25 Lucky Strike; Direct Action Years; Poll Tax; The Battle of Trafalgar Square; Class War; Leo

I couldn’t paint golden angels - Chapter 25

Lucky Strike

After I returned from Venice, I realised I wanted to move out of my Greenwich council flat, which felt desecrated by the police raid on it. Those who have experienced burglaries feel the same way. I also realised that the way Fleet Street was going, I should soon be out on my ear. I was approaching retirement age, and had nothing whatever to show for my years of work. Had the kidnapping trial been for months rather than days, I would have been homeless, though acquitted.

I looked around to buy a home, realising wryly that had I been prudent I would now be thinking of the last payments of a mortgage rather than starting from scratch. I had never had the spare cash for a deposit and the times always seemed to be against me. Coming across an advertised new local development, in which the builders were offering a deposit well within my means, I decided the best thing to do was deduct fifteen years from my age, adjusting arithmetic to the way I felt, and apply for a mortgage.

Somebody up there seemed to be taking pity on me at last. No sooner had I paid the deposit and arranged to call on the mortgage company, when I had a running stroke of good luck. I had some old first editions with tea-stained covers which I thought were pretty valueless if interesting. I put them up for auction at someone’s suggestion and they brought a couple of thousand pounds. An old friend who had years before borrowed several hundred pounds, which I had long since forgotten, had a lucky evening at the dogs and repaid it out of the blue just when I had totally lost contact with him, among others, owing to the theft of my address book and diaries during the raid.

Then the management called in experts to solve their financial problems and they decided their “losses” were all due to the workers getting too much, especially by way of overtime. They asked all departments to “sell their overtime”, previously guaranteed, offering to pay them the equivalent of three years average overtime in return. All departments bar ours rejected this. I pointed out to my colleagues that the erratic input of news and the behaviour of journalists being what it was, they would still want us to work the same amount of overtime anyway, and so we accepted.

The management was overjoyed to find a usually intractable department agreeing to their experts’ suggestion, and the result is we got a huge extra payment in return for absolutely nothing. It took the management only a few weeks to find the experts as usual did not know what they were talking about, and they could not even blame it on to our taking advantage of the liquid lunches on the other side of the table.

What with one thing and another, within a week or so of committing myself to purchasing a new flat for £43,000 when all I had in the world was £250, I found myself with four thousand pounds in the bank. Then I got a call to say I had won a football pool. I snarled at being awakened in the morning to be told I had won £63,000, as I was convinced I had never invested in one in my life. I told a constant hoaxer at work I would do for him if he ever did that again, to his hurt surprise as this time it was none of his doing and wasn’t a hoax. When I returned home I found nine excited people on my doorstep. It had slipped my mind I had entered a syndicate of ten, paying three months in advance, about five shillings in all (being asked to replace one who died) and the first week they had given my name and address we won. The upshot was next day, when the cheque came, we all had £7,000 odd apiece. One punter had dropped out the week before complaining of the waste of money. I felt they should either include him in the share or at least not tell him. Everyone insisted he had to be taught a lesson and be told what he had missed. What the lesson was, or what benefit it gave him, I never learned because I never knew him.

By this time I had enough to decide not to go ahead with the mortgage but to manage with a two-year loan instead. I had enough in the bank to see me through a couple of years and help some good friends besides. My last two years salary went entirely on repaying the loan to buying the flat, the first home literally my own that I had. From a financial point of view, it doubled in value in two years. I thus retired two years after retiring age with no mortgage to pay, thus proving all one needs in this day and age to get adequate housing and a reward from one’s labours is hard work, careful saving and winning a football pool. Come to think of it, if the latter is big enough, the first two don’t really matter.

Direct Action Years

When the Direct Action Movement was first formed, it combined the former Syndicalist Workers Federation, begun by Tom Brown and still active around various cities in the North-East, with the anarcho-syndicalist groups around Black Flag and others which resulted from the tours we ran on behalf of the Spanish Resistance.

