Review: The Albert memorial: the anarchist life and times of Albert Meltzer (1920-1996) an appreciation by Phil Ruff

A review of Philip Ruff’s book The Albert Memorial: The Anarchist Life and Times of Albert Meltzer (1920-1996). Albert was described as “Printworker, writer, troublemaker, but above all a tireless anarchist activist, Albert Meltzer is one of the most important figures in twentieth century anarchism. Scourge of Liberals and tyrants, he never stood aside from the struggle for a better world” by the Kate Sharpley Library.

I wasn’t aware of this book, initially published in 1997, until its author, Philip Ruff, tweeted a link to the newly published e-book format. I saw it almost by accident whilst scanning through the countless irrelevant tweets that had arrived within the previous two minutes. Two bits of text jumped out at me, the first was ‘Albert Meltzer’, and the second was the price-tag of £1.08.

Albert Meltzer was a bit before my time, in fact, when he died in 1996 I was only 18 months out of school and busy sticking pictures of Chairman Mao above my bed, buts that’s a different story.

Since my discovery of anarchism a few years back Albert Meltzer has been someone that I wanted to know more about. I read his book on anarchism ‘arguments for and against’, but I wanted to know more about the ‘man’. I purchased his autobiography ‘I couldn’t paint golden angels’ two years ago but have yet to make a serious attempt at reading it. So when I saw that there was a 56 page biography available, written by someone who knew him, and at the crazy price of little over £1, it seemed rude not to buy it. It quickly transferred to my e-reader and was I was engrossed for the next hour or so of my train journey.

The book kicks off when Albert is 15 when he discovers anarchism at a boxing gym via a young Glaswegian anarchist seaman, Billy Campbell. Radicalised, Albert immediately immersed himself in solidarity work, helping Emma Goldman and the Polish Anarchist, Leah Feldman, in collecting money and clothes for Spanish anti-fascists. The book portrays Albert as someone who was focused very much on practical work and action, even in those early days of activism in his late-teens; he joined a group that was ‘gun-running’ to Spanish anarchists.

Still in his teens, Ruff describes how Albert formed an affinity group who gained some notoriety by burning down a stand glorifying Franco at a fascist exhibition. It was due to this act that Emma Goldman referred to Albert a ‘young rascal and hooligan’.

At this point of the book I started thinking that he had managed to fit more into a couple of years than most people do in a lifetime, then I read about how he published a bulletin called ‘The Struggle, and how he found time to travel to Germany with false papers and get involved in the pre-war anti-Nazi underground movement who plotted to assassinate Hitler and Goering.

Remarkably Albert still found time for the more mundane aspects of life – paid work. He left school in 1937 and worked for a gas company, a greyhound track, a brewery, a fairground, and as a film extra, often being dismissed for his trade union activities. Still not 20 years of age, Albert started a newspaper called ‘Revolt’, and made a failed attempt to organise a UK wide anarchist federation.

Ruff then focuses on the war years and his involvement with Syndicalist Tom Brown, the ‘Freedom’ editorial group, and ‘War Commentary’. At this point an anarchist federation had been formed with Albert as its secretary. They produced a regular bulletin entitled ‘workers in uniform’, which was distributed inside the armed forces and had a circulation of 4,000. Unfortunately Albert was arrested and gaoled on charges of desertion.

The book spends a few pages detailing a ‘bleak’ period for British anarchism in the decade following the end of the Second World War, and briefly touches on the ideological and personal differences he had with the group based around Freedom Press. Ruff then describes a period of ‘wilderness’ for Albert. Despite putting himself in the wilderness he still managed to find time to set up an Asian prisoner’s aid committee, edit a newspaper, take part in rent strikes, and contribute countless articles of various publications. Some wilderness!

By now the book is up to the 1960’s and Albert has taken a holiday to Spain where he meets up with some old comrades and starts getting involved in intelligence work with the ‘First of May Group’. It was soon after that he met Stuart Christie who was to be a close friend for the rest of his life. There are a few pages covering much of Albert’s work in Spain, the friendships he made there, various kidnappings, the book he wrote with Christie ‘The Floodgates of Anarchy’, and the formation of the Anarchist Black Cross, Black Flag Magazine, the Angry Brigade, the DAM, and the miner’s strike.

Albert retired from work in 1987 but continued to play an important role in the DAM and latterly, the Solidarity Federation. Ruff highlights how Albert became critical of the CNT and attitudes within the wider IWA, and how his relationship with Vernon Richards and the Freedom group led to accusations of him being sectarian. It was at this point in his life that he formed the Kate Sharpley Library and saw the publication of his autobiography. Albert suffered a fatal stroke in 1996.

Following what feels like the tinniest snapshot of an extraordinary life, Ruff provides extensive notes, an in-depth obituary written by Stuart Christie, a tribute written by Stuart Christie that was read at Albert’s funeral, a communique from the CNT, and some thoughts from Albert’s friends. There is also a postscript by ‘Acrata’ that discusses Albert’s relationship with Vernon Richards and Freedom Press. Whilst I am well aware that there was conflict, I did not know or meet either of them, so to comment further would not be necessary or appropriate.

It is interesting to consider that Albert not only lived through the most momentous events of the last century, but also involved himself to the point of risking his life and imprisonment for his beliefs, meeting along the way some of the most important contributors to anarchist theory and action during the 20th century

The book is a brilliant and easy to read introduction to the remarkable life of Albert Meltzer and left me wanting more. As I am writing this review I have just pulled my copy of ‘I couldn’t paint golden angels’ down from the shelf, and looking forward to tomorrows train journey.

If you want to know more about Albert Meltzer but don’t want to read a 400 page book, then this is for you, and at £1.08 it’s as cheap as a cup of tea. Highly recommended!

Available via Christie Books