Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Brian Haw: 3000 days and nights for peace

Late last night I received a text from Brian Haw, the Parliament Square protester, to remind me that by dawn he would have spent a staggering 3000 nights camped out on the pavement in front of Westminster.
Brian, who has come to symbolise the right to protest as much as the anti-war campaign in the eight years he has been across the road, is an irascible and restless soul. He leans on crutches now and he looks pretty worn down by his obsessive vigil but he's still there, still going strong.
The Independent have put him on the front page this morning and gave him a deserved two page spread inside.
I interviewed him on a cold March morning two years ago for the Sunday Herald and, surprisingly, he liked the piece so much he wanted more copies to send to his family.
The interview was as comprehensive a biography of the man as I could puzzle together from what he said that day and from what he has told others and it's replicated below.
From the Sunday Herald 11/03/2007

BRIAN HAW would rather be hosting an interview at his "number two gallery", the Tate Britain, but as he's more at home on the rain-soaked pavement of Parliament Square, we'll have to make do with a big green umbrella in the shelter of his much-truncated peace wall.

Less than half a mile away, in the warmth of one of the capital's most prestigious galleries, Haw's pavement-length display of anti-war placards has been reproduced in all its former glory. The 40m ramshackle wall of placards, photos of genocide, anti-war slogans and messages of support was all confiscated by the Metropolitan Police in the middle of the night as part of an ongoing campaign to remove Haw from the doorstep of the mother of parliaments. For five years, they've tried and for five years they have failed.

Mark Wallinger's State Britain installation may be a loving recreation of the work of protest but Haw is still very much aggrieved at the loss of the original. He regards its removal as more of a war crime than a crime against art.

He points out the topography of his stolen landscape from his collapsible camping chair. "That's where my church sign was, the one phoney Christian Tony tore down when he sent his friend Sir Ian Blair, the police chief thief, to steal 40 metres of evidence of genocide. He disappeared it on the 3rd of May at 2.30am in the morning. The chief of police disappearing 40 odd metres of evidence of torture. Is that a crime or not?" He splutters to a halt.
Haw has become a bit hoarse of late, maybe from shouting, maybe the fags, maybe the effects of another winter spent living under plastic and canvas in the centre of London. He tries to speak softly but every so often he rises to a crescendo of invective as the anger ebbs and flows through his body.

You'd expect anyone who has spent five-and-half years sitting outside parliament, haranguing the denizens of Westminster on a daily basis, to be a bit eccentric. But Brian Haw, the Parliament Square peace protester, is no one's fool, even though a lot of the time he pretends he is.

Just as war needs heroes, the peace movement has a propensity to throw up brave individuals such as Cindy Sheehan, who camped outside George Bush's Texas ranch, and whose extraordinary commitment to the cause often stem from personal tragedy. Haw's in that category too, outside the mainstream, untameable, his own man.
Bruce Kent, the white-haired vice-president of Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament, was for many years the best-known figure in the peace movement. Still active today, he's planning to visit Scotland in March, and his assessment typifies the arms-length relationship Haw has with organised campaigns. "He is an enormously courageous eccentric who has managed to bring continuing national focus on to the whole issue of the Iraq war in a highly original way, " says Kent. "His witness has been very successful and the way he has managed his legal affairs has been extraordinary. The government hasn't had the brains to craft legislation that will get rid of him."

Haw can be, at turns, a glint-eyed, hallelujah evangelist, cursing with the salty tongue of a whaling ship's captain. He'll rant like Ahab against "Bomber Blair" and "Killer Bush" and break unbidden into sea shanties of doggerel song. But beneath the trademark beanie hat, festooned with water-stained peace badges, there is a shrewd operator with a keen sense of what he has come to represent. Haw, who has spent more nights in the open than most SAS troopers do in a career, has become the enduring symbol of the British anti-war movement, yet no one can claim him as a mascot.

He's been voted by the public as the most inspiring politician of the year, but has no constituency. His uncompromising, rugged looks have been captured on canvas by artist Nick Botting, who described Haw as "key to our time". Last December, Botting contacted the Imperial War Museum to suggest they consider exhibiting the portrait, but the offer was politely declined. The museum may not have been interested in displaying a picture of a dedicated peace activist, but Haw continues to be feted by sympathisers from around the world.

Laws have been passed across the road to have him booted off his parliamentary pitch but, after five-and-a-half years, successive efforts to have him silenced and removed have come to naught. With the anniversary of the 2003 Iraq invasion looming on March 20 it's beginning to look as if Haw will outlast his nemesis, Tony Blair. Yards from the traffic fumes, the noise of buses and the cold and damp, the pavement opposite Big Ben is a hellish place to spend a morning, let alone five-and-a-half years of your life. Haw camps on the grass, goes to a friend's flat for a wash once a week and eats what he is given by visitors and supporters. Where he goes to the toilet is, he says, his own business.

