There is a long, long section in Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City (Part Four, Chapter Four, pp. 427-466) about a famous peace march in the 1960s, organized by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). The 54-mile march from the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment in Aldermaston to London took place on Easter weekends 1958-1963 (and was later revived). The famous peace sign was designed originally as a CND logo by Gerald Holtom.
Lessing’s description of the march is detached and moving at the same time. The heroine, Martha Quest, now middle-aged, is leftist but outgrew her political ideals years ago in Africa. As she waits for her housemates, Mark and Lynda, under a tree, she observes the marchers, knowing that only a small core of members of political organizations usually turn out. She watches the good-natured protestors, mostly duffel-coated teenagers, and is touched and amused by their enthusiasm, their cheering of some bystanders who are actually protesting their protest, whom they mistake for supporters. Although the political climate is such that newspapers and TV are taking this seriously, she does not believe demonstrations will change things.
And she wonders why so many youths, middle-aged, and elderly people are protesting the bomb now? Sadly, she knows they will give up politics soon.
“Who were ‘they’ this year, on this, the biggest of the Aldermaston Marches? The phenomenon had reached its peak. But why? Who knew? Who knows how to chart such a curve? It had started unexpectedly, had grown on its own logic, had reached its height, would now decline. At the peak, this year, as at all similar peaks of political feeling, were thousands of people who had never before been near anything remotely political, and would soon drift off, to find, for one reason or another, anything remotely political rather distasteful. ‘Childish’ – that word would be revived again when it always is, at the beginning of a time of reaction. Meanwhile the banners were those to be seen at any demonstration: CND..Peace…Labour…Communist…Pacifist…Trade Union…Youth…Young…Jewish…German…French…Trotskyist…Anarchist..And then the theatre groups, the bands, and the dancers and the singers.”
I used to read this section as an overview of protests, shorthand for peace march experience, and so it is in a way. Although I understood the emotions of the young and the greater detachment of older marchers, I never knew the history of Aldermaston to London. But I finally looked up the Aldermaston Marches–I’m an American, and didn’t know the UK history. It enhances Lessing’s novel to know the history.
I would love to read a book of first-person accounts of the peace movement in the U.S. or the UK, if there is such a book.