Albert Edward Meltzer, anarcho-syndicalist (7 January 1920 – 7 May 1996)
‘Don’t forget me – or I’ll be back!’ Those were Albert Meltzer’s final words to Stuart Christie, his closest friend and collaborator, in a letter which he left with his last will and testament. In a perverse way I wish I could forget Albert, so that he would come back. But not a day goes by without me thinking about him, so I know he will remain where he is, in the anarchist back-room saloon bar of Valhalla, telling outrageous stories and guffawing loudly at his own jokes, surrounded by his awkward squad of fallen angels, Billy Campbell, Stuart and Brenda Christie and Miguel Garcia.
Albert was my friend and comrade for the last twenty-three years of his life. When I first met Albert in 1973 I was 21 and he was 53. So unused was I to being accepted into the company of grownups that I greeted him as “Mr Meltzer”. Soon it was as if we had known each other all our lives, the age gap between us never seemed important; sometimes it could be a bit confusing when he would tell an anecdote about somebody, usually dead, whom he assumed I knew well, and ask me to supply some forgotten piece of the story. I would say something like, ‘Albert that was in 1958, I was only six-years old!’ Albert himself often remarked that when he first came into contact with the anarchists in London he was the youngest person in a movement of old men, but that when he looked around him in his golden years it seemed like he was the oldest person in a movement of youngsters. I had been enticed to contact Albert by reading the Sphere paperback of The Floodgates of Anarchy (1970), which he wrote with Stuart Christie, and chancing upon a copy of Black Flag in Birmingham. The relief at discovering a brand of anarchism that was not tainted with the pacifist liberalism peddled by the then editors of Freedom Press was palpable. I was far from unique in that respect. It was the discovery of class-struggle anarchism through the ”sectarianism” of Black Flag under Albert’s editorship that convinced so many working-class anarchists of my generation to become active in the movement.
Albert came into the anarchist movement in 1935 at the age of 15 and still at school, through the unlikely route of amateur boxing. He lost his first public fight to a young anarchist seaman from Glasgow, Wilson ‘Billy’ Campbell. Billy had learned both boxing and anarchism from Frank Leech, a well-known Glasgow anarchist, and also had contacts in the seafarers’ union of the CNT in Bilbao. It was through Billy that Albert joined the old Freedom Group run by George Cores. Albert drew attention to himself at the first anarchist meeting he attended, at the national Trade Union Club in New Oxford Street, by speaking up in defence of boxing, which was being loudly criticised by the speaker, Emma Goldman! Later, in January 1937, Goldman denounced Albert as ‘a young rascal and hooligan’, after he and Billy Campbell set fire to a stand glorifying Franco at a British fascist exhibition. Albert never really changed in that respect. With his boxer’s instinct, he was always up for a fight, convinced that action was worth more than words when it came to winning battles. Tragically, his mentor Billy was drowned when his ship was torpedoed in 1940. In his autobiography, I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels (1996), Albert wrote, ‘Wilson Campbell… was every way an anarchist. I don’t just say this because he was a dear friend, but now when people ask which anarchist influenced me most, Bakunin or Kropotkin or whoever, I just don’t talk their language when I say Billy Campbell’. If someone were to ask me the same question today I would answer without hesitation, Albert Meltzer.
Albert’s partnership with Stuart Christie was a milestone in anarchist history. As Mark Hendy points out, ‘Albert before 1967 was Albert without Stuart. From late 1967 onwards he was Albert with Stuart – two very different beasts!’ From their partnership sprang the revival of the Anarchist Black Cross, Black Flag, Cienfuegos Press and a host of other projects. Their success in linking the anti-Franco struggle waged by Juventudes Libertarias (JJLL/FIJL) with international anarchist activism, under the banner of the “First of May Group”, boosted by the involvement of Miguel Garcia after his release from Franco’s prisons in 1969, not only revitalised the anarchist resistance in Spain but inspired a series of autonomous anarchist affinity groups operating in the UK, Eire and across Europe, who sought to push anarchist activity beyond the limits of peaceful protest. Albert dubbed them “The International Revolutionary Solidarity Movement” (IRSM); though in truth they were more a loose association of kindred spirits with shared objectives, rather than a formal organisation. Albert’s role in all this was always enigmatic. As Stuart Christie said in his obituary of Albert in The Guardian (8 May, 1996), ‘Albert Meltzer seemed often like a member of a tug-of-war team; you never quite knew if he was there simply to make up numbers or if he was the anchor-man of the whole operation.’ Either way, Albert was indispensable.
Albert’s other great double-act, with Miguel Garcia, deserves more attention than it receives. Albert was the ghost-writer for Miguel’s book Franco’s Prisoner (1972); when Miguel started Centro Iberico it was Albert who paid the bills and carried the can; they toured Britain and Europe incessantly together, even reaching East Berlin, raising awareness about the plight of anarchist prisoners. Their road trips are the stuff of legend; Miguel always urging Albert to go faster, or grumbling in a mixture of Spanish and English that he should have turned right, not left, or gone straight ahead. I was in the car with them one time, on the way to a meeting of Radical Alternatives to Prison (RAP), when we were pulled over by the cops in London’s East Ham district for driving too slow. The cops thought we were a team of burglars casing the area, but Albert just couldn’t find the venue. On another occasion, I turned to see why Albert had gone silent half way through saying something and he was asleep at the wheel, while we were speeding up the motorway! When Miguel died of TB in December 1981 Albert was heartbroken.
Albert died on 7 May, 1996, after suffering a massive stroke during a conference of the Solidarity Federation in Western-super-Mare. At his funeral service I did my best to pay tribute to his example of quiet solidarity and commitment: ‘Despite the fact that I and other comrades were probably more trouble than we were worth, Albert always stood-by in time of need. He helped where he could and where he couldn’t he still went on trying. As an example of what it means to be a true comrade, Albert is a hard act to follow.’ His autobiography, launched not long before he died, contains a myriad of fascinating stories, but here I have to make a dreadful confession. When Albert entrusted the manuscript to me to edit, I took it upon myself to expunge one particular bold claim to fame; that during a holiday in Scotland Albert had had a close personal encounter with the Loch Ness Monster. I took it out, fearing it would undermine the book’s credibility – more fool me!
One thing that impressed me about Albert was the depth of his knowledge. He was a perfect example of a working-class intellectual who had never been to university; he probably knew more, about everything, than any self-important academic. Albert was also a talented linguist and inveterate traveller, speaking a host of languages including German, Spanish, Swedish and Welsh, and he was looking forward to learning Catalan before death intervened. As an author, editor and journalist, Albert was way above any of the “professionals” he worked alongside as a copytaker in Fleet Street. I learnt so much from Albert, just from being around him and watching how he dealt with things. I remember, too, his kindness, patience and outrageous good humour. Albert enjoyed life to the full and had a wide circle of workmates and friends outside of the anarchist movement. I think this gave him a perspective on anarchism that many anarchists seem to lack. I remember him telling me that if you were too embarrassed to show an anarchist paper to the people you worked alongside then the paper couldn’t be much good. All of his fellow workers at The Daily Telegraph knew Albert was an anarchist and they accepted him naturally for who he was. Everything Albert did was grounded in reality, which is why he never suffered fools gladly. I will remember him always with great affection and gratitude for knowing him.
For a more detailed account of the life of Albert Meltzer, see The Albert Memorial.
The Kate Sharpley Library has an extensive resource on Albert.
Christie Books video of The Funeral, Wake and Celebration of the Life of Albert Meltzer (1996).
Featured photo: Albert Meltzer and Philip Ruff, East London, 1980s. All photos courtesy of Philip Ruff.