Flagging up the issues
The new patriotism of the left has some difficult recent history to overcome. Here Mike Press recounts the day his relationship with the national flag became a problem.
13 August 1977. The tube disgorged us at the end of the line. New Cross. The National Front were marching on the streets of London, and my friend Johnny and I had taken it on ourselves to stop them; obviously not on our own. We arrived early and made our way to Lewisham town centre where five roads converged in front of the town hall. We joined a couple of hundred other demonstrators, and within an hour the numbers had swelled to a few thousand. The Wikipedia entry for “Battle of Lewisham” puts the crowd at 5,000 including the mayor and a couple of bishops. Of course back then we didn’t have Wikipedia. We didn’t even have digital watches. Mind you, we still had Elvis. Just.
At the edges of the crowd an assorted band of newspaper sellers were propagating the various party lines that we all knew, loved and hated so well. Somewhere towards the middle of the crowd a rather squeaky megaphone was trying to give some semblance of order and discipline to the crowd as the local Labour MP tried to rally us with a speech which was unfortunately largely unintelligible.
It was getting to that stage in demonstrations where the initial excitement and euphoria was giving way to boredom, aching feet and the suspicion that you might be missing something good on the telly. So, to raise our spirits the police ran through their rehearsal for the Royal Tournament.
Shrieks from the far edge of the crowd preceded five mounted police officers riding their snorting chargers into the crowd. Following them was the extraordinary sight of helmeted police rushing forwards wielding riot shields and batons. Riot police had never been seen on the streets of London before. I’m sure that riot police have a place in today’s world. A riot, for example, would seem a fairly suitable place for them to be.
The dictionary defines a riot as “a violent disturbance of public peace by three or more persons” which seems a fairly workable and uncontentious definition. There were certainly three or more persons in the square that Saturday afternoon but the peace, as far as I could see anyway, was far from being disturbed. And even if it was, there was no sign whatsoever of violence.
Their batons swung down onto people’s heads and into their chests as the phalanx of horsemen scythed into the crowd. Faced with a situation reeking of revolution, we revolutionaries naturally turned and fled. Johnny and I pushed our way out from the centre of the crowd towards the edge by one of the roads that led away from the town hall. As we got to the edge it was clear what was happening; the horses were a diversion. Two hundred yards down the road, coming out of a side turning and heading away from the demonstration was a slender line of fluttering union flags guarded on one side by an equally slender line of police. Crack a few leftie heads, but let the Front have their march. It’s a free country after all.
We started to run. The call went up and, as one the demonstration turned and ran down the hill towards the Front. This was it: the confrontation, and Johnny and I were quite literally the front line. I tried violence once. I hit David Withers in the playground, then he kicked me in the bollocks. After that I gave it up, making it my life’s mission to avoid physical pain. The euphoric feeling of doing somebody damage had thus evaded my experience, but I now felt it for the first time.
We ran. Christ, how we ran; faster and faster; blood pounding in my ears. The flags came nearer and nearer, until I could see the faces – twisted, ugly faces, faces of hate. No, faces of fear. There were skinheads inevitably, but mingled amongst them were old soldiers with their chests decked with medals and families, even children. And they looked fucking scared, because there were three thousand people running towards them. The police looked scared. The children looked terrified. But for the first time – the only time – in my life, I was fearless. I was gripped by anger, an immense overwhelming anger.
And this anger all focused on these horrible people and the filthy ugly flags of hate that they used to signify their brutality. This wasn’t my flag. It was theirs and they were welcome to it.
“YOU FUCKING SCUM.”
It takes quite a lot to get me angry: around 200 Nazis generally does it.
Let us just freeze that scene for a moment: 200 Nazis holding union flags looking scared, protected by a few bobbies hopelessly outnumbered by Johnny and I now just feet away from them, appearing to lead an angry and baying mob. No need to freeze it just in your imagination, because the Hornsey Journal froze the real thing. Front page on Monday. Me and Johnny leading an angry and baying mob. But freeze it we will and step back seven months to January 1977 to understand why I was there and why I was so angry.
It wasn’t that the Law Centre didn’t want me, but more that they weren’t sure what to do with me. They had agreed to the idea of a student placement somewhat hastily and on the misunderstanding that I was a British Asian. I had admittedly been a little perplexed as to why they had thought me suitable for researching into the incidence of racial attacks in the East End of London.
On my first afternoon came my first job. Equipped with a woman’s name and address, I was to go alone and interview her about being attacked on the street. After a rapid briefing in interview technique I set out down the road to a council estate.
Her name is forgotten, but the experience is still vividly remembered. It was a pre-war estate, shabby and dirty. There were broken windows, some boarded up, and kids gathered in stairwells. Refuse was piled next to huge battered bins. It smelt. There was the sweet stench of festering garbage which, as you passed by open windows, mixed briefly with the smell of strange food. Her flat was on the ground floor of the four storey block, the door opening straight onto the concrete square formed by three adjoining blocks. The door was the same faded, flakey green as all the others. Half of one of the windows was boarded up. I rang the bell and waited.
A young woman with long jet black hair and a pretty but worried face opened the door on the chain and I somewhat nervously explained who I was. She let me in and led me through to the living room. Against the wall facing the partly boarded window was a large sofa, sitting on the end of which was a frightened woman. Her two young children sat by her on the floor. They remained silent the whole time that I was there. A chair was pulled up opposite her. As I eased myself uncertainly into it, the young woman spoke in Bengali to the older woman that I was the man from the Law Centre. As she listened to who I was and why I was there, her dark wide eyes studied me critically. As I looked back I realised that she was older, but certainly not old. Maybe thirty. I was looking for bruises or some other evidence of the attack, but I saw none. The evidence of her pain only became clear when she spoke.
