“Our own, personal experience of the event – as it unfolded live in front of us – gets over-written, overlain with any narrative available that complies with Thomas Carlisle’s ‘Great Man’ theory, that ‘history is but the biography of great men’, that the rest of us, the ‘bystanders’, aren’t part of history. The short story rejects this version of events because, as a form, it has evolved to prioritise the non-heroes – the bystanders, the disenfranchised, the ‘submerged’ (as Frank O’Connor would say). And when it comes to ‘world events’, none are more suited to the short story than the protest. In a protest, we’re all bystanders, we’re all there because of some attempt to marginalise us; the bystanders are the people making history,” writes Ra Page, editor of Protest! Stories of Resistance.
The workings of the state when it is under threat are not pretty. One man’s system is another man’s nightmare. Protest! takes the long view. From the Peasants’ Revolt sparked by the Poll Tax of 1381 to the anti-Iraq War demo of 2003, the 20 movements featured in this superb book have parallels in terms of ideas and tactics and emotional charge. The framework of the anthology brings to life the events and the people involved. A short story like a snapshot in time is followed by an afterword by an academic who, in certain recent cases, was an eyewitness.
Prior protests loom large over present ones. This struck me forcibly while reading the stories and simultaneously following Westway 23’s facebook posts about the Grenfell Tower Protest in my neighbourhood. It is no coincidence that safe Tory seat, Kensington, went to Labour by a narrow margin for the first time ever in the recent snap election. The gruesome fire has illuminated years of institutionalised abuse and disregard for the law on the part of the corrupt powers-that-be. Establishment standard bearers The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Spectator have been accusing the ‘hard left’ of ‘hijacking’ the Grenfell fire tragedy for their own ends. Plus ça change.
Certain common features and conditions are inherent in the 20 movements portrayed in Protest! Stories of Resistance.
Sarah Maitland’s short story about a woman-turned-rebel who was rescued as a baby from a room of family corpses putrefying from the plague throws light on the living conditions of the Medieval peasantry 600 years ago, offsetting the rebellion of 1381. The story has at its core a fundamental truth about the unfairness of the distribution of power and wealth in society: “All over this realm of England there are serfs, cottagers, poor men, villeins, women even who know the power of their own anger and know how good it feels to use it. Who have changed in themselves. Who know that we did not loot or rob the Savoy Palace the way they rob us. Who know that the only difference between serf and Lord is that they get to have baths. And to own beautiful things. We frightened them and they did not frighten us.”
Religious radicalism and pacifism as protest
The English Revolution of the 1640s spawned numerous religious groups, the best known being the Diggers, the Ranters, the Fifth Monarchists and the Quakers. In Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s story set in 1666, Judith Squibb – a chambermaid working in a tavern near Rye – dreams of assassinating Charles II. Her story reflects the beliefs of Fifth Monarchists who interpreted prophecies in the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation, and asserted that Christ would return to establish his kingdom.
Stuart Evers’ story focuses on the Aldermaston March in 1959 to ban the H-bomb, (setting CND on the path to becoming a mass movement). The march became an annual event until the mid-1960s. Going on a demo is a tiring and, at times, lonely, business. “No marcher stopped, though some slowed as they passed, the same way he would if faced with a man paused like a struck clock. For a time, he remained standing, then took to the roadside, a vacant spectator of blurred legs. He removed his socks and shoes and examined his blisters, a new one on his left ankle, and watched the striding legs. Here there was less drum or trumpet, these were the people he had expected: their quiet determination, their stoic faces. Had they just marched with these men and women! No Alans. No chair-bound collisions. No unturned footsteps. He thought of Alan, head on one side, saying: a march is a plurality of opinion, not a single voice.”
Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp was established in 1982 to protest at nuclear weapons being sited at the RAF base. Joanna Quinn’s story offers us a glimpse into life on the front line and its effect on family relationships. “Before I came to Greenham, Stephen and I had watched this QED documentary about what would happen if a nuclear bomb was dropped on London. Parts of it had wedged in my head. Little shrapnel shards. Whenever I gave the kids a bath, I would hear the words water instantaneously boiling. When I cooked their tea, I heard human flesh, like all animal fats, will melt and burn.” Women became articulate and were empowered by the experience. Rallying songs included chants to the tune of Frère Jacques . . .
Alexei Sayle’s story about Jack who goes to the local art college to enrol in a night school class in pottery, and gets caught up in the ‘Student Occupation’ anti-Vietnam war protest, is a hilarious portrayal of ideological squabbles and tetchy partings. The Grosvenor Square March of 1968 began peacefully and turned violent, of course. “The most lasting memory of that day is of the mounted police charging towards us in Grosvenor Square. It wasn’t so much the fear of getting hit or the clattering hooves of the horses; it was the whooping and screaming of the riders: police acting like warriors, rousing themselves before cutting down their enemy with their truncheons.”
