John Welshman is Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at Lancaster University. His book, Churchill’s Children: The Evacuee Experience in Wartime Britain, tells the moving real-life stories of British schoolchildren evacuated out of major cities during the Second World War. In the below post, he gives us a bird’s-eye view from the fringes of the first day of the new UK coalition government while in London for a radio interview. You can read his previous OUPblog posts here.
It’s the morning of Wednesday 12 May, and I’m in London to be interviewed by Laurie Taylor on the Radio 4 programme ‘Thinking Allowed’. Selina Todd, from Manchester University, has been asked to contribute her assessment of my book, and so will also be on the show. I know of her work, but haven’t met her previously. The researchers have assured me that Selina likes the book, but she has a formidable reputation, and I worry what she might say.
I’m not due at Broadcasting House until 4pm, so head for WH Smith, and after a quick glance through Time Out, decide to go to the Henry Moore exhibition at Tate Britain. The exhibition has been critically received, but Moore’s work is interesting, especially the early wood and stone carvings of the 1920s and 1930s, and the wartime underground shelter drawings. He made a point of using native materials, such as elm and Hornton stone; elm has a very big and broad grain which makes it suitable for large sculptures. But the later work is less interesting, reclining forms being repeated endlessly, familiar from every New Town park or university campus.
By 1pm, I have had enough, and walk up Millbank towards the London Eye. Maybe the media will still be camped outside the Labour Party headquarters? There is a van with a satellite dish on top, but not a single journalist. Better luck as I round the corner into Parliament Square. Simon Hughes is high up on a gantry being interviewed, and next minute Malcolm Rifkind is walking straight towards me. The mood is infectious; perhaps if I hang around long enough someone will interview me? But perhaps what I could offer is not quite what they’re looking for. I double back and spot a large crowd, so large that I can’t see who’s being interviewed. Soon the reason for the crowd is clear: it’s Ken Clarke. They seem to have a special aura around them, these people familiar from television.
Further up Whitehall there is a large crowd outside Downing Street, spilling over the pavements on to the road itself – policemen, tourists, protesters, schoolchildren, bystanders. Most people’s attention is focused on the main gates, which the police open from time to time to let cars through. But most have no passengers, or the windows are blacked out. The pedestrian entrance to the left seems more promising, and I am rewarded – a constant stream of politicians, photographers, politicians, advisors. If you are quick enough, you can spot them as they go in. BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson arrives, and jokes with a crowd of schoolchildren. ‘Who am I?’ ‘You’re Nick’. Then, ‘are you Nick Clegg’?
I spot the MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, Eric Ollerenshaw – what can he be doing here? He’s newly elected, so perhaps he’s simply enjoying the scene. A taxi suddenly stops and Michael Crick gets out; he seems to be in no hurry, carefully places his receipt in his wallet, and takes out his notebook. I consider whether I should go up to him and say how much I enjoy his pieces on ‘Newsnight’. But I prefer my role as silent observer and simply watch. I am struck by the similarity between the politicians, civil servants, and advisors: tall, most well over six feet; suit and tie, often pinstripes; Oxford shoes or brogues, sun-tanned, good-looking, confident, young. Women must find this a daunting environment to work in. It’s one that I might have wanted to work in myself, when I was younger. It’s fun watching for an hour or two, but it’s a young man’s game. I don’t have the self-confidence, and I comfort myself with the thought that I’m better off at home writing, even if it is in sleepy Lancaster rather than London.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, a movement so sudden I barely have time to register it. A pair of ladders produced from nowhere, and two protesters have climbed into a tree in a flash. The police have no time to move, but now they urge the protestors to remember there are pedestrians below. One of the men in the tree has bare feet. They shout they are protesting about the troops in Afghanistan, and slowly unfurl a banner: ‘Come on Dave. Time for Peace. Bring the Boys Home’. Some of their friends are below, easily identifiable by their clothes, one films the whole thing. Another has what appears to be a large drum tied around his neck with a piece of string. He beats it from time to time. It is startlingly shiny, stainless steel, perhaps chrome, familiar in a half-remembered way. It looks like the inside of a dustbin, but I slowly realise it’s the inside of a washing machine. The police take a relaxed approach, fencing off the tree with barriers, and directing the crowd away. One calls, ‘Are you planning to be up there for a long time?’.
Still the endless stream of people in and out of Downing Street, politicians in suits and ties, photographers dressed for arctic conditions or a battle zone, advisers, policemen cradling their machine guns. How many people is there room for in Number 10? It seems to hold an infinite number. Then Caroline Spelman and Baroness Warsi come out together and walk back down Whitehall; they look fairly happy. Polly Toynbee goes in, elegantly dressed in a long velvet coat. But the ebb and flow seems to be slowing. Its 3pm, and most of the important appointments will have been made in the morning. I’ve wasted a couple of hours hanging around here, on the fringes of the media circus. Time to get going, and make my way to Portland Place.