20 After the Christie File; Refract; "The Kid's Last Fight"; Kate Sharpley

I couldn’t paint golden angels - Chapter 20

After the Christie File

Cienfuegos Press caused a stir during its years in the Orkneys, with press hounding and pounding, even inquisitive TV and radio interviews ensuring that it was well known. It didn’t do it much harm when a number of Conservative MPs, vigilant in defending a platform for fascists but feeling that advocating workers self defence was giving way to terrorism, called for it to be banned.

One German woman activist decided to flee to Sanday when she was wanted by the West German police, not quite realising that she would stand out like a sore thumb in a closely-knit community where an English accent marks you as a stranger and even the Scots were regarded by Orcadians only as a little less foreign. She soon fled but the incident enhanced the picture of “Terror Island” in the press, a picture nobody whatsoever living on or near the island ever recognised. The reaction was the same as when, years later, a zealous Christian social worker ‘discovered’ Devil worship and Satanic practices on a neigbouring island.

The amount Cienfuegos published, given its total lack of financial resources, was incredible. The trouble was that it poured too many resources into an ever-diminishing market, given the virtual collapse of left bookshops — never too stable. The amount of essays and information in one Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review would have made a couple of dozen pamphlets and a book or two. An insatiable desire to publish ever more led inevitably to the growth of printing debts and a trail of wailing creditors, both among the commercial fraternity and among high-minded people who had renounced commercialism but thought non-profit making was a guarantee against loss making. As one could not fight a by-election for a mainstream party without incurring a loss, I do not see how a publishing venture against the political tide could conceivably be expected to pay its way and keep printing co-ops in wages. One or two firms who did not get paid in the process thought it was a conspiracy to ruin them. In the same way printworkers often unjustly thought print co-ops a conspiracy to work for wages and in conditions incredibly below par in a way backstreet sweatshops did, rather than work for others, but under cover of idealism.

For a time Black Flag used Sanday as an address, having lost its Haverstock Hill address, even after it was edited in London. There were some, especially from the USA, who queried with me if they could safely write to the address — Over the Water, Sanday. I invariably explained that the Orkney Islands had been civilised long enough to have a postal service and cannibalism had practically died out. So, as a matter of fact, had vegetarianism. Meat was cheap and plentiful but fruit and vegetables had to be brought from the mainland and brought high prices. Lifelong veggies who went up there had to capitulate.

For years I was regarded as Stuart’s spokesperson or alter ego, especially after he wrote his somewhat early autobiography The Christie File in which he referred to me in flattering terms which I hope I deserved. A few journalists would seek me out for the latest news as to what he was up to, though many, afraid of my regarding such enquiries as harassment, would ask friends of mine if they would mind asking me and passing the news on to them. The timidity in approaching me direct was solely because of their nervousness in regard to the print union. With no other category — in the course of years, soon not even the Royal Family — did they have such commendable restraint on preservation of privacy. Later they spoke of the “semi-criminal” activities of printworkers, which consisted of curbing journalists’ worst excesses to the point where they could not even interrupt your lunch to ask you to incriminate your friends, without repercussions. Individual members of the Cabinet with kinky secrets must wonder sometimes ruefully if they slaughtered the wrong cow when they destroyed the printworkers strength and “set free” the Murdoch press.

Around 1980 various disasters happened to Cienfuegos Press which led to the Christies making an exodus from Sanday. A printer decamped with an expensive made-ready book, its recently-printed books were burned out and water-damaged en route to the island, and on top of it all Brenda was arrested while visiting Stuart’s family in Germany. It was alleged she was involved in resistance activities in Germany, where she had never been before, several years past, apparently on the strength of gossip and the old German practice of guilt by association.

