Ken Williams, 1953-2020. Anarcho-syndicalist and militant anti-fascist

I can’t write a coherent or narrative biographical sketch of Ken because he lived in many different places at different times. All I can do is relate a series of anecdotes and things he told me. I may have remembered some things differently from other people he told, and they may have been told different versions by Ken. I hope my memories give anyone reading this a good idea of the man, and why he was special.

I know, for example, that he lived in York for a while and was involved in anti-fascist activities there. He claimed that the membership of Leeds National Front included a Polish hunchback. I also remember him telling me that SWP had two branches in York, a City branch and a University Branch, and that in spite of the fact this was at the height of the party’s rank-and-file strategy the University branch monitored the City branch on behalf of the party leadership. For some people, students will always represent the working class better than mere workers. Sadly, a comrade of Ken’s from that time I might have asked has Parkinson’s and is unable to help.

According to Ken, he became an anarchist via a spell in the Workers’ Revolutionary Party. For those of you who don’t remember the WRP, or who only know that Vanessa Redgrave was in it, they weren’t so much a Trotskyite sect as a full-blown cult. They were sometimes called “The Moonies”, and people made jokes about them kidnapping people.

He had got talking to them in the street and agreed to attend a demonstration the next Saturday. He was in the Young Socialists for a while, helped by the presence of a girl who’d caught his eye. Then one day a speaker explained that under Communism, the state will wither away. Ken thought this was a ridiculous idea and said so. That wasn’t the first thing he’d questioned. They took him aside and asked him if he’d been talking to any anarchists. That was the first time he’d heard the word. He was frozen out and left to look for these anarchists.

Later, he followed punk band Charge, who were anarchists. He can be seen briefly in a film they appear in shot in squats around the Balls Pond Road called “Punk in London”. He cited a song of theirs called “No-one rules”. Like most punk bands at the time, they had a problem with boneheads attending and sieg heiling at their gigs. Ken had a crop with a Circle A cut into the back and used to get up on stage and point to it in defiance. He had other run-ins with the NF and told me he was once set upon by them outside the Alwyne Castle in Canonbury. He was beaten badly and had his leg broken. Nowadays, the Alwyne Castle is a gastropub, then it was Martin Webster’s local. And Islington had a big NF vote and active presence. They sold papers at Chapel Market every Saturday morning.

He was a building worker, often working for architects doing renovations in Stoke Newington in the 80s. He was involved in the Stoke Newington branch of the construction workers’ union UCATT, and the Rank and File Building Workers Group. He had a wonderful way of describing the people wheeled out by the Communist Party at the AGM of Hackney Trades Council to ensure they and their allies held the key positions and controlled its direction for the year. “They even look like traitors,” he said. I can actually visualise these people and have almost certainly met some of them.

He joined the East London branch of the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement, which was allegedly formed when Phil Ruff got a group of people together so that he could have the membership card of an International Workers’ Association section to impress the CNT on visits to Spain. Not everyone who formed it was an anarcho-syndicalist – Ken was – although they all had a healthy contempt for the ringers of anarchism, as the late Albert Meltzer described those such as the militant liberals who ran Freedom at the time, and the many others who described themselves as anarchists to give themselves airs.

I met them when I turned up to help oppose a BNP rally in Hoxton Square in 1985 – the NF was then still the largest neo-Nazi group. At the time I was interested in Red Action, but I immediately got on well with ELDAM. Ken also came to a Red Action London meeting to defend Class War when they were being smeared as fascist sympathisers by Searchlight magazine, even though “We don’t consider them to be anarchists”, as he put it. He recognised that the ringers of anarchism also include militant populists masquerading as anarchists. Eventually, I decided I needed a set of ideas and principles as a guide to action, and anarcho-syndicalism provided them. So, I finally joined ELDAM.

In those days before the Internet and social media, you learnt about anarchism and how to be an anarchist militant from your elders, and from being involved in the class struggle and discussions about it. The available literature in English was also pretty limited compared to today. I learned a lot from Ken. He was one of the people who made me who I am. His intelligence, his common sense, his sensitivity and his patience all left their mark on me, as did his sense of humour. We once went out in Stoke Newington to reclaim it from the creeping gentrification known as “Islington”. That went well! We ended up in the Horse and Groom, a gut of a bar on Stoke Newington Church Street, where the dart board was on the door to the gents. If anyone was playing, you waited for the thunk of the third dart before leaving.

