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Civil disobedience broadened my horizons

Eric Whitehouse recalls what it was like staging a demonstration in Northampton…

I’ve always taken an interest in what schools now call ‘current affairs’, believing that it was a citizen’s duty to be aware of what was going on in the big world beyond Northampton’s town boundary.

It was always a strange, vaguely threatening place, but I did realise that it was real. In those distant Cold War days, we young people read our papers (which told us THE TRUTH), watched and listened to the BBC, formed our opinions and espoused them if and when we felt like it. There was no fake news. Facts, facts, facts, were what we craved. We believed that, although we may disagree with them, our leaders acted honourably and honestly and that, with the shadow of the nuclear bomb overshadowing their actions, they would have the good sense to not blow us to kingdom come. Good would prevail over evil. It was not a game…OMG! How times have changed.

The recent bad weather has meant that I have been forced to withdraw behind closed doors and, consequently I have been stranded, involuntarily watching mind-numbing soap operas for most of my waking hours. This is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs, particularly as the most annoying and most oft repeated of these sorry sagas is the dismal tirade of misery purporting to be ‘The News’. The current absurd story line is that our ‘Maggie May’ (named after a 13th century religious icon who was burned at the stake) has fallen out with her sinister rival, Billy Putin, who made his money running holiday camps from which there was no return ticket and who does great back flips, and who has vexed Missus May by spiking the drinks of two mutual ‘friends’ with mind-bending hallucinogenic drugs. He can be glimpsed hiding behind the dustbins, wearing a black cloak and clutching a large pointed object which glints in the sun. Our leader is glowing with incandescent passion and threatens to report the little one to the Head Teacher, ‘President ‘Forrest Gump, a man with a golden cannabis crop sprouting atop his head. When she does, the visceral Gump replies (at 2.00am), “We will instigate thermo nuclear war on a vast scale, at least three times in the next two weeks..,oh, and swat a few thousand wetbacks to keep the customer satisfied”. The next morning, he, of course, denies the tweet, explaining that it must have been sent as a joke by his North Korean chambermaid, who had been employed because of the mess and who was suffering from ‘ladies’ problems’.

There was a time when there was hope. When we yearned for a better world, an end to war, to hunger, racism, and hate. Those years after a World War had been fought for a second time when the next generation cried “Enough!” sufficiently loudly for established order to, for a while, quake in their boots. Yes, folks, here comes the sixties! I was a teenager at the dawn of that era, a soldier of a rare and now extinct tribe – the working class Grammar School boy, a lover of motor bikes and political philosophy, of rock’n’roll and English literature, and girls and…well, girls!

John Hegley (1)

Newly relaunched CND in Northampton

2018 is the 60th anniversary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which was founded on the 17th February 1958 at the height of the cold war. The newly re-launched local Northampton CND Group as part of a number of events taking place around the country this year will be putting on an event locally to take part in the celebrations of the longstanding protest movement for nuclear disarmament. The event will be taking place on Thursday 24 May at music venue The Lab in Charles Street, Northampton. It will feature performances from the poet and comedian John Hegley and locally renowned band The Jazz Butcher Quintet. Tickets are £5 from: www.wegottickets.com/event/436057

Jazz Butcher Quintet (1)

When I was 16, me and a few school chums very daringly dared to attend a meeting of the local Communist Party and were astounded to find that they didn’t breathe fire or have forked tails. They were middle-aged, red faced, bluff, with pipes and mackintoshes. They had no idea of where we were coming from, and sure as hell we didn’t know what we were looking for, but they seemed to think we had been affected by the Aldermaston March of 1961. We had never heard of it.

