Physical Resistance, Dave Hann

Jan 17th, 2013 | By | Category: Book News

Introduction, by Louise Purbrick

Doesn’t a breath of air that pervaded earlier days caress us as well?

In the voices we hear, isn’t there an echo of the now silent ones?
Walter Benjamin

davehannWhen Dave Hann died on 29 September 2009, he left £30 in the bank and a manuscript of over 100,000 words. He had little money of his own because as a jobbing builder, he would work for the cost of his materials plus a day rate then hand over most of his earnings to me to put into our household budget. Dave’s manuscript was, and is, a far more substantial inheritance than any amount of money, large or small. It represents his commitment to the politics of anti-fascism and his desire to tell the stories of people like him. Dave fought fascism and his is an activist’s history of the anti-fascist struggle.

He started writing Physical Resistance, working under the tentative title A Cause Worth Fighting For, in 2005. But, before he made the decision to start typing in his opening sentences, he had, like many anti-fascist activists, acquired a great deal of knowledge about the struggle in which he participated. Reading about collective actions or individual lives in leaflets, pamphlets and books bought and sold at anti-fascist meetings is part of a culture of activism. Anti-fascists have produced their own literature recording its strategies and struggles, which are put to use in discussions and debates. Past struggles inform present ones; they provide a guide. Also, Dave liked books. Our shelves were always full of books about anti-fascism.

Writing his book, this book, was part of the rhythm of our lives. We ran out of space on our shelves for the multifarious materials he bought, usually through second hand bookshops or internet dealers, to help his research. He was always pleased get hold of another pamphlet written by a 1930s trade unionist, more biographies of International Brigaders or a little known International Socialists publication; I did not always hide my dismay about where we might put it all in our tiny terraced house. Books and papers were stacked in piles in the corners of our living room. If Dave had a break between building jobs, he would work on his book. He would write in the hours between dropping and collecting our children from school. When I returned from work, he might start again in order to finish a paragraph, sitting at the same table where I sit now to write this. Dave wrote paragraph by paragraph and produced a linear narrative that wove together life histories and political actions in strict chronological order. Occasionally, he would go back over a paragraph and add more details or amend a date but he did not plan, produce drafts or edit his writing in the ways that academics, like myself, have been schooled, cutting our cloth to suit our means. Dave Hann’s practice of writing did not conform to the conventions of the textbook, academic monograph, chapter in an edited collection or journal articles. It is, for example, longer. The length of the manuscript straightforwardly reflected what Dave believed had to be said rather than what it might be possible to include in the race for a deadline or the completion of research within limits of funding.

Physical Resistance was not Dave’s first piece of writing. Under two pseudonyms, Saboteur then Will Scarlet, he had been a punk poet and, when I first met him in 1994, he was an editor and writer for Red Attitude, the Manchester United Anti-Fascists fanzine. In 2003 he, and his friend Steve Tilzey, put together their biographies as anti-fascists in No Retreat. Spanning the late 1970s to the mid-1990s and their experiences of Anti-Nazi League and Anti-Fascist Action, it is both a celebration of fight against fascism and a contemporary tale of comradeship and friendship between people thrown together through the act of political struggle. It was received by most of its readers in something like these terms, but was also caught up in the sectarianism that besets political organisations and the tendency to vilify character rather than acknowledge political differences. There was only one criticism Dave took seriously: he had written about himself. He was only one of many. That he knew. He felt honoured just to stand in line. Most anti-fascists understand that everything they do from writing, distributing or reading anti-fascist texts, defending anti-fascist events, breaking up fascist meetings, halting fascist marches, fighting them whenever necessary is a collective endeavour. This was origin of Physical Resistance: to write the collective history of anti-fascism.

Such a history could not be written using books, not even the number piling high on our floor. Dave sought out anti-fascists to interview. He sent letters to International Brigaders. A page from Howard ‘Andy’ Andrews is typical of the courtesy of their replies and they not only spoke about their experiences in the Spanish Civil War but involvement in anti-fascism before they volunteered and after they returned.

Dave spoke to people he knew, or knew of, from his days of street activism. When unable to locate participants in anti-fascist movements to which he had read references, he advertised. On three successive days in June 2005, the Morning Star ran the following request: ‘I would be particularly interested in hearing from anyone involved in the V Corps, the 43 and 62 Groups and the Yellow Star Movement.’ Of the people whose accounts of anti-fascism are included in Physical Resistance, some are already, like Morris Beckman, heroes of its history. Others, such as Betty Davis or Sheila Lahr, are not well known. But all hold the history together. The lives of anti-fascists overlap. For example, student activist Nick Mullen and former 43 Group member Monty Goldman were both in Red Lion Square in 1974 when Kevin Gately was killed by a police baton charge. They did not know each other or share a party affiliation. Anti-fascists from different political organisations were located by Dave not in order to judge them or weigh up the success or failure of their party’s line but to ensure that person’s contribution to a collective history was recognised. Physical Resistance is thus also a response to the sectarianism of left wing activism to which Dave, and far too many others, have been subjected.

