“It was a dark and stormy night” (against apartheid)

This weekend England is remembering the 30th anniversary of “The Great Storm” of 1987. On the night of 15 October, the South of England and France’s Atlantic coast were hit by one of the most powerful storms in living memory. The strength of the hurricane force winds were said at the time to be a 1 in 200 years event (but, then, those seem to be getting more common, these days!).

Station_closed_October_1987 (2)

David Wright [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

For many people, as with much of the media coverage currently surrounding the anniversary, the event is mostly remembered for (the television weather forecaster) Michael Fish’s infamous and inaccurate reassurance the evening beforehand that there was no hurricane on the way (watch it here). But, for anyone who was associated with the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy at the time, that night is remembered because the Picket remained continually throughout the storm. While the winds caused huge damage and disruption, not even a hurricane, they remember, could disrupt stop the Non-Stop Picket.

Here is the report that City Group published in the first issue of Non-Stop Against Apartheid after the hurricane. Mike Burgess’s report began with humorous and knowing nod to the much-mocked writing of the 19th century English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton (and, we hope, Snoopy). We reproduce the story in full here:


Business as usual!


It was a dark and stormy night… Penny and I were due on the picket at 4am. She drove us through a hail of tree timber to arrive at 4.20. “Hold your hands in front of you, Mike, in case the windscreen shatters!” In strong winds it is not uncommon for the odd country road to be closed due to fallen trees, but Northumberland Avenue? … Chelsea Embankment?

The picket was three strong: Patrick, Martin, and Steve Kitson who was holding the furled banner against his shoulder and looking to all the world like something blown inland from the Cromer lifeboat. They had seen scaffold planks and twenty foot hoardings blown down from the front of the National Gallery. The police of course were tucked up snugly in their white van with the headlights on and the engine running – winter hibernation. Penny let Martin have her car keys so that he could doss down in shelter for an hour or so.

So when Steve went, there were three of us. At 4.30 the lights went out. I mean all the lights. Ten minutes later the Embassy lights came on again. They have their own generator. We had brought two flasks of coffee, which was useful until the cups blew away. And we stood holding the soggy banner and trying to stay upright in the wind.

At ten to six Penny had to go to work. She’s a bus driver. But the buses didn’t run, the cafes and the banks didn’t open. Brixton tube station didn’t open but Theo walked to the picket to relieve me at 6.45am. Only on the Non-Stop Picket was it business as usual.

It’s a story of determination, told with humour. Published as it was, in the public-facing newsletter of a protest that had been running continuously for almost exactly 18 months at that point, the story was used to demonstrate the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s worthiness and commitment to the anti-apartheid cause. When the rest of London ground to a halt, their activists were so determined that they battled through the winds to ensure the protest remained ‘non-stop against apartheid’. Over the next 28 months, whenever numbers dwindled, energy flagged, or tempers flared, the story of that ‘dark and stormy night’ was often retold to remind picketers of their collective commitment.

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
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