This is the second book of Michael Rosen’s that I’ve bought and I bought it because I wanted to know what a ‘pisher’ was and he recommended the book so that I could find out. It’s a fascinating story, because it’s a description of a large family of highly individual, loving people and how they interacted with one another, lots of humour as you would expect – our Michael has a great sense of humour – and lots of Yiddish. He’s part of a huge family and yet he brought each of them vividly to life. A joy to read.
But in the middle of it, I discovered that we had one or two historical events in common. The first was one of the Aldermaston Marches, which was at Easter in 1958 and went from London to Aldermaston. I missed that, but watched it with great interest on the news and decided that I would have to join the organisation which was called CND.
By the following year, I was the secretary of the Streatham CND ground but I couldn’t go on the march because my third baby had been born in March, prematurely, and needed a lot of care and constant feeding, so I didn’t get around to occupying a seat on one of the coaches I’d booked to take the local group to the march and home again in the evening for the four marching days, and it was 1960 before I could call myself a marcher. I loved it, out in all weathers, with people I liked, singing and talking with no housework and nothing to be responsible for except the coaches. From then on, it was my annual holiday.
According to his book, Michael Rosen joined the marchers with a couple of friends when he was thirteen and unlike the pampered CND members from Streatham, he slept in the accommodation provided for the marchers by the organisers and as always in this book, he saw the humour of the situation. He also, to my great interest, named one of the men who was walking with the marchers and had a megaphone. ‘His name’ he said, ‘was George Clark’. The sight of that name made me sit up because, although the young Rosen wasn’t really very interested in him, he was a friend of mine and the first man I knew to be arrested and be sent to prison for his beliefs. A stalwart. I can remember very well how gaunt and ill he looked when he was finally let out of prison and came down to Streatham to harangue the workers coming out of P.B Cows the rubber factory. I cooked a sizeable meal for him to try and build up his strength. But he was formidable even when he was skinny and he meant what he said. And he was one of the original 100 who founded the committee of 100.
I read on through Michael’s book wondering whether he got involved with the committee of 100 as well as CND, and yes he did. He and his friends decided that they would go and join the demonstrators who were sitting down in the middle of Whitehall near the Ministry of Defence to demonstrate their total disapproval of the arrival of nuclear submarines in Scotland. I went with a friend of mine, called Leila Berg another warm heart like Michael Rosen, who also wrote books for children. The column was led by Bertrand Russell himself, with Michael Randle, Vic Richardson and Michael Scott alongside him and when they took direct action and sat down on the pavement outside the Ministry of Defence, the police took action. The Riot Act was read and they were all arrested, but by then the rest of us had sat down in the road in solidarity and there were rather a lot of us.
According to Michael Rosen, he and his friends heard that the police were going to arrest people and decided to let discretion be the better part of valour and go home. Who could blame them, they were very young. But they missed an interesting piece of social history, which I had forgotten about until I was reading Michael’s book.
As soon as Bertrand Russell and the leading group had been bundled into Black Marias and driven off to the nearest Magistrates Court, the police arrested the next line of demonstrators and after that, the next and the next, until they reached the line where Leila and I were sitting and then a curious thing happened. The Riot Act was read, we were told we would be arrested if we didn’t move away of our own accord and like the others, we wouldn’t budge, so we were arrested and carried off to sit on the pavements to wait for the return of the Black Marias to take us away too. None arrived. So we sat on and waited and presently a Very Important Policeman arrived and gathered his senior police around him in a Very Important way. By then Leila and I had befriended the young policemen who had arrested us and beckoned them over to tell us what was going on. The story they told made us all giggle. Apparently the Magistrates had sent a message back to the arresting police to ask them not to arrest any more people. They were finding it very difficult to handle the numbers who’d arrived at the court already and couldn’t cope with anymore. Our laughter spread along the column as the news spread and for a little while we weren’t quite sure what to do, but then someone decided that, as we had declared that we would sit down for four hours, we would sit down for four hours. Which we did. It was actually very British and I think it would have made our Michael laugh like a drain.
On which ridiculous snippet of English social history, I will stop.
Oh and if you’re wondering a “pisher” turned out to be a young, inexperienced, presumptuous person. Love it!
Happy bank holiday!