Instinctively, he adopted something approaching an oral history technique. He was a quiet person and accustomed to letting people have their say. He would return from interviewing to report: “That went well, I only really had to ask one question.” However, Dave also prepared for interviews using knowledge acquired from experience or research even when, as was the case with Mickey O’Farrell, he and the person interviewed had once belonged to the same organisation. Dave used a small unobtrusive Dictaphone then transcribed from its micro cassette tapes. The words of anti-fascists are at the heart of the book. The histories they contained were followed up through his reading of local newspapers reproduced in the microfilm collections of regional archives or reports in pamphlet collections, such as that deposited in London School of Economics. Dave still continued to buy books, often small print run or out of print publications only available through second hand internet or side street markets, many having been de-accessioned from libraries to make way for digital resources. He checked dates and accounts of actions; he tried to get the facts right. Whilst I have a series of degrees to prove that I am historian, Dave only ever asked my advice about practical institutional matters, such as how to get a Reader ’s Ticket for the British Library. The academic practice of history, which is often based on the assumption that the story has been told and all that is left to do is interpret it, was regarded by Dave as almost irrelevant, interesting, perhaps, but not especially useful. He was a self-taught historian. If I was a romantic, I would be tempted to call Dave Hann one of the last of the autodidacts.

Dave was diagnosed with cancer at the end of February 2009. He only worked on his book two or three times during the short period of illness before his death at the end of September. He conducted one interview in August that he did not have the time to transcribe. He tried to write on a few occasions. Concentration through the haze of chemotherapy and painkillers was never easy. I recall that he asked me to remind him how to double space lines of text. At my reply (go to Format and select Paragraph), he was irritated with himself that such a routine piece of information had escaped him. Dave found his cancer diagnosis and the physical weariness that treatment induces difficult to accept. “My body’s strength is everything. It’s my work and my politics,” he said. We discussed how he wanted to end his book and the interviews required to complete it. I argued that as soon as he was well, rather than worrying about picking up building jobs, he should work on his book until it was done. With some discomfort, I remember joking that he better not die and leave it to me. We write in very different ways. Dave replied with a wry laugh. I wished I had kept my sharp tongue inside my head. Later, when he was dying, the joke was over. I told him I would finish it. I am not certain he heard me, but that’s what I said.

The completion of the collective history of anti-fascism that Dave Hann began, upholds a promise I made to my lover and friend. It is also an act of political commitment to an anti-fascist. We met because we were both activists; our lives were shaped by political struggle. We worked together on the stewarding of the1995 Bloody Sunday Commemoration March in Manchester, where we both then lived. The march and its organising body, the Troops Out Movement, of which I was a member, were regular targets of fascist aggression. Anti-Fascist Action defended the Bloody Sunday march and its Manchester activists attended many other Irish solidarity or anti-imperialist events in the city: meetings, stalls, socials. Dave was one of those to whom, as another Troops Out Movement member put it, “we owed our political lives.”

However, for many months after Dave’s death, I did not even look at the manuscript of his book. I was not quite ready to hear his voice in my head as read his words. I sorted out his building tools. He had many. He liked tools almost as much as he liked books but they were in disarray. In his last weeks of work, Dave became too tired to keep his trowels and brushes, hammers and chisels, drills, screwdrivers, Stanley knives, saws and all in any kind of order. The shed was piled high. Some tools, I passed on to friends who were also builders or who took on building jobs when they had no other work; others I kept in case I needed them in the house or because they reminded me of him. I put every nail and screw, every nut and bolt, into pots according to their size and constituent material. That took weeks. Even less obsessive sorting and tidying is easily analysed as part of a grieving process, although at the time I simply felt that the way to respect the life of a dead person was to give proper consideration to their things. I threw away nothing. The rusting nails and broken bits of metal whose function was impossible to work out were gathered up with some short lengths of copper and lead piping left in the shed and taken to the scrap metal merchant. The increase in the price of base metals at this time of capitalist crisis meant that Dave left more money in the fragments of his building materials than he had in the bank.

Then I read his book. Dave had talked to me, just a little, about the people he interviewed. He did not recount their stories or give up personal details. He spoke of his pleasure in meeting them, his admiration for their longstanding anti-fascism and the dignity with which they had lived the whole of their lives. It was reading their honest and thoughtful, modest and courageous accounts of fighting fascism that gave me the determination to complete this book. They woke me from my slumber. At first, I edited the manuscript only very lightly: checked spellings, added commas, altered capitals. The book’s bibliography had to be compiled. Almost as soon as Dave had started writing, he declared that the bibliography would be the means for anyone to check his sources because he did not want to use footnotes. I began working my way down the piles of papers, pamphlets and books, typing in authors, titles and dates of publication. Occasionally, scraps of paper would fall out to reveal Dave’s hand-written notes to himself such as ‘Fenn arrested in June 1977’, a reference to docker and dedicated anti-fascist, Mickey Fenn. Not all his notes related to the book; some were rough building job estimates (‘Bedroom – skim - ceiling – wall - 100’) that had then been used to mark an important passage in one book or other.

