Haunting Europe


Mat Coward takes us on a moving, nostalgic journey through his badge collection.

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I am no longer the mighty fearless activist I once was.

(To be honest, I never was the mighty fearless activist I once was. Years ago, when I was still young and fit, I was standing on a friend’s picket line, when one of the scabs started shouting abuse at a sweet little elderly white-haired woman who was off to one side of the gate, minding her own business, trying to sell Trotskyist newspapers to plainclothes policemen.

"Oi, mate," I said. "You wanna pick on someone your own size!" He turned round very slowly, looked at me very hard, and said to me very softly: "You're my size." I didn't stop running until I reached the tube station. Just for the record, I would like to point out that he was not only a blackleg, he was also a liar, being at least half an inch taller than me and much much fatter.)

My point being - if you don’t mind me getting back to it briefly - that I don’t get as much chance these days as I once did to wear my badges. Bit of a waste, really, since I have accrued a lot of badges, in an almost thirty year career of lapel-perforation. Most of them I bought - on demos or in bookshops or in pubs - a few of them I swapped for, some I was given, and one or two I stole.

In my bedsit days, I kept them pinned to a white polyester shirt - a garment I was unlikely to need at short notice - but when I moved house, the shirt disintegrated during packing, and the badges went into a big cardboard box, temporarily.

Fourteen years later, I finally got round to unpacking them, and spent several nostalgic evenings filing them in plastic sleeves designed for holding coin collections. ("Will these sleeves take badges?" I asked the woman in the philately and numismatics shop. She looked quite alarmed. "Badgers?" she gasped.)

Foxed and faded, dented and dated - well, some of them are dated.

All-time classics like "Release Nelson Mandela," delightfully so; "End War," with a caricature of Richard Nixon on a plummeting daisy-cutter, depressingly - only the figurehead has changed.

I don't suppose I'll ever again get a chance to wear "Sack Lamont, A Price Well Worth Paying," unless, perhaps, Britain’s despised former Chancellor of the Exchequer gets a job washing glasses in my local pub.

A large proportion of the badges carry the names or faces of a small number of individuals. Ronald Reagan, for instance, provoked many good’uns, including "Reagan for Actor in 1980"; a commemorative badge marking his first state visit to the UK - "Make Reagan Welcome" over a picture of a noose; and my favourite "Reagan? Il est un ouanquaire!"

A lot of the anti-Maggie slogans are a bit dour ("Thatcher cuts - Britain bleeds"), but I always enjoyed wearing "Drunks against Thatcher." The "against" badges originated in the anti-fascist 70s, I believe ("Vegetarians Against The Nazis"), before blooming in the 80s peace movement. Some of the best CND badges from that era still raise a chuckle: "Kremlin stooges against Cruise," "Dyslexics against the bmob," "Anagram lovers both sting a beam," and the almost too painfully honest "Badge fetishists against the bomb." "Rock Against Everything in General" always struck a chord, with "I don't believe in it" also catering for the nihilist crowd.

Some badges are tiny works of fine art, while many are as basic and ephemeral as a graffito. The biggest sellers were often the simplest: "Stuff the Jubilee" seemed ubiquitous in 1977, but was overshadowed a few years later by the most phenomenally popular badge of the age: "I Didn't Vote Tory."

Amid the stark abuse ("Daily Mail? I wouldn't wipe my arse with it!") and laboured jokes ("The Only Good Tory is a Lavatory"), there are flashes of marvellous comic creativity. "29 July, General Strike against the Monarchy" marked the public holiday in Britain on the day Prince Charles married Lady Di, while "Friedman admits to hoax!" lifted spirits in dark days.

There are a few which I gave up wearing, because their ambiguous phrasing led to excessively interesting conversations. "Workers’ Power Not Nuclear Power" sounds as if it’s advocating treadmills. "Solidarity with the Polish Workers" doesn't work very well in written English, while "No Tory Deals With Chile" usually brought the scornful response: "They bloody do, you know!"

The British miners’ strike of 1984-5 probably brought forth a greater tide of badgery than any event before or since. You’d need to have ice for blood not to be moved by "We'll not always be poor, but they’ll always be scabs."

Looking through this lot has made me realise that the phrase "transitional demands" often refers to a timescale best measured in eras. The Trades Union Congress’s "1980s Yes! 1930s No!" is no more meaningless now than it was then, and "Britain Needs Railways" was a good investment - I fear that one will be topical for at least another generation.

Some things change, though. "If they can get rid of the Shah ... " recalls a time when anti-monarchism was a live topic on the British left - and when it was generally assumed that the overthrow of a US puppet dictator must necessarily mean a shift towards democracy. I’m not sure how I came by the biggest item in my collection: a huge, white-on-black American specimen reading "IRAN SUCKS" in giant letters. Somehow, its sheer scale seems to render it paradoxically subtle.

I’ve quite a number of US "buttons" - you can usually tell them by their dangerous, protruding pins - many of which refer to events in a far away country of which I know little. I’ve sometimes lent "Vote yes on question 1" to friends who are taking exams. Amongst all the puzzling buttons, though, one really stands out.

It’s small, old, and American, and all it says is: "And now for June 16." I’ve no idea what it’s about, but I like to wear it ever year, on June 15, just in case - and because I find its unarguable certainty rather comforting. The strange thing is that, in all the years, no-one has ever asked me what it means. Perhaps I’m the only one who doesn't know?

Mat Coward has a lot of badges.

Mat Coward claims not to have a university degree, but he does nevertheless have his own website, proving what's possible in the open meritocracy that is characteristic of the West of England. It inhabits the region of cyberspace known to Earthlings as: