QUOTH THE RAVEN
Colin Ward, Britain's leading anarchist writer
IT IS perhaps peculiar to Britain that a man of great intelligence and personal charm could write, co-write or edit 26 good books since 1970, produce innumerable articles and speeches, be highly regarded by a broad swathe of editors, become Dora Russell's son-in-law, have research grants and awards showered upon him (most recently the Charles Douglas-Home Award) and at the age of 64 still be virtually unknown. This obscurity has not only to do with the natural reticence of Cohn Ward himself but with the political stance he has quietly retained for a life- time.
As the London historian Raphael Samuel remarked when recently reviewing a decade of Colin Ward's highly regarded magazine, Anarchy, 'Britain has not been hospitable to anarchism, either as a social movement or as a current of thought.' Unlike in Spain, for example, anarchism in Britain is usually crudely associated with cloaked assassins and sexual mayhem rather than with the Peter Kropotkin of Fields, Factories and Workshops, mutual- ity, allotments, co-operatives, the theory of 'spontaneous order' or planning which devises society from the bottom up so that authoritarian governments cannot control the basic needs of citizens for food, health tare, homes and education.
Ironically, Colin Ward, like other less talented British anarchists, owes his obscurity as much to the post-war Left as to the latter-day Right. In the anarchist quarterly The Raven, his political essay, 'The Path Not Taken', firmly poxes both major political parties for the decline of real liberty in Britain in this century. Referring to the Indian politican, Jayapra- kash Nara*, who used to say that the British Raj suffocated because 'Gandhi used up all the moral oxygen in India', Ward says:
The political Left in this country invested all its fund of social'inventiveness in the idea of the state, so that its own traditions of self-help and mutual aid were stifled for lack of ideological oxygen. How on earth, did British socialists allow these concepts to be hi-jacked by the political Right?
Sifting New Right words from practice, he continues:
The rhetoric is about lifting the burden of the state and encouraging local enterprise and initiative. The action is about destroying the pretence that local government is local and imposing central government's will on more and more areas of life.
Colin Ward was born at Wanstead, Essex in 1924, the son of a headmaster of Customs House Junior Elementary School, Canning Town. He left school at 15 and drifted into architectural draughtsmanship. His third job at the age of 16 was in Kensington with an elderly Arts & Crafts architect, Sydney B. Caulfield Ca pathetic old chap too mean to be successful') whose practice had dwindled to doing patched-up repairs to bombed factories in Stepney, Poplar and Hackney. Wartime Scotland introduced Colin Ward to anarchism. Con- scripted into the army at the age of 18 and posted to Glasgow, he was astonished at its landscape of heavy industry booming in preparation for war, the rich blackness of great .public buildings and (in 1943) its barefoot children shouting, `Gie us a pen- ny, soldier' at St Enoch's station. Glas- gow's tradition of open-air political oratory drew him to hear such anarchist speakers as Jimmie Dick, Jimmie Raeside and Eddie Shaw; to the anarchist bookshop in George Street and to the anarchists' hall over the Hangman's Rest, Wilson Street, which provided tea and baps.
Ward was particularly impressed by Frank Leech, a former miner who ran a 'wee shop' on a 1920s pebble-dashed coun- cil estate, extending it to take in German and Spanish refugees and to house a printing press. In 1943 Leech was rounded up for failing to register for fire-watching. When he began a hunger strike in Barlin- nie (I determined long ago never to place myself again under a Government and to resist conscription') Ward was persuaded to visit him to urge Leech to call it off. The idea, he recently explained in the Guar- dian, was, 'simply because a soldier in uniform with an English accent was more likely to be allowed in by the Governor'.
But Colin Ward's visit incurred official displeasure and he was immediately posted north as a sapper in the Orkney & Shetland Maintenance Company RE for the rest of the war, 'putting up army camps and taking them down'. The thing he remembers most clearly about the war was discovering a crumpled dye-line print of Lethaby's `Melsetter House on the Island of Hoy' when emptying the waste-paper basket of the garrison engineer at Stromness.
In 1947 Colin Ward became an editor of Britain's oldest left-wing magazine — the anarchist paper Freedom, founded by Kro- potkin in Whitechapel in 1886. He also continued working as an architectural draughtsman, most notably for Peter Shepherd and Gabriel Epstein from 1951- 61 (`the longest I ever worked anywhere'). In 1961 he began and edited Anarchy, a surprisingly influential magazine which occasionally included maverick right-wing libertarians like Simon Raven (on classical education) and Maurice Cranston (who produced an imaginary dialogue between Marx and Bakunin). Anarchy was pro- duced from Ward's kitchen table in Schubert Road, Putney — 'and looked it' — apart from Rufus Segar's powerful black and yellow covers. Paul Barker remembers Ward asking to reprint his review of the film Kes (about a working-class northern boy who finds a kestrel). 'The reason he gave was that I was the only person who noticed that when people have a row in a council house, the door never slams prop- erly.'