Tom Brown, when approaching retirement, had been active on behalf of local residents in Paddington. They formed an action group to protest against the opening up of a Mafia-type brothel and a porn club. As a fluent speaker, who had been an engineering shop steward, he was much in demand. Going home from the night shift one early morning, he was attacked by mobsters and beaten up with iron bars so severely he retired to Newcastle and for the last few years of his life was an invalid.

He and Mark Hendy had kept the SWF alive for years. At one time it had a fair number of adherents, and participated in many struggles particularly those of the dockers. I remained apart from the London SWF, which I realised afterwards was a mistake. My attitude was partly because of the way Ken Hawkes, its long-term and seemingly perpetual secretary, played on an association with the exiled Spanish leadership, with which the Resistance was at odds. It also admitted too many quietists and pacifists for my liking, ever the sectarian.

It was a mistake on my part not to have gone in the SWF and teamed up with Mark and others of his like, rather than being aloof. I was restrained from doing so by my friendship with Spanish activists who disliked the SWF’s associations with those who had collaborated with the Republican Government in the Civil War and were distrusted by the resistance for that and other reasons afterwards. It really did not affect the SWF (not to be confused with the utterly different SWP). What I did not realise, until Stuart came out of prison and I knew his background in the SWF, was that some of its members (English and Spanish) took an attitude identical to my own.

I was never close to any of the quasi-anarchist groups that were springing up in the wake of the peace and new left movements, let alone the old ones. The international anarchist movement with which I was always intimate and which seemed to have pervaded my life had nothing to do with the quasi-anarchism of the New Left, or that defined by the campus or the press, which at first disowned being anarchist unless qualifying it with a negative (such as philosophical or non-violent) or an opposite (such as Marxist or capitalist).

The SWF, anarcho-syndicalist but choked by weeds of the neo-leftism surrounding it, disappeared as an organised body soon after Tom Brown’s death, apart from the Manchester stalwarts. After Black Flag had been going some ten years many proposed that we form an International of our own. We could numerically not have sustained a national organisation, but we always felt there was no need to confine ourselves to national boundaries imposed by the State and re-created them in our image. Way back at the Carrara Conference, we had proclaimed this principle when our grouping had for once been able to speak for an anarchist movement unified, if as it turned out temporarily so. However, this was never put to the test, since the Manchester SWF decided to re-launch the organisation and there was a natural union between them and those who had been working with us for the Spanish Resistance. It was decided to re-name the new organisation after the paper Direct Action.

It may be that the years of building up the Direct Action Movement will not be otherwise recorded but its enemies on the red-snooping scene were not wrong to suspect its potential, though it changed its name to the Solidarity Federation after fifteen years of making the old one known. It is worth recording some of its achievements, especially in proportion to its numbers. It brought local and international support into the miners strike, and in the case of one particular strike at Laura Ashley, the garment manufacturers, such pressure was particularly effective. Black Flag had been viewed somewhat suspiciously by the quietist element in the old Syndicalist Workers Federation, particularly the London section influenced by a few Spanish exiles affected by the years of compromise, who tended to look in vain for international government, rather than direct action, to crush fascism. The First of May Group actions embarrassed them and the involvement of Black Flag scared off the British quietists. But after the tours Miguel and I held in regard to the Spanish Resistance, the quietists tended to forsake the organisation. We then saw that between the Black Flag line and other anarcho-syndicalists there might be a few differences, but not enough to make it worth pursuing different paths.

At first I tried organising a Fleet Street branch. Most of the Black Flag collective were in the Brixton branch. When I moved to South London I joined the Deptford branch, for the first time in my life in a grouping which had some impact on local events and I found them fine activists like many in the DAM.

