Wildcat and the Egghead: The life of Donald Rooum

It shouldn’t really be me writing this obituary of Donald Rooum the anarchist and his time with Freedom Press, as I knew him for a mere 17 years, a relative drop in the ocean of his experiences. But the truth is that those of his friends and comrades who would have known him best, the likes of Phillip Sansom, Colin Ward and of course Vernon Richards, all passed away before him. 

With Donald passes the only remaining direct link to the anarchist movement of the 1940s, when he began to involve himself just weeks before Sansom, John Hewetson, Richards and Marie Louise Berneri were arrested for their anti-war writing in War Commentary, as Tom Brown and the syndicalists planned a takeover of the stricken publication, where splits that would rock the movement for decades to come began. 

Donald, aged one (nearly two) with his identical twin sisters.

Born on April 20th, 1928, he was among the last to remember a Britain at war with fascism, although too young to be called up a principled horror of war and bombs would infuse his work ever after. 

Though he was known first as a Bradfordian and then for 65 years as a Londoner, Donald Rooum’s first steps as an anarchist were actually taken via a Kent hop-picking project in the autumn of 1944. The son of a left-leaning mother and trade unionist father in a red city which had produced the very first splash headline of the Communist Daily Worker, the 16-year-old already had links to the Communist Party, briefly held, when he was sent to the fields as part of a Ministry of Food placement scheme. 

But he was starting to become disillusioned with the Party’s positions, and on his day off he took a trip to Hyde Park, where he came across an anarchist speaker and was immediately impressed, taking out a subscription to their paper War Commentary (which would revert to the name Freedom from August 1945) in short order. Speaking on a long interview with The Final Straw shortly before his death, he recalled:

“Everyone was talking about something unusual. One bloke said he was God from the Old Testament and was putting us right on some of the book. Philip Sansom was selling War Commentary outside the park gate, it was a very good time and I was very interested. I had until then been, along with my mother, a member of a Communist Party front, the Society for Cultural Relations, and what interested me about the party was the socialism. 

“When I heard the anarchists speaking the general idea that you couldn’t have a socialist society by ordering it, that’s not how the world works. I can’t order you to be free or send you to prison. I got the anarchist message from then. The speaker, Fred Law, identified himself as a Christian anarchist and talked of the individual, saying what you need to feel fulfilled is the freedom to do what you want and not be told what to do by governments.”

After heading back from the fields to Bradford his introduction however was quickly cut short, as no issue appeared that November — the anarchist press had been raided and its entire editorial team arrested for sedition. Writing to enquire over his missing papers, he received a note from the administrator Lillian Wolfe explaining that along with all the staff, War Commentary’s subscriber lists had been taken as evidence in what would become the infamous War Commentary Trial. 

A month later, unbeknownst to young subscribers at the other end of the country, a takeover attempt by anarcho-syndicalist backers of the paper was also made against the editors, which though it failed would set the tone for much of the next few decades of splits and arguments which he would have to navigate. Vernon Richards, a major figure in Donald’s political life, would emerge from the scrap as proprietor of Freedom Press, and Freedom newspaper. As he got more involved with Freedom, Donald would find himself caught in feuds between the press and first the Syndicalist Workers Federation, then Albert Meltzer and Black Flag.

But the young man was not yet at the heart of these events as he was, aged 19, conscripted into the army for two years. Following his own inclinations he had initially, as with many other radicals at the time, registered as a conscientious objector but a domineering aunt had pressured his mother until he gave in. Speaking to Spitalfields Life in 2012 he noted: “The truth is I was more frightened of my aunt than I was of the army. Because I was known to be an anarchist, I was spared from posting abroad.” 

Leaving the army in 1949, Donald was awarded a resettlement grant and, following a longstanding interest in illustration, spent the next four years studying commercial design at Bradford Regional Art School where he learned many of the artistic skills that he would employ in his work and politics for the next 70 years. His interest in anarchism continued however and he was an active participant in the 1949 anarchist summer school in Liverpool, as well as beginning a stint of public speaking on the subject in his spare time. Talking to The Comic Journal in 2002 he recalled:

“In Bradford there were all kinds of open-air speakers. I got on quite well at first, but I had to give it up eventually. I was physically attacked by elements in the crowd, by a group of Roman Catholic students. I managed just fine at the beginning when I told them that there were Catholic anarchists, but eventually, they were determined to stop me from speaking. I also spoke on anarchism on street corners in Liverpool.”

