24 The New Left; "Anarchy'; Lost Weekend; Venice Observed

I couldn’t paint golden angels - Chapter 24

The New Left

It came as a shock to me and the survivors of the old anarchist movement that the student movement of the Fifties, with a middle-class background or the results of scholarly brainwashing, regarded itself as the New Left. As one friend observed, “The Old Left was bad enough, God knows, but this… .” One trend emerged from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, another from the events of the Soviet tanks going into Hungary. Most of the originals have gone from student activists to mandarins. The failed mandarins-to-be took hold of the new liberalism they created and ultimately became professional organisers of presumably good causes or gave university lectures on them, the only growth industries of capitalism in decline.

It was a significant few of them even decided they were not really Marxists but anarchist, especially if they were pacifists at the same time. At least one of these trends, calling itself the Organisation of Revolutionary Anarchists and having its programme written by a Christian pacifist, finally decided, once it renounced its pacifism, it was Marxist after all and its leaders became Trots or went into the Labour Party, a few passing into the privileged Mandarin class of paid do-gooders.

For the failed mandarins who regarded themselves as anarchists and built on the framework of pacifists who had infiltrated the anarchist movement during the War, the phrase “non-violent anarchist” expressed their militant liberalism. Ultimately many found their way to their natural habitat among the political Liberals, or are now creating environmental pollution in the name of the Green Party.

Hearing the phrase “non-violent anarchist” I felt the way Ernest Bevin did when he went to an international Trade Union conference and heard for the first time of “Christian trade unions” in Europe. “What the hell do they think we are, bleedin’ heathens?” In like manner, I don’t know if we were supposed to be bloody axe wielders, but it certainly reinforced the media prejudice about anarchism equals violence full stop, no more to be said. Soon sober, indeed most, judges were asking solemnly, if they heard a person was an anarchist, whether she or he were a “non-violent” one or, horrors, a “militant” one. For the ultra-pacifist every single person, including the judiciary, other than those accepting extremities of non-violent non-resistance in all circumstances, was “violent”, but tactfully they never spoke of “non-violent Socialists” or “non-violent Conservatives” or suggested there were violent ones.


Colin Ward, an architect, who began (as a conscript soldier) in the anarchist tradition but was absorbed by Freedom Press and the Failed Mandarin tendency, founded the magazine Anarchy in 1961 as a theoretical journal for them and helped set back the movement as Trotskyist opponents quoted its reformism as coming from “the theoretical journal of anarchism”, which it never was. He first wanted to call it Autarchy but was unfortunately dissuaded. At least nobody would have known what it meant.

Anarchy in its original form helped as much as anything to reinforce the myth of a non-violent, bourgeois, sanitised “anarchism” that could help capitalism out of its difficulties, and later became the inspiration for “the individualist school of capitalist anarchism” that provided the Thatcher think tank, though some of the student gurus Ward brought into being disowned the logical consequence.

Anarchy was well produced, but so many issues were shaming to real anarchists that now and again someone tried to write an article protesting at its excesses of moderation. But to no avail. As much as Woodcock, it divided the activist movement from Freedom Press and its clique. The non-violent people could never understand it. They had no politics, so they put it down to personalities. For years (and to this day) I was asked why I “didn’t get on” with this or that bourgeois intellectual or failed mandarin of the Freedom set. It baffles them too. “Why are anarchists so divided?” The myth of all anarchists disagreeing with or disliking one another found its way to the media, it being presumed everyone calling themselves socialists or conservatives are fully in agreement with anyone else happening to do so.

Ultimately after ten years or so of trying to solve capitalism’s difficulties in terms of revisionist anarchism, Colin Ward gave up to write for political weeklies and the Guardian, drawing on the anarchist past as if he belonged to it. The magazine passed to a group of hippies, who didn’t do a bad job of it, though they fell down on actually collating, let alone distributing, the paper. At least they understood what anarchism was about, if they expressed it somewhat crudely.The difference between them and the Failed Mandarins was that while they might smoke pot and use hippy terms, they were activists. People like Chris Broad, Charlotte Baggins, Kate McClean and others were prepared to fight as well as write, and they took part in real struggles. Anarchism meant something to them, whereas the old brigade of Colin Ward’s gurus thought they were active if, like Woodcock, they wrote articles about long-dead secular saints and discussed in pedantic terms the problems of life at home and death in far off countries. One could work with the new generation, even if at first a bit put off by their appearance. Who was to know in those early days of hippiedom that one hadn’t seen anything yet?