Ken also appealed to a lot of women. On more than one occasion we were leaving a party and Ken would have this resigned and slightly concerned expression on his face, as if to say “what can I do?” as he stayed behind. He’d lived in Sweden for a while and had a Swedish wife, Camilla, when I first met him. He told us about the weird drinking habits of the Swedes. First of all, all the beer was brewed by the state and most of the alcohol had been taken out of it. Also, they didn’t buy rounds, you were supposed to take only enough money with you on a night out to buy your own drinks. If you accepted a drink from someone else, you were theirs for the night!

He appreciated food, too. Once, we arrived late at a wedding reception in Manchester, having travelled up to oppose the NF and the Orange Order at the next morning’s Manchester Martyrs March. There was not much food left, particularly if you were vegetarian. I ended up with a plate of coleslaw and potato salad. Ken leaned over to see what I had, and his nose wrinkled in disgust. “I’m glad Red Action got you”, he deadpanned. “You’re a fucking pervert!” By contrast, once when we were out he decided to have breakfast, having ponced a tenner off me. He described his choice of half a chicken and a Jamaican pattie as “inspired”.

A favourite phrase of Ken’s was “the business”. We produced some t-shirts promoting the traditional symbol of the International Workers’ Association, which had fallen into disuse due to it either being “dated”, “sexist” or generally “unrepresentative”. It was a muscular white man with a flat-top, carrying a hammer and a red and black flag. Coincidentally, it bore a resemblance to Ken. Over the symbol was the name of the organisation in a crescent, below it “The Business”. The message must have been confusing for international comrades….

After I left ELDAM to help form North London DAM, we were both on the Direct Action collective. In need of a picture of a front page article on water privatisation, we mystified everyone by printing one of Ken’s pictures of the Middlesex Filter Beds nature reserve on the River Lea at Clapton. It was one of his favourite spots, where he spent a lot of time with Helen. Rat, in whose squat in Coldharbour Lane production took place, worked for a company called Autodesk and Ken used to phone him up. The receptionists got to know him. They would answer a call, and there would be this pause – he was known for his pauses. They immediately recognised Ken’s silence and put him through.

Ken loved alternative cabaret group Skint Video. Their version of Rolf Harris’ “Two little boys” was a particular favourite. He would often sing it in the street and perform it with others at socials and benefits. On another occasion, three of us were walking down Railton Road in Brixton to work a fundraiser for Direct Action at the 121 Bookshop, and we broke into Crass’ “Banned from the Roxy”, singing the whole of it all the way down the road.

Ken helped compose our anthem “Albert Meltzer’s boot boys”.
Oh, we hate George Woodcock and we hate Ian Bone.
We hate Nick Heath and Vee-ro.
We hate Mick Larkin and Arthur Moyse.
Cos we’re Albert Meltzer’s – Boot boys.

There were also the inevitable Monty Python moments. On the way back from a DAM Conference in Northumberland, we stopped off at a comrade’s house outside Doncaster. It was a social call but in the kitchen were two members of South London DAM, also on their way home, who had arrived before us. “Aha! We have surprised a meeting of the Bakuninist Alliance!”, Ken cried, channelling Michael Palin.

We were very taken with the Channel 4 TV series “Fairly Secret Army”, a thinly-disguised spin-off from “The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin” (to which the BBC owned the rights), starring Geoffrey Palmer as Harry (Reggie’s now ex-Army officer brother-in-law, Jimmy). Sergeant Major Throttle (Michael Robbins), one of Jimmy’s followers in his quest to counter subversion, volunteered to infiltrate revolutionary groups, affirming his willingness to pose as an “anarcho-syndiCARList” among other things. Ken loved that pronunciation and would often imitate it.

I didn’t see much of Ken after 1990. I was sad when I heard he’d died because he was part of my life at a time when I knew a lot of great people, and he was one of the best. I can’t say I miss him because he’s part of me and will always be with me. It was great to see so many old comrades at his memorial in February. Don’t mourn, organize!