1968

Helen Lowe in her late thirties or early forties.
Helen Lowe

When she died in 2011, lifelong campaigner for social justice Helen Lowe left behind some draft chapters of an unfinished novel. Though fictionalised, the writing drew upon her own experiences as a young political activist in nineteen-sixties and seventies London. Opening with the 1968 anti-Vietnam war demonstration in  Grosvenor Square, this excerpt sees her beginning  to locate the protest within a wider context of interconnecting social movements worldwide, and the emergence of debates around internationalism, authoritarianism, violence, class, gender, sexuality, personal life and the meaning of revolution. She began to write the novel in the 1990’s, and last revised the few remaining fragments of it in 2001. Her executors have agreed to publish this excerpt here in the hope that it may be of some value as a version of events, written a couple of decades later by a critical participant who remained committed to the ideals of that time.

Judy Greenway

More by and about Helen Lowe
The Spirit of Resistance: Helen Lowe, 1944-2011
Helen Lowe Obituary

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Creative Commons Licence

Key Words: 1968, 1960s, feminism, fiction, gender, revolution, socialism, women’s liberation



1968

 

March 1968

The demonstration started at two o’clock, moving slowly along the Embankment in lines of eight or nine, arms linked, chanting:

‘Hey, Hey, LBJ!
How many kids have you killed today?’

Over again, louder, passing down the lines of marchers. Broken with another:

‘Victory to …
… the Viet Cong’.

With thoughts that shouting like this was stupid, I was swept along with the crowd’s enthusiasm and joined in as it increased in volume when we passed tourists and shoppers. It sounded provocative, and I always approved of being provocative.

‘Some people’, I said to Jack, ‘seem to think that a protest march is a tourist attraction.’

The march carried on towards Marble Arch, at times widening into lines of a dozen or more. Black uniforms formed a closed line along the whole route, adding an expectation of confrontation to the proceedings. We were completely hemmed in, police on one side and barriers on the other.

‘You can’t leave the march even if you want to’, I muttered. A loudhailer behind drowned Jack’s reply:

‘Victory to …
… the Viet Cong.’

‘Ho, Ho …
… Ho Chi Minh!’

‘Victory to …
… the Viet Cong.’

Suddenly the line in front of us ran forward and a space appeared. Police in the cordon looked surprised; some tried to fill the gap and hold our line back. I’m not having this, I thought, pushing forward with the others, running to catch up with those ahead. A cheer went up as we were followed by more lines of protesters.

‘Ho, Ho …
… Ho Chi Minh!’

Any bastion of the establishment raised a shout, whether it was a smart hotel or a glimpse of Downing Street. The shouting was louder under a bridge or in a narrow street, to making the most of the acoustics.

I ducked as we passed well-equipped photo­graphers snapping each line of demonstrators – pulled my hood up and turned away, glad I’d worn that coat. I loved the line of duffle coats and woolly jumpers, the ill-disciplined scruffiness. I wondered what ma would have said, imagined myself retorting that it wasn’t much worth putting on your smart clothes for a scrum with the police in Grosvenor Square. She always maintained you had to ‘look your best’, no matter what the occasion … I don’t think she had this in mind.

Oxford Street crowds watching. Police lines two or even three deep now. The chanting louder, more insistent. We turned into Lumley Street, the narrow thoroughfare intensifying the sound.

‘Victory to …
… the Viet Cong!’

The march stopped but the chanting continued. Thick black-uniformed lines filled the road in front of the American embassy. Demonstrators were splitting up and trying different routes into the square. I managed to keep hold of Jack’s arm, dragging me into a side street. There was shouting ahead, but we couldn’t see what was happening. The crowd pushing forward, getting tighter, everyone jammed together unable to move. A police loudhailer was shouting at us to go back. Another push forward and I was face to face with the uniformed line round the garden in the middle of the square. With the next surge I hurled myself against the linked arms, breaking through and running into the garden.

I turned to find Jack but scores of people were surging through and he was pushed away. I realised with dismay that we couldn’t reach the front of the embassy. Our bit of the crowd was trapped between thick bushes and railings. Dense police lines packed together in front of the embassy building. We won’t get through that, I thought. We were being pushed backwards and I nearly fell over, but managed to reach a statue in the middle of the square. A line of police horses pushing towards me, the crowd squeezing back, slipping in the mud. Some people trying to push forward but fearful of being hurt or hurting the horses. Others trying to get out. In the chaos there was no way forward or back.

