The past week or so has seen Extinction Rebellion organise massive climate protests in as many as 60 cities worldwide. On 11 October in London’s Trafalgar Square, a group within the movement staged an event featuring Simon Schama, Ali Smith, Naomi Alderman, Helen Simpson, Susie Orbach, AL Kennedy, Paul Farley and Daljit Nagra, among others.
We caught up via email with one of the organisers of Writer’s Rebel, the novelist and academic James Miller, to find out more. The interview contains links to further information. These were added by us.
How did Writers Rebel come about?
It started with a tweet from Monique Roffey saying she thought writers should do more to address the climate crisis in their work. My second novel, Sunshine State was a cli-fi novel (and largely ignored/ dismissed as unrealistic at the time) so this resonated with me. A few of us got together – initial conversations didn’t lead much beyond slightly dull discussions of doing something safe and academic, like a conference or whatever. Another founding member, Liz Jensen, said her son was heavily involved in XR and from him we met writers and XR activists Jessica Townsend and Roc Sandford who were separately thinking of beginning a writers project within XR. We all formed an organising circle and Cath Drake came on board at that point and Chloe Aridjis a little later.
Via Jessica we were able to get a slot in Trafalgar Square/ Burning Earth stage from XR and we realised this would be the most amazing place to stage a literary event. However on the day, were dismayed to find that the police had overnight taken away the stage and the sound system had been removed to prevent it being confiscated so Jessica had to work her XR network hard to make sure there was any event at all!
Does Writers Rebel have any specific aims in addition to those of the wider Extinction Rebellion movement?
At the moment we’re all exhausted and reeling from the success of our event and have yet to have a meaningful discussion about our wider aims. However, we are thinking about how we might draw up a manifesto for writers engaged in telling the truth about the climate crisis. Speaking personally, I believe writers have an ethical duty to engage with these issues: for me, this means our work must explore the impact of the crisis and looming ecocide, whether implicitly or explicitly – it’s not something we can ignore any longer. Writing about the weather can never ‘just’ be about the weather. I also feel that writers with a public platform now have a duty to speak out, to do what they can to spread the word and influence public opinion – we need to put intense pressure on our politicians to impose the structural changes necessary for our survival.
What was the response to the event in Trafalgar Square?
The response has been incredible. There were hundreds, maybe thousands in the crowd and the event when viral on social media – and we’ve had messages or tweets of support from so many great writers: Margaret Atwood, Amitav Gosh, Irvine Welsh, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Kamila Shamsie, Nick Laird… Zadie Smith recorded a beautiful reading for us as she couldn’t be there in person. We’ve had hundreds and hundreds of new followers – I think for many concerned people in the industry, not just writers but publishers, agents, booksellers, readers, this was something they had been waiting to see. Plus, of course, the incredible generosity and passion of our performers – all of whom gave their time, talent and energy to make the event (conducted in the chaos of an on-going illegal protest, surrounded by police, with the audience engaged in non-violent protest by blocking the word) something quite unique.
What’s next for Writers Rebel?
Again, this is something we as a group need to discuss. We are hoping we will be able to hold more events and continue to engage with BAME and other voices that have perhaps been a little neglected or excluded from some aspects of XR. Again, speaking personally, I don’t see us as having any real ‘ownership’ of Writers Rebel – rather I hope we can develop it as a platform for other writers around the world to create their own events. Again, in my personal opinion, if you’re a writer an you’re worried about climate change and your work engages, in some way, with the issue, you are a Rebel Writer.
How can people get involved with the Extinction Rebellion movement?
Join your local group. If there isn’t one, set it up yourself. All the tools you need are on-line, you just have to agree with the fundamental principles. It’s a decentralised organisation made up of semi-autonomous groups unified by a common objective – it’s up to the concerned individuals to act.
You can find out more about Writers Rebel on Twitter here.
It might appear a little quiet around these parts, but in fact we have been busy with several projects behind the scenes. The first of these to go public is a collaboration between Structo and the Amsterdam-based risograph publisher and bookbinder Otherwhere. It’s a collection of short stories called Yarn.
Featuring stories by Ethan Chapman, Jude Cook, Uschi Gatward, Paula Hunter, Siemen Ingelse, Avril Joy, Josh Weeks and Eley Williams, Yarn is not your typical book. Otherwhere love playing with form, and the collection takes the form of seven hand-bound cahier booklets and one concertina.
