Howard Jacobson: Mown down by pacifists on pedal-bikes, bombing us with their conformist slogans

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How's this for irony? I take a week off from the combativeness of column writing and get mown down by peace protesters.

How's this for irony? I take a week off from the combativeness of column writing and get mown down by peace protesters. Ha! But since there's a lesson to be drawn from every mishap, I draw two from mine. First, call no man safe unless he's working. Second, steer clear of the centre of London when there's a peace demo on – unless you happen to be on it.

Which in turn, I suppose, raises the question of why I wasn't. I can answer that generally and specifically. Generally, I don't go on marches for or against war or for or against anything else come to that because I don't enjoy the sensation of being with large numbers of people. Morally, I don't enjoy it and, aesthetically, I care for it even less. Even when they're quiet, large numbers of people are bound to be wrong. Those are just the odds of rectitude. Small numbers right, large numbers wrong. But when they're chanting – unless what they're chanting happens to have been set to music by Johann Sebastian Bach – they are wrong and ugly.

That this raises moral and aesthetic problems vis-a–vis political change and how to effect it, I readily admit. Standing listening to Raymond Williams calling for disarmament in Cambridge in the early 60s, I remember thinking that, while I didn't want Kennedy and Kruschev to settle their differences by dropping nuclear bombs on my college, I didn't fancy living in a world where people employed vocabularies and wore cardigans like Raymond Williams' either. But that was just me. Everyone else seemed happy enough.

Specifically – to return to the present – the reason I wasn't marching was that I had other things to do. Such as? Such as buying a dinner shirt. I know, I know – there's a war raging, innocent people are dying, a new lot of not very nice desperadoes are replacing the last lot of not very nice desperadoes (surprise, surprise) and I'm out buying a dinner shirt.

Try thinking of me as the unnoticing peasant in Brueghel's painting of Icarus, or the old man harrowing clods in Hardy's poem In Time of The Breaking of Nations – war's annals will cloud into night, ere our story dies, blah blah. You take my point. Dynasties may come and dynasties may go, but the need for a dinner shirt goes on for ever. Besides, I was buying it to wear at a charity dinner.

And it was while I was out buying it that the anti-war protesters mowed me down. Mowed me down might be coming it a bit strong. Nearly mowed me down. They were on bicycles, blowing kazoos, ringing bells, and shouting slogans such as "Stop The War", as though nobody had thought of that before. Whether they'd been to the demonstration in Trafalgar Square and got the idea of stopping the war there or were on their way to it or were simply acting as outriders and whippers-in, I have no idea. But they scared me.

Anybody on a bicycle scares me. People who ride bicycles are fuelled by a belligerence unknown even to drivers of Alfa Romeos. Presumably, it is something to do with the crouching position in which a cyclist cycles, almost on all fours, sniffing blood on the jungle floor again. Also something to do with high-mindedness – husbanding the resources of the planet etc – and we all know what snarling brutes the high-minded invariably are. Be that as it may, if any old cyclist is a one-person Armageddon on wheels, imagine the bellicosity given off by ten cycling peace protesters, kazooing.

A little old lady, my age, in fur Dr Zhivago ear-muffs and seal-skin seige-of-Leningrad boots, asked me who Pete was and why they wanted us to give him a chance.

"I think they're saying peace," I said, against my better instincts.

"They want to give Pete a piece?"

"No, peace a chance."

She snorted. "Ha! Well they aren't giving it much of a chance making that racket!" she said, walking out into the road.

It was just as I was trying to haul her back to safety that one of them rode over my feet.

Funny how it works. I always thought of John Lennon as an uncommonly embattled man – a lyrical pugilist at best – and now he is an icon of peace. These pacifists on pedal-bikes were doubly bent on making the world a more harmonious place, yet their slogans were calculated to din us all into conformity, making repetition truth, which is exactly what a bombing campaign is designed to do.

And over in Trafalgar Square, even as I was nursing my toes, Tony Benn and John Pilger were employing the grand vehemence of their natures to exhort the multitude to non-violence.

I've never had any time for Tony Benn; he has mad eyes and keeps a diary. Pilger is another matter. There's something of the righteous dandy in Pilger which I like; he's a spinner of yarns, a fine narrator, no matter how much of what he mines is truth. He is, however, a fearsome man, formidable in anger. Though a master of the rhetoric of justice, he is no dove of peace. And, frankly, I wouldn't want to cross him.

But then show me the peacenick you would want to cross. Scary, every one of them. Maybe peace is just another name for another sort of war. Maybe if you don't fancy dropping out of aeroplanes on Afghans you can get the same sort of thrill aiming your bicycles at aged people trying to cross Regent Street, and hollering at them to "Give Pete a Chance."

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