Lots of us were taken by surprise, the police horses being used for aggression, like a weapon. One came near, the rider shouting at me: ‘Get out of here’. Looked me straight in the eye, menacing. I shouted back: there’s nowhere to go, what did he think we should do?

‘You shouldn’t be here then, should you,’ swinging his truncheon at my arm. I managed to dodge, pulling myself round the other side of the statue. I thought he might follow but he was distracted by someone trying to catch the horse’s reins and thumped the man’s arm with his truncheon. A young woman was on the ground by the fence, leg bleeding and covered in mud. She would get trampled on in a minute – the crowd were being pushed back towards her. I took her arm and pulled her up, dragging her to the gate at the back of the square.

The whole situation was crazy – if I was going to be fighting the police, I didn’t want to be doing it in a muddy garden. All around were heaving bodies, some trying to get past the cordon blocking the way to the embassy, others trying to get past the horses blocking the way out. I jumped into a gap in the crowd and pushed my way through to the gate, pulling the young woman along behind. People in the side streets were still trying to push in to the square, not knowing what was going on ahead. I even heard one bloke say he hadn’t even seen the embassy yet, as though we were tourists looking at the architecture.

I decided to retreat to Oxford Street. Getting there seemed to take for ever, but eventually we extricated ourselves from the demonstrators and joined the ordinary shopping crowds. The young woman said her name was Bernie and she lived in Hammersmith. ‘It’s the first time I’ve been to anything like this. I just came with my boyfriend. I don’t suppose I’ll be able to find him again now. I don’t know what my mum will say when she sees me like this.’

Round Marble Arch station it was still chaotic, with protesters still arriving and unfurling banners and marchers coming along Oxford Street. The Saturday shopping crowds were watching, many with amusement, adding to the congestion. At the entrance to the station I felt someone pulling my arm and was relieved to see Jennifer.

‘Thank goodness I’ve found you.’ She looked quite tearful. ‘I got caught in the most awful crush. I couldn’t get out of it. The police were beating people with their truncheons and there was nowhere to go. There was nearly a terrible panic. Then Judy was dragged off by the police and I lost the others. What happened to Jack?’

‘I don’t know. He disappeared in the crowd. I’ve no idea where he is now and I’ve not seen the others at all since the march arrived at Grosvenor Square. This is Bernie. I was just taking her home for a cup of tea.’

‘Well, you’d better both come home with me. It’s much nearer, anyway, and you can get cleaned up.’

Bernie cheered up. ‘Oh thanks,’ she said. ‘That means I can sort myself out before my mum sees me.’

The tube ride to Islington was a subdued affair. We each sat with our own thoughts. Something important had happened but it was impossible to know if it was good or bad. We’d all set out to Grosvenor Square to stop the war in Vietnam, but somehow that had got lost in the exhilaration of challenging the status quo, challenging the state itself. Bernie, on her first ever demonstration, summed the day up nicely: ‘I never expected all that! I thought it would be like those Aldermaston marches we used to see on the telly, with vicars and famous people and what have you, and the police like Dixon of Dock Green.’

* * * *

‘Miriam! is that you? What happened? Are you all right?’ Jack was shouting into the telephone. I started to reassure him but he hardly waited for me to finish.

‘I thought I’d better come home and wait for you to ring. Judy got arrested; Robert went down to the police station to try to get her out. Andy went after him, worried that Jennifer might be there too. I thought you might be arrested, but then I thought it would be better to come back here in case you rang. There’s been hundreds of arrests and lots injured. The police were beating everyone.’

‘I know. One of them swung his truncheon at me and just missed my arm. Do you know who’s been hurt?’

‘I’m waiting to hear more details and I’ll go along and help if I can. It’s a shame it ended like this. I think the police cause a lot of unnecessary provocation.’

‘I know, but it’s exciting, isn’t it? There were far more people there than we expected. I think the police attacking us like that will bring in more people.’

‘I’d better go. Why don’t you stay at Jennifer’s tonight and I’ll see you tomorrow. I’ll get Robert to pick you up from there in the morning in time for the meeting.’

I picked up the mug of tea Jennifer had brought, telling her about Andy and the others.

‘Thank goodness Andy’s ok. But I think you’re crazy’, said Jennifer. ‘How can you think more people will join in if there’s violence? Anyway, who wants that sort of person?’

‘Well, I probably am that sort of person! Seriously, though, I thought you agreed – this is the revolution and all that. You know there won’t be a revolution without violence.’

‘But that’s different from going out provoking violence for its own sake. People keep going on about the revolution, but this is a protest against the war in Vietnam. I thought we needed the working class for the revolution, and there was precious little sign of them on the march.’

