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Marching for Change by Anastasia Somerville-Wong

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“The Secular Liturgies Network is not affiliated with any political party or movement. However, we are deeply committed to secular values of freedom, equality and democracy, and as individuals, we take our political responsibility to defend these values seriously. We seek to further the cause of global economic and environmental justice, with the understanding that international cooperation is urgently required to achieve those ends. In my humble opinion, the United Kingdom can best contribute to these goals if it remains in (or eventually re-joins) the European Union as an active and influential member. However, it wasn’t for this reason alone that I participated in the March for Change in London on the 20th of June. It was also an opportunity to stand in opposition to those who seek to erode our hard-won rights and freedoms, and against all who are determined to exploit the British people for their own financial and political gain. I joined thousands of others in sending a message, loud and clear, that the upwards of 48% (and rising) will not be ignored.”

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Marching for Change

I woke up at 4am having dreamt up a political slogan but after cobbling together a sign out of flipchart paper and permanent marker, I was too embarrassed to reveal it. Let that be a lesson to you. Never recreate something you dreamt about, before your critical faculties are fully engaged, and without the proper equipment. The message was far too earnest, not to mention vague, and exactly the sort of thing an academic might be expected to come up with, which made it impossible to carry out of principle. It was what I ought to have said, rather than what I really bloody well thought about the whole sorry state of the nation. I folded it away in my bag, just in case I had a change of heart. I never did.

As I skipped down the road towards the rendezvous point, I felt wonderfully subversive and rather like a child again. Perhaps activism would suit me after-all. Watching it was certainly an exciting prospect. It had been a while since I’d witnessed such an event in person. Indeed, I had avoided demonstrations for a few years, in order to preserve the innocence of my children while they were little. Surely, they didn’t need to be exposed to the cruelties and tragedies of the world before they’d even enjoyed it enough to establish some secure moorings. Also, I had never been an exhibitionist, apart from on one occasion in my youth when an overzealous host made the mistake of refilling my glass a few times too many while I was engaged in deepest conversation, the result of which was that I mooned at the assembled company for reasons I have never been able to ascertain. Since then, I had made myself present, and heard, on many a controversial occasion but shouting and fist waving is hardly the pursuit of a gentlewoman such as myself, even a financially distressed gentlewoman with much cause for complaint.

Only if I were sufficiently disguised by some form of elaborate costume would I consider making a vulgar display of emotion in public. It has been said, that Pentecostals and even Charismatics gave up on me during my years of religious devotion, even though I had rather a bad case. As far as I am concerned, two people in complete agreement is a cause for suspicion, more than two is downright sinister, especially if, god forbid, they become excited by the fact.

By the time I was seated on the bus, however, the enthusiasm had worn off and my mood was rapidly sinking. This may have been more to do with the disturbance of my circadian rhythm and an adrenaline crash than anything else, but at the time, it was the state of world affairs that was squarely at fault. We all knew it was hopeless, that the government just wasn’t listening, and that the narcissistic types to whom the country had been sacrificed were probably enjoying the attention. Conversation was fairly vigorous on the bus nonetheless, and it was pleasing to hear a variety of opinions, with little sign of the sinister conformism that so repelled me. The rise of racist and homophobic hate crime, the resurfacing of anti-Semitism and populist ideology on both the left and right, the spread of fake news and fake history, the problem of prejudice in general and how to overcome it – all were discussed with the vigour of those who still anticipated victory, albeit with a delay of a decade or so, or even a generation. There was a general feeling that we humans were in a worse pickle than ever before but that we weren’t quite a lost cause.

