WARNING: ROBINSON RANT AHEAD...
After having such an enjoyable night with my ex-colleagues last Friday night, I woke up on Saturday morning full of the joys of Spring. It was a lovely sunny morning; the kind of welcoming morning that somehow could only occur in early May. Not exactly summer-warm yet, but by no means cold; the kind of day that beckons you outside and happening at the time of year when that’s exactly what you should be doing. So I did.
In fact, I did what I often do on Saturday mornings; I jumped on a bus to the Town determined to enjoy once again my cheese-and-onion pasty on the steps of Grey’s Monument (as you do). But, yours truly being the way he is, I was wrongfooted a little.
I had forgotten that it was a Bank Holiday weekend. More particularly, I had forgotten what the Bank Holiday was intended to honour: May Day. Only the British, with the typical tangled logic which seems to be endemic in those whom we choose to govern us, would celebrate the First of May on the Fourth of May. Surely (I put it to you, members of the jury) the whole point of celebrating May Day is to do it on May Day itself and NOT on the first Monday afterwards, as we do here. It’s one of those holidays which is day-specific, like Christmas Day. There’d be absolutely no magic at all in opening your presents on the first Monday after December 25, would there?
Some people find the way we choose the dates of our Bank Holidays - and indeed the occasions we choose to mark as holidays at all - as ‘rather quaint’ and terribly English. Well I don’t. I think it’s clumsy, inconsistent and disrespectful (remember how, until recently, Remembrance Day, which should be marked on November 11, was moved to the nearest Sunday so as not to disrupt our daily lives of getting and spending).
I was reminded of all this shenanigans as I stood at the foot of Grey’s Monument with my victuals in my hand listening to a brass band. It was there as part of what used to be a regular event nationwide on May Day; a march by unions, student groups, protest organisations and other left-wing groups whose day this traditionally is.
Or rather whose day this traditionally was. Let me explain.
The sound that a slow-playing brass band makes has the proven ability to by-pass the head and go direct to the heart. I don’t know what the hymn was but it wasn’t long before I was a trembling nostalgic wreck, my face wet with tears, my pasty utterly soaked.
How do brass bands do that? I stopped going to the Miners’ Festival Service in Durham Cathedral on Big Meeting Day precisely because I invariably lost control of my tear ducts as the bands accompanied the banners as they made their graceful and stately way up the nave; the moment when the miner, coal-blackened and dressed in miners’ togs, reached the crossing and was greeted by the Bishop was even worse. My unseemly sobbing embarrassed me and everyone I was with.
Thus were my thoughts directed to the Durham Big Meeting. The oldest regular political meeting and demonstration on Earth, and for decades the best attended. It survives now by the skin of its teeth. That spirit of egalitarian community care - the only good by-product of a grotesquely dangerous and pernicious industry - seems to have died out completely.
Last Saturday, it was only when the band struck up a marching tune and began to march away from the Monument that I realised that this had, in fact, been Newcastle’s official May Day celebration. There were about 4 or 5 banners, of which only one, I think, was ‘official’. The others were placards. I guess the total number of people on the march was less than 100.
Where did it all go wrong? It’s my fault. Me and people like me. People of my generation, give or take a few years either side. Didn’t we think we could do it, eh? We were going to make the world a fairer, nicer, more peaceful, more secure place to live. We were going to make love not war. We were going to make sure everyone was OK.
So where did it all go wrong? Why is Durham Big Meeting only able to survive by turning itself into a tourist attraction? Why do so very, very few people care enough about injustice, inequality and poverty to join a May Day march?
As the assembled scribble of people moved away from the Monument and the policemen allowed the buses through again so we could all carry on as usual, I was left feeling drained and warsh (as my Nana would say). This had been a pathetic excuse for a May Day celebration. The old values of worker assertiveness, respect for labour, promotion of the values of co-operation, fairness and justice went almost completely unrepresented, as they do on a day-to-day basis.
The folk who did bother to turn up made the best of a bad job. But I guess you could say that, by doing so, they were being as old-fashioned as I am being now. We haven’t been able to stop the onslaught of greed, selfishness, avarice and thoughtlessness that are now public policy and private priority. This has become the age of The Big I Am; this is the age when people shamelessly Put Number One First.
The downfall of traditional left-field gatherings like the Big Meeting and last Saturday’s almost trivial May Day march in Newcastle is, to me at least, powerfully ironic. Because the need for them is much, much greater now than it was then. Close to home, our liberties and rights have never been at higher risk of erosion or even abolition. Too many people’s lives are broken by injustice, poverty, prejudice, disease and loneliness - and are then left unattended. And in the wider world...
In the wider world...Where do you start? So many of the world’s poorest countries are smothered even more by debts laid on them by the rich. There are too many people who have no clean water to drink. There are far too many people who have no roof over their heads tonight. There are far too many children who have no school to go to.
And much, much worse than all of these... Close to home and in the wider world, and to the eternal shame of us all, there are far too many people who do not have enough to eat.
Maybe this year I will go back to the Durham Big Meeting again. Even actions like that speak louder than words, after all.
THE NEXT AGM
...will take place from 1030 onwards on Sunday 24 May at the Tanfield Railway. The train leaves at 1100. Be there or be square.
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