Meanwhile I had started work, not fit for anything much, at the age of 17, for the gas company, who paid the magnificent sum of 17/6 per week (75p in today’s coinage). Even so it was reckoned to be a prize at a time when office jobs started at around 12/6d per week. It’s no good saying things were a lot less then; they weren’t, one simply had and did less. I had a friend in the company, George Plume, who had started there a year or so before. I had known him since I was 11, he was a little older and had been a form or two higher at school, and we had been friendly until he joined the Young Communist League. Now we resumed contact, I finally wore him down on Stalinism, and he joined the ILP. We tried to organise the gas company: its fitters and engineers were unionised but not its clerical staff.
Within a couple of months I was sacked. He survived a bit longer, it being considered he was not the ringleader in the conspiracy as it had begun when I joined, but as he persisted he eventually got sacked for ‘disloyalty’. To get those wages and be expected to be loyal was a bit much, but the company took a different view.
I tried a few more jobs without success. I did temporary work on the tote at the Hackney Wick Stadium, being recommended by my boxing contacts, as even with the depression there were plenty of jobs of that sort around in London, and then a regular job in the administration of the J.T. Davies pub chain. The boss was a Sir Alfred somebody, who never went near the place, was a Tory M.P, a super-patriot — who hated Irishmen — an ungrateful attitude in a pub owner. He even banned Irish bar staff, loathed all foreigners except Nazis, and lived ten months of the year in the South of France, where presumably he could hate everyone.
I made the mistake of giving proper references (the first and last time I gave real ones), and the gas company gave me a reasonably good references with just a mention of my ‘differing’ from them on union activities’. When Sir Alfred next visited England on his parliamentary duties the manager showed him the references of all those taken on since the last time he had condescended to visit not just his constituency or his business but the country itself. It may have been impolitic to show him the accounts in view of the amount of fiddling. Next day I was told I was sacked.
The manager, Mr Morgan, told me it was useless to complain as Sir Alfred was dubious even about my name. “It sounds German.” “So does Morgan,” I told him. “Oh, it would be all right being German if you weren’t a trouble maker or a refugee, provided you weren’t Irish, that is” he explained.
As the firm was in Russell Square, I had spent my lunch hours popping round to Charlie Lahr’s bookshop in Red Lion Street, where the last of the Bloomsbury set used to meet. Charlie’s wit was infectious and verbal sparks flew, though not many books were sold. After one lunch-time session at which I managed to hold my own with the literati, Charles Duff said I ought to write jokes for music hall comics. I have a sneaking idea now he was being friendly-sarcastic but I took him seriously at the time. I began freelancing jokes which at 21/- a time for one joke was more profitable than working a whole week for the then privately-owned gas company, and only slightly less profitable for five minutes work than a week’s work for J.T. Davies, with nobody worrying about class consciousness or ethnic origin.
Becoming indifferent as to whether I had a job or not for all the financial difference it made, and being put wise by Jack Mason as to the ways of the Labour Exchange, I could pick and choose jobs, and with that confidence landed a position as a trainee reporter on the Sunday Referee with references from the Charlie Lahr circle. It was a free-and-easy atmosphere. Everybody mucked in doing each other’s jobs. The boxing reporter had actually seen me perform, and chose me to accompany him to bouts, take down his copy and add bits of my own, allowing me to go on my own to amateur and schoolboy matches. I was less successful with other sports reporters, not having a very clear idea of what on earth was going on in cricket, which I had always dodged at school.
It tended throughout life to shock but wherever I worked, people would come up to me when Test matches were on and ask anxiously, “How are we getting on?” to my utter bewilderment, which hardly went with sports reporting.
The sports editor Cecil Hadley also wrote a humorous column of political comment; but his problem was that he knew nothing of politics, which in those days was a bar to writing about them, and he used to corral lines from various junior and other reporters for his column. I gave him a few anti-fascist jokes and the proprietor complimented him upon them, which lifted my stock enormously.
The firm was owned by Maurice Ostrer, whose brother ran Gaumont British and Gainsborough, and whose daughter Pamela starred in one of GB’s epics, receiving, unsurprisingly enough, major praise in the Referee. She married her cameraman Roy Kellino and later enjoyed temporary fame as Mrs James Mason.
As one of my bosses seemed to be anti-fascist I tried my luck at asking him for a cheque for Emma’s Spanish Solidarity Fund. She was adept at touching the consciences of the intellectual bourgeoisie who never seemed very rich, and I thought I would pleasantly surprise her for once with my netting a millionaire. I spoke to him in his office while he carried on writing, as tycoons do, and to my surprise, at the end, he looked up and said, “One has to support these causes” and handed me a cheque for twenty-five guineas. I had never before seen so large a sum and did not grasp at first the significance of the odd shillings and pence.
I took it proudly along to Emma thinking maybe I might even get a word of praise though there was no hope of getting into her good books. She questioned me closely when she found out the circumstances (he had been stranded in Spain and rescued by CNT militia who escorted him to Gibraltar). She tossed the cheque on the desk angrily. “The Spanish workers saved his life and he gives a cheque for twenty-five guineas!” she snorted. “Why didn’t you let me see him? This is what he gives to a Jewish charity!” She was quite right, of course. She could have got a lot more out of a bourgeois with a conscience — if that’s what it was. But it was not encouraging for a youngster, however keen,
She treated everyone the same way, even Paul Robeson. He was then at the peak of his fame, and a fellow-traveller of the Communist Party, who idolised him. He also happened to be a friend of Emma’s. When she held a concert (April 1937) at the Victoria Palace in aid of the CNT-FAI and asked Robeson to top the bill, it was quite an achievement. He was well aware of Emma’s unpopularity with the Communists since her return from Russia, and the Party line was to ignore the Anarchists, or equate them with ‘Trotsky fascism’ in the world at large, while in Spain maintaining a discreet formal alliance coupled with a determination to knife them in the back at the first opportunity, even at the cost of losing the war. Added to that the Communist Party fixed a rival fund-raising concert that same night when they heard about Emma’s, but he had given his word. He was by no means subservient to Moscow at this time as the American authorities years later pretended.