Someone asked if we could stop at the services with a Waitrose, a request which was received with sympathetic noises from around the bus. I smiled to myself, reminded of those who claimed these marches were ‘Waitrose on the move’ – the customers that is and not the staff! Were we really going to represent a middle-class elite? It was a ghastly thought, especially since there was much in middle-class British culture – or the lack of it – which I despised. Meanwhile, my mother piped up with an “oh no, we should stop at the one with the M&S. It has much better coffee.” There was a heavy silence indicating a level of disagreement on the subject. Understanding the possible direction this conversation could take, I hid myself from view as a precaution, taking refuge in the view beyond the glass. After all, my mother is a woman who has been known to complain about how common our royal family are, an opinion with which I have a degree of sympathy but would want to keep to myself nonetheless. There was clear consensus, however, on the revolting nature of service stations in general, with much pining for the famous Gloucester Services, with its organically formed, grassland covered eco building, and not forgetting its farm shop and edible garden!

There was a bit of a stunned silence when I mentioned how my sister had received rather a lot of anti-Semitic abuse over the years, due to her olive complexion and dark eyes, in spite of the fact she isn’t in fact Jewish. There are family rumours that our great, great grandmother was a Spanish Jew but I suspect family rumours don’t count. I’m not sure this revelation of the greater-than-some-imagined depths of our fellow citizens’ hatreds improved morale on the bus, nor my theory that the reason populism always returned was because, deep within humanity, there is a lust for trouble and even war; that in truth, many people liked rich ruffians and ruthless profiteers because they admired them and wanted to be exactly like them. No-one really wanted peace until they had tasted the pain of war for themselves. Peace was boring. Being an arsehole was much more fun. “Good for them”, I’d hear people say, when I told them about the greedy and unscrupulous behaviour of those in the ERG – the ‘bad boys (and girls) of Brexit’.

Indeed, while I was still reeling, not to mention fuming from the ears, at Boris Johnson’s assertion that the quarter of a million pounds he gets a year for his piddling articles in the Telegraph was mere chicken feed, these morons actually revelled in it. They were too simple to see, that just like the ‘American dream’, extreme wealth only comes true for a miniscule number of people who are born into privilege and have good bit of luck on their side. There are very few cases where someone very rich has worked their way up from nothing, fewer still who have anything that could be described as noble character, and the handful of people who do work their way up have to at least be intelligent enough to capitalise on the opportunities they get. Therefore, while the vast majority of the stinking rich have got there by exploiting other humans and the planet, by being scumbags in other words, those who admire them will never share in their spoils. Far from it. They will remain poor and stupid their whole lives, however nasty and selfish they are.

I’ve heard it said that many working-class people in Britain voted Tory and Brexit because they would rather be ruled by people who are overtly increasing inequality and serving themselves, than by those whose policies would help close the wealth gap, some of whom happen to be a little hypocritical at times (far lefties from privileged backgrounds come to mind here). That’s like choosing to be operated on by a willing local butcher, who readily admits he’s not all that au fait with human anatomy among other things, just because you caught the qualified surgeon smoking and over-eating on his day off. We all have our vices and contradictions but there are degrees, and besides, how can you celebrate immorality when it comes to one group of people, while roundly condemning it in another? It was the kind of argument that made one want to pack up immediately and live as a hermit as far from so-called civilisation as possible.

When we arrived in London, we had coffee and slices of pizza at a café in Hyde Park. We had alighted there in order to use the facilities and had queued accordingly, but listening to the sounds of someone violently retching within one of only two adjacent cubicles in a cramped subterranean space, was enough to make someone, however desperate, tighten the sphincter one last time and find alternative arrangements. I had been feeling rather jolly again at the sight of dear old London but the sound of vomiting echoed in my subconscious, renewing my world depression.

We stood baking steadily in full sun for what seemed like an age, as an unbroken stream of urbane and cheery protesters spilled out of the underpass in Park Lane carrying signage that couldn’t help by raise a smile, even in sullen and despondent cases like my own. Someone with a mic regaled us with the news that we would be joined by a Boris Blimp and a six-foot high model of Nigel Farage carrying puppets of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. This increased our sense of anticipation but the latter construction turned out to be a disappointment. I didn’t even recognise the giant Farage head when I first saw it lying on the pavement awaiting the erection of its body, because it was, if anything, better looking than the man himself. In an effort to create a caricature, someone had actually managed to create something flattering, which says a lot about the particular difficulty of the task. It meant that for a full ten minutes or so, I was wondering whose head this was supposed to be and why on earth I did not recognise it.

