Radical History at the Anarchist Bookfair.


By Alex (Past Tense).

Past tense, Bristol Radical History Group, and a couple of other folk organised a Radical History Area at this year’s London Anarchist bookfair, and we think it went well! Given that it was the first time we put it on, the meetings were all interesting, some were better attended than others, but all were successful we think. We will probably do it again next year… Below we have put together some brief reports on the day’s meetings… but if anyone out there has any contributions to make, how we could have done things better, positives and criticisms, suggestions for the future… we would love to hear them. and any ideas for events to put on next year… it doesn’t just have to be talks, we could do many other things too. One self-criticism I have is that I meant to draw up some contacts sheets so people could be kept in touch with future events; but ran out of time in the run-up to the day. Some more time allocated for discussions for some of the meetings would be worth considering (this is however, a perennial problem at the Bookfair – there is never enough time and people are often scarpering to either attend another meeting or go back to a stall. Or meet old mates in the pub…) Also, we know that having the main exhibition in the meeting room had some disadvantages, although it did mean that Kev and Gee’s talk could be seen in the visual context of their work. But maybe in future years we could have a slightly different arrangement… (I am planning to bargain for more space with the Bookfair Collective… wish me luck…!) One comment already in said: “The meeting space itself seemed well organised and coordinated (although finding the space in the university building complex in the first place was a bit of a problem- but we got there)… Having a specific Radical History Zone seemed to work well. Real threads and continuities became evident in the subject matters between one meeting and the next. It was convenient to be able to park yourself in one room, and let a succession of meetings and talks come to you.” (Paul). However, the same person did suggest that: “The session had plenty of enthusiasm and energy to carry on longer, but we had only been allocated one hour. (Ideally in future there would be multiple side-rooms for meetings to continue that don’t want to stop!)”

How the meetings went: 1. Solidarity: Martial Law – Capitalism in Poland, 1980-89. About 12 people attended this talk, which was very early in the day. Marcin talked about how Solidarity in Poland arose, the background of revolts in Poland over several decades, and how Soldarity’s struggles against the Polish CP/state took grassroots forms, almost anarcho-syndicalist; only to face repression and mass detentions in 1983. The arrests of many of its radical elements allowed a ‘moderate’ front to come to the fore, which later effected a deal with elements of the ‘Communist’ elite to steer Poland into the world capitalist economy – mainly by selling off Polish undustry at catastrophically low rates to western firms. thus did some people get very rich. Lech Walesa’s past as a police agent and moderating force through the 1970s were also discussed… interesting stuff.

2. Running Down Whitehall with a Black Flag Next, Di Parkin spoke about her memories of being an anarchist in the 60s and beyond. Highlights included: * Being part of the hundred or so protestors that broke away from the CND Aldermaston march to picket a government nuclear bunker exposed by ‘Spies for Peace’. * Anarchists at big London demos in the 60s (hence the title of the talk “running down Whitehall with a black flag – although as Di said, it should have been a black and red one!). This also included an account of being kettled before the term existed. * Membership of the British section of the International Workers Association (IWA) and links with Spanish exiles.

I guess there were about 15 people in the audience. There seemed to be a good range of age/gender. The questions and discussions were interesting and good natured: * Di’s social/cultural life as a 60s anarchist * Her brief deviation into Trotskyism! * Being a woman in a largely male milieu (this wasn’t really an issue “I never made the tea”). A video of a previous version of the talk is now available on the Bristol Radical History website: http://www.brh.org.uk/site/events/running-down-whitehall/

3. “Anarchist Visual Art, Then and Now” This meeting featured Gee Vaucher, legendary anarcho-punk graphic artist with Crass and with exitstencil press, active since the early eighties, and Kevin Caplicki, a member of Justseeds Artist Cooperative and DIY archivist at Interference Archive, Brooklyn, which explores the relationship between cultural production and social movements. This meeting was packed out, probably 70-80 people? Some were turned away at the door! Gee and Kevin mainly responded to audience questions about their work… For a longer report on this meeting, see the file attached to this email… This certainly seems to have been a very informative and educational meeting…. As always though, lack of time was flagged upo. As gee said afterwards: “Big trouble for me is that it wasn’t enough, as usual, just when people I beginning to get their confidence to ask a question it all dissolves and times up… What I would suggest is that you find out how the speaker wants to run their event, if it’s straight into Q&A as ours was, it would need at least two hours. I think if other speakers come with a ready made speech it’s a different matter and the hour given would probably be enough. Anyway, just a suggestion that maybe less speakers would give you bit more leeway with more time for others that might need it.”