The Communist Party dared not discipline Robeson in view of his importance to them as an international star and leading Black singer, and Robeson appeared at the concert. In a backstage briefing just before the performance, Ethel Mannin was addressing a group of Anarchist and ILP stewards who were going to take the collection. I remember they included Kitty Lamb and Patrick Monks (newly arrived from Dublin, whom I met for the first time). Ethel stressed that it was most important for us not to identify ourselves as she had managed to sell loads of tickets to Quaker and pacifist organisations through her husband, Reg Reynolds. She turned to Emma who had just come in, a little upset by recent news from Spain and only fortified by gin, who snorted dangerously when told to be careful what she said, but instead turned to Robeson.
“What do you think of your friend Stalin now?” she shouted and began rating him though everyone tried to hush her, especially Ethel, and Robeson, towering above her, patted her shoulder sympathetically, It seemed a trifle tactless just before he went on for a purely voluntary performance, especially since he had turned down the rival Communist Party fund-raiser that same night.
Worse was to come.
When at the interval she asked for a collection, and remembering Ethel’s advice about the Quakers, remarked with bitter sarcasm, “I am told that I cannot ask English people for money to buy arms. Well, I am not going to do so. But there is a shortage of writing paper and pencils, and people in the trenches want money to enable them to write home”. She let this sink in to the consternation of rich Quakers and earnest pacifists: though I didn’t mind this myself, and somewhat enjoyed it, it was hardly the way to get them to part with their money.
Though the Freedom Group buried Freedom on 1937 in order to support Spain and the World, this was unacceptable to Cores, and when Ralph Barr launched the Anarcho-Syndicalist Union, Cores revived the Freedom Group with a determination to publish Freedom once again. We were all a bit impatient with both. The ASU wasn’t into direct action any more than the old group and as is usual with young people (who are usually right about it) we blamed the older people for being over-cautious.
Sutton tried mollifying us by offering Tom (“Paddy”) Burke a job with Stepney Borough Council. He hadn’t worked since he came to London two years before. It was a position as bailiff’s assistant and we were surprised he accepted it and he thought our objection was to working for the council. But people have to work at something. We did not realise he thought a bailiff was a farm manager, never having heard the term in Ireland in any other sense. One can imagine his surprise when after sitting round in an office for a week, possibly wondering how Stepney Council happened to have a farm, he was asked to carry some family’s furniture from premises from which they were being evicted. He promptly upped and left the job and so lost his unemployment benefit, cursing Sutton for thinking he would act as a bum-bailiff, and asking why we hadn’t warned him.
My own stand on principle was similar but less dramatic. I was asked to write up a knocking story on an actress — I forget what she was supposed to have done but we were losing circulation to the News of the World with its salacious reporting, which was accounted a good enough reason. I declined but one could get away with that on the Referee if it wasn’t too obvious, and I was put on another knocking story about a bus strike. When I wouldn’t do this either Cecil Hadley decided for my own good I should be carpeted and I faced Mr Ostrer, who listened to me astounded. He gave up and sent me back to Mr Hadley to be instructed in the ways of journalism.
Mr Hadley, who liked to be known as Uncle Cecil, explained that I couldn’t have principles and be a reporter. If I became as famous as Hannen Swaffer I could say what I liked and he would be pleased to employ me, but he asked me to see reason and admit the idea of a trainee deciding on ethical standards was absurd. I agreed, to his delight (he hated being tough) but was dismayed to find I had agreed only that the idea was absurd, and I had given up my reporting career before it started. I doubt if it was a great loss to the profession.
He couldn’t bear to give me the sack, however, so he suggested I work in the general office as a copytaker. He pointed out, which I discovered over the years to be true, that one could earn just as much money as the run-of-the-mill reporter (in later years much more). While one would never be anything more, one could have the luxury of being utterly without responsibility for the product if that was what one wanted. One was a cog, taking down copy over the telephone, all written by others, and one was no more responsible for what was being written than a secretary or a telephonist, provided it was spelled right and taken down accurately.
I also saw the added advantages that one could work at it, leave it, and come back any time, and that as a printworker rather than a journalist one was in a key position of industry; and I reckoned the revolution was coming in a few months anyway, so I accepted.
Before the war copytakers were much more versatile than since, especially on Sunday papers. I translated, others wrote up telegrams as stories, took telephoned advertisements or did odd features. Another did secretarial work and was also given the job of writing up the astrology column. She protested she knew nothing of the stars but was given good advice such as never being specific and always using a calendar. Having learned those basics she subsequently became a prominent soothsayer and national figure.
A rival newspaper astrologer failed once to take the advice about not being specific and prophesied there would be no war, which is what people wanted to hear. He came back the week after this, when war had been declared, with the statement that Hitler had been mad enough to defy the stars, and would pay for it by losing the war, which it so happened was right. But that was ahead; and meanwhile through 1937 I was immersed in political activity outside working hours, and also to a large extent inside, until at long last my long-suffering employers’ patience broke, perhaps also because they were cutting staff owing to their losing battle with the News of the World, to which they thought the answer was economy and my £3.10s would help cut costs.
I did not really worry. I got through Christmas that year quite well on a chance remark I heard in a pub about someone looking as if he needed Bob Martin’s dog conditioner. I sold it to a dozen panto comics and it appeared in so many pantos, and subsequently entered a sort of panto common stock, forcing the manufacturers to send a letter of complaint around the music hall profession asking that derogatory remarks (not that it was such) should not be made about their product. Not all companies took that attitude: some soap powders actually gave comics the odd few guineas to get their products plugged, and freelance gagwriters were trying to find out how to get the dame to mention the fact that she used Omo or whatever.
