My mum and dad took me on my first march before I was even born. I realised this on the massive TUC anti-cuts demonstration recently. At Easter 1960, my parents went on the annual Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s Aldermaston march. They’d left my 18-month-old brother with my gran and grandad but as I wasn’t due until August, Mum had to take me with her. The first time I marched was as a walking, talking two-year-old. I was told that it was “against fighting and war”, so it could have also been a CND march. (My grandma even had a parrot that could say, “Ban the bomb!”) I managed “five miles” before coming home with my dad. My brother, who was four, marched on with my mum for “10 miles” and had to be taken to playgroup the next day in my pushchair because his feet were so swollen.
I wasn’t aware at the time but between these two marches my dad had ventured off on his own to join Bertrand Russell and the Committee of 100 to sit down in front of a US war plane. Hundreds of protesters were arrested and he spent a week in jail. My mum recently confided that it was the “best week of my married life as I didn’t have to cook breakfast and evening meals”. I’d clearly been born into a family who took protesting seriously.
Full of initiative, my six-year-old brother wrote his own petition and stuck it on our garden gate. He and my dad often talked about history over the dinner table and the petition read, “IF YOU WANT TO KILL THE QUEEN SIGN HERE.” One name was on it – mine. I’d happily signed up, but Stuart, crafty as ever, hadn’t. He waited with a pencil for people passing by. When a big boy on a bike suggested that it would be us who’d have our heads cut off, I left it to Stuart and retreated into the house.
One day in 1970, there was talk in my junior school of the newly elected Tory prime minister. He was coming that evening to a dinner hosted in the local stately home. I was embarrassed that our family would be the only people protesting at the grand gates. But as we walked down the road, I felt excited to join others including a good friend with his fireman dad. Another school friend, whose dad was a policeman, had told us he was definitely not coming. More mums and kids arrived until a small group stood in front of the gates – probably the youngest picket line in the country. We played around and joked with the three uniformed policemen until a long, black car drove down the road. The atmosphere changed instantly as we surged forward and the police formed a line pushing us back on to the pavement. My mum and the other parents shouted as the tall, broad figure of Ted Heath stepped out of the car and made his way comfortably through the gates.
Growing up in a lefty family in Eltham, south-east London felt like treading water in a sea of normality – barely keeping my head in the air. But on these protests we found there were other like-minded people.
One weekend, rather than go for a healthy walk in the park, Dad and Mum took us three kids (now including my little sister) to a huge council estate with the unwelcoming name of Coldharbour. There was a notorious road junction where school kids had been knocked over and local people were demanding traffic lights.
A gang of noisy kids walked round and round the junction shouting at the top of their lungs. My bold brother joined in instantly and I followed. Dad and some of the other adults stood in front of the cars that approached the junction. A curly-haired teenager in a donkey jacket sat on the bonnet of a red sports car, whose driver was angrily revving his engine. This proved too much for the driver, who roared off down the road with the guy still on the bonnet! I was thrilled but nervous when some of that gang of kids turned up the next week at the Woodcraft Folk group, which my mum ran at our local community centre. But we soon became good friends.
The first time I went on a big march in central London it felt like discovering a world I didn’t know existed. The sensation of walking down the road en masse, joining in the chants and singing the songs was exhilarating. Even when I didn’t know what they meant, “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, We shall fight, We shall win, London, Paris, Rome, Berlin.”
In 1973, before May Day was made a bank holiday, my dad said if we wanted to join the May day trades union march we could have the day off school. This was too good an offer for me and my brother to miss. A couple of hundred gathered behind a marching band in a nearby park, and we were pleased to see our next door neighbour with his boiler-suited workmates. I took my new portable cassette recorder and someone lent me a Megaphone so I could blast out the chart hits such as Part of the Union and Children of the Revolution. What we weren’t expecting was that the letter Dad sent to school to explain our absence was not only honest, about us missing school to go on the march, but admonished the teachers for not joining in themselves. My class tutor was a stalwart of the local Conservative club so I received a verbal lashing the next day.
