The Armchair Anarchist

In which The Author decides to take a stand

I nearly got involved in a terrorist plot once.
It was a complete accident, and in retrospect it’s quite a funny story, but it could have got extremely messy at the time.
It was the Saturday before Xmas, and Naj and I were travelling to Cardiff on the train. (It must have been 2007 or 2008, thinking about it, before Naj went to work in London.) It was the day when everyone from work went for the Xmas meal, followed by drinks and more drinks.
I’d never bothered going to the Xmas meal, personally. When I first started working in Cardiff, the last train to Aberdare left Cardiff at 2021, and the last bus left approximately an hour later (see Nice Work If You Can Get There). This meant that I’d have had to shoot off halfway through the entrée in order to get home. Even when the situation improved (slightly) I still didn’t bother. It was always a good plan to get out of Cardiff ASAP in the run-up to Xmas.
Anyway, this particular Saturday I’d agreed to join some of the gang for a drink before they went to the restaurant, so I was taking a change of clothes. Naj was also going out with her friends from work, so she had a change of clothes as well.
Now, picture the scene if you will:
It’s an early morning commuter/shopper train to Cardiff on the busiest Saturday of the year. There’s a long-haired anarchist and a Bangladeshi girl sitting together at one end of the coach. They’ve both got bulky bags. You tune into their conversation, and discover to your horror that they’re talking about blowing up the Houses of Parliament. Not only that – they both think it would be a fantastic idea. What would you do next …?
Let me hasten to explain that it’s entirely innocent. You’ve missed the earlier part of their conversation – the bit where she has watched the Wachowski Brothers’ film V For Vendetta again the previous night, and they’re talking about the spectacular climax:

Even so, Naj and I had a bit of a nervous moment when we got off at Cardiff Queen Street. You can see why, when you think about it. There was the general tabloid-inspired hysteria about the ‘terrorist threat’ which lurked around every corner. The right-wing press have also been largely responsible for the increasing Islamophobia in this country, particularly since the London bombings of July 2005. Now, factor in the famed ‘police intelligence’ reports which led to the judicial murder of a Brazilian electrician named Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell Underground Station shortly after the London attacks, for the heinous crimes of possessing both a bulky bag and a swarthy complexion. It’s a wonder we weren’t met off the train by armed response officers with one-way tickets to Belmarsh – or worse. It would only have needed one paranoid passenger to make a 999 call, and our numbers might easily have been up.
I’m pretty sure my name’s in an intelligence database somewhere – probably more than one, given the compartmentalised nature of the secret police in this country and the others with which we have official and unofficial alliances. After all, I’ve hardly kept a low profile over the years. I’ve been actively involved with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the anti-Poll Tax campaign, and the Is It Fair? campaign against the council tax. I’ve given money to striking miners and printers, and held the odd candle outside South Africa House when I was a student the first time around. I’ve donated regularly to Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and a host of smaller pressure groups. I’ve marched through London a few times, just one of many thousands demonstrating against nuclear weapons, apartheid, Bush and Blair’s wars in the Middle East, and the council tax. A few years ago, I was even part of a human shield keeping the English Defence League out of Newport city centre. Counterculture could have been my middle name.
Closer to home, I used to sell Class War around the pubs and the Polytechnic of Wales campus. I took out a subscription to Freedom, the anarchist newspaper, when I could still afford such luxuries. I once took a gang from Aberdare to the Freedom Bookshop in Whitechapel, as I recounted in Down the Tubes. I’ve still got four copies of Freedom Press’s more theoretical journal The Raven at home. I was a founding subscriber of the short-lived Split newspaper; as such, my name is on the commemorative poster of a Heathcote Williams poem which accompanied their final edition.
My younger mates were more heavily involved in the direct action side of things; some of them used to go hunt sabbing in between the odd bit of graffiti-ing and lock-glueing of butchers’ shops. For my part, I’ve always been more of an armchair anarchist than a stand-up-and-be-counted revolutionary. I shouldn’t think the Powers That Be are too worried about what I type in this blog periodically, regardless of how vitriolic I become when the mood takes me.