Colin Ward has always cheerfully accepted a minority position. Anarchy did not waste time denouncing enemies, it positively promoted 'islands of freedom' — the constructive projects of powerless peo- ple. These were architecture without architects, tribes without rulers, education without schools, 'dweller-control' of hous- ing, pioneer urban Green activities, adven- ture playgrounds and the way children use cities (children are revered by anarchists perhaps in the way workers inspire social- ists and Communists). Many of the potent themes which politicians struggle to appropriate today stem from Anarchy dur- ing this period. Paul Barker feels Cohn Ward is 'honourably stuck in the pre-media world of the Workers' Educational Asso- ciation — if you put forward the things you believe in relatively unimportant places, eventually the message will get through.'
Anarchy ceased in 1970 and Colin Ward turned from editing to writing. His first book, Violence, was for the distinguished Penguin 'Connexion' series aimed at reluc- tant readers of 14. His second book, Work, also for that series, he still strongly feels 'is the only honest book ever written for children about work'. His most overtly political book, Anarchy in Action (Allen & Unwin) appeared in 1973, and soon after in six languages.
Colin Ward's key political concern has been the promotion of social health through the 'dweller-control' of housing. During the Seventies he moved this debate from the pages of Anarchy to the centre of establishment publishing about housing and politics. Alexandra Artley worked as in-house editor on three of Ward's books in the Seventies — Vandalism (1973), Tenants Take Over (1974) and The Child in the City (1978). She feels Colin Ward is largely unrecognised as the central figure who modified British views of 'command planning', particularly in housing. 'In the Seventies the Architectural Press became the centre of what might be succinctly called "the sociology of mass housing failure". I remember reading the manu- script of Tenants Take Over with great surprise. Although it was very scruffily produced at high speed TTO, as people call it, seemed to be genuinely helpful in enabling some people to house themselves. The complicated legal and financial details were all worked out for you too.' At that time, Colin Ward had floppy white hair slightly yellowing at the front with nico- tine. (Former colleagues and friends usual- ly remark on the 'almost invisible' way he moves from one cigarette to the next.) A kindly man, 'he always listens very careful- ly, almost lovingly, to everything that is said, weighing it up as if you were impor- tant.'
As in Housing: An Anarchist Approach (Freedom Press, 1981) and When We Build Again (Pluto Press, 1985), Colin Ward has consistently written, spoken and cam- paigned on behalf of dweller control, sometimes in the form of 'self-build' schemes and sometimes in the form of housing co-operatives. In 1974 at a party at his house he engineered a meeting between Brian Richardson, housing architect in the London borough of Lewisham, and the Swiss-Italian architect, Walter Segal, to steer the reluctant council into sponsoring a self-build group of 36 local families.
Segal devised a form of attractive timber-framed housing which required no 'wet trades' such as brickwork and plaster- ing. The Lewisham Self-Build Housing Asociation then began with Segal and a local plumber. teaching the group basic building skills and over a period of two years excellent houses were built. In this Segal acted as the classical anarchist ani- mateur, enabling people to achieve their own potential, rather than just leaving them to it. Describing the Lewisham scheme in The Raven (No. 6) Brian Richardson wrote: 'As authoritarian and commercial interests were not dominant, altruism flowered. The stronger helped the weaker. Differences were resolved by dis- cussion.'
Even if they are permitted by central government to spend adequate sums on housing, Labour councils still distrust self- build schemes because they mistakenly believe that self-building turns socialist supporters into capitalists. With true anarchist impartiality, Colin Ward is also dismayed by the way Conservatives have used housing co-ops for party political ends: 'The Government supports them, for example, in Liverpool because the local council opposes them, but opposes co-ops in Glasgow because a socialist council supports them.'
During the Seventies Colin Ward also founded BEE (the Bulletin of Environmen- tal Education) for the Town & Country Planning Association, becoming its educa- tion officer for some years. It is largely through his efforts that the anarchist roots of socially healthy planning are increasing- ly recognised. 'Bottom-up planning' can be traced directly back to Proudhon. It is largely because he is an anarchist that Colin Ward pre-empted Mrs Thatcher in discovering that council housing was Labour's Achilles heel. In Arcadia for All (Mansell, 1984) he again reminds us of the important tradition of self-build working- class housing in inter-war Britain in places like Peacehaven, Jaywick Sands and Lain- don in Essex, comparing them with the lotissements of Paris during the same period — 'the people were continuing an older pre-industrial tradition of housing themselves which their rural parents had passed on to them'. But, of course, it all depends on nooks and corners of cheap land.
Tony Gould, the new literary editor of New Statesman & Society, speaks of Colin Ward as a 'curious mixture — an anarchist with something very puritanical about him. Colin is not a gossip', and one finds his private life is above discussion. Colin Ward lives with his wife Harriet in a remote part of Suffolk. Another friend says, 'If you have recounted some politicised tale, you always feel slightly rebuked when he re- sumes the proper intellectual discussion by saying something like, "Enough of this tittle-tattle".' What people say and do, rather than what other people say and do about them, is basic to Colin Ward's political approach. After 30 years of anarchist endeavour he works, says Raphael Samuel, 'on behalf of people as they are and not as reformers and revolu- tionaries would like them to be'.