Getting back to 1938, as it drew to a close I began to work at a North London hospital. It was well paid for the time — hospitals have slid back since like everything else in local government but there was great competition for such municipal and therefore presumed secure and pensionable jobs. The nurses themselves were less well rewarded, then as now being regarded as dedicated and expected to put up with low pay and poor conditions. There was no possibility of my getting into any trouble here, since the non-medical staff was unionised but apathetic. This was a bit upsetting as I had a seeming compulsion to bash my head on brick walls. Wages were set according to national standards, and the non-nursing medical staff were only interested in their careers.
Even when I started talking anarchism I couldn’t shake the complacency around me. One pompous technician assured his assistants that they need not take me seriously as he knew my family well and was sure I would grow out of it. Over half a century has gone by and I haven’t done so yet. But as his brother used the same garage as my father, he felt himself an authority on my future.
Political talk, apart from my trying to stir things up, centred around the coming war. There were one or two incredibly soppy Christian Pacifist types, it being the last despairing days of the Peace Pledge of Dick Sheppard. Their opinions ranged from “Well, if the country really were in danger, we could probably be absolved from our pledge” to assertions that Mr Chamberlain, or in some cases Jesus, was trying to do his best, which tended to arouse blasphemy, not to say obscenity, in the majority.
Though I joined in the campaign against conscription like everyone else in the Anarchist movement and even most on the extra-parliamentary Left (all for differing reasons) it was self-evident the workers were not prepared to resist it even though they were not for war. If peace-time conscription came (as it did, a few months before the war) it would be accepted (as inflation and unemployment were) with fatalism, almost as an act of Nature, and resistance would be regarded as cranky.
The Peace Pledgers, along with League of Nations and World Government types, had unwittingly ensured that, with the incredulity their ideas provoked. Though to be sure their belief that the superior power of non-violence would look after matters was no more nonsense than other ideas going round, such as that we had to fight a war every 25 years for each generation to prove its manhood, or that the Jerries hadn’t been properly taken care of last time, or that it was because the government was spineless that we hadn’t smashed them before. It was also sometimes whispered by a shamefaced political minority that it was going to be a war for democracy.
The ‘old sweats’ whose opinions carried weight, comprised most of the portering staff. The hospital had been an old workhouse, converted in 1914 and remaining so after the war, taking on as portering staff and X-ray technicians many who had worked their way up from patients. They gave assurances that they ‘knew’ as they had been in this or that section of the trenches in WWI, and young men couldn’t know what it was all about until they had ‘served’ and conscientious objectors were ‘syphilitic cowards’.
Some of these patriots were inclined to favour Hitler who had been ‘in the trenches’ and was ‘for his own people’, while ‘our’ Prime Minister had gone to him ‘pleading’. This might be thought a caricature, but it was not untypical. Radical thought had got totally out of touch with the reality of working class life. The ‘Left’, as distinct from the working class movement, had moved in to take over the heritage of radical thought. The end of the thirties was the start of the collapse of a long tradition of which the anarchists were once the far-out wing and finally the last survivors. The thirties was a period of pop-frontism which was directed at the lower middle class rather than at the workers, who gradually withdrew from their own movement. I recall Eleanor Rathbone, an indignant academic lady who was Independent MP for the Universities and according to her own lights a sincere liberal, telling an embarrassed women’s co-op guild that in German concentration camps there were distinguished professors, poets, scientists, “people respected for their achievements all over the world” — nobody else seemed to matter — and they were forced to scrub floors. There was an embarrassed silence from ladies who had done this all their lives as a matter of course rather than as a punishment, but it was no doubt the worst thing Miss Rathbone could think of.
The marriage between ‘the Left’ — which is to say the politically conscious ‘progressive’ middle class, and especially the failed academics who saw themselves as ‘the intellectuals’ — and the working class movement broke down in the thirties, more especially when the ‘universities’ rallied to Communist pop-frontism but culminating with the middle-class takeover of the Labour Party.
Though seeing the political scene clearly, and understanding anarchism well enough to travel around to explain it in almost every town in the country, always at my own expense, I was not yet able to see clearly what we could do beyond the creation of affinity groups that could withstand oppression created by war or fascism.
In Birmingham I met one affinity group that had weathered the storm, a group of German anarchists who had originally jumped ship at Glasgow (and taken refuge with Frank Leech) and now were forming, in the house of a sympathiser, the ‘Black and Red (Schwarzrot) Group’. They intended to launch a counter-terror campaign in Germany and there were already some German civil engineers working there forming an anti-Nazi nucleus.
The sailors had close connections with Hamburg but were wise enough to stay in an inland city rather than in Glasgow, where they could more easily be traced. Several seafarers came to this haven in Birmingham, among them Ernst Schneider, a veteran of the Wilhelmshaven revolt, a marked man and unable to return. Most of the others did go back. Thirty years later I met one of them in East Berlin who told me of some attacks on the regime that had taken place, but had ceased with the war when resisters became totally isolated, if still alive.
There was a curious sequel in Birmingham nearly forty years on (1977) when the local and national press, apparently relying on German police information, suggested that local anarchists were among those responsible for the kidnapping and killing of Hans-Martin Schleyer, the employers’ leader (and former SS officer), by the Red Army Fraction and named Peter Le Mare of Birmingham as being connected. This caused some surprise, to put it mildly, as Peter was an ultra-pacifist who knew nothing of Germany but did run a little magazine called “Red and Black”. Though he had not even been born forty years before, the German police (who had lost their records to the Americans) may have tipped off a British journalist. There was certainly a notorious Nazi named Schleyer (hardly that one) scheduled for attack (I don’t know whether successfully or not) by the Black and Red Group of 1938 and named in their bulletin. The British police did not follow up the local paper’s somewhat belated tip to uncover an anti-Nazi plot, possibly knowing better. I dare say they would have been only too glad to follow it up, true or false, in 1938.
With the defeat of the anti-fascist forces in Spain in the Spring of 1939 it hardly seemed to many of those abroad, who had pinned so many hopes on it, worthwhile carrying on. Though the Spanish Revolution had been lost in 1937 and most of what followed was defence against a fascist victory, it came as a bitter disappointment.
It is still not appreciated that after his victory Franco killed more Spanish people than Hitler killed German Jews, indeed only a fraction less than there were Jews in Germany at all, a remnant of whom perished from war, want, age and causes other than State murder. Hitler had the rest of Europe to choose his victims from, making the number he killed greater, which must have made Franco envious. Despite my own family background, the Spanish experience affected me personally more deeply than the subsequent Nazi Holocaust, and I knew many involved in it. It spurred me on despite the prevailing feeling of hopelessness at the triumph of both fascism and war.
In Glasgow the anarchist movement was flourishing more than ever with its own hall and huge open air meetings at factory gates, carrying on a tradition of integration in the working class movement which was lost in England, where the old movement had decayed. Such groups as there were in London, including Spain and the World collapsed. Almost the whole working class support in places like Wales, a minority though it was, disappeared. Cores in London continued virtually as a one-person band, arranging for weekly ‘lectures’ from a wide range of speakers, which was the last flicker of the old London Freedom Group.
These were held at the Emily Davison Room. Frank Ridley spoke there on occasion, the last time on the need to marry anarchism and Marxism, the subject of which sparked off a debate in the ILP paper Controversy in which I was vociferous and entirely negative. There were heated discussions among young anarchists and radical socialists on what to do if war came. It was taken for granted that complete dictatorship would clamp down immediately, yet at the same time many were advocating conscientious objection as the only alternative to “supporting the war”, which supposed a situation like WWI.
I was convinced, assuming one were allowed the choice of conscientious objection even under the difficult conditions of WWI, that this had caused the gradual isolation of the working class ideals from the working class. Yet to enter the Army, when one knew the upper class was going to seize the officer positions and was fascistic in the bargain, was equally intolerable. It was a dilemma that was never resolved, and a price had to be paid for striving to avoid either compromise.
Meantime the fragmentary groups of conscious anarchists in London got together and formed the Anarchist Federation of Britain, in reality a group declaring it would be the basis of what would be a national organisation, and that it would publish a new paper, to be called Revolt! (early in 1939) under a separate editorial committee. I was persuaded by Tom Brown, and Billy Campbell, who was always pushing me forward on these matters, that I could hardly stand aside, though I had sceptical reservations. The Anarchist Federation set-up seemed to me a formula for isolation.
An editorial committee was elected, including Ralph Sturgess, Tom Brown, Marie-Louise Berneri and Vernon Richards, who it was hoped could bring some of the support Spain and the World had, though in reality this had vanished. Its support had come from a wide range of groupings, many conventionally anti-fascist rather than anarchist, some generally leftish and even, in the case of the South African supporters, Trotskyist. I was co-opted to help with circulation and wrote a few articles. Richards was elected treasurer in default of anyone else. Sixty years later he still regarded himself as treasurer-for-life and proprietor of the accumulated assets since 1886 by virtue of this decision. Both Sturgess and Brown tried to bring the paper round to a class struggle position but the paper only ran a few issues.
Tom Brown, though a Geordie by origin, was living with his wife and daughters in Paddington and working in aircraft. Ray Nunn, Jack Mason and I would go round to his flat to discuss how we could go ahead in the case of war. Tom had clear ideas of getting into industry and organising there but younger people could not do so. Ray was entirely for making a stand by conscientious objection and Jack, who remarked jocularly that he would be certain to do well as his latest job was engraving tombstones, was cheerfully all for what was shortly to be nicknamed the debrouillard position. It was later translated generally to the more homely ‘skyver’, which implies more or less wangling one’s way through everything somewhat in the manner the Good Soldier Svejk (the first, heavily cut, translation was at last available). I never made up my mind what position to adopt until a decision was forced on me.
