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Review: Colin Ward and the Art of Everyday Anarchy

Review: Colin Ward and the Art of Everyday Anarchy

Author: Sophie Scott-Brown
Colin Ward and the Art of Everyday Anarchy
ISBN: 9780367569303

In Sophie Scott-Brown’s excellent, well-researched and insightful biography of Colin Ward, one of Britain’s most interesting alternative thinkers of the twentieth century, the reader can find an in-depth analysis of the various stages and evolution of my dad’s work and life.

There are criticisms, some valid and others which I’m not really qualified to offer an opinion on, and there are typographical and factual errors, but these are minor weaknesses in a discourse which never fails to clarify and offer explanations for what Colin Ward did, and appreciates his contribution to positive changes in the way people can potentially live and think.

The foundations of Colin’s approach to the world are well described: his Labour Party background, architectural vocation and interest in reading and writing about ways in which ordinary people’s chances of a better life could be enhanced. Chapter Two is devoted to his five years of national service from nineteen forty-two to nineteen forty-seven, first in Glasgow and then in the more remote Orkney and Shetland Islands as, tellingly, the army became aware of his interest in anti-war literature and not following the government’s orders.

Sophie’s previous book, ‘The Histories of Raphael Samuel: A Portrait of A People’s Historian’, shed much light on the early- to mid-twentieth century socialist and communist ideological climate in Britain. It’s likely that she drew on this knowledge when describing anarchist culture. All these communities were within the overall national atmosphere, where everything is about class, and those who let middle class values and lifestyles into the doctrine are accused of selling out. She credits Colin with bridging the gap between the classes, engaging with ‘the people existing somewhere between workers and intellectuals’.

The titles of the book’s twelve chapters, eg ‘Domestic Anarchy’, ‘The Social Principle’ and ‘Autonomy’, are bang on in terms of the big-hearted way Colin thought and acted. Sophie admirably weaves a path, as did her subject, between his nine-to-five activity in the fifties, as a ‘drawing board man’ for the architectural partnership Bridgwater, Shepheard and Epstein, and his leisure activity of promoting anarchism as one of the editors of the long-running alternative paper, ‘Freedom’.

His experience working in the rebuilding of public housing after the war, in a climate where both the Labour and Conservative parties were boasting about the number of council houses they could build, helped formulate his non-centralist, neither-rural-nor-urban, philosophy of planning, which resulted in his job in the nineteen-seventies as Education Officer for the pressure group, the Town and Country Planning Association.

In the nineteen-sixties and seventies, amid changes in his personal and working lives and the world in general, Colin was the editor and driving force behind two regular publications, ‘Anarchy’ and ‘BEE’, the Bulletin for Environmental Education. Straddling these two eras was his job as a Liberal Studies teacher at Wandsworth Technical College.

Sophie gives each of these sections of his working life their due. She is particularly illuminating on BEE, whose aim was to get urban kids interested in their environment, setting up conferences, discussion groups and ultimately Urban Studies Centres. The nineteen-seventies were perhaps Colin’s heyday, bringing together his experiences as a persuasive writer, educator and analyser of the nuts and bolts of the average person’s life experience.

Regarding an anarchist writer’s position within the traditional Conservative/Labour divide, Sophie observes that when Labour was in power, Colin’s writing was more serious and theoretical. There was a chance that some of his positions on housing and education would actually influence policy. When there was a Conservative government, his style was more informal and anecdotal as, in his regular columns, he tried to exemplify an everyman bringing common sense to the materialist ideology. Ironically, it was a Blairite editor of New Statesman and Society who axed Colin’s weekly column in 1996, as only those supporting New Labour were allowed a voice. A quote I hadn’t seen before illustrates this:

‘I am plagued by other people’s ideologies. A whole series of writers, George Orwell, Colin MacInnes or Dora Russell have complained that they could say what they like in the uncommitted or even right-wing press. Only when they wrote for nothing in the left-wing press were they bullied into toeing someone else’s line.’

Some biographies, whether in book or film form, concentrate too much, in my view, on their subject’s early years and not enough on their later ones. Perhaps there is some of that here, but the quality of the analysis certainly doesn’t taper off. What I think of as some of Colin’s best books, ‘New Town, Home Town’ (Sophie unfortunately gets the title slightly wrong, or maybe it was Routledge’s editor) and ‘Reflected in Water’, were written in the nineties, when he was in his late sixtes and early seventies.

I think his mind was as lively as ever when, at the age of seventy-eight, he wrote to Oxford University Press suggesting that their ‘Very Short Introduction’ series should include one on anarchism, and that he should be the person to write it. This book has sold twenty-seven thousand copies at the time of writing. Sadly the publishers decided it was out of date thirteen years after its first publication and needed to be 75-85% rewritten.

In the afterword, Sophie asks if Colin’s work had a big impact on libertarian thinking, and I can’t think of a better one than the Very Short Introduction story above. This wasn’t in the book but is maybe worth mentioning.

On the book’s very last page, she comes up with a brilliant phrase that sums up Colin’s philosophy of non-confrontational subversion:

‘…we can never compromise on compromise.’

Later on the same page, another typo has crept into a Shakespeare quote. Things like this, along with misspellings of people’s names and small errors in Colin’s addresses, do tarnish the text a little. But that should not overshadow the overwhelmingly positive experience that independently-minded readers of this work will probably have.

Ben Ward

Colin Ward and the Art of Everyday Anarchy is available here.

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