4. Occupying is Good For your Health? – Hospital occupations in the 1970s,80s and 90s UK. Attendance – about 15-20, varied, a good smattering of health workers. Rosanne spoke about the South London Women’s Hospital occupation, 1984-5, and then Myk talked about the University College Hospital occupations of 1992-4. This was followed by Jill from the Save Lewisham, Hospital Campaign, who linked curent struggles to research she has done on the Elizabeth Garret Anderson Hospital work-in of 1976-9 (which set the tone for many later work-ins and occupations in hospitals in the 1970s and 80s). A short but interesting discussion followed, cut short sadly by lack of time, with some exchanges about current state of the NHS and workers and users horizons within it… “A good networking opportunity, I pleased to meet people from Stroud & others in discussion afterwards…” There were some interesting self-criticisms of the UCH occupiers’ expectations and analysis from Myk, “a very honest summary of the failings of their actions” and some brief thoughts about how vital worker involvement from the hospital is vital. There was a sense that the NHS is in a greater crisis now even than the previous eras of crisis, and that occupations could maybe be a tactic in developing and upcoming struggles. Again, more time would have been useful; as Myk said: “it was good but could have done with more time to talk about the present and future; the thing about the bookfair (as opposed to an occupation) is that people are always rushing off to something else, so even if you wanted to find space to continue a discussion it would be hard.” A dossier on some UK hospital occupations, including accounts of UCH and the S London Women’s hospital, and several more, is available from past Tense for £5, (shameless plug). But we are collecting more accounts and will hopefully produce a larger work in time…

5. British Armed Forces Strikes and Mutinies: a radical history project for the anniversary of WW1 Attendance – about 60 people. Roger, from Bristol Radical History Group, spoke about mutinies in the British Armed forces at the end of World War 1, and Neil, from the Transpontine Blog (and past tense, talked about struggles against the War on the Home Front, using the example of the town of Luton. Both stressed that there is much more research to be done, to find out the hidden undercurrents of resistance and discontent, both in the military and in society in general; research that they encouraged those present to begin taking on. Given the huger propaganda onslaught and £50 million worth of government funding coming to present an official line on WW1 history, a growing network are preparing to both research and draw attention to those that opposed the war, resisted militarisation and subverted the war effort. … A well attended meeting with some really good discussion. There was a positive sense that we could link counter-historical activity with resistance to the increased glorification of war/the pedestalisation of armed forces etc in current times. Since there is so much history that undermines the official myth of sacrifice and national unity that has been created around WW1, establishment attempts to glorify it all might easily fall on their face… if we get busy… There’s an email discussion list for people interested in organising/talking/planning counter-WW1 histories… To subscribe to the list, you send an mail to: remembering-the-real-ww1-subscribe@lists.riseup.net then reply to the email it sends to you…

The exhibitions: Gee Vaucher’s striking montages and JustSeeds excellent People’s History posters adorned the walls of the meeting room… and the Anarchist Time Travellers’ sharp collages (comparing the utterances of the ruling classes in the current assault on welfare and during the 1834 New Poor Law introduction) were on display on the Second Floor landing. Possibly the exhibition space could have been better organised (I don’t know how many people managed to see the Poor Law posters, for example, we could have signposted that better). But we worked with the space we had. Something to think about for next year. BEGGING TIME OK… sorry to raise the unhappy question of money… The Radical History Area cost us some cash to put on, printing costs of our mini-program, some stationery etc… In total we spent £180. At the moment Past tense have paid these costs, but we are ourselves a bit skint, (wolf’s at the door basically). We know everyone is hard up in these desperate times, and money is needed for all sorts of projects; few of us have rich uncles. If anyone out there feels like donating some money to help pay for the day’s events, or is mad keen to put on a gig or jumble sale or whatever and bung us the takings; we would be eternally grateful. or grateful till next October anyway! Any contribution, no matter how small, will be greedily received.

Finally, if anyone is interested in helping plan for similar events next year, please get in touch. The more the merrier! And we’re already pretty merry. Though the empty gin bottle may have something to do with that…

Alex past tense


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