However, by the Spring of 1962 things had changed and me and my friend and neighbour, Richard Sykes, found ourselves on a coach to Aldermaston Atomic Research Centre, which had been organised by the local Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. We convened in a field next to the site and the assembly was vast – even bigger than any football match. There were banners everywhere – CND, pacifists, trade unions, all manner of socialists, liberals, communists, quakers, woodcraft folk, flat earthers, vegetarians, and a delegation of large, vocal working class Glasgow ship workers, who sang rousing anthems constantly. It was a truly inspiring gathering. To cut a long story short, we marched 58 miles to London in three days, culminating in a rally in Trafalgar Square. At Reading, on the site of the Rock Festival where we camped in marquees, organised fascists invaded and a punch up ensued . I got to know the local activists – and some of them were girls!

Back in Northampton, my new friends and I had work to do spreading the word and recruiting people to the cause. Membership of the Youth CND increased dramatically and our meetings were packed with fresh faces. Inevitably, factions began to appear and Direct Action for Peace, founded by three lads from Kings Heath – Derek Adams, Doug Scott, and Dave Turvey – was formed, espousing and proposing ‘Grandiose Techniques’ to oppose militarism. A demonstration was planned a month or so after the Aldermaston Easter march, which was to involve civil disobedience in Northampton Town Centre in protest against US resumption of nuclear testing. We leafletted, marched, held vigils and meetings and generally courted publicity.

A plan was hatched to disrupt the traffic in Northampton Town Centre on a Saturday afternoon by sitting in the road and blocking Wood Hill. The police were informed of our intentions. Normally, they would have to give their permission for the demonstration to take place but this, of course, did not apply as the action was illegal anyway. The overseeing officer was Inspector Harris , whose son, Bob – ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris of ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ fame – would later marry Sue Tilson, one of the demonstrators.

On the day, we had agreed to meet at the Town Hall and march to Wood Hill, where we would sit down. In practice, the whole Town Centre was blocked with onlookers who had come to see the fun. There were banners, people with CND symbols on their clothing, all manner of support from people we did not know and had never seen before. The YCND had ,probably, a couple of hundred members and, of those, seventeen hard core activists braved the scorn of political opponents: ex-servicemen, crazy psychos, religious extremists, and often their own families, to register their protest. Add veteran christian pacifist, Stanley Seamark and Dave Turvey’s mum, nineteen of us made the cut. The crowd was so great that the police had to clear Stanley a path to our destination. We sat down – I remember my heart beating fast as my resolve hardened – the cops read the Riot Act and, one on each arm, we were hauled into the Black Marias.

In his book of photos, ‘Roland Holloway’s Northamptonshire’, there are three snaps of this; one of Sue Tilson being arrested, one of Richard ‘Pot’ Harris, and my lovely friend, the late Tony Halliday, and another of John Small and Doug Scott.

We were taken to Campbell Square Police Station, charged with obstructing the traffic and banged up in two cells for the lot of us. We were there for about four hours while the authorities convened a special court, including a juvenile one for the three who were sixteen years old and therefore underage. The rest of us were under twenty, except for Stanley and Dave’s mum. We sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ and all the protest songs we had learned from Aldermaston and banged on the doors and shouted at the windows.

Eventually, we were led out to the Magistrates Court and stood side by side in the dock while the magistrate looked down on us. He was Frank Webb, who was a chuchman and owned a shoe factory. We all pleaded guilty and ‘Pot’ Harris gave a rousing political justification for our actions. I wanted to applaud him, but dare only clap very quietly. I was choked with emotion so badly I could not speak – a first for me. We were discharged around 7.00pm and I managed to get hold of a copy of the ‘Chronicle and Echo’. We were all over the front page. Reading the paper on the bus up the Headlands, I remember thinking as I neared my parents’ house, “My God I’m for it now!”

Footnote: Just a word about Stanley Seamark who, when my father died six months after these events, wrote me wonderful words which helped me cope with my grief and made me realise what a real man of principle and humanity he was. Also my pal, Tony Halliday, intelligent, educated, funny and naughty, whose archive of the YCND and allied groups I have used in this article.

I'm the editor and owner of The NeneQuirer.

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