Review of Stuart Christie's autobiography. In KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 40, November 2004.
This is the third version of Stuart's autobiography to be published. The first came out in 1980 (as The Christie File, published by Cienfuegos Press in the UK and Partisan Books in the USA) and more recently Stuart issued a version in 2 volumes in his own ChristieBooks imprint, which was a limited edition. I haven't seen the more recent version so can't comment on it, but the new edition seems to share a fair amount of material with the first edition but there is obviously some text here which has been written much more recently, and equally other text which has been omitted. I'll let someone with more time (and inclination) work out exactly how much has changed between the editions. Suffice to say that even of you read the first edition, this new one is well worth getting as well.
The book is split into three sections. The first, Scotland, details Stuart's early years, dealing with his family background, which shows, if nothing else, how, for many of us, it is the values that we get from our immediate family in our formative years that partially determine the sort of politics (if any) we later take part in. This is quite an evocative section of the book and one, which has much humour and pathos. Here also is Stuart's account of his becoming first a “beatnik” and then a politically aware activist in anti-nuclear weapons and other activities. Then come the meetings with real anarchists, including the larger than life characters in the Glasgow Anarchist Group, resulting in his tearing up of his Labour Party membership card in 1963 outside Glasgow's Mitchell Library following a conversation with Bobby Lynn and a librarian, Ronnie Alexander (no relation as far as I know!)
Becoming immersed in the anarchist movement (such as it was) meant inevitably that Stuart became increasingly aware that not only was the Spanish Civil War an important episode in anarchist history, but that the victors - General Franco and his henchmen were still in power and still behaving barbarically. Not only that but there was still an on-going anarchist resistance to the fascist regime. Stuart, having taken on board the necessity of resistance and direct action against the State inevitably was drawn to considering that he should get involved in some way.
And so the second part of the book details his move to London and eventual involvement with the anarchist activists involved in taking on Franco's regime, showing the world that not everybody had accepted his government and that despite the repressiveness of the regime, that resistance was not futile and was continuing. Stuart's account of the preparation of his role in a plot to kill Franco is engrossing, yet shot through with humour. Sadly, despite the precautions he had taken he was easily apprehended by the Spanish secret police. (Memo to future would be activists - check out the location of the Secret Police headquarters and don't sit opposite drinking your beer in their “local”!) Being caught red-handed with explosives, albeit the components rather than actual ready-to-go devices, could have resulted in him facing the death penalty.
Fortunately, he was “only” given a 20-year sentence; possibly because the Franco-ist state was beginning to open up to European tourism and the bad publicity a death sentence would have brought might have lost the Spanish economy a lot of money. And so, still only 18 years old Stuart was banged up in Carabanchel Prison in Madrid. His experiences here were not as bad as he might have feared. Spanish prisons were sufficiently corrupt that given enough outside support and inside solidarity, the conditions could be ameliorated. Not exactly ideal but survivable. Also what was crucially important was that in Britain there had been a growing campaign for Stuart's release, which culminated in his being pardoned after only about three years inside.
So in 1967, Stuart made his way back to London. A very different London than the one he had left in 1964. London was swinging big time but Stuart had other things on his mind. Prison had not dimmed his enthusiasm for anarchism and for action and so he was back in the thick of things, linking up with both Spanish exiles and local anarchists. Together with Albert Meltzer they set up a prisoner's support group, the Anarchist Black Cross, and started their publishing program, including the duplicated 'zine Black Flag, ably assisted by various other comrades.
Now for those who don't remember them, the late 1960's were a time of intense political turmoil in the world at large, with the war in Vietnam and the massive demonstrations against it, the student-worker uprising in Paris in 1968, the attempt at liberalisation in Czechoslovakia (all one country then!) and then ensuing crushing of that by Russian tanks, the demonstrations in Central America and their brutal suppression and so forth. And running alongside this there was the whole peace and love hippie scene.
