Ten years ago today, Lloyd Evans joined the anti-Iraq war march in London. Evans had an open mind about the war, until he joined the peace movement and met Bianca Jagger. Here is the piece in full from our archive.
I’m bursting with excitement. I can hardly get the words down fast enough. There was an amazing occurrence in Hackney last week at a meeting of the Stop the War coalition. I swear this happened. A protester said something perceptive. You don’t believe me? No, really, I was there. He was an old guy with white hair and a lovely crinkly face. ‘The bigger the march,’ he said ruefully. ‘The bigger the insult when they ignore us.’ I almost fell off my chair in astonishment.
Nobody at the meeting disagreed. No one suggested a change of tactics. And none of that surprised me at all. For several months, out of curiosity rather than conviction, I have attached myself to the peace movement. An atmosphere of defeat hangs over its members. You’d almost be forgiven for thinking they’re content to let Bush go ahead.
Last Saturday I attended a warm-up demo at a cemetery in Stoke Newington. The plan was to raise awareness for the Big One on 15 February. I trundled up rather late on my bone-shaker but I was greeted by our quartermaster, Ben, with a warm smile of triumph. My attendance lifted our tally past the psychologically sensitive threshold of 17. He safety-pinned a huge poster on to the back of my jacket. ‘NO.’ it declared in stark white letters flecked with red to symbolise blood. Recognising a female friend, I wheeled over to say Hi. Her eyes scoured me coldly. She is aware that my feathers are not as pure as those of other doves — she finds my scribblings offensively glib. ‘All jolly silly, aren’t we?’ she muttered at me narrowly. After that she cut me dead.
We all tied white balloons to our crossbars and set off on the Tour d’Hackney. I was surprised that our route took us straight through Stamford Hill — home to 10,000 orthodox Jews. We made our way up Cazenove Road led by Luca, an Italian, who had knotted a casserole tin to his handlebars. It’s amazing what a din you can raise with a pot and a wooden spoon. To the beat of his drum, we cycled along, dinging our bells, blowing our whistles and chanting our reprieve for Israel’s deadliest enemy.
It was the Sabbath and the streets were filled with the faithful heading for the synagogue. I scrutinised the men in their weird splendour, the black frock coats and spotless white shirts and the huge fur-trimmed hats almost as broad as their shoulders. Every detail of their grooming was immaculate apart from their billowing riotous beards. Ringleted boys smiled at us and waved. The women completely ignored us. The grave elders regarded us impassively. I overheard a few Hebraic undertones but I detected no open hostility. As we freewheeled along, curtains twitched apart and suspicious faces gathered in the bay windows. ‘Surprised they don’t stone us,’ I whispered to a fellow cyclist. `Oh, they don’t mind,’ she said jauntily.
We turned into the Lower Clapton Road — or Murder Mile as it’s been rechristened in tribute to local gunslingers. In this intermingled district we got a very different reception. Sleek Muslims came out of their sweetie shops and waved at us and cheered. Bus shelters full of Asians made a show of applauding our progress. Car-horns beeped their approval. Faces smiled down from open windows and fight-the-power black dudes hailed us with raised fists. Here we were loved. It felt good.
We crossed a roundabout, and the area became whiter. A Ford Escort dawdled alongside us and the male passenger offered me his clenched knuckles, ‘Bomb them,’ he grinned. ‘Surely not,’ I fretted. On the steps of a furniture shop two meaty cockneys scowled at the little carnival. One started yelling, ‘I want George Bush to blow ’em all up!’ His colleague looked embarrassed. ‘No, don’t say that!’ he countered theatrically, and then bundled his pal indoors. He came back out and peeped around with a nervous smile. Race relations are good around here. No point rocking the boat.
On we went through the bustling afternoon, clogging the streets, raising a racket, chanting our not-quite-rhyming couplet, ‘Don’t Attack Iraq’. Hard to assess the mood with any accuracy. The majority of people, I would say, favour peace. But their support is not active, let alone fanatical. What they are active and fanatical about is shopping.
An hour later, we cruised back to the cemetery. We received a happy ovation from the beaming matronariat who’d been handing out leaflets in our absence. Luca was rubbing his knackered shoulder. He showed me his drum-stick — worn and hammered smooth from many hours of honourable thwacking at protests overseas. ‘That’s quite a trophy. Show your grandchildren,’ I said. ‘Yes yes,’ he grinned. ‘A trophy.’ The wooden spoon. How apt that a peace protester should take pride in that emblem of … ah but there I go again, making my facetious analogies.
