Camden for Europe activist Rick Chiles was on the Brexit Facts bus from Birmingham to Luton. Here is his personal account of the journey.
My first sight of The Bus is in Birmingham. It’s big and red, gleaming in the sunlight mixed with an early morning snow flurry in a no man’s land of truck storage, builders’ merchants and breaker’s yards. We riders assemble at breakfast time in the greasy spoon next to the Travelodge. We are not their typical customers. Inside the bus, with the windows covered in red vinyl, perforated with tiny holes, the light is a soft pink. After five days on the road, covering the miles between London, Wales, Scotland and the Midlands the bus has taken on the air of a battle hardened road warrior. We pick out our accustomed seats. There are perhaps a dozen of us, including Drew Galdron who is volunteering to do his Boris Johnson imitation to amuse the crowds, and Madeleina Kay, aka ‘EU Supergirl’ who will sway the gathered locals with her songs extolling the positives of EU membership. She has been campaigning since the referendum, and is well known on social media. Tim Evans, our ‘tour manager’ and ‘front of house manager’ wherever we stop, greeting the local organisers and handling the introduction of the bus, our mission and message, circulates up and down the aisle, encouraging discipline which will keep the bus from becoming too squalid, with empty crisp packets, drinks cans and the like.
A member of the local Remain group hosting our first stop in Birmingham boards and sits next to the driver, Guy. He will guide us through the prodigious traffic. With a hiss of the air brakes we move off into the Birmingham morning rush hour. The conversations across the aisle are quiet as we make our way to the outlying shopping precinct where EU in Brum is waiting . Freezing snow flurries sweep the open area in front of the shops, but Tim warms up the crowd, introducing our message. A couple of local speakers take the microphone to welcome us, then ‘Boris’ sings with Madeleina in a lampoon of Boris Johnson and Theresa May. There is a negative response from a few passers by who keep their distance. We pass the donations bucket and gratefully make our way back into the warmth of the bus. We have five more stops to make on this day, one of the busiest of the tour.
As we proceed southward, the full sun comes out and we get a warm sunny reception In Stratford. The audience is perhaps 100 in the narrow street. The bus forms a striking backdrop for pictures. After a few speeches in the shadow of the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre, we pass the bucket again and make our way back on the bus after a rousing sendoff. The collection was more than £400.
Once we are settled back on the bus, a schism emerges. From the back seats, come cries to lower the temperature, and from the front to turn it up. After many adjustments, a compromise is achieved and we roll on to Oxford. Long negotiations with the Oxford City council have finally yielded us a parking space in central Oxford opposite a shopping centre. Our phlegmatic driver Jon who has replaced Guy navigates the narrow streets, and we pitch up at the end of an anti-Brexit rally with our star turn, the actor Patrick Stewart. He descends into a big, noisy crowd and a warm reception where his support and his speech are much appreciated. Tim provides the MC role admirably. Around goes the donations bucket and we are back on the bus up M40 to High Wycombe with pink late afternoon sunshine coming through the windows.
Charles sits in front, Philip in the rear. Tim’s seat is in the middle. There are snow flurries on the roundabout as we descend into High Wycombe. The local hosts, who have hired the foyer of the Swan Theatre, greet us with balloons. This is an indoor event, with very welcome hot drinks–and with a variety of speakers, including a translator and business man who spell out the details of how Brexit will negatively impact their lives and businesses. We get ready to depart for our final stop of the day in Reading, and Charles, having seen his brainchild launched, departs for London.
Last stop of the day is in a freezing Reading shopping high street. An enthusiastic crowd cheers us on. Led by an American ex pat, ‘Boris’ and EU Supergirl are well received. Tim again does an admirable job at introducing the bus and each of the speakers in turn, but we are read for a hot meal, and being off duty for a few hours.
On through the night to a hotel near Basingstoke to a hotel based on the Fawlty Towers business model, where staff struggle to deliver the services of food and rooms. Several room changes and menu changes later, a reasonably convivial dinner is served. The next day, early morning TV news is full of dire warnings of the snow disaster to come. Comparing notes over breakfast, we find that each of the rooms each had their own idiosyncratic features but breakfast is hot and we leave in good spirits rolling through sunny countryside toward nearby Basingstoke. Where would we be without GPS?
