Atthe Tory Party Conference last year Boris Johnson claimed that his mother, Charlotte, was the ‘ace up his sleeve’ on Brexit. She had, he said, voted to leave the European Union in 2016, and was ‘the supreme authority in my family’. I went to Oxford in 1960 from Stonyhurst, the Jesuit boarding school, and in the vacation at the end of my first term met Charlotte Fawcett in the Café des Artistes, a basement club in Fulham. She had been expelled from the convent school in Sussex where her older sister was a nun and my younger sister a boarder, and was being tutored in London for a place at Oxford, where her father was the bursar of All Souls. We were both 18, atheists, committed to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the early British anti-apartheid movement.

Over the Easter weekend of 1961 we took part in the CND march from the Atomic Weapons Research Centre at Aldermaston to London. The march, which had first taken place three years earlier, was already becoming an annual tradition. We went through Slough, and one slogan we chanted was a riposte to John Betjeman’s poem, with its call for ‘friendly bombs’ to fall on the town: ‘Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Slough – THINK NOW!’

In the summer Charlotte worked in London as a volunteer for the Africa Bureau, an anti-colonial think tank and part of the anti-apartheid movement, selling tickets for a benefit concert which starred the cast of Beyond the Fringe. At the gig, Peter Cook performed his Harold Macmillan routine, comparing the four-minute warning before a nuclear strike to Roger Bannister’s mile record (‘I’d like you to know that in this great country of ours a man can run a mile in four minutes’). In August I joined the Fawcett family at the villa they’d rented in Tuscany. Charlotte and I hitched back to England over several days, travelling in vehicles of every kind, from trucks to two-seater sports cars. We slept outside in northern Italy and France, and spent a restless night on the stony beach at Dieppe.

Our next political outing was in September 1961, in an action organised by the Committee of 100. The previous year, Bertrand Russell had given up the presidency of CND to play a leading role on the committee, whose members hoped to drive disarmament forward by means of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance. Two sit-down protests in London had drawn thousands and the Macmillan government reacted to the plan for a third – which was to culminate in a sit-down in Parliament Square – by banning the rally in Trafalgar Square that was to precede it. In the week leading up to the action, a third of the Committee of 100, among them Robert Bolt, Arnold Wesker and Christopher Logue, as well as Bertrand Russell and his wife, had been sent to jail, accused of inciting ‘members of the public to commit breaches of the peace’.

This massive PR blunder on the government’s part ensured that on 17 September Trafalgar Square was occupied by far more people than the police could possibly contain or arrest; both the Times and Peace News put the number at 12,000. But the police did their best: they arrested 1314 people, by far the largest number of arrests on any single day of protest in Britain. (By the end of Extinction Rebellion’s October action last year, which went on for more than a week, roughly 1850 arrests had been made.) More than 650 supporters of the Committee of 100 spent a night in the cells. At the parallel demonstration at the Holy Loch nuclear submarine base, bad weather reduced numbers, but a further 289 people were arrested.

Charlotte and I were in Trafalgar Square that day. From five in the afternoon demonstrators tried to evade the police and advance towards Parliament Square, but they were blocked and the arrests began. At midnight, most of the remaining demonstrators decided to call it a day, leaving a hard core of activists – a few hundred, as I recall. Not long afterwards another wave of arrests began. Adam Roberts, then a fellow undergraduate, now an emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford, wrote a vivid account for the New Statesman describing how he was beaten up and kicked, badly enough that he still had internal bleeding three days later. When I was arrested, the policeman in charge told Charlotte, who was sitting next to me, to ‘run along home’. She did. Some other women were treated less gently, dragged over the paving stones and thrown into the fountains. I was roughly handled, though I didn’t need medical treatment.

Charlotte had got a place at Oxford, and when term started we both signed up to the new Oxford Committee of 100. Demonstrations were scheduled to take place at air force bases including Ruislip, Wethersfield and Brize Norton in the second week of December, just as term was ending. By then, Charlotte and I were drifting apart and she was clearly having second thoughts about the Committee of 100. She didn’t turn up for the pre-demonstration briefing or to Brize Norton. The plan was to convene at a village green a few miles away, march to the base (legally), then sit down in the road (illegally). Just before we moved off, the senior police officer proposed a meeting with the marshals to discuss traffic arrangements. All was smooth and good-humoured until we noticed that we had been surrounded. ‘So do you intend to carry on with your plan to blockade the base?’ the senior officer asked. We sat down on the grass and were carried away to police vehicles. Meanwhile, the rest of the march moved off.