Stuart had been denied entry to speak at a conference, along with an East German poet, Wolf Biermann, who was in turn denied permission to leave. The Berlin Wall worked both ways. Thus he could not go directly to his wife’s rescue while she was in prison awaiting a trial that never came, but he spent a fortune telephoning all round the globe for support and solidarity, until the investigating judge gave up in despair complaining that he had been ‘pilloried’ though if there had been any pillorying he did not appear to be the one who sat in the stocks.

As if things weren’t bad enough, the Times Educational Supplement invited Stuart to write an article as to how small publishing firms were able to survive the recession. Tempting fate, he wrote in his usual optimism that as Cienfuegos Press had low overheads and devoted readers as well as high debts, it should just about manage to do so, given a bit of leeway by the bank. Just about after that had been read and digested, the Bank of Scotland foreclosed on the house and that was the end of the Orkneys saga.


The original anarchist thought that had been published from Sanday was so well received that Stuart was induced to try again. He moved down south to Cambridge in search of still cheap housing. I helped out a bit financially and he established a new publishing house. No one could ever understand his reasoning in obscure titles, and this one was called Refract. Among the books it published was The Investigative Researcher’s Handbook which, like Towards a Citizens Militia published in Sanday, was widely read. It became a collector’s piece partly because the funds didn’t stretch to keeping it in print.

Even the ranks of Tuscany could scarce forbear to cheer. On one occasion he was visited by a Special Branch officer asking if one of the groups claiming to be the Angry Brigade had anything to do with him and, if so would he tell them so or name the people concerned. He said he didn’t know, dashing their hopes of an instant Moscow-type confession. The Special Branch officer said he thought it quite funny that in marketing the Handbook, Stuart had leafletted every SB liaison officer throughout the country by name. The CIA and the National Security Council each paid $200 for their copy of the Handbook when it was explained that these were the last ones left. The SAS house organ Mars and Minerva reproduced in its pages a highly critical look at their activities from this shoestring press. However, just as kind words don’t butter any parsnips, praise from the enemy doesn’t pay the rent.

When he first arrived at Cambridge, the local paper got a hack to write a sensational story that Stuart Christie, who had been released from Spain and subsequently amnestied, and found not guilty of other charges in England too, was “hiding” in Cambridge where he had “taken refuge”, though it didn’t say from what. Creditors, perhaps? To aspiring journalists it doesn’t matter. To them “hiding” sometimes means only they haven’t taken the trouble to look you up in the phone book, and in the mentality of journalism in the sticks, “self-confessed anarchists” had to be up to something.

Impressive as the Refract list was, it was still swallowing money just as Cienfuegos did. The bills mounted up and Stuart had to live. He got out from under by winding it up, and then applying for a grant as a mature student to study history and politics at Queen Mary College, London, commuting backwards and forwards between London and Cambridge each day. We used to meet for a meal in Whitechapel most weeks and I always asked him what he expected to do with a Mickey Mouse degree at most. I was brought up when University education was a privilege for the rich and powerful. When working-class youth fell foul of the Establishment it told them to emigrate or join the Navy. Now these are closed, they are told to go to higher education, even when they know more than the professors.

However, by 1986, having run up another £10,000 in debts with Refract, apart from money sunk into it, and with the college course at an end, it was time for Stuart to face the hard cold world again. I tried to get him into the print, where he could have been a valuable ally, but other people thought that too and all I got were raised eyebrows. However, there was an old friend of Stuart’s, Ron McKay who had gone into commercial publishing, and launched various new trade journals, always a risky business. He invited Stuart to work on Media Week, a newspaper for the advertising industry, as a sub-editor, and double with “EQ”, a magazine for sound engineers. Finally the firm branched out into various other magazines, including House Magazine, the house organ of the Houses of Parliament, and a London digest of Pravda.

What with various trade magazines, some of which lasted a few issues and some of which didn’t, the sub-editors moved from one issue to another as editors, or did several at once. Stuart was editing and setting the sound engineers trade paper, the advertising media trade paper, and an electronic trade paper, as well as an equally short-lived literary magazine. I don’t know how much he knew about any of the trades concerned but one day he was told he was also the editor of Pravda International. That made news all right with a few hack journalists, though the hue and cry around him had died out a bit by this time.

