An anarchist bricklayer in Plymouth

Dave Chapple, Bridgwater, talks with Graham Short about his involvement in the movement...

Submitted by T La Palli on May 8, 2011

Graham Short was born in 1948 and was brought up with an older brother in a ‘prefab’ on the Honicknowle estate in Plymouth.

During World War II, Graham’s Dad was conscripted into the Army and sent to Lossiemouth in Scotland for Arctic training where he met and married a girl called Margaret Leslie from Elgin - they married in 1943. Graham’s brother Raymond was born in 1944 and the family moved back to Plymouth in 1946. The Short household in Morristown was flattened in one of the bad raids on Devonport Dockyard - a huge naval base and prime Luftwaffe target. As his father told it: he came home one day to find nothing left of the house but a bit of wall, a window sill with their cat sat on it.

Plymouth after the war was a huge bombsite and was not fully restored till late in the 1950’s. Prefab houses were built quickly to house the bombed out and homeless. Graham remembers standing in a bus queue in Fore Street as a toddler and feeling that ‘something very dreadful must have happened’.

William Leslie. Graham’s mother used to tell her sons that her family, including an Aunt Violet who married a farmer from Northern Ireland, were Scottish Communists. One day in 1997 Graham’s mother received a letter from a lecturer in Dundee University concerning her father William Leslie. He had played professional soccer for Glasgow Rangers and Manchester United. This lecturer had been recently searching through the Lenin archives in Russia and had found two letters from William Leslie to Lenin. It seems that as a young man he had been so inspired by the Russian Revolution of October 1917 that he gone to Petrograd by stowing away on a boat. He came back to Scotland and was one of the founder members of the Communist Party there. Much later William Leslie became opposed to the British CP and had resigned before Hungary and Krushchev’s famous speech in 1956. Graham’s Aunt was a CP and Daily Worker supporter for years and also visited Russia at one time during Glasnost.

Hill & Lang’s. Honicknowle in the 1950’s was a rough council estate. Graham didn’t get on at all well at the local schools and became a rebel in the last few years. In 1966 the prefabs were demolished and the family, by this time with the addition of a sister Elaine, was rehoused at West Park. By that time Graham had become an apprentice bricklayer with a local firm Hill & Lang. He remembers joining and signing those Medieval style papers - ‘Must keep good hours; must not keep company with immoral women’ and the like with some illusions about learning to build arches and fine architecture - these were soon dispelled. The bricklaying apprenticeship was for 45 hours per week over four years. The starting wage was £7 a week with incremental rises on birthdays. But Graham and his mates were just used most of the time as young, cheap unskilled labourers; mixing concrete, digging trenches, sweeping up etc.

Director Norman Lang was Chairman of the Apprenticeship Committee and tried to maintain a philanthropic attitude. But they knew they were being exploited. Graham was one who represented the Hill & Lang apprentices in complaints and disputes over refusals to unload lorries and digging trenches; the lack of proper supervision of their skills training. Graham was marked as a troublemaker from early on. The union was the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers (AUBTW), but the steward on site was not interested in recruiting apprentices - even though there were three to every skilled man. - and there was a closed shop for adults. The steward only started to take an interest in Hill & Lang apprentices when they started to demand their rights. Graham could have joined but he didn’t. He disliked the idea of a forced closed shop and suspected that the union was just after control of the young rebels.

Hill & Lang had some big contracts but the job that Graham remembers best was the conversion of an old stately home out at Fleet in the South Hams - ‘all granite mullions and porches’ - into luxury flats. Hill & Lang had an unstated policy of getting rid of as many apprentices as possible when they had finished their time. Graham was transferred to another firm A N Coles in Stonehouse a month before the end of his apprenticeship. Norman Lang had got fed up with Graham’s organising skills and had threatened to cancel his indentures, which was a bluff.

During 1969 Graham was married to local secretarial worker Elaine May and was working as a fully skilled bricklayer for Costain’s at Bickleigh Marine Barracks. On Costain’s Graham had run-ins with the Communist Area Organiser of the AUBTW about joining. He argued that men only joined as control fodder for him and were afraid of him. He argued that a good union was one that was founded upon workers’ solidarity and not a forced closed shop. Nonetheless, Graham did join the union, after the organiser spoke to the other bricklayers who then told Graham that they would refuse to work with him unless he joined. None of the three building firms Graham worked for were well organised or militant and it wasn’t until the 1972 national strike that things began to happen.

Anarchism & Pacifism. Graham’s school rebellion, apart from refusing corporal punishment, involved an examination of early Christian values but there seemed to him a great gap between the theory and the practice of the Church. It also seemed that the word ‘capitalist’ was forbidden. Graham was aware of the early CND issues as a schoolboy at Honicknowle. He remembers the debates over the Regional Seats of Government - who would take over in a nuclear war - especially when as a young bricklayer he might be expected to build the bunkers.