A caustic remark I overheard that someone was so broke “she couldn’t even get a credit account in Woolworths”, which I transmuted into a remark by Baron Hard-up in pantomime, netted me quite a handsome profit. It might be a bit obscure today when one thinks nothing of producing credit cards in Woolworth’s, but they had up to then claimed they sold “nothing over sixpence” and were still a sixpence and shilling (five and ten cent) store.
I might have stumbled into the music hall profession, though hardly as a performer, but for the fact that many of my friends thought it was hardly a serious way to earn a living. Nor did I. Some, like Tom Brown, who was a very lucid speaker but inclined to generalise, thought it an integral part of the capitalist system. He had never met the dejected performers sitting stranded with their baggage several hundred miles from home when the manager had absconded with their salaries, and thought all music hall people went around in furs and diamonds.
Brown, who had been a shipyard worker in Durham and had drifted down south to work in aircraft, was a perceptive comrade generally, and he gave a bit of life to the Anarcho-Syndicalist Union into which he brought a breath of the workshops. He was one of several excellent speakers the ASU had at the time. Another was Captain J.R. White. (Years later I wrote up his life in a pamphlet, From Loyalism to Anarchism). White, son of a British General (White of Ladysmith) had a strong Protestant Irish background. He had resigned his own Army commission to help train Connolly’s Citizen Army, but when they fell out with the police in defending strikers from baton attacks, they were considered less than respectable by the Irish Volunteers. They originally declined to use them in the 1916 uprising for that reason but Connolly over-rode the objection.
White was in the Old IRA and a Communist Party sympathiser, as well as being a fervent Orangeman. It was still possible. Though beset with personal problems with a running quarrel with his estranged Roman Catholic wife and her ecclesiastic advisers who periodically kidnapped his daughter, he went to Spain to train and lead the largely Old IRA column in the Connolly section of the International Brigade, which incidentally both on the boat and in the field clashed with the Irish brigade led by General O’Duffy that went to fight for Franco.
White became totally disillusioned with the Communist Party in Spain, and also with the cause of Irish nationalism. O’Duffy had not only official government support but many Republicans supported him in “the war for Christianity” which White, an anti-clerical but a Christian nevertheless, saw at first hand. He supported the CNT-FAI and the “irresponsibles” — those who would not agree to the compromises the libertarian movement had officially made and were prepared to resist Communist domination by force. White organised a plan for sending arms which was quite ingenious — he set up an official arms buying company registered as a proper export company, from an impressive address used by a large export company in Soho Square (actually it was the attic workroom of a very active anarchist, tailor Alf Rosenbaum) from where it applied for licences to buy arms for Franco, from Czechoslovakia. Though the Board of Trade refused licences under the Non-Intervention Act, it did not seem to mind what happened after it refused when the arms were destined for Franco-occupied Spain. The goods were bought and boarded ship at Hamburg under the eyes of the German authorities; needless to say they were never landed at the designated port though they got to Spain all right.
In the finish the German authorities discovered the hoax and alerted their British colleagues to how the Non-Intervention Act was being breached. They thought at first we were engaged in a massive theft, but there was outrage when it was discovered the arms had been legitimately bought. It all ended with minor prosecutions, though as a footnote, Rosenbaum actually earned a bonus for his sales abilities by the Czech company, the news not having percolated through the departments. With it he organised public showings of a documentary film of collectivisation in Spain (which fifty years later actually appeared on ITV incorporated in the series The Civil War in Spain, so swift is democratic news gathering).
I enjoyed this, though my part was peripheral, consisting of invoice typing and listening to White endlessly relating the crimes of the Catholic Church, which I knew from my grandmother, in a strangely different context. It is odd to reflect that today White would have easily mixed with any of the factions in Northern Ireland, and he would have been at home in the Army, which was his original background. Looking the part of the retired English Captain, he could have mingled with any of the Orange factions and any of the Republican groups.
He had a lot of experience in common with any of the paramilitary forces and with some reconciliationists too. For those who have a bourgeois conception of caricature-Anarchism, White would only have been totally out of place as an anarchist, but he was a sincere one, though out of his element with either day-to-day run-of-the-mill, propaganda activity or the work scene.
When our few months of adventure were over, and as Billy was seldom in London having gone on the regular ‘potato run’ to Bilbao, I felt a bit deflated. I went to Glasgow to fix up some matters for him, and while there contacted Frank Leech, but I failed to appreciate his sterling worth at the time. He was by far the most durable of the anarcho-syndicalists around: a former Royal Navy seaman, ex-heavy-weight boxer, who had set up a newsagents shop with his gratuity, he was a popular soapbox speaker and attracted large crowds. But he was an unqualified admirer of Emma Goldman and supporter of the paper Spain and the World, and I was less than enthusiastic.
Everyone in Glasgow knew Guy Aldred. I met him in his usual speaking pitch at Glasgow Green, and he helped me with some official business I had regarding the Campbell family. He had heard of me and was keen for me to invite him on a tour of London, perhaps mistaking the amount of influence I had, and it was very flattering to a youngster to have so well known a man asking me if he could come along and help in any way, and I invited him to London promising the support of our group, without quite realising what it was he expected which was barely enough to live on. I am afraid it was beyond our means. He felt he should be supported by a serious local group — he was right, but mistaken as to how wealthy we were or indeed how old I was.
quote — I suppose it was a quote. He was an old-fashioned socialist agitator,
who stuck to Victorian-type knickerbockers (like Bernard Shaw) rather than
trousers, and who early in life conceived his career as a professional
street-corner speaker. It is something now inconceivable, and reliance on
collections (which may now seem a little like begging, or at any rate busking)
made for a hard struggle with poverty for most of his days until about a year
after I first met him. He was a very clear speaker on religion, having started
as a boy preacher before becoming an atheist, and could run rings round any
orthodox Christian or neo-Humanist philosopher, but was not a very deep thinker
on socialism, equating Marxism and Anarchism and scorning reformism, careerism,
parliamentarism yet equally any form of industrial action or individual
resistance. There was very little left, but to him it was the ‘incessant work of
Propaganda’ which he felt would bring about the revolution.
