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When I was in my teens I feared I wouldn’t be alive for my 21st. I wasn’t alone in such dread. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was our nuclear fate and it drove many of my generation to join the Aldermaston March.
What I never anticipated was that nearly 50 years later, I’d again be on a coach going to Aldermaston and that politicians across the world would still believe in “nuclear defence” and still believe that they could only cut it as significant leaders if they brandished their enormous weapons at each other.
And if you read sexual significance into the foregoing, you’re right.
My first Aldermaston March was an event of great significance for me: it confirmed my pacifist leanings; it introduced me to anarchism; it led me to nonviolent direct action; it nurtured friendships which continue to this day.
Three of my marching friends even went to work at PN: Kevin and Richard as journalists, Jo in administration. Sam went to work for CND in Carthusian St.
I eventually dropped out of the world of regular work altogether. I think the first piece of journalism I had published (unpaid of course) was an unsolicited submission to PN and this – and later stuff in Freedom and Melody Maker – led to my attempts to earn a living as a musician/songwriter/hack/poet.
In none of these did I materially succeed but other marchers, with similar aspirations, did and I began to see their by-lines elsewhere.
Around 1963 I’d heard a poet read some irresistible poems at a CND benefit and this had seeded, perhaps, my inclination to be a poet and musician.
I was still mulling over my past when the coach arrived at Aldermaston and we’d no sooner made our way to our appointed gate when I met that very poet.
Time stood still
He, unlike some of those I can remember, has a heart and voice still committed to peace and justice and lo! there he was quoting William Blake (“If the Sun and Moon should doubt / they’d immediately go out”) in front of the fence while the preceding punk band was coiling its leads and dismantling mic stands around his feet.
Undaunted, Adrian Mitchell (for it was he) then launched into one of his own passionate poems and time – momentarily – stood still.
Altogether, the 50th anniversary Aldermaston demo was an unforgettable occasion: I experienced sorrow, regret, nostalgia, anger, joy, despair – and astonishment that I was still alive. On my first march I remember seeing a handsome young man who stood, literally, head and shoulders above the surrounding pilgrims.
At every demo I attended from there on, I’d spot his kippah (skullcap) riding high and I eventually learned his name: Ernest Rodker. He’s campaigned tirelessly on behalf of Mordechai Vanunu and lo! here he was again – still attempting to ban the bomb and carrying his tattered but nonetheless original 1958 CND lollipop.
Somewhere along the perimeter fence Pat Arrowsmith was still at it too. I once took part in a 24-hour blockade at Burghfield nuclear weapons factory and then went on to the “Embrace the Base” demo at Greeham Common. I met my mum and dad there and they shared their Thermos of tea with Pat, whom we’d chanced upon as we all linked hands.
That was back in 1983, and there were poets and musicians aplenty around the fence to keep our spirits up – just as Adrian and the punk band did on CND’s 50th.
Adrian Mitchell’s words fitted the occasion perfectly:
Long live the Child
Long live the Mother and Father
Long live the People
Long live this wounded Planet
Long live the good milk of the Air
Long live the spawning Rivers and the mothering Oceans
Long live the juice of the Grass
And all the determined greenery of the Globe *
*Excerpt from “William Blake Says: Every Thing That Lives Is Holy” from Adrian Mitchell’s collection The Shadow Knows: poems 2000 – 2004 (Bloodaxe, £9.95)