There are moments in life that signal you’ve reached a new stage and nothing will ever be the same again – death of your first pet, the first time you hear your dad say ‘fuck’, your first curry, that sort of thing. One of those moments happened at the recent demonstration in support of the people of Gaza.
It was the end of a process that began in the days before the march, after I told my twelve-year-old son it was taking place, and he said “Cool – I’m going on that.” He’d been on marches before, but as a result of me dragging him on them for my own convenience. For example when he was three I took him on a march demanding an increase in the minimum wage, which he enjoyed so much he repeated the most popular slogan of the day over and over again for the next week, so that at random moments in the street he’d yell “You can stick your three-pounds eighty up yer arse.” This also meant that if he met a relative who gave him some money, there was the dread of what might happen if they gave him exactly three-pounds eighty.
But the reaction to the Gaza demonstration was clearly different. He wanted to go, compelled by the mix of urges that drives anyone to take part in such an event, rather than because the alternative was to stay at home until discovered by social services. And once there, all the marks of demonstrations that become cliches to those of us who’ve been on countless processions, to him were captivating. “Look dad, a man in a Tony Blair mask with a placard saying ‘war criminal’. That’s BRILLIANT!” Which was wonderfully infectious, because I had to accept it was BRILLIANT!, just as when your daughter’s two and says “Look daddy bus bus,” you become equally excited about the existence of this bus, rather than reply “Alright it’s only a bloody bus. If you see a zeppelin let me know but a fucking BUS.”
It helped that it was a vibrant freezing raucous frosty day, and the march rumbled with youthful enthusiasm, so that it smelt of teenager. But then we got to these vast gates that policed the road to the Israeli embassy. Hundreds of people stood around these gates, calling and gesticulating, and occasionally lobbing the thin strip that once formed the backbone of a placard. At this point I wondered whether it might appear a little frightening to my lad, but he said “Oh for God’s sake, they’re not going to break down the embassy with balsa wood.” Then he added “Come on dad, let’s get to the gates.”
“No I think it’s safer to stay here,” I advised.
“COME ON,” he insisted, and we shuffled through the squashed crowd to get nearer the front. “Why don’t we all invade the Israeli embassy?” he asked, and whoever was stood next to us answered “Because the Israeli embassy is better protected than Buckingham Palace.”
“Well then let’s invade Buckingham Palace,” he said.
After a few minutes I asserted parental authority and we carried on up the Bayswater Road, round the corner and back past the other side of the road with the embassies. Here the march was completely blocked, so several thousand were stood around becoming agitated, unable to proceed through a police cordon towards Trafalgar Square. Then a line of riot police slid gently into position, all identical in their helmets, shields and truncheons so they looked like a line of aliens in an old computer game.
‘I’ll calmly suggest we leave’, I thought.
“COME ON DAD, LET’S GET GO TO THE FRONT AGAIN” called my son.
So I explained that, although there was nothing to worry about, it was probably best if we left. “People in Gaza are getting bombed and all you want to do is get home to get WARM,” he objected.
Then a steward told me the police had used tear gas up the road, so they were advising anyone with kids to leave.
“But Daaaaad,” complained my son, “Let’s get near the front”, and I found myself making the most ridiculous response, saying “Alright – you can have FIVE MORE MINUTES,” as if this was a dispute about bedtime, and he wanted to watch a bit more of Terminator.
It was as daft as if I’d looked into his eyes and said “Right, you can throw three lumps of rubble and THAT’S IT – no more than three, DO YOU UNDERSTAND. And if I see you throwing four we won’t go to the anti-arms trade march at all – IS THAT CLEAR?”
It was the moment I realised he was experiencing the enthusiasm of protest, the optimism of resisting apparently invincible power, the belief that injustice can be dealt with NOW NOW NOW, without the inevitable blunting of that confidence that comes with age. I was the cautious one, he was the fiery one, from now I’d be told off for being too safe and too warm and too conservative by my own son, I’d had one of those moments. I bet the Israelis never considered they’d cause all that before they started bombing Gaza.