A tale from times when crowds of people belonged to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and vied with each other to tell stories boasting of how they were ‘absolutely sure’ that their phones were being tapped: those who had no such belief kept a shamed silence. A time when people drove around in tinny little French cars, long since banned by the European Union, mobile death traps made out of little more than industrial strength tin foil. (I speak, of course, of the Citroen Dyanne and the 2CV (known to posh people as the Deux Chevaux).) A time when some woman, I can’t remember her name, was Prime Minister – or something – and, hell bent on selling off Britain’s family silver, sold off every publicly owned asset she could lay her sticky little hands on.
This is a tale told for today, to remind people of the effective power of political protest.
What protest will I tell you about? There are so many, I have to choose carefully. I am not going to tell you, for example, about my role as a defendant in ‘Hardman et al versus Avon and Somerset Constabulary, 1986’, because you can look up the details of that case for yourself in any standard textbook of criminal law. No, I am going to tell you about a much more modest protest, a model of the precise execution of people power.
In 1984, the state-owned British Telecom was privatised. Remember, if you find it possible, that in Those Days, nobody had mobile phones, and more than that, quite a few people didn’t even have landlines. In fact, in a way, nobody had landlines, because nobody had mobiles, so there was no need to call them landlines. They were just phones.
Before privatisation, the largest share issue in the world, my comfortably off students at Bristol University excitedly discussed the shares they were going to buy. After privatisation, all hell did not break loose; but noticeable changes occurred. In particular, the humble phone boxes, so essential to those of modest means and to anyone away from home, and long prey to vandals, one by one fell into disuse, smashed and neglected; no one from the newly privatised company seemed to want to repair them. The students could all gaze proudly at their BT share certificates, but if their digs did not have its own phone, the chances of finding one on the street that actually worked gradually started to ebb away.
Eventually, Windmill Hill Labour party formed a Cunning Plan. A telephone box on St John’s Lane, Bedminster, had been vandalised a year before. Despite persistent complaints, it had not been repaired. On the anniversary of its vandalisation, a small but aesthetically pleasing protest was staged: we held a party in the smashed up telephone kiosk. The local press was invited, a cake was bought, we all crowded into the phone box (easy to fit a whole load of people in because there was little glass left in the windows and we could stick our arms and heads out), candles were lit, and we sang, slightly inappropriately, Happy Birthday to the phone box. We got our picture in the Bristol Evening Post, and the very next week, as if by magic, the phone box was good as new. How we gloried in our victory! Our ideological battle against the wholesale sell off of Britain’s assets continued ever onwards! But it was to be a victory even more glorious than I could have imagined.
Shortly after that, my sister came to visit to hand over to me her old car – a much treasured turquoise-coloured Citroen Dyanne. This was the first car I had ever owned.
The turquoise Citroen, in common, I suspect, with many of its sister vehicles, had a few little idiosyncracies. For one thing, the petrol gauge didn’t work, so it was necessary to write down details of every petrol purchase against the mileage in an attempt to keep the tank adequately topped up. For another, there was something A Bit Funny about the starter motor. Sometimes it switched itself off when the engine started. Sometimes it didn’t. The clue, my sister told me, was to listen out for a particular pitch of whirring noise, and if this persisted, to turn off the starter motor manually. She showed me how.
It was slightly complicated, but in theory, not too bad. The difficulty came for me in identifying the noise. My sister is a musician and has pretty good pitch. I don’t. I tried to follow her lessons demonstrating to me that particular dangerous noise which called for prompt action, and nodded sagely at her instructions. She then departed back home to Manchester to her new car, and left me the proud owner of my first, very own vehicle. I set off, alone.
I drove down from my little terraced house on top of the railway embankment just south of the river, and along to Bedminster. Under the railway bridge, and onwards along the long and winding road, St John’s Lane. Then – nothing. The car ground to a complete and utter halt. I tried to start the engine – nothing. This was to be, in fact, the little car’s final journey.
What could I do? There was no one around. I had no walkie talkie! I could not wait for the invention of the mobile phone! What I needed was a telephone box that actually worked. And there it was – for I had broken down exactly opposite the newly repaired phone box inside which, along with the massed ranks of the Windmill Hill Labour, I’d recently sung Happy Birthday.
On the floor of the box, I think I even noticed a couple of cake crumbs.