Cell Time 3: or History
All this is history to you, possums. At least to the younger possums among you. Granny shudders when she realises that the length of time between the events she has been describing and the birth of her grandchildren is much longer than that between the end of the First World War and her own birth. In the case of her youngest grandchild it's nearly double the time. As the First World War has always seemed like history to her, even though it was part of her parents' early childhood, what will these events seem like to them? HISTORY. Oh dear. How time passes; like light; faster than light; all yesterdays seeming as much and as little part of today as the yesterday she has been trying to write about here. Maybe, as she sits here at her screen trying to find the words to describe that September day, on yet another September day forty-five long - and short - years later, it does renew itself for her, temporarily, as a kind of still present. But in all other respects it remains, irrevocably, yet one more yesterday. With the obvious conclusion which she is sure you will all be drawing, dear ones, that she herself is HISTORY. Not to say old hat. Deny it Granny doesn't. Today she encountered a new ache - in her right index finger - just to prove it. Tomorrow it might be her left index finger. Alas, at her age, it happens.
Before continuing with her version of pre-history (pre Thatcher, Blair, the death of history) She should perhaps explain briefly her own first encounter with the horror of nuclear weapons, aged thirteen or so, via her father's favourite newspaper, The Times. Each morning it was laid out in the Common-room of her boarding-school. Granny's addiction to newsprint had begun even before then. She remembers all too clearly how the paper lay that day on the table in the window, bathed in sun. She was not interested in its front page, consisting as usual of columns of births, marriages and deaths; she turned at once to the headlines on the news page. And there it was in huge letters; HYDROGEN BOMB EXPLODED. And nothing for her was ever quite the same again. Of course the atom bombs had been dropped for real on Nagasaki and Hiroshima a long time before that. But she had been too small to register such events at the time, had not thought of them as having anything to do with her until the day she saw that headline: HYDROGEN BOMB EXPLODED. Only then did the terrors of nuclear war, of nuclear winter kick in. As it did for most of her generation at some point or other. You can say, Granny thinks, that if her parents' generation lived their lives in the shadow of two world wars, if her grandchildren's may live theirs in the fear - and within the effects - of global warming and the disappearance of fossil fuels, her's lived much of theirs under the ever-present possibility of the Third World War which threatened to do for everything and everyone. And in the light of which she like everyone else was powerless; had no say at all. Protest, feeble as it was, seemed better than nothing. Not that she would have admitted it was so feeble then. Given the number of people crowding into Trafalgar Square it seemed almost powerful, even though it wasn't. The politicians would keep on doing their thing, no matter what; as they still do. NUTS. Dangerous nuts what's more, in most if not all cases.
All this may explain why, she rode down to London on that grey September day, more than a year before the Cuban Crisis - a terrifying week that demonstrated the reality of the terror all too well. And thereafter found herself incarcerated, intentionally, and not so intentionally, both, in a newly white tiled police cell along the City Road.
Little by little, like the room at Marlborough Street Station the cell filled up, to the constant music of clanging doors and jangling keys. Men went to the one next door; all her companions this time were women. The sense of old school reunion reasserted itself still more strongly amid the cries of greeting and the excited swapping of the day's experiences. 'Where were you sitting? We were by one of the lions.' 'Did you hear so-and-so screaming at the fuzz, telling them they were bastards? I don't think she was supposed to do that.' Did they have to carry you? They did me!' And so on. Many of the women - in Granny's memory at least - were from places like Hampstead. They were doctors' wives, lawyers' wives. They complained to each other about the difficulties they'd had finding child care prepared to stay the night so that they and their husbands too could spend the night in gaol. Evidently they had found it, for here they were, afire with the pleasure of their defiance. Innocent that she was in those days - more innocent than you can imagine - their lives seemed no less remote from her's at that time than the life of the woman sitting very near her, a thin woman with lank dark hair and lank dark clothes, who said lugubriously to anyone prepared to listen; 'I saw my husband today. For the first time in three months. He didn't say a single word. The first time in THREE MONTHS.'