The non-industrial event which called upon all our resources and those of many others too, and which had an unprecedented response, was the imposition of the ill-fated Thatcher poll tax. This grossly unfair and unworkable tax stirred many from far beyond our ranks into active protest, even in places which had been dormant since Peasants’ Revolt. Naturally the Militant Tendency and the Socialist Workers Party saw an opportunity to sell their papers and protest their leadership of “the masses”. But they played very little part, despite contemporary reporting, in the actual struggle. All they did was to use their slick professionalism to seize control of the Anti-Poll Tax Unions, except in London where the DAM blocked them.

In parenthesis, this was a constant occurrence in the New Left. Organisations spring up over particular issues, to be followed by the Trots moving in surreptitiously and taking the positions of power, so creating a ready-made “mass movement” to serve the “vanguard” Party, whereupon everyone else leaves and it collapses. That is why I named the “Millies” the Tapeworm Tendency. The old CP did that sort of thing but knew how to manipulate fellow-travellers and kept them in the dark for years, not just while they were at university undergoing academic brainwashing.

The SWP kept up a chorus of “Maggie Out” which was taken up by the left, even the Labour Party and, to their dismay, ultimately by some astute Tories putting the blame on Ma’am. The Heseltine faction had Mrs Thatcher ditched, and so earned the party another term of office, as if she had been running a Government single-handed against their wishes. Yet socialists who connived at this shifting of responsibility on one person, however dictatorial she might be, had for years been sniffily criticising individual anarchist actions against tyranny, explaining in superior fashion that if you get rid of an individual dictator by violence, a successor takes power, as if anyone aiming individually against Hitler, Franco, Lenin or Mussolini did not know that and had taken the risk without weighing up the factors. Apparently, though, the superior intellects had not worked out what would happen if you got rid of an individual dictator by non-violent and constitutional means.

Even after the election of 1992 the SWP and Millies were boasting “they” got rid of the poll tax and got “Maggie Out”, but it is nearer the truth to say they got a majority for Major.

The Battle of Trafalgar Square

The Poll Tax in Scotland been imposed a year earlier than upon the English or Welsh, it was had presumed because the Scots were largely anti-Tory anyway and therefore to be written off electorally. The Poll Tax was clearly never thought of as a general benefit, though a few did benefit financially (myself included, as it happened — I was always conscious of the irony) otherwise why was turbulent Northern Ireland excluded? Nobody dreamed that it could provoke turbulence on the mainland.

In Scotland its unfairness, and the way it was introduced provoked a feeling of national oppression that was possibly unintended, caused mass non-payment and resistance to sheriffs, the equivalent of bailiffs. This unworthy profession had got away with its dirty work for two centuries. Now its members began squealing about interference and intimidation when it set about putting people’s furniture on the streets and selling them up, as if it were an integral right of a civilised society. In turn when some anarchists in South London broke into a bailiff’s office and piled the office furniture on the streets even without selling it, one would have thought by the comments it ranked with an bomb explosion.

Many Scots thought once there were protests in England, and Whitehall in particular, the Government would relent, as indeed it did insofar as it changed the name of the tax and the Prime Minister, a shrewd piece of duplicity. This was the line pushed by the Scots Nats and the Millies, with other Trot varieties, using their slick (paid) professionalism to organise a march upon London. They were thinking on the lines of the Jarrow marchers of the 30s and of CND of the 60s, both of which seemed to cynics like myself to be based on the assumption that Cabinet hearts were susceptible to marchers’ blisters.

The Londoners could in their turn hardly blame the Scots, nor even the usual whipping boys, the immigrants, for the Poll Tax, and “Whitehall” was as many light years away from Trafalgar Square as from Sauchiehall Street. They did not know what to do about changing the Poll Tax except to refuse to pay if they were brave enough, any more than the thousands milling into the capital did, but they were not in a mood to welcome anyone stopping them trying to abolish it either, even if it were only a case of voting by sore feet. When the police, following some high decision strategy, did just that, they took the brunt of the resentment upon themselves.