But it wasn’t until 1970 when his daughter Emily was born, that he began to call himself an anarchist. In general this was a response to the radical spirit of 1968, but in particular Graham became friends with John Northey, a Devonport Dockyard electrician, and anarchist who subscribed to the anarchist weekly Freedom. Graham also read the writings of Philip Sampson as well as the Christie & Meltzer book The Floodgates of Anarchy.

Graham had contacted the Peace Pledge Union and attended meetings held at the Friends Meeting House in Plymouth. He began to sell Peace News, Freedom and Black Flag, along with other anarchist and libertarian books and publications, with John Northey at the Eastlake Walk underpass and other sites - a sale that lasted consistently until the early 1980’s. Graham’s anarchism was pacifist to start with, but after long discussions with John Northey and others, came round to a class-struggle/trade union libertarianism, a syndicalist perspective.

Plymouth Community Workshop. In 1971 Graham, alongside John Northey, other working class anarchists, and quite a few more of the idealistic ‘hippie’ radicals in the city, set up the Plymouth Community Workshop (PCW). They leased premises at Manor Street, Stonehouse and the PCW became the base for an explosion of alternatives in Plymouth. Projects included:- womens liberation; gay liberation; school kids liberation; anti-racism; anti-psychiatry; drugs advice; the Plymouth Anarchist Group; strikers support; the Claimants Union; green politics; Housing/squatters groups, as well as local Trotskyists, members of the Socialist Labour League, International Socialists or the International Marxist Group who would occasionally look in for arguments about how the workers’ struggle was more important than personal liberation!

Money was raised via benefit gigs, with bands such as Hawkwind and MC5; jumble sales and other events. The PCW was kept going for a couple of years but the drugs advice gave the police the opportunity to raid it and to smash up the place and the printing equipment. Graham, along with others, was roughed up and dragged down the stairs by the police - all for the sake of a ‘quid deal’ which nobody was charged over. It was the end of the PCW but not of its impetus which was carried on by the Plymouth Anarchist Group.

Plymouth Anarchist Group & the Libertarian Workers’ Alliance. Graham remembers the ‘Jesus Revolution’ of 1972 in Plymouth as the beginning of the end for the era of hippie radicalism. Most radical groups were carried on until the mid-’70’s when they began to be professionalised by community workers and assimilated by the Trotskyist parties. The Plymouth Anarchist Group became the Libertarian Workers’ Alliance (LWA), and by this time Graham was attending national meetings of the Syndicalist Workers’ Federation (SWF) and building networks. He was also very sympathetic to the Council Communists (Lenin’s ‘ultra-leftists’) and their journal Solidarity.The LWA was a core of six people who produced a local newsletter printed on an old printing press in the PCW and sold it along with their other libertarian literature. Other activities included political prisoners’ support especially for the victims of fascism in Franco’s Spain to whom we sent letters and parcels in the ‘model’ prisons.

The Fine Tubes Strike. The 165 Engineering workers at this US owned Plymouth factory were on strike for three years from June 1970 until June 1973. They were mostly members of the AEEU and TGWU (see The Fine Tubes Strike by Tony Beck, stage 1 1974). The main issue at stake was ‘productivity’. It was almost the opposite of the closed shop; at Fine Tubes in 1970 workers were being forced out of their jobs for organising in their union. Scabs were taken on and given the wage/productivity rise that the strikers had been asking for. Pickets were organised. Postal workers refused to deliver the mail. An injunction was threatened. Rolls Royce workers at Patchway, Bristol walked out to boycott Fine Tubes products coming into the plant.

The LWA were hostile to the Trades Union bureaucracy - right wing or heavily influenced by Communist Party hacks - so they organised their own solidarity in an alliance with the IS and other Trotskyists. Both groups were reasonably successful but the strike dragged on, hampered by the national and regional full timers of the AEEW and TGWU, and was eventually defeated by June 1973. Some of the best local support came from construction trades unionists in the ASW and AUBTW, which Graham helped to organise through branch meetings and on sites.

The United Front. Via the Fine Tubes picket line, and the support group, Graham, came into contact with the full range of British Trotskyist groups and their newspapers. He wasn’t impressed. They seemed ‘workerist’, at one and the same time putting working class struggles way above all other radical movements, ‘idolising manual workers’, but at the same time patronising the workers themselves. Graham did not idealise workers nor place their concerns above other struggles. As he says: "we just wanted to find a way out of the nonsense we were living under." However, the circumstances of being a revolutionary in Plymouth, with a strong right wing Labour and Trades Union movement - aided now and then by the CP - and based upon a Devonport Dockyard workforce of 20,000 in the 1940s and 50s meant that, in the peace movement, the Fine Tubes strike, the Anti-Nazi League, the Miners’ Strike and later struggles, anarchists and Trotskyists have in practice worked reasonably well together.