With the younger woman translating, she started to describe the events that occurred nearly two months previously, and I hurriedly took notes. Within two minutes I stopped writing. Thirty five years later I can still remember every word.
It was a Friday morning in early November when, at about eleven, she set off with her two children to shop at the market. It was getting harder to do the shopping and maybe in a couple of weeks one of her friends would have to do it for her, as the baby was due in just over a month. Wheeling the younger one in front of her in a push chair, the older child walked at her side as they proceeded across the courtyard, down a short alley, and towards the new shopping centre. A pedestrian walkway led from a street of terraces through to the small centre, which was grouped around the base of two tower blocks. Fifty yards ahead of them was the point at which the walkway opened onto a quadrangle filled with market stalls. Between them and the opening were three skinheads.
She had become used to such people. Most times she went out, young white boys would shout at her and although she didn’t understand what they were shouting, especially on the occasions that they spat at her, she got their drift. It sounded similar to what they shouted outside her front door after dog shit had been put through the letter box, which was similar to what they had shouted last week after a piece of metal piping crashed through the living room window.
Their pace slowed as the taunts began. From fearsome faces loud unintelligible sounds roared out. Her older child, still small, grabbed at her coat while the younger one started to cry. She had been told that the best thing was to just keep walking and not to look at them. But they blocked her path. She stopped in front of them.
The shouting continued as one came up to her and spat in her face. As she wiped it away she felt tears – tears of fear – well up in her eyes. He pointed at her swollen belly, shouting louder and pulling the pushchair out of her grasp. She cried out and struggled towards it, but he held her back. She felt his boot crash against her leg and crumpled in pain to the ground. She lay there listening to the laughter and feeling the spit land on her face. Then they started to kick. She curled up to protect her unborn baby, but the boots found their target. They kicked at her head, her back, her belly. They howled and hooted and spat. And as she felt the blood run down her face and pain wrack her entire body, she finally heard their boots make off away down the walkway.
She felt the frightened hug of her child and heard his sobbing close to her face. The younger one she could hear screaming a few yards away. She couldn’t move and she couldn’t see. She tried to speak, to ask if they were alright, but she couldn’t speak. The pain was excruciating.
Now she heard other voices. Foreign voices. They came closer. They didn’t sound bad voices, not like the other ones. Then she heard nothing at all. Silent. Black.
When she awoke it was still black. Her eyes wouldn’t open and they hurt. But she could smell the hospital and she could feel the familiar hand of her husband holding hers. She whispered his name and she heard him say that he loved her. He told her that the children were alright. They were frightened, they were very frightened, but they were unhurt. But before he said it, she knew that her baby was dead. And she cried herself silently to sleep. And when she awoke she cried again.
The young woman showed me out. As I left the living room the woman sat at the end of the sofa, a hand resting on her belly, staring at the boarded window with eyes that ran with tears. Her two children were cuddled up next to her under her arm. I couldn’t speak. I knew that there were questions I had to ask, but there was a big ball in my throat. If I was to speak the ball would break and so would I. I had to ask, though.
“So, until the people ran over from the market, there were no witnesses who could identify the skinheads?”
“Oh yes,” the young woman replied. “All during the attack people were walking past going to and from the market.”
“And nobody did anything? Nobody helped or tried to stop them?”
“No. People don’t help pakis.”
Now let us fast forward back to New Cross. Me and Johnny. I was there on the street full of anger because of what these hateful people holding their vile flags were doing – and (let’s be honest here) getting away with – to people like the Bengali woman. And this woman was not an isolated incident. Far from it. Everyday people were being attacked all over the East End of London. And the police were doing nothing about it. And neither were many (but not all) of those good old salt of the earth cockneys. So it was Britain, its vile people and its shitty flag that had got me within a whisker of doing someone some damage. I think I may have even had my fist clenched.
It was, I believe, a contingent of the Socialist Workers Party that saved the Front from me, and saved me from a fate certainly worse than that which David Withers inflicted upon me, and indeed saved me from myself. Bricks rained down on us. Not the Front, but those of us about to attempt damage upon them. From about fifty yards away a group of people had ditched their armloads of Socialist Workers and were dissembling somebody’s garden wall. Full marks, then, for initiative. Clearly bottom of the class though when it came to trajectory physics. Falling short of their intended target by a few yards, bricks thudded against my arms and back.
“You’re hitting us you stupid bastards.”
But when Trotskyists get a foolish idea into their head, there’s no shifting it, and the bricks kept coming. Johnny and I struggled back away from the front line and the hail of bricks. Thank you comrades. The Front, together with their police escort, were heading off down the road and the safety of a larger police cordon.
We stood on the platform, slightly shaken, waiting for the tube. I stared at a cigarette end thinking about the day. I thought about their faces, their ugly foul faces. I thought about how they had perverted their children. Would I have hit them? I really don’t know. I felt frustrated. Soiled. They’d filled me with their own poison.
13th August 1977 was the day my country’s flag became in my mind such a powerful symbol of hatred, intolerance and injustice, and nationalism together with all that it stands for became an idea of such overwhelming repugnance to me. It took over three decades for me to rip the flag out of the Nazis’ hands and view it with pride. Nationalism? Sorry, that will forever be a lost cause with me.
13th August 1977. Two days later Johnny and I made the front page of the paper. And the day after that Elvis bit into a burger for the very last time.