Resist is engaging, both thought provoking and entertaining. Unlike a lot of well-meaning collections, where the links between contributions are tenuous, Resist is a deftly curated anthology of stories and essays with a sense of purpose that is clear and unambiguous. This is a book for complex political times that celebrates protest as a progressive force in society. The central theme of Resist is opposition to tyranny and the abuse of power by government and institutions in response to protest, which is often accompanied by the demonising of legitimate complaints by ordinary, everyday people; from Boudica’s rebellion against Roman colonialism to marches for bread to the abandonment of people at Grenfell. The format is both exciting and stimulating, each fictional tale accompanied by a factual analysis of events – a brief historical and political context.
There is a radical impetus to this tome, most of the events here are now seen as progressive but that can’t be taken for granted, history is subject to both liberal and regressive reinterpretation. Resist is about ordinary people pushing the boundaries of state control, leading to the creation of a more democratic society. One of the aims of the book is to set modern protest within the general historical context of democratic development.
This book isn’t just about resistance it is an act of resistance in itself, challenging both the establishment’s view of recent events and the hard, cold indifference of the system to popular opposition. This is apparent in relation to the Tottenham riots and Grenfell, where causes come under much more scrutiny; of course, there is no justification of violence, looting or rioting but a questioning of the “official” explanation/interpretation, asking where responsibility lies.
The topic may seem weighty but Resist is a book to relish because it explores the irrepressible nature of the human spirit and goodness knows we need that more than ever right now. Without protest things would change via the ballot box much more slowly (and that had to be fought for in any case). The desire to maintain the status quo is so ingrained in our political system that protest matters. It makes a difference.
I was a student during the Miners’ Strike, when I first saw the police acting outside their powers, but not their reach; stopping cars and National Express coaches, searching for miners to turn back from picket lines. They were acting with the license given them by the Thatcher government. As a young adult I wanted to trust the police but here they were taking sides. It was a small incident but a formative experience. Many officers deeply regretted the politicisation of the force but it does keep recurring.
We should celebrate protest, even if we disagree with it, it’s healthy. Let’s face it, nothing would be happening on climate change, and I’m know what has happened so far is pitifully inadequate, without a sixteen-year-old girl shaming governments not just because she stood up to them but because she is right. The massacre that became known as Peterloo is now infamous, at the time the authorities labelled the crowd gathered to call for representation and reform as subversives and trouble makers. With the two hundredth anniversary we now see where the blame really lay and we know that Peterloo was a big part of the origins of the Guardian newspaper and in Manchester getting parliamentary representation, not to mention it’s contribution to the 1832 Reform Act.
In his introduction to this volume, Ra Page talks about the demonisation of protest, the unlawful crackdown on resistance and the faux justifications of the state. For me, the worst of all is not the mistake but the cover up. Administrations can be wrong, thinking can change, but not to acknowledge that, to deny justice when caught out, is the worst oppression. It goes to the values that underpin society.
We are often told that we never learn from history. Resist draws the comparisons between then and now, the repeat patterns are pretty obvious. Not every protest is legitimate and violence negates legitimacy (on either side), but protest is progressive. We need not to be complacent about the freedoms we have let alone those we want. This is an age of demagoguery and the language of our leaders sends a message to extremists, to agencies, almost a justification of action. Since the election of Bolsonaro in Brazil, the staggeringly high murder rate has fallen but the number of murders by the military police has considerably increased because they feel authorised by the regime, there is no come back. It’s the same engine that helps to promote racism and religious hatred here.
Bidisha writes about Boudica’s rebellion in ‘Occupied Territory’:
“Rouse yourself! The queen has been outraged, her daughter’s defiled.”
The narrator is woken from a nightmare, only to witness the violation of the queen and her daughters by the Romans. Boudica, on her knees, chained to a post, whipped and bloodied;
“Senna and I clutched each other, but there was nothing we could do. We were powerless and humiliated, compelled to watch and wail.”
But they do Resist. This tale of the burning of Londinium and the confrontation between the Iceni and the Romans explores patriarchy, colonialism and bad governance, notions of justice and revenge. Characters experience the desire for revenge, fear, anger, greed and hatred. The righteousness of the cause is weighed against its perversion by looting and the murder women and children in retaliation.
Professor Hingley, Durham University, lays out the history that underpins Bidisha’s story. King Prasutagus, Roman puppet, died. Fearing rebellion, the Romans attacked Queen Boudica. Nero is the ruler of the empire and all must bow down to his authority. This is the war of ‘the wronged women’. The Romans objected to rule of women, Governor Paullinus was in North Wales when his deputy ‘punished’ Boudica. Our sources are Tacitus and Cassius Dio, written long after events.
SJ Bradley’s ‘Black Showers’, deals with the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596. A response to enclosures and failed harvests – hunger. Brooking no rebellion, even if local, the government send Edward Coke, attorney general: ‘Dark settled around Edward Coke as a horde around a gibbet.’ And Smith, who tortures one of the accused to death: ‘The crown wanted the truth…and he has bolted forth with the truth today. He has confessed all.’ Professor John Walter of Essex University points out that, ironically, the government halted the enclosures after the trial.
‘The Cap of Liberty’ by Martin Edwards deals with Peterloo. “It was murder,” says the old man, terrified by a memory of the past that haunts him. He was a special constable, but resigned after the massacre. As befits a tale by a crime writer, there is a mystery here too.
Lucy Caldwell’s ‘The Children’ tells the story of Caroline Norton, who changed the lot of mothers in Britain in the nineteenth century but also gives the narrator’s modern experience. She deals with violence against women, and the role of women as appendages to their husbands, establishing women’s rights to the care of their children. Dr Ben Griffin of Cambridge University identifies that Norton won the discretion of judges to leave the child with the mother up to the age of seven in 1839, raised to sixteen by 1873. Also making it easier to obtain a divorce for abuse in 1857.
Irfan Master deals with the murder of Blair Peach in ‘Inner State’: David Renton comments: “The events at Southall represented a collision between the radical black community and official opinion that may well have distrusted the Front but preferred nonetheless their right to speak over the rights of local residents to live without fear.”
Julia Bell, in ‘Fear in Your Water’, deals with the Grenfell disaster. The narrator lives a shadow life, trying to cope with the loss of her mother, her own physical and mental health, and the memories are nightmares in the aftermath of the fire. No accommodation, no counselling, descent into homelessness. A meditation on grief and compassion’s limits, the difference between the right words and the right actions.
While none of the stories here are destined to become classics, they are engaging and they offer a perspective on events that the plain history cannot do. As Professor John Walter points out in his essay on Bradley’s story, she can bring us ‘the fear and the bravery’. In other words, the inner world of the characters. People sacrificing so much for a better future, for family, for truth. Many of us have been on marches but do we have the courage to stand up for what we believe in when the stakes are high? To support those making a stand when we know they are right?
Paul Burke 4*
Resist: Stories of Uprising edited by Ra Page
Comma Press 9781912697076 hbk Oct 2019