The collection runs to 200 pages, and is available now in a limted, numbered edition from the Otherwhere website. We couldn’t be more delighted with the final result—our thanks to Kay Brugmans at Otherwhere for such an enjoyable collaboration.
This isn’t the first time Structo authors have appeared in Otherwhere books: Travis Dahlke’s story ‘Hollow as Legs’ was released by the studio a couple of years ago. It’s another stunning piece of work and it seems that a few copies of this title are also still available on the Otherwhere site.
Lent Is just around the corner and Structo is hosting its fifth Lenten Psalms Contest.
The basics: pick a psalm and translate/rework/rewrite/
You don’t have to be religious or an expert in dead languages – just dive deep into this timeless poetry. We’ve had a variety of submissions over the years from people with creeds from Catholic to agnostic, atheist to Hmong traditionalist, and all sorts in-between. The contest’s goal is to give space for reflect and writing. You can previous winning psalm ‘Kestrels’ by Cristina Baptista and psalms by Christine Darragh and Abigail Carroll online in Issue 16.
You can enter the contest here. Submissions are open until Easter Sunday (that’s Sunday 21st of April, at midnight UK time). All entries will be considered for publication in the magazine. The winning psalmist will receive $200 and a subscription to Structo. Entries will be judged by panel on originality, musicality, accuracy (to the psalm’s spirit), and aesthetic.
What’s immediately unexpected about For Two Thousand Years is the outlook of its protagonist. As a Jewish diarist living in 1920s Romania, attending a university where anti-Semitic violence is on the rise, we might reasonably imagine him to be both scared and scathing of his aggressors. But, contrary to our expectations, instead of condemning the anti-Semites, the narrator takes issue with their victims. He is critical of the way that certain Jews wear their injuries with pride and how easily they adopt the role of martyr to the cause of Zionism. He sees these things as evidence of a vanity he doesn’t want to be guilty of himself.
In a strange way, this early attitude appears to undercut anti-Semitism by showing us that being Jewish (or, by extrapolation, Muslim, British, female, etc.) does not mean that you are pre-packaged with certain values, aspirations or characteristics; that you are also an individual with your own thoughts, responses and reactions. Later in the book, when we become mired in some truly depressing determinist philosophy, we’ll harken back with fondness to that early chink of redemptive light.
In the meantime, we’re left to navigate a novel that seems very confused about what its author wished it to be. There’s a lot of space given over to speeches by the revolutionaries and philosophers that the narrator meets along the way, suggesting that it is primarily a book of ideas. Expect, for example, to read a transcription of a lecture on the vindication of physiocratic economics. And it’s possible (after looking up what physiocratic economics is) to find that lecture quite compelling. Alongside these radical lecturers there are Marxists, Zionists, anti-Semites (plenty of them). Each get a turn to speak their mind. The author’s decision to let this polyphony of voices declaim shows incredible tolerance and bravery — a lack of judgement which is all the more impressive when we witness the intolerance that the narrator experiences.
Whilst these views make for interesting reading and help to build up a picture of the ideological cauldron bubbling away in inter-war Romania, the author’s somewhat inexplicable attempts at character driven, plot-based fiction are much less engaging. We’re introduced to — among other devices — a romance subplot. Which might be forgiven, if it wasn’t so clear that more conventional fiction really doesn’t seem to be Sebastian’s forte. There are torturous pages in which his diarist reports on the most uninteresting of things. Here’s a typical description from this part of the book:
The offices of Ralph T. Rice in Boulevard Haussmann are barely a modest agency compared to the head offices in Piata Rosetti in Bucharest. A few rooms, some desks, a small archive in the process of being organised. I don’t know exactly what old Ralph wants to set up here: a simple sales office or a public company. It’s up to him to decide whether or not we get working on the Le Havre project. (I’d prefer Dieppe, however, which seems to me more suitable for commerce, and from the construction standpoint is immeasurably more open and spacious. I’ve sent a number of plans to the master, who’ll decide.) He may in the end do nothing. It’s not the moment for heavy investment in a business that…
It goes on, making you feel as if you’ve accidentally been forwarded a not very exciting intra-office email from a company you’re really glad you don’t work for. Unfortunately, it’s this kind of writing that takes up a large part of the book.
