A tale of the homeless and ‘disarmingly cheery revolutionaries’

Last week I re-read an old magazine feature about the Non-Stop Picket.  The article was originally published in the Mail on Sunday‘s You magazine in late 1988, just as the Picket was about to celebrate its 1000th day and night outside the South African Embassy in London.  In April 1989, a syndicated version of the article was reprinted in the Johannesburg Sunday Star.  This is one of the few occasions that we know of where the Non-Stop Picket received press coverage in a mainstream South African newspaper.

The Non-Stop Picket and South Africa House, from the Mail on Sunday, 1988 (Photographer: John Cole)

The Non-Stop Picket and South Africa House, 1988 (Photographer: John Cole)

At the time, I am sure that many supporters of the picket read the article, penned by Kim Fletcher, as a hatchet job.  It does not start well:

For two and a half years, day and night, the picket outside South Africa House has campaigned for Nelson Mandela. While some of this highly-organised band are there from the most altruistic of motives others, like homeless alcoholic Spider, have less than a full grasp of the issue at stake.

While the article’s tone is not wholly sympathetic to the Non-Stop Picket, it does offer a fairly rich description of the range of people who participated in the Picket and the range of motivations (and chance encounters) that drew them to anti-apartheid protest. Nevertheless, with so much of the first quarter of the piece devoted to Spider’s story, it feels as if the article is front-loaded to appeal to the conservative prejudices of the Mail on Sunday’s readers in Thatcher’s Britain.  The second and third paragraphs continue in this vein:

Often there are singers, sometimes a jazz band and once or twice even a Labour MP.  But on this Sunday afternoon the campaign to free Nelson Mandela is in the unwashed hands of Spider.  Spider sits on an upturned plastic box, cradles a battery-operated megaphone and rants in a rasping Scottish accent.

His address is difficult to decipher, but includes a rhyming couplet that sounds like “British police and CIA, how many men did you kill today?” Passing tourists peer from a safe distance at the crudely-inked cobwebs that decorate the sides of his throat; two bored constables watch with disdain and the Portland stones elephants and lions peer down impassively.  No curtain twitches on the mighty facade of the South African embassy to indicate whether any ‘racist murders’ are home to hear his words.

A paragraph on (in which some background to the length and purpose of the Picket is provided) and we’re back to Spider’s tale.

Spider – his real name William Wilson – a homeless, 24-year-old, self-confessed alcoholic, became one of its stalwarts last year when the police briefly moved the protest away from the embassy to the steps of neighbouring St. Martin’s Church, a centre for dossers.  Since then there is no questioning Spider’s enthusiasm, though some doubt about his understanding of the issue.

“Hang on,” he days, breaking off his explanation of how he and his jobless, homeless friends have kept the demonstration going. “I’ll see if these two Chinks will sign the petition”.

While the casual racism of Spider’s remark grates and feels out-of-place, for those of us who remember encountering him on the Picket, it is unlikely to have been invented by the journalist for effect.  Most members of the Picket were conscious anti-racists, and challenged racist language when they heard it used by other picketers; but that is not to say that some participants did not have more contradictory understandings of race and racism.

Having focused on the experiences of Spider and ‘his jobless, homeless friends’, the article moves on to address the political tensions between the Non-Stop Picket and the national Anti-Apartheid Movement.  Readers are told that the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group which organised the Picket was expelled from the national movement because of “concerns about the real aims of the revolutionary communist group that controlled it”.  If that wasn’t enough to alarm the readers of the Mail on Sunday, they are then informed that,

The party’s newspaper, Fight Racism Fight Imperialism, on sale on the embassy picket line, supports not only Nelson Mandela but also the Provisional IRA.

The article briefly quotes Lorna Reid, “a disarmingly cheery revolutionary” about City Group’s perspective on the politics behind its expulsion from the AAM, before continuing with the following warning (tailored once more to the prejudices of the Mail on Sunday readership):

It would not be the first time that left-wing groups have exploited both causes and people for their own ends. Here there is plenty of promising material. David, 20, an engaging, if rather feckless-looking boy, has been coming here for seven months. His grandmother threw him out of her home, he lost his job, started sleeping rough and discovered the picket. So did Declan, a 19-year-old Irishman festooned with anti-apartheid badges.

Only at this stage, half way through the article, does attention turn to picketers with whom the paper’s readership might have some more sympathy – those who it describes as defying “the Rent-a-Mob or Dave Spart categorisation”.  Amongst others, the readers are introduced to Sandy, a Quaker and qualified doctor in his late 30s who was retraining as an artist; and Alex, a jazz pianist and singer.  But several column inches are reserved for interviews with “Sharon and Georgina, two middle-class 19-year-olds who are best friends from Orpington”.

“We came by accident when it started,” says Georgina, a small, cheerful blonde, “We knew about the American embassy picket because of the Libyan bombing but we couldn’t find it and then we came by this one.”

Sharon looks briefly dismayed at the honesty of the explanation: “We just continued coming, learning more, getting angrier, doing what we could.  Our parents support the picket but they just don’t like the idea of our being involved in it.”

“My dad doesn’t actually support the picket,” says Georgina and she suddenly defies the mannerisms that bracket her as a bimbette stooge of the left by delivering a cogent account of factionalised in-fighting. “The picket is important,” she says.  “If it only makes people stop and think for two minutes about South Africa and apartheid, it has achieved something.”

The article also offers some indication of the international mix of young people attracted to the picket, offering quotes from Andrea, a German au pair; Hermina, from Yugoslavia; and, Theo, from the Netherlands.

In a single paragraph, it offers a rich insight into the everyday lived experience of being on the Non-Stop Picket.

Suddenly Sharon dashes in [to the cafe] to say a Transit of diplomatic protection police has arrived and she is nervous of being on the picket with just Georgina. Back on the picket, there is no panic, the police stare out of their van.  Spider slopes off to the off-licence for his first strong lager of the day and Sandy takes up his sketch book to draw his companions.

While it pains me a little to quote an article from the Mail on Sunday at such length, this piece does offer some interesting insights into how the Picket and its participants were seen, by those outside the Left, at the time.  The article tells a story shaped for its readership, but the dozen or so picketers that it quotes and describes are broadly representative of the range of people who sustained the Picket in its later years.  As I have said several times before, the South African Embassy’s location in Trafalgar Square made the Picket visible and accessible to a wide range of people in London at the time.  That the Picket offered a means for ‘self-confessed alcoholic’ homeless men to protest alongside Quaker doctors, middle-class young women looking for something more than the suburbs could offer them, and ‘disarmingly cheery’ revolutionaries is to its credit.  It positions the Picket firmly within the social and political geography of London in the Thatcher era.

Picketers and police, from Mail on Sunday, 1988 (Photographer: John Cole)
Picketers and police, from Mail on Sunday, 1988 (Photographer: John Cole)

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
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