Underneath the hat, he's a reasonably clean-shaven, square-jawed 56-year-old with nicotine-stained hands and overlong fingernails. He seems as permanent a fixture as his companion on the square, the large-scale statue of Winston Churchill, or "the gasbag" as Haw describes him.

Brian Haw arrived in Parliament Square, a geometric green island in the witch's cauldron of London traffic whirling by the Palace of Westminster on June 2, 2001, and put up a small display of placards protesting the deaths of children because of sanctions against Iraq. It seems a long time ago. The foot and mouth crisis had passed, a still youthful Blair had been re-elected for a second term and, in his wake, I walked through the Westminster portcullis for a stint of parliamentary reporting.

It was that last summer before those fuel-laden jets ushered in the Age of Uncertainty. London was hot and Brian was noisy. He could be seen from The Herald office on the Burma Road corridor of the press gallery and he could be heard, too, day in, day out. In a cramped office – shared with The Scotsman, the Press and Journal, and the Western Mail in a scoop-tight arrangement of Chinese walls – the window had to be open to keep the heat of the capital at bay.

That let the noise of Brian in and he was very annoying. At some stage of the day, someone trying to concentrate would shout at Brian to shut up. I doubt if he could hear us. He didn't, he reminds me, start using a megaphone until 2003. Still, he was damn loud without it. "And how loud are our bombs?" he asks rhetorically.

The ambient traffic seems louder than any noise Haw could make, flattening the chime of Big Ben, his constant companion on the mantelpiece of parliament. He seems immune to the traffic noise and doesn't react at all to either cheers of support or the occasional white van man jeer.

He's confounded the law on many occasions, beating numerous attempts to have him evicted. A new law was drafted specifically with him in mind, part of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, which removed the 350-year-old right to peaceful protest within a quarter mile of the Palace of Westminster. The case has snarled up enough Home Office lawyers and police time in a game of legal ping-pong that they maybe wish they hadn't started.

The Court of Appeal would not grant him leave to appeal to the House of Lords, but Haw's lawyers refused to accept that and he will be independently seeking leave to appeal. As an interim measure, his solicitor has notified the police Haw intends to continue his demonstration. Then the police imposed conditions on his demonstration last May. In Westminster Magistrate's Court, these were thrown out but the empire struck back with new conditions preventing him from re-instating his former display.

He's limited to a three-metre long display, no more than one metre high. The legal molestation apart, he's hemmed in by crowd barriers and the park wardens who guard the grass. It seems an extraordinary amount of legal muscle to silence one small nuisance but the law didn't stop there.

Another clause of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act banning the use of megaphones in Parliament Square was drafted with Haw in mind. He sought an exemption from Westminster City Council, who were minded not to grant it. A High Court judge quashed the refusal and awarded Haw costs. He now has the right to use a megaphone at certain times under certain conditions. He can use it for half an hour in the morning, half an hour in the early evening and for a short while when Tony Blair drives past to face Prime Minister's Question Time.

His quarry usually goes in the back way now, Haw complains. "I have to take my 25-watt megaphone down to the end of the display. I have to toddle off to that murderer Churchill, " he says, pointing to the three-metre high statue that guards the way into Whitehall. "You know his grandson Nicholas Soames gave me two fingers on the way in these gates?"He's back to shouting: "I was saying: 'Tony Blair, George Bush, hear the words of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. In the past, it's been said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Now I say love your enemies. Christ didn't say to you burn the babies and bugger their mums and dads and brothers and sisters, did he?" His voice drops back to normal: "I'm crying out these words and he gives me two dirty fingers – 'f**k you'. So, I'm telling the police officer to do his duty and arrest the Right Honourable scumbag, the shadow offence secretary as he was. His grandfather was a gasbag too. His grandfather gassed and bombed people too."

Haw's had worse encounters with authority and unwanted visitors. He's been beaten up three times and had his nose broken. In one of those fractured conversations, he tells how an army officer named "Jake" wanted to give him a hard time at 4am one day. "I'm under the plastic there, trying to have some rest, and he's shouting: 'Were you there? Were you there?'." "Well, I wasn't getting any rest, was I, so I stuck my head out from under the canvas and I shouted: Were you in Cambodia? Do you know about Pol Pot? They called him Asia's Hitler. They called the Khmer Rouge the red people, Asians Nazis. Now they're commies and we call them gooks don't we?" Well, anything you say, Brian.

He continues uninterrupted: "I went there at Christmas-time 1989, when Lord Carrington said the Cambodians were only eight million and we shouldn't worry. Oh, did John Pilger do the job on him. . ." With such a bomb-splinter approach to answering straight questions you have to pick the shards of Brian Haw's life from the random clues he fires off and from what others have been able to document.