The next rally is on the edge of the ring road with the bus as a backdrop. As the final speaker starts to wrap up his remarks he is joined by a large bearded man in a ‘Vote Leave‘ hat. This is our moment to show inclusion. He is handed the mic and contributes his heartfelt but largely inchoate thoughts and goes away satisfied that he has made his points, but he has largely confirmed that heart and emotion largely ruled the choice to leave. The crowd kicked in £ 130 and off we go down the M3 to Southampton. The cold is bitter but the day is dry and partly sunny.
In a windswept square in front of the town hall of Southampton, the journalist Polly Toynbee joins the crowd and then the bus. From the periphery, a couple of isolated leavers boo, but retreat when offered the mic. Donations pick up when Madeleina sings. £110 drops into the bucket. Clouds roll in on the sea breeze. Green, Liberal and Labour young candidates speak and draw enthusiastic applause. They will have to live with the consequences of Brexit the longest.
Then we are back on the bus for our third stop of the day, Portsmouth. This city lives up to its disputatious reputation with a wrangle with a vocal Brexiter and an employees of the council about where we parked the bus. Tim rides out the interruptions and turns them to advantage by showing how we were unthreatening and inclusive. The Council employees are shamed into allowing us to park the bus in the same place as the Leave bus parked in June 16. The rally concludes as usual with a song from EU Supergirl. We pick up new riders and on we go to Chichester.
The Chichester crowd is warm and enthusiastic in the shadow of the cathedral, but a couple of UKIP oldies have infiltrated the group. A well dressed woman with a little dog on a lead hisses, ‘traitors!’, and another senior citizen who identifies himself as the local UKIP leader is handed the mic. He makes a hash of his ‘facts’ but demonstrates our openness. It’s the oldest citizens who voted most consistently to leave– and slammed the door on their children and grandchildren.
Sunset on the Brighton front. Final stop of the day with an enthusiastic crowd. A questioner appears and is disarmed by friendliness and interest. Back on the bus and we’re off to Dover, via the Premier Inn on the A20 with its accompanying Beefeater restaurant.
The next morning, in conditions of extreme wind chill, we move the Dover meeting inside the bus. Local supporters and the political speakers make their pitches. Here the top concerns are cross-channel trade problems with accompanying lorry congestion. A Port staff union rep highlights difficulties to come in the wake of Brexit. Frosty fields flank the road heading for Canterbury. The bus is not only a tangible message board, it has now doubled as a venue for anti-Brexit presentations.
Snowy Canterbury has a lively crowd, and the same speakers as Dover. We are almost moved on by campus security but they are effectively stalled long enough by Philip to allow us to finish the program. It is sunny but the raw wind is whipping the snow off the roof of the Council Chambers.
A new group piles into the bus in Maidstone to join us for short trip to county hall. Down high street we roll, to meet with a local group to hear speakers and deliver letters demanding an impact assessment of Brexit on Kent.
On to Luton. What day is it? How long have we been on the bus? These questions are starting to intrude. We arrive on a freezing late afternoon at a square in the middle of Luton. A crowd assembles, including an interviewer from Three Counties radio. Tim sets to work warming up the crowd of well-wishers and Phil boards the bus with the radio interviewer. The local Remain leader gives a fact-laden overview of the situation in Luton, followed by the local MP who speaks for an admirably short time. A journalist who has written for the FT and many other publications, and has ridden with us from Maidstone gives a good brief talk about the wrongheadedness of Brexit. He hands over to Tim who explains our mission and our message on the side of the bus. As usual he is on the lookout for an argumentative counter view, and near the end of the speeches a young man arrives and is handed the microphone. His is a familiar riff about the ailments of the country which somehow get blamed on Europe. He is listened to with respect and finally leaves satisfied that he has been heard. His confused thinking was much exploited by the Leave campaign in June 2016. My time on the bus finished here, but in the bright, chilly sunset, Tim and the crew re-board the bus for Essex and Norfolk—the heart of Brexit country. We wish them well and dash for the train. There is a new phrase on the landscape of national thinking –‘ Is It Worth It?’
- Total Mileage – approx. 1800 miles
- Total Stops – 33 (give or take)
- Total countries – 3: England, Wales, Scotland
- Media coverage – 30 national media stories – TV—BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Regional and local TV and Press; international coverage, including The Washington Post
- Generosity encountered – huge, including more than £2100 collected along the way to help fund the next stage of the journey.