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Banner Bright

By Comma Press

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From a corner facing into the marble lined hallway, a 16mm print of The Sound of Music played backwards through a projector. Jagged, brightly coloured images flickered over Jack’s body as he hammered wildly on a pair of bongos while a girl danced sinuously in front of him. Just like Jack none of the twenty members of the impromptu jazz band had ever played their instruments before and the noise they created, a cacophonous unrhythmic din, combined with Julie Andrews yowling in reverse, bounced erratically off the hard surfaces and high ceilings of the room. With sweat pouring down his face Jack realised less than thirty minutes had passed since he’d come into the building to enquire about night school classes.

He had passed the college many times on his walk to and from the railway station but couldn’t say that he’d really noticed it, fully taken it in, until a week ago, on the day of his fortieth birthday, an event that had prompted Jack to try and make some small changes in his life. He worked as a pipefitter and welder on large building projects all around the North West and, though he was a meticulous and conscientious employee on the construction sites, he always kept himself a little apart. Jack never took part in the rowdy behaviour of his fellow workmen and so, though he was respected due to his precise workmanship and quiet reliable manner, he had no friends in the building trade.

Jack would sometimes attend folk clubs or visit the few pubs that served ‘real’ ale in the Lancashire town where he lived, but he never quite fitted in in any of those places either. A thought that had been bothering him of late was that if he hadn’t been forced to leave school by his parents at the age of fourteen he might have become an artist of some kind. He regularly visited the town’s Victorian art gallery and would spend hours in front of the gaudy second rank pre-Raphaelites, the single minor unfinished Augustus John and the painting Lucien Freud had done just after he’d left college, waiting for inspiration to strike. Now he was forty Jack thought it was time to see if he could make art instead of staring at it, not quite knowing what he was looking at. So one autumn evening he decided to stop off at the local art college, a two-storey 1930s brick structure separated from the road by a low wall and a small patch of grass, typical in style of the civic buildings constructed between the wars. Inscribed on the stone lintel above the glass double doors were the words ‘Art School’ and, as he entered, he didn’t really notice that this inscription was now largely obscured by a homemade banner stretched over the entrance on which was written in neat black letters – by someone who knew what they were doing – ‘Student Occupation’.

Once inside however there could be no mistaking that something out of the ordinary was going on. The entranceway was scattered with sleeping bags and here and there clumps of young people sat about talking together in intense little groups. A slightly older-looking man stood just beyond the doors surveying the whole scene with a benevolent smile on his face. He had medium length black hair with a thick beard and was dressed in a pink long sleeved T-shirt of the type known as a ‘Frog’ with flared sleeves, a scooped neck and a tail like a conventional shirt plus tight purple flares and cowboy boots. Since he seemed to be a bit in charge Jack addressed his enquiries to this man, ‘What’s going on?’

The man turned to him, the smile broadening into a welcoming grin, ‘This, my man, is the world coming to itself, in the most literal meaning of the phrase coming to its senses for the first time. Are you here to be a part of that?’

‘Not really, I was thinking of taking a night school class in pottery.’

‘Ha! You don’t need no night classes, my man. Do you think this new world can be taught in classes? Teaching is dead! The truth already exists inside you, you just need to find a way to let it out.’ 

‘I see. So you’re one of the students here then?’

‘No I’m one of the staff,’ the man said. Then he handed Jack the bongos adding, ‘Hi! I’m Nick’. 

Now most nights after work and all day at the weekends, Jack would hurry down to the college. It turned out that Nick was not their leader. In as much as there was a leader of the occupation it was a committee of the more earnest students. Nick did not even sit on this committee but nevertheless he seemed to be everywhere, talking animatedly in the discussion groups, proposing wild ideas, popping up here and there like an imp in flared trousers. Nick had not taught painting or sculpture or graphics at the college but had been the sole lecturer in charge of something called ‘General Studies’ which seemed to Jack to be basically anything that jumped into his head, which made him very suited to this sort of role. There was a song in the charts that kept going round Jack’s head ‘...you’re everywhere and nowhere baby’.