Dave’s paragraph by paragraph method of writing meant that the manuscript was in good order for copy-editing and proofing at the moment when he stopped working on it, but the final chapter was unfinished. There were a few activists Dave was still hoping to interview to take the collective anti-fascist history up to the present day and bring his book to a conclusion. I contacted them and conducted interviews in the autumn and winter of 2011. More at ease with a digital recorder than the Dictaphone, I nevertheless followed Dave’s way of inviting people to speak about their experiences with an open question: “How did you get involved in anti-fascism?” He undertook further research following interviews. I relied only upon the books, pamphlets, papers and notes he had already gathered without carrying out any new archival work. My priority was to privilege, as he had done, the accounts of activists themselves. His manuscript, which already exceeded the standard length of a published monograph, had got longer. Then followed the hardest task. I cut, with care and a great sense of loss, some of Dave’s words. This more substantial editing was based on the principles of his writing: the recorded words of anti-fascists stayed centre stage. It was only the paragraphs that contained material from published sources that were edited and these sources still appear in his bibliography as part of the record of his research.

My attachment to the writing of Dave Hann is balanced, albeit unevenly, with my training as an academic in the interpretation of historical texts. I understand, of course, that there are different ways to read the collective anti-fascist history that he compiled. Physical Resistance is pieced together through anti-fascist activists’ own accounts of their experiences. It is an oral history. The narrative driven by activists’ testimonies collected by Hann is augmented by numerous life histories, memoirs and oral histories often produced by local history groups or Trades Councils. A glance at the book’s bibliography reveals how Physical Resistance has, quite literally, retrieved the records of lives, organisations and actions that circulate outside mainstream publishing networks. It is a working class history, written by a working class author from working class sources. As such, it is a form of political activism in itself. Thus, it may well be regarded by historians as a historical source that invites debate on, for example, the idea of political activism and how political acts, including writing or fighting, are an everyday matter always entangled in personal lives. Whatever its status as a type of history, Physical Resistance is a collective one of anti-fascism that provides a long view, adding to its empirical record by recovering forgotten episodes, short-lived but momentarily effective anti-fascist coalitions and marginalised lives.

The most radical contribution that Physical Resistance may make to historical debate is, I suspect, already indicated by the book’s title. Large-scale confrontations, damage to property, disruption of meetings and street fighting were all part of the practice of anti-fascism throughout the twentieth century and remain, to a large extent, the means of opposition to new forma- tions of fascism in the opening decades of the twenty-first. Whilst violence is routinely understood as the antithesis of politics, as an angry, emotional outburst that ought to be controlled through reasoned debate, in the history of anti- fascism recorded and written by Dave Hann, it holds a place in everyday political life.

*******************************************************************

coverPhysical Resistance: A Hundred Years of Anti-Fascism

ISBN: 978-1-78099-177-1, $33.95 / £18.99, paperback, 416pp

EISBN: 978-1-78099-178-8, $9.99 / £6.99, eBook

Large-scale confrontations, disruption of meetings, sabotage and street fighting have been part of the practice of anti-fascism from the early twentieth century until the twenty-first. Rarely endorsed by any political party, the use of collective bodily strength remains a strategy of activists working in alliances and coalitions against fascism.

In Physical Resistance famous battles against fascists, from the Olympia arena, Earls Court in 1934 and Cable Street in 1936 to Southall in 1978 and Bradford 2010, are told through the voices of participants. Anarchists, communists and socialists who belonged to a shifting series of anti-fascist organizations relate well-known events alongside many forgotten but significant episodes.

…an engaging and fascinating account that should be read by activists and historians of all kinds. Dr Hilda Kean Author of London Stories and Former Dean, Ruskin College, Oxford

...real history from below. Dr Brian Hanley, Co-author, The Lost Revolution

…a comprehensive account of anti-Fascism that is given life through a wealth of activists’ own words. Dr Lucy Robinson
Dave Hann, anti-fascist activist and writer, pieced together a collective history of anti-fascism that also re-defines political activity as the participation in street protest rather than adhering to a party line. Physical Resistance was completed following his death in 2009.

If you enjoy the Zero Books podcast consider listening to the Inside Zero books podcast on Patreon!
Tags: , ,

4 Comments to “Physical Resistance, Dave Hann”

  1. Peter Wild says:

    We’re keen to review Physical Resistance on Bookmunch – could you send us a copy?

  2. George Ashe says:

    I was very moved to read this. Thank you Louise and Zero for getting Dave’s work into print.

  3. j Remlach says:

    I knew Dave in the early 90s and although his later life struggles against fascism were admirable, he admitted to me that he used to be an out an out fash himself in bristol in the 80’s…. it’s good that he saw the error of his ways, but there’s no excuse for the things he did in his youth so don’t big him up too much.

Leave a Comment