Pravda International wasn’t quite what it sounded, since it was recording changes prior to perestroika, and the only contact with Moscow was when the head of the Pravda foreign desk phoned up to protest they were using the name Pravda but non-Pravda material. The Russians wanted the English-speaking world to see how they were tackling their economic problems. Pravda, which for years had echoed the Party line, now wanted to show it was the voice of reform. They were being challenged by a new paper, Arguments and Facts, a non-Party and non-Government paper which specialised in economic and social exposures. This jumped from 10,000 in 1979 to 35 million in 1989, and so became the biggest selling newspaper in the world, finally pushing Pravda out of business by not being identified with the Party. It was the material from Arguments and Facts that constituted the non-Pravda material being used by Pravda International.

Meanwhile the London publishers had an economic crisis of their own when the old Soho News was re-launched, without consultation with the previous publishers of the title, who might have warned them that Soho had radically changed and was now a geographical expression, and came an expensive cropper. Ron McKay was sacked and the board of directors decided to cut down heavily on staff, the most expensive item they could think of, in this case killing the goose that laid the eggs because they were not golden enough. The London Pravda International lost its entire staff and Stuart made an arrangement with the editors Vladislav Starkov and his deputy, Alexander Meschersky, to launch a London Arguments and Facts International.

None of this affected me, except that I had to contend, after a malicious article in Freedom by someone whose Intelligence associations were exposed in Black Flag, with anxious enquiries as to whether Stuart had gone over to the Communist Party, was editing a “trendy Marxist” magazine or even “was working for the Russian Embassy”, not that I could have done anything about it if he was.

In fact, so quickly was “glasnost” breaking out in Russia that it had become more democratic than Britain. Here, his anti-fascist record meant every job was closed to him, even at one remove, as it were. There, his notorious opposition to Marxist-Leninism while being a proven anti-fascist was no bar, but a positive recommendation in many circles.

Arguments and Facts International, I gather, is a specialist trade digest about risk analysis and business in the former USSR. It is, as the Guardian mentioned, a “far cry” from Cienfuegos Press in the Orkneys. However the Russian company has aims at moving into book publishing, and coincidentally Russian anarchist writers may be re-introduced to a new generation. It has published articles on Russian anarcho-syndicalism today and features on Kropotkin and Bakunin in the course of a new Russian journalism. Whereas it is still unthinkable to discuss anarcho-syndicalism on still shackled British radio, in a Russia which has been (relative to the past) set free, anarcho-syndicalists now appear on TV at least as regularly as the statutory Liberal-Democrat does here. Arguments and Facts has even rehabilitated (if he were ever “habilitated”) Nestor Makhno, the Ukrainian anarchist fighter facing two fronts, anathema to Bolshevism, capitalist intervention and Tsarism alike.

The Kid’s Last Fight”

I moved in the early Seventies to a Greenwich council flat, and was there when a widely-advertised fascist march took place, passing a few streets away in Lewisham which had a high proportion of Black residents, As usual, it was more a police demonstration guarding bussed-in fascists marching between their lines. An enormous crowd gathered in response to the conventional calls for it to be banned or stopped. The anti-fascists included the SWP and student groups but also many young Blacks who, like the anarchos, were as interested in a bash-up with the police as with the nazis, and a good time was had by nearly all. The nazis had their march, the police had their overtime, the crowd had their fun. Only those taking the stirring up of racial tensions seriously were affronted.

