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.