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Thursday, August 17, 2006

cell time: 1

September 1961 - Granny far from grandmotherly at the time - not even parental - was just beginning a year's course which was supposed to turn her into a social worker. (It didn't.) She was working on a placement in a Birmingham settlement embedded in a then as now notorious housing estate and run by a pair of methodist, vegetarian pacifists, together with another student from Ulster, inappropriately named Rosemary. (Far from fragrant as the name suggests, Rosemary was fat, louche, evilly witty and a chainsmoker, altogether much more fun: even the chainsmoking came without health warnings then.) Both of them were of course fervently anti-nuclear. (Though Granny herself had never marched to Aldermaston, she had marched round London once or twice sniffing out various bunkers, claimed to be sites for governments to hide during nuclear attacks.) When they heard about this, egged on by the methodist/pacifist/vegetarians, they decided that duty entirely - of course - was telling them to join in. All the more -of course - because it was banned; governments then as now really have no sense.

On a gloomy Sunday morning Granny and Rosemary hitched their way down the only just opened M1 and arrived in Trafalgar Square in mid afternoon, in the rain. It was filling up with people already - police were everywhere but not trying to stop anyone; yet. Both of them were fully prepared to be civilly disobedient. If the police told them to go away no, they thought, they wouldn't. The police would have to carry them just like everybody else. (An easier job with Granny than Rosemary, it must be said.)

They sat down; everyone was sitting down. Bertrand Russell remained unavoidably detained but his acolytes who included Granny's ex-landlady (another story) were all there, sitting round Nelson's column: or something like that. It was still wet, grey dismal. Rosemary smoked. Granny snaffled the odd cigarette. Nothing happened. All round them better prepared people unwrapped picnics and the square slowly filled up. Still nothing happened. The odd speech could be heard coming from loudhailers wielded by BR's supporters, but not much else. Civil disobedience felt altogether boring; they were hungry.

Around five o'clock it was decided that Granny would nip out of the square for a sandwich - which she did; can't have been a salubrious sandwich she happened on, no rocket and crayfish salads then; she got a hot dog if she was lucky - she can't remember exactly. All she does remember is timing the matter badly. While she was handing over her money and receiving her greasy parcel, the police moved in and closed the square.

Granny only knew this when she walked back along the Strand past Charing Cross Station and found her way barred by a line of helmets.

"No entry,' said the helmets loudly.

'But,' said Granny holding out her package, 'I must get in. My friend is there and she hasn't anything to eat.'

She didn't have time to sit down, civilly disobey, as planned. All she knew was that her arms were grabbed, she was being - meekly, damn it - heaved into a police van along with a large collection of mostly innocent, mostly foreign, bystanders who didn't know that walking down a public street in broad daylight in the middle of the capital city of the mother of democracy could be a crime in any way. Some of them were black. Some of them were disposed to argue. Though Granny herself had been man-handled, it had been a polite(ish) manhandling. Not so in the case of the non-white foreigners or of some of the white males for that matter, if they were not taking their arrest lightly. One policeman - much senior to constable or even sergeant he could even have been the the notorious evidence-planting Challoner; Granny who saw some pictures of him afterwards thinks it was - thrust his head into the van and hissed at a large white man who was complaining loudly that he wasn't a damned nuclear disarmer - ''Shut up, you. Or just wait till I get you back to the station.... ' Judging by what Granny saw and heard when she did back to the station, he was not joking. Nice middle-class girl she, brought up in the home counties to believe bobbies were delightful friendly people anxious to help you, certainly not violent towards innocent - or even guilty - bystanders - some of her illusions disappeared out of the back door of that van fast. And never came back.

Somehow amid the melee her packet of food disappeared with them. Not only lovely louche, chainsmoking Rosemary waiting for her in the the square stayed hungry, so did Granny.

To be continued:


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