On one occasion I went along to a party they held. A friend from work who took the message on the phone asked to come along too as he had nothing to do that evening, and said he would pick me up by car. I could hardly refuse, and they would not give a damn, though I wondered what he would make of it. When he came I was staggered to find his wife naturally considered herself invited and had dressed up for the grand occasion. She looked a treat, but I wondered what she would make of her first sight all those scruffy individuals in torn jeans sitting around on the lawn smoking pot, with children and dogs running around them, listening to Jimi Hendrix. To my surprise, she thoroughly enjoyed herself.

And it was nice for me to lose a prejudice too. I thought I had none to lose. Unfortunately few of those with whom I had worked for years did. I never had any difficulty working with the new generation unlike most of the working class activists of my generation.

Lost Weekend

Around Easter 1983 Chris Broad, who had worked hard at Anarchy and other activities and whom I had every reason to trust, approached me to ask if I would put up his friend Fiona for a week or so. I often had visitors, usually from outside London but hardly kept what is called a safe house. “She’s a good kid and in a real jam,” he said earnestly, explaining his interest in her as “one of these battering cases”. I assumed she was being battered by her man. I associated Chris with Charlotte Baggins, with whom he had lived for some years and had two children. I guessed he might have a closer interest in Fiona than I knew, but had no idea he had parted from Charlotte and married Fiona.

I said I was going away for a couple of weeks and let him have the key. “Oh, I forgot to mention — there’s a little boy — he’s the one who’s being knocked about”, said Chris. I shrugged my shoulders. Fiona came into the room and he said it was fixed. She asked immediately, “Does he know about the boy?” All I had been told about the boy was that he existed but it didn’t cross my mind there was anything more to it. Over the next months I forgot about it.

The next I knew was one morning in November I found a bag of luggage with a note bearing the cryptic remark “Look after my treasures” in the hallway. I had no idea from whom they came and was trying to think who had the doorkey (several did). About ten o’clock that night I returned home to find Fiona and her boy encamped in my living room watching the television and him crying excitedly, “That’s my dog”, which I put down to imagination. I was none too pleased at their being there, and in effect having taken over the sitting room, but it was a torrential night and there was not much I could do. I still had no idea of what I was letting myself in for and only discovered what it was in the headlines of the papers next morning.

Fiona had two children, a boy and a girl, who had been put in care following domestic problems with her common-law husband. She had been visiting them both but had formed the opinion her son was being ill-treated by his adoptive, formerly foster, parents. I never met them but from speaking to the boy they seemed a decent, caring couple who had let him meet his natural mother on a regular basis. When she had taken him to Chris, the free-and-easy atmosphere in which his two kids were brought up contrasted with the well-disciplined way in which he lived at home, and divided his loyalties, but he maintained a diplomatic balance (which many adults would have envied) between the home mum and the cowboy mum. I asked him while Fiona was out if he would like to go back to his mother. He first said, “She’s only gone to buy cigarettes”. When I explained, “Your other mummy, I mean?” he said he wanted to go back and see his dog and go to the cubs on Thursday evening, but his other mum would understand why he couldn’t this week.

Fiona had kidnapped him from under the nose of his adoptive mother. It had been planned for some time (maybe two years) and Chris had asked everyone he knew to harbour them, and every single person had turned them down, which is why Chris, rather than Fiona, deceived me. They thought the law was, as it had been a few weeks before, that the natural parent could not be convicted of kidnapping nor a husband accused of conspiracy with his wife (which is why they formally married). An accomplice or conspirator could get fifteen years or so, but that would have been tough luck on me and a bagatelle compared with the joyous temporary reunion of mother and child.

What was I to do, given my background and convictions? The alternatives were to turn them out into the rain quick, to inform the police immediately, or to give them shelter and become an accomplice. Fiona said it would not be for more than a week. Chris was in prison for the week, in contempt of court for not revealing the whereabouts of the boy and I did not mention it to anyone because I did not want to involve anyone else.

The boy seemed happy enough, though I felt for the legal parents. The woman had the child snatched from her as she took him to school, and from the manner of the boy I knew she must have been a good parent and would be hurt by the allegations. But at least she knew with whom, if not where, he was and the husband commented on TV that the boy was probably stuffing himself with Mars bars while they were worrying themselves sick (which was true).

I told Fiona she could stay but not to use the phone. She used it when I was out all the same, to save going in the rain to a callbox, but told me earnestly she had counted the calls which were only short ones, thinking all I was worried about was the tiny expense. It did not occur to her that phones could be tapped. She even thought it would have been illegal for the papers to print the boy’s photograph and wanted to “travel North where the police could not find her”. She phoned Chris’s address to find out how he was, the car hire company who rented out the kidnap car to tell them where she had left it, and a few other places besides. I am not sure if she did not phone the legal mother to reassure her of the boy’s safety too.

Considering the case was splashed over every paper too, the chances of the police not finding where she was were slim. They waited until Friday night, perhaps to make a meal of it, as the saying goes, and a minute after I came home and was taking my shoes off in the bedroom (having no sitting room available), the door burst open. Why they could not have knocked, or come in when I did, is a question one should ask the CID but it is a regular technique — probably the influence of too many violent films.

I spent the weekend in Hertford police cells, feeling utterly depressed. I had flu and thought of a meeting booked for next day to which I could not go, and an arrangement to go to Crewe after the evening’s work. It seemed on Friday night I was abandoned by everyone, but of course none of my friends knew what had happened. On Saturday when I did not turn up at the meeting people thought there was something amiss, and Terry Harrison, the first to realise something was wrong, began a series of phone calls. Later, on the radio, came the news I had been arrested, but for some reason no station, even Hertford, would admit to my being there. Terry rallied the troops around. He got on to Gareth Peirce, a partner in Birnberg’s, who immediately took on my case despite her enormous workload. I got a mild complaint from the inspector in charge that she “bullied” him on the phone. Terry also got the address of my doctor from the local practitioner committee, and she also telephoned, offering to come down to Hertford though all I was suffering from was flu, which resulted in a minor nervous breakdown in the cells.

All that night the Hertford police were taking calls, many of them apparently from long-dead rebels like Joe Hill, Mike Bakunin and even Emma Goldman who, apparently relenting to me after forty years in the grave, phoned in to protest along with more contemporary names. I don’t know if it helped but it was encouraging to get the reports from my custodians.

During the weekend I was inside Stuart arranged for Antony Beevor to stand bail. He was one of the few historians of the Spanish Civil War who told it as it was. As a former Major, author and house owner, he was acceptable to the court, but when lower management at work heard about the episode, and were wondering if at last they had me over a barrel, any complaints were dropped hastily when they heard of Tony Beevor being the bailee. Beevor was reputed to be friendly with Max Hastings, the rising new editor, and though this was based on their both being military historians, the whole affair had been made respectable by this touch so far as work status was concerned. Afterwards the crusading barrister Helena Kennedy reproached Stuart for not asking her to be bailee, but while I have great admiration for her work in the dock on behalf of the victims of injustice I doubt if the Telegraph management would have been equally appreciative.

It was great to know I had so many friends, and I was touched to find that people at work, not appreciating what bail implied, had decided to start a fund to cover the huge amount involved.

When I went to Hertford court for the hearing I was in the cells prior to the case being heard. Birnberg’s had sent down a well-known London barrister who came in to see me, just as the police brought in an aggressive drunk still struggling with three policemen.They had got him safely to another cell when the sergeant — who recognised the civil rights lawyer from TV — said, “Go easy with him, lads, he may damage himself in that state and think afterwards we’ve been brutal”. I question how many times they had heard that said when they were limping from vicious kicks but I guess from the surprised and hurt looks on their faces not very often.

The Hertford magistrates acquitted me at the first hearing but sent Fiona for trial. There had been a bizarre, and totally unrelated, case a few weeks before Fiona’s kidnap, where a man had gone with some thugs and seized his girl friend’s son to extort money and, when she went to the police, claimed immunity because the lad was his son too. The judge had not accepted this and in convicting him of kidnapping his own natural son had set a legal precedent which could have gone ill for Fiona. In her quite different case the jury were sympathetic, notwithstanding the change in law, and asked if she should be convicted if she thought she were preventing a crime even though none had been contemplated. It ended with an acquittal for her too, but I doubt if she was allowed contact with her son again.

When Duncan Campbell wrote up the case in City Limits he described me as a “gentle and generous soul who is one of the leading figures in British anarchism”, which did absolutely nothing for my street cred. It would have been ungenerous to have asked him whom I ever led, but had dear Lisa Bryan still been alive she would certainly have claimed I had finally beaten her for the prize mug in the lame duck stakes. The police seized my diaries and address books, and my handwriting never being copybook, there was a spin-off: an unwelcome visit to a Harley Street specialist to whom my dentist had referred me for problems with my teeth. I hope being thought to specialise in guns rather than gums did not upset the worthy professor’s chances of a knighthood.