Martyn Bedford writes about a family divided by the Miners’ strike of 1984-5 when the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher smashed the NUM. Two brothers are buying ice cream from a van at the picket at the Orgreave coking plant when Don is assaulted by the police, is hospitalised, ends up in court, and continues to manifest psychological symptoms. Peter goes back to work because of hunger and poverty. Ostracised for being a ‘scab’, Peter is beaten up by his nephews for being a traitor, and he leaves town with his family. Thirty years on they all meet up at Don’s funeral.
The Hillsborough disaster followed in 1989, and 28 years of smears and cover up ensued. Nowadays police are less likely to engage in such openly aggressive behaviour although the Tottenham riots of 2011 kicked off after the shooting of Mark Duggan, (in the US and France police brutality is quite ‘normal’ in certain neighbourhoods – the riots of 2005 in the suburbs of Paris and other French cities were sparked after two French youths were electrocuted during a police chase).
The introduction of new laws that marginalise an already marginalised group
Kit de Waal’s story about a courageous, young mixed-race couple living in Smethwick in the suburbs of Birmingham had me gripped. “Nine days after he walked on Marshall Street, Malcolm X is killed. Alfonse reads it in the Sunday paper and has to sit down. He tells Lily all about it, how he and Malcolm spoke heart to heart and Alfonse found the strength to stand up and be a man. Lily kisses him and says he should send a card of condolence to the widow and children. So Alfonse does. There are photographs of the funeral a few weeks later and Alfonse imagines the grief of the crying wife and wonders if she will ever recover.”
In his Afterword, Avtar Singh Jouhl describes his experiences of segregation in pubs and other public places when he first arrived in the UK. He was one of the men accompanying Malcolm X on Marshall Street, in February 1965. The walk was an act of defiance in the face of local National Front supporters, and the deliberately racist housing policy set up by the group of Conservative councillors running the area.
Malcolm X visited the UK because of Claudia Jones, who organised the first ever Notting Hill Carnival in 1959 in response to the riots the previous year. Harold Wilson became Prime Minister and the Race Relations Act was passed in 1965, but Avtar Singh Jouhl rightly warns against complacency, “the forces of xenophobia, and the influences of countries old imperialism, persist just as strongly today as ever. Their focus may have shifted (to East European migrants and refuges from Syria and Libya), but they remain closer to home than you think.”
How often does a peaceful protest of disparate demonstrators protesting against a new law turn ugly? Courttia Newland describes the fate of a young couple in love, caught up in the Poll Tax riots of 1990. “A scream. It got louder, the pressure of the crush stronger, people crying in real terrified fear, released as uniforms appeared on all sides. Truncheons swung. The mute thud of contact, grunts of officers. Maxi shouted, only he couldn’t make out the words.” The initial conflict and confrontation with the police escalates into an attack on property. The police legitimise confrontation as self-defence, and repression as retaliation.
The refusal to introduce new laws to protect the marginalised
The Women’s Rights movement
Michelle Green’s story about a suffragette on hunger strike in prison in order to obtain ‘Votes for Women’, describes her being force fed with a clamp and rubber tube, which is what Silvia Pankhurst endured in 1913. “Six nurses and the doctor in his hat, and when they hold me down I tense every muscle, push against it. I clench my jaw just so, and the doctor runs the clamp back and forth, its teeth on my teeth, searching for gaps. This is when I must be most fully alert, all my focus on keeping my jaw set for as long as I can.”
The narrative of women fighting for their rights is continued in Maggie Gee’s story which is inspired by the office-cleaners’ strike in 1972, and the women’s liberation movement which “set up women’s centres, feminist law centres, Women’s Aid (for protection from domestic violence).”
Anna, a poet and a single mother, is back home again, living with her ageing, activist mother. She works as a cleaner. Trump is running to be President: both women shout at the TV. Anna’s Russian émigré employer, a left-leaning former academic and writer, is researching the story of “May Hobbs, a former cleaner, blacklisted by employers for urging cleaners to join a union.” It turns out that Anna’s mother and her employer have more in common than that which divides.
The Black Power movement
Rivers of Blood: Stories in Two Voices by David Constantine, and the Afterword by his brother Prof. Stephen Constantine represent the crux of the matter – for me anyway in these Brexitish times. The May Day March in Oxford in 1968 was a protest against Enoch Powell’s notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, delivered in Birmingham a month before and widely publicised in national newspapers.