‘There were lots of working class people on the march!’

‘I don’t mean that. Of course there were. I am, for one. I mean, you know, trade union banners – all those beautifully made banners with thousands of supporters marching against the prices and incomes policy or rent increases. If I see them marching against the Vietnam war or the Immigration Bill, then I’ll know we’re really getting somewhere. Until then all this violence is just irresponsible.’

‘Can’t you see, we can’t let them think we’re just going to make a little protest and then go home. We’ve got to push them to the limits. If we polarise things, it’ll be easier to make the connections. The police holding us back are the same ones holding back the picket lines at the Barbican. Those strikers will see that when they watch the news tonight.’

‘Just because we’ve the same enemies doesn’t mean we’re all friends.’ I was surprised at the note of bitterness Jennifer added to this comment.

I partly agreed with her but pushed my doubts to the background. ‘Well, I feel so angry about Vietnam I’d do just about anything on one of these marches. It’s the only chance we’ve got to express our feelings about it.’

‘I know that. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t express our feelings. All I’m saying is that if we’re trying to storm the embassy it has to be part of a thought-out strategy, not just getting swept away on a high wave of protest. Anyway, I don’t trust those Maoists. For all I know it’s their strategy, and we all just get caught up in it like idiots.’

‘That’s ridiculous. It’s probably what they say about us. If we’re going to get paranoid, we could say it’s the police planting provocateurs on the march.’

‘Well, for all we know, it is! I just think we should sit down and talk about it properly before we go. If it’s a possible tactic, we could plan it properly, not just charge around like headless chickens when we get to Grosvenor Square.’

Bernie emerged from a long hot soak and had a cup of tea. ‘Look, I’ve got to be going, but thanks ever so much for your help. I’d better be getting back. My mum will be worried sick, and we haven’t a ’phone.’ We gave her our telephone numbers and told her to keep in touch.

Jennifer and I decided to stay in and make a big pot of soup. Cooking in a companionable silence had a calming effect on me, and I realised for the first time that chopping onions and scrubbing carrots could be therapeutic. We sat at the kitchen table with mugs of tea while the soup bubbled on the stove.

‘How are you getting on with Andy?’ I asked. ‘You must have been living with him for a couple of months now.’

‘Well, at first I thought he was in love with me, but now I’m not so sure. We get on well enough and he doesn’t boss me around like some of the men I’ve been out with. But he’s terribly moody and sometimes he seems to feel he’s made a mistake. He seemed so sure at the time. I didn’t really want to move in with him, but he persuaded me. I think it was because his younger brother had just got married and his family kept asking when he’s going to tie the knot so he thought he’d try me out. I might be wrong, but it’s only been six weeks, not really long enough to tell.

Andy came back later. Judy had been given bail and had gone home with Robert. Jack had gone off to the pub with some of the others and said he’d come along in the morning.

Jennifer dished up some soup. ‘Miriam’s sleeping on the sofa tonight. I hope that’s ok with you.’

‘I suppose it’ll have to be,’ said Andy, a bit surly. ‘Anyway, I’m knackered. I’ll have a bath and go to bed.’

‘I see what you mean,’ I said, when we heard the bath water running. ‘I’m glad I don’t have that problem. I don’t think I’d hang around with someone who wouldn’t talk to me. Life’s too short for that sort of nonsense. It’s not as though it’s that difficult to find a bloke you can get on with.’

The soup was delicious, and Jennifer cut chunks of home-made bread to go with it. Half an hour later, curled up on the sofa, we picked up where we’d left off.

Jennifer picked up the theme again. ‘Most of the blokes we know just want you to behave like one of the boys. You know, hang around in the pub ’til closing time, that sort of thing. It never occurs to them to ask what you might want. I don’t like hanging around in pubs much. Then you meet one who turns on a bit of charm, seems to offer an alternative and make you feel special, and you’re hooked. Andy turned on so much charm when I was prevaricating at the beginning that I fell for him. Now I can see it was a mistake, but it’s not as easy to change my feelings as it is to change my mind.’

I thought about what Jennifer had said. I felt quite proud of being ‘one of the boys’. ‘I suppose I am hanging around with the guys,’ I said. ‘But I think that’s what I want. I found the politics I wanted, I didn’t just drift into them behind a bloke. If their politics didn’t match up, they could piss off as far as I was concerned – and there’s quite a few that did. My feelings seem all caught up in the politics … it’s like I feel passionate about South Africa, about Vietnam, about getting rid of capitalism and making some vision of justice a reality, and then I assume that any bloke who’s around those sorts of politics is going to agree with that. That there’s some mutual respect because we’re both committed to changing the world as our main thing in life.’

