Getting up on the morning of 15th February 2003 wasn’t easy. A large group of us had been to a ball the night before – a joint celebration, as one of the group had recently turned 21 – and there was no-one to encourage/shake me into rising as – strangely, after a late night that involved not a small amount of alcohol – nobody else fancied waking up at such a time to join me in walking for miles in a noisy crowd through the streets of London…
I turned up at Egham station and came across 2 or 3 of the people who I’d seen around the university campus, always with banners, petitions and a look that had the incredible ability to make me feel as if I were in some way a bad person. They welcomed me as one of them and we went on our way.
Upon our arrival at Waterloo, we joined some others and were each handed Stop the War Coalition flyers to hand out to unsuspecting passers-by in an extremely busy London station. I’d always had an image of myself as some kind of peace-chanting, festival-loving hippy and finally felt like I was actually involved in something that was much more than an image or wishy-washy posturings. We were taking action.
Despite the size of the march, it took my newly-made friends and I some time to find the agreed starting point, with quite a long walk down the South Bank before even joining the throng of hopeful marchers.
After just a couple of minutes of being a part of this noisy procession, any issues of lack of sleep or a slightly niggling headache had disappeared and I was caught up in the exciting atmosphere. What a noise: Whistles; drums; whole bands playing music to chant to; the chanting itself; home-made sound systems of speakers rigged up on wheels.
To me, the most nocticeable thing, however, was the assortment of people that were slowly meandering their way with the flow. In particular, the number of parents with children on their shoulders struck me as something to take a lot of hope from. This wasn’t just a group of young idealists but there was also a huge percentage of the crowd who were people with responsibilities, concerned about the future of our planet and concerned about what kind of world their children would inherit.
Once at the park, we missed hearing what most of the speakers actually said. We knew they were there and caught a few words but the sheer number of people – who it would have been pretty difficult to silence – and our distance from the stage made it a struggle for our ears. It didn’t seem to matter. There were names of high-profile people I recognised in the same place as us, saying what we were thinking.
I was brought up by a trade unionist mother who had mentioned Tony Benn on more than one occasion. Surely that would mean our protest would have to be listened to. I had voted Labour and had the belief – naively, I realised later – that a “left-wing” government would pay attention. This was how I thought democracy worked.
As the city had been so overtaken by protesters, getting home was not simple and it was on turning around to start making our way back to Waterloo that I became acutely aware of my aching legs and was reminded of how little I’d slept.
I don’t remember how long it took us to get home or which way we walked to get to the train that would take us back to leafy normality of Royal Holloway campus but sitting on the train home, it felt as though something had changed. Things looked different. I was exhausted but exhilerated and pretty proud of myself for being a part of something I was sure would make a difference.