Whenever my opinion of a book starts to slide toward the negative, I like to read other reviews to see if it’s just me not quite getting something. Because I take no pleasure in giving a bad review. I’d rather gush about something than do a hatchet job on it, because good books need shouting about whereas bad books will hopefully just drop off the radar of their own accord. (I don’t, by the way, think that dropping off the radar should or will be the fate of For Two Thousand Years.) Most reviews I found are positive. The Guardian proclaim it “one of the foremost chronicles of the rise of Nazism in Europe.” John Banville, for The New York Review of Books, is similarly complementary. But what’s interesting is that both reviews pull in Sebastian’s other book (an actual — as opposed to fictionalised — journal for the years 1935 – 1944) and a lot of supplementary detail about Sebastian’s life and the people on which his characters are based. Very little space is given to the book itself, and even less is spent treating the book as literature. (In his defence, John Banville was also a little confused by the change in tone to a more plot-heavy form of fiction. He writes: “it is as if Sebastian has set himself to write a tale in the manner of Somerset Maugham, with a light Proustian glaze and a dash of Scott Fitzgerald bitters.” Whatever that means.) It’s of course difficult to deny that the book is important as an historical artefact, especially when read in conjunction with other sources, but that doesn’t make it a good novel. And it calls itself a novel, so we must judge it on those terms.
Here’s where it gets interesting. The book is saved by its last 15 pages. The narrator has just learned that his mentor in architecture (a major inspirational figure for the protagonist) is actually an anti-Semite. At this point, the book switches abruptly back to its “novel of ideas” strong-suit. Any attempt at description is abandoned; we’re just left with the speakers shoving big blocks of text at each other. If there were space, I’d quote these fifteen pages in full. As it is I’ll just have to settle for quoting extensively. This is the part of the book which speaks across the decades directly to us, and to our own historical moment. Think back to any time you’ve had an argument with someone whose opening gambit was “I’m not racist, but…” Then consider the following:
Let’s be clear. I’m not anti-Semitic. I’ve told you that before and abide by that. But I’m Romanian. And, all that is opposed to me as a Romanian I regard as dangerous. There is a corrosive Jewish spirit.
Exchange, if you like, the instances of “Semitic” and “Jewish” with “European”, and “Romanian” with “British.” Try it with “black people” and “American.”
Then try to think of the times that you’ve despaired at people who, regardless of the consequences, want to stick two fingers up at the system. Who want to shake things up, no matter the cost. People who think:
We need a generation of men who have had enough of always being intelligent. A small band of men capable of throwing caution to the wind.
People, so dissatisfied with the current system, that they would say something like:
If the revolution demands a pogrom, then give it a pogrom.
(I remember going to school the day after 9/11, talking to some left-wing friends and finding out that they’d actually celebrated the loss of almost 3,000 innocent lives. After watching the second plane hit, they headed out to their garage, put Rage Against the Machine on at full volume, moshed and chanted ‘Death to America.’)
What’s worrying here is that these racist apologias, though far away in time, sound terribly familiar to us. They are simply variations on a theme. So we’re left with this horrible feeling that we’re stuck in a series of patterns repeating themselves. And what becomes clear when reading the last 15 pages of For Two Thousand Years is that, if this is “one of the foremost chronicles of the rise of Nazism in Europe” then what it unfortunately isn’t is any sort of textbook for ensuring we avoid that situation recurring.
For starters, a kind of pathology of racism seems impossible. The diarist writes
It is extremely difficult to follow the progressive hardening of enmity from one day to the next. Suddenly you find yourself surrounded on all sides, and have no idea how or when it happened.
But, much worse than that, is the diarist’s (and, we presume, Sebastian’s) belief that the anti-Semitism he finds himself subject to is a fundamental aspect of existence:
The Jew has a metaphysical obligation to be detested. That’s his role in the world. Why? I don’t know. His curse, his fate. His problem, if you like.
With sentences like that, it’s little wonder that the author was accused of being anti-Semitic upon the book’s publication.
