For 10 years, Brian Haw was as much a fixture of Parliament Square as the statues around him.
In fact, Mark Rylance — the Oscar-winning actor and a friend of the late Haw — half jokes to Londonist: "He was a committed voice in Westminster for longer than most of our prime ministers. So on that basis alone he deserves a statue."
Rylance flicks thoughtfully through postcards of Haw in his Westminster 'peace camp', holding them up to the webcam for me to see. Parliament Square was Haw's home from 2001 till his death in 2011. Wearing his bucket hat caked in anti-war badges, a black coat of many pockets — and usually with a cigarette hanging off his lip — Haw was a one-man anti-war machine — much to the chagrin of those he opposed, working in the neo-gothic offices opposite.
Rylance is now fronting a campaign to have a statue of Haw erected in London. "I feel like I got my conscience awakened by him," the actor says. After Haw died of lung cancer in 2011, the original idea was to put up a statue of him in Parliament Square — and wouldn't that have been the ultimate middle finger to Tony Blair et al. When you think about it, the Square is scattered liberally with monuments to those who were a thorn in the side of their own governments, from Millicent Fawcett to Nelson Mandela.
But Haw's statue won't be joining them. Instead, his 72cm-tall likeness — an image crafted in the last year of his life by friend Amanda Ward — will stand outside the School of Historical Dress in Lambeth, facing off the guns at the Imperial War Museum, opposite. (Rylance is keen to point out this is not a snub to military personnel, or the museum, who he has worked with before.) There is a further poetry to the location when you learn the School of Historical Dress itself was the first mental health outpatient ward in the UK, treating soldiers with shell shock. It is also just outside the exclusion zone created in 2005, a move largely triggered by Haw himself. "He's not far away if his little bronze figure ever decides to jump down and march along back to Square," smiles Rylance.
Rylance — who was the first artistic director of the Globe Theatre, before moving onto the West End in 2005 — first met Haw on the anti-Iraq war demo of 15 February 2003. "I went down to join from the Globe walking over Blackfriars Bridge thinking I'll get to Hyde Park, I'll get to Trafalgar Square in time to be there for all the speeches. I got no further than Cleopatra's Needle, not even that far.
"I hadn't even got to Waterloo Bridge. And the place was packed."
It was an unprecedented moment in protest history; an estimated 200,000 people had showed up to oppose what they saw as the British government's waging of an illegal war. "It was packed," Rylance remembers ,"not just with the familiar protesters that I'd seen and met before, but families pushing prams from the Midlands.
"It was such a heartfelt outpouring."
Rylance often called in on Haw on his way back from the West End: "I live in south London so my way home was through Parliament Square, and I would see him out of the window of the bus. Or if I was riding my bike, I'd stop and have a chat with him in the night and take him a sandwich or give him some change or whatever. It was always an interesting thing to stand there with him in the light of Big Ben."
Both Haw and his nemesis, Tony Blair, were devout Christians. "So we have two very different takes in two very different men come out of that," says Rylance. It would, myself and Rylance decide, make a great setup for a play — the two men meeting in Haw's tent in the dead of night. Would Rylance be up for playing the part?
"I was just looking at myself on Zoom going 'could I be Brian Haw?' and I was thinking you're right actually! He had more hair than me. It'd be a hard play to write. But yeah, I'd be honoured."
I also wonder if any of Haw's defiant nature bled into Rylance's portrayal of his stick-it-to-the-man character, Johnny "Rooster" Byron, in Jez Butterworth's play Jerusalem?
"Rooster certainly has that kind of defiance," says Rylance, "of the individual against the authorities and certainly against the attempts by any authoritarian group to convince you that you're powerless, and if you're not going along with the mob, you're probably stupid."
Haw was single-minded alright. He was yelled at, spat at, kicked when trying to sleep in his tent. Rylance describes him as a 'heavyweight champion of the world', so far as carrying the burden of all those thoughts: "It was like talking to a soldier. But I don't know if there are many soldiers who could do what he did — standing 365 days a year for 10 years."
Haw's stance gradually evolved into a protest against the slaughter of innocent children (he had seven of his own, and must have sacrificed much of his role as a dad). "Schools kids and groups who go to visit the Imperial War Museum," says Rylance, "if they bother to look across the street, they'll see Brian standing there. We'll have 'Stop Killing The Kids' written there and a link to a website."
Rylance — a staunch believer in peaceful protest, and a man who himself quit the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2019, over sponsorship by BP — believes that the current government's recent attempt to subdue the right to protest is 'very scary'.
"You clamp down on the natural energy and you're gonna get more of a violent shift," he says, adding about Extinction Rebellion protests that he's attended: "I've seen 60, 70 year olds arrested and taken away for just sitting down in the street. I share their concern about about the lack of progress, to make a better relationship with the planet when we're facing extinction."
"Nazism didn't happen just because there was one evil man called Hitler, continues Rylance, "It was because the conscience of that nation was somehow subdued and quieted. And God forbid London or England ever becomes like that, you know?
"That's why I think it's really important that we honour and remember this remarkable man who stood in our streets for 10 years, because he because he felt that it was wrong to kill kids."
The campaign to have Haw's statue created and installed launches on 15 February — the 20th anniversary of those massive anti-war marches. Called the 'A Pound for Peace' appeal, the idea says Rylance, is that as many people as possible donate a small amount — it's a show of strength in numbers. If the £50,000 target is reached, the statue (which already has planning permission) will go up later in 2023.
Amanda Ward's mock-ups depict Haw in combative mode; wearing his trademark hat (though no cigarette it seems), he leans forward on the crutches he used in later life. "There's a kind of balance to him," says Rylance, "a connection to the ground, to that pavement, which he must have known like the back of his hand.
"I think he was one of the great Londoners. I'll never forget him."
Learn more about the A Pound for Peace campaign, and make a donation on Crowdfunder.