Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Anarchist voices

The deaths of Colin Ward, aged 85, and John Rety, 79, within a week of each other at the beginning of February have deprived the British anarchist movement of two of its most original and influential thinkers. I first came across them through squatting campaigns in the 1970s, by which time they were already veterans of that pre-Sixties’ generation of political activists who kept a left libertarian flag flying before it became fashionable to do so.

Both men contributed to Squatting – the Real Story (Bay Leaf Books, 1980), a book for which I was the main writer. Colin wrote a chapter on the post-war seizure of army camps, hotels and other buildings, when tens of thousands of ex-servicemen and their families laid down a challenge to the 1945 Labour government to deliver on its promise of decent homes for all. John, who was a key squatting activist in Camden Town, gave generously of his time, knowledge and activist energy in assembling the history of the later squatting movement that emerged in Britain from the late 1960s.

Indeed, the survival of Camden Town as we know it today owes much to the resistance initiated by John and his partner Susan Johns in 1973 to their eviction by a property developer from the shop they ran at 220 Camden High Street. At the time, companies associated with Cromdale Holdings owned a quarter of the properties in the area; 50 shops were empty pending redevelopment. John and Susan’s squatting of their old shop acted as a catalyst for the fight to save the high street, which was eventually won. Their daughter, Emily Johns, is today a co-editor of Peace News, continuing the radical tradition of her parents.

For me, Colin and John were key communicators of the message that there was life on the left beyond state socialism. From housing cooperatives to allotments, from holiday chalets to garden sheds, Colin’s approach to ‘anarchy in action’ (the title he chose for what is still the best – and certainly most readable – book on the subject around) was rooted in the practical and everyday in a manner that made his most utopian of visions seem no more than ordinary common sense.

John’s anarchism sparkled most fully in his love of poetry and commitment to live performance, notably at the Torriano Meeting House, first squatted as his home and subsequently becoming a community arts centre, which provided early platforms for artists as diverse as Emma Thompson and John Hegley. There was a delicious irony in his late flourish as poetry editor for the Morning Star, that one-time bastion of the British Communist Party.

I was too young to enjoy Colin’s editorship of the journal Anarchy and John’s of the paper Freedom at the time they were published. But the back issues I saw later helped to inspire in me a belief in the potential of small-circulation publications with often esoteric interests to have an influence way beyond their immediate readerships. That's one reason why I continue to be associated with such publications today.

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