On Sunday 7 October 2001 the Coalition for War on Terror began bombing Afghanistan. On the Monday afternoon, two weeks later, a cricket scoreboard stood on the steps of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, recording the number of civilians killed as a result of the bombings. War on Terror, it said, the score.
There were three sub headings: ‘Killed’, ‘Refugee’ and ‘Starving’.
The board stood there every Monday, from two o’clock to six o’clock, until Christmas. The numbers were a foot high, white on a black ground to show up on failing autumn afternoons, and visible from across the square, a pitch length away. Red double-deckers passed, and tourists on their way to the National Gallery or the theatre district; and limousines with darkened windows, headed for Whitehall. As the afternoons darkened, the numbers climbed.
I stood beside the board. This demonstration was my demonstration. I still have problems explaining it to myself or anyone else. My friends were surprised. So were my family. ‘We’ve never seen you like this before.’
I had never been an activist – except once as a teenager in the 1980s I sat down in the middle of Oxford Street over something to do with Libya, I didn’t really understand what.
My jobs didn’t stand out as social conscience jobs. First I was a reporter for Investors Chronicle, helping the rich to get richer with tips on investment trusts. Then I was a Classics teacher in a private school for girls. The closest I had come to activism was being in the union at Investors Chronicle. Now I might be moving leftwards, as I was in adult education, but I never thought of my anti-war demonstration as left wing – at least, not originally.
It was like a reflex action to do that demonstration. It was difficult for me to explain it, because it was so obvious to me. People who supported the war were the ones that needed to do some explaining, in my view.
If there was no other consideration at all, simply the name of the campaign was an insult to human experience. War, against Terror? Only people who hadn’t suffered war and had no capacity to imagine it could talk about war as if it wasn’t in itself terrifying. Only very powerful people could get away with such a contradiction in terms. In fact, the use of such a phrase was a subtle intimidation in itself, a throwing one’s weight around, a saying what the hell one liked. It reminded me of the sinister nonsense in Orwell’s Animal Farm: ‘All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.’
On Saturday 20 October, while US Special Forces were attacking sites in southern Afghanistan (‘The Pentagon said US troops had met only slight resistance,’ said the BBC), I was in a van with Stan and his wife, edging down Regent Street, a cricket scoreboard lying on sacking in the back. Everyone seemed to be out shopping. It took us half an hour to make that quarter of a mile through walls of cars and taxis. The American troops in Afghanistan probably met less resistance than we did.
The verger of St Martin-in-the-Fields showed us where we could store the board, which was six foot high and ten feet wide, beside the stairs going up to the bell tower. When we had the board safely settled, Stan and I shook hands. ‘I hope it works out for you,’ said Stan. ‘It’s a sad business.’ He put a few coins into the church collection box and left to go back to his workshop in Leicestershire where he could get on with making normal scoreboards.
On the Monday, two weeks after the start of the War on Terror, the demo began. It was lunchtime. A Mexican was sitting on the steps eating chips. I asked him if he would mind helping me move the board. He put his chips down and we shifted it together. We propped it up against the railings in front of the church’s portico. We tied it in place with ropes that attached to hooks Stan and his men had nailed in the back of it. It was conspicuous. The whole top end of Trafalgar Square could see it.
The Mexican went off and bought another load of chips and came back and sat in front of the board scoffing them. ‘I am hungry today,’ he said.
I arranged the glossy white numbers on the board. I’d never seen a cricket scoreboard up close. It was clever. The numbers you didn’t need you hooked up, the numbers you were using stayed down. Two weeks after the start of the bombing my figures were:
Estimated Dead, 750
On that first day the board drew anger like a magnet. Men stuck their heads out of vans and cheered at the figures. Cheered at death. ‘How come they can bomb us but we can’t bomb them?’ they called as they waited at the traffic lights, and then screeched away when the light went green.
I sat down in front of the board to munch on some hula-hoops and heard a voice above my head: ‘You make me want to vomit.’ I looked up to find a man in a black turtleneck and a cream suit standing over me. He had jewel blue eyes and the sort of blemishless older-man face that would look perfect in an ad for Evian water.
