Twenty-Five Years of Hunger and War

John Bull farts on a poster of George III (detail). Print by Richard Newton, 1798.

This week’s episode in the faltering ‘British Monarchy’ series featured King Charles being presented with the Scottish crown jewels at a ceremony in Edinburgh. There were indeed protests, but these were limited to small groups flourishing “Not My King” placards and booing. Back in 1935, when the monarchy was still a potent force, my father, Claud Cockburn, took a more spirited approach, recruiting a small group “devoted,” he later reported, “to doing things that would advertise out various Causes, and doing them in such a way that the newspapers would have to take notice even if it choked them.” One of the group’s more satisfying actions was on “Jubilee Day,” May 6, 1935, when King George V paraded through the streets of London in celebration of his quarter-century on the throne. This is his account of how he and his group disrupted the proceedings.  

The episode of the banner in Fleet Street, was interesting both in itself and because it accidentally demonstrated how easy it would have been for real terrorists to have blown up most of the Royal Family and many other leaders of State, Church and Armed Forces all at once at eleven o’clock in the morning in the sight of thousands in the middle of London. This all occurred on Jubilee Day, 1935.

Depression barely over and World War II visibly looming, it seemed that every effort, however puny, should be made to attract maximum attention to the seamy side of the Jubilee brocade.

For quite a while before Jubilee Day the streets of London was bedecked with banners – often of the kind that are strung from one side of the street to the other, displaying to the cavalcade presently to pass beneath them messages of loyalty and joy. Our little group constructed a banner of unusual design, though it outwardly looked like any other Jubilee banner. It was like an enormous handkerchief folded across me middle, and hung on a rope, and then the bottom half of each hanging side was folded back and up. In that position it displayed to the gaze innocuous sentiments. But at the twitch of a pulley the hooked up sides would be released, the innocuous slogan would vanish and instead everyone would see, in huge letters, the words ‘Twenty-five Years of Hunger and War’. 

The next problem was how to get it prominently slung. We selected the lower part of Fleet Street as the site and, hiring a small, sober-looking van in which the huge banner lay furled, we called at a couple of o£ offices facing one another there, and explained that, as officials of the Office of Works making an ultimate inspection of decorations along the morrow’s royal route, we had noticed that just at this point there was an unsightly gap between the otherwise regularly spaced banners. Would they, we asked, permit that we use their windows for the purpose of hanging an auxiliary banner?

The occupants were proud and privileged to have us do so.

The banner was infernally heavy, and although for this occasion we had included in the party a couple of merchant seamen who understood ropes and could climb on window ledges like cats, there was the ever-present danger that the wrong string would somehow get pulled. This was the very eve of Jubilee, and already – at about 6 or 7 of that evening–people were squatting on the pavements in preparation for what the newspapers were terming their all-night vigil. Just as all seemed fairly well, the banner sagged, and a bus nearly hit it. What was our relief when a policeman, observing the difficulties of us fellows from the Office of Works, held up all two-decker traffic until such time as we had the main rope taut and the banner in line with the others.

So far, so good. But the final problem was how to release the banner at precisely the correct moment next morning–a moment, that is to say, when it would unfurl about ten yards ahead of the King’s motor-car and thus in full range of the newsreel cameramen. Judging it too risky to hope to have a man lurking in one of the two offices to pull the string at the right time, we brought the vital string out of the window and round to the little court which at that point runs southward out of Fleet Street. Here the string was hooked, with a bent nail, high on the wall.

Next morning the group resolved itself into an organization of tick-tack men*, and at the proper moment the signal reached us and we pulled the string. Thereupon the banner opened. We knew it had because we heard an angry roar of the loyal crowds who, the moment the King and followers had passed, dashed into the roadway and tore it to pieces. (The horrified office-holders had already cut the main rope.) We had not waited to see this for fear that we should be torn to pieces too.

The intra-mural row between various branches of the Security Services was the more violent because nobody could tell anybody else whodunnit. It was bad enough that the subversive slogan appeared on the newsreel screens of half the world. Worse was the realization that the folds of that banner could have held enough dynamite to blow the whole Jubilee procession to blazes.

* “Tick-tack” was a system of signing used by bookies at British racecourses.

Andrew Cockburn’s most recent book is the Spoils of War: Power, Profit and the War Machine (Verso). Claud Cockburn was the author of I, Claud, Beat the Devil and Jericho Road.