Homage to Caledonia

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Portrait of Stuart Christie by Iain Clark ©2009 www.iainclark.net

45 years ago, on the last day of July 1964 Stuart Christie, a newly-turned 18-year-old Glaswegian anarchist, left London for Paris and Madrid on a mission whose objective was to kill the last of the Axis dictators — General Francisco Franco. Christie was threatened with execution by being garroted, just six weeks after his 18th birthday.

As Stuart muses to himself during the ‘Council of War’ trying him : ‘How, in the name of the “wee man”, had I ended up here ?’” As we ponder the detritus of mono-political culture we interview an inspirational relic from a different era.
Christie is a classic unsung hero in Scotland. He wouldn’t have it any other way, but his commitment to core beliefs, humour, inventiveness and bravery mark him out as a significant figure in late 20th C European radicalism. Bella  interviewed him about his life’s politics, reflections and thoughts on the current crisis.

Bella C: I wanted to ask you about reflections over 40 years on the world. I suppose the touching point is the British State and opposition to the militarism that’s in built to this power force. That for me is where the agenda (s) of Bella Caledonia – loosely defined as ‘self-determination’ and your political history make some sense. Is that how you see it?

Stuart Christie: It would take a thick book to answer that question. Like everyone else, I’m still reflecting, looking back for lessons to draw — and wondering how we get from where we are to where we want to be. It might feel that we are a bit stuck and lost at the moment, but history never stops, and the direst of situations can change suddenly and unexpectedly, especially if you keep pushing against the barriers — at which point it’s all down to not being afraid to use initiative and imagination, and trying to turn each and every moment to our advantage. It also helps enormously to be genetically optimistic!

Bella C: How’s ‘Granny Made Me an Anarchist’ going? Are you glad you put that together?

Stuart Christie: I don’t have the latest sales figures, but it’s moving along steadily, and once the film comes out – if it’s ever made – it’ll give the book another sales boost. The film script is currently being written by two old friends of mine — Ronan Bennett and Duncan Campbell who, between them, will be able to capture the humour and the political nuances of the time. Not sure who they’ll get to play me though — probably Gregor Fisher and maybe Elaine C. Smith as ‘Granny’.

Granny puts the record straight as regards the politics of the post WWII period, from my perspective anyway. What triggered my decision to update the original Christie File — which was written quite hurriedly and without access to much of the archives — was when I was writing a brief family history I came across intriguing snippets about the lives of some of my paternal forebears from the fishing village of Skateraw, which is located on one of the headlands between Stonehaven and Aberdeen. A Victorian artist by the name of George Washington Brownlow painted a number of scenes illustrating the lives of fisherfolk in the area, including one in particular of a multiple baptism from the prison cell in the tower of  Stonehaven Tollbooth. The Episcopalian minister — who was being held prisoner on the orders of ‘Butcher’ Cumberland, on his way to Culloden — was baptising children raised up to his cell window in fish baskets. Brownlow, interestingly, used the actual descendants of those who had been involved in the original ceremony in 1745 – which included quite a few members of my immediate and extended family. Here were people with fascinating but unrecorded lives; all we have left is an old Victorian painting. People were also starting to write about the politics of the Sixties as a historical and cultural period— and of course they were all totally reliant on contemporary media reports, academic theses, novels – or police records so it was time to put the record straight– as far as I could. No one else was doing it, and certainly few others had the inside track on those areas in which I had been involved. Interestingly, the most common response from readers who were contemporaries — intelligent, well-read, professional people —  is that what I have written about was a genuine revelation to them. Again and again, they simply had no idea what was going on around them at the time. The Sixties for them was about something else completely…music, and lifestyle but for me it was a salutary lesson in how compartmentalised our lives are, including my own.

Bella C: What’s your view of the latest emerging crisis in British finance capital? Is this an opportunity of exposure of some relations or a sign that a banking coup has been successful?

Stuart Christie: The current crisis has clearly been provoked by capitalism’s own contradictions — and the greed of the money-men; unfortunately, however, unlike in the past, we no longer have any cohesive popular or labour movement around to be able to turn the situation to our advantage — at least at the moment — so its impossible to foresee the possible consequences of what’s happening – there are too many unknown un-know-ables.

To paraphrase Durruti, we may not end up sitting on piles of ruins as the financial services sector blasts and ruins its own world before leaving the stage of history, but we’ll probably find ourselves squatting in our own repossessed houses. I have no idea how things will develop. As Karl Popper’s said: ‘We can’t know today what we can only know tomorrow’ so it’s important we accept the reality of the situation as a starting point: think pro-actively and imaginatively with libertarian ideas and options wherever possible — and just see what opportunities develop — if any! Not a lot more I can say on that one

Bella C: Do you freel freer from ‘movements’ and ‘ideologies’ now at this time in your life? Does this feel a change because of you or because of the ‘death of ideology’ whatever that means?

Stuart Christie: I have never been a ‘movement’ or ‘ideologically-driven’ person. For me anarchism isn’t about a movement or an ideology, it’s always been about an ‘Idea’ of the heart as well as the head, not about intellectual point-scoring, conversion-rates or organisation-building, which is neither productive or inspiring. Somebody recently reminded me about Utah Phillips quoting the old Wobbly militant Jack Miller and hitting the nail on the head, for me anyway: ‘We didn’t have any intellectual life; we lived in our emotions, we were a passionate people and we were comfortable in our emotions. We made commitments to struggle, emotionally; commitments for which there are no words. But those commitments carried us through 50, 60 years of struggle. You show me people who make those commitments intellectually and i don’t know where they’ll be next week … armed only with our sense of degradation as human beings, we came together and organized and changed the condition of our lives. Why can’t you young people, with all you’ve got, do the same thing?”