‘Person is too good a word for you,’ he went on. ‘You’re not humane. You haven’t an atom of humanity. You aren’t worth the space you stand on. You make me RETCH!’ I stood up, in case he actually was going to be sick. Evian Ad gestured at my estimate of the dead. ‘What about the thousands the Taliban have killed? They built a stadium just for public executions. But you don’t care about that, do you?’ His mouth was creased nearly into a smile. His face was so inscrutable I actually wondered if in fact he was on my side and just mimicking what opponents might say.
A bearded man detached himself from the passers by and hurried up the steps. ‘She has a right to say what she thinks.’
Evian continued with his struggle to find an insult equal to the task: ‘You’re like those skinhead yobs that live off social security and then go off to Afghanistan, paid for by the British government, and then, when a few of them die, they complain!’
Protester against war equals unemployed person equals skinhead yob equals soldier who doesn’t like it when his friends get killed. An instinctively Tory part of my nature wanted to shout, ‘I’ve never taken hand-outs!’
‘She has a right to free speech,’ said the bearded guy.
Turtleneck pushed off.
‘Are you okay?’ asked my supporter, before carrying on on his way.
A handsome man in a tweed jacket trotted up the steps. ‘Can I have one of your leaflets?’ I was glad and smiled at him. He ripped the leaflet in half and gave it back to me.
A ginger-haired man in a barber charged up the steps and changed the figure for the dead himself, from ‘750’ to ‘7,750’, on the basis of out of date statistics from New York. At this I snapped. ‘If you want a demonstration about the dead in New York, you can pay for a board and you can stand next to it all day in the cold!’
He leant into my face. ‘It’s people like you that make this country what it is today.’ We looked at each other for a moment, both of us startled because it was such a cliché. Then he added: ‘Liberal and weak!’ – and skimmed along the steps and out of sight without ever bending his knees, so firm, upright and disciplined was his posture.
After a couple of weeks I got a helper. She was Flora, a Catholic lady – ‘But I don’t like to push church things on people.’ She had endured the Blitz. ‘People these days just don’t know what it’s like to be bombed!’ She wore gloves and smart coats, always just the right coat for the weather that day, and she beamed at people as they passed. The angry men shrivelled up. From her gloved hands my leaflets flowed out into London. She could get rid of 400 in a day. And she never took breaks.
Flora and I compared notes on the kinds of people who took leaflets. We both noticed the same trends. People that were dressed in bright colours, whether men or women, took leaflets; similarly people that wore hats, whether wacky or traditional. Smokers were big takers of leaflets. A smoker juggling ciggy and lighter, with a mobile phone gripped in the crook of his neck, would still somehow find a finger free to take a leaflet. Although he was on the phone, his eyes would clock Flora or myself and react.
Expensively and conventionally dressed men and women were less likely to take leaflets. In this group, the women were more closed to it than the men, and younger women especially so. A young professional woman with smooth blonde hair and a trim grey or navy suit would never, but never, take a leaflet
Men with facial hair, like the brightly coloured people, were more likely to take leaflets. I remembered that the man who had supported my right to free speech on the first day had worn a beard; and the man who had offered money had had side whiskers. There seemed to be something beyond co-incidence here. But what was it that connected these things? Where in the brain was localised that small bundle of grey cells that chose to read political leaflets and grow facial hair?
As the autumn evenings drew in, people became less certain about bombing Afghanistan, and less interested. The white numbers continued to climb.
The snows fell in Afghanistan and the valleys started to be cut off. Flora took to wearing a fur hat on our afternoon stints. The thousands who arrived in the refugee camps were given one blanket each. One blanket in a mountain winter. There were different reasons why people were fleeing but the most common was ‘the bombs’.
In November one of our government ministers rang the vicars, concerned that my demonstration was a ‘security risk’ for the church. He also thought that my estimates were inaccurate and misleading. The red-haired vicar came out to see me on the steps. He reassured me that he himself did not view me as a security risk, nor did he really believe that the minister did. He was disappointed in the minister. ‘We’ve worked with him well in the past on gay rights. I am a bit surprised.’ Still, we had to take the suggestion seriously. Could I make some kind of risk assessment which he would present at a meeting of the vicars?
