It was a chilly five o’clock departure, well before dawn. Most of us had tried to buy tickets for London on the train leaving Hull at the same time, but none were available. Even the corridors were packed with passengers standing all the way to the capital. I handed over my £20 and breathed a sigh of relief as I sat down by a window. My neighbour was already on Twitter and kept me up-to-date. Fortunately, we were taking the A1, the Roman Great North Road between London and York, not the M1 which had been blocked by Leave-supporting truckers. We were fortunate. There was little early morning traffic.
As I was sitting in the second row, I could get off and observe the others disembarking to wander towards the Service area for a reviving hot drink and snacks, newspapers and the WC. About half and half, male and female, but not all were couples, and most were middle-aged to retired. No young people. They were the ones that filled the train, my neighbour informed me. There were no pep talks on the loudspeaker, nor music, thankfully, as one person’s choice could irritate another. We sat quietly, tapping mobile phones, snoozing or listening to our thoughts in silence. My neighbour told me that the police had arrived and removed the trucks blocking the M1. They would be charged with obstructing the highway. That should deter others from adopting the same tactics on the A1. Traffic was moving southwards again.
All was impeccably organised. We arrived at 10 am, two hours before the speeches were to start at midday in Parliament Square. Clive, the organiser, took our mobile phone numbers and we noted his. We also had a banner proclaiming that we had come from East Yorkshire. We were exhorted not to wander too far from it! We set off to march from Marble Arch up Pall Mall to Parliament Square. Some hope! Before we were half-way up the Mall we stopped and could move no further. The street was already packed with people right up to Parliament Square. We had already been advised to leave enough space so the crowd was not too tightly packed. This was easy because everyone around us must have been told to do the same! There was room for the occasional pram and for children to play, some crouching to draw on pads or with chalk on the tarmac. There were couples of all ages, family units, singles, all welcomed into the congenial flow. A woman from Genoa appeared beside me. We chatted. She had married an Englishman and was proud of her joint nationality. I spoke to teachers, concerned how the Brexit effect would stunt the chances of their students. Some had studied abroad on the Erasmus scheme and could not praise it enough. It had changed their lives. A university lecturer was very worried about how the withdrawal of crucial EU funding of British university science projects – so am I. My son is now in Cagliari, Italy, on a joint venture to benefit chemistry and medical science. Generous grants from the EU support British Universities because they are highly considered.
Threading through the crowd was a makeshift brass band. People clapped hands to the beat, some humming along. Sunbeams pierced the cloud cover. A helicopter flew overhead. My neighbour said it would be to calculate numbers. I thought how I would be recorded there in the images, a tiny blob added to thousands and thousands of others to become together a crowd of consequence. I passed two male and two female policemen in high-vis jackets with nothing to do but stand and stare. Two bicycles with paramedic emergency supplies were left leaning against the park wall.
I thought back to before Britain joined the EU in the early 1970s. As a student, I travelled as much as I could to the continent and noted that there was nothing from Britain in the shops. Tariff barriers made what we produced too expensive. Others could remember when the UK was dubbed ‘the poor man of Europe’, the nation that had won the war and lost the peace, facing tariff barriers and so cutting itself off from its closest market. All that changed once we joined the free trade area of the EU. Everyone was deeply concerned that Brexit would return us to being ‘the poor man of Europe’ that we were before joining the EU. How will Brexit affect the life-blood of a nation that relies on trade for its economic survival?
‘All this rubbish about the EU taking away our sovereignty! All trading nations need to obey the rules to provide a level playing field for all.’ My neighbour in the bus voiced the thoughts of the crowd around him. ‘We are cutting ourselves off from our closest and richest trading bloc. The EU is an economic union, not a political one. If that changes, then we can think again. Not now.’
Just behind us was a group holding a banner with the white rose of Yorkshire. They were from Beverley too, from the Molescroft area at the far end of the town. Near us was a poster with, ‘It would be fantastically British to revoke A50, put the kettle on and apologise to our neighbours for all the fuss.’ There were numerous others ranging from caricatures of May and Rees Mogg to apt but hilarious take-offs of the political chaos in the ‘mother of all parliaments’!
The warmth and friendliness of everyone there buoyed us up as we returned past Marble Arch to the bus. It was only then that I noticed it belonged to the same company that had supplied another famous coach. It was the one that had travelled around the country nearly three years ago, prominently depicted on TV screens proclaiming that the 340 million pounds Britain sent to the EU every week could be spent on the NHS – as if we only sent funds to the EU and received nothing back! Ignorance, or a deliberate lie to mislead voters? There is a touch of irony that the company which gave Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and Michael Gove their campaign coach for free was the one that we paid to provide our coach to and from London!
Last Saturday was one of the most moving and memorable days of my life.