Book review: A beautiful idea … and a messy reality

A Beautiful Idea: History of the Freedom Press Anarchists

Rob Ray
Freedom Press, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-904491-30-9

Review by George F.


Rob Ray’s history of the Freedom Press anarchists is like getting sat down next to that eccentric blue-hairred aunt at a wedding that you’d always heard stories about, but never quite gotten the full picture till now.

And then giving her a tablet of Modafenil and strapping in for the ride.

Suddenly the half-recognised names of decades of passing mention return in crystal clarity, the photo albums of history are brought out and spread before you, the barely remembered faces of the past are reanimated in a succinct and scrupulously researched narrative, featuring radical politics and police raids, fist-fights and flirtations with international terrorism, and an awful lot of bickering in the family.

If you continue the analogy of the Freedom building in Angel Alley as a delightful elderly relative, then the bowels must be the bookshop itself, crammed with burbling and fermenting ideas and things to be digested. The other organs are upstairs – the Decentre meeting room a mixture of social hangout space and workshop, the thrumming hum of the servers of Corporate Watch, the liver and pancreas cleaning out the toxins of capitalism, joined by the gall bladder of the National Bargee Travellers Association, and the myriad other organisations that gravitate towards this crack-alley behind KFC. Then at its peak, the Advisory Service for Squatters, where squatter-geeks pore over potential court cases, rolling the dice in the casino of the courts, forever trying to out-think the enemy.

Ray’s charming historical is an empassioned cry for Freedom to be an advert for anarchism. Freedom Press has always been a den of anarcho-nerds and socialist miscreants, creative vagabonds and literary misanthropes, a hive of people who, unsurprisingly for a bunch who reject hierarchy, authoritarianism, domination and the capitalist rigeur, make a jolly hash of maintaining the UK’s oldest anarchist newspaper and printing press, the Grand Old Lady of Anarchy herself, much loved and maligned as she is. It’s reassuring to note that for the entirety of its existence, the Press has been a hotbed of ego clashes, impossible dreams and drunken furore. Indeed, at times it might feel almost archetypal. What is fascinating to read here is the sense of completion of a family-tree of relationships and stories placed together coherently and for the posterity of the future.

The story of the press is the story of not only of the building itself but all those who have passed through it, and at its gloriously flawed and compassionate beating heart is that shared belief in a different way of living together. “It’s not just the police infiltrators that believe in it’s revolutionary potential. It’s a hub, to work out those connections: linking the liked, dividing yourself from those you like less, doing things together, going to the pub and talking about doing things there. The whole revolutionary spectrum! … Freedom doesn’t have to be a museum, a refuge for alcoholics, a home to internecine clique warfare.”

For years, stacks of old copies of Freedom newspaper, char-burned and cinder-edged from the firebombing of the bookshop a decade ago, mysteriously migrated from place to place within the bookshop, until it became clear that anarchist scholar Rob Ray had been laboriously poring over them, linking together the various squabbles, outrages and transformations of the Freedom collective over more than a century of fluctuating publication. Ray’s obvious humility and reverence of the historical documentative importance of this work is foregrounded in the crystal clear neutrality of tone endeavoured throughout, yet often joyously punctuated by moments of humanity and comment upon the adventures of his anarchistic forebears.

Ray’s selection of direct quotes are what ignites the text with the passionate and idiosyncratic voices of the characters who used to create and destroy within these spaces. Like a librarian trailing his fingers over the spines of books on a shelf in order to guide a borrower to the selected spot, Ray gently backgrounds himself and his bookish savouring of the collation of so much data and its analysis, allowing the historical figures and their successes and failures to emerge organically from his reportage. There was a particular thrill to hear more about Colin Ward and the simply massive squatting movement of the 20th-century that turned whole neighbourhoods in London into autonomous zones, and a wry smile at the neverending debate between the direct actionists such as Black Flag and the ‘gentle anarchists’ or ‘fluffies’ who preferred the comforts of discussion and dusty tomes.

As ever in most eras of social struggle, people’s perspectives can become so myopic that they miss the significant historical patterns that, if properly studied, elicit a potential for transformation. The struggles and misadventures of the past are as ours, a flame passed in the dark from hand to hand, to tend the fires of the future that would warm us all around burning cop cars. As Ray succinctly closes, “for all it’s many faults and foolish notions, it has represented a voice and a vision that will always terrify those who control our lives, where the circumstances of your birth truly don’t matter, and the chains that bind us all into relentless, self-destructive competition over crumbs from great endeavours have fallen to dust.”

Those who do not know their history, the cliché goes, are doomed to repeat it. Here in a tidy package is a perfect opportunity to learn from a century of idealistic and itinerant anarchists, and to feel a sense of being a part of something so much greater, so much more complex, than the sum of our lives, infusing us all with a hope we might advance that very cause further.

Let it arrive upon your desk like a letterbomb.

George F.


If you fancy a copy of A Beautiful Idea: History of the Freedom Press Anarchists, you can get one from Freedom Press website, or Freedom Bookshop in Whitechapel, London.