Taking a moment to parse these lines reveals a truly depressing view of the possibility for progress with regards to race relations. By ‘metaphysical’, I take Sebastian to mean a state of affairs that holds true regardless of time or locality. It is absolutely essential to a Jew’s nature, he is saying, for a Jew to be detested. Anti-Semitism is not local, not dependent upon specific economic or religious conditions; it is universal and eternal. Because of this, ‘it is futile to argue back’ at anyone who claims to have reasons for their anti-Semitism. As with the narrator’s mentor, anti-Semitism precedes reasoning.
Whilst most of the rest of the book has very little impact, the incredible heft of this final section can’t be denied. What are we supposed to do with such an outlook? If anti-Semitism is metaphysical, then how can it be stopped? Sebastian’s advice for Jews doesn’t provide much in the way of conventional comfort. He suggests a
…reintegration with nature, with the awareness that life goes on after all these individual deaths, they too being part of life, just as the falling leaf is a fact if life for the tree, or the death of the tree to the forest, or the death of the forest for the vegetation of the Earth.
This was written in 1934, seven years before the beginning of the Holocaust. That subsequent horror renders this kind of peaceful resignation almost perverse. Personally, Sebastian feels
I will never cease to be a Jew, of course…It’s a fact…But nor will I, in the same way, ever cease to be from the lands of the Danube. This too is a fact. Whether someone recognizes me as such or not is their business. Their business entirely.
The onus, then, if we’re not Jewish, would seem to be on us. It’s our business how we view Jewish people, and, by extension, any other race. Does this mean that we have some sort of agency? I’m not a philosopher, and so I don’t have the requisite skills to argue against Sebastian’s metaphysical proposition. His claim also has two thousand years’ worth of evidence to back it up.
I’m still wrangling with this problem. It kept me awake last night. There’s something (hopefully) within most of us that balks at such a depressing determinism, and perhaps it’s that refusal to believe that nothing can be done which leaves open the possibility that something can be done? Or is this just wishful thinking? Somehow I feel that if I keep combing through these final pages, I can find the holes in Sebastian’s argument.
For Two Thousand Years / Mihail Sebastian, translated from the Romanian by Philip Ó Ceallaigh/ Other Press / 12 Sep 2017 (Paperback)
Adam Ley-Lange is a short story writer who lives in Bath. He holds an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and has recently completed his first short story collection.
The editors of Into English, Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer, take a decentralized approach to translation. The anthology contains twenty-five poems from a range of languages and historical periods, most by poets canonical to an admittedly-Eurocentric take on world literature: Sappho, Rilke, Baudelaire, Lorca, and Mallarmé all make appearances. Yet neither Collins nor Prufer selects (let alone translates) any of the poems. Rather, each poem is selected by a sub-editor of sorts who assembles not just an original and its translation, but an original and three translations, each by a different translator, and follows these translations with a commentary that triangulates their differences, critiquing and praising them at turns as they succeed or fail to convey the nuance of the original.
This format creates a textual space that is open like a discussion, whose returns are limited only by the interests and questions brought to it. As an amateur translator curious about the process of professionals, I learned a lot from the practical advice latent in the commentators’ analyses. For instance, George Kalogeris, while discussing the opening line of C.P. Cavafy’s ‘The Horses of Achilles’ (“But when they saw that Patroklos was dead”), notes that “Part of Cavafy’s genius… is not using the word ‘corpse,’ as if that term had yet to enter the immortal horses’ vocabulary, at least not while the body is still warm” (66). Embarrassing as it is to admit, it had only crossed my mind to worry about translating the meaning of the words an author had chosen, not the meaning of those words highlighted by the shadow-network of synonyms that might have informed the choice but not themselves been chosen. But as Kalogeris implies, careful translation requires such intimate knowledge of a language. I left Into English with a list of insights like these, offhand comments that revealed depths of questions I had only begun to ask about the ethics and responsibilities of translation.
Alternatively, this format allowed me, as a reader who enjoys questioning reactions to literary texts, to explore word-by-word what makes one translation of a poem more effective than another.
Case in point: the insights yielded by comparing a single word in the first few lines of Giacomo Leopardi’s ‘L’Infinito,’ as it appears in the Italian and two English translations (by Kenneth Rexroth and Jonathan Galassi, respectively):
Sempre caro mi fu quest’ermo colle,
E questa siepe, che da tanta parte
Dell’ultimo orizzonte il guardo esclude.
This lonely hill has always
Been dear to me, and this thicket
Which shuts out most of the final
Horizon from view.