Anyway, I was thinking about this last night, after listening to a fascinating documentary on Radio 4. Fergal Keane presented the first part of Terror Through Time, a revealing history of what anarchists used to call ‘the propaganda of the deed’ and what the modern media call ‘terrorism.’ I stumbled upon it when I left the radio on after Lisa Jardine’s A Point of View, and it turned out to be yet another happy accident.
I didn’t know, for instance, that the very word ‘terrorism’ was coined when a group of English-backed French royalists tried to assassinate Napoleon Bonaparte. I didn’t know that groups of Fenians had successfully bombed the House of Commons, Westminster Hall and the Tower of London on the same day in January 1885 (which became known as ‘Dynamite Saturday’, apparently). I certainly didn’t know that it was a simple traffic diversion that took Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife across Gavrilo Princip’s path in Sarajevo in 1914 – and the rest, as they say, is history …
I remember trying to get a copy of Peter Marshall’s history of anarchism, Demanding the Impossible, into stock in Dillons a few times. It was in that perpetual publishing limbo of ‘reprint under consideration’, so it never saw the light of day. I’m sure I’ll get hold of my own copy at some point. (It’ll probably turn up somewhere completely unexpected, like Barbara’s shop, or the never-ending Library clearance sale.)
[A digression: I’d spent nearly two decades in the book trade before I learned what ‘reprint under consideration’ really means. It was a little throwaway mention in The Bookseller that solved the mystery for me. If Fred Bloggs writes a book and sells it to a publisher, the rights stay with that publisher as long as they keep it on their list. If they declare it ‘Out of Print’, then the rights revert to the author, who can then take it somewhere else. As soon as I read that, so many aspects of publishing suddenly made perfect sense. It explained why, for instance, Jack Trevor Story (see I Want to Tell You a Story) had hopped between so many publishing houses in the 1960s and 1970s. It explained why Granada Publishing had kept Philip José Farmer’s Strange Relations in their catalogue for years – although it was never available to order – before it suddenly turned up in Graham Ewington’s shop as a Corgi paperback.
Publishers often play dog in the manger in this manner, apparently. Faber & Faber held the rights to Rupert Brooke’s poetry for years after their collection of his work vanished from the warehouse shelves. The truly independent publishers, like John Calder and Marion Boyars, hold on to their precious possessions like dogs with bones. Who can blame them? If you’ve got works of genius by Samuel Beckett or Hubert Selby Jr in your catalogue, you don’t want to let them go to one of the multinationals, do you?]
Anyway, after listening to Mr Keane’s programme I decided to revisit the film version of V For Vendetta myself. I don’t remember the original strip by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, which was published in a comic called Warrior during the early 1980s. I first came across it via a couple of mentions in music magazines; by this time, the story of the vengeful anarchist in the Guy Fawkes mask had attained cult status through its rarity, shock value and (most importantly) its incompleteness. Messrs Moore and Lloyd had never concluded the story, because Warrior folded, plunging V For Vendetta into another publishing limbo called ‘To be continued …’
In the late 1980s, the mighty DC empire (home to world-famous crime-fighters like Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Arrow, among others) reissued the strip in monthly instalments, each one incorporating three episodes from the original strip. I got wind of its reappearance via a small piece in Sounds, and the game was afoot once more.
Bear in mind that this was before Forbidden Planet opened in Cardiff, and the city didn’t have a decent comic shop. However, I’d heard that there was a decent stall in Newport Market. I was working in Blackwell’s at the Polytechnic of Wales, so every fourth Saturday I took a bus excursion to Newport. On the mezzanine floor of the market hall, a guy named Terry stocked thousands of comics, including all the latest imports from the States. I already knew Dean Beddis, the singer from Cowboy Killers, who ran a record stall a couple of units away. Between Dean and Terry, I usually spent a fair few quid on my visits to Newport.
