Gale Review Team
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│By Vicky Fielding, Senior Marketing Manager │
There are currently 61 oral histories in Political Extremism and Radicalism in the Twentieth Century Far-Right and Left Political Groups in the US, Europe and Australia. These interviews, which are available as audio recordings and transcripts, were recorded in 2015 by researchers from the University of Northampton in collaboration with Gerry Gable and the Searchlight network with anti-fascist activists active from the 1940s–1990s. They are exclusive recordings with anti-fascists about their experiences, discussing the post-war history of anti-fascism and what caused them to become engaged in the movement.
Listening to an interview obviously isn’t just about the words people use, it’s about the laughter, the silences and other emotions too. I was fortunate enough to attend DH2019 in Utrecht in July – the biggest Digital Humanities conference in the world. Within the sessions there were a series of short papers that included DH research on oral histories. Norah Karrouche, in her paper, ‘Still Waters Run Deep. Including Minority Voices in the Oral History Archive Through Digital Practice’ notes that Dutch oral histories (mostly dealing with WWII memories, atrocities and trauma victims) are largely given over to white voices and has undertaken a one-year pilot to record underrepresented voices “centered around a collection which voices a diverse group of local citizens and ethnic minorities’ memories of the era of reconstruction in the city of Rotterdam, and its aftermath”.
Similarly, with the Searchlight Oral Histories Collection we hear the voices of people choosing to campaign against and infiltrate fascist groups outside the political ‘norm’, acting on the fringes to stand up against racism in their communities, often to the detriment of their own and their family’s safety. We also hear the activists who sometimes fought violence with violence – those who would have been under or misrepresented in the mainstream press. There was also an impetus behind these interviews to record the stories and memories of activists from the 1940s–1990s who might not be around for much longer, and whose voices would therefore be lost.
Recently I wanted to put together an example of an individual’s story from Gale’s Political Extremism and Radicalism archive and approached Daniel Jones, Searchlight Archivist, to ask for his recommendations on who to focus on. One of his suggestions was Anna Sullivan, a teacher from East London and anti-fascist activist during the 1970s and 1980s. I’ve gleaned much of the information about her from her fascinating interview, one of the oral histories that are a unique part of the Political Extremism and Radicalism archive, as well as Searchlight magazine reports.
Anna Sullivan was born in September 1939 and was sent to Yorkshire during the Blitz. Her parents lived in the East End of London during the war. Her father was a firefighter before the Blitz and then became a member of the Communist Party and an active trade unionist, while her mother was Jewish and of Hungarian descent. As a result, Anna spent a lot of time listening to political discussions and activities in the family home.
Her partner died when she was just 28 and Anna trained to become a teacher to avoid bringing her three children up in poverty. As a teacher she joined the NUT and later a radical splinter group, which is when her ‘political activism’ began. She was active in setting up the Anti-Nazi League and was a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Later she was ousted from the SWP, who “maligned” her claiming she was a “squaddist” (in her interview she explains this as meaning “when people hit us, we hit them back”). She opposed the National Front and other racists and as a result her house was firebombed in 1987.
One of the most powerful things that struck me listening to her interview is the strength that she drew from other women in her local community, and the humour she maintains even when recalling horrific events. For example, after a local woman had her “skull smashed in, in the local left-wing Marxist bookshop” she and a colleague managed to record Patrick Harrington (a far-right British political activist and writer) on tape talking about his views on the validity of violence in “revolutionary” situations. During the conversation they were suddenly surrounded by a number of fascists who started throwing bricks at them. Anna recalls:
“I’ll never forget someone asking me – was it a policeman? Well, were they half-bricks or whole bricks [laughter] And I said, “Well I didn’t exactly measure them as they were raining down on us.”
She witnessed her fellow protestor sheltering under a billboard used as a shield, and being kicked in the head. She then remembers:
“And suddenly, …several quite elderly lady shoppers came tearing out of — with a — I mean this is true — with their umbrellas, and laid into these — the fascists, and said, “You bloody black shirts! We’re sick to death of you! Stop kicking him! You’re — you’re just terrible” And there was a policeman — two police, actually, and they ran away. [Laughter] …then the fascists left, you know, with Harrington smirking.”
This is just one example of the community spirit witnessed in the 1980s when fascist and anti-fascist protest was a regular occurrence on the streets of East London and other cities in the UK. To read an overview of Anna Sullivan’s story, click here.
To be able to listen to audio recordings as well as read articles and opinions of the time brings the voice of the protestor to life. Daniel Jones, Searchlight Archivist, and Dr Paul Jackson from the University of Northampton talk about the importance of the oral histories to teaching and research when they kindly agreed to be interviewed by Gale. Click here to watch an excerpt of this interview.
All quotes from Anna Sullivan are taken from the following primary source: “Searchlight Interview with Anna Sullivan.” Searchlight Oral Histories Collection, 17 Aug. 2015. Political Extremism & Radicalism, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6gLEi6