Monday 4 May 2015

Protest and Survive

 In 1961, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) organised protests at five bases where nuclear weapons were to be deployed. I told my mother I was going to see The Guns of Navarone, but headed to the demonstration at RAF Ruislip in north-west London. I arrived to see thousands of people with placards and some with ladders to scale the perimeter fence. Though I had no ladder, I was held in a police van for four hours. Released without charge, my incarceration had lasted a lot longer than Navarone so I rang from Ruislip station to tell my parents not to worry. My mother answered and I heard her shouting at my father, ‘I blame you for this.’ Soon after Ruislip, a police inspector turned up at our house. He wanted to question me about a march I was helping to organise as secretary of South London Youth CND. ‘Are you the organiser?’ he asked. ‘I’m one of them.’ ‘What is your role?’ he added. I was being introduced to page one of the police training manual: Locate the leader. I said nothing, but my mother tapped him on the arm. ‘He’ll get over this,’ she said. But I didn't. I read Robert Jungk’s Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with its account of the shadows of the dead imprinted on the earth. It left me in shock. The book’s title is taken from Robert Oppenheimer’s words when witnessing the first atomic bomb explosion in July 1945. He quoted the Bhagavad Gita, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I started to self-educate myself and read everything: from Marx to Dostoyevsky, from Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. In 1965 I moved to Oxford and worked at Oxfam. I wanted to go to university, but didn’t have A levels. I took a correspondence course. Two years later, I was at Essex University. On the edge of Colchester, above the muddy River Colne, the half-built campus already seemed half-forgotten. We would change that. May came early for us. On 17 March 1968, 40,000 people marched to the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square to protest the Vietnam war. I helped a friend from the chemistry department make paint bombs, sealed inside plastic milk containers. These two Peter Kennard montages cover the forty years from 1961 to the Iraq war – more brilliantly in images than I can do in words. But my words can be found in my memoir, Left Field.

Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist is at the Imperial War Museum, London SE1, from 14 May 2015. And here's a short film about those early Aldermaston marches.

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