Let’s Demo!

November 12, 2010

A Shining Tower of Britains 1960's Techno-Fury

Sometime in the middle sixties I was a failing student at one of the shining towers of Britain’s technological revolution. I was failing for two reasons. Maybe three. I had chosen the wrong discipline. Chemistry instead of Art. The college was in Brighton. I had gotten myself elected Vice President of the student union.

I lived in a boarding house run by two irritable and thoroughly obnoxious Germans, or were they Swiss? My room was a closet on the third floor. It was freezing, even in September, and the scratching noises at night were not made by other students attending to their acne. Luckily the student I had shared rooms with in the previous year was also living there. Luckily I say because he had a motorbike. It was a Matchless 350. A big step up from his earlier ride, a puny Triumph Tiger Cub. And it was on this bike that we rode the four or so miles out of town to the shining tower to continue our chemical studies. On the days when our schedules did not align I had to walk a mile to a bus stop and spend valuable beer money on a ticket. I got off at a stop right in front of the college. Remember this bus stop.

I do not remember the exact date when the foreign student fee issue came to our attention in the union office. The union office was a festering tip, but for the section where the one permanent administrative employee, provided by the college, sat with a typewriter and duplicating machine awaiting our instructions. She saw all and knew all. In her fastidious corner all was order. Nothing much happened in the union office except when the LP that was currently playing had to be replaced or re-cued so that silence should never creep into the student lounge where many future champions of Britain’s techno-fury studied or mostly played bridge while trying to drink appalling vending machine soup and coffee, or worse digest the unusual offerings from the refectory. Orders were placed with the brewery to restock the bar which opened at 5 PM, and the captains of the various sports clubs came in to claim their team travel allowances and use the one phone line to call either the captain of that week’s opposing team, or their mothers or their girlfriends. The big project for the union was organization of the Charity Rag Week. Then and only then was there a semblance of activity in the office. But more of that another time.

Whatever the exact date was is not important. What was important was the ego of our Union President who had been casting about for an issue to make his name in local and national student politics. And it was he who at one Union Meeting dropped the news on us that the Government of the day was going to radically increase the fees of foreign students studying in the UK. He raved at and lambasted the fools of Whitehall and their cruel injustice that would quite plainly cripple the development of the ex-colonial countries from which these students mostly came. The student committee took input from all quarters and since we were nice middle class lads with a healthy(sic) guilt about our nation’s colonial history we too felt indignation rising and made motions to be voted on and the results sent the holy of holies, the National Union of Students (NUS). And when our colleagues at a famous University only a few miles further up the road decided to go to London to join a demonstration being organized by the NUS to take place on the very steps of Parliament we felt we had no choice but to do the same.

And so it was one dreary dark winter day that the President, the Treasurer, the Student Secretary and myself set off in the treasurers mini car; he was well to do; and drove up to London to set things right. It was a dreary ride and parking in London was a nightmare, even then. In a large hall we listened to the tirades of our NUS leadership and certain politicians who perhaps had taken a liking to the cause based on the number of immigrant citizens in their constituencies. Suitably fired up we marched off to Whitehall where we were kept in check and off the road by mounted Police (two or maybe three). We shouted in our polite English way for a little while and then went home thoroughly disappointed that no-one had asked us any questions, and the police had been overwhelmingly nice and considerate of our right to be there, and not one M.P. had deigned to interrupt his or her lunch to see what the noise was all about. I have no idea how many demonstrators there were but less than two thousand I would guess. It was an anticlimax.

The return journey in the tiny metal box that was the treasurer’s car was gloomy except for the proximity of the Student Secretary’s knee to mine and her hand which I held and stroked in a way I thought was sure to excite. Arriving back at the shining tower we went straightaway to the bar where the President uncharacteristically bought us all a half pint of beer. We continued to rail and plot and pass motions condemning the government as they refined their plans to discriminate and punish our overseas friends.

And it was these friends that finally demolished the indignation and fervor that I possessed on this issue. Our college in its short two year history had managed to attract a large number of foreign students. Nigerians, Ghanaians, and Malaysians. Indeed I played Hockey with several brilliant Malaysians. It was a huge Mercedes full of these friends whose rapid passage by the bus stop where I was waiting (I told you to remember it) caused a bow wave of water from a large puddle to wash over me as they left college for the day to return to the rather nice hotel where they were all staying for the whole year at their countries expense. I was left standing, soaked and chilled, and with a new perspective on many things.

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