around four o'clock to listen to the speeches. These latter were in triumphal vein, with the general feeling seeming to be that the Prime Minister was finally on the way out, thanks chiefly to the unceasing efforts of the Stop the War movement; apparently Tony Benn spoke (he had been on the train with us, and had given an address in the next carriage), but I'm afraid that after getting up at six and then a long march in the hot sun, I had sat down on the pavement and fallen asleep with my chin on my chest, and missed him. I woke up eventually with back-ache, and discovered to my dismay that not only had I managed to drop off in a most uncomfortable position, but that the speeches were still going on!
We were all of us pretty tired by this time, and, had it been a London demonstration, would long since have gone home. Unfortunately we didn't know our way back to the station, and in any case couldn't get back on the train before it was due to leave again at half past six; we rather assumed that the London contingent would be assembling at the end of the demonstration for a concerted return march, but although we hung on for the final speakers to finish, there was no sign of any such guidance. Under the circumstances, we adopted the traditional expedient and asked a policeman — the WDC group re-assembled in the station in front of a notice telling us to await further instructions, tired but very pleased with ourselves.
The return journey was marked by first the discovery of an unknown mobile 'phone and then the loss of a jacket, both announced over the PA system: both were I think eventually reunited with their owners. The small children were very much excited; their elders very much exhausted, and a certain amount of drama was introduced into the trip when the lights in one carriage at the front of the train, which had been flickering, failed altogether. However we made very good time, with fewer delays for other trains than on the outward journey, and arrived rather before we had expected it at Euston some thirty-eight minutes early, to a chorus of cheers as the news was announced. We had not needed one scrap of the various waterproofs, umbrellas and extra jumpers we had been carrying around with us all day. (It was with a certain feeling of smugness that we learned the following morning that it was raining steadily on the Labour Party conference — they got the weather that had been forecast for our benefit!)
Farewells were said as the various groups split off in their different directions, dwindling one by one as we travelled back towards our respective homes. For my own family, the final parting came as we said good-night to the last of our fellow WDC members after walking as far as Fairlawn Road together, and set out on the few hundred yards remaining, many hours and many, many miles since we had embarked on our journey that morning. It seemed strange that we had been so far away and done so much, and yet come back in the dusk of the same day.
Little did we know that our picture was already adorning the BBC's website coverage....
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