My friend objects that I have nothing serious to say about anything. OK, here goes. The peace movement is ill-managed and ill-governed. It exhibits all the lethargy of a nationalised corporation, all the selfimportance of a decaying religion and all the verve of an origami club. Its supporters nurture a bizarre belief in ‘the leaflet’ as a tool of political coercion. Their ad hoc cabinet is stuffed with amiable blunderers — Bruce Kent, Paul Foot — celebrity gadabouts — Will Self, Damon Albarn — and slippery wags like Tariq Ali. These are abetted by a crew of antiquarian fantasists led by Bob ‘Raise-the-Banner-Splendid’ Crowe and the fairy godmother of socialism, Tony Benn. To his credit, Benn is a brilliant speaker. Without his poetic eloquence, I’d have abandoned this project long ago. The protest is desperately lacking in vigour. There is no appetite for conflict, no victory plan. The chief tactic is futile commotion — hectic agitation — which merely camouflages indolence and apathy. One obvious gambit — mass disruption of the tax system — has scarcely been mooted, let alone attempted. The deadline for payment fell two weeks ago. What an opportunity. But aside from a handful of genuine mutineers, none of the protesters deemed their cause worthy of a tussle with the Treasury. Why not? It’s not as if they’d have been rounded up and shot as in .. . er, well, Iraq.
They prefer harmless spectaculars, like Saturday’s march — the Big One — which makes them twinkle with zeal. You can see the attraction. If the weather is benign, it’s a lovely day out. London empties of its cars and shoppers. Restaurants shrug their customers outdoors and lock up for the day. The city’s mighty avenues become rivers of virtuous humanity. All trade ceases. The hated multinationals shroud their windows in wooden boards, as if ashamed of their foul barter. Commerce becomes a coffin, Instead the streets are given over to bongodrummers and clowns on stilts. Playground fun fills the air. You can hear it, smell it almost, the carnival aroma, the spirit of righteous anger, the whiff of a mob whose mind is settled, whose purpose is beautifully stark: to re-establish justice in a world gone mad. Even the police are cowed and humbled. They brood behind their cordons, fondling their batons in their black-gloved fingers. But don’t he afraid. It’s All Fools’ day. The customs of authority are turned topsy-turvy. You can abuse the law openly if you feel like it. Stroll up to a copper and swear in his face and he’s under orders to let you go on your way. What a balm to the suffering suburban heart. How it cheers the soul to take part in this masquerade of revolution. It purges the iniquities imposed every day by ‘authority’. Everyone goes home refreshed, their consciences reborn. They will stop London certainly. But will they stop the war?
A few days ago I attended a stunt at a north London sports field. Some American students had challenged a group of Baghdad emigres to a football match. Advertised as the USA v. Iraq, it drew a good crowd of protesters and a handful of international news teams. Seasoned war-stopper Jeremy Corbyn, MP, warmed up the stadium with a three-minute conspiracy theory. Then he passed the microphone to his celebrity guest, legendary rock-chick turned UN Ambassador for Worrying Developments, Bianca Jagger. She’s a wisp of a thing, close up. Glossy chestnut hair, her handsome face worn into tender grooves by many a saintly decade jetting and fretting around the world. Her accent still bears a melancholy echo of Neeg-uh ruh-wuh. ‘These cry sees,’ she said, ‘is about oy-eel.’ And she went on in beautifully mangled English: ‘If there will be a war, half a million will be a casualty. Not only the blood of Iraqi will flood, but of young English and American also.’
She strode to the middle of the sopping Astroturf in her moss-green Barbour and high-heeled boots. The ref blew his whistle and she hoofed the ball upfield. A pretty good pass, I thought. It landed at the feet of the Iraqi centre-forward who shimmied around three Americans and hammered a hopeful shot several yards wide. ‘Oooh!’ sighed the crowd. The game settled down. For most of the first 45 minutes Iraq kept the US pegged back in its own half. The mishap everyone was secretly praying for — an American own goal — didn’t materialise. But no one complained about the half-time score. Five–nil to Iraq. Amid the quartered oranges, there was a ceremonial ‘swapping of shirts’ for the cameras. Everyone applauded. I felt the event had taken on a sickeningly evangelical air.
I fell in with a young Iraqi student. He spoke quietly and kept moving out of earshot of the whooping peace-pack around us. He had fled Baghdad 11 months ago, he said, after several of his friends were executed. ‘The Iraqi people fear the sons more than Saddam. The sons are more cruel,’ he told me. ‘Are you against the war?’ I asked. He shrugged. ‘If it will come, it will come. Everyone close to the regime is selling their property. They’re buying apartments in Syria and Jordan.. This was news to me. ‘But the Iraqis will fight?’ Another shrug. ‘The first bomb that falls, the first sign of war, the regime will collapse. Everyone knows this.’ And then you can go home,’ I said. He smiled but didn’t reply. It seemed like treachery to support the aggressor in this atmosphere of stag: fraternalism. He left me with a chilling soundbite: ‘Saddam’s survival is Iraq’s death.’ It was never my intention, but the peace movement converted me. I came away from that soccer match a full-feathered hawk. And those who attend the march — though they quaff deep from the springs of liberty — must know that they are exercising the very freedom they would deny to others.