This lonely hill was always dear to me,
and this hedgerow, which cuts off the view
of so much of the last horizon.
As Susan Stewart notes in her commentary, Galassi’s hedgerow is closer to the nineteenth-century sense of siepe than Rexroth’s thicket. “Had Leopardi wanted to write about thickets,” she claims, “he would have chosen boschetto” (45). Knowing neither Italian nor the intricacies of nineteenth-century shrubbery, I trust Stewart is right—historically and semantically. Poetically, however, I wonder. When I read Rexroth’s version, I do not experience thicket as semantic lack, but rather as sonic plenitude. Its unvoiced “th” modulates the voiced “th” of the repeated “thises,” which in turn echo the vocalizations in “always,” “Horizon,” and “view.” Together, these establish a baseline “drone” that persists throughout the poem, an emptiness sounding with the overwhelming infinite that the speaker ultimately “drowns in.”
Does this make Rexroth’s translation “better” than Galassi’s? Who knows. I do know, however, that none of the preceding would have taken place had Into English been a more traditional anthology or adhered to a more limited editorial philosophy. By providing readers with the raw materials of comparative analysis, Into English permits (and in fact, encourages) these kinds of discoveries with every poem it includes. In this, Into English embodies the vibrancy of the humanities classroom, and is a valuable resource for anyone committed to its mission.
Into English: Poems, Translations, Commentaries / Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer (Editors) / Greywolf Press / 7 Nov. 2017 (Paperback)
William Braun lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is a graduate of the Master’s program in English at the University of St. Thomas. His translations have appeared in Exchanges: Journal of Literary Translation and Ezra: An Online Journal of Translation, and his book reviews in Rain Taxi and Structo.
The introduction to this collection of essays exploring what it means to be, or have been, working class begins with the question I also began with: Who exactly is working class these days?
Are you still working class if you’ve been to university? If you have a good job? If you studied the arts or, more specifically for this collection, English or creative writing? Or, as Nathan Connelly – the book’s editor and founder of its publishing house, Dead Ink – puts it: ‘Is it something as simple as Costa coffee and avocados for lunch that makes you middle class?’
Many ‘soft traits’ of working-classness are highlighted in Know Your Place (a beautiful optical illusion of a title, which can be read either in the tone of a pointed authoritarian finger or that of a determined fist held tightly over a heart). These traits – the often overlooked psychological fallout of working-class childhoods – if not explicit in the essays, are humming along in the background: doubt, unworthiness, a feeling of not-belonging in later life.
It’s a book that, if you identify as working class, unrelentingly resonates. Undefinable notions you might have had about your past, your character, the world around you, are all here in this army of voices. As I turned the pages, my inner monologue was repeatedly drumming its inner fist on my inner table, saying, yes, that’s it, that is exactly right.
The essays in this collection are personal, lyrical and, occasionally, highly narrative: life histories and anti-apologies for the hesitations of former selves. There is an accessible, un-academic feel to the book; no frills, just the brutal truth. Educated but genuine. As Connelly states, ‘most of everybody’s life is about waking up, going about your day and then going to sleep again. And that too is political.’ It feels political. What may normally be dismissed as anecdote, or reserved for asides to close friends are here given wider context and audience. Confessions such as Laura Waddell’s, ‘For many years, I’d eat plain pasta with margarine and salt, suspicious of sauces whose herbed depths seemed mysterious and not for the likes of me,’ are unlikely to be offloaded in a job interview or executive meeting.
Many of the writers speak of a necessity to hide one’s roots, to ‘smooth out one’s words’, elongate vowels, or (as in Sian Norris’ essay) simply sit-through an awkward silence as someone assumes the only reason you’re a writer is because your father is an academic. The 23 essays contained herein are all manifestations of the same cultural violence – a belittling, a silencing – and often one that is further amplified by other forms of exclusion from the dominant discourse, be that race, gender, sexuality, immigrant heritage, Northernness.
There are some wonderful individual moments in this book. Kit de Waal tells of watching BBC weather as a teenager: ‘after the presenter had covered the cold in Lancashire and the rain in Kent he smiled and pointed at Switzerland. “At least we’ll have some snow on the slopes for half-term.”’ Or, in Waddell’s The Pleasure Button, where she says, ‘Comedians sometimes laugh at the unsophistication of food in Glasgow… what they are really laughing at are the poor.’ Some of these sentences hit like a punch in the gut, like a stomach in turbulence rising to the pit of a throat. And then you realise it is everywhere – all of the time. Your class is written all over you like a shaved eyebrow after one-too-many beers on a wild night out.
