Saturday, 2 May 2009

The all-purpose May Day march

It's May. Some of the empty shops have unexpected blossoms: bright new businesses nestling in bankrupt empty caverns and urging sunlit strollers to enter and buy. I have little hope they'll make it through next winter but there's something appealing about their optimism, even though I doubt a champagne bar will succeed in a suburban high street.

All over Europe, yesterday was May Day. In England, they waited till today for the marches and the holiday is on Monday. I read about Nottingham's march on Indymedia and decided to join in.

We assembled in Brewhouse Yard at the bottom of Castle Rock against a background of caves. There were flimsy but colourful stalls with banners, books and badges. A van was selling vegetarian food and the Clarion choir was preparing to sing.

Sometimes Nottingham's May Day marches have a focus - I've been on one which was against the war in Iraq - but this year all sorts of people were involved. The campaign against privatising the Post Office had top billing but there were marchers from several trades unions, peace groups, and left-wing organisations or parties. I was offered a CND placard, against the renewal of Trident, and agreed to carry it. That made it hard to take photos.

We ambled cheerfully through Nottingham, led by a samba band. Caught in the middle of the crowd of people and banners (police estimates reckoned about 500 of us), I couldn't see the band or many of the marchers. My view was largely of the backs of banners, police (with numbers and earpieces securely in place) and smiling crowds. No-one seemed greatly perturbed at the slight delay we caused - instead bystanders stopped to read the banners, raised their phones to take photos or even started dancing along to the samba band. Occasional attempts to start chanting slogans foundered. There was some annoyance at bankers but this didn't flower into anger. Instead brief conversations sprang up in which individuals shared their concern. But conversations subsided. We were enjoying the sun, the crowds, the company and the walk.

It was a short amble, causing no difficulties for the small children in family groups or the people in power-wheelchairs. We passed the edge of the Market Square, the Robin Hood statue beneath the castle and the abandoned Lace Centre before re-entering Brewhouse Yard. Then the marchers looked at one another's stalls, queued for vegetarian food and sat on the grass to hear the music and speeches.

I deposited my placard and bought a veggie burger before wandering round the stall. I paused for a while to talk to people at the Refugee Forum, still collecting for the destitute asylum seekers whose poverty shames us. I accepted a leaflet for the campaign to free Hicham Yezza. Like many people who are arrested with a great fanfare on terrorism charges, he's now been imprisoned on visa irregularities and is threatened with deportation. And I spoke to a fellow Quaker behind the stall for the City of Sanctuary campaign, which asks, simply, that we make refugees and asylum seekers welcome.

There was a speech by Alan Simpson, one of the few Labour MPs I would vote for. Unfortunately he's not my MP and he's retiring at the next election. He spoke passionately about the environment, but I was enjoying the sun so much my concentration wandered. I couldn't focus on the songs (by Red Banner) for long either. I wandered off to inspect the trades union banners, now propped against the caves that were carved from the sandstone centuries ago. (No-one lives there now.) I wondered briefly what the march might have achieved. At least we all enjoyed it - and the event was encouraging. I felt less alone in my concerns. And so, encouraged, I slipped away.


katie said...

Of course, if this were in France and the police said there'd been 500 marchers, you'd be claiming there were at least 3000 as a matter of principle.

Alan Baker said...

I was waiting for the cheerfulness to be interrupted by a description of something unpleasant, like hostility or police misbehaviour, but it didn't happen. Nice description of what sounds like a cheering event. Wish I'd been there.