His connections to the group around Freedom also grew as he submitted his first cartoon strips to the Philip Sansom-edited Syndicalist, ‘Scissor Bill’, and towards the end of his time at the school he was involved, with two others, in organising a meeting on behalf of the London Anarchist Group, campaigning against the death penalty. He told Final Straw:

“This was advertised as a LAG meeting and all kinds of people showed up. Parliamentarians and whatnot turned up. So they organised another meeting as The Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment. And they got a load of people who, eventually, they had the last push up and they got rid of it.” 

The experience of campaigning against the death penalty taught him a valuable lesson which would show up as a major theme from the 1960s onwards. His view: “Pick on the things where society is weak.” 

London bound

Qualifying as a commercial artist would mark the last days of Donald’s time in Bradford. Looking for work and keen to put his talents at the service of the movement, he moved to London in 1953-4 and finding lodgings with a fellow anarchist in Holborn, near to what was then the Freedom Bookshop premises so he could help out with bundling the papers every other week. 

The 1950s and early 1960s swiftly became a whirlwind of activity for Donald and his growing family. He was initially active in speaking at Hyde Park, and was involved in setting up the Malatesta Club — the first such project to have been launched in some time and the only one of its kind in London bar a small place linked to the CNT in exile. Opening on Mayday 1954 at 155 High Holborn, the club was hired on the advice of Nigerian Marxist Manny Obahiagbon with Phillip Sansom as its prime mover. 

The Malatesta Club

Open seven nights a week, purely via volunteer labour, the club had its own resident jazz band and was named after the classic Italian anarchist ostensibly because he was the only person who the collection of communists and individualists (Donald being among the latter) could all agree was a good guy. The club was a rarity in bringing together old survivors from the Spanish Civil War, African national liberationists, elements from across the spectrum of anarchist thought and a wide variety of humanists and the socially liberated who could be assured of a warm reception from the forward-thinking crowd. 

The club lasted for four years ending in 1958, being pushed out by rising rental prices, but from 1961 began hosting at his home monthly “off centre” discussion meetings, advertised regularly in Freedom which lasted until the latter part of the decade. 

Challenor and the 60s

From the 1960s Donald’s career as an illustrator began to take off. Drawing his first cartoon for the Daily Sketch in 1960, he began getting work in the Mirror, Private Eye and Spectator through the rest of the decade, as well as beginning what would be a long-running association with Peace News. Talking to The Comics Journal he described some of his career influences stemming from that period:

“The cartoonists I most admire are the British cartoonists who worked in comics from about 1900 to 1960 or so. These cartoonists are the most amazing artists, who worked anonymously and illustrating extremely feeble jokes in children’s comics. They are really magnificent graphic artists — Reg Parlett is one of them, Roy Nixon is another. I’m also a big admirer of Leo Baxendale. Of Baxendale’s generation, I also very much like Ken Reid. He was a neurotic and a slow worker — he only did one page a week and it took him 50 hours. Of course, he was paid by the page, not by the hours he worked. Baxendale was capable of doing ten pages a week. He was fantastic.”

He also wrote for Freedom Press, including in its Anarchy series of pamphlets, interrogating the philosophy through an individualist lens

Of particular note in the early part of the 60s however was the Challenor Affair, which took place on July 11th 1963. The famous case, in which Donald outwitted a senior police officer who was attempting to frame him for carrying an offensive weapon (to wit, a brick), made legal history and spawned its own police jargon — “doing a Challenor”, or avoiding justice by pleading mental health issues. 

That year Greece’s Queen Frederika, an international lightning rod for left activism due to her hard-right views and involvement in promoting a strategy of tension against the Greek left, had already come to London once, in April, and been humiliated, being chased down the street by protestors. 

A month later, Greek peace activist and MP Grigoris Lambrakis was assassinated, meaning that when she returned to London from July 9th-12th demos were well mobilised at Claridge’s hotel in Mayfair, where she was staying. The Met, having been unprepared for the reaction to her last visit, went mob-handed the second time around, led by the notorious Harold Challenor. Donald, in the wrong place at the wrong time, was targeted for a lesson. Donald wrote extensively about the case at the time, and sketched his impressions of what happened in a panel series which appeared in the July 2013 issue of Freedom, reproduced below:

Thanks to a small oversight by Challenge when planting the brick, Donald had a trick up his sleeve. Realising Challenor had never actually placed the evidence on him, upon being bailed he and his barrister proceeded directly to the office of a commercial scientist who proved that not a speck of brick dust could be found in his pockets, or anywhere else.