Sturgess dropped out of activity with the collapse of the paper. Like a great many others who had been very active in the movement, he felt then that it was finished, and perhaps like a great many others in the working class movement, was washed away with the pressures, not the passions, of war.
Yet our feelings of failure were not to be compared to others. I recall the arguments I used to have with a young woman at work who worked in X-rays and who resented my criticisms of the Communist Party. She insisted I must have a personal reason for disliking Soviet Russia, but restrained her rage to a muttered “Lies — all reckless lies”, the typical response of the bewildered idealist. One morning I looked in her office and told her Molotov, for Stalin, had just signed a treaty with Hitler. Had I known, it was not the most tactful time to break the news. She had been on night shift, was tired, and had not heard the radio. She flew into a temper and I retreated before her wrath with unused X-ray plates flying at me. Later I thought she might have cooled down and the news was in the papers anyway. I looked in her office to find her in floods of tears. I guess many pop-frontists felt that way then.
One mature staff nurse at the North Middlesex was an old-fashioned Ulster Tory. She had been a Queen Alexandra nurse in WWI and still dressed in the starched collar tradition, completely defying the modern style introduced by the radical (but boorish) Medical Superintendent, a very competent surgeon named Ivor Lewis. They carried on a feud by giving contradictory instructions to the younger nurses, complicated by the fact that, despite being a large overbearing man, he seemed shy to face up to her, and she always spoke her mind outright. However, she was my greatest ally in the place, partly because she liked to see someone standing up to the management even for totally different reasons and also because she too loathed the Franco regime. I suppose this was because of its Catholicism. She even asked me if “my lot” wanted someone to train nurses for the refugee camps in France. I don’t know how serious she was but I introduced her to Emma Goldman and they clashed immediately.
One young doctor, very upper class, who had been tongue-lashed by her on several occasions after hesitatingly reminding her of a new and unnecessary ruling by Mr Lewis, found her amicably arguing with me, I suppose about Spain, and he facetiously remarked, “I hope, staff, you’re not going to become another anarchist.” She vehemently retorted “No, sir, I am a King and Country woman and my service proves it — but I do detest damned smug complacent upper class young English Conservative twits”. “I suppose that squashes me,” he remarked mildly.
I once got her to a meeting addressed by Jack White. She somewhat put White out by saying afterwards she hadn’t entirely agreed with him, but she had served in South Africa as a young nurse under his father General White so she knew his heart must be in the right place. White had drilled Connolly’s Citizens Army, and his activity in Spain would hardly have commended itself to his staunch Imperialist father who had in the Boer War defended (or it may have been relieved) Ladysmith, but he only smiled.
That must have been one of the last meetings held by the CNT-FAI committee. It transformed itself into SIA (Solidaridad Internacional Antifascista), a worldwide aid organisation for the refugees now flocking from Spain. However too much of the CNT-FAI committee had centred on Emma Goldman, and as she went to Canada that spring, it collapsed despite Ethel Mannin’s attempts to keep it going. It was in a way quite a satisfying personal end to Emma’s last period of life. In London she had been unknown, had desperately sought publicity but was ignored by the press and public. In Canada, where the influential newspaper publisher Pierre van Paassen had been an admirer, she got immediate press publicity from the start. She was still known everywhere from her years in America, which meant nothing in England.
Though she only spent a few months in Canada before her death the finale was as she would have liked, She had daily press headlines, packed meetings, and a new campaign (to save some Italian anarchists from deportation and certain death — one of them I met over forty years later). She was finally allowed back into the USA after her death and is buried at Waldheim Cemetery, Chicago, a union-funded site of the graves of many anarchist pioneers in America. Renewed personal interest in her came decades after her death, and the place where she died is almost a radical women’s shrine. They built a monument to her near the Chicago Anarchist Martyrs, though unfortunately the graves of leading Communist Party apparatchiks like William Z. Foster are now all around.
Marie-Louise Berneri had the same force and energy, with a greater theoretical grasp, as Emma Goldman. She had the same naive belief in “the intellectuals” as Emma, but she had no illusions of her own personal “greatness” and worked with the movement in a manner inconceivable to Emma, who had been conditioned by the American lecture circuit’s star system. M.L. was always prepared to come to meetings at factory gates or distribute literature in the streets. After her death, Ethel Mannin, obviously thinking of the contrast with Emma Goldman, whom she had also known, said there were many more prepared to die for the revolution than to scrub floors for it. It was an unfortunate comparison (thinking of Eleanor Rathbone) but I take the point intended.
The influx of Spanish political refugees, from immediately after the civil war had ended until the world war began, meant there was plenty of metaphorical and some literal floor-scrubbing to do. The great post-Franco exodus had begun, It took years before the complete picture could be known (and only parts are recorded). Elsewhere the treatment of the refugees was shameful. They were herded into concentration camps in the South of France and later delivered to the Nazis or to Franco unless their own resistance prevented the democratic French government from doing so.
An irony was that the majority who went that way were Catalans escaping into the part of Catalonia previously seized by France, and they were treated like criminal invaders or at best, if released, as an alien rabble come to take the bread out of the mouths of citizens. Having fought against tyranny and been told they were the front line for democracy, so-called democracy put them behind barbed wire on sandy beaches, with no sanitation and little provisions. Today, those sandy beaches are pleasure resorts, and at the formerly notorious but now delightful Saint-Cyprien-Plage one can now see a rare monument to the gallant Spaniards, if in a manner that might lead the unwary visitor to suppose that this was an atrocity of the invaders, or at least of the collaborationists.
Some families managed to escape, to live three families to a room (for which they gave thanks); other males volunteered for the Foreign Legion to get themselves or their families freed, some were subsequently returned to Franco by force; some handed over to Hitler for forced labour or the concentration camp. A sizeable number managed to break away during the war and were the first to create the Maquis resistance. That was a springboard to the post-war Franco resistance, with whom I later became well acquainted.
The Spanish Libertarian Movement (MLE), to use the term it used in exile to cover and cover up the whole anarchist spectrum, was overwhelmed by the calamity that had fallen on them. It was remarkable though, over the years how cohesive they remained almost like a vast scattered family, although there were considerable differences as to what had gone before and how to respond in the future.
In the main the Spanish movement was divided between those who had entered the various government posts (the Ministries were only the tip of the iceberg) in whose view the Allies had now taken up the anti-fascist struggle and at least were better than the Communists, and those who had been actively in opposition in the May Days of 1937 and after, and who determined somehow to go on fighting, placing no hopes on any governments.
There were also a large number, especially with large families, who were destroyed, if not physically so, by the whole tragedy and were fighting for survival in exile, but who still remained loyal to their principles. Of those who originally came to England most seemed to be in the third category.
Those who had been integrated into one bureaucracy now tried to integrate into another, and soon found jobs with the BBC and so on. Those who were struggling to survive got jobs in industry or joined the Army. They were luckier than those in France, where people were still herded into concentration camps right up to the German victory, when many were delivered over to Franco or the Nazis. Others lived in abject poverty, some entering the Foreign Legion in despair. Many of those who came to Britain formed a tight little ethnic community until Franco died when in a mass exodus many went back, some as entire families, and with British or French old age pensions one could live well in Spain. Those who had stayed on and struggled lived in beggary after years of prison, no pensions being paid to the defeated even when a socialist government succeeded Franco.
Though the Spanish exiles presented no threat to internal stability until the wave of international resistance in the sixties, and then only a handful, it was natural that the secret police would like to keep an eye on them, if only bearing in mind the reputation of Barcelona anarchism. Yet they had to go carefully as most people on the Left still rightly suspected the Government of being lenient to fascism and hostile to anti-fascism.
One of the people who took an immediate interest in the Spanish CNT refugees was Sonia (Edelman) Clements, the daughter of John and Rachelle Edelmann, American libertarians of the old school. Her interest may have been sincere enough. She had worked with “Spain and the World”, lending her name at one time as publisher, though she wasn’t. She was in the Labour Party and a friend of its main strategist Herbert Morrison. She certainly clashed with Jack White and others in the Anarcho-Syndicalist Union which led to its demise, and had a knack of being able to get support in committee from people who otherwise took no part in its activities, a tactic familiar in political parties. Her arguments were all for involvement with the Labour Party or at least no criticism of it.
When Herbert Morrison later became Home Secretary, he had a highly evolved technique of using people in key positions in political movements as his informants. He used the technique for years successfully to defend the Labour Party against Communist infiltration. After years of non-involvement with anything but the Labour Party, Sonia Clements returned first to Spain and the World and then to infiltrate the Spanish refugees. It so happened, given the circumstances in London, they were clean from a security point of view — only interested in the downfall of Franco who, though courted, was viewed as a potential threat and was at that period openly anti-British. Her intervention, therefore, was useful in this instance, which might have eased her conscience. A different state of affairs was seen four years later when the role of Morrison’s agent had uglier implications.
For the moment, the Spanish exiles enjoyed freedom from persecution in stark contrast to the Italian exiles of twenty or more years standing. For years the Italian anarchists had been noted as “Dangerous” by the police force of both countries. However many years they were here, they were denied naturalisation and always subject to surveillance. The fascists though loyal to Mussolini could easily obtain naturalisation papers if they wished. When in the following year Italy declared war, fascists went unscathed because of the prudent spate of naturalisation in 1939 denied to anti-fascists. Consular officials went on shopping sprees before returning home and wealthy restaurateurs were spared the worst excesses of internment, though a few unnaturalised patriots were detained. Anti-fascists, most of them anarchists, were bitterly hounded. No excuse of anti-fascism sufficed. This was what Churchill meant when he said “Collar the lot!” The victims and opponents of fascism suffered the humiliation of internment and many were drowned on the “Arandora Star” — even the veteran Dr Galasso, doyen of the resistance in Italy and indefatigable worker for the under-privileged of Clerkenwell and Soho, particularly but not exclusively among the Italian community.
