“All is for all! If the man and the woman bear their fair share of work, they have a right to their fair share of all that is produced by all, and that share is enough to secure them well-being. No more of such vague formulas as “The right to work,” or “To each the whole result of his labour.” What we proclaim is The Right to Well-Being: Well-Being for All!”Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread
At one of the later Hootenanny parties we held in the Mill Kate did a live portrait painting session in the middle of the party and challenged the audience to “Guess who it was !” as she painted. The correct guess would win the portrait. Slowly a figure appeared on the paper. Guesses were made. Clues were given ” It’s a political figure!” More of the figure was detailed on the paper, spectacles, a beard…. More guesses, more clues. “The initials PK may be relevant.” . Peter Kenyon – someone shouted…. Eventually Mike Weaver got it – Peter Kropotkin the Russian Anarchist Prince. Mike was more of a Marxists than a Anarchist so probably didn’t really wanted a portrait of Kropotkin to hang on the wall of his caravan.
While we didn’t make any claim to be following any kind of theoretical political creed at People In Common that didn’t mean weren’t interested in political ideas. We read anarchist, socialist and feminist writers; Andrea Dworkin, Alice Walker, Colin Ward, Murray Bookchin, Angela Carter, Doris Lessing, Dora Russell….. Though I must say it took me years to actually get right through Kropotkin’s Fields, Factories and Workshops.There was a small Anarchist group in Burnley in the late 1970’s, early 1980’s – I was tempted to say ‘Anarchist Cell’, but that would imply more organisation and direction to the group than there appeared to be. It met in a cafe in the centre of town whose owner Susan Ewings was a member of the group. The other leading light was Jim Petty, a Lucas Aerospace shop steward.
Jim told a road to Damascus story of his conversion to anarchism. He had been a young member of Labour Party and had been canvasing on a terrace street in Burnley when he was challenged by an old man. Jim was taken through the man’s house and shown the back yard. Pointing at the outside long-drop tippler toilet¹ at the bottom of yard the man said “What’s That?” Jim replied “Ermm.. a toilet.” The old man continued “It’s a shithouse and it looks like a shithouse! – and that’s the Conservative Party. Now if you go up to the new council estate up on Bleak House and go in to one of the houses there. You will find a nice clean room with gleaming white porcelain fittings and hot and cold running water and you might just wonder where you are – but your still in a shithouse – and that’s the Labour Party!” Jim claimed that it was this encounter that set him on the road to anarchy.
I went to a couple of the anarchist group meetings, but came away with a distinct impression that they were very happy to talk about trying to change things, but seriously lacking in any actual activity or personal commitment to making changes in their own lives. Having said that they did have one successful action – and strangely for anarchists it was in a local election.
Local elections in Burnley occurred pretty much every year with a third of Councillors up for re-election each time. Which meant that political campaigning was almost constant. One year there were controversial plans to build a large expensive extension on the back of Burnley Town Hall – in fact work had already started, with buildings being demolished and foundations dug. It became an election issue with the Labour leader of the council being cheerleader for the new building. Some of the anarchists set up a bogus Burnley Ratepayers Association group and used it as a front to fight against the huge waste of money of building new offices when the rest of the town seemed to be in terminal decline. They ran a ‘Don’t vote, if you Don’t Agree’ campaign in Trinity Ward against the Council leader who duly lost his seat. Resulting in a change at the top of the Labour group on the council and the cancellation of the new office block. Burnley Town Hall car park now has the most substantial foundations of any civic car park across the North. Perhaps even in the whole country.
And then of course there were the Anarcho Punk Pop Pranksters Chumbawamba. Despite the fact that half of them were from Burnley they didn’t seem to be around much on the local music scene in their early days. One day in 1985 there was a knock on the door of our communal house in Clarence Street and Boff from the Chumbas introduced himself.(Or was it Danbert? I should remember by the hair, or lack of – but maybe Danbert had hair back then!) I’ll go with it being Boff on the basis that his mate Sage lived a few streets away at the time. He’d knocked on the off chance of catching someone to say that he thought the sort of things we were writing for the local ATTAM mag were great and needed to be said. I guess we had a cuppa and a chat and he went on his way – well he was just an unknown scruffy punk then – not an anarcho-punk celeb. But we did then take notice of them and got hold of the English Rebel Songs tape and became fans of their folky stuff before they became folky themselves. We also saw them a few times when they were more, or less famous – at the Burnley Mechanics, at a couple of festivals and on their final tour.
If you were to push me for a statement as where my political allegiances lie – or what my political philosophy is now. I’d say it lay somewhere between Colin Ward and Chumbawamba. With a detour via the co-op movement and a nod towards the Green Party. If you had asked the same back in the 1980’s I don’t think I would have been anywhere near as clear. We were all exploring the various ideas we came across and I probably just saw myself and and other PIC members simply as community activists. By far the most often quoted political statement at PIC was Emma Goldman‘s “If there won’t be dancing at the revolution, I’m not coming.” And we would certainly have counted ourselves as part of the ‘Axis of Dissent’ – Take it away Dan.
I met Colin Ward a couple of times. He wrote a couple of articles for us for Diggers & Dreamers. Me and Jonathan called in once on our travels in Suffolk and had a cuppa and a chat with him about the Whiteway Tolstoyan anarchist community and Jaywick Sands plotlands settlement. Later when I was doing the research for Communes Britannica I went and picked his brains about communal groups from the late 1950’s and early 60’s. He was very generous with his time and gave me some tips and contacts to follow up. But the longest conversation we had was about the design and layout of Lancaster University. He had worked on the design of the campus as a young architect and wanted to know if their ‘revolutionary’ traffic free pedestrian spine and ‘ring road’ had actually worked.
Burnley Anarchist group’s carried out a rather spectacular own goal bit of anarcho propaganda. One of its members went out one evening and graffiti-ed an anarchist slogan on the hoardings on the side of the construction site for the new Sainsbury supermarket on the corner of Church St & Yorkshire St. I can’t remember now what the slogan was – perhaps the classic “Be Reasonable Demand the Impossible Now”. And they might have got away with it undetected. Except for the fact that viewing it from the opposite side of the road they decided they needed to go back over and correct the punctuation! At which point a passing police car came by and they were arrested. In their defense they claimed they had to go back and correct it otherwise someone might have misunderstood the message.
Previous post: Swimming in the Income pool Next Post: Coming shortly
Notes: 1. Ducketts Tippler, or Tipper, toilets were an early eco-friendly water saving outside flush toilet manufactured in Burnley in the mid 19th century. They had a tilting ceramic bucket in a gully outside the kitchen window. Waste water from the kitchen sink and rainwater from the yard would flow into. Once the tipper bucket was full of the waste water it would tilt and empty and flush the contents of the 6 foot deep outside loo. Hence it’s alternative name, the ‘long drop’. One of the PIC houses in Waterloo Rd had a particularly fine example, which we salvaged when we renovated the house – I think we finally donated it to the local history museum at Townley Hall.