While the fascists were guarded on the march like an endangered species from start to finish, safely escorted by the police from rallying point to departing, before and after there were punch-ups with them as distinct from attacks on the guardian angel police. At the railway station, when it was all over and I was on my way to work, some fascists were standing around waiting for their train and amusing themselves by taunting a lone Black girl. She ignored them, but when they got provocative a couple of SWP students, who had been on the march, responded to them. I was too far away to hear what was said but the nazis moved in to beat the three up, so I moved down the platform to wade in and help if I could. We had the worst of it at first, as there were six of them, only one of the two students was much use at fighting, the other was more of a liability and the young woman’s punches weren’t too hefty while I was puffing like a steam engine at the unwonted exercise. However, after a few minutes a dozen or more people came rushing up the tunnel to “bash the fash”, having seen the fracas from the other side of the platform. In no time, as now the fascists were getting the worst of it, the police arrived. The train came in and we dashed on while the fascists waited under police protection for the next train.

The other passengers were quite friendly, allowing us to mix among them so that nobody could be detected and arrested, though I heard one mysterious remark, “You’ve got to hand it to the old boy, he’s got some pluck”. I couldn’t see anybody vaguely answering to the description. It occurred to me later whom they meant and now look back on that dust-up nostalgically, in the words of a forgotten film cliché, as the kid’s last fight.

Kate Sharpley

One of the passengers was a frail lady in her eighties, going up to Guy’s, who was saying “if I had been able to get on the platform fast enough I’d have waded in with my stick”. However, when one of the SWPers (inevitably) tried to sell her a Socialist Worker she burst in a tirade saying, “You lot are as bad as they are” and to my delight and their surprise she weighed in with an argument about Trotsky’s bloody suppression of the Kronstadt Mutiny. That was my introduction to Kate Sharpley.

This wonderful old Deptford-born character had been in the anarchist movement just before and during the First World War. She had worked for a German baker in South London but gone into munitions in Woolwich during the war and was among the first of the shop stewards movement (it started there, not in Glasgow as generally thought) and was pioneered by women ‘dilutees’, less respectful of the orthodox leadership which had sold out to the war effort. The physical nature of Glasgow shipbuilding made the shop stewards movement there more a male preserve, but it spread up and down the country in both sexes.

Kate’s father and brother were both killed in action, while her boyfriend was conscripted and not heard of again. Neither she nor his parents could discover what happened. Like many of the local group’s males of the time, he was first “missing” and then “believed killed”. She suspected he was shot for mutiny but there was no proof.

Called on to receive her family medals, she threw them in Queen Mary’s face, saying “If you like them so much you can have them”. Agitators or women protesters were never a protected species as fascists later became and she was beaten up by police and warned off selling anarchist papers on the streets or face prosecution “as a prostitute”. Sacked from her job, she married conventionally in 1922 and disappeared from the anarchist scene.

We met two or three times after that first encounter. Speaking to her was like a telephone call with the past. She knew well people of whom I had only read, like Ted Leggatt and Guy Bowman, or whom I knew in their old age, like Sylvia Pankhurst, Ella Twynan and George Cores (she always called him “Mr Cores” as befitting a respectable craftsman), as well as the anarchist draymen, like her dead lover, who had been in the Horse Transport Union in Walthamstow, a forerunner of anarcho-syndicalism which vanished with the trade.

Some of the young anarchist women met her and asked if she had a message for the younger generation. It naturally flattered them when she said, cheerfully, “The kids today are doing better than we did. They wouldn’t let the sods get away now with what they got away with me then.” I met her grandson’s wife when I visited Kate in hospital. She was hostile, thinking I was raking up the dead embers of “Gran’s nefarious past”, best forgotten. Next time I called I was told she was dead by this middle-aged Sun-reader who thought being told of her grandmother-in-law’s political opinions made her an accomplice and might prejudice her children’s chances of bettering themselves in life.

There was a move to collect books and archives of the living movement by Brixton Anarchists, some of whom had met her in the brief period. They resisted the temptation to call the archives after a famous person and named it the Kate Sharpley Library. It started in 121 Railton Road, but was stored away for safe keeping and ten or fifteen years later found a home in Northamptonshire and has now expanded into a formidably viable collection of Anarchist archives.

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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).