Anna Mendleson*, ‘Stoke Newington Eight’ defendant and poet, has died in Cambridge at the age of 61. She died on 16 November 2009 after a long battle with a brain tumour. Her three children were with her in her last days.
Anna was born in Stockport in 1948. Her father had fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War and became a Labour councillor. Her mother had worked with Holocaust survivors. Studying at Essex University from 1967 to 1969, she left without a degree, having moved from radical student politics to political activism with the Claimants’ Union and underground press.
The Angry Brigade’s bombing of the house of Home Secretary Robert Carr in January 1971 unleashed a high-profile police campaign against the libertarian left characterised, according to Gordon Carr, by antagonism and mutual incomprehension. Anna was arrested in 1971 and accused of conspiracy to cause explosions and possession of weapons and explosives in the Stoke Newington Eight trial of 1972.
The trial was a scene of political conflict from start to finish. ‘The courtroom was made into an open forum by some defendants defending themselves.’ (John Barker) He, Anna Mendleson and Hilary Creek represented themselves. This made the cross-examinations ‘by far the most bitterly contested part of the trial. It served once again to illustrate the lack of any kind of common ground between the authorities and those on trial. The fact that Barker and the others were so articulate in their own defence threw the conflict into even greater relief.’ (Gordon Carr)
Of course, there were lighter moments:
‘Mr Yallop (forensic expert): I would indeed say that it was a miracle no-one was killed or seriously injured in any of the explosions.
Anna: Mr Yallop, would you tell the court what is the statistical probability for there to exist an associated set of 27 miracles?
Mr Yallop: Er, no, hum, her, I don’t think I could.’
John Barker described her in the trial as displaying ‘political passion without cliches’.
Anna was one of the four defendants convicted (alongside John Barker, Hilary Creek and James Greenfield). ‘Despite the guilty verdict, it had still been a victory for those who had defended themselves. Relying on lawyers alone would never have got us as close as we did to a spectacular victory against the state … It was a ten-to-two majority verdict. The mainly working-class jury initially failed to agree on convicting the first four … Two of them stuck out for a complete acquittal of all eight of us … the only way out of the impasse had been a compromise with the three ‘waverers’: four acquittals in exchange for four convictions - and an attempt to mitigate their decision with a strong plea for clemency.’ (Stuart Christie)
Anna was sentenced to 10 years, and was paroled, after five years in Holloway, in November 1976. After her release she avoided publicity and devoted herself to poetry, writing as Grace Lake.
John Barker paid her this tribute: ‘I saw her quite a lot in the 1980s and she was as much of a dynamo, excited by life and undefeated as she was before those years in prison. … she could easily have had followers of one sort or another, and quite rightly she obviously made a clear choice not to.’
Anna’s friend and fellow poet, Peter Riley, described her work: ‘Her poetry ranged widely in manner but was basically ecstatic and expostulatory, often in an angry tone concerning the harms that had been done to her, but also outrageously ludic [playful] in the Surrealist line. She accumulated several thousand hand-written poems and probably a greater number of ink drawings, at which she was equally skilled.’
‘Tall and striking with her plentiful dark hair … she will long be remembered sweeping through the streets of Cambridge in carefully chosen flamboyant, often dark, clothing, usually on her way to or from the University Library, which became her second home.’
* [Mendleson was her family name, but it’s often spelled Mendelson. Later she adopted the spelling Mendelssohn.]