22 APRIL 1960, Page 13

Aldermaston, 1960

II y ALAN BRIEN THE first time I took part in an anti-bomb march I was reporting it for the Evening Standard. About thirty of us, in crumpled rain- coats with nervous drawn faces, gathered under an arch of Waterloo Station. As we trailed across the bridge and into the Strand, scraped by the buses and edged into the gutter by the taxis, we seemed even to ourselves a forlorn, unimpressive gaggle of cranks. I remember the American outside the Savoy who gleefully snapped us as he chortled 'You mean they're genuine Communists?' to his English guide. My instinct was to cover my face to keep out of the Senate files. That was a Sunday in 1956 and my story ended up as an item in 'In London Last Night.'

The second occasion was in 1958 when I was reporting the beginning of the Trafalgar Square to Aldermaston march on Good Friday for the Daily Mail. This time a few thousand of us wound away towards the Albert Memorial. The column then had a life of its own like an escalator. You felt you could lift your feet and be carried along by the collective drive. The spirit of the Thing was still un-British somehow, defiantly and self-consciously breaking the rules of conventional behaviour. Here we were draw- ing attention to ourselves, showing off in pub- lic, giving the neighbours a label to tag us with. Still, it was warm inside the great human cater- Pillar and when I fell out for a packet of cigar- ettes I felt as if I were leaving a train in the heart of Siberia. As we rolled on through Hammer- smith and on to Hounslow we were still acting. We put on a show of exaggerated good spirits and enthusiasm. We sang and chanted and cheered and go;siped and handed round choco- late and made introductions as if we had been hired to play a crowd scene on the deck of the Titanic. And we felt the eyes of the public on us all the time—those characteristic hostile, irri- tated, disturbed eyes which are affronted by the sight of someone doing something they had never thought of doing. This is the way the Briton looks at a man in tails in the afternoon, a dog being sick, an African in a fez and a burnous, an injured child on a stretcher. We were indecently exposing ourselves. My report was spread large over the leader page with a cartoon, and the next day Henry Fairlie was brought in to preach a lay sermon on my indiscretion. This year I marched simply as a representa- tive of me. We were all more organised than we used to be—massed under districts and organisations with code signs and colour identi- fications. The order of progress was reshuffled every now and again to get the best display of banners or to make sure that the MPs were more easily photographed. The bands no longer seemed to be just marchers who could not bear to leave their trombones at home. They were introduced at the most effective moments of entry and exit of towns and carried backwards and forwards in vans. Even the police no longer behaved as if we were a tedious minor emergency like a lorry-load of milk overturned at a cross- roads. The March had become an official, tradi- tional, old Easter custom which demanded all the elaborate ritual of Chief Constables, black- helnieted outriders, and traffic diversions of a Royal Wedding.

* The Aldermaston March of 1960 was an event that attracted an audience in advance. Old ladies on sticks, babes in arms, invalids in wheel- chairs, middle-class families with a Jaguar and a picnic basket appeared along the route to await us. Sometimes it was almost as if a myth had sprung up that the very sight of us would cure the King's Evil or ensure a safe confine- ment. We were released from the obligation of pretending to be enjoying ourselves. We also no longer had to intersperse the happy comrade- manship with a ritual expression of thoughtful- ness. We were more public than the public. We outnumbered them even when they were lined up five deep. I saw many a lonely face, marooned at an upper window during a family holiday, which yearned to be part of this slowly surging mass. 'Next year perhaps I'll join in and be part of something once again,' these faces seemed to be saying. By the time we reached Trafalgar Square there were more than forty thousand of us—weirdies and beardies, colonels and conchies, Communists and Liberals, vegetarians and alco- holics, beauties and beasts----we couldn't all be cranks.

What the outsider—even the temporary insider who was there for his paper, or his political career--finds it hard to believe is that the Alder- maston March is not a penance. It is more of a strenuous sport like beagling, full of minor strains and boredoms but also full of fun and excitement. It is wonderful, like beagling, when you leave off at night and collapse in a bar lounge with a large whisky. It is also a tremen- dous stimulation of ideas and arguments and witticisms and friendships and love affairs. Per- haps it would be more tactful to keep this revela- tion a secret--hut the Aldermaston March is the rare phenomenon of a physical and social pleasure which yet has an intellectual and moral justification. All the marchers would hardly agree on the precise aim and effect that they wish to produce. But inside each of them there is the strong conviction that the world stands in danger and that it is the duty of the citizen in a demo- cracy to serve notice on his rulers that he is aware of the danger. This is a simple, perhaps even simple-minded, belief, but it is one that has often been forgotten in an age where prosperity and annihilation live cheek by jowl.