Then we marched. My abiding memory of this part of proceedings, was not the coarse and incessant chant of ‘bollocks to Brexit’ (hardly the cleverest of slogans!) but the point at which the march temporarily ground to a halt, and a nearby Scottish woman managed, rather impressively, to channel the full outrage of those north of the border into an impromptu and impassioned speech. The angry of Scotland would have been proud. Disregarded by the vilest human produce of England, and about to be stripped of their European citizenship, they had every right to be incandescent. Several English marchers were chiming in, saying they were tempted to move to Scotland in order to get away, and in some cases, promising to join the movement for Scottish independence once they got there. Having lived in Scotland for thirteen years, I was quite sure an English exodus across the border, even a liberal and socialist one, wasn’t quite what the woman and those she represented had in mind as a remedy for their current predicament! There was much sympathy for Scotland and Northern Ireland among the demonstrators, on account of their remain majorities, and much rage was vented on the subject of bitch-faced Priti Patel’s appalling suggestion that Ireland should be threatened with food shortages in order to force them to drop the backstop. No doubt she and her cronies would love to see Ireland starved into submission, just like in the old days!

Meanwhile, I was rather consumed by an altogether different kind of nostalgia. I had grown up in Ealing, in West London, but had lived elsewhere since late in the year 2000, visiting the capital rather less frequently in recent years. I had almost forgotten the glorious splendour of the place. It occurred to me, that if it wasn’t for the ill effects of the city’s pollution on my health, I would live there now. After all, it is hands down, the most inspiring city in Britain, both in terms of its buildings and its people. It is a place so diverse that barriers and prejudices are broken down just in the course of a day’s encounters, and consequently, counter to popular opinion in the provinces, it is one of the friendliest places on earth, especially when compared with other cities of comparable size. There are places where people think of themselves as friendlier but these are generally the kind of places where the bestowal of such affection is highly selective, and where incomers are shunned. The nine million strong population of London, while they may not like to look at each other on tube trains, are exceptionally agreeable in public houses and bars, and when you really need assistance. One gallant fellow walked me for twenty minutes across London on an occasion when I found myself horribly lost in unfamiliar parts! Having said all this, there is undeniably a downside to the sheer quantity of humans contained within London’s boundaries. I was reminded of this every time I found myself in a queue, since they were invariably a mile long.

At times I felt like a tourist, struggling to remember where or what anything was, and wishing I’d brought an A to Z. Having lived in Scotland for thirteen years and the South West for six, my identity as a Londoner had somewhat faded, and while I was keen to restore it, I was also acutely aware that I am a product, not just of a London upbringing but of all these islands, having a rather illustrious Scottish heritage as well as an Anglo-Saxon one. And, in the run up to Brexit, I had managed to get Irish citizenship for myself and my younger son, courtesy of an Irish grandmother. My loyalties are thus divided, and it occurred to me recently that I am in the unenviable position of being hated, potentially at least, by almost everyone in these islands for one absurd reason or another! I had always felt international to the core since I were a child. If that made me an elitist ‘croissant waving citizen of nowhere’ then so be it. I shall wave my croissant with pride!

My mother, now getting on a bit and feeling worn out (this being her seventh anti-Brexit demonstration), had decided to short-cut the remainder of the march with the intention of joining the fray again in Parliament Square. The short cut was, of course, via a favoured watering hole. My world depression eased a little as we cut across Green Park. We were consoled by the presence of the magnificent London plane trees. However, my mood lifted entirely when one of those rough macho types with nothing between the ears (complete with bimbo on the side with nothing between hers), called me a traitor as he passed by us in The Mall. It opened up the thrilling possibility that, if there was enough testosterone in the opposing camp, today might be the day that I finally get a proper excuse to punch one of these idiots in the face. I’d had a thirst for this kind of violence since seeing Suranne Jones’s Anne Lister punch her attacker in the BBC adaptation of Gentleman Jack. Since then, I’d had the chance to practice on a firm pillow held up at either end by my two little sons who’d squeal with laughter every time I landed a blow, sending the pillow flying and the two of them folding onto their bottoms on the bed. I discovered I had a hidden talent, an impressive right hook.

