Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
So after a hard day at the digital coal-face yesterday, number 15 of about 16 phone calls occurred. And it was my editor at the Eastanglian. He said. " I've got this new medieval history book, d'you fancy writing something about it?" And I said: " Oooh yeah. Yes please!" I added that I'd been reading a lot of history lately. It's quite true. I've been poring over this old book by Arthur Bryant which uses words that I occasionally have to look up...words like 'enfeoffed' and 'scutage'. It's all about the effect that the Norman invasion had upon Saxon England, about how the new regime despite its cruelty had eventually to assimilate certain basic legal tenets and concepts which had been put firmly in place earlier by King Alfred. I actually find all this stuff highly interesting.
So when the offer to look at a book about medieval Colchester comes up, I now reserve the sort of anticipation and interest for it that forty years ago, I might have done for say, a new album by the Kinks or the Small Faces. It's only stuff like this that demonstrates to me that time has passed and that I am indeed older than yesterday. A bit later, I was walking down to the pub for my customary let's-kick-the-day-in-the-head gargle and I thought, "Golly I'm really looking forward to reading this book." Is time really all it takes to turn yesterday's pop yobbo into today's dull old bookworm?
Meanwhile, in London the protesters and the police are knocking seven colours out of each other. One protester, who looked and dressed rather like I did about twenty years ago...long hair and outlaw bicyclist clothes explained to the camera: "Well it's the banks. They've stolen all our money, haven't they? " I studied him intently. He had an honest young face and demeanour but it occurred to me that he didn't look like the kind of guy who owned any sort of investment portfolio-- or even a house for that matter. I wondered how the banks had stolen his money and how much of it they'd stolen. That made me feel older and wiser too.
And then I remembered being in the middle of a poll-tax protest in Colchester twenty years ago. I found myself in somewhat of a melee. In the middle of it, a bloke grabbed me by my shirt, pushed his face at me and shouted in an Irish accent " Would ye happen to have a fag on ye?" I said. "Of course." and groped around in my drainies for a crushed fag-pack. As I was doing so, a senior uniformed police superintendent whom I'd been pushed back-to-back with, turned round and asked me: "Is this man bothering you?" I replied. " No. He just wants a fag." It was a very strange encounter.
A little while earlier, the police had stopped us all at the bottom of the High Street. It was right outside the Conservative Club, which is situated above a newsagents. A voice from the Conservative club barked. "I'll pay your poll tax for you!" and a suited arm came out of the window hurling down a shower of 2p coins. A salute of v-signs went up from the crowd. And then they noticed a skip full of masonry and old vegetables from the Saturday market. Logic interceded and the contents of the skip were launched upwards at the Conservative Club, breaking many of the windows, while the occupants scurried for cover. The police tried to marshall the crowd away but we charged down the High Street towards East Hill. Four big police horses brought from Southend rode through the crowd knocking a woman down and breaking her ankle. The police horsemen now found themselves at the top of East Hill, with the crowd stopped outside the old bus-station. " Sit down. Sit Down!" shouted a marxist with a megaphone. The police horses wouldn't be able to ride through a huge crowd of sitting people and were now cut off from the main body of their colleagues. Then some football hooligans joined the crowd, having just alighted from a bus. They saw the placards and the protesters and immediately began hurling things at the Poll Tax Registration Office windows, where people were trying to tend the injured woman. I saw some local CND people looking at their watches, realising that it was time to go to the pub. They sloped off down Queen Street away from the riot. The revolution ends at opening time, hey?
In London meanwhile, a much bigger and nastier riot was going on and Trafalgar Square was filled with broken bricks, scaffolding poles and vicious fighting while the protesters set a building on fire. A tearful Maggie Thatcher was marched down the corridor and out of office within about six months of this. The English people had been pushed too far. Shame that it had to be a pain in their own wallets which would finally galvanise them into action, I thought. Not a war. Not the creeping changes to the country's social tapestry, which she'd inculcated almost by stealth. Just money, that's all.
I don't think it's ever worth having a riot, though I can see how one might arise. And the leaders of the big countries are currently patting each other on the back and saying what a great day it's been. Well, I really hope it has, although I doubt it somehow. And I wonder where that police superintendent is now. The one, who in the middle of a riot asked me, a protesting citizen, whether the guy trying to bum a cigarette off me, was bothering me? Now that was a very impressive bit of multi-tasking. But I grow old. I grow old and I'm going back to my history books.
A rather English riot in 1990