In sixty years of watching London demos, without undue expectancy of result on my part, I have never seen the like. I teased my Spanish friends, “We’ve changed places — London’s burning and Barcelona’s preparing for the Olympics — now you get ready to defend our political prisoners!” Sure enough, though, in the coming year there were more political prisoners in British jails than Spanish, not even counting Northern Ireland.

There may have been one or two minor scuffles that occasioned the foray, or it may have been planned in advance by the police, but at a certain moment, just as I happened to be slowly walking across the square chatting, the police gave a warning for it to be cleared in seconds “or people would be hurt”. Within seconds police horses and cars were charging across the pedestrian precinct putting lives in danger. With the vertigo I then had, I could only wobble out of the way but I was guided by a young woman comrade to the safe haven of St Martin’s-in-the-Fields, from whose pillars I had a secure vantage point. Hundreds of young anarchists fought back with whatever was lying around, as the crowd was seething with rage at the attack upon the demo and they helped those who were resisting or surrounded them as the police came forward to snatch them. Only the stewards who had controlled the march to use it as a fishing expedition to catch members, the “militant” leaders of the Vanguard Parties, co-operated with the police, crying “We never wanted this to happen”.

Afterwards a militantly tendentious leader, blaming the anarchists rather than the police or the outraged citizens for the fighting, promised to “name names” of those he felt responsible, in the best traditions of the KGB. At a later conference in Manchester one Glaswegian Trot leader, desperately warding off the accusations of being a grass, suggested that the people who fought back against the police, to their obvious surprise, were actually policemen in disguise. He quoted the late John MacLean’s advice to look at their boots. I do not know what senior officer was believed by him to have given orders for his own men to get a bashing by others, or why he did so, or for that matter why the Trots in that case chose to co-operate with them. But John MacLean was an unfortunate name to cite considering the sly Bolshevik treatment of him, his Marxist “comrades” of the time having suggested he had gone mad as the result of prison torture and that was the reason he refused to accept Lenin’s leadership. Perhaps it was too much looking at large size boots that drove him mad and made him reject dictatorship.

Were the anarchists responsible for the trouble, as the media said? It needs a large over-estimation of their numbers and powers if so. Prior to the demonstration, which had not been organised by them, dozens of us known to the press (even those living miles from London) were being phoned by reporters asking eagerly what “we proposed” to do having got these unsuspecting people in the square. The cameras were focussed on the red-and-black and black flags when the march streamed into the square, and some PC Plod apologist commented on TV that these were the “signal” for “criminal acts and organised looting” (as if people intent on theft advertised their presence).

Class War

We had learned a lesson from the famous anti-Vietnam-War demonstration, when press and police complementing each other had run a long campaign saying how the anarchists planned to turn a West End march into a revolution (if it’s so easy one wonders it has never been tried). Then, many of us had spoken to journalists. Their credulity seemed a good joke at the time and when questioned by newshounds we upped it to the smuggling in of tanks, guns, molotovs, you name it we had it, adding for good measure trained elephants and poisonous snakes. Protesting innocence and denying all like the left seemed wimpish, but we had no idea that what we said would be even faintly believed. It was never an obligation for a Fleet Street journalist to be a moron but for those who weren’t, there was always sports reporting.

In the event all that Fleet Street (if one can still call it that when the geographical location has dispersed) was after were a few names on which to pin their inventions and then pursue the people they named as “legitimate news targets” from pillar to post. This had increased so much since the printers had lost whatever control they had to the new press barons and their lackeys that almost nobody by this time was prepared to speak to them. They might have had to fall back on the plaintive attempt by reporters Maurice Weaver and Martyn Harris a few years since of speaking to a few woollies they found at the Freedom Press offices, presenting them as the centrepiece of anarchism and even of a vast mass movement of the Young anti-Establishment. As whoever they found there might possibly have welcomed the poll tax and certainly opposed violence, it wouldn’t have made much of a story.

