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Here’s forty shillings on the drum
For those who volunteer to come
To ‘list and fight the foe today
Over the hills and far away
O’er the hills and o’er the main,
Through Flanders, Portugal and Spain
King George commands and we obey
Over the hills and far away

Re-enactors will recognize the lyrics to the tune above — “Over The Hills And Far Away”, a melancholy soldier’s song from the 18th century, popular with British troops during the Napoleonic Wars. Those less conversant with blackpowder re-enactment might recognize it as music from the various Sharpe miniseries starring Sean Bean. I liked the tune long before I became a re-enactor (and in any case, I’m a medieval re-creationist, the SCA being considerably less stringent than most black-powder groups, so it’s not even my period) because it always sums up the itch I get in my feet in the springtime.

Back in my early twenties I got involved in a big way with activism; one of the biggest triggers was the “Trent 8” occupation of the admin offices at Trent University in mid-February 2001. That, and its immediate fallout, was shortly before the FTAA protests in Quebec City which occurred in late April 2001. I really can’t stress how formative the events of that springtime were into making me who I am today.

Paul McAuley once wrote: “Sometimes something happens to someone that changes their life forever. Something divides their life in two. Into before and after. Everything that happened in the before, even those actions and decisions that could be held accountable for causing the divide, becomes afterwards remote. Like a dream, or a story told about the life of someone else. And everything that happens afterwards is different from everything that went before, because the person is never again the same.”

Quebec City on the 21st of April 2001 is when and where my “before” changed into “after”. It was simultaneously one of the worst and one of the best experiences of my life. Certainly it was life-changing. And it is very, very hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been to a major, violently-suppressed protest exactly how it felt: I learned that everything I knew about the world and my place within it was a callous, cynical lie, and that the people who told us that lie would be coldly pleased to hurt or kill us to keep us from interfering. It was, in a strange sort of way, liberating, and the exhilaration and the anger of those three days would carry me on for more than seven years. Twelve years later it’s still a driving force in my life.

2013-04-21

The weather today is very similar to the weather we had at Quebec: chilly and windy, but bright and sunny, too. You can smell the springtime today, and the flowerbeds and lawns are starting to get green. Maybe that’s why I’ve been so antsy lately: I always get twitchy on early spring days that remind me of that weekend below the Citadel of Quebec; I’m sure that my fiancée has noticed.

For almost a decade, this sort of weather marked the beginning of a season of protest for me: the calls to action; the organization of supplies and equipment; running training workshops; arrange transport and billets; and then off we’d go, over the hills and far away. You’d march and chant and get shot at, take your lumps and then come home to heal up. In some ways it was a big relief to go off to high-profile demonstrations after weeks or months of the thankless but essential grind of local social justice work.

I suppose I was as close to a professional activist as one can get without actually being paid for their efforts, although I hate that phrase: “Professional Activist” is a derogatory term used by the Right to undermine the efforts of activists, as though dedicating the bulk of your life to righting the injustices of our society is somehow sinister or cynical. It implies that were mercenaries, not caring about the actual cause so long as we got paid; it’s a rather nasty bit of propaganda, actually. I was never a professional activist, but for many years I was a full-time one.

And now? Twelve years later I’m settled down, with a house, a car, a dog and a fiancée. I’ve got responsibilities to my employer and my clients. I’ve got a fairly time-consuming hobby re-creating historical combat techniques — wearing armour and swinging clubs that would get you a fairly stiff prison term if you had them at a demonstration — and for the most part I have a very nice life. (A bit more credit-card debt than I’m really happy with, of course, but nothing out of the ordinary.) By any measure, I’m in a good place in my life.

But still, every spring, I find myself humming an old British army marching tune and turning my eyes to the hills. It gets into you, that life, and it’s never really gotten out of me. I don’t suppose it ever will.

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