We hadn’t committed an offence so we couldn’t be charged with anything – or so we thought. But we were liable under the Justices of the Peace Act (1361) unless we agreed to be ‘bound over’ – that is, to accept a heavier penalty if we subsequently committed an offence. Those of us who could spare the time refused to be bound over and spent the next twenty days in jail. We were sent to Oxford prison, which is now a Malmaison hotel. At the time it was far from luxurious, but Evelyn Waugh’s remark in Decline and Fall that ‘anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison’ was still apposite. I learned to drink tea without sugar: our miserly sugar ration wouldn’t stretch to both porridge and tea. Meals were regular and substantial and I probably put on a few pounds. On Christmas Day we had roast pork followed by a stodgy pudding and custard, and the Salvation Army regaled us with carols. We fasted for 24 hours in protest at the execution of Robert McGladdery, the last man to be hanged in Northern Ireland, and one of our ‘arrestables’, Laurens Otter, fasted for the full twenty days. I used to meet him in the exercise yard, where we trudged round in a circle, two by two, like children in a school crocodile. We were allowed to talk, and I was treated to a series of tutorials on anarchism from Laurens. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of groupuscule politics and turned the traditional argument in favour of anarchism on its head. Instead of asserting that people were well intentioned and essentially good, and so had no need of an authoritarian state, he invoked the doctrine of the fall of man. If we were fundamentally flawed, which as an Anglo-Catholic he accepted, there was no coherent case for government because no one was good enough to be another’s master: anarchism was the solution. As an ex-Catholic I was impressed, though not yet convinced.

Ban-the-bombers were segregated from the other prisoners. We were allowed to wear our own clothes because we hadn’t been convicted, and we worked on one of the landings, not sewing mailbags but waxing the thread with which mailbags were sewn. We were paid for doing this and so could buy chocolate in the prison shop. We were allowed letters but not visits, and were issued with a green exercise book, which I still have (General Note Book – ‘Name 6385 HICKS’). Restrictions on its use are listed inside: ‘You must not write, draw or paint in it anything indecent or against the good order, security and discipline of the prison or wilfully disfigure or damage it or remove any pages, or make notes in shorthand or cipher.’ What we wrote in it was censored and afterwards it was marked ‘OK for discharge’.

While I was in prison I learned from a fellow inmate that Charlotte had resigned from the Oxford Committee of 100. We had a brief reconciliation a few weeks later, but that was pretty much the last we saw of each other. I managed to avoid arrest at the next few events, including a fast for peace in Oxford and a blockade of the RAF base at Greenham Common. A bolder plan, hatched in 1963, to invade the RAF base at Marham in Norfolk and immobilise the fleet of nuclear bombers by sitting in front of them, ended my run of luck.

We stood around the perimeter fence, some of us making sporadic attempts to climb over the wire. The RAF personnel lined up inside threw any intruders back over the fence. After a few hours of stalemate, word went round that we would make a final attempt to get in before giving up and going home. This time, however, 12 successful invaders were not thrown back. They were taken to a specially convened magistrates’ court; the rest of us followed, gathering outside. The news, when it came, was dramatic: they’d been charged under Section 1 of the Official Secrets Act, maximum sentence 14 years.

Unusually, the discussion that followed was dominated not by the leadership of the Committee of 100 but by activists who had been at the protest. Peter Cadogan, the local committee secretary, argued in his usual terse, abrasive style that we should head home, as we’d planned to do. (Cadogan had served in RAF air-sea rescue during the war, then joined the Communist Party, from which he was suspended in 1956. He tried the Labour Party, which expelled him in 1959, and finally two Trotskyist groups, which also expelled him, enabling him to boast in an interview that he was ‘England’s most expelled socialist’.) The majority insisted that we should return to Marham in a week’s time and prepare to be sent to prison. A minority (including me) said that anyone able to do so should go back to the base immediately. There were more than fifty of us.

Returning to Marham that night, we scaled the perimeter fence and advanced in the gloom towards the planes. We were all duly arrested and charged under Section 1. Everyone who refused conditional bail was jailed: the women were transferred to Holloway and the men to Norwich. A little more than a week elapsed between our arrest and our appearance in court. In the meantime, several hundred activists had returned to Marham. I spent hours in Norwich prison labouring over a riposte to the charge of acting in a way ‘prejudicial to the safety or interests of the state’, with copious references to Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and South Africa. I was wasting my time. When we were ferried to Downham Market Magistrates’ Court, we discovered that the charge under Section 1 had been dropped. In its place was a milder charge under Section 3. All of us, including the original 12, were fined £25, which I paid off a year later. I can’t say for sure whether the Section 1 charge against the 12 would have stood if we hadn’t joined them, but at the time we thought we’d swung it.

Charlotte married Stanley Johnson in 1963, and they took off together for the US. She returned later to complete her degree as the first married undergraduate at Lady Margaret Hall. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel, their first child, was born in 1964 and baptised as a Catholic. It’s not often I hear news of her, though I know she’s a painter. I did read an interview she gave to Tatler five years ago. ‘I was engaged to somebody called Wynford Hicks,’ she said, ‘who was extraordinarily beautiful to look at but actually quite boring.’ She has obviously learned to think of her brief political involvement – and all that went with it – as a dreary interlude. The idea of being engaged would have seemed quaint to us in 1961, and I suppose the word was a retrospective euphemism. There was no promise, no ring, no announcement, no engagement party, certainly no proposed wedding date. It was what most people think of as having a relationship. The question of marriage never came up.

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Vol. 42 No. 18 · 24 September 2020

As an undergraduate at Oxford, Wynford Hicks was indeed the noble figure, with golden locks and a flowing beard, remembered by Charlotte Johnson in her interview with Tatler (LRB, 10 September). I vividly remember the moment when he got up to interrupt the Liberal politician Jeremy Thorpe, who was speaking in a debate at the Oxford Union. Quick as a flash, Thorpe acknowledged him with the words: ‘I am so glad you could get here from Oberammergau to be with us this evening.’

Robert Skidelsky
London SW1

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