V For Vendetta was the highlight of the trip, of course, as I could read it on the bus home. I also had to lend it to Richard D., my boss at the Poly Bookshop, who was another hippy/punk anarchist. When I took it into work for the first time, Olly was on the bus, travelling to Treforest ITEC where he was studying computing. I turned him on to the exploits of ‘Codename V’, and one of his musical projects used that name for a while.
I’ve read it literally dozens of times, always finding something new in its densely packed illustrations and innovative graphics. In a feature in the long-defunct Idols magazine, it was pointed out that David Lloyd didn’t use conventional speech bubbles in the layout. Instead, the dialogue simply flowed around the frame. Mr Lloyd had also dispensed with sound effects – the ‘Biff! Bang! Pow!’ school of graphics was superseded by a stark, visual, far more cinematic style of presenting the action:

V 5

The Byzantine, multi-layered, character-driven plot, with its complex web of deceit, betrayal and double-crossing, unfolded in monthly parts until we arrived at the end of Vol VII. This was the point where the original serial had ended abruptly, leaving readers at a loss. No doubt if it had been published two decades later, a multitude of fanfics would have sprung up online, seeking to resolve the unintended cliffhanger. But V For Vendetta was a print-only phenomenon, and DC had left the authors in something of a quandary. Alan Moore had to try and pick up where he’d left off, over five years earlier. The political scene had changed. If anything, Mr Moore’s revised edition of the story became darker than he’d originally intended, as he outlined in his preface to Vol I of the reissue:
It’s 1988 now. Margaret Thatcher is entering her third term of office and talking confidently of an unbroken Conservative leadership well into the next century. My youngest daughter is seven and the tabloid press are circulating the idea of concentration camps for persons with AIDS. The new riot police wear black visors, as do their horses, and their vans have rotating video cameras mounted on top. The government has expressed a desire to eradicate homosexuality, even as an abstract concept, and one can only speculate as to which minority will be the next legislated against. I’m thinking of taking my family and getting out of this country soon, sometime over the next couple of years. It’s cold and it’s mean spirited and I don’t like it here any more. Goodnight England. Goodnight Home Service and V for Victory. Hello the Voice of Fate and V for Vendetta.
It’s probably fair to say that almost nobody could have foreseen the rightward lurch the United Kingdom as a whole took as a consequence of the Falklands War in 1982, the second Conservative election win in 1983, and the Brighton bombing barely eighteen months later. This was a pivotal moment in British political history. The nation awoke on 12 October 1984 to TV images of Margaret Thatcher and the rest of the cabinet being pulled from the wreckage of the Grand Hotel. The Miners’ Strike was at its height, and now the IRA (the successors to the same Fenians who had bombed London a century earlier) had brought urban terrorism to the very heart of government. Would anyone have imagined that Thatcher and her government would ride a wave of public sympathy as a result? Yet that’s exactly what happened.
Safe in the knowledge that the British Left was engaged in internecine battles of their own, the Tories won a third election in 1987, By this stage they’d declared war on just about everyone who wasn’t, in Thatcher’s famous words, ‘one of us’ – the trades unions, the poor, the unemployed, and, notoriously, the anarcho-hippy ‘peace convoy.’ This assault on our civil liberties has even made its way into popular culture; the Levellers (not a band I’ve ever rated) wrote a song called ‘The Battle of the Beanfield’, a bitter account of everyday police brutality on a summer’s morning in Wiltshire in June 1985.

Margaret Thatcher remained in power until 22 November 1990, when increasingly violent opposition to the Poll Tax resulted in a challenge to her leadership of the Conservative Party. The Poll Tax riot in London was the last time the people of this country really stood up to be counted. A couple of my friends were in Trafalgar Square when it all kicked off. I’d been tempted to go up, but I couldn’t afford it in the event. I wasn’t sorry to be watching the TV news when these pictures came through. In different circumstances, I could have been on the spot myself.