At trial, it was a legal massacre. Rather than Donald it was the officer who looked to be the defendant, and the cartoonist was acquitted. Challenor was himself sent to trial the following year charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and made an, astonishingly, successful bid to escape justice for his crime by having himself diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Three of his fellow detectives went to jail.

Eventually a full Parliamentary inquiry was held over the case, the first held under the 1964 Police Act, which also found Challenor innocent. The result was widely decried as a whitewash of blatant corruption.

Despite winning a famous victory, Donald was not keen on being picked out for future reprisals, and amid the uptick in his professional work quit the protesting game, preferring to “stay at home and mind the shop”. Picking up work as a lecturer on typography at the London College of printing, he remained intermittently active with Vero at Freedom and, upon Vero’s retirement in 1968, John Rety. His involvement with Freedom more or less dropped off from this point as many of the original members of the collective, including Philip Sansom, moved on.

He also sketched for Peace News and Skeptic until the early 1970s, stopping when he began to study for a degree at the Open University from 1973-79. When his regular work for Peace News ended he took on a strip in 1974 for Philip Sansom, entitled Wildcat. Though the magazine itself only lasted a year, it featured the first iteration of what was to become his most famous character. 

While studying and watching his children grow, Donald also took a foray in the 1970s into book illustration, with his first commission being Classics of Humour, edited by Michael O’Mara. He worked on several books in the 70s and later in life, including a number of Wildcat related titles and his last commercial project, Don’t You Believe It! by John Radford, which came out in 2007.

Having been awarded a first-class degree for his studies, Donald would return to Wildcat from 1980 when, amid a changing cast of editors, Phillip Sansom came back from his own break with Freedom and persuaded Donald to restart the column. It was to start a remarkable run — 34 years of one artist, every month, pitting his satirical wit against the issues of the day. Hundreds upon hundreds of them. Speaking on his general thinking when creating the lead pairing of Wildcat and free-range Egghead, he told The Final Straw

“There had to be some kind of female, and thinking about that, I decided to make the wildcat female, then I thought about the contrast between the anarchists that I knew. Some of them were, like Colin Ward, very anxious for anarchism to become intellectually respectable. Some were just the opposite and wanted to go around throwing things. I thought the cat could be the wild anarchist, and the free-range egghead could be the intellectual. So that’s how it started.

“Then everything had to be to do with anarchism or the news. The characters would, except for the cat, remain the same. The cat could depart from character if we had a particular story needed telling. Other characters included the flat-capped man, who was based on the idiots who would insist on interrupting me when I spoke at Hyde Park.”

Many other supporting characters would emerge over time, ranging from the thick-limbed walking bombs of the war industry, to blunt PC pigs, caricatures of political bigwigs and gently mocking figures representing faces and tropes of the anarchist movement. Some of these latter are summarised in a sketch he put together for the 1986 book Freedom / A Hundred Years (see later).

In 1983 Donald was able to retire from his lecturing work aged 55, though he kept his hand in by running a humour class at the London Cartoon Centre. He moved briefly to Taunton which coincided with a crisis at Freedom, and on his return to London in 1985 it was to find that the paper, which had briefly rejuvenated itself in the early 1980s, was in utter crisis. Run by just two editors, Dave Peers and Stu Stuart, it was barely coming out on a monthly basis and the latter editor was in the process of alienating many readers with an approach which would eventually see Stuart get escorted from the premises for his own safety in 1985. 

Back at Freedom

Donald got stuck in helping and upon Stuart’s “retirement” was named, along with Charlie Crute, Francis Wright and Dave Peers as part of a new editorial collective, run by Vernon Richards who had for the first time in many years intervened with the intention of guiding Freedom back to some semblance of order. In the event, Donald was one of a very few people who kept the faith, and kept Freedom Press going — a keystone role he would hold in one way or another for the next three decades. 

