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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Cell time 2: or jangling keys

Granny continued to feel sorry for the baffled foreigners accidentally caught up in the banned demonstration; some did not speak any English. This did not stop them being thrown unceremoniously into the room at Marlborough Street Police Station where she and the others in the van were taken. Many more demonstrators and non-demonstrators joined them. The room grew fuller and fuller. She did not feel sorry for those who'd intended to be arrested, like her. She was not enjoying herself much all the same. Her fellow civil disobeyers were greeting people they knew from Aldermaston marches with glad little cries, swapping arrest stories and memories of other demonstrations. The atmosphere so created, observed in amazement by the foreign contingent, had little to do with the weight of the law. It was more like an old school reunion, for a school which Granny hadn't been to either. She didn't know anyone. She was still hungry. She thought of her friend Rosemary still hungry too, and wished they were going through this together.

To make matters worse, the large white man who'd made such a fuss in the van had appointed himself as her protector. "What is a nice girl like you..' etc. And 'I'll pay your bail. Then they'll let us go and I'll look after you.' The prospect of a night in a police cell may not have been attractive but it was altogether more attractive than this offer. Granny declined it as firmly as she could and tried to shift herself away from him, not very successfully, the room growing ever more crowded. When her turn came before the police desk, she refused to give her name or accept bail. This procedure, recommended by the Committee of One Hundred organisers, not only meant the police would have to detain her, it had the simultaneous advantage of removing her from the reach of the large white male. The police sergeant urging her not to be a silly girl was no less patronising - Granny in those days looked a good deal younger even than she was; but at least he wasn't lecherous, merely puzzled. Twenty years before Greenham Common, civil disobedience a new concept, he was evidently not used to charging very young women with middle class accents. Even as he did his best to maintain her illusions about nice bobbies, some of his colleagues, chucking their charges around inside and outside the room, continued doing did their best to undermine them.

In due course, still under arrest, though not handcuffed - most likely they did not have enough handcuffs to go round - she was taken outside. Once again she remembered too late that she was supposed to be civilly disobeying, going with them meekly on her own two feet instead of making them carry her to the van. Later, she heard, they had to hire buses to ferry protesters to police cells round London. But she, as an early prisoner, got a Black Maria no less, one of those notorious vehicles used to transport accused and convicted criminals. It did not have to take her very far - from just south of Oxford Street to the City Road east of the Angel Islington, probably not more than two miles if that- but it was quite far enough.

A Black Maria consists of two rows narrow metal cells, each big enough to contain one person. Granny has short legs. Sitting on the seat on one side of her cell, her knees not far off the other wall, she thought how uncomfortable it must be for those with longer legs. There was a grid on the outside wall, letting in light but nothing else. On the inner side the door had been closed with a loud clang and locked behind her jailor. She heard other people being led along the narrow walkway between the cells on either side of the van. She heard the clatter of feet, the bang of doors, the jangle of keys encarcerating her unseen fellows. In due course the van started. Where it was taking them, how long the journey would last, she did not know yet. She only knew she was cold, uncomfortable and beginning to want to empty her bladder. This defiance of the law, the government, was supposed to be an adventure; it was an adventure of sorts. But sitting there in her little metal box, feeling bleak, lost, lonely even, it did not seem like a nice one. It left her for ever after with a sneaking sympathy for all those real criminals, petty or evil alike, incarcerated for real in these white metal boxes, being lead for real- as she was lead half an hour or so later - into a cell somewhere. Her cell was dazzling white tiles all over, floor, walls, ceilings, even on the sleeping bench. 'Aren't you lucky, it's been done up especially, we might have known you were coming,' said the sergeant jovially as he locked her in with another jangle of keys hanging from a metal ring. In her case, it wasn't real entirely -noone even threatened to beat her up, the next day she knew she would be as free as ever. But at the time it felt real enough; more of such reality than she's ever wanted. Nor did it feel heroic in the least - no true political prisoner she, her respect for those who are - the real heroes - has not wavered since.

To be continued:

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