A Londoner, he moved in the First World War to Glasgow sensing it was by far the most revolutionary city. He was popular with workers not because of any industrial involvement, of which he knew nothing, nor because of any theoretical understanding, in which they were more advanced than he, but because of his pioneering conception of offering advice and appearing before tribunals on housing matters. Even political opponents in difficulties came to him for help with their problems.
He had possibly learned this from Rose Witcop, birth control pioneer for working women centred in Hammersmith, with whom he had lived in London. He married her in Glasgow long after they parted (either because married men were temporarily exempt from conscription, or to save her from deportation, whichever side you believe). She was Rudolf Rocker’s sister-in-law, and extraordinary family feuds arose out of this. Indeed. in 1938 Aldred published a one-off paper Hyde Park devoted to their family squabbles which he put forward as a critique of Anarchism.
When he came to London I had not expected that he relied for support on collections, which were pitifully small since the tradition of paid al fresco lectures had almost died out here. I was now earning nothing and could not supplement him. When Billy returned to London on his next trip, he smiled but refrained from saying, as he might have, that he could have told me what a handful I had taken on.
After the publication of Hyde Park in 1938 support for Aldred in London fell off and he had burned his bridges in London and Glasgow, but then an extraordinary chance ended his days of poverty. Sir Walter Strickland, a millionaire whose family practically owned Malta, had during the First World War taken to him and was disgusted with the British Government after the Versailles Treaty. In acknowledgment of the newly created State of Czechoslovakia, the first fruits of League of Nations liberal idealism, Strickland became naturalised Czech, though he never went to that country. In 1938 Strickland died and left a fortune to Aldred, who promptly formed the Strickland Press, bought a hall, bookshop and machinery and proceeded reprinting all his old pamphlets, before actually getting the money. Then the Strickland relatives brought a suit saying the will was invalid. Strickland had said in his will he left the money to Aldred “for socialist and atheist propaganda”, illegal under Czech law. There was a complicated legal case which ended as such things usually do, with the money in the hands of the lawyers. Aldred, used to defending his own cases personally and handling courts with ease on matters of obstruction and sedition, found himself outgunned among the moneyed lawyers.
Then yet another eccentric millionaire stepped in to save him. The Marquis of Tavistock (later Duke of Bedford) came from a family with a tradition of hating the eldest son. His family owned most of Bloomsbury (Tavistock, Woburn and Russell Squares being named after them) as well as Woburn Abbey, which they had stolen from the Church at the time of the Reformation. He took on Aldred as one of his lame ducks, and campaigned on a peace basis for him, establishing Guy’s monthly The Word, at the same time as supporting Social Credit and an obscure British People’s Party which after 1940 attracted the rump of the non-interned and non-enlisted fascisti. All of this made Aldred increasingly isolated as he became a prolific publisher, entirely of his own works, mostly bitter personal attacks on the past and present records of prominent socialists, though he always retained a few admirers. The Stone brothers, old time anti-parliamentary communists, thought him the greatest man in the world, like many of this old Hyde Park public, and said so frequently.
The brand of anti-parliamentary communism espoused by a few old-time socialists like the Stones who still stood up for Aldred was unusual in that they did not seem to accept the theory of workers councils, unlike most of the older veterans of that theory. No anarchists now supported him, though he always insisted he was the one true anarchist. His support came from some right-wing pacifists, as well, oddly enough, from some Trotskyists, who were less concerned about Bedford and thought the anarchist criticism of Guy was because he had denounced the compromises, and everything else, in the Spanish war, which was to them a justification of the Trotskyist line which was unidentifiable from the pacifist (“what they needed was not arms, but a clearcut Marxist analysis”).
The Marquis became Duke of Bedford, and managed to thwart his father’s intentions of leaving the money away from him. After the war, he came to the conclusion that if he died on a particular date, his son, then in the Army and well integrated into the Establishment, would be burdened with such heavy death duties it would then deprive him of his inheritance. He therefore calmly killed himself on the appropriate date. It proved to be a useless sacrifice, as the new Duke decided against the advice of his accountants to give Woburn Abbey to the National Trust and live on his rents, but instead gave Bloomsbury to the Government. He decided that as everyone hated landlords anyway and sooner or later he would be likely to lose it, he might as well live in Woburn Abbey like a traditional Duke and enjoy life, however much he in turn would probably hate his own son.
Against professional opinion that he could not afford to pay the upkeep, he had the then novel idea of making it a leisure centre, game park, fair and tourist attraction. The idea caught on around the aristocracy, though first scorned. The only effect of the pacifist Duke’s death, therefore, was to leave Aldred in the cold, as he apparently completely forgot to make provision for him. Though Aldred continued to publish The Word until his death, he attracted only spasmodic support from eccentric vicars and peers around the pacifist movement. Ethel MacDonald and Jenny Patrick, always his strong supporters, never deserted him, and continued to set the type as long as they lived.
Some thirty years afterwards Aldred himself died leaving one fervent apostle, John Caldwell, who had the melancholy task of closing up the hall he had established, a solitary standing edifice amid a house clearance scheme, and giving away the huge stocks of Aldred’s literature.
Needless to say, when the 1930s and 1940s became a memory, the university thesis industry discovered Aldred, and what escaped pulping can be sold at high prices but he himself has been forgotten. For all Aldred’s inconsistencies, he was solidly in an English and Scottish radical tradition and, as he said himself, if he had been better dealt with in his youth he would have achieved much more. With his influence in some matters such as counsel to those unable to afford legal advice, he pioneered something taken up by many in recent years, and in acting as a “barrack room lawyer” as well, dealing with cases legal advice couldn’t reach, he was far ahead of his time. It was one great lesson I learned from him, notwithstanding his dreadful inconsistencies brought about by exaggerated pacifism.
