I came across this collection of short stories and essays via a couple of fantastic online events put on by the publishers, Manchester based indie Comma Press, together with Housmans, the radical London bookshop. What fab events they were: Christopher Eccleston reading Martyn Bedford’s short story Withen, based around the Battle of Orgreave, and Maxine Peake reading Maggie Gee’s story May Hobbs, about the Night Cleaners’ Strike 1971-1972. Their readings, performances really, were absolutely mesmerising and followed in each case by a discussion with Professor David Waddington and Professor Sally Alexander respectively reflecting on the protests themselves, their representation in fiction and their impact on today’s political landscape. I was all fired up and eager to get reading as soon as I could get my hands on the book, which I promptly did, as it arrived literally between the two events as an extra in the ticket price.
The book is a collection of short stories and essays on twenty protest movements in the UK from The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 to the Anti-Iraq War demo in 2003. Comma Press editor Ra Page has matched fiction writers with academics and specialist non-fiction writers to produce two pieces of writing on each movement. The pieces are complementary, the short stories drawing us into the situation, appealing to our emotion and imagination, while the nonfiction account gives useful background and context, as well as often referring to the short story as illustration. The book evidences a really thoughtful and fruitful collaboration between writers, as well as enormous care in the selection of contributors.
I turned first to stories about more recent protest movements, those that I’ve been aware of and have affected my life in a more tangible way. Withen by Martyn Bedford flips between the funeral of Matt’s father, a former miner, in 2014, and 1984 when the Battle of Orgreave, a key moment in the Miner’s Strike, took place. Matt himself wasn’t even in the UK at that time, never mind suffering police brutality at Orgreave like his father: he was travelling and teaching in Hong Kong. Matt is surprised to see his estranged Uncle Peter turn up on the margins at the funeral and we gradually learn what happened between the two brothers during the Miner’s Strike as well as being reminded of the terrible hardship suffered by miners and their families during that time. As Martyn Bedford said in the discussion, fiction can convey complexity and ambiguity, and our sympathies shift during the story
Next I turned to The Stars are in the Sky, by Joanna Quin, with an Afterword by Lyn Barlow. It’s about the women’s camp at Greenham Common, set up in 1983 in protest at the siting of US cruise missiles at the camp. In this story the protagonist, Ann, goes to Greenham at the suggestion of her woman friend, Nic, for the Embrace the Base event and then stays on, leaving her husband, Stephen, to look after the kids. Daily life at the camp is well described, together with the protest actions the women undertake and the reactions of police and the military at the base. But just as interesting are the relationships between the women there and how they are changed by their experience of the camp: Ann, like many in the nightly queue for the telephone, misses her children and feels conflicted between her former self as a mum and her new identity as a peace protester.
I was really pleased to find Francesca Rhydderch’s story The Opposite of Drowning about the Welsh Language Protests with an Afterword by Ned Thomas. The story starts with the highly contentious drowning of the valley of Tryweryn and the village of Capel Celyn in North Wales in 1965 to create a reservoir for the city of Liverpool. Seen through the eyes of the narrator as a small child, she remembers her Mam-Gu and grandfather piling up their household belongings to take to their brand new house. Shortly afterwards her mother Kate is frequently absent, climbing television transmitters, in court in Camarthen for criminal damage. I really appreciated Ned Thomas’ essay here, detailing the protests for a Welsh Language TV channel, which included switching off TV transmitters in England and Wales with many young women prominent in the campaign. The campaign began in the early 1970s and went on till 1982 when Sianel Pedwar Cymru ( S4C) finally started broadcasting. Ned Thomas followed this closely as a reporter on Welsh Affairs for the London press, a Welsh speaker and later an activist in the campaign.
The final story I’d like to highlight is Never Going Underground by Juliet Jacques, which deals with the protests around Section 28. Dr. Em Temple-Malt explains that this legislation was introduced by Margaret Thatcher out of fear that the model of the traditional heterosexual family was being undermined by the equalities agendas of some progressive councils, who were supporting same sex and alternative family arrangements. The legislation made it an offence to promote homosexuality by teaching or publishing material which deemed it to be an acceptable family relationship and became law in 1988. Like Withen, the story has two time frames, the first 2000 when two old friends, Johnny and Marina, run into one another at a demonstration in Manchester. The story goes back to 1988 when they met after Marina, then Martin, arrived in Manchester to start his university course. At that time Martin was not out as gay or trans, though he knew he liked to wear women’s clothes. His awkward relationship with his father is well described as well as his feelings of alienation from the laddishness of the other young man in his uni halls. Through the two friends meeting again we learn what Marina has gone through on her journey—including her parents disowning her. I found this story poignant indeed, though the story ends on a positive note as Marina says goodbye to Johnny and his partner Stuart, with more hope than she’s felt in a while.
This is just a snapshot of the contributions on four of the twenty protest movements. I also read on the Suffragettes, the Aldermaston Marches and the Anti-Iraq demo and there are many more on 20th as well as pre- 20th century protests. If like me you love fiction, particularly the short story, and want to refresh your memory or learn anew about the history of protest in this country, then this is the book for you. I can’ t recommend it highly enough or thank Comma Press enough for bringing this to us.