I wrote five pages examining the demonstration from every possible angle of risk. I said that the people who had been angry with the demonstration had never shown any signs of being violent; that they had been respectable (in a sense), prosperous citizens, unlikely to resort to terrorist tactics. I also wrote to the minister saying I was sorry that the estimates were inaccurate and misleading. I had hunted on every relevant government website and had been unable to find any figures for dead or injured in Afghanistan. Could he help me with more accurate information?
The vicars allowed the demonstration to continue, and I continued to have to rely on estimates cobbled together from news reports. There were a few British and American soldiers now among the figures for the dead. It was tough, building statistics this way, because I couldn’t avoid the anecdotes that brought the numbers to life. One boy arrived in a refugee camp having lost all his family. He was clutching a pet bird. I kept wondering what would happen if the bird died. As our allies, the Northern Alliance, gained the upper hand, there were increasing numbers of Taliban prisoners. Whether all those ragged men had really wanted to serve the Taliban dictatorship we couldn’t know; but they did surrender. The Northern Alliance shipped them to prison in metal boxes. In one trainload, all died of asphyxiation except three who shared a hole in the metal, by which they took it in turns to breathe.
Numbers are clean and seem mutually exclusive: the number alive, the number dead. But life is a long drawn-out struggle with death and towards it. The slowness frightened me; the families that had nothing much to do in the refugee camp except look into each other’s faces and watch each other failing. As winter deepened, the babies and the old people couldn’t hold on.
The cost of a winter’s supply of food for every person in Afghanistan was a fraction of the cost of bombing them.
We stood beside the cricket scoreboard distributing leaflets while junk food wrappers blew up and down the steps. More nutrition in one central London bin than in some households. An ex-marine passed us sometimes and waved.
At dusk homeless people crept in and squatted beside the scoreboard as if it would give them shelter. A woman in a mac with pale brown skin and large dangly earrings passed. ‘Do you know a café?’ she said. ‘There used to be a café round here, an arty sort of place where you could meet people, get a drink and talk. Do you know where I mean?’
Another man came dancing up the steps with his arms opened wide as if he was going to embrace the scoreboard. ‘Why should I give love to everyone?’ he called over the roar of traffic. ‘They haven’t given love to me.’
‘They killed everyone in Babylon,’ came a voice, speaking with a cockney accent, as if chewing on a sticky bun. ‘They poisoned the water with wormwood. I know about wormwood. I know what it does.’ A young man in an arty brown bobble hat stood directly in front of me with his hands in his pockets, motionless as a statue. His almond grey eyes were clear of any emotion. ‘It makes you nervous and restless. You can’t sleep, you can’t do a single thing. I know about it from my past lives. That’s why I’m different from my brethren. They only have faith but I know.’
‘Which church do you go to?’
‘Kingdom Hall.’ He saw that I didn’t understand. ‘Jehovah’s witnesses. But I’m different from them. I know everything of what has happened. I have the keys to my past lives. Angels gave me the keys.’ He didn’t blink, but at the end of each statement something flickered in his eyes as if he was testing whether I would believe him. I nodded. ‘If he had only answered my letter. If Tony Blair had only answered my letter.’
‘Yes, he didn’t answer mine either,’ I commiserated.
‘If he had only of had audience with me, none of this would have happened. I know about demons. I’m stronger than what they are. I’m stronger than every single demon. The devil tries to frighten us but he is the weaker one. A demon attacked me when I was born. He tried to take my life and split up my family. He gave me drugs. But I am stronger. He tried to get to me through noise. He made the people next door make noise all the time to drive me out. That’s how I came on the homeless scene.’
In his arty hat and suede jacket he made it sound like the coolest scene in town.
What had begun as a grandiose speech about the world had ended up as a description of the specific problems of his own life. Listening can have this effect, of creating a turn. Writing can also turn things around. I wondered if I was in need of some kind of turn myself. I was perhaps not as far away as I would like to think from the pathetic grandiosity of Mr Bobble Hat. ‘If he would only of had audience with me,’ was something I was capable of thinking, even if I wouldn’t say it.
After all, what did me standing on some steps in a pinky-orange suit next to a cricket scoreboard actually achieve?
By the end of December, the civilians dead from direct attack in Afghanistan stood at around 4,000 on my count and at around 5,000 in a study I eventually found reported on the net compiled by Professor Marc Herold of the University of New Jersey. The civilian dead in Afghanistan had outstripped the dead in New York.