I remember showing this clip to Jamila in the Students’ Union. We were watching the TV when the first demonstration against increased tuition fees turned violent. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing – as she told me, in Nigeria the protesters would have been shot on sight. I told her that she hadn’t seen the most violent protests in my lifetime, and called up this clip:

By a strange coincidence, Thatcher’s resignation took place on the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Like everyone else who was alive at the time, Dad always remembered exactly where he was when he heard the news of the Kennedy shooting: in the outside toilet of Mams’ and Dads’ house in Bethel Place in Hirwaun.
Similarly, as it was such a historic newsflash, I can still remember where I was when I heard the news of Thatcher’s downfall. My anarchist student mates Jez and Nick M. were in the video editing suite of the Polytechnic’s Learning Resources Centre, and must have had the radio on. I hadn’t long returned from my morning break, and was unpacking the morning’s deliveries when Jez sprinted across the foyer of the LRC and into the shop.
‘Steve!’ he shouted, ‘Thatcher’s resigned! Pint lunchtime?’
‘Christ, yes!’ I replied.
In the event I think we had two, and then met up again after I finished work for a few more. It wasn’t every day we had such a good reason to celebrate, after all.
When Tony Blair led the Labour Party back to government in 1997, many people thought that the bad times would be over. After all, they’d used D:Ream’s hit song ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ as their election anthem. The good times didn’t last long. I voted Labour in 1997 and then watched as Blair abandoned the founding principles of the party, began to dismantle the NHS, continued any number of Thatcherite policies under the flag of convenience of New Labour, and (of course) lied his way into an illegal war in the Middle East. That brings us back to my involvement in the anti-war march of November 2003, and the late second flowering of my latent anarchist principles.
I was in Trafalgar Square when protesters pulled down a large effigy of George W, Bush (who was in the UK at the time), in a parody of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in the centre of Baghdad. I’ve still got some of the photos I took on the march. I didn’t tell anyone I was going; I just booked the train ticket ahead of time and made my own way up on the day. To this day, just short of a decade later, Mother still doesn’t know I was there. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. I was just a face in the crowd. Blyth Power had satirised the anarcho/peace convoy in their song ‘Marius Moves’ about twenty years earlier:
Cavalry charges, a flank attack
Tape it on the video and play it back
‘Look, there’s me, I’m the one in black’
He tells his new-found friends.
[A digression: There was an amusing incident when we took the Is It Fair? campaign to Westminster, a couple of years later. Angela R. and I met up with Brychan, a Valleys expat, Aberdare Online regular and Plaid Cymru supporter who worked in London, before we all joined the main march around Westminster. On the way down Whitehall, we passed a group who were campaigning for a Kurdish state. They cheered us and we cheered them. A small crowd of bemused Japanese tourists were photographing us as we paraded past with our banners. Scattered amongst them were dark-suited individuals with expensive cameras and black sunglasses, who were taking lots of non-tourist photos. (I’m not paranoid, but I know a spook when I see one. That’s why I know I’m on a watch list somewhere, even if I’m a fairly low-level threat.) After the rally broke up, I decided to try and take a photo of the three of us with our Welsh flag. Even with the tripod in place, it was difficult to stop passers-by wandering into shot. To my amazement, a Metropolitan Police inspector offered to take the photo for me.
I said something like, ‘Well. I’ve been photographed by the police on demos before, but never with my own camera.’
He replied, ‘I’m retiring next year – I’ll be joining you for the next one.’
We adjourned to the Princess of Wales in Villiers Street, where things became extremely silly. I’d already cottoned onto the fact that Brychan is gay – which Angela hadn’t picked up on – and he’d taken us to a gay pub. We ended up in the company of some of the Scottish contingent and a group of gay Swedish Hell’s Angels, where Angela’s glittery Welsh flag hat proved quite the talking point …]
When the Wachowski Brothers announced that they were going to film V For Vendetta, I had mixed feelings. I knew they had a background in comics, and that was a good sign. They’d also been responsible for one of the greatest films ever – The Matrix – so they certainly had the chops. But I was still wary of the implications of trying to film such a complex book. Also, technology had moved on and the political climate had changed considerably since Messrs Moore and Lloyd had first put pen to paper over twenty years earlier. It seemed very unlikely that a ‘lone wolf’ terrorist would be able to evade the security services for long.
