After the anarchy, the comedy
The funeral of a veteran anarchist last week turned into a rare revolutionary celebration
Sunday 26 May 1996
There was nothing run-of-the-mill about Friday's funeral, but then there was nothing ordinary about the life of Albert Meltzer. He became an anarchist in 1935, at the age of 15, and over the next 60 years became a key player in the international anarchist movement. He was a veteran of the battle of Cable Street against Oswald Mosley, the Spanish Revolution, anti-Nazi resistance in pre-war Germany, and anti-Franco resistance in post-war Spain. He died in much the same spirit, after collapsing at an anarcho-syndicalist conference earlier this month.
Albert Meltzer was never very far from the barricades in life and, almost predictably, his death has produced a skirmish in the modern anarchist movement. Begun in the 19th Century by Marx's follower Mikhail Bakunin, it holds that people can live better without government, and has been at the forefront of much revolutionary action around the world.
One side holds he was the "torch-bearer" of international anarchism, the other that he was a "sham". Vernon Richards, who over 50 years ago registered with Meltzer as a conscientious objector at a Labour Exchange, is now among his fiercest critics. Last week the front page of the anarchist fortnightly, Freedom, carried a vitriolic attack on Meltzer by Richards, entitled "Instead of an Obituary". "I believe that for the past 30 years he did more harm than good and his libellous autobiography condemns him for all time," Richards wrote. He finds many of Meltzer's claimed achievements "nonsense" and says he is "bursting [his] sides with laughter" with regard to "all his activity during and after the Spanish civil war."
Another anarchist associated with Freedom said he would only consider attending Meltzer's funeral to "check he was six feet under". Meanwhile, Nicolas Walter, who contributes to the anarchist fortnightly, was a little more ambivalent. "He subjected me to a stream of abuse for 30 years," he said yesterday. "But it takes all sorts to make a revolution."
Stuart Christie, who was with Albert Meltzer when he died and is the executor of his will, dismissed the article as "dancing on Meltzer's grave". "It is pedantic pettiness and poison from Freedom," he said. "They are just a small group of people. Albert was the glue, the arch-stone, the link in the chain, while they are just on the periphery." On Friday a crowd of at least 200 people of all ages from across Britain, Spain, Germany and South America, following the funeral cortege through the driving rain, bore testimony to this version of Meltzer.
Christie himself has been a high- profile character in the anarchist movement for more than 30 years. Newspaper articles from the early Seventies refer to him as "Britain's best-known anarchist". In 1971, fresh from three years incarceration in a Spanish jail for carrying explosives and already the co-author of The Floodgates of Anarchy with Albert Meltzer, 26-year-old Christie was arrested in Britain as a suspected terrorist. He spent 16 months in Brixton prison on remand, but was acquitted after the jury found that the police had planted explosives in his car.
At Albert Meltzer's funeral, the long-haired activist of the Seventies was just recognisable as he paid tribute to his long-time friend and collaborator. Commentators at the time of his celebrated trial recall that Christie always liked to confuse people's expectations with the way he looked, making sure his hair was combed and that he looked well-groomed rather than scruffily anarchic. An interview with him in 1972 says he was unhappy to be photographed on one occasion because he hadn't shaved. On his release he told a press conference: "It was me the anarchist [the jury] could relate to. I didn't live in a commune. I had a house and a car." On Friday, he cut a respectable figure, wearing a suit with a tie striped in the anarchist colours red and black and as straight-backed as in the blurry photographs of 1972.
Meltzer's detractors are "worried" about Christie, seeing him as the "natural successor" to his mentor. If some people see him as taking the torch from Meltzer, however, he is not entering the race. "Even to suggest that is rubbish," he said. "I am yesterday's man and I am now peripheral. It is the young people who will decide what anarchism is in 1996; it is the youth who will take the movement forward." His own belief is that the Seventies were a time when "expectations were pitched too highly". Anarchism is far from dead however: "The pendulum of history swings backwards and forwards and the time will come again for anarchists."
At the funeral someone remembered Meltzer saying that when he became an anarchist he had been "a young man in a movement of old people". Before he died, he said he was a "young man in a movement of young people".
At Celestial Gardens, an appropriate sounding suburban cul-de-sac where Meltzer lived out his last days, the crowd gathering last week seemed about as at home in their surroundings as an anarcho-syndicalist conference in Weston-super-Mare. Which, as it turned out, was where Albert Meltzer died, still in full flow.
In speaking of the Albert they knew in the Seventies at that commune in Berlin or when they worked with him on Black Flag, the anarchist newspaper he set up and which is still running today, they also remembered their movement's past and looked to the future.
Not all, of course, were anarchists. In Meltzer's busy and varied life, he had many jobs and had worked with many different people. He was a fairground promoter, tailor, lorry driver and even worked on the Daily Telegraph as a copytaker. His part as an extra in the 1941 anti-Nazi film Pimpernel Smith was shown at his funeral and the stand-up comedian, Noel James, was a personal request from Meltzer because he had once sold jokes to make a living.
In suburban Lewisham the curious sight of Meltzer's funeral cortege had the net-curtains twitching. First came a glass carriage drawn by two black horses with a jazz band, which played quirky, jokey versions of music- hall classics. Behind, the procession of mourners had all the appearance of a political demonstration: standard bearers holding anarchist flags against the wind, people of all ages dressed in uniform black and red, children zipped into buggies next to Spanish and German veterans recalling the barricades.
The band drew the residents of Lewisham out of their front-doors and the sight of 200 anarchists kept them on the garden path. Blue-rinsed women at bus-stops in the town centre watched open-mouthed. Everyone agreed Albert Meltzer would have found it all a great joke. "If I am wrong and there is a God," he wrote in his autobiography, I Couldn't Paint Golden Angels, "I hope He's got a great sense of humour."
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