It soon became apparent here and elsewhere that the peaceful demonstrations, petitions, leaflets and magazines weren't having much effect on the powers that be. Wars continued, the nuclear threat still hung over us, the state still crushed any dissent that looked too threatening or couldn't be co-opted or contained. And so protest took a more militant turn. The Angry Brigade was born. Now, as Stuart makes abundantly clear in this book he was far too busy earning a living as a gas fitter, converting people to North Sea gas (and his tales about that are most amusing!) and his prisoner support activities to have been involved in anything like the Angry Brigade. Not only that but he was under almost continual surveillance. However his known links with Spanish and other European direct actionists meant that as far as the political police and their lapdogs in the press were concerned if there was political bombing and shooting going on then suspect number one was that well-known Scottish anarchist.
Now it still isn't known how many people were involved in the Angry Brigade. One suspects that once the idea became known (and that was only after many actions had taken place that were not reported by the press) it became a useful label for any activists who wanted to up the ante. Consequently it is quite likely that many of the people who were involved in community struggles, prisoner support, the underground “scene”, student protests, direct action etc may well have known someone who knew someone who was involved. And being in the thick of things it's not surprising that Stuart knew some of the people who got charged with conspiracy to cause explosions in the Angry Brigade trials.
The book reprints some of the Angry Brigade communiqués, many of which were printed by International Times a much-missed publication of the period, which shows what the AB was about - i.e. using explosives and the like to attack the property of those who they felt should be made accountable for their repressive actions against the working class. The attacks were on places such as army recruiting offices, ministers, capitalist bosses and the like, but which were not intended to harm people. These were often specifically targeted to show solidarity with ongoing disputes and struggles.
As we now know, despite the police's attempted fit-up, Stuart and three others walked away from the Stoke Newington Eight trial, whilst four others were sent down for conspiracy to cause explosions. Sometime after the trial the Angry Brigade issued its final communiqué announcing that it was stopping its campaign. The main reason was that they had no intention in being associated with the Provisional IRA's terrorist campaign. They also didn't want to see any more people sent down for their activities.
Stuart, meanwhile, with his partner Brenda, tried to rebuild his life. Strangely employers weren't too keen on taking him on, despite the fact he'd been cleared of the charges against him. And so they moved north to Huddersfield to set up Cienfuegos Press and continue the work of Black Flag and the Anarchist Black Cross.
The story ends around 1975 with the death of Franco and the celebrations that followed, which is pretty much where the first edition ended as well. Now we know that Stuart has exactly been idle since then so perhaps there's a second volume in the pipeline (I know that ChristieBooks issued two [three] volumes of the autobiography, “General Franco Made Me A “Terrorist” being the second [followed by Edward Heath Made Me Angry, see note below])
I suppose I'd better mention that I spotted the “deliberate mistake” on page 256 which refers to the “Kate Shipley Library” being Albert Meltzer's most enduring legacy. (I hope the people at the Kate Sharpley Library won't be too miffed!) Also the book would have been improved by the inclusion of an index - it would certainly have made writing this review a little easier!)
Anyway, I've only scratched the surface of the book here, there's much more in it, and well worth the reading. It's at an affordable price and published by a mainstream publisher so people shouldn't have any problem getting hold of a copy (and order it at your local library too!!) I expect most readers will come away feeling that the book is both entertaining and thought provoking. In some ways this an extraordinary story, and yet it's also the story of a working class Scottish lad, who just so happened to have had the luck to have the right sort of Granny.
I'd have to say that this an essential purchase for anyone wanting to know more about the 60's and early 70's .This isn't a detached academic text or the work of a pop sociologist, this is how it was by someone who was there and can still remember what happened!
Recommended - 9/10
Christie, Stuart Granny Made Me An Anarchist: General Franco, the Angry Brigade and Me
Scribner, London, 2004. Pbk, 423pp, illus. ISBN 0-7432-5918-1 £10.99
Please note that this item is copyright Richard Alexander. It may be freely copied for non-commercial use, provided this copyright notice remains attached and the text is not altered without my permission. Commercial use of the text is forbidden without agreement as to payment. (Normally I will accept the usual wordage rate.)
Taken from The Kate Sharpley Library