In September 1939, after twenty years’ talk of war, it finally broke out in time for routine protests on a Sunday. Though everyone thought there would be immediate bombing raids, large crowds gathered at Hyde Park to listen to the empty bombast against it. Hyde Park was then still a serious political forum though it had its comic turns, but these gave way to the passionate speakers that day. As what they were saying was “Stop the war” the crowds listened intently. The best speaker of all was Tony Turner of the then oratorically active though tiny Socialist Party of Great Britain who spoke for some ten hours, long after night fell, ignoring closing time. He outspoke everyone that day, and in true SPGB style gave a history and analysis of capitalist economics.
It was a scene repeated in many other towns. There were occasional patriotic cheering crowds but unlike World War I, they were few. The only result was that at the end of the day the park keepers, or in other squares the police, herded the reluctant crowds home, and they peacefully went to war. I’ve never thought much of mass meetings since.
Within the first week I was at two smaller meetings. One was at Tom Brown’s house where there was a gathering of some anarchists and sympathisers affected or about to be affected by conscription. He personally was in a reserved occupation, and I suppose over military age anyway. We determined on a plan to show our opposition to war by registering as conscientious objectors, making as defiant a statement of principles as possible, and then entering the armed forces. This seemed the closest one could get to making a stand for one’s principles without adopting the ultra-pacifist stand which meant very little, isolating oneself from the workers.
The first of our circle who adopted it was Ralph Mills, who was unconditionally exempted but medically rejected when he ‘volunteered’. The second was Ray Nunn, unconditionally exempted and then volunteering, being accepted in the army. He still got isolated from the forces, as he was promptly made an officer, having been at an OCTU. George Plume, who was in the ILP, got unconditionally exempted on purely ‘political’ grounds on the strength of his unequivocal socialistic statement, but the Ministry appealed against the decision, and he was deemed to have enlisted, so he went missing. I never quite understood why: if it were a question of not wanting to join, he had only not to take the medical.
In my case and that of several others, though we were not exempted, the Ministry then refused to call us up nor was it possible to enlist for anyone who wished to do so. Most waited for their calling up papers like the entire nation did, but in my case it was not four days or four weeks but four years. I have no idea how many were in this position but I was certainly not alone. For four years of the war we were in this state of limbo. The Ministry of Labour was actually calling on me to register for other forms of civilian labour, which I declined, and when I spoke at meetings the police sometimes turned up and demanded to see my identity card. When I produced it I left them baffled. This was by no means unique. The Government was determined to “avoid the mistakes of last time” and was content to let us stew in our own juice.
The other private, but in its small way historic, meeting was a private one, again with Tom Brown, and M.L. Berneri, Vernon Richards and myself. We decided to publish a bulletin, War Commentary, as Revolt! had collapsed and we were all that remained of the production team. With the support of Jack Mason, who obtained an accommodation address at Newbury Street and designed the logo, we were off. By the second issue we were able to print it, and for a few issues got articles from a number of people from the anti-imperialist groupings more or less around the left of the ILP — Ethel Mannin, Reg Reynolds, John Ballard, George Padmore, Dinah Stock. The rest included Krishna Menon and Jomo Kenyatta, though they normally took a hostile attitude to us, being already conscious of their coming destiny as world statesmen, and clung to the Fenner Brockway line within the ILP.
During that winter M.L. Berneri and I organised a series of discussions on the events of the Spanish Revolution, partly in Enfield and partly in Holborn, to which some members of the Forward Movement Group of the Peace Pledge Union came. The PPU was moving in various ways but the Forward Movement looked for radical non-violent solutions. Indeed some of the Forward Movement had gone with other COs to the Channel Islands, to spend the war in agricultural work, which they thought of as opposing it. When the Germans invaded they joined the British volunteers for the Nazi army, the Legion of St. George, which in its way was non-violent enough as all it did was to strut around towns to show the German workers there were actually soldiers in Nazi uniform with British shoulder straps.
Most in the Forward Movement were put off by this tactic of the PPU, at any rate with hindsight, and followed John Hewetson, a medical doctor who came first to our meetings and then into association with the anarchist movement. The guru of the Forwards, Frederick Lohr, who was at heart a German Catholic Nationalist though a pacifist of British nationality, and might well have followed the Channel Islands lot, was by profession a horse trainer with a fairly upper-class background (either by origin or his horsey interests). During the war he became a copytaker at the Daily Telegraph. When I took the same job twenty-five years later he was still remembered by old-timers for having come in as a war-time substitute and then scabbed during a dispute.
Others included Lawrie Hislam, not distinguished for much other than throwing tennis balls at No. 10 Downing Street as a protest against war, who endeavoured, after John Hewetson went over to us, to get the whole Forward Movement to declare themselves “anarchists” and thus began the infiltration of bourgeois pacifism into anarchism, which altered the character of the movement and led to its distortion for years. This is why Professor Woodcock (one of that periphery), in the first edition of his Penguin Anarchism makes an otherwise inexplicable reference to Hislam as having been the bridge between “the old anarchism and the new”.
It soon became apparent to all working class anarchists that they were going to be faced with a major influx of middle class pacifists, who had themselves increased beyond measure. Though that class generally had become patriotic as never before, bourgeois pacifism flourished, no doubt because of the changed State attitude to conscientious objection.
There was a vast difference between the treatment of objectors to military service in WWI and WWII. In the First World War many suffered, some even more than if they’d joined the Army, being taken to the front and given No.1 Field Punishment and even shot. In the second world war, anyone articulate and knowledgeable enough to give a fluent case, preferably a Christian pacifist one though they’d sometimes settle for a secular pacifist one, could get total exemption, provided they didn’t make any slips ups. Christian cases sometimes ended in conditional exemption if the appellant hadn’t done his homework. Jehovah’s Witnesses only needed to produce a membership card.
There was more opposition to the State involved in joining the Army, and trying to work for soldiers councils. The State saw that too, something we never reckoned on. They were determined not to repeat the mistakes of the First World War and were looking at the consequences of the end of the war more than they were at the waging of the war. I followed our agreed procedure of signing on as a CO and making a provocative statement they couldn’t possibly accept, but hadn’t counted on the State then not doing anything about it.
I was sacked from the hospital for “industrial misconduct”, as they didn’t believe I’d signed on, and the little industrial action group I’d built up collapsed. They all, even my friend the staff nurse, thought I was being victimised for the organising, which would have pleased me in a way, but it wasn’t so. The Ministry of Labour declined to pay me any dole for six weeks though I appealed against this and won. Their claim that I had not registered was shown to be mistaken. I was hardly to blame, legally anyway, for their inaction, which also puzzled the industrial tribunal. Many subsequent experiences show that the British secret political police, if not the worst in the world, are the most secret. The writer C. S. Lewis says the greatest success of the Devil is to persuade people he doesn’t exist, which makes it easier to get them to obey him. I never had any experience of this, but it certainly applies to the secret political police. Perhaps Lewis was understandably confusing the two.
For months I did not work at all and after a few weeks the Labour Exchange stopped paying me. I mainly supported myself by my old trade, or racket, whatever you wish, scribbling pieces of dialogue for variety people, whose profession was booming as never before, but it seemed a terrible waste of energy in 1940. Perhaps I should have tried serious writing, but it never appealed to me as a profession. What I wrote otherwise I wrote from conviction not for cash. Jack Mason thought I didn’t appreciate my luck, and Tom Brown urged me to take advantage by holding meetings and writing the occasional political article.
The newly formed Anarchist Federation opened Freedom Bookshop in Red Lion Passage: the editorial group of War Commentary had taken over the distribution of Keell’s stock and called itself first Freedom Press Distributors, and then Freedom Press. The Freedom Group was left reduced to George Cores, too old and ill to do anything. In an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the consequences of almost a mass “conversion” of the Forward Group, the Anarchist Federation settled for a programme based on two parts: the first an anarcho-syndicalist programme, and a second part, excluding both those who supported the war and those who were pacifists. On this basis the Glasgow Federation joined in.
The blitz came on while I was still idly lazing around Highgate Ponds. I was a keen swimmer, and the Ponds seemed to attract the swimmers and the skyvers both in war and peace. There I scribbled stupid bits of music hall dialogue, and in the evenings, when other people weren’t working, I attended meetings. I volunteered to help around the bookshop and did some unpaid work helping people move after they were blitzed, but it was a frustrating period generally with little I could or was allowed to relate to.
I discovered the unlisted headquarters of the Ministry of Labour by reading my file upside down at the labour exchange and vented my frustration on them, but all I could get out of them was a vague statement that they would let me do agricultural work “as if you’d been conditionally exempted”, but that “as you’re a red hot anarchist we’re not putting you in the army”. Or even, it seemed, anywhere else, even where my presumed violent views were acceptable. Then another official would some other time say that as I was liable to be called up “any moment” they could not offer me a job but I was at liberty meanwhile to find something temporary. Employers would then ask the labour exchange if I could be employed and they would give the same answer, which hardly commended me to anyone.
I had always taken Billy Campbell’s advice in these matters, but I had not met him for some months during the first half of 1940. I had thought of the merchant marine, about which I knew nothing. Meanwhile it seemed odd he had not contacted me with a postcard from some port or other, but I assumed it might be difficult. He had ambitious ideas of how seamen could be organised as they had been in the past: and how the revolution that would, we firmly believed, follow the war would be composed of soldiers’, seamens’ and workers’ councils. There was now a blank. I wondered if he had been imprisoned by one or the other enemy, and finally went to enquire at his mother’s house. It was an emotional meeting, the first time I met her. He had been drowned when his ship was torpedoed.