‘But don’t you want to feel special? You know, have a man around who makes you feel he’s in love with you and that’s why he wants to be with you.’

‘I usually think a bloke’s with me because I’ve given him the eye,’ I said. ‘Before I took up with Jack, I’d been sleeping with men I picked up for the night and I wasn’t particularly bothered about what happened the next day. I can’t say I see myself as special in that sort of way – and I certainly don’t see the blokes as special – one bearded revolutionary is much like another!’

Jennifer laughed: ‘And Jack’s not even got a beard! So, how did you get involved with him?’

‘I got fed up. I seemed to be spending too much time finding someone to sleep with when I wanted to. And just then Jack propositioned me and I thought, why not give him a try?’

‘Don’t you think he does treat you like someone special?’

‘Well … I don’t feel any more special than I did before I met him! It does feel different, but sometimes I get fed up with that. It’s all very well having sex on demand, but sometimes I want to be on my own. Luckily he’s out at meetings a lot, and I don’t always go with him.’
‘It’s nothing like that for me. I can’t give my body to someone I don’t feel special about!’

‘But you make it sound like it’s all you giving him something. I just do it because I like sex. I’ve always liked sex. It’s easier to have someone I know I can have sex with, rather than having to go out and look for it. But I wouldn’t stay with him if we didn’t get on, so it’s not all sex, I suppose.’

‘Well, what would you say if he slept with someone else?’

‘But he wouldn’t! Oh, I don’t know, it’s all very complicated.’

* * * *

I climbed into the back seat of Robert’s mini. Robert said Judy was sleeping off her night in a cell, but he was impressed with everyone else, going to tenants’ meetings the day after the demo. Jack said it was the only thing to do if you were serious about your politics.

‘Lots of people we know were beaten up and some were arrested, charged with assault’, Robert reported. ‘I’m drawing up a list and organising lawyers.’

‘It’s a far cry from my Committee of 100 days,’ I said. ‘You sat down in the road, the police came along and carried you off, you appeared in court the next day and got fined £15.’

Ken retorted that the demonstrations were getting out of hand. ‘Yesterday was really violent. I don’t think we should be charging into police lines like that. It’ll just alienate people and somebody’ll get seriously hurt.’

‘That’s what Jennifer said, she thinks the Maoists are provoking it all. Or police agents.’

‘Well, she could be right,’ said Jack. ‘These self-styled revolutionaries could undermine everything we’re doing. We should be concentrating on building a working class movement, not running around pretending we are the revolution. Can you imagine that sort of thing on a tenants’ demonstration?’

I couldn’t go along with that. ‘Of course I can imagine it! You’re implying that working class demonstrations were never violent and that no one on a Vietnam demo is working class.’

‘All I’m saying is that when the working class organises a campaign the tactics are made to fit the occasion. These people are trying to turn the tactics into the revolution.’

‘So where does that put you? You were one of the first past the police in Grosvenor Square. Just because you weren’t arrested, it doesn’t mean you weren’t there.’

‘That was different. I wasn’t being violent, I just got through a gap.’

‘Someone must have made the gap. You’re being really judgemental – according to you, no one gets arrested unless they’ve done something they shouldn’t. I thought we were opposed to the state and its laws. Yesterday the police were beating people up and then charging them with assault. Who’s more ready to use violence? And what are we meant to do when the police are violent, just sit down and get kicked in the head?’

‘You can’t deny some people think that if they break through the police lines then twenty thousand people will storm the American embassy.’

‘Of course I don’t deny it. And what would you be saying now if twenty thousand people had stormed the embassy? That was exactly what you were trying to do, running through that gap. You thought twenty thousand would follow, didn’t you? You’re just a bloody hypocrite, sanctimoniously going on about self-styled revolutionaries. There can’t have been many people on that demo who wouldn’t have stormed the embassy given half a chance.’

Robert asked if this was a private discussion, then went on with his bit of news. He’d heard there had been armed American marines inside the embassy, waiting to shoot anyone who did get in. Jack said the whole thing was getting completely out of hand, but I was fantasising about the effect on the struggle if American marines did shoot a British demonstrator. Just then we arrived at the Bethnal Green tenants’ hall for the monthly Sunday morning meeting.