Fortunately for the journalists there was a new group which seemed to welcome their attention with open arms. A few years before, Ian Bone had started a paper Class War, from which he later bowed out. It came as a cultural shock in its early stages to many older revolutionaries, at first divided in opinion as to whether it was a one-off parody of anarchists like some efforts produced by situationist-type hippy circles, or whether it was a modern version of the caricature-sheet, like those produced by Bonar Thompson in his latter disillusioned days. In fact, it wasn’t either. It was a clever use of the sort of language used by the tabloids, using their own style to express the disillusion felt by young long-term unemployed, on the principle of begrudging the Devil all the discords. They even used their own press agent, equally capable as the professionals at hype.

Class War was at first dismissive of anarchists, confusing them with the non-violent liberal cult, and inclined to a pedantic version of council-communism as interpreted by Professor Pannekoek, the Dutch poet-astronomer, as neo-situationists usually were, without quite knowing what either meant. It originally attracted the drop-outs from the hippy and animal rights cultures, rather than from anarchism. They thus became violent-obsessive but not so much as to be called terrorist, and they merrily fooled one or two pompous papers into thinking they were either a sort of bodyguard for the real anarchists or a newer, more dangerous breed. The tabloids seized on personalities and denounced Ian Bone for “looking like Himmler”. I don’t know what bright spark thought this up. He didn’t and it was hardly an offence, even to good taste, if he did but I think it was the rimmed spectacles that did it. It showed the depths to which British journalism had descended. With all the flak Chaplin took in the McCarthy era, even the worst American papers never harped on his alleged resemblance to Hitler.

Some of the early elements in Class War tarred anarchists with the Freedom Press brush assuming they were the same. One group made a song about me “Hello Albert” — denouncing my “obsession with the past and the Spanish war which was long since over”, not realising or perhaps caring that my obsession (if it was that) was with the Resistance, then for the first time extending through Europe, of which they were quite unaware. This was picked up from pseudo-situationists, who ran special one-off papers to denounce any and every resistance, one of which, Logo, edited by a Richard Parry and Mark Page, managed to disgust the Anarchy group when with others they were nearly fooled into a collective handling of an issue fingering people whom Parry & Co considered activists and therefore named “jokingly”, or hopefully, as prison fodder. Phil Ruff dumped the entire issue in a handy trash bin, somewhat to the dismay of those who felt he was failing to observe a proper adoration of the plaster saint Freedom of Speech whose cult lay an obligation on us to distribute for free a hostile paper.

As Class War was prepared to say the things the media would have invented (Kill the pigs, eat the rich), it became the answer to a maiden’s prayer. Class War editors quite readily claimed they caused the riot and appeared on TV and expressed delight at the damage caused, especially to The Bill. As a result they got about ten million pounds of free publicity and quickly became the most popular anti-Establishment youth grouping for years, with a fixation on death’s heads, killing and graveyards though not one of them ever handled a plastique in anger. Their paper sold like billy-ho, they began marketing tee shirts and other ephemera like a cottage industry, publishers clammered for their reproductions. They, though later more reservedly, took credit gladly given them by the police unable to track down a social relationship for any and every riot and disturbance among the young white unemployed, and were the subject of innumerable articles and solemn academic treatises. The dailies quoted their every utterance as important, knowing their comments would be pithy. The profs solemnly declared their researches showed similarities between the language used by Class War and by the tabloids that denounced them.

But at least when the original leadership altered, the new wave of youth they attracted had more positive ideas. It was more than one could say of the neo-situationists (the third wave of such) obsessed with the “Bonnot Gang” — the first motorised bandits, and class struggle individualist anarchists of the early part of the century. Richard Parry, who supposed I was “imprisoned by the past ” and enamoured of pre-WWII days, went on to write a book on the “bandits tragiques” of pre-WWI days, who would have regarded him as I did, part of the enemy. One of the bunch named J.P. Schweitzer (also hostile to any support for Spanish Resistance as “harping on the past” ) formed a “Friends of Bonnot” grouping and, warned by a wagster one April 1st that Special Branch were asking about him, went along to Scotland Yard to explain to a bewildered detective sergeant that it was all harmless, which indeed it was.

