Okay, it might not have been the Battle of Agincourt and Saint Crispin`s Day is actually on 25th October but it was still a good day to be out on the streets of Walsall. That bloke from Stratford-upon-Avon put it nicely when he wrote:
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne`er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin`s day.”
Henry V by William Shakespeare
The day started with trepidation. A hippo teenager on the dreadful Facebook had received messages from some of her more hot headed friends that talked of “smashing heads” and “rushing” the English Defence League when they held their legal demonstration on Leicester Street. Plans for a family day out at the counter demonstration in Gallery Square were hastily revised and I left the house alone with only the tantalising aroma of sizzling bacon and freshly baked bread rolls for company. Walsall was getting on with Saturday and the police were getting on with locking down the town. Taxi drivers had decided to take the day off and buses had been diverted. The police settled on the town like a goose feather duvet.
Passing Leicester Street, about 20 or 30 morons were milling about outside the local hostelries; not the usual morons though. These embarrassing examples of English manhood had accents that would challenge the craft of Shakespeare and were definitely not indigenous to the southern suburb of Brownhills. Leaving them to the care and attention of the local constabulary, a completely different atmosphere pervaded the counter demonstration in Gallery Square. Friends, neighbours and even the slightest of acquaintances greeted each other with smiles and handshakes and it was impossible not to have a little bop to Pressure Drop by Toots and the Maytals being played on the sound system. Flags, banners and good nature proclaimed our unity against the real threat of fascist aggression.
The excellent Linda Mason and equally essential Aiden McHaffie have posted their experience of the day regarding the goings on as they attempted to vacate the town centre. They, along with most of the rest of us in Gallery Square, became quite rightly concerned at the arrival of a large group of local, masked and chanting young men. Members of the community, stewards and the police worked hard to defuse the tension but it was clear that these young men were very angry. It might be easy to dismiss the undercurrent of rage as merely the holy anger of youth, but when the hateful language of the EDL is considered, these young Walsall men realise that at some point it might become necessary to fight to preserve not just their own culture and identity, but also fight for the future of a free, tolerant and open society.
Fine speeches were made and good music was played. Valerie Vaz and David Winnick spoke but there was no sign of the MP for Aldridge-Brownhills or the leader of the council, or the chief executive or any Liberal Democrat councillors. Lots of Labour councillors attended but only one Conservative councillor was spotted by this humble correspondent. There was also an unconfirmed sighting of a certain Billy Bragg who strolled into the crowd late on in the day. If it was him and not some look-a-like imposter, then his unannounced arrival to show support for the people of Walsall is an extraordinary act of friendship.
As Linda and Aiden were observing the thugs in Leicester Street, tensions again rose in Gallery Square. Police had placed a steel barrier to block access to Park Street and re-enforced the cordon next to the Wharf Bar. The young men faced the police line in a fairly good natured stand-off until one officer pushed a masked young man who got too close in the chest. Stewards intervened and the man stepped back and removed his mask. Common sense had prevailed. A little later, the crowd at the cordon began shouting and gesturing at some unseen provocation beyond the police line and things began to look serious. Then something utterly wonderful happened.
Someone decided to play some Bhangra very loudly through the sound system and a gentlemen, presumable a community elder, decided to dance. A crowd formed around him and the boys abandoned the barricade to witness the spectacle. For a man of his years, the smiling dancer was remarkably light on his feet. He was joined by others and soon old, young, black, white, brown, pink and some of us the colour of old lard were dancing, smiling and laughing in a celebration of humanity. Occasionally, we would raise our hands and cheer at the sheer joy of dancing. The tension had gone and if it was Billy Bragg in the crowd, the image he will take away of Walsall is a town where the people of all communities dance and stand together.
As the police bussed the EDL out of town, we were held in Gallery Square for perfectly understandable reasons. With an estimated 150 to 200 drunken EDL idiots on the move, public safety had to be the priority. We were eventually released from the kettle in twos and threes and at the gap in the police line, organisers, including a Labour councillor, shook the hands of everyone who had attended. The polite handshakes from friends, neighbours and even slight acquaintances in the morning had been replaced with hugs, thanks and congratulations. The day had gone very well.
Heading home across the town centre proved complicated. The bus station was sealed off by fully tooled-up riot police and the only way south was through the deserted market. Another steel barrier blocked Bridge Street and groups of riot police massed in side streets. Closer to home, more riot police patrolled the streets of Chuckery. Away from the relative peace of Gallery Square, Walsall was reminiscent of a war zone under seize and was a possible portent of what is to come as the country hurtles towards division and economic ruin. The police operation throughout the day was well planed, efficient and successful. The vast majority of officers on duty were polite, friendly and interested only in public safety. One or two were slightly rude when their authority was challenged by even the most polite of enquiries and the riot guys in residential streets long after the EDL had gone growled when asked what was going on. Perhaps more worrying and, indeed, sinister is the fact that as each of us left Gallery Square, we were filmed by police officers.
It transpires that the police made 28 arrests and that there were some minor injuries sustained in Leicester Street. If you require an indication of the level of intellect possessed by the EDL protestors, it is worth taking a look at how these injuries came about. Having been successfully contained, the EDL allegedly attempted to break out of the cordon and rampage through the town. Those at the front rushed the police line. Their chums at the back threw rocks and bottles. Now, it might be as a result of weak upper body strength, poor coordination or, as is more likely, complete and utter stupidity, but the rocks and the bottles landed on the heads of their fellow vermin. Oh dear, oh dear. If they carry on like this then the sub-species will be the first to become extinct due to being total morons. Ironically, the injured were treated by officers they had just been trying to attack. It is impossible to invent a situation more farcical.
In the evening, we went to a concert celebrating the long career of a local music teacher. Hearing Debussy played really rather well in a lovely old church was light years away from the hatred and idiocy of the fascists who came to disrupt our town. There is plenty of room in Walsall for Bhangra, Clair de Lune and so much more. There is not and never will be any room for the EDL.