Bella C: What do you feel most proud of – the work for the Black Cross? Direct action as a young man in Spain?

Stuart Christie: I hesitate to use the word proud, but to know I helped re-form the Anarchist Black Cross in 1967 — that is, picking up the idea from the Russian anarchists of the 1920s, and seeing the way it has developed and grown internationally, and autonomously — is certainly satisfying. As for my experiences in Spain and elsewhere, that was all part of my education, and invaluable it was too… If I’m proud of anything – apart from my daughter — I’d probably say it’s been to do with the extent of my various publishing projects — books, pamphlets and journals such as Black Flag, Simian Publications, Cienfuegos Press, The Anarchist Review, Refract Publications, The Meltzer Press, The Free-Winged Eagle (in Orkney), ChristieBooks – and so on. It’s not over yet, hopefully. All these titles were — and are — educational seeds that are out there, planting ideas that will, hopefully germinate and grow in the minds of those who come across them…

Bella C: John McLean said the ‘disintegration of the British State is a socialist act.’ Can it be an anarchist one too? Do you see the British State losing credibilty and coherence?

Stuart Christie: The disintegration of the state, British or otherwise, can be socially beneficial only if there exists a cohesive popular movement with, relatively, shared ideals – or a vision – which can provide the necessary organisation to coordinate and administer society. That movement and shared vision existed in MacLean’s time in the form of the Trade Union and the wider labour and socialist movement. The disintegration of the Spanish State in 1936, triggered by the attempted clerical-fascist military coup d’etat, clearly did have revolutionary anarchist consequences inasmuch as it was the anarcho-syndicalist labour movement that defeated the military uprising in most of Spain and led to one of the most profound social revolutions in recent history.

As for the British State — and Parliament and politicians — losing credibility and coherence, I’m not the one to ask as they never had any as far as I’m concerned. However, it’s clear that among the wider public they have lost — and are continuing to lose, and at a jaw-droppingly accelerating pace— all pretence of dignity and much of their thin veneer of legitimacy, especially under the particularly pernicious influence of the Labour Party. Unfortunately, the wide preponderance of Scots in positions of political and economic power has also seriously eroded and subverted the once respected reputation of Scottish integrity.

Bella C: What’s role do you see for national culture – language, poetry, in the struggle? Can minority languages be supported and allowed to exist without eroding internbationalism? I’m thinking of Basque, Catalan, Gaelic, Corsican struggles movements and cultures.

Stuart Christie: I don’t see any problems with a flourishing of ‘minority’ cultures, in fact the more the merrier; variety can only enrich, not dilute, social life.  The danger arises when and if  ‘minorities’ — be they cultural, racial, ideological, social or whatever — acquire power and become exclusive, elitist and self-serving in their desire to retain that power and remain among the ‘elect’ of humanity.

Bella C: You were involved in the Committee of 100, what do you think of the current and ongoing campaigns against Trident at Faslane? With Field Marshall Lord Bramall declaring Trident ‘useless’ – and the ‘downturn’ meaning we cant afford it – could we be on the eve of winning that battle?

Stuart Christie: At the time I was involved in the Scottish Committee of 100 and the so-called ‘Scots Against War’ in the early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, particularly during the Cuban Missile Crisis, we saw the anti-nuclear campaign in the Clyde as a matter of life and death, imminent life and death in fact; it was — we thought —  the ‘eve of destruction’ as it were, but it turned out not to be, fortunately, for the moment anyway.

The current anti-Trident campaign is important if only because in the interests of democracy and humanity the state and politicians have, in my view, to be challenged constantly and held to account on every front.

But it’s equally important to remember that even if Trident is declared redundant and useless, it won’t be a genuine ‘victory’, the state will always find some new and more powerful weapon or threat to take its — and its successors’ — place. Unlike the words or the sentiment of the ‘Internationale’, there can be no ‘final’ victory – the struggle is forever, it’s the nature of who we are— and the nature of the desire for power.

Bella C: Thank you.

Arena, like its predecessor, the Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review, aims to tap into the rich seam of libertarian ideas, culture, history and practice, and provide a focal point for anarchist debate. the twice-yearly journal will bring together stimulating writing and scholarship on all aspects of libertarian culture, arts, life and politics – and, hopefully, provoke discussion, polemic and debate in the process. Designed for a general, critically-minded readership, Arena will cover the entire spectrum of the arts: film, theatre, art criticism, ideas, poltiical theory and practice, reportage, fiction and non-fiction.

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  1. John Wight says:

    Great interview with a fascinating man. I remember reading ‘Granny Made Me An Anarchist’ a couple of years ago and wondering what happened to him. Inspiring to see that Stuart Christie has retained his commitment to radical ideas.

    1. Kevin says:

      Totally agree, John. There is something uniquely inspiring about someone who’s lifelong commitment to radical progressive ideas neither dissipates nor stagnates.

      Stuart Christie’s commitment to radical publishing over many decades – including some outstanding works of fiction – is just as impressive and inspiring. You know the books he publishes will have quality, substance and, crucially, for me, an aesthetic, which on a shoestring budget is always the hallmark of a labour of love.

  2. A man of principle. His book “Granny made me an Anarchist” was a good and funny read.

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