Unusual suspects

Edited by Brian MacArthur
Viking, #163;20.

When the fires of protest lit up the history of the 20th century, it's hardly surprising that some of those caught in the glare turned out to be teachers.

In 1916, for example, Ernest F Everett, a St Helens teacher, was sentenced to two years' hard labour as a conscientious objector to the First World War. Bertrand Russell's account of the case ends with the classic plea:

"Can you remain silent while this goes on?" Other dissidents learned their lessons in the university of struggle. This anthology of their protests - selected by Brian MacArthur, founding editor of the Times Higher Education Supplement - begins in 1900 with a passionate, and gruesome, denunciation, by Ida B Wells, a former slave, of the white mobs who lynched 200 blacks annually in the United States, and ends with Tony Benn's eloquent criticism of the United States's proposed attack on Iraq earlier this year.

In between, rebels against capitalism, racism and sexism get a good hearing, while protesters against war and poverty march side by side with those airing more personal gripes, such as Melanie Phillips on "de-education". The usual suspects include Germaine Greer on the vaginal orgasm, E F Schumacher on small being beautiful, Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the Soviet Gulag, Donald Woods on Steve Biko, John Pilger on Cambodia's Year Zero and Paul Foot on the Birmingham Six.

My favourites include classics such as Siegfried Sassoon's anti-war declaration, Nye Bevan's speech on poverty, the Daily Mirror's Cassandra columnist attacking the church's role in Edward VIII's abdication, George Orwell on the ruling class, Gloria Steinem on what would happen "if men could menstruate", and Dennis Potter's rant against the BBC.

MacArthur says that his selection was influenced by having "parents who left school at 14 but who if they had been born 30 years later would have gone to university". As one of those helped by the 1944 Education Act, MacArthur remembers that "the voices of protest which spoke to the students of my small northern grammar school were the Manchester Guardian on Suez and the despair of John Osborne's Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger at the small-mindedness of British life."

Indeed, one of the most thrilling extracts is Osborne's excoriating blast,published in 1957, on the monarchy, memorably characterised as "the gold filling in a mouthful of decay". Next to this, the 1960 protest by Kingsley Amis, another Angry Young Man, against university expansion - "more will mean worse" - sounds like the slavering of a prematurely old fogey.

While many members of this fascinating collection's awkward squad protest about the big issues - for example, Emily Hobhouse's simple but moving open letter denouncing British concentration camps during the Boer War or Sylvia Pankhurst's agonising description of the forced feeding of suffragette prisoners - there is room for the occasional eccentric spirit.

Enter George Bernard Shaw, a witty pain in the neck who resented having to wear evening dress at the opera. But not all those included are such a joy to read. Eugene V Debs might have been one of the most charismatic leaders of the US Socialist Party, but his attack on world capitalism is a litany of cliches.

MacArthur's history of protest also carries its share of irony. Labour folk hero Keir Hardie's 1901 speech, which is certain that "Socialism will democratise the country during the century upon which we have just entered", might not be entirely welcomed by New Labour's leadership.

And although MacArthur rightly says "protest is the engine of democracy",it is odd to find such undemocratic figures as Lenin, Ho Chi Minh or Margaret Thatcher in the book. Worst of all, Adolf Hitler's hysterical blaming of the Jews for Germany's defeat in WorldWar I belongs more to a history of pathology than one of protest.

But MacArthur's approach is liberal and inclusive. Where else could the Irish Republican Bernadette Devlin rub shoulders with militant Unionists, or Kenneth Tynan (who championed the Angry Young Men) bump into Somerset Maugham (who called them "scum")?

Generally, this anthology is most stirring when unsung heroes are allowed a voice. For example, the nameless miner's wife, whose struggle during the 1926 miners' strike prefigures that of her grandchildren in 1984 and who doesn't mince any words. But too often MacArthur prefers the polished voices of journalists, columnists and politicians to the more anarchic accents of workers and activists.

For the 1960s, a decade when protest flowered, I missed the crazy inventions of the American Yippies or the flamboyance of such radical groups as the Situationists, imaginative revolutionaries who played a crucial role in May 1968 in paris. And while those such as Marie Stopes, Frantz Fanon and Nelson Mandela certainly did opt, in MacArthur's words, "for the life of struggle", can the same really be said of John Galsworthy,Stanley Baldwin or Ronald Reagan?

Nor should we forget there's still plenty to protest about. MacArthur wanted to include the Greenpeace leaflet against McDonald's, but "could not for fear of another libel action". The rich and powerful still need to be held to account - if this anthology gives heart to today's recalcitrant spirits, it will prove to be more than just a good read.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you