He actually has been to Cambodia, to the killing fields, but perhaps the most surprising aspect of Brian Haw, apart from the pleasant news he's a twin and the poignant fact he's the father of seven children, is that his presence in Parliament Square is part of a long voyage around the ghost of his father. "My dad was a sniper in the British Army and he was one of the first to go into Bergen-Belsen and save the people, " announces Haw, seemingly apropos of nothing.

You have to learn quickly with Haw that everything is connected and that between the polemics on depleted uranium and the protest songs are the stories of the demons that drive him. "He knew genocide, my dad, and 20 years later he gassed himself. But he taught me a valuable lesson, did my dad – you don't get peace by shooting people."

Most enlisted infantrymen in battle spend their time trying not to kill people. Despite the training, it is in defiance of human nature to deliberately take aim at another man and fire accurately. But being a sniper is the most calculating and callous role in an infantry regiment. In war, they kill each day, every shot recorded close up through telescopic sights, everything remembered. "And you very rarely shoot the right people do you?" says Haw. "They were just young men. Do you know how many soldiers from the American army are coloured? This man from Iraq came and said he only saw one or two white officers."

Haw's father could have been haunted by his fighting experience or the sights that greeted the liberators of the Nazi concentration camps or a combination of both. Either way, he committed suicide 20 years later, after bringing shame on the family by dipping into the till at a betting shop he worked in.

At 16, Brian Haw became head of the family. He joined the Merchant Navy and sailed the world, sending home GBP4 a week. Woven in his life is evangelical religion that shaped his childhood in Whitstable, on the Kent coast. He spent six months after one merchant voyage at a college of evangelism in Nottingham and then really began to take his mission for peace to the streets.

In 1989, he was deeply affected by John Pilger's documentary on the Cambodian killing fields. It sparked something in him, perhaps a desire to get some insight into the horrors that affected his father. By then, he was a father himself, married in Essex with four children with a fifth on the way. Back then, his wife understood his motives and he left on an overland journey with GBP100 in his pocket, passing from West to East, through the Brandenburg Gate on the night the Berlin wall came down.

He spent three months in the horror of Cambodia but, when he came back, he was given only 10 minutes in a church hall to tell his story. When he came to parliament, his wife initially continued to supported him, but now they are divorced.

He bats away questions about whether he sees his children with another rant. "My youngest one is 14. I'm bloody angry at you and everyone else and my whole stinking country. Why can't I be with my family and my children? How do I feel when everybody wants to regard me as the hero, like Rocky getting into the ring? Did I ask for that? I just came here as a responsible person, as a Christian. As you do to the least, you do to me, that's what Jesus said."

Tony Blair, George Bush and Brian Haw have Christianity in common but they do not share the same God. "They're lying, evil bastards aren't they?' says Haw, putting adequate distance between himself and the leaders of the free world. "Jesus Christ going around bombing babies? Jesus Christ will say he never knew them." You get the feeling there's a sermon coming next. "You know a tree by its fruit, " says Haw. "If it's a tree with poison ivy around it and the fruit says Christian, do you believe it? Well, suck it and see. And that evil, baby-bombing Brown: 'I don't do war, I just pay for it'. Lying bugger. You pay for it, we pay for it but who pays for it the most? The babies we bomb."

He's reached a plateau of anger now: "Gordon Brown lost a baby while I was here. It is sad when you lose a baby. I lost my first-born son at the age of 12 hours and that was painful. I can sympathise with Brown for losing his baby but what about all those babies that Brown financed the killing of?"

Haw may be the cracked mirror of the parliament's conscience over the Iraq war but his vagabond protest has sparked with the British people. He was voted the most inspirational political figure of the year in the 2006 Channel 4 news awards. In a public poll, he garnered more votes than Blair, David Cameron, General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the Army, John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, and Aishah Azmi, the teaching assistant sacked for wearing a full veil in her classroom. "See, 54-per cent wanted Brian for peace and 6-per cent wanted that clown Cameron, " says the award-winner.

He spoke to General Dannatt at the ceremony and didn't waste the chance. "Bring the troops out of Iraq and into Afghanistan, that's smart isn't it? No, bring them home, I said, bring them home. Why should they die so that people can make a filthy fortune?". It's hard to find out from Haw whether his protest might end when Blair leaves office. What would the longest one-man political protest in British history do then? He doesn't appear to have anywhere to go, this emblem of the anti-war movement.

The recent Channel 4 satire, the Trial Of Tony Blair, immortalised Haw by having him set up camp outside the retired Prime Minister's new home in Connaught Square. But is Brian Haw destined to be one of the furies pursuing Blair into the abyss, the externalisation of a PM's night-time doubts? If Blair has any nightmares over Iraq then Haw has to wrestle with his own haunting memories, the gas fumes of genocide and his own father's suicide.

You can send a postcard of support to Brian Haw, c/o Parliament Square, London SW1A. Visit his website at

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