Around this time, town hall workers were becoming militant and regularly taking strike action. My dad, Will Fancy, was on the national executive of Nalgo local government officers’ union and the Daily Mail described him as “the most dangerous man in Britain”. But I didn’t know anything about that as he was quite modest and didn’t talk about work at home. (Much later he would smile and say, “They only said that once.”)
My early teenage years were spent playing in the park and camping with the Woodies until I went on my first march without my family, partly inspired by a teenage crush. In spring 1976, one of the Woodcraft girls told us about a march to “defend a woman’s right to choose”. She said: “My mum admits that if abortion had been legal in the early 60s, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Her determination to go on the march was persuasive – plus I fancied her friend. So my mate and I joined them on the demonstration. We got the bug, and a couple of weeks later we were marching for the right to work. I wasn’t sure that working was a right I wanted, and I was dodging exam revision to go.
Music held more of a grip on my imagination than school and my mates and I formed a punk band in 1977. We wore Rock Against Racism badges and leapt at the announcement in the NME of an Anti-Nazi League carnival. Especially as our favourites, the truly inspirational Clash, were playing. About 80,000 people marched from Trafalgar Square all the way to Victoria Park in Tower Hamlets, east London, where we danced defiantly past pubs full of boozing, furious racists.
But the National Front didn’t go away. Marches against them became more militant, and I was among the many arrested. The feeling of being stuck in a sweat box and later standing up in court was demoralising and put some of us off marches for a while.
After a couple of boring dead-end jobs, some of my friends and I were unemployed in the early 80s. This was partly because of Margaret Thatcher and partly so we could “concentrate on our band”. But shortage of money and reasons to get up in the morning are not the greatest inspiration for band practice or chasing gigs. I did, however, write enough songs “inspired” by unemployment to fill a triple concept album.
It was late one morning soon after the Falklands war that I woke up in a draughty squat to the sound of shouting in the street. Looking out I saw a procession of people chanting, “No ifs, no buts, no to health service cuts.” I didn’t leap into my jeans and join them, but it helped to make me realise that being “free from the nine to five grind” had an isolating downside.
College was my way out of the cul-de-sac of being on the dole, and it was free – I even got a full grant to live on. As the miners’ strike started during my first year, there were also plenty of chances to get back into protesting and marching.
I hated getting up early, but for the sake of joining miners picketing a power station in Kent, some of us made the sacrifice. As we gathered in the college car park before it was light, I noticed a student who hadn’t been involved before. I remembered her challenging me about picket line violence while I was rattling the “dig deep for the miners” collection bucket in the college bar. I welcomed any new person taking part, but this young woman standing quietly in her thick jumper and tracksuit bottoms was somehow extra appealing to me. On the coach I left my friends to go to talk to her and on the way back the two of us sat chatting for most of the journey. As she wandered away from the coach on our return to college, my friends, who’d been unusually polite, turned to me and asked, “What’s going on, Colin?” Maybe meeting Kirsti is why I don’t remember anything else about the picket.
The following years included standing outside Rupert Murdoch’s printing plant at Wapping until 3am or 4am, running through London in solidarity with anti-apartheid protesters in Johannesburg, demonstrating against the poll tax in 1990, helping to organise picket lines and union marches from the college I taught at, marching against the racist murders of three black boys back in my home town of Eltham and parading through Paris with brightly coloured union delegations.
But there are two protests that I will always remember: Kirsti and me pushing our first born in his pram on a little local march to save my old secondary school and the massive Stop on 15 February 2003, after our second born had just been released from hospital after eight weeks recovering from major surgery.
Just as I did as a child, they have both enjoyed marching down the street shouting and singing – sometimes they don’t even have to be on a march to do it. It would be neat to say the boys were with me on 26 March, but we’d woken up that morning camping with the Woodcraft in Kent and I’d slipped away to join my mum on the TUC march against the cuts.
Standing at the gates of Hyde Park, at the end of the 500,000-strong march, I looked at the happy, tired but determined faces of my fellow protesters. I felt grateful to my mum and dad for introducing me, so long ago, to this particular family tradition.