The journos, however, though they get younger, remain as venal as ever. Only a few short years after the Trafalgar Square riot, there was one against the Criminal Justice Bill. Gervase Webb, in the “Evening Standard”, attributing it to “Class War” taking over from “Black Flag” as the villain of the piece whenever the police ran amok, puts the two together as allies, both being infiltrated by fascists. For good luck he makes the DAM a breakaway from Class War. Black Flag a “Brixton based group of anarchists and hunt sabs”. It was based in Brixton ten years before, but, while I couldn’t speak for others, I personally was not up to being a hunt saboteur in balaclava and bovver boots, jumping after the hounds. Perhaps Gervase supposed I had lurched to the right and was one of the fascist infiltrators. Dear man, I hope he bruises easily.


A number of campaigns were run from 121 Bookshop. Leo Rosser was the first to became suspicious of a barrister, Tony Jones, with an upper-class manner who was forever photographing contacts he made by attending such meetings. It seemed he was also associated with the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and many libertarian, militant liberal and socialist campaigns, some of which were inconsistent. Leo persuaded us to follow up the story for Black Flag though City Limits beat us to the punch, and Duncan Campbell exposed Jones as an informer for MI5, working as an agent for security chief Tony Crassweller. He had been associated with Freedom Press, and Philip Sansom and Nicolas Walter rushed to defend him from the accusation. When Jones himself admitted ruefully “he had to live with it”, they did not retract, but Nicolas Walter then stated Jones had not spied upon Freedom Press — he would have found little to spy on — but on 121 Bookshop. It was rather like his riposte to the allegation that he revealed the identities of Randle and Pottle in the Blake escape at dinner — “it was at tea”.

Soon after that Leo Rosser joined our editorial team. He was a bright hope for the future. I liked him immensely, as did everyone who worked with him. He learned Spanish (some of our friends in Barcelona assumed he was Catalan but he was of Welsh origin — the name Rosser fits into several languages) to be in regular contact with Spanish and Latin American prisoners, wrote scathing articles for us, and helped with all the ‘donkeywork’ that goes with any organisation. We shared a lot in common, naturally except music.

At the time of the Jones affair, Leo was living with his parents but he later moved in with his girl friend and seemed full of boundless energy, enthusiasm, commitment and laughs during those short years he was around. One day we were discussing euthanasia, about which many had reservations. (Can you trust all doctors and, where there’s money, some relatives?) He said reasonably that, while he could not understand healthy people committing suicide, when someone reached a certain state of deterioration they should be able to die as they wished. I recall we talked about an event that was coming up in Spain the following year which we both wanted to attend. He also mentioned investigating some stories abut drug dealers and the Spanish police in the next few weeks. But within a week of the conversation he was dead.

The evidence, that he had been depressive for some weeks but concealed it from people, that his relatives and girl friend had finally decided to take him to the hospital for observation for suicidal tendencies, that he had left the hospital, being left unsupervised, and jumped from the nearest high building, seems undeniable. My suspicions as to what really happened are different but unprovable. I am not to be convinced otherwise.

I tried to speak at his funeral, but I failed and broke down. I scarcely recognised some of the anarchists there, smartly dressed and red-eyed, who that very day, (the morning after the Trafalgar Square riot against the poll tax) were being reviled in the national press as hooligan street fighters, but despite my sorrow I felt engulfed in a tide of affection. The thought that a gathering like this of good friends could have been in a dozen or more cities all over the world made up for years of frustration, difficulty and disappointment, but not for the loss.

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© Copyright: 1996 Albert Meltzer
Published by AK Press Book details and the Kate Sharpley Library.
Marked up by Chuck0 in 1996, originally posted at http://www.spunk.org/library/writers/meltzer/sp001591/angeltoc.html
(Reproofed by KSL May 2010).