From Sylvia Arthur’s ‘downplaying everything about myself, from the way I spoke to what I read, [whereas] at UCL, by contrast, everything was amplified – accents, achievements, aspirations,’’ to Ben Gwalchmai’s ‘my own family wanted me to be a good student but later feared that I’d “swallowed a dictionary,”’ this cast-outness of the educated working class is what, to me, this collection highlights the most. With the authors having self-identified as working class (and let that phrase feel as awkward as it is), it is a specific type of story we find again and again in these pages, not quite rags to riches, more rags to the world of media or academia to not having any idea if you’re wearing or saying the right thing in a room full of strangers who might turn on you at a moment’s notice if you drop a T or admit to having never heard anyone say hors d’oeuvres out loud.
These are lives lived in battle, balancing a wealth of contradictions (Lee Rourke: ‘we are outsiders looking in on ourselves looking out’), trying to ‘get ahead’ but not realising the potential loss of access to your past that this social mobility also contains. I was at a beer festival in Lancashire once and I remember arguing with the bar tender for a good fifteen minutes trying to convince him that this is where I grew up, this is where I was born. Often when you leave, you are not allowed back in. Education can be a one-way process. And, unfortunately, as these essays make obvious, once outside there are still plenty of other closed doors to navigate.
That being said, this collection is also a celebration (of heritage, of community, of place). A declaration of proud ownership of these multiple identities. An ability to adapt, to traverse worlds, to be one thing and at the same time another. To be open to so many experiences that others might dismiss (see Gwalchmai’s Where There’s Shit, There’s Gold). To both belong and not-belong. This inbetweenness is what makes us interesting; the ability to change masks, to take people by surprise.
This is an important book, but it feels like this is only the tip of the conversation. It makes me want to join in, to talk back, to sing with the chorus. I imagine an Everyday Sexism-style website, ‘Working Class Confessions’ where we share those difficult moments. I’ll offer one of my own because it is too hard not to (this book feels like a party to which I am invited): age 17, working as a cashier in a supermarket, green vegetable coming at me on the conveyor belt. I had to ask the well-dressed lady before me if it was a cabbage or a lettuce before I could scan it in. Working-class children are playing catch-up before they even know they’re competing.
And I’ll end with the hopeful and rallying call of Durre Shahwar Mughal: ‘I see my presence in certain spaces as a necessary disruption.’
Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class / Nathan Connolly (Editor) / Dead Ink / 15 Sept. 2017 (Paperback)
Lydia Unsworth’s fiction and poetry has appeared in Ambit, Pank, KillAuthor, Tears in the Fence, Banshee, The Forge, Rainy City Stories, Sentence: Journal of Prose Poetics, etc. Her debut collection of poetry, Certain Manoeuvres, is available from Knives Forks & Spoons Press. Recent winner of the 2018 Erbacce poetry prize, her second collection, Nostalgia for Bodies, is forthcoming from Erbacce Press. Based in Manchester / Amsterdam. Twitter: @lydiowanie
Today’s word is from Finnish and comes to us via travel and Nordic enthusiast Max Savage. Kalsarikänni (noun) the act of getting drunk in your underwear at home. This oddly specific yet relatable term is illustrated by Winnipeg based artist and illustrator Matea Radic. You can find more of her work at her website.
This new edition of Untranslatable, an irregular blog series of artists’ illustrations of untranslatable words, features the Faroese word Andøva, meaning ‘to keep a boat in place by rowing against the wind or currents’.
The word comes from our associate editor Matthew Landrum. He writes, “this word was part of a grammar example in Faroese: A Language Course for Beginners. It captures how much the Faroese are linked to the sea. Rowing competitions between towns are still big news there. I love the concept of action producing a negation.” Our multi-media art piece for the word comes from Lancaster based artist Emmy Ingle. You can see more of her work at www.emmyingle.com.