As a protege of Vero from the latter days of War Commentary, Donald was fully trusted to help run the paper and was rejoined in that period by longstanding writers such as Colin Ward and Harold Sculthorpe, as well as by faces old and new like Peter Marshall and Michael Duane, many of who got involved in the publishing of some of Freedom Press’s best-known books around that time. 

Vero’s re-involvement also saw him task Donald with putting together a special summary book of the first century of Freedom’s history, in cahoots with a number of the Press’s old writers and indeed some less predictable new ones, including Class War, Alan Albon (latterly of Green Anarchist), Nicolas Walter and Heiner Becker among many others. Donald found the production of Freedom / A Hundred Years, which had a tight turnaround, to be hard work and typically, let his artwork do the talking on how he felt about the whole ordeal:

Even so, retirement from his day job seemed to give Donald something of a productive second wind and even while producing the 88-page centenary book he was involving himself in both Freedom Press’s everyday activities and, in 1987, started a second new cartoon strip, this time for the Skeptic. The comic strip, ‘Sprite’, featured the cartoonist himself pondering some of life’s comings and goings. It would run now and again into the early 2000s. 

The 80s and 90s also saw the first selection of what would eventually become a series of seven books charting Donald’s long series of cartoons and their consideration of anarchism and society. In 1985, Wildcat Anarchist Comics was published, followed by Wildcat Strikes Again (1989), ABC of Bosses (1991), Health Service Wildcat (1994) and Twenty Year Millennium Wildcat (1999).  

His joint editorship of Freedom lasted another three years until, in October 1989, Vero decided to take the paper back to being a fortnightly and while Donald continued contributing, he thought running the paper at that frequency was altogether too much. He stepped back into a more auxiliary role, but continued with other projects, including his excellent illustrated introduction to anarchism, What is Anarchism which was first published in 1992. A politically precise man, Donald runs through many of the classic thinkers in clear terms — the book was a popular read and republished by PM Press in 2016.

In the 90s Donald continued to help out with the newspaper and in publishing, but found himself towards the end of the decade having to take on more responsibilities as the Press struggled to connect with a new wave of anarchism that was increasingly leaving it behind. As the turn of the century approached, the Press and its building in Aldgate was increasingly run by just four comrades, directed by Vero via letter — Donald, Sylvie Edwards, Charlie Crute as editor and Kevin MacFaul as bookshop manager. Of these, two were receiving small stipends from Vero, Kevin and Charlie. It was Donald who alerted Vero to the fact that Charlie wasn’t earning while bearing the brunt of editorial production, and persuaded them both to work out a scheme of payments. Among the many jobs Donald ended up doing over his long association with the press, he finished up as its de facto book keeper and stalwart bookshop volunteer, keeping the place open every Saturday.

Vero died in 2001, leaving the Press in disarray. In a conversation many years later, Donald described the situation at that time:

“I was still doing the books and the shop on Saturdays. I thought it was a bad day and learned later that it was the best day of the week! But it was so slow that I was able to do the accounts, keep the money coming in, keep up with the subscriptions, send out notices to people who needed to renew, made a note of donations and everything like that, so I was doing a lot of the office work.

“After Vero’s death we kept going and I was not too happy about the attitude of the other comrades who were running the thing because Vero, as you know, had quarrelled with Albert Meltzer, Albert had managed to get most of the London movement on his side and opposed to Vero and Freedom Press. Vero had counteracted that, writing “instead of an obituary” which was very rude. I had been to Albert’s funeral and wrote an account which was rejected by Charlie as representing Albert as having too many followers. So I wrote another obituary. Richard Boston, writing of the death said that Vero had used the bludgeon and I had used the rapier!

“I would have then liked to make overtures to the rest of the movement but Charlie especially was very much anti the rest of the anarchists which I thought was inappropriate. So we were very much plodding along. Then Toby Crowe arrived. He had no right to be there, just moved in and started telling us what to do and whatnot.”

Toby, a former activist with the Socialist Party of Great Britain, represented much of what Donald felt Freedom Press needed. Younger, connected to the class struggle wing of the movement and unburdened of infighting or sectarianism, the tall new-minted anarchist had energy where Freedom seemed to be lacking it. Despite quarrels which led to Charlie and Kevin leaving, Donald felt there was, at last, a chance for him to step back and in 2003, on the occasion of his 75th birthday, he stopped doing the books and announced his retirement from Freedom Press, though he continued to pen his comic strip for many years to come.

