CHUMBAWAMBA’S English Rebel Songs 1381-1984 is a glorious celebration of our rich anti-Establishment tradition, too often ignored or ridiculed by the rich and powerful and their educational institutions.
In many respects, Protest is its literary accompaniment.
Combining 20 binary short stories and academic reflections, this collection expresses the continuous desire of the working people of these islands to rise up throughout the centuries against corrupt and exploitative ruling classes, be they feudal, capitalist or neoliberal.
Drawing upon a diverse range of writers, Protest places us in the middle of some of the most significant radical street fights and protests over the last 600 years, from the so-called peasants’ revolt to the anti-Iraq war protests.
Some contributions refract recent public assaults on the Establishment’s nefarious activities and existence.
Never Going Underground by Juliet Jacques is a lyrical and thoughtful reflection on the anti-Section 28 demonstrations as it focuses on the chance encounter of two ex-lovers who meet a decade and more later.
Courttia Newland, in That Right to Be There, holds nothing back in describing the heady confusion, swiftly changing battle lines and the heightened brutality of the police in trying — and failing — to suppress the anti-poll tax demonstration in 1990.
By contrast, Kate Clancy’s The Turd Tree effectively personalises the enervating and glacial emotions of those on the 2003 anti-war marches who are suspended between hope and expectation through the consciousness of two separated parents.
The book introduced me to revolts of which I knew nothing, including the early 16th century Captain Pouch rebellion in the Midlands against some of the early attempted at enclosing common land.
Frank Cottrell-Bryce’s account of the “Fifth Monarchists” who caused the rich in early Restoration London some welcome problems with the cry: “No king but Jesus!” is a reminder of the religious inspiration for many of our nations’ early anti-rich activities.
The quality of the fiction in Protest re-illuminates comparatively well-known rebellions, with Sara Maitland’s female protagonist movingly explaining why, having been liberated by the revolt against the nobles around Richard II, she refuses to be included on the pardon list and so awaits certain death.
In Mastiff, Matthew Holness uses a first-person account of a war-brutalised Cromwellian veteran charged with clearing out the Digger colony at Cobham Hill to devastating effect in illustrating the cynical nature of the counterrevolution.
Yet, for all of this, Protest is a flawed and partial collection. Its coupling of fiction and academic accounts together doesn’t allow the former to be read disintermediated and on their own merits.
I cannot be the only reader who went to the factual framing first and the story second and an amplified appendix would have been a better repository for these contributions.
And there are some unacceptable omissions.There are no accounts of revolutionary protests between 1820 and 1914, hence the Chartist movements and the industrial struggles of the late 19th century that gave rise to the new trade unionism are ignored entirely.
And, aside from Orgreave, there is no mention of the most significant industrial protests of the last century — nothing about the General Strike, the Ford equal pay strike and nothing on Grunwick.
These were either enthusiastically supported or led by the Communist Party and their omission suggests at something rather tiresomely sectarian on the part of Ra Page, the book’s editor.
Or perhaps this reflects a lack of ideological acceptance and interest in, or recognition of, the role of the industrial struggle in positive economic and social change?
Those issues aside, Protest is a valuable treasury of reminders of earlier struggles and a persuasive call for us to have courage in our current ones with a ruthless class enemy.