Review: I couldn't paint golden angels

A review of Albert Meltzer's autobiography, from Black Flag magazine.

Submitted by martinh on March 8, 2006

Albert Meltzer's Autobiography.

Published by AK Press £12.95. ISBN 1-873176-93-7

I drew the short straw in the collective - reviewing the written life of one of our founders, still active today. Fortunately, he doesn't mention me, playing a minor footnote in the third decade of Black Flag. Albert's enemies will of course expect a "better than sliced bread" review. His friends, hopefully more numerous, would expect the same, albeit for different reasons. So I came to this with an open mind...
Firstly, the everydayness of the story comes across. Albert is being a little modest, perhaps, and at no point in this remarkable life do you get the impression that this isn't something that anyone could have done, given the same circumstances. For Albert, the really amazing characters are the ordinary people he has met through his life, the Billy Campbells, Stuart Christies and Leo Rossers. The Emma Goldmans and Federica Montsenys don't come off so well, but then there were always plenty of academics prepared to write fawning pages over them.
The book is ostensibly an account of a working class life, admittedly with a large number of enforced career changes, but is really the story of Albert's 60 odd years of activism. Its style is the same rambling one that aficionados of his prose enjoy, though as a fellow editor I have to say it works much better as a book. The rambling is both through space and time, partly for stylistic considerations, partly because the police kept on stealing his notebooks.
It also deals extensively with the post-Franco resistance and the author's role in supporting it, and his roles in many of the labour battles which have scarred recent British history.
What I did find amazing is the lack of sectarianism. I know Albert's reputation, particularly in relation to the Freedom Press clique. This book details exactly how the resources of the anarchist movement were no longer there when they were needed. This even has depressing parallels now. Freedom bring out a fortnightly liberal pacifist paper posing as anarchist that no one reads. We can just about manage a quarterly - we have far fewer resources and no rich backers. The other anarchist groups in this country can fare no better. Yet we have an upsurge in unofficial industrial action detailed elsewhere in this issue. Think where we could have been with a regular paper? So why is he so soft on them in the book? Regardless, I'm sure they're all bleating about libel down Angel Alley anyway.
The book is well produced, with good illustrations from anarchist illustrator Chris Pig. Don't let the price put you off - it is nearly 400 pages. You can order it direct from AK or via any bookshop. If you can't afford it - order one from your local library.
I look forward to the sequel.

Mike Ward

From Black Flag #207