Meeting Donald

As was the case for so many over the years, my first encounter with Donald Rooum came through his pomposity-pricking Wildcat strip. That particular skit (below) skewered government, opposition, church, business — and poked a little fun at anarchists. It was a perfect introduction to the work and thought of Freedom Press’s longest-serving member.

(Freedom, October 25th 2003)

A keen sense of the absurdity of political life was as integral to Donald’s work and thought, as was a self-deprecatory humour which he laced through his art, aimed at both himself and the anarchist movement he inhabited. Through his two most iconic characters, the Cat and the Egghead (who if it was not in the end Donald himself in another guise certainly comes close) he maintained a wry oversight of the movement.

I arrived after his retirement, as he left in April and I came on board in September — just in time to see Toby leave. That combined with my infrequent presence at the Press meat that for many months we didn’t cross paths, and it was only through long-time Freedom sub-editor Jayne Clementson that we interacted. His work and legacy however were well respected by the Press’s readers and in the aftermath of Toby’s tenure, which had ruffled a great many feathers for good or ill, he was seen as something of a pillar of stability and the living memory of the Press. Every editor from 2003 onwards, regardless of their personal political position, made a point to continue the tradition of giving him space in the paper, right through to its closure as a monthly in 2014.

The final classic Wildcat strip which appeared in the last 2014 issue of Freedom as a monthly title

Stopping activity didn’t entirely suit Donald even in his late 70s, and by 2005 he was back, occasionally helping out and coming to meetings to offer a bit of background and kindly advice, as a sort of twinkly grandfather figure. It says a lot about Donald that in the face of more crises than can reasonably be counted across the following decade, he remained a peaceable and principled presence who could be relied on to remind everyone which way they were supposed to be aiming their rhetorical guns. Looking through some of our correspondence over the last few years, a particular note jumps out from an email which says much about this reluctance to entirely retire from volunteering:

“I have worked for Freedom Press since I came to London in 1954, in various capacities including editor, subscriptions manager, and shopkeeper, but never needed to be paid because I had a job, or more recently a pension. I suppose I follow a working-class tradition. My family, and most people I know, have always spent much of their free time doing voluntary work for chapels, charities, political groups, or sports clubs.” 

In 2008, in time for his 80th birthday, a retrospective of his work was shown at Conway Hall. Donald was delighted by the showing, which brought his work to a new audience and gave him a platform to pass on some of the ideals and practical lessons he’d learned throughout his life. He was gladdened to see recognition of his work in later life both then and, later, through an art video piece, Wildcat by Adam Lewis Jacob which he regarded as an “original, entertaining documentary of anarchist propaganda.” 

By 2012 he was again a regular at meetings, often interjecting with tidbits of advice and support, volunteering to edit the history section of the paper on the grounds that he lived through much of it. He continued to contribute articles with intelligent, elegant writing through to 2014 when it closed as a monthly, supported the Press both practically and financially through one more financial crisis which came to a head around that time, and in 2016 retired from the Collective for the “last time”.

I place last time in quote marks because even then, aged 88, he was not quite finished with Freedom. Instead, he joined the Friends of Freedom, a group convened in 1985 to hold the building at 84b Angel Alley in trust for the anarchist press. He continued in that role into 2018, where his immense energy and passion for the project he, Vero, Marie Louise Berneri, Lilian Wolfe, and so many others had dedicated their lives to, ran up against an increasing need for more naps. He finally retired from involvement for the last time – though even so, living now in sheltered accommodation at the other end of Whitechapel High Street, he continued to regularly keep in touch with old comrades to see how things were going. Despite increasing health problems he could often be found at the cafe at the corner of his street, chatting to the early morning crowd, and would make short trips to say hello and catch up on movement gossip. 

After a bout of flu the last I saw of him was just a week or two before his death, on probably his last walk down the obscure, forbidding little alley leading to the building where he had left such an indelible impression with his wit, stoic hard work and patience. He was, I am glad to say, able to sit in a bright, welcoming space filled with thousands of books dedicated to the cause of liberty that he had spent his life defending — no few owing their very existence to him – and surrounded by young comrades who were happy to make time for a widely loved grandee of the movement. He professed himself well pleased with what had been achieved, and the last I saw of him was as he ambled slowly into the light of the outside world, whistling gently.

~ Rob Ray


Main pic: Kindly given by Donald’s family.