During 1938/9 Emma Goldman hired the upper floors of premises in Frith Street in Soho (even seedier then than now, but central) to house the CNT-FAI Bureau and Spain and the World. She hired the upper floors, the ground floor being a shop and the basement, unknown to her at the time, a knocking shop. It caused some problems with the respectable people she was attracting. I remember one couple, both civil servants, who assumed Emma’s offices would be in the basement and found themselves in the middle of a scene of shame which caused them to flee and never be seen again.
In the course of our activity in South London I had found an Anglican vicar, anti-fascist and even more anti-Catholic, who agreed to lend his church hall for a meeting on Spain. Ethel Mannin organised it and subsequently incorporated it into a couple of her novels. It was unusual for Emma Goldman to face a large, hostile proletarian crowd as she had become used to intellectuals of the CP heckling over Russia. She stood up to the jeering but failed to identify what the opposition was about. When she mispronounced a word, in her strong Brooklyn-Russian accent, one fascist-minded individual shouted to her to “go back to Russia”.
She paused dramatically, and pointed to the embarrassed heckler. “You see the hypocrisy of the Stalinists,” she said. “When a Russian bows down to Stalin, the Russians are great. But if not — they say Go back to Russia! Yes, my friend, and why do you want Emma Goldman to go back to Russia? Because your friend Stalin will kill her!” Ethel Mannin was whispering at the table that the man wasn’t a Stalinist at all, but whether Emma knew or not, it quieted the fascist opposition, at a loss for repartee.
The parson, from the floor, then said a few words about Catholic repression in Spain. A communist interrupted to the effect that the anarchists were guilty of atrocities against the church. It was the current CP line that there were really such outrages, but by the anarchists, not condoned by the Republicans. Emma whaled into him too, denouncing “your friend the gallant Christian gentleman Franco” and seizing on the fact that he had mentioned a church burned down by the anarchists but omitting to say (he probably didn’t know) it was in the middle of a garrison currently in arms against the people. Being denounced as a fascist, and finding his friends looking askance, the luckless Stalinist literally ran out of the hall. Ethel was still trying to whisper that she’d again got her hecklers in a twist. But what did it matter? Both sets of interruptions were quashed.
Ray Nunn, a libertarian student (then rare) who was at the meeting, felt we should try to re-group our scattered scene, after experiencing Aldred’s obsession with propaganda that never involved action, and came together with Ralph Sturgess, who had succeeded William Farrer as secretary of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Union, which had still not got off the ground. Partly because it was totally committed to supporting the CNT line in Spain, thick and thin, it collapsed well before the war.
They started to collaborate with Spain and the World, a paper which had been founded two years previously, edited by Vernon Richards. It had been the brainchild of the Italian Anarchist group who constituted the bulk of the Italian anti-fascists in London. The daughter of an Anarchist militant killed in Barcelona by Stalinists, Marie-Louise Berneri, had settled in London and married Richards. It was her influence that helped the ASU group, the youth groups, and even some of the older members of the Freedom group (though not Cores), not to mention myself, to merge and give support to the paper.
She had the same vitality and determination as Emma Goldman, though after the murder of her father she had a more publicly critical approach to the increasing compromises in the Spanish struggle than either Emma, or indeed Richards. She would certainly have made a great contribution to anarchist theory had she had any work experience. Unfortunately she had the same weakness for over-estimating the value of the “intellectuals” as Emma, though she was so sympathetic an individual that if this was a fault, it was overlooked in appreciation of her goodness and energy.
It was around this time that some of the “progressive intellectuals” were changing from Stalinism which had long dominated the universities, though they seemed to most working class anarchists to be people who as students had scabbed during the General Strike and this suspicion died hard. But the declaration in 1937 of Herbert Read, influential art and literary critic, poet and essayist, that he was an anarchist, led some of his literary clique to say the same, though he had no other influence.
Bourgeois historians always ascribe any theory to the nearest literary or historically acceptable person by their standards, and just a few years ago the National Archives had as its only reference to anarchism the correspondence between Read and the Catholic sculptor Eric Gill, while Woodcock of course cites Read, if not himself, as the leading anarchist of his day, though Read never claimed this, any more than Kropotkin did. He addressed some meetings of Emma Goldman’s, and even one of Cores’, but otherwise apart from writing one or two articles took no part in activity, instead addressing the literary public through his books on philosophical anarchism but not allowing it to interfere with his position in the Establishment.
In contrast, an art critic with similar Establishment ties, and with whom he often crossed literary and political swords, was Anthony Blunt, active for the Communist Party and, as we now know, recruited to the Soviet Intelligence network. He rose to be Keeper of the Queen’s pictures, but was subsequently disgraced as a spy. Such an indiscretion would never have happened to Read but anyway he had no such adherence to a foreign State to tempt him.
The other notable “convert” to anarchism was painter Augustus John, but I only once noted him intervening for us, in unusual circumstances. Werner Droescher, who had returned from Spain where he had fought with the German Anarcho-Syndicalist battalion (DAS), was met by the police on arrival with the information that he could not possibly stay in Britain but need have no fear, he would merely be sent on to Holland.
On arrival in Holland he was met by the Dutch police who brought him straight into Germany, and he was immediately taken to a concentration camp. Droescher’s English girl friend, a member of what is now known as the “Carrington set”, was sitting for Augustus John. She wept the story to him. He had the ear of Queen Mary, whom he was painting, and thus was a captive audience. She only committed herself to saying she would speak to Sir John Simon, the Home Secretary. Droescher, to his surprise and I imagine of his fellow-prisoners too, was taken a few days later out of the concentration camp and returned to England, from whence he emigrated to New Zealand. I met him by chance in Coptic Street on a return visit, thirty years later.
