A Letter from the Netherlands

That I lived through the 1960s and absorbed some of their mind-set is a matter of some satisfaction to me. There is at least one thing that I have retained from that time: that I wasn’t embarrassed to ask for certain favours and which certain people were ready to grant. When, during the latter half of the 1970s, I used to drive around suggesting literature to bookshops and, true, I was bold enough to ask certain ‘alternative’ bookshops if I could doss down on the premises. Which I how I came to sleep in individually- or collectively-owned bookshops in Tilburg in the Netherlands, in London, Glasgow, Nottingham and Edinburgh. I can’t remember with whom I dossed down during those years in Berlin, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Ghent, etc., and I would rather not speculate.

To cut a long story short, this was how I began in 1971 to spend some nights and days in Lausanne. Not by dropping in by car, but by writing a letter. I must have been a member (subscriber?) of CIRA, or maybe not even that. One way or another, I knew of the existence of CIRA when I wrote that long letter. I wanted to work in Switzerland and I asked CIRA if they could put me up for a while. Now I would think that impertinent, but apparently, in those days, no. Be that as it may, Marie-Christine agreed. Afterwards, I realised and saw for myself that I wasn’t the first or the only person that Marie-Christine put up. Sometimes there were entire families of them.

I quickly found myself a job as a sales assistant in a Co-op store. But quite soon after that, Marie-Christine, having taken advice from Marianne, suggested that I help out at CIRA instead of working in the store. If I recall correctly, I jumped at the chance. My job was to catalogue books and periodicals. I did this over several weeks. Then a bunch of youngsters showed up who were keen to join a commune of Parisians working in the vineyards just north of the Pyrenees. This tickled my fancy but I was reluctant to leave CIRA. However, Marie-Christine and Marianne insisted that I should strike while the iron was hot and off I went to the Pyrenees.

That visit in 1971 was not my only one. I’ve been back to CIRA numerous times; on one occasion as part of a family holiday.

My intensive contact with anarchist literature at CIRA helped me greatly when, in 1973, I set up as distributor of alternative literature.

Apart from Marie-Christine’s and Marianne’s hospitality and generosity, I made no new discoveries in Beaumont. One time, Marie-Christine assigned me to the classification of a bequest of books, letters, etc., from a deceased comrade, which I took as a testimonial of trust. I think I did an honest job of it.

Fifteen years later when I was assigned the task of painting the stairs of the new premises being built for the CIRA, I had rather more difficulty. It was winter and I could only work in short bursts because of my poor tolerance of the cold. I would warm myself us while reading Franco Venturi’s book on the Russian populists, that is, the movement of folk like the narodniki and Mikhail Bakunin.

I nearly forgot one night I spent in the company of Frank Mintz who was translating Nettlau’s Short History of Anarchism from Spanish into French, at an unbelievable rate. True, I was a slow reader but his translation was progressing at pretty much the same speed as my comparative reading. Later, some wagging tongues criticised Frank for certain oversights. But what would they have to say about his neighbour that night?

It was also at CIRA that I made the acquaintance of Anna Staudacher, an unflappable working woman whom I see as a symbol of the 1960s mind-set. Once, when she was consulting some literature at the Institute of Social History in Amsterdam she spent hours poring over documents and broke off only to offer a bag of sweets around the other male and female researchers. This was not in the huge but almost empty reading room in the Cruquiusweg but in the little, rather intimate surroundings in the Herengracht where, back in those days, few seats were left unoccupied.

From: CIRA Bulletin No 63. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.