Sunday, 6 December 2009
Fantine and the fascists
I could think of many better things to do. Even the housework was looking attractive. I do not like going on demonstrations and this one scared me. The English Defence League was planning to march through Nottingham and, reluctantly, I'd decided to join the counter-demonstration.
It was my son who persuaded me. At 18, he sees the issues clearly. I don't always agree with him but this time it really was simple. The EDL stirs up hatred against Muslims, hatred leads to fear, discrimination and violence - and if I'm not prepared to stand, visibly, against hatred, I have a responsibility for what happens in my absence.
I was afraid. I've known people who were beaten up by fascists, back in the days of the National Front in the 1970s. I knew that a minority of anti-fascists might also want a fight, however much the organisers urged a peaceful demonstration and reckoned my son might be particularly at risk since young men are often victims of attacks. "Dress carefully," I told myself, and chose a thick jumper and warm jacket, in case of inadvertent blows. I reckoned I also looked sufficiently ordinary to melt into the crowd if necessary. There would be plenty of crowds. The EDL had timed their demonstration to coincide with the homecoming parade of the Mercian regiment and a football match between Nottingham Forest and Leicester City. And then there was Christmas ...
Nottingham seemed as crowded as ever. A Salvation Army band was playing carols. Crash barriers were being set in place for the soldiers' parade. Skaters glided on the ice in the Old Market Square and a continental market had joined the traditional German market. Despite police warnings about public safety, there was no shortage of shoppers. I'd met an A-level student on the train who was so visibly a demonstrator that I introduced myself. He'd travelled alone and didn't know his way to the city centre so I led him to the Old Market Square where we started to look for demonstrators among the crowds of shoppers, Goths, stall-holders, army families and British Legion members.
I spotted a small group of badge-wearers near the stone lions of the Council House. Cautiously I scanned the badges. This was just as well. They included a small enamal badge with the figures "18". It could have been an advertisement for a lucky Lotto number but I doubted it. I've known for years about the Combat 18 code by which 18 stands for A.H., or Adolf Hitler. There seemed some irony that a badge-wearer combined his "18" badge with a Churchill "V for Victory" badge, but I decided not to stay and point this out.
We wandered past the stalls of Neapolitan treats and olive oil and the British Legion veterans holding huge flags. Eventually someone ran up to us. "Anti-fascist demo?" he enquired. "Other end of the square."
We joined the small group with its banners. I began to worry that my son hadn't arrived as planned. The music from "The Snowman" floated out from a nearby shop. Eventually my mobile phone rang - my son had joined the other anti-fascist demo, by the Royal Centre. I headed up to join him, glad to be a little further from the Combat 18 group.
Like most demonstrations, it was mostly rather dull. The group outside the Royal Centre waved banners and chanted slogans, watched by curious passers-by. We heard music that suggested the returning Mercian soldiers were parading. I said hello to a friend and joined in a few casual conversations but they petered out after a while. There were speeches which I couldn't quite hear. My son and I were cold and hungry so went for chips from a nearby shop. Then there was a vote and our group marched to join the other demonstrators in the Old Market Square.
There was a moment of pleasure as the stationary demonstrators cheered and applauded our arrival. Then we settled down to the cold and boredom of just being there. My son was joined by a friend. I eased my copy of Les Misérables from my bag, settled my reading glasses on my nose, and continued with the story of Fantine, who had just been abandoned by the father of her child. I looked up when a group of fascists emerged from the pub opposite. I couldn't hear what they were singing and shouting because the people around me were singing and shouting in response. There were police cordons in keeping us and them in place and we were divided by tram tracks. Travellers in the trams gazed curiously and some took photos on their mobile phones. A couple of elderly women walked between the opposing groups with heavy shopping bags. I spotted a couple of Nazi salutes from the group outside the pub. Behind us, the continental market was doing a good trade and the skaters continued to glide proficiently on the ice. Father Christmas and a snowman walked between the groups, escorted by a friendly policeman. Police dogs arrived, tails wagging, and won a predicatble "Aaah! aren't they lovely!" from the demonstrators, which struck me as very English. Everything became quiet again. I read some more.
After a while, I decided to leave the group briefly to buy some sweets to sustain me on the demonstration. I'd already been there for hours. I made my way to the loo in a nearby shop. When I came out, the demonstration was disappearing round the corner towards the castle. I ran after it and the police kindly let me through the cordon so that I could rejoin the demonstrators. I was a little worried as I knew the ELD was planning a rally near the castle - the statue of Robin Hood had been boarded up in preparation.
Of course, the police weren't letting anti-fascists and fascists meet. We were kettled in a short street but it was a benevolent kettle - people with small children were able to leave if they wished, so long as it was safe to do so. Members of the public walked past. The shouting and slogans started again. I returned to Les Misérables. Fantine had just met Mme Thenardier and her daughters. My son and his friend briefly left the kettle and returned with Chinese food and chopsticks. A policeman brought a bowl and water for the police dogs, to the approval of the dog-loving demonstrators. I met a woman of my own age who had joined the demonstration from her shopping expedition. "I think it's important to be here," she said, "just to show that we don't agree with the EDL." I agreed.
We seemed to spend a long time in the kettle and, after a while, we weren't allowed out - not even to put rubbish in bins. In Les Misérables, Fantine's daughter, Cosette, was being abused by the Thenardiers - I worried about her. There was some more lively shouting so I put my book away in case something was going to happen. It didn't. I asked one of the policemen if he knew the football score but he said they didn't get that information. Later I overheard a policeman say "3-0 to Forest" but I wasn't sure I'd heard clearly. Finally there was a speech to encourage us all. We were told that we had shown that this was our city, that Nottingham didn't welcome fascism, that the EDL hadn't attacked us as they threatened. Now we were going to march back to the old Market Square and disperse - in groups, we were told, for our own safety.
The message about marching back hadn't reached the police nearest the square and there was a pause when it looked as though we were going to be held in the kettle. But a couple of minutes later we were on our way back, cheered that we'd been there and that it was all over. We were just about to cross the tram tracks circling the Old Market Square when a number of screaming men hurtled towards us, unfurling banners. I saw a St George's Cross as well as two banners with the red hand of Ulster. I couldn't hear what was being screamed - just a furious screech of hate and threats.
The police escorted us towards our end of the square and formed two lines between us and the screaming men. Behind us the skaters were gliding, bizarrely, to the tune of "Land of Hope and Glory." The continental market was still doing well. A group of youngsters from the anti-fascist protest dodged out of the police lines and headed at speed towards the fascists. Had they been on a football pitch, their supporters would have been cheering - it was so elegantly done. Then, for ten minutes or so, missiles were thrown around the pub. I couldn't see exactly what was going on and shoppers still wandered between the two groups. Policemen on horseback moved in and everything quietened. My son and I discussed what would happen if a policeman rode his horse into the pub but it didn't happen. The police horses seemed incongruous as they stood quietly between a bus shelter and the Cheltenham & Gloucester Building Society.
It was time to go home to the housework. I decided against olives from the continental market but bought myself a Christmas doughnut from a German stall and headed for the train. Back home, I checked the reports of the demonstrations in the press - it seems that some of the EDL demonstrators attacked the police. Then I checked the football results. Nottingham Forest beat Leicester 5 - 1.