The local newspaper had at first tried to portray the occupation as a ‘love-in’, but in fact the atmosphere was surprisingly chaste, occasionally late at night there would be muffled grunting from some of the sleeping bags, but by and large the students reminded Jack of a more arty version of some Yugoslav pioneers he had heard speak at a Labour Party meeting in Manchester just after the war. They had declared that though men and women fought alongside each other there had been no, what they called, ‘fraternisation’. Mind you he did remember reading somewhere else that any who did ‘fraternise’ had been shot so you could see why they wouldn’t.

The students operated the college’s telephone exchange with great efficiency, answering enquiries from curious members of the general public and relaying calls from the newspapers or radio to their appointed spokespeople. And the college canteen which before the occupation had reminded the building’s caretaker of, as he told Jack, the food the Japanese had provided while he had been a slave labourer on the Burma Railroad, was now open fifteen hours a day and served nourishing and inventive vegetarian meals both to the occupiers and any of the local community who wished to drop in.

After about a week a little group of four others had coalesced around Nick. One was Jack, another was a pretty blond girl called Claire who wore her hair parted in the middle and then combed it severely so it fell straight down the sides of her head, as if it had been ironed, so her ears poked through giving Claire the vague appearance of a monkey – but then Jack had always really liked monkeys. The other two were a couple, Shirley and Adrian; Shirley was the more serious of the pair, listening intently and taking notes as they sat through passionate discussions on how they could make art eduction more relevant to the anti-colonial liberation struggle, while Adrian reminded Jack of some of the women he’d met at folk clubs who’d been dragged along by their boyfriends, and who kept up an air of wide-eyed astonishment which masked a much deeper boredom.

While the five of them attended as many talks and free-form jazz sessions as anybody else, the best of times, they all agreed, were when they were making their banner. It had been Nick’s idea, of course. He said one day, ‘There’s a second Vietnam demo coming in a couple of weeks and hundreds of thousands of people will be on it. We should take all that we have learned here and put it into a banner. It would be a bit similar to all the other banners you see on demos but it would also be like... this art object. You get all these banners and flags and stuff on demos – I’ve always thought they’re all really dull. Just clenched fists and ‘Chelmsford Maoist League’ or something. But we could create an artefact that is really special. We could take elements of the folk art of those old-fashioned trade union banners but we could add in, say, the constructivism of Malevich or the pop art tropes of Lichtenstein, it would be...’ and this was the first time that anybody had used the word in this particular way, ‘... it would be... awesome!’

Jack provided two lengths of thin but strong aluminium piping for the poles at either end, and a third longer piece to run along the top, supporting the eight foot long and four foot deep piece of canvas they acquired from the art school stores and dyed red. He also welded sockets for each end of the pole to fit into. Then they set to work on the design. Claire turned out to be good at embroidery, learned from her grandmother, and so she was responsible for parts of the banner that imitated the style but not the content of the Bayeux Tapestry. Adrian designed a brand new typeface like nothing that had ever been seen before, and Shirley painted a border of flowers interwoven with military weapons and objects of torture. Jack for his part entwined tiny pieces of metal, glass and wire into the canvas so that in the light it sparkled and glowed, while Nick directed the whole thing, took the overview, showed them where they were going right and where they were going wrong. Occasionally people would stop and stare at the banner for a long time, finding it, as Nick had predicted, ‘awesome’. Some asked if they could come on the Vietnam demo too, perhaps to walk behind the banner or maybe carry it for just a short while, but the group told them no. It was their thing.

For their trip to London, Jack purchased a motor vehicle – a green mini van – he thought of it as not just his but rather that it belonged to the five of them. He had learned to drive in the army during National Service. If you bought a van version of a small car then you didn’t have to pay purchase tax on it and the van version of the mini was hardly less uncomfortable than the cramped little car; it had the same door handles that were basically a piece of string and sharp metal edges everywhere, it just didn’t have any seats or windows in the back. The cost of a radio, like the cost of a heater, was extra so he hadn’t been able to afford either of those – though he had paid a few additional pounds for a passenger seat. Early on the Saturday morning Jack arrived first at the college. He just sat in a happy silence and waited. Claire and Nick turned up together, which surprised him, and she seemed to be wearing Nick’s ‘frog’, the top the lecturer had worn the first time they’d met. Without discussion Nick took the passenger seat while Claire climbed into the back where Jack had put some cushions for people to sit on. Claire folded herself – knees drawn up, her arms wrapped around her legs – and did not respond to Jack’s greeting. Nick by contrast was all bright chatter about how the day was going to go and what an effect seeing their banner was going to have on people. Shirley and Adrian too arrived together and climbed into the back. Getting settled took a while as they had to arrange themselves around the banner which ran the whole length of the vehicle from the double back doors to the front windscreen. Then they set off.