I never got my notebooks and diaries back, which has helped destroy my chronology of events in this account of my life. Maybe they are still trying to make head and tail of my handwriting.

Venice Observed

Just before Fiona’s trial, in September 1984, an international anarchist gathering was to be held in Venice. I went with Stuart, Margaret of Black Flag, and another anarchist friend Rupal by car. We had to go via Switzerland as Germany had refused Stuart entry on a previous occasion, for a conviction by an illegal military tribunal which the new Spanish State no longer recognised, but with the German State’s own record of illegal prison sentences, who could wonder?

We got to Venice in good time after a swift journey, too much so through the Swiss Alps, which Stuart seemed to enjoy but kept the rest of us jumpy, and then had to drive three times round the square over the bridge into Venice, looking for a way into the city itself, having temporarily overlooked that it has waterways instead of roads, gondolas instead cars, vaporettos instead of of buses.

Over three thousand anarchists from all over the world had entered the fascinating city for this unique occasion. The organisers, the Centro Studi Libertari G. Pinelli of Milan, had fifty people of all nationalities working from 8 a.m. until 1 am the next day at three separate locations — the Campo San Polo, which housed the exhibitions, the Campo Santa Margharita, a working-class area where the social events took place, including the bookstall, kitchen, dining and entertainment marquees, and the School of Architecture where there was a series of mostly boring (to me, at least) lectures chiefly by academics without much relevance to anarchism or indeed anything much beyond thesis writing. Fortunately, as is my experience with conferences, what really mattered were the contacts outside.

I felt privileged to sit down at dinner in a restaurant with international anarchist activists who had given so much to our common cause. It so happened that, as we naturally tended to group together old friends and acquaintances and above all, those with languages in common, at one dinner we found that everyone around, French, British, Italian and Spanish, had been involved in the International Revolutionary Solidarity Movement. I took a photo of this unique gathering (but fortunately, perhaps for security if not for history) it never came out, as usual with my camera work.

One evening I was introduced to Clara Thalmann — she died only a few months afterwards — who had been a formidable figure in the 1918 council communist revolt in Germany. She moved from Marxism to Anarchism in the course of participation of the war in Spain. I had heard of her when Miguel and I had spoken at a meeting in East Berlin and met old German anarchists who had fought alongside the Thalmanns. The East Berliners had survived WWII but afterwards they were in the Eastern Zone and she was in France. It was great for me to exchange memories of Germany and Spain with those of war-time England. These occasions make one realise how historians pick up false contemporary reports and pass them on with embellishments.

From Clara I learned ‘la inglesa’ had died a couple of years before in Barcelona but sadly I had no further details.There was news of many old friends from all around the world. I tried to learn more of friends of past days who were in China and Korea from an old Korean anarchist, but unfortunately his languages were Chinese, Korean and Japanese and so he confined himself mostly to shaking hands with everyone, being able only to speak to the young people from Hong Kong. It was sad to learn of many who had died in the past years, especially in South America where the younger generation had faced State terrorism and the older generation died brokenhearted.

But I was inspired to meet and talk with many young people, especially from Germany and Switzerland, who were eager to talk about past and present workers’ struggles.There was a certain German punk element which was a bit wild and woolly, and who were more in the tradition of Woodstock than in that of Wilhelmshaven, and the organisers’ choice of speakers were more in the tradition of Walden or even Westminster. There was a clear division due to a failure not just to define the goalposts or to clearly mark the boundaries, but to indicate which game was being played.

In a discussion sitting around the square, some young German-speakers complained of the inadequacy of the English or even the German translations of some of the American speakers. It almost sounded as if they were talking of a political party to fight elections on a “green” basis. I had to tell them their understanding and the translations were perfect and what was inadequate was the discrimination of the organisers.

While the exhibitions of the history and geography of anarchism were of the revolutionary libertarian movement, one could hardly say the same of most of the speakers. Some of the participants would have been more at home in a rock concert, but this did not detract from the overall impression of wonderful nights with a new generation from around the world, and also reunions, in one case after over forty years, with people who had been fighting and struggling since I met them in their youth and remained as fresh in spirit as ever.

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© 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).