That night a local boxing ring was short of a professional boxer. He had been picked up that day for not answering his calling up papers, and I stepped in. It was the only way I could give vent to my feelings. I was out of training, hopelessly outclassed, and not much good anyway and received the biggest hiding of my life. The manager was afraid he would be brought to book for letting an amateur step in but the crowd adored it. Forty-odd years later when I was working in print, an old Saturday casual came up to me and recalled how great I was, which shows how much my beating up was enjoyed, rather than any ability. At the time all I heard was a sarcastic remark from the crowd that if I was medically fit enough to stand up to that sort of punishment, I was fit enough to be in the Army, which was certainly true. But in the closing years of my working life I heard every Saturday evening what a great career I had wantonly thrown away.
I had bruises for the next few months, and a ringing in my ears for the next couple of decades, but I had no other way to express my grief. There was no sexual attraction of which I was in any case ignorant, but I see my feelings in retrospect as calf love with Rod Strong and Billy Campbell, none the less deep. Both of them were invariably kind to me and at a period when everyone else, even Special Branch which must have had full documentation, assumed me to be years older than I was, treated me as protectively and affectionately as they would have a kid brother. Wilson Campbell (he never liked using his forename — he was born at the time of President Wilson’s bringing America into the war) was every way an anarchist. I don’t just say this because he was a dear friend, but now when people ask which anarchist influenced me most, Bakunin or Kropotkin or whoever, I just don’t talk their language when I say Billy Campbell.
After the fall of France new emergency regulations came into force, in particular internment both of enemy aliens and suspect natives. Press stories of “German soldiers dressed as nuns” who had been parachuted into Belgium were meant to inflame the situation, though most of the people I ever spoke to dismissed this with obscene mirth.
Italy came into the war despite the long Tory friendship and kinship with Mussolini. Military Intelligence had for some time known local Fascist cells were leaking military information through the Italian Embassy, via spy Tyler Kent, but it was useful to them as a means of misleading the German Army. Now the embassy was closed down, the Home Office was free to arrest Kent and order the internment of fascist sympathisers likely to act as spies, under Regulation 18b. The Labour members were keen to get the British fascists.
On the weekend that the secret order was made law, enforcement chiefs throughout the country, chief constables and sheriffs were warning fascist gentlemen to join the army quickly to avoid detention, and there was an influx of officers. Only people as notorious as Oswald Mosley could not avail themselves of the chance to “rejoin their regiments” and were interned, some like Mosley with their families under privileged conditions, though the ordinary punters were unwarned and less lucky. Captain Ramsay (Conservative MP), having privileged access to secret sessions of the House of Commons though believed to be a Nazi agent, went into internment apparently to preserve his Parliamentary status which prevented him from being excluded from debates.
We thought this must, judging by the Italian anarchist experience, herald a clamp down on British anti-fascists as had happened in France. In fact only Southend was affected this way. This was presumably considered a vital invasion point of entry — close to London — and whether by orders from above or by local police malice or ineptitude. All members of the local anarchist group were arrested with the Independent Labour Party, many members of the Peace Pledge Union, and a member of the IRA but no British or British-naturalised Italian fascists, though there were a sizeable few of both in Southend.
The anti-fascist internees had a voluble spokesperson in the anarchist Matt Kavanagh, who protested vigorously to the commandant at the internment centre at their being lumped with fascists. They accepted imprisonent philosophically, thinking this was a repetition of what happened in France, but that was adding insult to injury. John Humphrey went to see Matt. A retired railwayman, John had been the printer of Freedom, and his house at Malden Crescent, Camden Town, was the HQ of the old London Freedom Group. His advanced age and benign appearance must have made him seem to be harmless enough to let through. “I can’t think why you’re here among the fascists,” he grumbled to Matt. “They think I’m an enemy of the State.” he replied. “Well, so you are, and have been these last forty years to my knowledge,” he said, correctly but, as there were guards present, perhaps not too tactfully.
Afterwards he, Tom Brown, Fay Stewart (born Robertson) and I discussed action. We thought there was nothing that could be done about imprisonment as internment was under emergency legislation, and we would probably all eventually go the same way.
What we thought we could do was to get a bit of logic into the situation by persuading the authorities to separate the prisoners before there was major trouble. There were already fights every day. Fay, who was a nurse, and had been in my now disbanded group at the North Middlesex Hospital, had heard from a fellow-nurse, a German Jewish refugee, that it was far worse in internment camps for Germans, where Germans, Nazis, anti-Nazis and Jewish refugees alike, were mixed together. Many elderly people were beaten up regularly. Some were asking for separate internment camps and Humphrey came up with a brilliant if simplistic idea: why not ask them to put British, Italian and German anti-fascists together, and Nazis, Italian and British fascists together? “They’d get on OK, it would be less trouble for the authorities, cost no more and occupy only the same amount of space.” he argued. “And that way we’d help our Italian comrades too.”
We had thought to approach George Strauss, who had helped Hilda Monte, now also interned which was very humiliating for someone only wanting to go back to Germany and kill Hitler. He couldn’t believe she wanted to get back to Germany to kill Hitler, and declined to help further. So for Matt we decided to approach Major Nathan, MP for Wandsworth, with this barmy idea, never believing it would be taken seriously. But he was Fay’s local MP, she seemed respectable and he had been sympathetic to a delegation about the fate of refugees deported to Australian camps, according to the nurse working with Fay.
It was quite a lucky choice as Major Nathan just then happened to be one man Churchill was depending on politically. The war cabinet needed Ernest Bevin as Minister of Labour. Bevin was just the man to dragoon the workers into giving up trade union rights they would never have surrendered to a Tory. All that was needed was to find him a safe Labour seat in the Commons. Someone had to be pushed upstairs to the Lords, and Major Nathan was prepared to undertake the necessity.
The Major was a leading figure on the Jewish community and chair of an organisation concerned about the German Jewish refugees and our idea seemed reasonable to him. Perhaps it seemed to him it was a small thing for him to ask when he was about to make the supreme parliamentary sacrifice. It could hardly be refused by the Home Office without appearing to be an offensive rebuff. They could not know whose idea it was.
Tom Brown had said very logically, between ourselves, that they could not possibly agree or it would make nonsense of the whole war propaganda to divide internees into fascists and anti-fascists. It would probably give the latter the worst end of it, but he agreed it might call into question the whole reason for interning anti-fascists at all. What went on in Home Office circles I do not know, but that weekend all the Southend anti-fascists were out, while the fascists stayed in.
Matt, with his usual good humour, told us the IRA man, who had served a conviction for bomb offences, had thought he alone of the anti-fascists would be kept in among the fascists, so they had agreed to let him claim he was in their anarchist group, deciding that alleged membership of the PPU or even ILP would be stretching it too far. “That’s providing you don’t disgrace us to by going to Mass in the meantime,” Matt had admonished jocularly. He answered, ruefully, “We’re excommunicated anyway”.
It was a nice little victory, sweeter for being unexpected, though unfortunately it did not help the Italian anti-fascists, who had nobody influential to speak for them. Matt was unable to return to Southend, possibly for economic reasons, and came to London where he worked as a barber, starting at the age of sixty-odd. His gift of the gab impressed casual customer George Orwell to write him up. Kavanagh had far more influence than Orwell in convincing workers of Stateless socialism over the years, but “history” will accept Orwell’s patronising, though not unkind, appraisal.
Having time on my hands I had spent some time looking after the bookshop in Red Lion Passage we had started. It was burned down during the blitz and there was no chance of getting down to industrial activity without a job. With industry under such tight control, many forms of struggle became counter-productive, and our sole activity was propagandist. Even Tom Brown, a skilled engineer and a union-recognised shop steward, found himself in an isolated position at work. The Glasgow Anarchists, who now joined with us in forming the Anarchist Federation, were able to overcome this isolation which did not exist on the Clyde.
Aldred became an embarrassment to them. He was then in the full flight of his pacifist kick, supported by eccentric aristocrats and wholly disinterested in industrial matters. Though he retained popularity in working-class localities through his counselling it was not translated into political support or even interest, and he made little impact on the anarchist influence in Glasgow (except that they had to be always disowning his later antics) and none on the places of work, which was a pity as he could have been an exceptional figure in a British revolutionary movement.
I went up once or twice to speak. I never lost a fixed prejudice about accepting fares or money, which was just as well, because I was never offered any, and found it a strain in view of my economic situation. But I unexpectedly got the chance to travel round the country with fares paid, by taking up scriptwriting, advance publicity and secretarial duties to a music hall revue. Many friends urged me to take it, though I am sure some of them thought I needed to move around lest I be “picked up”. Even in our circles few understood the situation, though there were dozens (to my personal knowledge, and, as I since learned, hundreds) in the same position, some taking it more philosophically than I did, though it was more common with those with International Brigade experience.
Though for Home Guard training some British veterans of the Spanish war were recruited as instructors, and Spanish combatants were accepted in the Army, there must have been some criterion as to who went where. Certainly, suspected active support of the anti-fascist side seemed to mean exclusion from the forces.
Before an industrial tribunal which wanted to know why I declined their offer of going into agriculture, I found a representative of some unnamed department on the platform. I was told I did not have the right to challenge his identity for “security reasons”! He made it clear I was not eligible for the forces for reasons so secret that I was not even allowed to be told what they were, to the surprise of the lay members of the tribunal and the total consternation of the statutory trade union representative.