1938 was a frustrating year for me. At the end of it I was on strike for three months. I had got a job as publicity assistant for a fairground, which sounded grand but consisted of putting up bills and arranging accommodation. I was in on the first attempt (I suppose) of fairground workers to try industrial action but by the very nature of their life, once on strike they all drifted elsewhere to work. I was left stranded in Middlesbrough, which I found cold and unfriendly to strangers. To add to my being sacked, I had been invited to speak to a meeting on Spain but the organisers had not realised I was anti-CP and I got a really hostile reception, after spending the last of my available cash in getting there.
I had just enough to pay the landlady but next day had to walk to Stockton, quite a distance away. I had not heard of hitchhiking. Until the war made it universal, one thought of it as begging. From Stockton I had a valid return to Leeds where I switched to the London line, getting on without being asked for a ticket. When the ticket inspector came round I explained I had been sacked owing to the strike and promised to repay the fare when I got home. He said he could not agree to that and would have no alternative but to put me off at the next station. My heart sank until he winked, when I remembered the train was non-stop. Later the buffet staff brought coffee and sandwiches gratis. I hadn’t eaten for 18 hours and that was the best railway meal I ever tasted. I always seemed to fall in with people like that when things were worst. Next time I visited Middlesbrough, which wasn’t for another forty years, I made the warmest of friends and wondered why I ever left it cursing the town which has become a second home.
At home on the old political scene, Patrick Monks, who had been a mainstay of our group ever since he arrived from Dublin, went to sea, Billy Campbell finding him a job. What disappointed me most was that my old friend Rod Strong decided to join the Army. True, he had never been much interested in anarchism, though he liked a good scrap against fascists. He was unable to get on even the bottom rung of the job ladder. I don’t suppose his colour helped, but it was not a burning issue in those days when there were so few Black citizens. With the best brains and muscle I knew, of utter integrity, he had one job in the years I knew him: a few months casual labour with a backstreet rabbit skinning factory. For almost the whole time I knew him, Billy and I put aside part of our pay to keep him going, and he always intended to get himself straight when he started work, but he never could. Enlisting was his answer. After we said goodbye, he promised to keep in touch, and in fact repaid the advances we had made him — not that we wanted or expected him to do so. I saw him once or twice until the war and then never saw or heard from him again, though I always looked out for him in the years that followed.
When I think of the phoney intellectuals I met who were to swan through Easy Street, none of whom, even those extolled by thesis writers of a later generation, ever raised a blow in anger for anarchism or socialism or against capitalism, I excuse myself for being thought of as arrogant by them.
Not unnaturally I suppose, after the Munich Agreement any discussion of anarchism was at a low ebb. The press had long since dropped the caricature William le Queux image of the mad bomber (to be revived years later). Instead it had deliberately censored news of the revolution during the Spanish War, and Popular Frontist propaganda slandered all anti-Stalinist revolutionaries as “Trotsky fascists” yet it is clear the Comintern was preparing for accommodation with the fascist powers.
Public opinion was only interested in Democracy v. Fascism, or Communism v. Fascism, whichever way they chose to interpret the world situation, though even without hindsight it is obvious there were other alternatives. Meantime whatever democracy there was shrank.
Though most of my contemporaries, and nearly but not quite all the veterans of anarchist struggle, were giving up in one degree or other of despair, worn down by either grinding poverty or increasing family commitments, some streak of obstinacy made me go on, though there seemed little hope of success. It was a bit flattering that Special Branch chose to visit me on one or two matters, even when I was only 18 and still living with my parents who were utterly incredulous that I was taken as seriously as that, or that there was a political police at all.
It was possible for anarchists to work with the local ILPers on some issues. For instance in East London ILPers and anarchists formed the tenants’ action committees, against increased rents. It had the predictable result that the Communist Party infiltrated (and took over) and the less predictable but more welcome one that the local fascists totally discredited themselves by opposing the largely successful rent strike, teaching an unintended if inevitable lesson in racism.
The fascists had previously attacked ‘Jewish landlords’ but when it came to fighting landlords, and Jewish and non-Jewish slum tenants alike joined in, Mosley prevented the fascists from doing so and upsetting his impeccably Norman-blooded slum landlord friends. It smashed the populism of his movement.
The Labour Party was divided between official Labour policy, then dominated by some trade union leaders, with Attlee and Morrison as contenders for the leadership; the followers of George Lansbury, its former leader, who had now become an ultra-Pacifist; those who followed Ernest Bevin, and were working towards a national war policy but would have no truck with either the Left Labourites following Stafford Cripps who wanted to unite with ILP and Communists (the ILP rejected this eventually) and popular frontists who wanted to include Tories as well; and the remnants of the older working class movement being imperceptibly but gradually edged out by the rising professional class.
The Communist Party had an unofficial co-operation with the Conservatives, some openly, like the Duchess of Atholl (wife of a feudal laird, and herself a Tory MP, who later became an intense anti-Communist), some surreptitiously, like Viscount Mountbatten. The Trotskyists were obsessed with the Moscow trials and the charges against Trotsky, and opposed action in or on Spain or any other country against fascism, until it reached the countries in which they were living, when they called for defence of the Soviet Union and themselves.
Outside Spain, and inside too after the defeat, the anarchists were internationally on the defensive in the two post-Munich Agreement years rather than taking the attack. They seemed to have lost both their constituency and consistency. Most opposed the coming war and fascism alike, supporting the struggle in Spain but opposing the compromises made there, for which they were blamed either way. The Stalinists, and their many apologists, said the CNT-FAI did not co-operate with the Government, the Trotskyists that they did, too much so. But liberal elements were coming to the fore in the loss of the working class support, and the attitudes of almost all well-known if not “leading” anarchists were decidedly ambiguous if not downright paving the way for abandonment of their principles.
