Diary - Mark Steel

The romantic spirit of Byron lives on, and is to be found in the form of an 80-year-old woman who is

I was invited to give a talk at the National Portrait Gallery, to run in conjunction with an exhibition, on Lord Byron. I said how it seemed incredible that a Romantic poet could have been a major celebrity in England, given that the only romantic poetry we see now is on birthday cards, with verses such as: "Here's to say I love you in my own sweet special way/On this very very very very special day". But I think most of the people in the audience were expecting a serious academic lecture, as they seemed bemused.

It got worse when I said that the nearest character we had to Byron in modern times was Joe Strummer. I could sense a feeling of "are we in the right building?", so I finished that section by saying: "Half of you haven't got a clue what I'm talking about, have you?" Afterwards, the organiser of the event told me that, as two old women were leaving, he heard one say to the other: "I have heard of Joe Strummer. I read his obituary in the Daily Telegraph."

Until the last couple of weeks, there was a distinction between two types of people: those who went, or at least used to go, on demonstrations, and normal civilians. Now that barrier no longer exists. It didn't surprise me when a neighbour said: "My friends from Rochester are coming up on the Friday night so we can go straight there in the morning." That, coming from my neighbour! Surely the only thing neighbours are supposed to say about demonstrations is: "Ooh well, let's hope there isn't any trouble."

Instead of the usual gathering, top-heavy with people made a little odd and damaged through years of being part of the left, this demonstration will look like the sort of crowd you'd get for a local fireworks display. Except that it will be several hundred times bigger. I'm just unsure about what these novice demonstrators will think if they're accosted by an eager member of an obscure group called something like Revolutionary Destruction, blustering: "Excuse me, what do you think of the petit bourgeois vacillations of the Socialist Alliance regarding their failure to call for an Iraqi invasion of England?"

Perhaps my neighbour will say: "We all had a lovely time. And we all joined Revolutionary Destruction. You see, it's no good equivocating on the need to smash the state, dear. Ooh, aren't your begonias looking lovely!"

Despite saying I'm no longer surprised by the almost universal opposition to this war, I am pleasantly astonished one morning. A few years ago, I interviewed Jimmy Hill on a radio sports show, and he proclaimed his proudest moment came in the 1950s, when he was elected to be the footballers' spokesman and led the campaign to break the maximum wage. He became quite strident as he referred to "those greedy chairmen who only cared about their profits", and I found him quite endearing. Ever since then, whenever I've heard someone moaning about "that wanker Jimmy Hill", I've felt an urge to stick up for him, but this is a pretty lonely stance to take. But now I see a photo in the Daily Mirror of a beaming Jimmy, signing a Stop the War petition, announcing that we must "kick the war away". No one can ever say for certain when a regime has completely lost its people, but I'd say that when Jimmy Hill is protesting against you from the left, you're in deep trouble.

A fellow Crystal Palace fan I know who works at the BBC's Television Centre in White City, west London, got a technician to fix the TV in his office so we could watch the Liverpool v Crystal Palace match live. Both of us expected Palace to get stuffed, but we sat in ecstatic disbelief as Owen and his fellow squillionaires were knocked out of the FA Cup. As if to perfect this perfect night, we walked into the lift wearing our Palace scarves and there was Alan Hansen. The miserable sod couldn't even manage a "well done". "We should have been nine-nil up by half-time," he moaned, then launched into some technical stuff about moving someone back and left and into space or something. "I'm sure you're right," said my friend, "but you lost." And we sniggered like schoolboys.

The match in the next round, against Leeds, was due to be played on Saturday the 15th, but it's been moved to the Sunday. They say it's because it will be live on television, but I suspect the real reason is the Palace team are all going on the anti-war demonstration.

Every single day brings remarkable stories. The landlord of a pub in Tulse Hill, south London, put on an anti-war social, to which 200 people came, most of whom pledged to be there on the 15th. A friend tells me her Conservative-voting, staunchly Catholic mother has agreed to come on the coach from her village. It's been sponsored by the church, and last Sunday the priest delivered a sermon in which he urged everyone to attend with the words: "If you're not infirm, you've no excuse."

A woman from Hampshire rang the Stop the War office to say she was very sorry, but she was 80 years old and didn't think she could manage the demonstration. Then she added: "So instead, I'm going to lie down in the middle of the M3 and make my protest there." Next time I do a lecture on Byron, I shall insist that his spirit lives on, in the form of an 80-year-old woman lying prostrate on a motorway.

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