In view of this attitude it was at first sight apparently contradictory that the Spanish refugees in Britain did not suffer discrimination, during the war at least. Most males were allowed to stay unmolested providing they joined various forces. Others could get jobs, including the BBC. I think this was due to the fact that Sonia Clements had reported back to Morrison favourably. She had gained their confidence and found that most of those in England believed there might be intervention in the peninsula with the downfall of Franco, and they were eager to participate. This belief that the British Government was anti-fascist because its main enemy was fascist fooled a great many on the Continent too.
Herbert Morrison had another plan up his sleeve too. He hated the Communist Party for political and personal reasons. For years he had fought their penetration of the Labour Party and built up an internal counter-infiltration system. Early in the war he had banned the Daily Worker though after Russia came into the war he could not continue to justify it. As a Coalition Home Secretary of a country which unexpectedly came into alliance with Russia he could hardly denounce the Communist Party for supporting the Allies, but he knew that if left alone, the Trotskyists and the anarchists would certainly ridicule this newfound flagwaving opponent of workers rights, and the fact that they would puncture the Churchill myth possibly also gave him private pleasure, as there was no love lost between the Prime Minister and his Home Secretary (later described by Churchill as the Minister he was most glad to lose when the Coalition broke up).
There was free speech for minorities, except for fascists, and then only those actually interned, right until 1944, when it was expedient for the anarchists and the Trots to be curbed and the fascists let out, despite restrictions on the popular press. As a result the post-war Communist Party was derisory. Though it emerged with strength in Europe because it could never be exposed when it was most vulnerable, only their right-wing critics being vocal at the time, here it was under ultra-left attack.
During 1941, though one could not say that support for the war, or at any rate passive acceptance of it, lessened, the various dissident groupings increased their strength. The Trots, more or less united for the first and last time, made inroads into industry at the expense of the Communist Party. The Communist Party, despite its accession in numerical strength because of its flagwaving for Russia and identification with ‘Uncle Joe’, had become in effect a right wing party. The Trots had taken up their former role in industry. It was a major disaster for the Anarchist movement that they were only organising industrially in Glasgow; though attempts were made in Kingston (London) to form a syndicalist union of bus personnel.
We did however make considerable progress within the Armed Forces where many for the first time found themselves up against the State in its elementary form. The Communists, calling for the Second Front all the time, were naturally unpopular among those who would have to be directly involved, however much the overtime monarchs applauded them in production. The anarchists vied with Common Wealth, a new party grouping, for popularity amongst soldiers. Common Wealth supported the war but opposed the government: it was largely composed of officers and NCOs inside the Forces, and middle class outside, who were taking over from the Labour Party,. Bound as it was by the electoral truce, they succeeded in making gains from Conservatives in seats which the Socialists were not contesting.
The spreading of Anarchist propaganda through the lower ranks was a return to working-class origins. Fay Stewart (as secretary), myself and several soldiers and air force personnel brought out a bulletin Workers in Uniform and we built up quite a network. Olday had meanwhile deserted, and became a regular contributor both to War Commentary and Workers in Uniform. Among those we contacted was one in the Free French forces, who later became secretary of the French Anarchist Federation, and a couple in the Polish Army. The majority were from towns all over Britain where the anarchist message had not been heard for two decades.
I thought that at any time I would be called up and decided to make as many contacts as I could while travelling around in the North with the music-hall revue. I also had a more personal motive. I had always been too wrapped up in political and industrial activity to have any sort of private life, not that celibacy until the twenties was any rarity then. My first love was Rosalind Shepherd. She was separated from her husband, who was living with another woman on his leaves from the Army. As she was in a touring chorus and did not want to give it up we did not set up a home, believing optimistically we would do so at the end of the war.
The Anarchist Federation, the second grouping to take the name, got off to a good start in that it incorporated the Glasgow and London groups, and attracted many smaller groups of industrial activists in different parts of the country, took over War Commentary and appointed an editorial committee, which was also responsible for Freedom Press (the ‘Distributors’ part had been dropped), in no way then a separate group. The Glasgow end put its entire backing behind the publishing venture. With difficulties in printing War Commentary, financial in the case of the original printers C.A. Brock, and political nervousness in the case of Narods, the next printer, a derelict press in the East End of London (Express Printers) was purchased.
Such an asset (which increased with value over the years), was a double-edged sword in view of the difficulties into which the movement ran as a result of its increased support since once the British anarchist movement had assets it was worth someone’s while getting hold of the property.
Meanwhile I was involved in a series of acrimonious exchanges with the Ministry of Labour which felt it had the exclusive right to direct one to work but wouldn’t do so. There was not much they could do in the event of my refusal to co-operate since the normal alternative was sending people into the Army and I decided, rightly or perversely, that was where I ought to be. I suppose I ought to have just accepted the situation like a great many others did, Pat Monks for instance, and they put it down to sinister motives or sheer cussedness, both of which I suppose was true.
The faceless Ministry served me with a summons but when I told the magistrates I preferred going into the services to going into some suggested dead-end job in agriculture (to the discomfiture of our pacifist so-called allies). Without explaining the political background, which the prosecution also failed to do for its own reasons, they were sympathetic and gave me only a nominal fine. The local press waxed indignant at the unfathomable ways of bureaucrats.
During the period when I was out of London there was a large intake of membership in the Anarchist Federation, unfortunately an imbalance in that much of it came from those we were guarding against, thinking that a constitution barring pacifists would exclude them. What we were really trying to guard against was a bourgeois ‘intellectual’ takeover. This failed in that people like Fredrick Lohr, and in particular George Woodcock, came in, signing but ignoring the constitution. Woodcock’s attitude was careerist, something not thought possible. How could we provide or further a career? We had not reckoned how valuable an asset a press was for an aspiring writer.
During that period of the war the activists of the anarchist movement were steadily collecting arms, like many left groups, though there was a marked difference with the pacifist elements that had come in under cover, especially when the Independent Labour Party which had gathered them to its fold began to blow hot and cold on the war issue. Fenner Brockway managed to unite the two elements within the ILP, pacifist of Maxton and pro-war of C. A. Smith, gradually losing the pacifists to an amorphous mish-mash of which we got some of the spill while Common Wealth got others.
Common Wealth had a run of political luck during the war. The Communist Party was totally outdoing the Conservatives in flagwaving and Churchill-praising after Russia came in the war; the Labour Party was less uninhibited but being in the Coalition bound to a war-time truce. In any by-elections Labour and Conservative stood down, but Common Wealth stepped in with some success and picked up the Labour vote. Everyone then thought it either a fluke or a great surge for Common Wealth but it was simply the foreshadowing of a Labour victory at the post-war General Election, when CW simply faded away, though with the rump of the money it collected on its heyday it never completely disappeared.
The Trotskyists picked up the mantle of the Communist Party in industry, and we hardly got a look in, partly due to the insidious middle-class pacifist influence with which we had to contend. However, with the absurd ‘revolutionary defeatist’ line preached though not practised, it was never popular in the armed forces, where nobody was going to stick their neck out even by talking about it. The Communist Party, especially after its turn-round to support the war and urge a Second Front to aid Russia, was never popular in the Forces. Anarchist influence made an impact on the forces, not only following possibly inevitable lines of skyverism or the cult of the Good Soldier Svjek, but in actual political context. In the surreptitious publication of Workers in Uniform, at its height we had some four thousand circulation, which was twice as high as the open publication War Commentary, published nominally by Freedom Press but in fact the organ of the Anarchist Federation. The actual existence of both the new AF and of WiU was kept a secret in case of repression. This had organisationally disastrous consequences.
The interest in anarchist ideas seemed confined to the forces, and also to the liberal pacifist elements that persisted in seeing them as relevant at least to their temporary situation. Despite the efforts above all of Tom Brown, it seemed impossible to reach the industrial workers, except in Glasgow where Frank Leech made headway. There was certainly an element now nominally amongst us that had no direct interest in reaching industrial workers.
I felt politically isolated and personally totally irrelevant, despite speaking at numerous meetings everywhere and anywhere, from scattered meetings of three and four to a thousand in Glasgow, and helping, despite some fundamental political disagreements, to edit War Commentary.
Workwise I did various jobs around the theatre, and became a theatre shop steward in the West End when Rozzie moved into town. The film extras, who once had been grossly exploited, were, with the new demand for crowd scenes, desperately sought. Even stagehands and house electricians, not to mention servicemen on leave, were roped in. Leslie Howard was filming Pimpernel Smith, an anti-Nazi film that did not follow the line of ‘victory’ but ‘revolution in Europe’ and the script called for ‘communist prisoners’. By the time he came to make it, in 1940 the Russians had invaded Finland, and the script was changed to ‘anarchist prisoners’.
Howard, who like most actor-directors was very testy, objected to the actor scheduled to play the Nazi commandant. He complained that “he sounds like my maiden aunt”, and having successfully replaced him, turned his attention to the ‘anarchists’. None of them seemed real, he said. The various hamming up of stage-Anarchists failing, because the caricature had long since replaced reality, someone suggested having real anarchists, to whom Howard couldn’t object. It was mentioned to me and that was how I came to a minor film role as a concentration camp inmate which many friends were playing for real at the same time. Howard was intrigued as to what anarchism was, evident from other parts of the script, as we seemed fairly normal to him. I do not know what he expected us to be. He invited me to tea and he asked me why, if anarchism was supposed to be about assassination, we hadn’t had a go at Hitler? I said it wasn’t, but we had. All efforts had been frustrated, partly by finance and partly by police, and not just Axis ones either. Howard, though the public thought of him as the archetypal Establishment Englishman, was Hungarian by origin and passionately anti-Nazi. He asked if he could help. I put him in touch with Hilda Monte and the Birmingham people, and they suggested an international resistance group located in Lisbon. It is hard to know what came of it though I know he managed Hilda Monte’s attempt and persuaded Military Intelligence to let her get on with it. I guess that if this was the case, they took the attitude that if a Jewess was prepared to risk going back to Germany, and she was a spy, there was no risk to them. I understood from Olday it was done through Portugal.
