I didn’t go, in the end. On the march. I didn’t go. It was very me, at the time. I didn’t know what I thought and I didn’t know who was going so I didn’t go.
I lay on the floor of my parents’ living room, by the fire, the papers scattered liberally around in a pre-broadband age. I tried to make sense of it all, but I couldn’t.
My Mum wanted to go but my Mum’s got rheumatoid arthritis and it would have been difficult, really difficult. Still I could imagine her there, marching with barristers, Tony Benn, college kids like me, Jeremy Corbyn (though we didn’t know him then), shop workers, trades unionists, nuns and vicars, charity CEOs, the unemployed, the young, the old. Marching for something that mattered. Don’t Attack Iraq.
I tried to understand it as the marchers went past on our TV, from Thames Enbankment or Gower Street on a grey Saturday in February 2003. I tried to understand UN resolution 1441, the weapons inspectors, Saddam, Bush, Blair, Powell, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice.
I tried to understand. I stared at maps with arrows and shaded areas. I read comment pieces that contradicted each other and naively assumed this was unusual. I learned about the Kurds.
Every time you thought you’d grasped it, really grasped it, it slipped away. All attempts to reduce it to absolutes, mere facts, morality, failed me. I could find no mental foothold on it, only ever shifting sands or choppy waters. The situation changed daily, like the weather. I didn’t know what I thought.
A girl in my Art class, hitherto taciturn, was convinced it was about oil. To me this never had the ring of truth; it seemed fairly unlikely that anything was ever all about anything, no matter how seductive the theory. I didn’t say anything.
Suddenly, we all had earnest conversations after Drama practice. ‘I hope they get another UN resolution’ said one Oxbridge-bound lad. We didn’t want war but we weren’t convinced it would make any difference. I knew it wouldn’t make any difference by February 15th. I think so did everyone.
It was quicker than I thought, going to war. I remember buying a camera in the days before and everything from that time is suffused with the memory of suddenly being able to capture everything, record it. As I sat in my parents’ dining room eating dinner I felt we were at the start of something horrifying, alarm, terror, fear. I felt I should capture it but the camera couldn’t, somehow.
I was wrong, at the time. We weren’t, not then, anyway. They were. War was coming, but not to us.
Afterwards, the sense of shame, the sense of public life being a poisoned well of recriminations, resignations, sadness. Nobody being able to admit to anything. The grisly death tolls that interrupted the long, hot summer, on the radio, newsflashes, car bombs, unspeakable horror. By then it was easier to know what you thought, but too late. Perhaps it had always been too late.
Today we had the report, forever delayed. The sense of sadness and recrimination that’s never really gone away. We saw the parents of children sent to fight. We saw the former Prime Minister saying similar things to the things he’d said at the time. Time, in fact, instead of creating distance or healing, has merely solidified convictions, deepened resentments, fuelled ever brighter the flame of conspiracy. The poison in the well of public life is still dredged up.
I wish I’d gone on that march now though. I just didn’t know what I thought.