I’ve marched twice in the last couple of weeks – once in protest, once in training. The protest was against You Know Who, He Who Shall Not Be Named, and his visit to the UK. I’d had a conversation with my 20-year-olds the night before about the planned demonstrations. They were pretty sceptical. “You’re quite a marchy generation aren’t you?” one of them said, sympathetically.
It is sort of true, although in all honesty, I haven’t marched that many times. But I admitted their counter-arguments made sense to me; I know marching doesn’t change anyone’s mind, but it’s about sending a message, to each other as much as anything.
I mumbled stock phrases at them: morale boosting, solidarity, standing up and being counted, though probably what I should have emphasised more is that protests can be fun. We ended up agreeing to differ. “We don’t need marches, we’ve got the internet,” said the other, which only left me thinking, “Mmm, yeah, how’s that working out for you so far?”
I decided to join the Women’s March, which set off at midday from Portland Place, instead of the later protest, organised by a slightly different collection of figures and groups from the left. It probably doesn’t need to be pointed out that the very fact of having two marches is all very People’s Front of Judea vs Judean People’s Front, but that’s par for the course.
As on the last Women’s March, the home-made signs make the day: so funny, so angry. I try to gauge my own mood as we stomp down Regent Street, and I realise that generally at the moment, I’m not so much angry as scared. I find myself battling against the feeling that the times are out of control, with bad things happening and worse coming, and that too many of the people in charge have no one’s interests at heart but their own.
On the march itself, though, all that is temporarily silenced by the euphoria of being in this drum-beating, whistling crowd of those-who-refuse-to-go-quietly. I think: maybe they’re all braver than me. They look it, anyway. Although perhaps they think the same in return. My “choose love” T-shirt makes me look defiant, but I feel quite fragile underneath it. Maybe that’s the point.
Our march finishes in Parliament Square, and after hanging around for a while, trying to meet up with a friend I’ve lost on the way (“I’m under the statue of Palmerston,” she texts, which leads to me traipsing around the square peering at plinths, trying to distinguish Disraeli from Peel), a few of us walk back to Trafalgar Square, just in time to see the second group of marchers arrive. It is a huge and heart-warming crowd, a flood that rushes in to fill every nook and cranny of the square.
Some speeches begin from the podium, and I start to feel a bit lectured, even by people I broadly agree with. I think marches are probably better when they finish with music. The first one I ever went on, organised by Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League in 1978, was famous for ending with a concert in Victoria Park featuring the Clash and X-Ray Spex. Would I have gone without the music? Possibly not.
Two days after this latest protest, I was marching round Hyde Park, in training for a charity walk I’m doing in September to raise money for Help Refugees. The temperature was due to reach 30 degrees again, so we set off at 8.30am, and yet still managed to become overheated and dehydrated. By now, I’d got a blister (“Honestly, the things I do for democracy,” I joked facetiously) and so when, later still, I went out into the baking evening to see Róisín Murphy play live outside Somerset House, I had plasters on.
My feet were hurting all over. As I danced in flat, thin-soled sandals, the cobbles underfoot felt hard and unforgiving. My legs were heavy, and it was too hot. But still, the music was infectious, and I had a plastic glass of wine in my hand, and I kind of wished this had been how the marches had finished. “Sing it back, sing it back to me,” sang Róisín from the stage, and we did, all of us in unison, with our arms in the air, a crowd united, this time by pleasure.
This article appears in the 22 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special