Later Howard was travelling from Lisbon in a civilian plane and was shot down by German aircraft. The official story was that the slender, handsome film star was mistaken for Winston Churchill. One can only assume the need for manpower led Hitler to recruit deaf and blind agents in Portugal.
During 1941 to 1943 I was working in Blackpool for a while for a likeable North Country comedian, Roy Barbour — the only employer I ever had with whom I was friendly. He mentioned he had heard about my attempt at organising circus hands, a piece of gossip which travelled far and wide in provincial show business circles for its audacity and lost nothing in the telling. To my surprise, he wasn’t hostile but wanted me to help him with tightening up the local branch of the Variety Artistes’ Federation, though adding quickly it was all in the name of helping others and there wasn’t anything extra in the pay packet for doing it.
I never did get paid anything for speaking or organising bar problems so that was all right, but the set-up I encountered was weird and wonderful. The Variety Artistes Federation comprised the music hall profession, including stars and others who, whether self employed, on the circuits or working in shows, were in their own turn employers. They paid supporting actors, feeds, chorus girls, property hands and so on. Even some of their employees, lesser acts or troupe organisers, were employers too. It was born of the famous Music Hall strike when the stars of the profession came out in support of the sweated, exploited and underpaid members of the profession. But they had come to have a belief in the magic properties of having a union without any clear notion of what it was supposed to do.
In the course of time some of the lesser members of troupes were members of Actors Equity, and there was a certain amount of rivalry between them. Coupled to this was the fact that in the last boom of prosperity of the music hall, agents and managers were making fabulous sums, and only the stars were keeping up with the situation. It was certainly not clear at the meeting held at the Central Pier, at which only the stars got up on the platform to speak while the dancers and feeds held back shyly, what they were calling for except that everyone had abuse for the agents and jokes about theatrical landladies. The place sparkled with wit on the stage and beauty in the stalls, but had little substance.
I had a dazed feeling I was in a madhouse, especially when a popular local comic, Dave Morris, suddenly turned to where I was trying to taking notes and whipped them out off my hands, shouting “A spy from Moss Empires!” which brought the house down, eclipsed when Ben Warriss explained “He’s taking minutes” and his stage partner Jimmy Jewell responded “He’s taking bloody hours!”
As a result of the cross-business that went with the patter, I fell off the rickety chair on which I was perched, to tremendous laughter. Billy Bennett (“Almost a Gentleman”) remarked “None of this is rehearsed, you know”, a deadpan remark which even to me sprawled on the floor sounded funny. Roy Barbour came in with, “Why doesn’t he write these laughs in my scripts?” As Jewell and Warriss were stage partners I am sure they had worked the gag out between them but the pratfall was my own clumsiness.
Despite one serious speech by Wee Georgie Wood, the midget comedian who hated his stage description and occupation, about how the stars of the old music hall had supported the underpaid members during the Strike of thirty years before, nothing was proposed or done for any underpaid members. Except one. To my surprise, the comics who had used me as a foil made a collection among themselves afterwards. Ben Warriss, who sadly ended in a theatrical retired home supported by a charity he had sponsored, handed me an envelope, the only tip I ever had and the only time I ever got paid for “union” activity. I did not open it until afterwards, thinking it a letter of thanks, which it was but with what amounted to about my month’s pay at the time. I might have refused the generous gesture but for reasoning it was the laughs they were appreciating. I consoled myself for waste of time and loss of dignity with the thought I could forever after claim I had appeared on stage with the cream of the variety profession in Blackpool, and possibly England, and got the biggest laugh of the morning.
When Rozzie’s tour came to an end in 1944 I returned to London. I thought I would I wear down my secret blacklisters in the end by taking the army medical in Preston instead of London, though they had the last laugh. (‘Twas ever thus?) One day many months later some police officers came into a theatrical agent in Regent Street (where I had arranged to meet Roz Shepherd) and asked me to step outside. This was nothing new to me as frequently police officers had questioned my being at liberty and it was amusing to confront and confound them.
Once in Doncaster, the local police chief, a war-time special named Thompson who owned the theatre we were visiting, chortled with joy as he told my boss (whose playbills he objected to having displayed around the neighbouring villages for his following week’s visit to Leeds, thus possibly prejudicing that week’s takings) that he had got a special message through to London and that would be the end of his publicity campaign by eliminating me. However, whomever he contacted presumably didn’t mind my going round placing adverts and addressing small meetings so long as I was out of their way.
Naturally I assumed the Regent Street episode would be another such incident, but to my surprise on this occasion they said that I had not responded to my call up papers and was technically a deserter. What call up papers? I had just spent the larger part of the war arguing about why I hadn’t had any; I had even tried volunteering at one point to force their hand. The Ministry had been quite adamant before the Tottenham magistrates that they had issued the requirement for agricultural work because, for some reason they could not disclose in court (I made great play of this) they could not call me up for service.
Now I was told this was incorrect, that they had in fact done so and I had ignored the call-up! It was also alleged I had changed my address and not notified the authorities. I had, it was true, been travelling around, but this was permitted as long as one applied for the necessary ration book, which I had always done. My home address had changed in that I was now living with Rozzie, but my permanent address was still my parents’ house and no call up papers had arrived there.
It was a trick such as I have never seen recorded, but which was played on a number of people. To my knowledge alone, there were five others in similar circumstances sentenced around the same time as me. Later I met dozens and heard tell of hundreds. For ‘non-reporting’ I was sentenced, as a civilian, to twenty-one days imprisonment. My possessions vanished. As Rozzie was away up North, the police took some things and the landlady seized others. When I got word through to my parents, they called on the landlady, who explained that she had been afraid everything might have been stolen property, as the police had taken some items, so being an honest woman (as she explained) she had sold the rest!
Brixton prison had been transformed into a centre point for 18B (mostly fascist) detainees earlier in the war, but the growing prison population had obliged the authorities to remove these to the Isle of Man, the woman’s prison at Holloway and some council estates in the North, and restore Brixton to criminals like me. I had been taken from a theatrical agent’s office to Bow Street magistrates court and sentenced to six weeks imprisonment on a charge I have yet to understand. I was said not to have notified my change of address for six weeks. But my permanent address was the same as it had always been, and my absences had been for regular periods of a few weeks only for four years. Naturally I smelt a rat, indeed several, with pinstriped suits, bowler hats and umbrellas.
I met one or two coster acquaintances from the boxing fraternity who were petty thieves. They looked at my joining them in jail with flattering disbelief, feeling I and others like me justified their own predicament. There were several other prisoners of blameless lives and of whom one might have thought any country would be proud. One or two were in my position, having been prevented from joining the armed forces for years, but were now told papers had been served on them, of which they knew nothing. It made me realise it was a deliberate Ministry of Labour ploy introduced around that time. Granted some of these might have received and not responded to their calling up papers, but it seemed odd that in very few cases had they changed their addresses even nominally. Two had been arrested at their own breakfast tables.
Prisoners included not only politicals but people who had fallen foul of innumerable regulations especially in industry, and a few in the Services, as some commanding officers seemed to let offenders go to the civil courts and so serve sentences in civil clothes, rather than have their regiments represented in Army jails.
There were also a few conscientious objectors, though nothing like as many as in the First World War. These had not been exempted by legal tribunals. Most articulate persons could pass their tribunals if not the first time, in which case they got a year’s imprisonment, then at least the second time. Few got back for a third term, though there were two I met, inarticulate and scarcely literate who had gone back to jail again and again from barracks, though unquestionably genuine in their pacifism, for the crime of not being able to express their ideas in court.
All the spivs, black marketeers and burglars I met seemed to think the non-criminal element raised their tone. On one occasion a warder was shouting out “You’re thick, the lot of you — born stupid!” because some order had not been obeyed. I was standing at the back with a peace-time schoolmaster sentenced to six weeks jail for taking a week’s unofficial paternity leave from an engineering factory, a job he hated, as he was trying to get in the forces. All eyes turned to us, there were grins on every face, and the screw actually blushed.
With being regarded as a scholar, at least among the illiterate, and being accepted as ‘one of us’ being supposed to having been in the fight game (which was exaggerated by my pugilist friends), I spent almost the entire twenty-one days writing letters and petitions for people, and tended to enjoy the stay. Olday was in another wing: he was depressed and in virtual isolation, writing despairingly of conditions, even of torture, to mutual friends outside. This contrasted with my cheerful remarks not unnaturally baffled them, especially when he wrote to say somebody had told him how well I had stuck out a terrible beating-up. This referred to my last fight, long before the prison fortnight, but he misinterpreted it.
He had been arrested before me, for carrying a portable typewriter in the blackout, which was regarded as suspicious. Taken to the police station, he was found to have a identity card someone had lost, though the owner of the typewriter came forward to explain he had lent it to him and it was quite legitimate. As he refused to speak in court about the identity card he went from one court to another. By the time he reached the Old Bailey in 1944, they knew his identity but as he was still silent he got a huge sentence, in years instead of months, for this minor offence.
There was one little tailor in jail who had been sentenced for some trade offence or other, who was quite bewildered at what had happened to him. He had however learned the warders received (I forget the exact amount) maybe fifty shillings a week. It shocked him. As the warders shouted and raged at him, or anyone else, he muttered to himself, or to anyone standing nearby, “Tt-tt, to be such a bastard for fifty shillings.” By the time I came to leave, he had merely to shrug his shoulders and mutter “For fifty shillings, I ask you” to make it known that he, or someone, was in trouble again.