My mother had advised me to conceal my flag and any other signage while separated from the main body of protesters but something primitive had moved within, and the receipt of verbal abuse compelled me to unravel my flag and display it as provocatively as possible, while simultaneously wishing I could war-paint my entire face with the British and EU flags side by side.

We ended up in a café in St James’s Park, soaking up the soft southern sunshine and the scent of wild flowers. In the end, it was nearly three o’clock by the time we got to parliament square, and I was feeling somewhat guilty for what might be seen, quite unfairly of course, to be a shameless display of champagne activism. Once we got there, we listened to a couple of good speeches but we’d heard it all so many times before. Our minds wandered. Then there were the desperate sounding presenters and march organisers jumping around the stage trying to whip up the crowd with such cringeworthy nonsense that, for a moment, I wondered whether the event had been hijacked by lunatics or counter-protesters in disguise. We were relieved to find that, evidently, the intelligentsia in general don’t do mass hysteria but it was too much for us to bear nonetheless, and we were forced to retreat into a nearby pub.

We hot footed it down Tothill Street and fell on our feet in the Pie and Ale House. A single table became vacant just as crossed the threshold, a rare find on a summer’s evening, with numbers considerably swollen. We found ourselves pressed up against a couple of marvellous signs saying “remain, reform, rebel”, owned by two mature, Northern-of-origin ladies who, like us, had come from dwellings in the South West. Everywhere was crawling with protesters, and with London being sympathetic territory on the whole when it comes to things ‘remain’, most were still decked out in their badges, stickers, capes, berets, face paint and so forth. It didn’t look as though I’d be throwing any punches after all, and by that time, I was past indulging in such shenanigans. Nor had my fears been confirmed about our elitism, quite the contrary. The two ladies were slightly mischievous looking, which for me, was always a promising sign. They joined us, and a spirited discussion ensued about the finances and hypocrisy of various members of the ERG and Tory right-wing who sought to run the country. If I were a more superstitious sort of person, I might have suggested that Jacob Rees-Mogg, faux aristocrat and prize poseur, was in fact a reincarnation of ‘the serpent’ himself but unlike Jacob Rees-Mogg, I know where mythology ends and reality begins.

One of the ladies expressed concern that I might be upset about having been called a traitor. It was, after all, outrageous. There I was trying to do right by the land and society that nurtured me, while men such as my accuser were bent on undermining every good thing we and our predecessors had struggled for. There was indeed an enemy within – a body of people like that man who were cowardly and incapable of looking one in the eye – quite the opposite of anyone I’d met on the march. My feelings were unscathed, however, and I related the fact that in a moment of outrageous courage or folly, I had even relished the possibility of a fracas. One could not help but be angry with the privileged men and women who, out of pure greed and egotism, sought to dismantle everything that was really great about Britain, and with those who out of petty hatreds and profound ignorance, unthinkingly and slavishly followed them.

That evening my world depression lifted once more, not because anything had changed or improved in any way, but simply because in spite of everything, being among my fellow protesters had reminded me of a line in Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata, which runs as follows “…the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.” This 1948 poem is a favourite of my rather philosophical six-year-old son, and this being so, I went to sleep that night hopeful that we will see much more of heroism and high ideals in the coming months and years – more people like Gretta Thunberg and ‘the Squad’ among others, who are prepared to stand up for fairness, reason, cooperation and peace – and that by the time my children are launched into the big wide world, they will have the courage to do likewise.

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