Bel Mooney (UCL English, 1969) remembers the 1968 Grosvenor Square demo.
More than 200 people were arrested and 86 were injured in Grosvenor Square the day that Bel Mooney was last here. “I was terrified,” admits the 68-year-old journalist, recalling the day of 17 March 1968 when the great anti-Vietnam war demo took place outside the Embassy of the United States.
Mooney, who was 21 and in her second year at UCL, had gone hand in hand with fellow student Jonathan Dimbleby, whom she’d married the month before, and she was well used to attending protests. “But marching down from Trafalgar Square, I felt deafened by screaming chaos and aggressive chanting and was shocked by the level of hatred towards America, which I didn’t share, despite being against the war. My mouth was shut and so was Jonathan’s.”
Arriving at the square, things only got worse. “I saw a policeman being violent towards a student who’d stumbled over. ‘Hey, there’s no fucking need to be like that,’ I said. ‘You keep your mouth shut, young lady, or I’ll arrest you,’ he replied. Jonathan started being all protective of me, but then I lost his hand and we got separated.”
Next up, Mooney saw a policeman falling to the ground. “People moved in to kick him and so I jumped in with my hands up. ‘This is supposed to be about peace and love, not kicking a young policeman to the ground,’ I shouted. They did stop.”
Once reunited with Dimbleby, the couple became shocked by the distress of the police horses. “This one particular horse reared up in a panic, whereupon Jonathan, who’d been brought up with horses, did his horse whispering thing and the horse completely calmed down. I’ll never forget the policeman’s face, having expected the worst from us protestors,” smiles Mooney.
It left quite an impact, that day, she muses. “I think of it as a defining moment for me because the level of my distress left me feeling this wasn’t the way to do things, that it was so simplistic and ineffective. I felt it again in 1994 when I was famously involved in a road protest. ‘No more roads!’ came the shouts, and I just thought, ‘I can’t say that stupid stuff. Life is more than slogans.”
Mooney had already come a long way from her first year at UCL by the day of the anti-Vietnam demo. “That first year hadn’t been good. I lived in three different bedsits in the first term alone. I felt terribly homesick and found London lonely and daunting. I just hung about in the Union bar and slept with unsuitable people. But then in my second year, I wrote an article on South Africa and the editor was Jonathan. It was big love immediately and we were married in February.”
Mooney loved feeling grown-up and settled in their rented flat in Fulham, where she recalls them spending their spare time talking politics and holding parties with cheap wine. “We thought we could change the world, in that idealistic way you do when you’re young, and that’s why we’d gone to the protest. I think we were seen as a power couple, which I suppose we did go on to be.”
Grosvenor Square could hardly look more different today, comments Mooney, taking in the calm and warmth of the sun. “In many ways, I could hardly be more different either. I was so left-wing. Now, I vote Conservative and have a column in the Daily Mail,” she laughs. “But the essence of me is still the same. I still believe in individuals taking responsibility and looking after each other, not kicking policemen.”
Indeed, Mooney still gets a buzz out of seeing young students speaking out against the wrong in the world. “Having a social conscience and acting on it is so important when you’re young. It always will be.”
But on that particular rally of 1968, as she noticed all the daffodils squashed in the ground at the end of the day, Mooney remembers thinking, “I wish the daffodils were still standing and there had been no march.”
This year, UCL awarded honorary degrees to: broadcaster and author Mr Melvyn Bragg; Emeritus Professor of History Wendy Davies OBE; chief executive of EPSRC Professor David Delpy; physicist Professor Dame Athene Donald; computer scientist Professor Dame Wendy Hall; expert in linguistics Professor Geoffrey Leech; chairman and chief executive of Pentland Group, Mr Stephen Rubin OBE; philosopher Professor Michael Ruse; President of St John’s College Oxford, Professor Margaret Snowling; neuroscientist and President of Rockefeller University Professor Marc Tessier-Lavigne; and to linguist and former UCL Vice-Provost (International) Professor Michael Worton.
UCL awarded honorary fellowships to: founder and director of Kids Company, Ms Camila Batmanghelidjh; artist Professor Phyllida Barlow; comedian and author Mr Robin Ince; director of World Health Organisation Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health Division, Dr Elizabeth Mason; chairman of Montagu Private Equity LLP, Mr Chris Masterson; chairman of Better Capital, Mr John Moulton; managing director of Andrew W Y Ng & Co, Mr Andrew Wai-Yan Ng; and to chairman of the N Sethia Group Limited, Mr Nirmal Kumar Sethia.