John Bird: If we don’t find common ground, we face a fight to stop extremism

There are always causes for anger and belligerence breaking out

On January 30 last year I stood on the platform of my country station waiting for the 8.55am to London. I had a portable electric razor, a Philishave, made by Philips, and was having a late shave. I always like telling whoever chooses to listen to this kind of story about how the original Lion Philips, whose son and grandson co-founded the company, was Karl Marx’s uncle and Karl often tapped him for money for his revolutionary cause. Back in the 1840s and ’50s.

The 8.55am arrived on time and the doors burst open and out of them came an enormous chaos. Perhaps 10 boys of about 16 or 17 years old were beating what appeared to me to be one boy. People were shouting and fear seemed to spill over the platform, with many girls of a similar age also screaming.

I pocketed my Philishave razor and letting out the most vile, belligerent, loud, offensive bellow, I swore and gesticulated and ploughed into the tumult. And, pulling the boy who had punches and kicks raining down upon him behind me, told everyone else to “Fuck right off!”

I have been present on so many occasions when the above happened, among homeless people kicking off against each other. Boys and young men in prison, often picking on one person to take the brunt of their dissatisfaction. But here was pure theatre because all I had to do was be incredibly loud, appearing fearless and authoritative in order to shut up  and restore, as the Americans like to call it, ‘normalcy’ to the platform. The fighters poured off the platform and the boy and the girl friends who were with him remained and I think I advised them to get back on the train and go to the next stop.

I have been a part of the chaos myself on occasions. Chaos and anger and accusations and opinions are thrown around, often causing fighting in the end. You could say that the participants are not thinking of what you might call ‘the common good’: the safety on this occasion of other people and themselves on the platform.

There are always causes for anger and belligerence breaking out. I once arrived at Fulham Broadway station on the train when aged 18 at a time when the local Chelsea Football Club had emptied. I was the only one getting off and as soon as the doors were opened dozens of people pushed into me as I tried to get off, with me ending up in the gap between platform and train, being trodden on without any thought. I managed to pull myself up and then attacked the hordes of men who stood confused and bewildered at my belligerency against their simple attempt to get on the underground.

I think it was then that I became inoculated against mobs and mob rule, against the weak being trodden underfoot.

But the fight on the platform was something else. And it took my authority to restore the rule of law. I know it was January 30 last year because it was my 72nd birthday. Also in the tumult of the platform I lost the top of my razor, having not put it back in my pocket with enough care. So on my birthday I intervened in a near riot and lost the essential bit to my £15 portable razor; so it was a commendable birthday.

Previous to that I had been musing on the Second World War, as I always do when I have my birthday. Not that I lived through it, missing the end of it by about nine months. But I always end up thinking of the other January 30ths and the January 30 that led to the Second World War: January 30 1933.

As a remainer I stand appalled at the inability of virtually all of the participants to reach a consensus, reminding me of my fights on platforms, football mobs and German parliamentary history

So exactly 85 years after Hitler came to power and proceeded to create the turmoil and murder of world war and the Holocaust, I stood on an obscure country platform and did my best to quell the anger of some kids kicking off.

Hitler of course did not come to power 13 years before I was born through grabbing the state and throttling it into submission. He did not lead a march on Berlin like Mussolini and his fascists had earlier led a march on Rome. No, Hitler was reluctantly handed the full mantle of state power by President Hindenburg, legally. Why? Because the Reichstag could not agree. So there was a terrible lack of decision- making and belligerency all around. So they handed the power over to the largest party’s leader – Hitler – and hoped for the best.


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The problem was an inability to reach a consensus. So the president felt he had little choice, wishing the restoration of law and order without using the army.

I did find my little bit of shaver the next day on the platform and it continues to work, but never as well as before the incident.

Are our latest parliamentary troubles likely to learn much from the above examples of mine that spring to mind as once again I stand on a platform, as I did this morning, shaving?

Certainly Parliament could not make up its mind about Europe and passed the decision to the “People”. The people made the wrong decision for a near 70 per cent remainer Parliament. Then a compromise developed by a remainer PM could not be agreed by a Parliament that could not seem to agree about anything with regard to Europe.

There was no consensus.

As a remainer I stand appalled at the inability of virtually all of the participants to reach a consensus, reminding me of my fights on platforms, football mobs and German parliamentary history. Out of a lack of consensus there almost always arise draconian responses.

But I might just be too much into storytelling.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief  of The Big Issue