The question on the book’s jacket, “Whatever happened to British protest?” is silly, particularly given the 20 marvellous incidents it records. But don’t let that put you off a really good anthology about protest movements in the UK. Starting with the Peasants Revolt of 1381 and finishing with the anti-Iraq War demonstration of February 2003, a series of writers provide real colour to each protest or movement with often moving short stories.
The format — a short story followed by an analytical piece about each incident — enables the writers to weave succinct stories around inspiring events on the one hand and analysts to avoid dry history on the other.
Sara Maitland kicks off with a story about a young woman caught up in the exhilaration of the Peasants Revolt and her refusal to not only seek a pardon for her actions but to question the justice behind the request that she should do so.
This is followed by chapters about resistance to the Enclosures, the Diggers, and on through the Suffragettes, the 1956 Aldermaston March, the New Cross Fire and Brixton riots of 1981 and so on.
Among the best pieces are: the short story by Sandra Alland and analysis by Dr Francis Salt about the National Blind March of 1920, which kicked off radical protests by the disabled for social reform; Smethwick, about Tory MP Peter Griffiths’ notorious 1964 racist election campaign and Malcolm X’s visit to the constituency a few months later; Rivers of Blood, a wonderful short story by David Constantine written against Enoch Powell’s infamous speech, followed by an analysis of the period by David’s brother, Stephen; and Orgreave, brought to life by Martyn Bedford’s short story, Withen.
Maggie’s Gee’s story, May Hobbs, is a fine salute to one of the great militant leaders of the Night Cleaners’ Strike of 1971-72.
The book avoids chapters about obvious protests or movements, such as Peterloo, the Chartists, Tonypandy and Bloody Sunday, no doubt because there is already much written about these events. Instead it concentrates on what for me anyway were ones I knew little about, such as: Venner’s Rising, a violent protest against the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1661; The Pentrich Rising in 1817 involving a Luddite attempt to march on London from towns around Nottingham; and the Radical War of April 1920 in the lowlands of Scotland, when people who had become radicalised by economic hardship and political repression rose up in an abortive insurrection against the government.
The whole anthology is a fine memorial to those tens of thousands of ordinary people who, over the past 600 years, fought against injustice and class rule and for a better world of peace and equality. And long may we continue doing so.