Sunday, 28 February 2010

Anarchists and aniseed balls

Bumped up against two different strands of Englishness yesterday. We went to Whitstable, which is almost a theme park of Englishness, though a lot less contrived than that description suggests (though still a bit). Whitebait, aniseed balls, scampi and chips, sherbet lemons, oysters, pineapple cubes, tweed cap, whelks: that's a pretty English list and we managed to buy all of them and eat most of them on the day.

Whilst we were mooching round the little old shops, T was in discussion with a producer about a piece she's done for today's Broadcasting House (about twenty minutes in) based on a book by Alex Butterworth: 'The World that Never Was'. It's subtitled 'A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents' and was inspired by Conrad's 'The Secret Agent' (interesting how a work of fiction has given rise to a work of history; I imagine it mostly happens the other way around).

T visited the anarchist bookshop in Whitechapel founded by Kropotkin and interviewed the non-proprietor. She also had a walk around the Fitzrovia home of the German anarchists of a hundred years ago (an area that boasted German beer-halls up until the First World War). As readers of The Secret Agent will know the whole palaver fulfilled all the clichés (or perhaps what Conrad's success turned into clichés): it was a game of cloak-and-dagger, of double-dealing, of agent provocateurs, fog and shadows, fanatics and cynics.

If you look hard enough you keep on stumbling across pieces of cultural archaeology left over from this time. Our first flat in Clerkenwell was a few doors down from a converted pub where Trotsky used to meet his exiled compadrés, including Lenin who lived over Kings Cross way for a year or so. "Trotsky used to drink in our local sushi bar" was a statement that used to tickle me.

There are obviously present-day resonances: there's nothing new under the sun, not in London anyway. Londoners have often shared their city with the politically extreme and even the nihilistically murderous. It goes back a long way. Russian oligarchs and Islamists are only the most recent arrivals: they're preceded by Russian communists, German anarchists, Eastern European Zionists and before them Italian and Hungarian nationalists, French philosophes and then royalist reactionaries and going back even further, Hugeuenots and Lutherans.

Whilst it wasn't wise to allow the entire batch of recent political refugees to remain undisturbed in London - I mean mad mullahs more than muzhik millionaires - we have to recognise this tradition is as English as sherbet lemons and much older. Russians and Middle Easterners baffle us sometimes - I imagine we are just as baffling to them. A peculiar principle. Cough candy twist anyone?

7 comments:

worm said...

I count Whitstable amongst one of the many places I have lived (as well as Clerkenwell)

Its a funny place - the one thing I always thought on seeing London types wandering around, was "God, if I was them, I'd be crushingly disappointed" - there's a kind of sunday papers colour supplement version of Whitstable (all candy-coloured beach huts, ice cream and driftwood) that I imagined people to have in their heads, versus the very humdrum normality of the place.

But the sweet shop (The Sugar Boy) is ace - I used to live opposite. The book shop and fish and chip shop next door are good too.

dearieme said...

I read once that a compadré is someone with whom you share a godfather. Is it true?

Gadjo Dilo said...

...and Stalin was often to be seen in the local branch of The Body Shop. There are many things that frustrate me about London, but I feel its historical acceptence (give or take) of all manner of foreign dissidents and refugees has been quite a noble and positive thing.

Brit said...

I suppose London is one of the few places where you can be simultaneously deviant and inconspicuous.

Btw, "Whitebait, aniseed balls, scampi and chips, sherbet lemons, oysters, pineapple cubes, tweed cap, whelks"... and a couple of Rennies?

Vern said...

Perhaps our historical acceptance of fanatics and radicals would seem less charmingly British if we had been the ones their intellectual heirs had carried out their grandiose and murderous experiments upon... we have been very lucky in this regard. They talked about it in London, and then did it elsewhere.

Gaw said...

Worm: Being able to buy lots of seafood quite cheaply is a huge recommendation for me. But without the kids and the fun they have on the beach - even this time of year - I'm not sure we'd bother.

Dearieme: I don't know but it sounds about right.

Gadjo: Stalin lodged in Whitechapel when he visited London in 1907. However, the Body Shop branches were probably confined to the West End and the airport in those days.

Brit: It's the tweed cap that's the stomach-settler.

Vern: Who decides (or indeed knows) which fanatics and radicals are beyond the pale? (And which pale is that?) Some of them ended up participating in experiments which to many would look more benign. Mazzini and Kossuth would be cases in point.

And perhaps the lesson for 'elsewhere' is to become more like London? I suspect that like the poor, fanatics and radicals will always be with us.

Vern said...

I suppose it all comes down to studying their rhetoric- public and otherwise- and assuming that they mean what they say. Marx is a tricky case- he had called for the overthrow of various European govts before and after he arrived in London, and fantasized about violence and control. But as he only had 3 and a half followers I don't blame the powers of the day for not taking him seriously. Russian exiles are different- their violence was well known. And now in the 21st century, we can look back and see that tolerating radicals and extremists contributed to the establishing of extremely intolerant regimes elsewhere. Would we be so proud of this tolerance if it had been Hitler who had gone from King's Cross to Germany? Ich don't think so. I think we might even be a bit ashamed- even if there was nothing we could have done about it.