In the event, my curiosity got the better of me. Vicki F. and I went to see it in Cardiff when it was released, and we were far from disappointed. The story had been considerably changed from the printed version, but following the graphic novel slavishly would have trebled the length of the film (at least.) It didn’t matter; the tweaking and updating worked really well, especially in the light of recent political developments. If you haven’t seen it (and even though I’ve spoiled the ending for you), it’s well worth checking out.
There are superb performances from Hugo Weaving, John Hurt, Stephen Fry, Stephen Rea, and Tim Pigott-Smith, to name some of the outstanding cast. There are lovely throwaway lines such as, ‘This is the BTN. We don’t manufacture the news. That’s the government’s job.’ And, of course, there’s that huge climax which had us cheering in our seats. I swear Vicki nearly wet her knickers during the final few minutes. If, at some point in the near future, cheering the destruction of the Houses of Parliament becomes a thought crime, then we’re both guilty as charged. So is Naj.
The point of all this, though, is that next month there’s going to be a gathering in London. It’s one of those things that’s going to be organised through social media, and as such there’s no central committee. A loose coalition (sorry, I know that’s a dirty word in some circles) of people are going to assemble in Trafalgar Square for a rally on the Fifth of November.
Some of them will be opposed to the austerity measures of the ConDem government; others will be protesting against the privatization of the National Health Service; others will be trying to draw attention to the relentless attacks on the poor, sick and unemployed; some will probably be there simply because they feel totally disenfranchised by the existing ‘first past the post’ electoral system. There must be people the length and breadth of the country, like me, who’ve decided that they can’t just sit back and let the government ride roughshod over them any more.
While it would be lovely if someone was to spray-paint the words Arbeit macht Frei above the door of their local Jobcentre, nobody’s actually done it. Yet.
5 November could conceivably be the day when the ordinary man and woman in the street finally stand up and shout (in the words of Network‘s Howard Beale), ‘We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more!’
I’ve got no idea of how many people will turn up on the day. If we’re lucky, there could be millions. The worst-case scenario is that three men and a dog turn up, and then spend the entire time arguing over whose dog it is. That’s pretty much what happened to the British Left throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, remember.
Whatever happens, you’ll be unlikely to see any coverage of it on the television or in the newspapers. After all, some fifty thousand people marched through the centre of Manchester during the Conservative Party conference last month, demonstrating against the destruction of the NHS. Unless you use social media, you won’t have heard anything about it. Not a word. Nada. There was a complete news blackout, not just by the BTN BBC, but by the ‘independent’ broadcasters as well. Of the national papers, only the Daily Mirror gave any coverage to the march. If you didn’t have a Twitter account or use Facebook, you’d never had known it had even taken place.
I’ve had a look at the train fares, and it seems to be fairly affordable if I book this far ahead. I think it’s high time this particular anarchist left the comfort of the armchair and got involved again. After all, for the last couple of years I’ve spent an awful lot of time and energy bemoaning the apathetic state of the majority of people in Aberdare. Bear in mind that we live in an era when more people vote for in the finals of the fucking X Factor than decide who runs the country for the next five years.
I wonder if any of the younger people I know, like Lew M. – the Cynon Valley’s last Marxist-Leninist – will come up for the day, or whether (as usual) I’ll be on my own. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been just a face in the crowd. During the AAM march from Trafalgar Square to Clapham Common in the summer of 1986, I teamed up with three teenage girls from Harrow and we spent the rest of the day together.
On another occasion I picked up a copy of Freedom and a cyclostyled flyer produced by an old hippy named Chris en route. They led me down the route I went in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I’ve never been close to the action, though. By keeping my head down I’ve managed to stay out of trouble. Maybe this time I won’t keep my head down. After all, the longest journey begins with a single step …
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