In 1974, aged 23, I finished my teacher training course and had already decided that no way was I going to take a job in a secondary school. Two maths teaching practices with the recalcitrant kids of London had seen to that. That summer found me instead working for London Underground at the southern terminus of the Northern Line, cleaning tube trains.
This job was more enjoyable than it sounds. I would turn up around 11 pm and spend some hours dusting and mopping the allotted number of carriages; later I graduated to washing down the outsides of trains, rubber booted in a long protective gown, scraping with a spiky brush dipped in a bucket of acid.
By 2.30 am we had done enough and then we kipped on the trains before clocking off at dawn. With all day free, a complimentary bus & tube pass, and real money I was delighted. My workmates were also interesting: the dispossessed of the world washed up in Morden. I remember a Nigerian teacher - unable to work as such due to unrecognised qualifications – with whom I shared many erudite conversations in our small tea-room at night.
So it was as a proletarian that I participated in the infamous Red Lion Square demonstration of Saturday 15 June 1974. Here is how Wikipedia describes it:
"The British far-right organisation, the National Front booked Conway Hall in Red Lion Square for a meeting to take place on 15 June 1974. A counter-demonstration was called by the London Area Council of Liberation (formerly the Movement for Colonial Freedom). This counter-demonstration attracted support from groups not directly under the control of Liberation, including the International Marxist Group (IMG), the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist) and the International Socialists (later the Socialist Workers Party).Picture us as we marched into the square. The IMG was a large contingent, marching in order about eight abreast. IMG stewards including myself, walked outside the crocodile moving up and down the ranks giving directions. Outside of us the police also marched, but as we came towards Conway Hall the side roads and the hall itself were blocked by cordons of police reinforced with horses.
"The front of the Liberation march came westwards along Theobald's Road and entered Red Lion Square by Old North Street before turning right where a platform was set up for the meeting. A police cordon blocked the square to the left of Old North Street.
"The cordon was then charged by the larger contingent from the IMG who were closely followed by the smaller CPE(M-L) contingent . Several minutes of pushing and scuffling followed. There were several charges and countercharges. The police cordon was reinforced by members of the Special Patrol Group and by mounted police who eventually succeeded in forcing the demonstrators back.
"Photos show the use of truncheons by some police officers. At least one demonstrator reported being knocked to the ground and trampled by a police horse.
"A large number of demonstrators were arrested. Photos show that many who were arrested had their hair pulled or were otherwise treated with what appeared to be excessive force by police."
The IMG intended to stop the National Front from using Conway Hall and charged the police cordon. I was close to the action but was rapidly ejected from the mêlée and found myself fifty yards away, wondering what to do next. As I could see my comrades struggling with the police, some being arrested, I figured I needed to return to the fray and had soon locked arms with the front line, pushing and shoving with the police not twenty yards from the hall entrance itself.
In my opinion, the police did not abide by middle-class demo-etiquette. I was grabbed by the hair and ‘private parts’ and dragged to the ground, where I was immobilised by a couple of extremely large constables. The IMG surged back and I was dragged into a police van with other, equally disoriented demonstrators.
As we were driven off, the supervising policeman in the back revealed he was from Norfolk, drafted in as extra manpower. He seemed genuinely baffled to be dealing with us: “”What are people like you doing mixed up in all this?” – We were far from his staple diet of low-lifes.
I gave a stock answer, “Those who ignored fascism in the past were overrun by it,” which even at the time seem less than totally compelling as a narrative about the rather marginalised National Front. The real answer was that most Saturdays I was doing a demo, it was one of the main ways the IMG recruited, so I was there as part of the road to revolution. But that argument seemed too cynically utilitarian to use.
Things were busy at the police station where I was banged up in a narrow cell which looked like a toilet, white porcelain tiles and a single bench. I was bailed by one of the ‘red lawyers’ who always attend demos.
My trial came a few months later. I was charged with assault on the police, a stock indictment. Several officers stood up in court and gave bored recitals about how I had stood there, punching them until they had managed to restrain me and lead me away. My lawyer carefully cross-examined them to ensure their version of events was minutely described. I was looking at six months.
During the police evidence I remember shouting in exasperation that none of this was true – I was genuinely shocked at the idea that policemen might calmly stand up in a court of law and just lie – but was shushed by my lawyer for my naivety. Only later did I understand that everyone knew this was a tedious charade and they all just wanted to get through the script.
We had a secret. I am now embarrassed to talk about it, but at the time I had an intense attachment to what can only be described as thick, woollen, diamond-patterned, Rupert Bear trousers. These were exceptionally distinctive. I had steered a bee-line to where the action was, but so had half the press and their photographers. My defence team had their pictures, many of which featured a young man in Rupert Bear trousers being wrestled to the floor and then squashed by burly cops.
Press photographers hate to be subpoenaed in these circumstances for all the obvious reasons. Nevertheless we had the guy there and the photographs were duly shown to the magistrate. Let us say there was plainly discordance between the official version of events and what the photographic record actually showed: with great reluctance, the magistrate acquitted me.
I was very lucky; most of the arrested had no such compelling defence and went down.
While I was having my mini-drama of being arrested, a student in our contingent from my old university (Warwick), Kevin Gately, was actually killed. The IMG view was that he had been hit over the head by a police baton from the Special Patrol Group but this was never definitively proved.
My story merited a few column inches in the papers: “London tube worker acquitted of police assault”.
My parents were mortified.
IMG-related: Occupying the Embassy and A Mission to Prague.