I’ll march if I must... just don’t ask me to join a riot
On an unusually warm spring morning, 21 years ago, I took a packed train into Colchester to go on the Anti-Poll Tax march.
On the train with me were senior citizens, families with kids and all manner of ordinary folk. I never did like marches. Political protests can make strange bedfellows and, as we’ve observed recently, may also attract people with murky agendas.
I didn’t have an easy 1980s. It was a bad time to be among the working poor, as I then was. In a good week, between a struggling music career and a gardening round, I might have pulled in about a hundred quid.
Then, at the dawn of the ’90s, some bright spark in government concocted the idea of the Community Charge. Everyone, me included, would now be paying about thirty quid a month extra in tax. I began to wonder if I was still living in the same country in which I’d grown up. I could cope with being hard-up, it was just that I would now have barely any money at all .
So, reluctantly, along with many others, I went on the march. I’d had my first break as a writer during the Miners’ Strike. I reasoned that maybe I could write the day’s events up.
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Late for the march, I joined it as it came up Head Street towards Colchester High Street. The first thing I noticed was an electricty coming off the crowd. It made the hairs on my neck stand up.
By now several thousand strong, the marchers turned down into the High Street. A rally was to be held in Castle Park. At the junction of High Street and Museum Street, for some reason, the police held us up. It had all been relatively amiable up until this point. It was approaching midday when things suddenly turned sporty.
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Above Claydon’s newsagents, an upstairs window in the Conservative Club opened and a voice shouted, “I’ll pay your Poll Tax for you!” A suited arm threw down a handful of copper coins.
Pretty dim, really. Up until then, I don’t think the marchers had even noticed the club. Now a massed salute of V-signs went up. Some of the crowd spotted a nearby building skip. The brickbats therein travelled upwards, towards the Conservative Club windows. The people inside could be seen scurrying for cover. The police moved rapidly.
A shout went up to run down the road to East Hill, where the Poll Tax Registration Office happened to be. There followed a stampede, which I got caught up in. There was no option but to run and I found myself in a scrum outside the Minories.
Now the police horses rode through, knocking a woman over and injuring her leg. As some rushed to tend her, others began hurling missiles at the Poll Tax office.
The police horses were marooned down the road at the top of East Hill. A man with a megaphone shouted: “Everybody sit down! They won’t ride the horses back through us.”
I wasn’t convinced and, freed from the scrummage began to push my way back towards the castle. Now, some football supporters, recently arrived at the nearby bus station, joined in. One of them said: “Great – a riot.”
Now, what you have to understand about being in a riot, is that whether you are there by default or device, either as observer or participant, it’s extremely difficult to be master of your own direction.
I soon found myself on a small traffic island opposite the castle, being shoved to and fro among the crowd. Then, a very odd thing happened. A man grabbed me roughly by my shirt, breathed liquor into my face and shouted in an Irish accent: “Would ye happen to have a fag, on ye?”
I replied that I did and reached for a cigarette. In the continuing struggle, I found myself back-to-back with a senior uniformed police officer, who turned to me and asked: “Is this man bothering you?” I replied: “No, Chief. I think he’s got accidentally caught up in this and just wants a cigarette.”
I couldn’t believe it. In the middle of a riot, a police chief, was assisting a member of the public whom he saw as being hassled by a mendicant. It was positively Pythonesque. Good old-fashioned policing, though.
Around the castle gate, the melee continued. Then, a punk who’d got hold of a fallen police helmet, climbed the nearby statue and began miming the act of using the hat as a chamber pot. It was classic medieval buffoonery.
Suddenly, the crowd weren’t rioting anymore, they were laughing. The steam had gone temporarily out of the situation. Irritated, the police chief ordered his men to get the man down. I said to him: “I should go easy on him, once he comes down. He’s just turned your riot into a cabaret.”
The police chief looked at me and said politely, but tersely: “I’ll thank you not to tell me how to do my job. ” I shrugged. It was fair enough.
What I have learned about riots, is that most people – I include myself – don’t think that they’re a terrific idea. A few do, however, and it’s often nothing to do with any grievance in hand.
You’d be surprised, though. On the train home, a well-dressed middle-aged woman shopper, asked me: “Did you see that brick go sailing through the window of the Conservative Club?”
I replied that I hadn’t. “It was a lovely shot,” she said. And she clapped her hands.