Jumping over the years, back and forward, I should record there had been several abortive attempts on Mussolini’s life by Italian anarchists in the 1920s and 30s. Now came the attempts on Hitler’s life. Had any been successful, everybody knew the show would still have gone on, but without the leading player, as happened in Spain. A few years before the Dutch anti-parliamentary communist van der Lubbe had set fire to the Reichstag in the hope it would spark off a rising of the German Red Front, which had been trained in Moscow and paraded up and down to popular acclaim until the Nazis took power and, without a blow, it was overnight reduced to a few cowered people hiding if not rounded up in concentration camps. The training wasn’t lost: some of the ‘generals’ they trained turned up in Spain and sneered at the Spanish workers’ primitive ideas of military resistance, such as fighting.
Following the attack on the German vice-consul in Paris, not by an anarchist but by a personal victim of Nazism, there were two or three such plots within Germany. Few details have ever been available because the German Federal Republic chose to publicise only the Junker plot at the very end of the war, when Hitler would not admit Germany had lost, and was opposed by patriotic generals who had gone along with him in conquest but were not prepared to do so in defeat. The attempts on Mussolini are still looked on as the sort of thing that gives the anarchists a bad name.
Even well-known figures in our movement, always cursed by the personality cult, like Ruediger and Rocker, took this attitude in 1948 as regards the attempts on Hitler, and would not co-operate in publicity about it though they had the documentation at a time when the Bundesrepublik was almost canonising von Trott, whose part in the Generals’ Plot came only when they knew there was no chance for victory.
There was one attempt on Hitler planned in 1938, in which I was asked by a German anarchist resistance group, “Schwarzrot”, using Birmingham as a base, to travel to Cologne to pass over some documents to Willy Fritzenkotter. I stayed with Willy Huppertz, miner and pioneer member of the FAUD. It was safe in that I had a British passport, though I admit once when I saw a big Nazi procession approaching and everyone hailing Hitler, I felt queasy. I was faced with the dilemma of doing the unthinkable and giving the salute or facing who-knew-what, like Hitler himself at the time of the Munich Soviet. It would be no use the British Consul saying afterwards they had exceeded their rights and must apologise, so I did what Adolf may have done all those years before. I disappeared into a public toilet partly to avoid saluting and partly for necessity, where I found a large number of Germans had the same idea or compulsion and the attendant grinning all over his face.
I thought the documents related to emigration. A dozen years later, I met Fritzenkotter again and he told me they related to the escape of the planned attacker, but the plot had not come off. I did not meet him then — he had already been deported to England. One of the other people on the periphery was John Olday, who had been in contact with the Marxist (non-CP) resistance, which included Hilda Monte whom I met with Fritzenkotter.
Olday (properly August Wilhelm Oldag) was born of mixed German and Scots-Canadian parentage, and though he had lived in Germany all his life in very poor circumstances, was a British subject and had been bullied at school in the First World War as a consequence. He had married Hilda Monte to give her nationality (he was homosexual, and they did not live together). In England he wrote a moving book Kingdom of Rags (1939) and contacted Ethel Mannin, who had the same publisher (Jarrolds) but did not contact local anarchists until he had been conscripted into the British Army.
Hilda Monte made another attempt on Hitler’s life, someone obtaining for her the unlikely financial backing of G. N. Strauss M.P.(millionaire industrialist, later Father of the House of Commons). Hilda, after an unsuccessful attempt, went to England; I think, to help achieve her original plan, though Strauss pulled out when the war finally came, perhaps thinking he was being inveigled into a Nazi plot. When the war broke out she was interned as the authorities were not unnaturally suspicious of a German, recently married to a British subject with whom she did not live, and did not know or care she was far more anti-Hitler than they. However, she not only got her release but was allowed by British Intelligence to return to Germany as a saboteur because of an influential intervention, with which I shall deal later.
She was captured by the Nazis. Her marriage was no longer a protection and as a Jewess married to an “Aryan”, a revolutionary, and a “foreign agent” her death was inevitable, and doubtless gruesome.
The anarchist movement in Germany was unknown to the world until the defeat of the Nazis, when the Americans seized the police archives and opened them up to scholars. It had been thought that it consisted of a few scholars. It is clear now a large anarchist working-class had existed during the Kaiser’s period and through the years of Weimar and Hitler. The FAUD (a real anarcho-syndicalist union) was strongest in the Ruhr, where the Nazis wisely left the coalminers alone in their opinions provided that was all. It would perhaps have been easy for them to act against the miners, but they still needed coal.
Willy Graf of Ulm discovered an ingenious way in which the majority of other German comrades saved their lives. He was arrested and placed in a concentration camp (of the original type, actually a barracks). The commandant was pedantic about properly classifying each prisoner in their proper category. Graf found that the Jehovah’s Witnesses with whom he was confined were almost as unbearable as the Nazis. It was possible to apply to the commandant, who told him that among the ‘real Germans’ he had only two anarchists, who had either to go to the Communist section or the ‘Bible searchers’ section whichever was more appropriate.
Graf replied that he was really a criminal prisoner, pointing out a dictionary which stated anarchists were ‘bandits’ who ‘believed in disorder’. The commandant, a martinet of the old school, was disturbed in his notions of justice, which he confused with neatness, and examined the records, which said that Graf had been involved in an attack on the Braunhaus in Munich and been imprisoned for it under the Republic. He said that Graf must then surely be a Communist and should leave the JWs. But Graf, fearing the Stalinists might be as bad as the jehovahs, said his gang was only after the treasury, whence the satisfied commandant promptly re-classified him as a criminal.
Subsequently, when the war came, he was out, together with other anarchists who had heard of the magic of the dictionary on the grapevine, and learned that they had to be criminals to be allowed to go free, sometimes to the indignation of neighbours (“our boys are being called up and the red scum are coming home”). Many of the older comrades had to work on forced labour but we here did not learn about this until after the war, and assumed all had been killed.
The other anarchist imprisoned with Graf, either because he did not wish to pretend he was a criminal or out of a feeling of solidarity, claimed falsely to the commandant he was of Jewish origin and so was moved with the Jewish inmates to wherever it was they went. His folly seems incredible now, but it was inconceivable to most Germans then that race could lead to anything more than deportation at worst. Like Graf, he gambled in a game of Russian roulette but was unlucky.