Alice Mapenda and Harry Clayton remember the demo as though in a radio play for two voices. “We’re the living emblem of the beginnings of the makings of a fair society – the Education Act, the Labour government, the NHS, the welfare state, the chance for all our citizens to realise themselves – then, after 1979, the counterrevolution, the systematic rolling of it back, to the state we are in now. That’s one way of looking at our social selves. Another is blood – rivers, lakes, seas, oceans of blood – the inescapable, all pervasive knowledge of the shedding of so much blood: the opening of the camps, Belsen and Auschwitz . . .”
Jacob Ross’ story focuses around a doctor working in a hospital which takes in the victims of the New Cross Fire of 1981. The poignancy of 13 lives lost in a fire at a birthday celebration – caused very probably because of a fire bomb chucked through the window of the house – resulted in boiling unrest in the face of local indifference. The victims were turned into perpetrators by police smears and cover up. Reggae anthems were written, and Menelik Shabazz made the film Blood Ah Go Run recording the ‘Black People’s Day of Action’ march.
Ross makes a clear connection between the New Cross Fire and the Brixton riots of the 1980s, which “were not random eruptions of primitive violence in a civilised world. Rather they were responses to constant racist experiences in which the police played a pivotal role. As the Institute of Race Relations concluded in their submission to the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure in 1979: ‘to put it at its least, the failure of the police to protect the black community leaves it exposed to racist violence. At its worst police practice reinforces that violence’.”
“Maybe I was bisexual. Maybe I was a transvestite, and that made me gay, I didn’t know. I just didn’t like being a guy, and thought someone there might understand . . .” Juliet Jacques story is about a student who joins the Gay & Lesbian Society at Freshers’ Week and gets caught up in the Clause 28 protest, “Ian McKellen had come out in response to the Bill, we were informed to rapturous cheers, and he probably wouldn’t be the last.” It reminded me of how much positive attitude adjustment there has been since the 1980s.
The threat of new industrial technologies and modernity
The last great outbreak of Luddite machine-breaking occurred in Leicestershire in 1816. Dr. Katrina Navickas writes in her Afterword that: The Loughborough Luddite attack and the Pentrich Rising might be among the less well known events covered in this anthology, and perhaps also feel somewhat removed from our own experience and contemporary protests in today’s post-industrial, post-truth Britain. But Hedgecock’s portrayal of machinations in secret spaces in the East Midlands in 1816-17 highlights three major features that resonate with current issues: first, the ‘precariat’ and unrepresented; second, government attitudes to protest; and third, privacy and surveillance.”
The environment is often under threat from government initiatives in the name of modernity. Flooding valleys to create reservoirs is common practice. (A section of the Yangtze River in China was dammed in the early 2000s to create a 410-mile-long reservoir, creating major problems.) The flooding of the Welsh valley of Tryweryn to provide water for Liverpool and Wirral, in 1965, caused great dissent and distress. “Eight hundred acres, twelve farms, one post office, one school, one chapel and a cemetery were emptied out so the valley could be filled with water,” writes Francesca Rhydderch. Her mother becomes the poster girl for the Welsh Language Society movement fighting to preserve the Welsh language.
Unwanted military escalation
Kate Clanchy’s The Turd Tree is the most painful story of all in this collection. Melissa goes on the anti-Iraq war demo in 2003 and takes baby Lennie with her, in a push chair. Luke “had walked out and gone to live in a Hackney squat which he called a commune,” but the pair arrange to meet at the march. “It was patheticness, not politics, that had brought her now to another frozen island, a narrow raised bed of roots under the third tree from the Achilles Way entrance to Hyde Park in the middle of the largest crowd she had ever seen or imagined.”
As Prof. Laleh Khalili writes in her Afterword, “A great perfidy lies at the core of the story, the Janus-faced betrayal embodied in the wrenching personal rupture between Melissa and Luke, and the much more consequential global betrayal of the political class ignoring the public demonstrations on that day; the parliamentary pusillanimity and ultimately the sanguinary tragedy which was the invasion and its aftermath.”
Protest! Stories of Resistance is an illuminating and essential read. The perfect inter-generational birthday or Christmas present, it joins up the dots and gives context, which is invariably missing from disdainful, market-led Media narratives, and rote-learning history ordained by successive governments. Buy it and read it!
Copyright © Georgia de Chamberet, BookBlast Ltd, London.
Protest! Stories of Resistance edited by Ra Page | Comma Press, July 2017, 460pp | ISBN 978 190558737