Obituary: Philip Sansom

John Pilgrim
Wednesday 03 November 1999 00:02 GMT

BY THE time of his death, Philip Sansom had been almost forgotten in an intellectual and political world that had honoured, if not enriched, his friend, colleague, and fellow anarchist Colin Ward.

Like Ward, Sansom was part of that resurgence of British anarchism centred around Freedom, the newspaper founded by Prince Peter Kropotkin in 1886. As a young art student, Sansom had been impressed by Herbert Read's Education Through Art (1943). Later, making contact with the people at Freedom, he was agreeably surprised to find that Read (not yet knighted) was a leading spokesman for anarchism.

Although he edited and wrote a great deal of the political analysis and commentary found in that paper in the post-war years, it was as a speaker and debater that Sansom made the most vivid impression. Anyone in late Forties and Fifties London visiting Speakers' Corner, or Manette Street, just by Foyle's bookshop off Charing Cross Road, would sooner or later notice the great leonine head with its luxuriant red hair and beard, and fall under the spell of his rich baritone and coruscating wit.

As an outdoor speaker he was compulsive, as an indoor debater persuasive, even in a court of law. On one occasion, a landlord trying to evict him took him to court. Sansom at his eloquent best won without effort, causing the judge to remark to his clerk, "We don't often get them this articulate, do we, Mr Jones? Some of our barristers would do well to take lessons, don't you think?"

He was not unfamiliar with courts, for the usual reasons that demonstrators find themselves in such places. He was part of the beginning of the campaign against capital punishment and led the occupation of the Cuban Embassy in July 1963 to protest against Castro's treatment of Cuban anarchists. He found an active role in most of the post-war protest movements like CND and Anti- Apartheid but he eschewed the temporary power that such movements can sometimes offer.

Sansom's most notorious moment came in April 1945 when, along with Dr John Hewetson, Vernon Richards, the proprietor of Freedom, and Richards's wife, Marie Louise Berneri, he found himself arraigned at the Old Bailey on a charge of conspiring to cause disaffection among members of the armed forces. They had suggested that liberty removed in the name of freedom during the war was unlikely to be restored after it. There was a strong public reaction, with Herbert Read, George Orwell, Michael Tippett, George Woodcock, Sydney Silverman and Ethel Mannin among the many names on, or involved with, the Freedom Defence Committee.

Forty years later Philip Sansom enjoyed telling the tale of how the police mixed up Herbert Read's art writing with anarchist propaganda and put the three men (Marie Louise was acquitted on the grounds that a wife cannot conspire with her husband) into a non-existent "Surrealist Party". In spite of much public protest, the three were sentenced to a year and served nine months, an experience that marked Sansom much more than he allowed most people to believe.

He worked for a while alongside George Melly at the London Gallery, the Surrealist art gallery run by the Belgian artist E.L.T. Mesens, spent a little time in advertising and eventually earned his living as a successful, if rather improbable, editor of the Sewing Machine Times and the even more obscure Loading Machine Times. At the same time, he continued to write and draw cartoons for Freedom, with occasional spells as editor. It was not unknown for his triple role to get confused. On one notable occasion the domestic readers of the Sewing Machine Times were treated to a full analysis and vigorous defence of a miners' strike.

The murder in the mid-Nineties of Sansom's daughter in America, by her husband, affected him badly and for several years he became a recluse. He did recover though and his last three years saw him, at 80, in jazz clubs like the 100 Club and Ronnie Scott's, reminiscing with those who remembered him, as many did, in full flood at Speakers' Corner.

Philip Sansom, writer and editor: born 19 September 1916; married (one son, one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died London 24 October 1999.

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