Granny wondered what had happened to Rosemary, half-hoping each time the door opened that she would come. Of course she didn't. Had she been arrested too? Had she managed to get anything to eat? Was she still sitting in Trafalgar Square or in a different police cell in another part of London, listening to other middle-class housewives complaining about the problems of combining childcare and civil disobedience, laughing to herself her wonderfully dirty laugh. If she was here all this might have seemed more like fun. As now it didn't.
The night passed somehow. Everyone seemed far too polite to fight over the single sleeping bench with its single blanket. Shortly they were all lying huddled up against one another, strangers as most of them were, feet jammed against heads, arms against backs and shoulders. none of them familiar. She must have slept a little, though it did not feel as if she had. The next time she heard the familiar jangling of keys, the familiar clang of the doors, it was followed by a voice asking 'tea, ladies?' The police constable making the offer was clean, tidy, freshly shaved. Night shift or not, he clearly had not lain on the floor for hours, like Granny and her fellow-prisoners, all of them dishevelled and heavy-eyed and much less talkative.'Can't give you breakfast, ladies, we haven't the facilities for so many, not at such short notice. But we can do tea,' he said.
Granny has never liked tea much. But she wasn't going to turn this down, like everyone else she supped it with relief, feeling ever hungrier. But there was nothing she or any of them could do about that.
An hour or so later most of them were back on the road. Not in a Black Maria this time. Given so many prisoners the police had been forced to hire a bus. The prisoners were sat down on the seats. The policemen were obliged to strap-hang the down the middle, helmets on. As the bus lurched through the streets, spirits rose, the prisoners burst into song - Ban the Bomb songs may not have been school songs exactly but the poetry no better, the choruses as rousing, a sense of old school gathering reasserted itself once again. Granny did not know the words of the songs, but she picked up the choruses pretty fast and began to enjoy herself.
'Don't you hear the H-bombs' thunder,
Echo like the crack of doom?
While they rend the skies asunder
Fall-out makes the earth a tomb;
Do you want your homes to tumble,
Rise in smoke towards the sky?
Will you let your cities crumble,
Will you see your children die?'
And then they chorussed in full voice; everybody including Granny knew the words after the first verse or so:
Men and women, stand together.
Do not heed the men of war.
Make your minds up now or never,
Ban the bomb for evermore.
The police swayed in time on their straps, the bus lurched, outside in the streets, people glanced casually, then stopped quite still, glanced back astonished at what they saw and heard -
MAKE YOUR MINDS UP NOW OR NEVER,
BAN THE BOMB FOR EVER MORE.
And then they were all off-loaded at Bow Street. And led downstairs to the cells there, which were very far from newly painted, let alone tiled. The walls were yellowed and slimy in Granny's recollection and smelt bad, of endlessly, desperately smoked cigarettes among other things. The only light was a single bulb and the faintest of faint daylight coming through grimy and viciously-barred basement windows. Any attempt to sing was quashed at once by police shouts from outside; but noone felt like much singing much in that dispiriting place. They had to sit there for a long time. The magistrates upstairs were very busy.
Granny's turn came at last. It was, inevitably, an anti-climax, a production line in front of bored magistrates who when anyone tried an anti-bomb oration, silenced them with a gesture and an ever-repeated'Fined thirty shillings.' Followed by 'Next please,' as the protester was hustled off by equally bored police. Granny decided that her protest had been made. She gave her name this time, was fined her thirty shillings, and went outside to have her address taken down by the clerk. And then once more she was in daylight, blinking, free, walking down the steps.
She got the next Greenline bus down to her bemused parents in Kent and slept for twelve hours or so. Next morning she went back to Birmingham and Rosemary. She had escaped arrest somehow, many demonstrators had. They ran out of cells for them presumably. And that was that.
As for Bow Street? To be turned into an expensive restaurant, something like that? Weird. All that misery and boredom eaten into it's walls won't be easy to exorcise. Granny is not sure she would ever want to eat there.