Six weeks went and I was supposed to be released. I was detained in a communal cell ‘awaiting escort’. “Your unit is coming to pick you up,” explained a warder. There was a slight hitch because there were several escorts turning up and they asked me, I suppose from the prison point of view not unreasonably, which my unit was. Unit? I did not even know which regiment. They could not believe it. “How can you desert from a unit and not even know which one?” I was asked. I replied that it seemed evident one could.
One warder explained, thinking me stupid, that if I hadn’t reported for duty, the unit would be the one mentioned on the calling-up papers. What calling up papers? They accused me of being deliberately obstructive but when it transpired there were several in the same predicament and several escorts waiting to take prisoners to differing destinations, they saw the light. There was a lot of frantic telephoning before we were all sorted out and taken to our respective railway stations, some of which happened to be the wrong ones though not in my case.
It was a stroke of luck that the corporal in charge of the escort knew me by repute. He had a friend who received Workers in Uniform though he was not himself in agreement. We spent the seemingly interminable train journey to North Wales by an ever-halting train amicably arguing. He took the cuffs off me and at a couple of stops sent the other soldier with him to bring coffee and sandwiches. He was a bit shaken by the way I had been treated and quite unnecessarily apologised for whatever part I might suppose he had to play in it. Orders, he explained apologetically, but it was before the Nazi trials made this a cliche.
The corporal was on compassionate posting in Prestatyn, but the private, a Liverpool Irishman, was from the Pioneer Corps located there, into which I was deemed enlisted. The camp itself was ‘a bit cushy’, he told me — nobody gave a damn about anything, though it was run by a mad colonel, Greenwood, who was supposed to have the VC. The joke went it must have been for learning how to run. He was anti-Irish and was supposed to have served in the Troubles. It was best not to run up against him, particularly for Irish soldiers. When the private had been on a charge the colonel asked his name, and when he replied it was Flanagan, was told that was a black mark from the start.
The Pioneers did not have the military ‘cream’ of the Irish like the Irish Fusiliers but Colonel Greenwood was a curious choice as commanding officer for a unit which had something like thirty per cent Irish and fifty per cent Liverpool or Glasgow Irish.
The Pioneers had originally been intended as a labour corps and possibly a non-combatant one. It had then become a fighting unit but with non-combatant and labour units attached. There were German and Spanish refugee units from which people had moved into fighting units. There was also an attached corps for conditionally registered conscientious objectors. Then some time in the war it had been transformed into a fighting unit but with people deemed of lower physical or supposedly mental (in fact, educational) capacity. This made membership of the Pioneer Corps a ‘disgrace’. Men who didn’t feel any resentment at the fact of an officer class felt embittered at being not considered good enough even for the infantry.
This attitude was seized on by the Army and when officers despaired of handing out punishments to recalcitrants or did not wish to have the slur of recalcitrancy on the good name of their regiment, they transferred offenders to the Pioneer Corps using it as an oubliette. By the time I arrived it was a disciplinary regiment on the lines of those reported in the French Army in 1939/40, but different in application.
The British ruling class differs from the French or German. The offspring of the French ruling class got transferred to units far from the battle, and the crack German soldiers swaggered round Prague showing their uniforms while the politicals and criminals were sent to the front. It was not a good idea tactically as the front not unnaturally collapsed when it was expedient to do so. The British ruling class, brought up in the public school tradition, thought dying for their country an honour, and dashed over the lines shouting “Follow me”. Now and again nobody did. It wasn’t unknown for the occasional unpopular one to be shot from behind. The disciplinary units were kept away from combat, deprived of the chance to die for the empire until a last desperate stand was needed.
It was these attitudes that caused the exodus from county regiments to the Pioneer Corps, and embittered regular officers like Colonel Greenwood were given a ragbag assortment of officers who had been Army bandsmen, civilian policemen or talented refugees from various countries, all commissioned to meet a need. He took his disappointment out on the Irish. He wasn’t too fond of Scots either, not liking anyone much, but he had the whole camp at Prestatyn wakened with a Highlands piper every morning at dawn. Someone said it was an excuse to make a regular sarcastic remark to his orderly officer, an Austrian Jew, in front of the assembled troop, of how it should stir his Highland blood.
I should add as a note that the Pioneer Corps had a happy ending from a military point of view, after it had fulfilled its latter-day role as a penal battalion while conscription lasted. In peace-time and after conscription ended, under its new title of Royal Pioneer Corps no less, it changed its image and became a normal service corps.
During 1944, prior to my arrest, there had been a clamping down on the whole extra-parliamentary opposition, which had been tolerated even during the blackest days of the war. One could see the hand of Herbert Morrison. The anarchists and Trotskyists had played their part in weakening the Stalinists and so helped make the British Communist Party a negligible force in the post-war period, which incidentally helped the Labour Party politically. It also weakened the Tories. At the Election of 1945, the C.P. was to be their unlikely ally, supporting Churchill for Prime Minister, but of a Labour Government. The CP then won only two Parliamentary seats, a Scottish miners seat they’d had for years (which 25 years before had been an anarchist stronghold), the other a temporary hold on a vanishing seat in Whitechapel Mile End. The only other place they might have had credibility was Morrison’s own seat in Hackney, which he prudently swapped in time for Lewisham, which had lost its former middle-class status.
So in 1944 the government proceeded to attack both anarchists and Trotskyists without much resistance. Both were first weakened by what appeared to be internal dissent engineered by Labour Party moles. The divisions had to be there, of course, but they were accentuated so far as the anarchists were concerned by Woodcock’s literary clique and partly by Sonia Clements’ machinations.
The Anarchist Federation as then constituted was anarcho-syndicalist and endeavoured to exclude pacifists, supporters of the war, and non-syndicalists, though this did not always work out. But there was by now a major difference as to what Anarchism was all about. Either it was a marble effigy of utopian ideals, to be admired and defined and even lived up to by some chosen individuals within the framework of a repressive society, or it was a fighting creed with a programme for breaking down repression.
Berneri and Hewetson seemed to take the first point of view but as they were activists in their own way it could be passed over as a mild difference. But the crux came when Woodcock, admired by them as an aspiring intellectual, wanted to use Read’s influence and the movement’s assets to build his own literary clique by means of a magazine (Now). At least one of the people he referred to as a libertarian was in fact a Trotskyist (Julian Symons), and at least one other (Adam de Hegedus) even some sort of fascist, but all of them were on the make in literary terms and their politics nebulous. Tom Brown wanted the press used for its proper purpose, industrial agitation. There was no doubt as to the press being a collective one, belonging to the Federation, but Berneri, Hewetson and others working on it full time though voluntarily, had effective control, Richards had the accumulated assets in his name and they created a new grouping calling it the Freedom Press Group, saying they had not taken over the press by doing so.
Brown and one or two others had a scuffle with them, amusingly exaggerated in some subsequent books, but were outflanked in the actual manoeuvres, and Richards took over. He had a small group around him, and they soon claimed they were not just the new Freedom Press Group but the old Freedom Press itself.
Brown’s group accepting Sonia Clements, whom many realised was a mole, caused a division with most anarchists, though it got them the support of the group of Spanish exiles not into Resistance, with whom she was associated. Brown was unquestionably right on his analysis of the situation, and proven so by subsequent events. War Commentary had been re-named “Freedom”, though it was specifically said this was not the old Freedom. Within a few months of their taking over, totally unconstitutionally, and denying they were doing so, they were speaking as if they were the same people who owned the same paper ever since 1886.
As the official clampdown came more or less at the same time, and many in the old movement were facing one sort of harassment or another, the argument raged only between a couple of dozen people in London, and its conclusion became a fait accompli. What prejudiced most anarchists was the totally coincidental factor that the scuffle (in some accounts published since greatly magnified, especially by Woodcock, who even suggests the IRA was involved!) happened at the same time that the police were about to prosecute for sedition.
The police had already raided Fay Stewart’s flat for Workers in Uniform. Her dog bit a policeman who had come in through the window, and while she was bandaging him she slipped the address list in the fire. A few months later she was killed cycling home in the black-out. There is no way one can say it was not accidental, especially as her death was known at the time only to her own family, who had no reason to suspect otherwise.
The police then raided War Commentary going through its files for the whole of the wars, saying it showed it was calling on soldiers to lay down their arms, though this was nowhere stated and many articles in War Commentary, which was not a pacifist paper, would have shown clearly this was not exactly Anarchism. Perhaps picking up their arms and using them appropriately would have been much more abhorrent.
As named proprietors Richards, Hewetson and Berneri were charged with conspiracy, though they had not written the articles under complaint, as was Philip Sansom who happened to be in the office when the police called. As the law then stood, Berneri was acquitted when the case came on in 1945, because a husband could not conspire with his own wife. The others received two years. Woodcock, for whose sake they had made themselves registered proprietors, announced publicly that while he was not concerned and did not agree with them he would defend to the death, etc.
The prosecution, which everyone thought would have produced more drastic sentences, undoubtedly deterred others from pointing out that these were not the proprietors, only two were editors, and the main responsibility was collective. The argument “why go forward and be a martyr, you only add one more hostage” was made by many, including those charged.
We thought the time had come to go underground, but after the trial everything proceeded as before, with the same type of article and the same type of activity. It happened with the Trots too, to the indignation only of the Communist Party.
It was naive of me to think that having been ‘deemed enlisted’, and served a sentence for not knowing it, that would be the end of harassment. They had gone to some pains to get me in even if I had been neglected so long. Other people ‘deemed enlisted’ at the same time as me went straight into training. I was to be court-martialled for desertion, after being taken from prison having been convicted of the offence of neglecting to notify change of address, which only a civilian could commit.