In the words of Laleh Khalili, whose essay on the Anti-Iraq War protest of 2003 ends this new anthology of protest writing from Comma Press, dissent often takes the form of a ‘joyous, raucous “no”’. This was the cry – voiced or unvoiced – of all those who demonstrated on that day, one which echoed ‘throughout London … and so many other cities of the world’. It also echoes through seven centuries of sedition, petition, and civil disobedience, from the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, to the recent ‘live-in’ protests of Greenham Common and Occupy, as well as the more feral and combustible 2011 London riots, and anti-austerity protests. While these last three aren’t covered in this timely, rigorous, inspiring book, most of the major protests since the fourteenth century (and a few less well known) are explored in a chronological series of short stories, each followed by an erudite contextual piece from an academic or an eyewitness. It’s an organising principle that pays dividends, providing an effective panoptic view of the time-honoured tradition of social revolt in Britain over many hundreds of years.
The challenge, of course, for the writer of fiction, is to add something to the historical record, to evoke the times and the dilemmas of its participants. Most of the twenty authors here do just that. Sara Maitland memorably describes the Peasants’ Revolt as ‘hot, powerful, strong … ripping and breaking and singing and laughing’; and in Holly Pester’s take on the Midland Uprising of 1607, which opposed enclosure, children are told to ‘Invent justices … Be like the worms in the soil. Be in revolt with every bit of your fleshy bodies’. Like many of the tales, Pester’s story plucks a single, semi-forgotten name from history and dramatises the conflict around them to vivid effect. Laura Hird’s long story about the Scottish Insurrection of 1820 focuses on the young radical Andrew White, while never losing sight of the era and its political context, with mention of both Peterloo and the Cato Street conspiracy in the first pages. The cruel pragmatism of the land clearances are summed up by the line ‘Sheep are more profitable use for Laird Munro’s land, allowing him more to spend on his art collection’.
Elsewhere, entirely fictional figures are used to bring to life protests both well-known and obscure. The suffragette protagonist of Michelle Green’s story, when asked if she’s preparing for martyrdom, replies pragmatically: ‘The dead can’t fight.’ Here the notorious force-feeding of incarcerated suffragettes in Holloway Prison is given lyrical expression by Whitman’s line, ‘Your very flesh shall be a great poem’. In the essay that follows by Elizabeth Crawford, we learn that ‘Whitman’s words and philosophy had been absorbed from a young age by those brought up in radical households … cherished by mill girls and middle-class suffragettes alike’. Kit De Waal’s story about a fictional black widower, Alfonse Maynard, who lived through the Smethwick colour bar of the mid-60s while courting a white woman, is full of heart, close observation, and quiet anger. With its sly title, ‘Exterior Paint’ (alluding to how the colour of one’s skin dictates everything), the racist, segregated pubs of the1960s Midlands are seen as the beginning of a slippery slope unless intolerance is nipped in the bud: ‘It could get like America with the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, segregation, assassinations’. Again, the illuminating essay that follows by Avtar Singh Jouhl explains how the now unthinkable segregation in bars and restaurants prior to the 1965 Race Relations Act only came about because of lobbying by anti-racist organisations, and the bravery of men like Alfonse. Jouhl also links the Smethwick racists to the rhetoric of last year’s EU Referendum: ‘Writing this in 2016, in the aftermath of the Brexit vote … I can’t help but feel a shudder of familiarity, recollecting the atmosphere in 1964 and 1965’.
Two more stories that explore the great explosion of 60s activism, by Alexei Sayle and David Constantine, vividly take us into the heart of the conflict and the ideological dilemmas of those taking part. Sayle’s story takes place on a journey to the Anti-Vietnam War Demo in Grosvenor Square in 1968, comically dramatising the argument between non-violent and violent struggle as an activists’ van travels towards London. The demo itself, which ended in violent intervention by the police, and its repercussions for free assembly and dissent, are examined by Russ Hickman, who was there. ‘I had glimpsed behind the curtain of respectability that screens us from the workings of the state when it is under threat. A sight not easily forgotten’. David Constantine also takes a glimpse behind this curtain in a story that addresses the Oxford May Day March of 1968, following Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech. Taking the form of a duologue, a fragmented picture of the day’s events emerge. Its final image of children crossing Oxford’s Cowley Road is a celebration of diversity that, as David’s brother Stephen Constantine notes in his essay, is a scene ‘I defy anyone not to be moved by’. Certainly, multiculturalism was put under fire as never before by ideologues such as Powell, and he goes on to note that the Race Relations Act of 1971 only came into force in 1973, ‘when, by coincidence, the UK joined the European Economic Community’. Like other commentators in Protest, he can only stand astonished at how the clock is being turned back by Brexit, and the ‘anti-immigrant feeling and racial abuse whipped up by the lies and rhetoric of some of the anti-EU Leave campaigners … my brother’s inspirational image remains as yet an aspiration’.