Pretty soon they got to the M6. Some parts of the motorway hadn’t been open that long; here the tarmac ran smooth and unmarked and there was very little other traffic. Still, Jack didn’t feel safe pushing the buzzing green box above 65 miles an hour. Occasionally a coach would pass them with either North Vietnamese or Viet Cong flags or both, fluttering from its open windows or strung across the expanse of glass at the back. Somewhere near Birmingham the motorway ran out and they had to take lesser A roads to get to the M1 near Rugby. The little van was passing through a small Midlands town which resembled any other place except for the fact that every single person on the streets seemed to be from India when Claire suddenly shouted, ‘Let me out!’ 

‘What?’ Jack asked, alarmed.

‘Stop here. Let me out!’ she yelled once more.

Jack pulled up beside a row of semi-detached houses outside of which a number of Sikhs were washing their brightly coloured cars. The back door of the mini van could not be opened from the inside though Claire hammered on the door, Jack clambered from his seat and opened it from the outside. The girl was breathing heavily and there were tears in her eyes as she unfolded herself. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asked.

‘Why don’t you ask him?’ Claire said, indicating Nick who sat in the passenger seat staring straight ahead as if nothing was happening behind him.

‘I’m going home,’ the girl said and turned and walked off back towards the town centre. 

‘How will you get home?’ Jack shouted to her retreating form.

‘I’ll hitch.’ 

‘Well what was that all about?’ Jack asked as he climbed back into the driver’s seat.

‘I’ve no idea, my man,’ Nick replied.

Once they got onto the M1 Jack pulled into Watford Gap Services for a break and to fill up on petrol. In the foyer outside the TopTray self-service restaurant a sudden argument broke out between Shirley and Adrian over the role of non-violent versus violent action in the revolutionary struggle. Shirley could not believe that she was hearing for the first time that Adrian harboured pacifist sympathies and wasn’t really that keen on the Viet Cong. He also told her that he was thinking of training as a Church of England vicar.

Shirley was not willing to share the van with such a counter-revolutionary and the last Jack and Nick saw of her, she was getting on a crowded coach bearing the banner of the Nottingham Branch of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. But then Adrian decided he couldn’t face going on the demo either, so the last they saw of him he had climbed over a fence at the back of the services and was walking across a field full of curious cows.

In silence Jack ate steak pie, chips, a buttered roll and a cup of tea which cost four shillings and threepence which he thought was expensive. Nick said he couldn’t see anything he fancied so only had a cup of coffee which he announced was terrible. They got back in the car and headed south.

Nick talked more or less the whole way about a thousand and one things. Jack stayed quiet. He thought that after all he didn’t like Nick that much and he wished he’d paid for a radio.

The M1 stopped north of the London suburb of Hendon. The group’s plan had been to park somewhere near the underground station then take the tube to Hyde Park where the demonstration was scheduled to begin in about an hour’s time. The two men who remained might have got through the day if Nick hadn’t said as they pulled up in a North London side street, ‘That Claire eh, my man? Crazy bitch or what?’

After a few seconds Jack said, ‘Fuck off, Nick.’

‘What?’

‘You heard. Fuck off, go away, leave, beat it, get away from me.’ Making sure Nick could see, Jack reached down to a large metal wrench he used for work and tightened his fingers around it. 

‘You’re crazy, my man!’ Nick shouted, scrambling out of the passenger side door and hurrying down the street, checking every few seconds that the other man wasn’t following him.

For a while Jack sat staring straight ahead, his fingers clenching and unclenching around the steering wheel, then finally he climbed from his seat, walked around to the back and pulled open the rear doors. He dragged the banner from the back of the van and laid it on the ground. Rolled up it was dull and lifeless but Jack knew when the banner was unfurled it could shine with a light so powerful it would change the lives of all those who saw it. But there was nobody to hold the other end.

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