* * * *

The hall was packed with more than 300 people. Posters all round the walls spelled ‘not a penny on the rents’ in large red letters. The meeting started with the chairman, Jimmy, welcoming everyone, especially new members, and reading letters of support from trade unions and community organisations. It was some months since the council had announced a series of massive rent increases to take effect from the following year, and a group of us in New Socialist International had taken this as an opportunity to help organise thousands of working class people across the capital. Weeks of pushing leaflets through letterboxes, setting up meetings, talking to the leading lights of tenants’ associations across London, had paid off. The Rent Action Now Committee, with delegates from scores of council estates, was co-ordinating demonstrations, lobbies, leaflets, meetings.

Jimmy read out the agenda, taken up mainly with organising the next demonstration. The council had sent out official notices warning tenants of the increase, and the plan was to collect these from the tenants and hold a bonfire outside County Hall itself. The event would be like a carnival, with decorated lorries, balloons and fancy dress.

After the meeting we retired to the pub, standing around in groups with pints of beer. Betty came over, surprised, she said, to see us. ‘I thought you’d all be locked up,’ she joked encouragingly. Betty was secretary of one of the most militant tenants’ associations in Poplar. She didn’t tolerate bullshit, and I wasn’t surprised to get her support.

‘There’s one tenant who’s not put off,’ I whispered to Jack, who looked slightly sheepish and went off to buy another round. Betty mumbled in my ear that if we waited for the men there would never be a revolution. Just then someone came in with the news that Gerry, the chairman of another militant East End estate, had been arrested on ‘your’ demonstration. He hadn’t arrived at the meeting and various people stood around discussing the pros and cons of protest, hoping to tease him if he turned up.

‘Does that redeem the men, then?’ I asked Betty.

‘It’ll take a bit more than that I’m afraid.’

‘That Gerry is full of surprises,’ I said, adding that sometimes I found Jack a bit too predictable.

‘I think you’re lucky to have Jack. He seems a really nice man.’

Betty sounded a bit depressed. I remembered someone saying that her husband often came home late, drunk.

‘Well, yes, Jack is nice. It’s just that I find Gerry quite interesting, that’s all.’

‘I’m sure his wife doesn’t, though!’

I had to laugh in agreement but decided not to mention that I had an arrangement with Gerry to go leafleting the following week. I had postponed thinking about it, and realised that was probably because I felt a bit uncomfortable about being on my own with him. Jack was always big buddies with people like Gerry but it was different for two men to go off together on their own. I’d made the arrangement in that spirit, just like Jack often did, and now I wished I hadn’t. It seemed so simple when Jack suggested it. Just as I formulated the thought, Gerry took his cue and came into the pub. He was soon surrounded by an excited crowd of well-wishers, comparing notes on the previous day’s events.

Jack, Robert and Betty started a heated discussion about student strikes and occupations. I listened from a distance, leaning against the wall watching their faces — Jack going on about how student action wouldn’t solve anything wasn’t exactly news to me. One of the local tenants joined in with condemnation: ‘And what about that porter they killed?’

‘Come on, Mick. You’ve been reading the Daily Mail again. They didn’t kill the porter, he had a heart attack.’

Good old Betty, I thought. Always ready to have a go.

‘The point is that students have got to help organise things like the rent campaign’, said Jack. ‘Otherwise that kind of thing is doomed. It can even be used by the system to alienate the working class.’

‘I thought students were helping with the rents campaign,’ said Betty, and reeled off half a dozen names.

I caught Mick’s face, rolling his eyes to the ceiling before he went back to the bar. Then Gerry was at my side, pint in hand. ‘That’s me’, he leaned over and nodded his head in Jack’s direction. And, after a meaningful pause, whispered: ‘I’m working class.’

It’s not just what he says, I thought, it’s the way he says it. Why’s he whispering in my ear? I wondered if he might be intimidated by the intellectualism that was being bandied about but I knew it wasn’t that.

Robert was arguing with Jack about élitism and alienation. Every time Jack said ‘working class’ Gerry nudged my arm. This was definitely a bit cheeky – he knew I lived with Jack, and I couldn’t believe for a minute that he was being naïve about the way he was behaving. But I could see his point. Jack didn’t seem to realise that what he was saying sounded just the same as the political groups he was always criticising.

Betty left Robert and Jack to it and came over to ask us if we wanted another drink. ‘I’m fed up with all this stuff. They’re just showing off.’ She turned to Gerry. ‘Another drink, Gerry? You must be as bored as we are.’

Gerry smiled. ‘Don’t mind if I do, but I’ll get them. Can’t have the ladies buying the drinks now, can we?’ He strode off to the bar.

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