While some of the stories feel slightly unbalanced by the imperative to provide exciting incidents, rather than a quieter, more subtle take on events, the commentaries that follow are never less than fascinating. In Michael Randle’s afterword following Stuart Evers’ story about the Aldermaston Marches we learn about the formation of CND, and how the famous symbol came about: ‘semaphore positions for N (Nuclear) and D (Disarmament), enclosed in a circle’. Randle, too, is pessimistic about the future, post-Brexit, feeling the need for direct action is more urgent than ever in the 21st century:
‘Most clearly, however, the Aldermaston marches, and anti-nuclear movement … contributed an important new element to the long tradition of dissent and resistance in this country as recorded in this volume by combining radical direct action with a commitment to maintaining a non-violent spirit and discipline. In the age of Trump, Putin and Brexit, and with the resurgence of right wing populism across Europe, that commitment and technique may again be urgently required’.
Indeed, this sentiment more that justifies the existence of a book such as Protest, especially when contemporary literary fiction seems to be abdicating the responsibility of confronting what the Chinese proverb calls ‘interesting times’. Adam Gopnick, in a recent essay commenting on Updike and Roth, claims they both ‘did what real writers ought to do – bear witness … rather than pretend it hasn’t happened’. This anthology most certainly bears witness, and while one might miss a discussion of how, say, overseas insurrections such as the American and French Revolutions had a direct impact on British radicalism (they radicalised Wordsworth, for one), sticking to purely British struggles, and keeping to a chronological timeline, disciplines and focuses a book that might have become dissipated by too broad a scope. By the time we get to the 70s, 80s and 90s, the reader begins to see how the successes (and even the failures) of previous protest movements informed those that come later. For instance, the Night Cleaners’ Strike of 1972 that Maggie Gee tackles in her story would be hard to imagine without the victories gained by the Suffragettes. The same goes for Jacob Ross’s take on the Brixton Riots, whose flashpoint was the New Cross Fire (Thirteen dead and nothing said, blood ah go run in ‘81 unless justice come, as a contemporary slogan ran). While the Smethwick protest was non-violent, by the 80s, Britain’s black population had had enough. Likewise, Martyn Bedford’s story about the miners’ strike recalls the capitalist-worker struggles of the 1840s and 50s, dramatised by the social problem novels of Dickens and Gaskell. In Joanna Quinn’s Greenham Common tale, and in the essay that follows, both writers illustrate how ‘creative, symbolic, supportive acts of disobedience’, or NVDA – Non Violent Direct Action – ‘empowered women, from all classes, races, sexualities and religions’. They also paved the way for later live-in protests by Greenpeace, and the Occupy movement. Finally, Courttia Newland’s compelling story about the Poll Tax Riots, one of the last in the volume, contains echoes of the Peasants’ Revolt and its outrage at an unfair financial levy placed on the worst-off in society. This provides a nice sense of circularity, as it was with Wat Tyler’s men that the volume began.
All these neat echoes and allusions don’t, however, distract us from the truth that protest is only ever ‘a joyous, raucous “no”’, and never something that can be relied upon to create enduring political change. This is perfectly expressed by the narrator of Maggie Gee’s story: ‘History. It is so hard to catch. Looking backwards, it all looks obvious, the way the workers won their rights. But at the time, everything hung in the balance’.
Protest: Stories of Resistance / Ra Page (ed.) / Comma Press / 5 April 2018 (Paperback)
Jude Cook lives in London and studied English literature at UCL. His first novel, BYRON EASY, was published by William Heinemann in February of 2013. He has written for the Guardian, the Spectator, Literary Review, New Statesman, TLS, Review 31and 3AM Magazine.His essays and short fiction have appeared in The Stockholm Review, The Tangerine, Structo, Storgy, Litro, Long Story Short and Staple magazine. In 2017, he was longlisted for the Pin Drop RA short story award.