The 1972 National Building Workers’ Strike. By 1972, the year his son Justin was born, Graham was a skilled bricklayer working with Carkeek and was a regular attendee at AUBTW branch meetings. The local full timer was a Stalinist and Graham’s branch secretary, Ron Simmonds, became a Labour Councillor (and much later Lord Mayor). Graham was disgusted with such officials; "What’s that got to do with the class struggle? It’s just mimicking the bourgeoisie." At meetings Graham would argue against Checkoff - because it would mean a loss of contact with the full timers - and for a single Industrial Union of all building trade unionists. The AUBTW did merge with ASW to form UCATT, but the new merged union was far from the syndicalist force Graham had hoped for. The merger was largely a case of local and regional officials - right wing and Stalinist - keeping control both of the rank and file and their own positions. Meetings were attended in those pre-strike days by about 15 people but Graham disliked the atmosphere. Workers would turn up to pay a fine if their dues lapsed, and there were occasional amnesties when tension rose until workers were re-accepted. With the closed shop, no UCATT card meant no job.

The 1972 strike was about a claim, of £30 for a 30 hour week, but central to the strike was the increasing threat of uninsured, non-union, self-employed labour - or the ‘Lump’. The strike revitalised the union rank and file, and cinemas and large halls had to be booked instead of a back room. Construction workers were fed up and angry. Flying picketing was enthusiastic and now and again violent; ‘Bricks were thrown at scabs and windows; plant was destroyed’. Then came the issue of conspiracy and the national case of the Shrewsbury Pickets; Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson were jailed. Every branch official and steward was under threat but in Plymouth, Graham remembers, officials stifled proposals from him and others to escalate the action. The line was ‘leave it to the national officials and the union lawyers’, with the result that Des stayed locked up, even under a Labour Government after 1974.

Graham’s firm, Carkeek’s, was a ‘selected’ site and remained solid. The main problem site in Plymouth was at the Robert Daniel’s Cash and Carry at Derriford where scabs were sleeping on the site. Picketing was heavy and violent, as was the police presence. Arrests were threatened, which after Shrewsbury was not to be taken lightly. Graham went out on flying picket car loads to sites at: Exeter, Newton Abbott and the South Hams where, after setting up a picket the workers would usually walk off the site to join the strike.

Graham became disillusioned with both the building industry and the union by the early 1980’s and left both. He joined the TGWU in protest about ‘poaching’ issues during the mid-’70’s and briefly joined NALGO during the early ‘80’s when, as a Youth Opportunities Program (YOP) supervisor, he was astounded at a NALGO steward considering Graham’s defence of trainees against abuse and exploitation by host employers as ‘unprofessional’. Graham resigned, along with others, during 1982 when YOP became compulsory YTS under new legislation.

Plymouth Anti-Nazi League
. By the mid to late 1970’s the National Front were growing in influence, both in the Dockyard and in the city in general. The city was 99% white, with a very strong imperial navy influence. The main NF organiser was a nasty piece of work called Derek Merry. The local ANL was non-sectarian and, although set up by the local SWP, always had a non-SWP majority. Local punk bands did Rock Against Racism benefits, badges and banners were made, protests were held and of course the meetings - some of which were attended by the NF. There were arguments about police protection and Graham was clear on this - the ANL should do without the police and protect themselves - ‘We’re better off having a punch up with the NF’.

The successful climax of the campaign was the ANL occupation of Coburg Street school hall, booked by the NF in April 1979 for a pre-general election address from John Tyndall. The move was well planned and the anti-nazis got in early and set up an outside picket. Socialists, trades unionists, revolutionaries, students, working class people, "punks with their banner, ‘Never Mind the Bollocks - Stop The National Front’." The NF sent the police in to clear the ANL out. Nothing doing! People sat down ‘we’re not going’. Eventually the police gave up, the NF disappeared, John Tyndall had his car damaged as he got away in a hurry. The rest of the evening at the school hall turned into an anti-nazi party, with piano player, beer and political discussion. Fascists have occasionally re-surfaced, but have never yet recovered from that night. After the 1979 victory, Graham, who had been Chair of the Plymouth ANL, and his anarchist comrades argued that it was time to change the way of organising, he didn’t see the point of carrying on with something just for the sake of it.

By the 1980’s things had changed. The Tories and Thatcher were in power. Graham and other radicals in Plymouth were to lead many other struggles in that decade. The fight against cruise missiles and the growth of the new wave of CND; the Falklands War; the Miners Strike and Wapping; right up to the anti-poll tax union; Graham Short as a committed Plymouth working class anarchist, fought in all these struggles; Today he writes and distributes his own samizdat polemics against Labour Councillors and against the corruption of institutionalised ‘volunteer’ groups, and other local issues.

So, this isn’t just a piece of history... but Graham Short and Plymouth after 1980 is another tale.

Taken from