The various Anarchy articles are included mostly as a tribute to Colin Ward –the best editor I ever had. Blues Walking like a Man was among the best things I ever wrote and Blues in the Archway Road was my first attempt to come to terms with white blues. Malcolm, Semper Malcolm was my last piece for Anarchy and among my best.
Henry Durham Thoreau was written for Cuddon’s Cosmopolitan Review and was a piece I liked as did Nicholas Walter!
HENRY DURHAM THOREAU
Despite the infinite dignity of his actions he looked oddly disfigured as they lifted him out of court. He was muttering something about Thoreau as they manoeuvred him through the door, with exaggerated care. “Asserting the primal innocence of youth”, someone remarked cynically. I thought disjointedly about a month in Durham nick – just enough time to let institution seep into every pore of his skin. It was wrong. It was inevitable.
He came into court on a charge of wilful damage to private property and was sent down for something closer to wilful damage to public propriety. He was 22 years old, a journalist of sorts, a utopian of sorts, sharing a house outside town with me and other people. He had had an unhappy engagement to a police chief’s daughter and naturally evolved an antipathy towards the police. Nothing hysterical – just hatred. He had been in CND but joined the Committee of 100 group and read Thoreau. He talked of utopia, insurrection, whole votes, anarchy. Nothing really concrete but definite signs of some sort of intellectual adolescence. His record was quite clean. The ideas were new enough to his mind; the action had not followed on as yet. He was arrested once before. With me as we walked home from town: I was wearing a stetson, so naturally we were conspicuous and the Jaguar picked us up. I felt bucked to be in a Jaguar – it was an improvement over furniture vans and the like. He was vaguely indigant but enjoyed the ride. They charged us with something or other – like suspicious behaviour – but released us in the early hours without pressing charges too closely. Maybe because we were journalists they were scared. They ignored my suggestion that a Jaguar was as good a way to go home as feet so we walked. Usual shakedown procedure: Questions. Answers. Charges: Dismissal. They tried it once more but we said who we were and they seemed satisfied.
Nothing much else happened till the following summer. He seemed cut up about something. He was short on bread in all senses. He had bought a beautiful saw: I’m no expert but it seemed to be a great saw. I couldn’t figure out why he needed a saw but it was definitely a good saw so I said no more. I felt low so I went early to bed. He stayed up reading (I think it was Alex Comfort but I could be wrong), and smoking, seeming intense but relatively relaxed, Must have been some hours later when the bell rang. I immediately thought it couldn’t be the police. They never rang the bell. (One night – in the early hours – I heard a noise in the front room and I took a poker in (self defence more than from aggressive qualities) It was police and they hadn’t knocked because they thought no one was in. That’s what they said.) So I knew for certain it wasn’t the police. Went downstairs cursing gently. Nonviolent cursing – I was a pacifist in those days. Opened the door. It was the police and they had arrested the local Thoreau-with-the-saw. Wanted to know did this nutter live in this house. I said ” Which nutter? We’re all nutters here. That’s our way of life. Nuts. And fruit juice of course“ .
They said that the guy with the saw says he lives in this house “Does he?” I said I didn`t know for certain because this was a house of hospitality and the people who lived here were just the people who happened to be here when they needed sleep. The rest were visitors They told me to quit fooling them so I said they only thought I was fooling them because they were surprised to hear someone thought of people as people and not as statistics to be arrested. In the end I told them.”Yes,Thoreau lives here.” They asked who was Thoreau and I told them that if they needed to ask chances were they’d never know. They seemed satisfied and took me along to the police station with Thoreau. I gathered that our nutter had walked across the road from the house and begun to saw through a fence with his new saw. Held made good progress before the police turned up. They just came, he said, and stood over him so he went on sawing: “If they’d asked me to stop naturally I’d have considered it”. He got through two bars before they came, and did the third while they stood there. He said they’d been confused when he told them it was a protest against the fencing of land, the existence of private property and the enforcement of corrupt legality. He’d been cautioned so he’d given them all he knew about freedom, and degradation and the State and the police. They hadn’t seemed to understand very well but he’d given them the facts anyhow because they obviously needed to do some thinking. By now I was really shaken up. I wondered just what was going to happen. One thing certain was that Thoreau wasn’t worrying too much and the fuzz were worrying like hell. I started improvising some improving conversation with the constable – talked of this and that but mostly of Jaguar upholstery. He said it would be better without trade unions. I said I thought it wouldn’t exist without trade unions. Not too much communication there so I shut up. Thoreau burbled on about the duty of resistance, public apathy and war being the health of the state. The sergeant said that was why war was needed and Thoreau looked surprised.
They took a statement from him at the station and released him on £10 bail. I forget the exact charge but it had something to do with wilful damage. Thoreau still had that after-sex glow when we left. The police still didn’t think we needed a Jaguar so we walked again. I asked Thoreau what he thought he had been doing and he seemed sure he’d laid down some kind of a Durham county insurrection. Those slag heaps, he said, gesturing vaguely to the area round about, they are an insult to human dignity. I said I thought the whole of bloody society was an insult to human dignity and everywhere stunk. He said that we had to start somewhere so he had done so.