At a preliminary interview to the court martial, I was told the prison sentence should never have been imposed, but that was no concern of theirs. Fortunately I was able to convince them that not only had I never served in the Army and been excluded by mysterious command, but would be able to demonstrate that at the time of the alleged serving of call-up papers by the Ministry of Labour, they were prosecuting me for declining agricultural work. The officer briefed to prosecute me said ruefully, “If that’s so, there’s no desertion case for you to answer” which proved to be the case. They therefore switched the charge to absence without leave, which was equally absurd.
The less than impartial court-martial had an anonymous observer to whom the court martial judge, Captain Le Strange, held I had no right to object and to whom I otherwise would not have known there was a clear objection. The judge then explained carefully to me, before hearing a word of evidence, how important it was to make an example of someone like myself who might give a lead to others. He proceeded to dismiss my evidence as irrelevant and awarded me two years imprisonment for absence without leave, exactly the same sentence they were handing out for desertion.
It may be remarked in parenthesis that there was a marked contrast between the punishments handed out in World War One and those in the Second World War and immediately after. Undoubtedly the Labour Party influence was responsible. Death sentences were no longer freely handed out as in the Reign of Terror run by the military in 1914-18 and subsequently. The Labourites might want to preserve conscription to boost their egos, but they had less blood lust than the old Liberal-Tory coalition in the first war. At the front five minutes absence meant the firing squad in WWI but never, I think, in WWII. Three years for desertion or whatever was given or off the field two years imprisonment, and sometimes that got suspended after a few months. Perhaps that is why civil servants felt free to engage in artful political connivance.
I was taken from Prestatyn (a converted Butlin’s holiday camp) with a chained gang of prisoners to Stakehill military detention camp, which then had the most notorious reputation in England. I confess to being despondent, especially when we changed trains at Bradford and I saw a playbill for Rozzie’s troupe playing locally, but felt I had to keep spirits up. When the sergeant in charge of the convoy asked me how I managed to get in the situation in which I found myself, I answered “Easily enough”.
Stakehill had hit the news because a prisoner had been found dead. The Church of England chaplain is usually in such circumstances a minor administration official but in this particular case an enthusiastic young parson objected to the guards declining to take their peaked hats off when escorting prisoners in church. Without their cheesecutter hats they had a human-like appearance and they weren’t going to take them off out of misguided respect for the divine presence.
He had protested but to no avail. Then one day he was down in the detention cells and heard cries. He rushed in to find that two warders had just hit a man who was lying on the floor. One of them was saying to the other, with heavy sick sarcasm.,”Kick him staff, he’s still breathing”. When the horrified padre asked what had happened, the other staff sergeant said, with an equal heavy attempt at jocularity, “Don’t mind him, sir, he’s always lying on the floor crying.”
Unfortunately the man had hit his head when falling and was dead, and the staff sergeant was a Welsh Calvinist and not to the liking of a High Churchman. The story unfolded at the subsequent enquiry, when the chaplain told of the terrible death of “a man to whom I only that Sunday given Holy Communion”. The country, which had just been given the facts about Belsen and Buchenwald, compared it to them. One accidental death in six years, even if during rough handling, was hardly the same but Stakehill acquired a dreadful reputation because of a sick joke taken at face value. Even one of the incoming prisoners who had served time at HMP Dartmoor said he dreaded it.
Once inside we found it seething with incipient mutiny and the officers and staff were doing their best to mollify everyone. It is strange to reflect that all the boon companions I met in that converted mill were regarded as convicted criminals. Stakehill was called a detention barracks camp rather than a military prison. Shepton Mallet qualified for that description though it never got a quarter the notoriety of Stakehill. But prison it was. There may have been a few there guilty of crimes against society, but not many, as these went to civil jails. The overwhelming majority were a credit to the nation, though the State treated them as a debit. These were fine people who could have been, and many who had been or subsequently were, useful to the community. Yet for some minor infraction of absurdly imposed regulations or breach of discipline, and sometimes not even as much, we were kept in cages. It was Brixton Gaol all over again but more so.
I was treated with immense kindness by fellow prisoners, or soldiers under sentence, as the preferred phrase was. There was a general belief I had been treated shabbily though I don’t suppose I had been treated worse than anyone else. It was from a personal point of view a considerable downgrading when, after Christmas (needless to say celebrated in captivity) the establishment was closed down and everyone transferred. I went to Sowerby Bridge, a hell in comparison to the much-maligned Stakehill, though it is conceivable Stakehill had been as bad before the tragedy. It was on my birthday that January (listening to different ‘cases’) I determined some day I would do whatever lay in my power to help political prisoners and those unjustly or unfairly convicted. I hope I kept that promise.
The staff at Sowerby Bridge had been told that the incoming prisoners from Stakehill were near mutiny. They were told we had been pampered and needed to be treated with brutality. The truth is at no time would there have been actual mutiny. It needed only a few rumoured buzzwords like ‘Amnesty by Christmas’, such as visiting VIPs liked to spread, plus a few ‘suspended sentences’ with soldiers released and returned to their units or even discharged, to restore normality. and quell incipient riots.
There was more dismay among some soldiers to find they’d been released but transferred to the ‘chunkies’ — the Pioneer Corps — than among those staying on in their third year of captivity.
Pack drill ‘at the double’ was the norm at Sowerby Bridge, though this form of punishment did not go as far as it did in most countries, and in the British Army too in previous (and I suppose later) years. If one simply declined to go ‘on the double’ there was nothing whatever the staff did or could do. There were insults, but few if any beatings up. Occasionally people became violent under persistent insults and assaulted a guard, and were knocked down by a few staff ganging together; even so the guards were very careful after the Stakehill incident.
In the main the people prepared to ‘skive’ and not go on the double were in the Pioneer Corps already, or did not mind being transferred to it on release, whereas the others were under psychological pressure to show they were good soldiers. There were exceptions, such as a few old soldiers (some who had WWI experience) or some who felt they were on the way out. But some had been in the army for years and lost the benefits of their past service, whether pensions or discharge money, for some drunken spree, and were hoping to regain it by good behaviour.
One RAF ground staff prisoner from the British West Indies, was persistently racially insulted by the staff and unused to such taunts as he might have been today. At that time Afro-Caribbean troops were popular among the public and their arrival in Britain from the boats greeted with huge applause. He went berserk under the verbal pressure and was taken to the punishment cells, where we could hear his roars of pain. There were shouts of protest that could not be quelled from every one of the mass cages, and had the warders dared to unlock the doors for parades outside there would possibly have been mass mutiny. Afterwards things did ease a little. I did not see the Jamaican again but was told he had been transferred.
On one occasion Marie Louise Berneri was visiting some Spanish soldiers stationed nearby, and came to Sowerby Bridge to see me and John Olday. Visitors were absolutely forbidden. But she was allowed in, partly because the commanding officer was intrigued at the situation. Here was a beautiful foreigner calling in casually asking to see two entirely different prisoners, neither of them related! He detected a spy drama, and picked up the word ‘anarchist’. God knows what it meant to him.
To my surprise I was ushered in to a pleasant chat with her, but surrounded by screws, one or two even carrying sidearms. One shorthand writer, trying to look inconspicuous, was frantically trying to keep up with us while the others were trying to understand the plot; or at least the jargon. At one point she was politely asked “keep the conversation in English, please”, having used some undoubtedly French word like ‘bourgeois’ and there was no interpreter available.
Meanwhile Olday, who had been plucked from a different cage, was outside waiting his turn under an equally formidable guard, and having seen me go in, was wondering just what was going on. The only phrase dropped in his earshot was an ominous ‘attempted international anarchist intervention’.
This proved to be the only social visit I had. When I applied for compassionate leave on hearing from Rozzie that she was to have a child, it was greeted with derision, though as we weren’t married it probably would have been rejected anyway. Eventually an entirely unexpected situation brought about my release after some fourteen months. I had persuaded a lot of my colleagues that we should make common cause with the Jamaican RAF personnel, pointing out that when the staff got away with insulting them, they felt safer in abusing us.
I did not feel myself making much headway until one day, a staff sergeant shouted on a strenuous parade, “Okay, the two coons fall out and let me see how the rest of you manage”, particularly uncalled for as the problem was that the two West Indian aircraftsmen were doing the drill well, and the purpose of having them fall out was to correct the others. Quite spontaneously, sixty out of seventy Whites fell out. The staff was livid, and (though I wasn’t present) one of the informers, of whom there were always a few, claimed afterwards it was due to my urging as indeed I hope it was.
I was being accused of planning mutiny before I even knew what had happened, and the unexpected punishment was that I was put on the next batch of suspended sentences, and out of the place within twenty-four hours.
It was so sudden that I was taken to a King’s Royal Rifle Corps depot and told I was to accompany their unit to Greece, which as it was in revolutionary turmoil at the time seemed inconsistent, though I didn’t object. The commandant seemed determined to get me out of the country come what may. I had no time to get kit, not even a cap, and did the journey in a steel helmet and what I stood up in.
Once again I was lucky in that the KRRC corporal escorting me to the Dover Castle asked permission of the young officer to let me off handcuffs, and enabled me to phone home and arrange for my parents to meet me on the platform when we changed trains at London. They gave me some cash, which I lived on for the next three weeks. When we stopped over in Dover others on sentences, only suspended once at sea, arrived in handcuffs and were locked up for the night. They had no money and no pay day for three weeks. I however could go out for a drink with the KRRC. Once again I had found a friendly corporal who said to me, “I don’t know how you got into detention with such nice parents”, thinking of it, as some do of prison, as the result of neglected upbringing.
© 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).