History: The Anarchist Ball of 1961

As the British anarchist movement got going after a long decade on the back foot, Freedom’s October Ball showcased a burgeoning powerhouse.

The 1950s had been a relative low period for anarchism in Britain. Post war, Soviet dominance of left discourse had drawn most of the broader movement into forms of Leninism and the Communist Party of Great Britain had enormous weight that only began its long collapse after the Hungarian revolution of 1956.

By 1961 however that sloughing off of interest and dominant Leninist dynamism was proceeding apace, and anarchist groups were seeing the benefit with an influx of creative idealists that would underpin the philosophy’s astonishing rise through the 1960s and ’70s.

The October Ball, reported in a November edition of Freedom Newspaper, offers a useful snapshot of the many figures involved in London who would go on to make a splash in wider society as writers, actors and musicians. It’s worth noting that at this time the London Anarchist Group, of which Freedom was a mainstay member, was relatively tiny. The movement remained marred by fallout from a split between the more pacifist/individualist-oriented Union of Anarchist Groups, and the Syndicalist Workers Federation.

Nevertheless, a sense of optimism and growth is evident in the photos below, accompanied by a report from the same edition.

Friday Night and Saturday Morning

When we got to Fulham Town Hall, a man outside the door was selling this week’s Melody Maker with a front-page headline “Mick Mulligan’s Band Breaks Up”. For a while he had us worried: was this what the anarchist ball—which the MM called an “off-beat date”— had already done to its star turn? (We’ve beaten bigger men than them, as Mick Bakunin used to say). It transpired however that after twelve years on the road, the Mulligan-Melly partnership has simply “had enough of dirty transport cafes and damp digs”.

We don’t dig those damp off-beat dates either, but we needn’t have worried, for the ball to celebrate the seventy-fifth birthday of Freedom Press, went off like a bomb, with three hundred or more of London’s liveliest off-beats gyrating between the ballroom (decorated with some of Freedom’s historic back-numbers) and the bar (decorated with Freedom’s editors).

Messages from well-wishers being read. The banner in the background is for Freedom Press ★ London Anarchist Group.

“Are all these people anarchists?” asked wide-eyed American visitor Dachine Rainer (who used to edit Retort). “We should like to think so” we replied, as the place filled up with familiar and new faces. There were jazz-men and musicologists, production engineers and demolition men, psychologists and beatniks, a girl from the San Francisco to Moscow march, luminaries of the Committee of 100 fresh from jail, a troupe of novelists and poets — Charles Humana, Alan Sillitoe, Christopher Logue and writer Cohn Mac-Innes, actor David Markham, students, physicians, meter-readers, Freedom’s machine-minder and one of its typesetters, a gaggle of architects, and the only pacifist bouncer in London’s nightlife—not that he was called upon to perform, for this was an anarchist, and not a law-abiding assembly.

The Thameside Four

Up on the stage, the Mulligan band and George Melly gave no sign that those damp digs had got them down, and when they were overcome by thirst, they were relieved by the Thameside Four, an agreeable bunch of folk-singers and guitarists. When priceless objects had been raffled from the stage (one winner, Schleim Fanaroff, nobly declining his bottle of Scotch), George Melly was presented with a teapot, made for the occasion by potter Frances Sokolov, to replace the silver one taken by the bailiffs when its owner declined to pay that portion of his income tax which the government proposed to spend on lethal ironmongery.

George’s speech of thanks was made all the more impressive as he was under the curious misapprehension that he had been made Mayor of Fulham. (Stranger things have happened—four years ago the then-mayor, David Shopland, said in his inaugural address “I am a believer in anarchy”, and that was before Freedom Press moved in on Fulham [Ed’s note: Freedom was briefly based in Fulham in the early sixties before moving to its current building in Whitechapel].

Melly receiving his ‘Ban the Bomb’ teapot

Among the anarchists who couldn’t be present, we most of all missed Lillian Wolfe; who has been engaged with Freedom Press activity for fifty of its seventy-five years. We send her our affectionate greetings. We were sent greetings from Alex Comfort, Charles Duff, Doris Lessing, Compton Mackenzie, Ethel Mannin, Herbert Read, and other absentees, including Augustus John, who always claims to be our oldest reader: long may he keep that title [Ed’s note: sadly John died between the article being written and being sent to print, on October 31st 1961, aged 83]. His message evoked his recollections of Freedom’s founder, Peter Kropotkin (as did the splendid chestnut beard of one of our guests, the editor of Graduate Careers — a bright light behind an enormous bush, is how he described himself: you’d never guess he was a careerist). Nobody thought of inviting Kropotkin’s daughter [Alexandra] from Hollywood, California, but she wouldn’t have come anyway.

Friday night turned into Saturday morning, and now we’re looking forward to Freedom’s hundredth birthday in Nineteen-Eighty-Four-plus-two. Whether we ever get there or not depends among other things, on what Freedom Press’s Friday night well-wishers do to ensure the continued appearance of Freedom or Anarchy every Saturday morning.

But perhaps we won’t have to wait so long for another ball.

Caleb Williams

The author’s name was a pseudonym, taken from The Adventures of Caleb Williams by William Godwin

Featured pic: George Melly sings Frankie and Johnnie for the crowd, a tune he would go on to sing for many years to come, including as a TV raconteur (see below):