When protesters wore duffel coats
There seem to be daily protests going on around the world at the moment for multifarious reasons and it got me thinking about the first street demonstrations I witnessed first-hand in England as a teenager back in the Stone Age.
For several years at Easter in the early 1960s there was a "Ban the Bomb" march from the Berkshire village of Aldermaston to London, a distance of roughly 80 kilometres. Aldermaston was targeted because it was the home of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE). Living in nearby Reading, as a child I often cycled past that place without having the slightest clue of its significance. All I knew was that in the village they made quality cricket bats from the abundant willow trees in the area.
Organised by the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament (CND), the marchers would spend their first night in Reading, sleeping primarily in schools and churches. But as the numbers grew, many camped out in the meadows by the River Thames.
I would go into town with schoolmates to watch the marchers, partly because they were a motley-looking bunch. Among the accompanying cast were politicians, reverends, beatniks, beards and dodgy moustaches. There was also plenty of trad jazz and folk music and the marchers would chant things like "1-2-3-4-5, keep the human race alive''.
There were also numerous sightings of duffel coats with all those toggles. It was frankly the best street entertainment of the year in Reading.
The marchers also included thousands of "ordinary people" genuinely concerned that the way things were going we could all end up being blown to pieces by a nuclear bomb. They might still be right.
Some older schoolmates joined the march in Reading, but not through any political idealism. They had heard there were plenty of young women on the march and thought it provided a good chance of doing a bit of chatting up. They might have been influenced by salacious tabloid journalism which made up tales of orgies in a bid to discredit the marchers.
Whether it was really worth the effort to trudge all the way to London in miserable weather on the off chance you might get a quick snog, was open to doubt. Most of my friends returned to Reading in a bedraggled state, with wretched colds and blisters and not a hint of a girlfriend.
I never took part in the march, but a former colleague and good friend at the Bangkok Post was a regular. He even succeeded in getting arrested in Whitehall along with noted philosopher Bertrand Russell for taking part in an anti-bomb sit-down protest. My friend was carted off to a chaotic Bow Street magistrates court where there were large crowds prompted by the presence of Russell. My colleague was subsequently fined five shillings, but he refused to pay on "moral grounds" and amidst all the mayhem they eventually let him go.
He found the marches a positive experience and observed this week: "It is hard to believe that it was 60 years ago, when protest was non-violent and your best friends were the police. How times have changed."
He wore a green duffel coat and recalls plenty of repartee with onlookers. Representing the Somerset city of Bath, as an organiser he wore an armband which read "Bath Marshal". That prompted plenty of banter on the lines of, "Bath? Looks like you need one mate!" However, one bystander gave him a beer, which made it all worthwhile.
The aforementioned duffel coats were named after the Belgian town of Duffel where they manufactured the thick material. In addition to CND marches, duffel coats were widely used in World War II and Field Marshal Montgomery was frequently spotted wearing one. After the war they were sold by army surplus stores in Britain and they caught on with civilians, having that rare combination of being cheap, trendy and practical.
I remember wearing a navy blue duffel coat to school in winter, as did many pupils. Even Paddington Bear was regularly clad in a blue version, a veritable seal of approval.
Then came the duffel bag, a large cylindrical cloth bag, and we abandoned our boring school satchels for the much more trendy and versatile duffels which could be used for anything from text books to football kit.
There were still a few duffel coats around later in the 60s during the "Flower Power" days which featured the enticing slogan "Make Love, Not War" which seemed to make a lot of sense then, and still does. Crosby Stills and Nash were singing about "turning bombers into butterflies" and flowers became the most potent weapon of the peace movement.
Flower power even reached Thailand, admittedly on a smaller scale. The song "If You're Going to San Francisco" by Scott McKenzie was hugely popular and could still be heard on provincial jukeboxes decades after it was released. It even reached Nakhon Nowhere.
I took part in an ill-advised protest when I was about eight years old. My class staged a sit-in on our playground to complain about the quality of school dinners. It didn't last long. After five minutes we all started getting hungry and were soon sprinting for the dining hall, tucking in to our lunch-time feasts.
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Bangkok Post columnist
A long time popular Bangkok Post columnist. In 1994 he won the Ayumongkol Literary Award. For many years he was Sports Editor at the Bangkok Post.
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