The first court hearing ended abruptly when the police said they had a view to preferring further charges. Thoreau said “Crap” and bail was extended a further week.
They got him into court early the following week. The charges were read out and Thoreau was asked did he plead “Guilty or Not Guilty”. Thoreau didn’t recognise guilt as anything other than a fantasy produced by authoritarian upbringing and he said as much. He said he preferred to plead in terms of shame. The magistrates told him to keep quiet. He did.
“Guilty or Not Guilty?” No reply.
” Guilty or Not Guilty?” Not a word.
” Guilty or Not Guilty?”
” You told me to keep quiet.” “Guilty or Not Guilty?”
The magistrates refused to accept the plea so Thoreau sank into the dock. It looked as though held finally flaked out, the first visible reaction to the trial. But he was going to sit. He sat. The magistrate told him to stand and the police eventually dragged him to his feet. He asked for a chair and got it. He sat in the chair and was told that his plea had been taken as Not Guilty. He turned on the magistrates,stood up,knocking his chair out of the dock as he did so: “I cannot recognise the authority of this court” .
“You’ll bloody have to”, someone murmured. “I don’t recognise the authority of a court which hasn’t read Freud” ”—-“. “This court is not here to be mocked and it insists that you should behave yourself. Otherwise this case will be committed to Quarter Sessions and you will face an additional charge of contempt of court”, said the magistrate. Thoreau sat again, then stood and began walking out of court. They stopped him leaving court and he returned to the dock once more. He seemed like a man in cotton wool, dreaming publicly.
“If you cannot behave this court will have no alternative but to commit you to a higher court.”
I thought Thoreau was going to say something about God’s Court but mercifully he didn’t even look up.
” I am now going to proceed with this case but I must finally warn you that any further interruption and any further conduct detrimental to the authority and dignity of this court will be treated most seriously. This is not a comedy theatre. I should also point out that your behaviour today has in no way furthered your case and has proved nothing to us, other than your lack of respect for the due processes of the law.”
He stood in the dock, silently, looking almost inquisitive, as the police gave evidence. According to their evidence I was confused as to whether Thoreau actually shared my house with me. I stood up to protest and the magistrate interrupted me: “I don’t know who you are but will you kindly remain silent – this court has had enough insolent behaviour”.
” But the police evidence is defamatory and I want to correct the false impression”. “Your turn will come. Now sit down or I shall have you ejected from court”. Thoreau stayed quiet as they described how he had cut down the fence, the last bar while under surveillance and ignoring their presence. They said he had then walked off into the field, going fully a hundred yards before they caught up with him. When they asked him what he was doing he said something about private property being a crime and all property being theft and free access to the fields being a basic right above the degradation of law and the infamy of authority.
” He seemed very confused, Your Worship.”
” I suggest that it is this court that is confused and that people here have been caught up so long in the apparatus of exploitation that they gave forgotten any humanitarian responsibilities and their obligations to supreme justice.” ” —,you have been warned!”
The police read out his statement. It seemed heroic, crazy and fatuous by turn: as though quoting Bakunin to a policeman proved something. It went on about property and property owners being the ruling classes, controlling justice and the lives of millions of people without the will to resist. Calling on people everywhere to rise and cut fences. Funny, I thought, this fence kick. Suddenly he’s all cut up about fences, without warning, without reason. I thought hazily of all the things that were wrong with our society and it came to me that he was right. I stood up and, quite startling myself with the sound of my own voice, I said, gently but audibly: “He is quite right”. Noone even looked my way. The police went on reading the statement, and I was completely ignored as though I’d never spoken at all. Perhaps I hadn’t. The whole thing seemed very weird. I was standing up feeling light in the head and the police were reading out a statement so that it sounded as though it had been made by someone light in the head.
Thoreau called no witnesses, offered no evidence, called the court unjust, the police unjust and society unjust and was fined something like £10. He was then informed that his behaviour had bought the authority of the court into disrepute, had shamed the high traditions of justice, had degraded the freedom of the law and mocked democracy. “Is thar all?” I thought. “One cannot degrade what is already degraded ” he said, very softly and very clearly, adding that he had intended to do all the things he was told he had done. He seemed so cool that no one reacted at all. He then refused to pay any fines, and refused to support the law financially. He was given the alternative of one month in prison. He took it. “I would rather be in jail than sponsor injustice through the law. Jail is the only place for an honest man”. He then very carefully laid himself out on the floor, face down.
The press couldn’t really ignore the case and it looked oddly sympathetic in print. That night an emergency CND meeting decided that since Thoreau was a supporter of the Committee of 100 group he was no concern of theirs and the Committee of 100 group decided that since he was an anarchist and his actions had nothing to do with peace or nonviolence there was nothing they could do. The anarchist group looked itself over in the mirror and reluctantly decided it couldn’t do much either. I never saw Thoreau again. I left town before his month was up. In fact my ‘last public act was in that courtroom. I said goodbye to him before they fed him into the police van. He thanked me profusely for mv support. I felt very small. I did hear rumours that he married the police chief’s daughter shortly after his release but they were only rumours and I doubted them more than usual.