One who followed Graf’s lead in Hamburg, Carl Langer, was later a cause celebre. After years of forced labour and showing signs of age, he had been directed to work as a bank messenger. During the last days of Nazi Hamburg, when they thought the Russians were coming, the bank staff had fled and the bank was looted. When order was restored, Carl retired from work, bought a house and opened a hall and press for the re-created anarchist movement. There followed a series of prosecutions by the bank at which he asserted his legal right not to testify against himself when the now officially denazified former directors tried to claim their lost treasures, amid general public amusement.
Three years after the war, the taxi driver who took me from the station to the Langer house laughed when I told him the address I wanted, and said Carl was the only man on forced labour who had managed to save enough to retire comfortably out of a wage of a pfennig a day and he only wished he had the secret.
Returning to the two pre-war years, it was inevitable I should meet persons on the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary Left, among whom, with exceptions, I never felt comfortable. That this attitude was shared by the bulk of the working class movement was later made clear though while my instinct and logic was to become more revolutionary than they, many became instead as or more reactionary. I am glad that I did not realise at the time that, little as I appreciated the Old Left, the New Left when it came would be infinitely worse. Even the old British CP was a paragon compared with most of the later student Trots.
Jon Kimche was one of the left-wing of the ILP, whatever the term meant in that context. He was associated with the German section aided by the ILP before the war, quite contrary to British and Labour Party foreign policy and quasis-illegal. I believe Hilda Monte was also in touch with them. He also ran the Socialist Bookshop at 35 St. Bride Street, just round the corner from Ludgate Circus. I say “ran”, as it was thought by most, including the ILP itself, to be the ILP bookshop. Their headquarters was above and the extensive bookshop below. As in the later case of Freedom Press and Vernon Richards, the question of ownership became blurred, and it finished up as his.
Kimche was Swiss-born but had quite a good knowledge of German affairs though I doubt if he was as knowledgeable about what Hitler was going to say to Goebbels next day as his newspaper articles made out. Later during the war, when the bookshop was declining, he moved in on Fleet Street journalism as a German expert, encouraged to write on German underground resistance to Hitler which up to a few months before would have been unthinkable. The papers would not have printed it, and the police would have investigated if they had.
Like Dr C. A. Smith, a former Wood Green schoolteacher and later WEA tutor who moved into professional politics, he went from becoming an avid member of the presumed Left of the ILP to move sharply right. Whereas Kimche went first into journalism, turning his former knowledge to good account, Smith, with whom I was well acquainted from Tottenham days when I had attended his WEA classes, went into Common Wealth during the war. During or after the war both became converted to Zionism. Smith organised the Labour Friends of Israel. I don’t know what moved him (he was not Jewish, though his wife may have been) but Kimche went to Israel and became part of the Intelligence Service. Whether his Intelligence associations pre-dated his move from the ILP I cannot say.
Both Smith and Kimche became very right wing in the following years. I lost track of them. Smith, like John McGovern who has been vehemently anti-war, both an extreme pacifist and hailed by Fenner Brockway as the “English Karl Liebknecht”, became a fervent anti-Communist. It was odd that McGovern joined his old opponent the Duchess of Atholl, who had been the most fervent Communist supporter when McGovern opposed them from a revolutionary angle in every US Government backed activity during the Cold War.
Another person I remembered from the Tottenham days, though I only saw him at meetings, was Ted Willis, a Young Communist League organiser. He called me a “subjective supporter of the ruling class” at one meeting. After the war he wrote a play or two for the Communist-backed Unity Theatre which introduced a number of ardent CPers and amateur actors to the professional stage. He seemed to catch on and is now known as the “Dixon of Dock Green” creator glamourising the police force. He mellowed with the years, and moved to the Labour Party. It can be done so easily in Britain — think what American screen writers and actors who backed the Communist Party had to go through! As he was made a Lord I am entitled to assume he is not merely a subjective supporter of the ruling class and if we ever mixed in the same social circles, which I think unlikely, he could revise his judgment on me.
I never met any of the other Unity Theatre people, who came from the East End, where the Communist Party was growing and where I had virtually no contacts at the time. Someone who seemed to be more or less in that milieu, though of a later generation, was Bernard Kops, a playwright. When I came across him in the forties or so he was selling second hand books from a barrow in Cambridge Circus or at least going through the motions, the stock being so uninteresting it was left unattended for hours at a time. The local bookthief clique (solidly Bohemian and CP), who formed a community of their own, derisively referred to him as “Shakespeare” because of his literary ambitions. As he came from the East End I expect he had hung round Unity Theatre, actually in King’s Cross. He frequented CP haunts and Soho cafes but I certainly never heard of him as having anything whatever to do with anarchists. Years later (1988) I read David Gillard’s column in the Radio Times saying he had written a radio play about the “anarchists” he had known in his youth. “They were utterly broke but they had a wonderful vision of what they’d do when things change. They’d even discuss the government posts they’d have when they came to power”. Could one get a radio play produced or write in the Radio Times knowing as little as this pair about anything else but anarchism?
His play put anarchist words on to CP backgrounds — there was the “Kafe Kropotkin” which the Radio Times thought real, but it seemed like the Coffee An’ in St. Giles High Street where the bookthieves hung out. It was really about East End Jewish Stalinists with a veneer of anarchist-sounding phases (“we fought the commies in Spain” — “I thought the fascists were the enemy” ; “Emma Goldman be with me” and so on).
But, as usual, I am letting myself get ahead of my story.
© Copyright: 1996 Albert Meltzer
Published by AK Press Book details and the Kate Sharpley Library.
Marked up by Chuck0 in 1996, originally posted at http://www.spunk.org/library/writers/meltzer/sp001591/angeltoc.html
(Reproofed by KSL May 2010).
Part of I Couldn't Paint Golden Angels: Sixty Years of Commonplace Life and Anarchist Agitation