The slow burning fuse: the lost history of the British anarchists [Book review]

Freedom Press printed a small number of John Quail’s The slow burning fuse: the lost history of the British anarchists in October 2014. When it first came out in 1978, Quail said there couldn’t be a final word on the history of British anarchism. So is it worth reading now? The text has not been updated (which would be a thankless task) so there are gaps and errors. For example, when it was written it was common to deny that Peter the Painter was an anarchist. Now, thanks to the work of Phil Ruff we know he was, but it’s an honest mistake, not the result of axe-grinding or over-confidence. This is not an infallible study, but a jumping off point for further work. Still, The slow burning fuse remains the most readable book on the history of British anarchism. It’s also a wise book. Quail gives his opinion clearly and sensibly: from the importance of not being taken in by ‘the twee picture that one is all too often given of Kropotkin as “The Gentle Anarchist Prince”’ (p70); to an understanding of how disputes rankle in the worst of times: ‘Without the opportunities for constructive action and without conditions which make for resolution, bitter disputes have both more psychic fuel and more shattering effects.’ (p236) One line can sum up how a life can change: this, for example about John Turner, president of the Shop Assistants Union: ‘he was now primarily organising a union, whereas previously he had been primarily organising conflicts with employers.’ (p272)

Quail covers the high and low points of the anarchist movement from 1880 to the 1920s, with an emphasis on the movement and the unknown militants who made it what it was. Doing this sort of history from below is not simple: ‘It is not at all easy to trace the way in which ideas are adapted and changed, used or discarded, in a culture that is largely unwritten. For all the documentary evidence available to us – files of newspapers, memoirs, conference retorts, etc. – we still cannot properly grasp the shifts in atmosphere and ideas that are often of greater importance than any formalisation in organisational splits and reshuffles.’ (p264) It is an effort that’s worth making, as Quail isn’t merely interested in naming anarchists, but trying to understand their times, their efforts and how social change happens ‘A sustained period of unrest … provides people with the practice they need to change their world and a context in which to place ideologies of change. In such a period the sense of collective power is mutually reinforcing and spills out from particular to general grievances.’ (p282) The anarchist contribution to these periods of unrest is a fascinating part of British social history, and not only interesting to historians.

This edition is completed with a handful of biographies by Nick Heath (which leave you want wanting more). Sadly, unlike the first edition, there’s no index – an oversight Freedom will hopefully mend in the next printing. The slow burning fuse is a classic and one of the few books I buy whenever I see a copy. I know the Kate Sharpley Library has several, the newer ones waiting to replaced the battered veteran of many trips to the photocopier. Books like this don’t come along very often. Be sure to get a copy and read it.

The slow burning fuse: the lost history of the British anarchists by John Quail with foreword and biographies by Nick Heath. ISBN 9787904491231, £15.