Interview | Ra Page on Stories of Uprising and Protest in the Age of Coronavirus

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James Riding


Ra Page on Resist: Stories of Uprising and protest in the age of coronavirus
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Ra Page is the founder and CEO of Comma Press, a Manchester-based publisher specialising in short stories. He has edited many anthologies, including Protest: Stories of Resistance (2017), and Litmus (2011), an Observer Book of the Year. He coordinated Literature Northwest until it merged with Comma Press, and is a former director of Manchester Poetry Festival.

Ra’s latest collection, Resist: Stories of Uprising (2019), pairs fictional retellings of British protests through the ages with historical afterwords. Speaking with Ra, on the phone from Manchester, the editor shares his thoughts on how Resist came together, the power of the short story, and how coronavirus might change protests forever.

Resist: Stories of Uprising, released in paperback on May 21st, takes after Comma Press’s 2017 collection, Protest: Stories of Resistance. What was the thinking behind the follow-up?

With the first one, I wanted to cover a mix of iconic, well-known British protest movements and lesser-known ones. When I got to the end there were 20 protests, which formed 40 different pieces, because there’s a story and an afterword. I realised some major protests had been left out, that we can’t really tell the story of British protest. I had to do a second one, just to get some of those in. They included things like the Battle of Cable Street, Peterloo, Tolpuddle. There are others, like the Jarrow March, which haven’t yet been covered by the series, so there’s still plenty more to cover. We could do a third edition at some point.

Does this second collection complement the first one or challenge it?

A bit of both, actually. The first showed movements clustering around certain times: the early 80s, a big moment of change and protest; the 60s, with civil rights protests in particular. And they’re all progressive clusters in the first book. It was put together between 2014 and 2016, and maybe it reflected some of the hopeful progressive movement — the left wing of the Labour party, the Corbyn movement, and the hope behind the 2017 election.

For the second book, it was a different selection of authors. I think there were different things on people’s minds. It became a thread of stories about resisting backward-slides into authoritarianism, undemocratic government and fascism. The Battle of Cable Street (1936) and the Notting Hill riots (1958) were key to that. There’s also a story about the death of Blair Peach, an anti-fascist demonstrator. (Just before the 1979 Thatcher election there was a riot, which began as a demonstration against a deliberately provocative National Front meeting in Southall, home to one of Britains’s largest Asian communities).

The timescale of the anthology is vast. Settings vary from AD 60 to 2017, and those set in recent times feel particularly raw. In the afterword about the 2011 London riots, the writers claim that they’ve drawn the short straw in taking on an event so fresh in living memory, one that hasn’t yet been pigeonholed historically. Why did you choose to place modern events alongside historical ones?

With the first book, I wanted to draw a line at 2003, the anti-Iraq War demonstrations in London, Glasgow and other cities around the country and the world. This was the single largest protest in the history of humanity if you did a general head-count, and it was completely unsuccessful. It was 100% failure.

After 2003, there was a long lull in the amount of protests taking place, and a dip in people’s faith in protests. I wanted it to end there so we could look at protests, some of which have been very successful up until this closing of a chapter. Obviously, there have been protests since then — there was an interesting ‘Occupy’ movement and various others. But between 2003 and 2016 I would say that there were fewer grassroots movements and less belief in protest as a viable political expression.

I think 2011, the riots in Tottenham, was indicative of that. It started as a completely reasonable and legitimate protest about the way Tottenham police had dealt with the Mark Duggan situation, had dealt with the family in the immediate aftermath, and the way they were communicating. But it instantly descended into mass rioting and criminality. That was a really depressing and troubling moment for anyone who believes in the power and importance of protest. It was a troubling one, which I very deliberately avoided for the first book.

For the second book I wanted to join it up with the present and more interesting, more pressing movements. I wasn’t able to bring in the Women’s March and the anti-Trump stuff, and the March For Life in America, because it’s a British book. But there had been a lot more optimistic gatherings — a bit of a rebirth in protest movements — since Trump and Brexit. I wanted to bridge that gap, bring it up to the present, and include Grenfell Tower. But you can’t do that without talking about Tottenham. You can’t take any one of the riots in London over the last 50 years in isolation. The Tottenham riots in 2011 are intrinsically linked with the Broadwater Farm riots in 1985, the Brixton riots, New Cross.

You mention that this is a British collection. I was interested in this line in the book’s promotional material: ‘Britain might not be famous for its revolutionary spirit, but its people know when to draw the line’. Is there something unique about our attitude to protest? You suggest in your introduction that perhaps our perceived lack of revolutionary spirit is simply because ‘we police resistance ‘better’ here.’

It’s the million-dollar question, and it’s a very difficult one to answer. I think a lot of it is just to do with the narrative, the way it’s spun and the way history is taught. If you look at the way progressive history is taught in America — everyone knows about Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights movement, and it’s intrinsic to their sense of history, as deeply as listing presidents. But in this country it’s not; I think progressive history is omitted and overlooked when it comes to thinking about our identity.

If you actually look at individual movements, the people involved in them were revolutionary and radical and internationalist. It’s just that the meta-narrative about who we are has always excluded those moments. With the exception, perhaps, of the Suffragette movement, which we talk about enormously and almost disproportionately. I like to turn the question around and say it’s not that we’re not as revolutionary as other countries, we just haven’t been allowed to see ourselves as radicals.

But also the point I make in the introduction is that we’ve had very effective policing of large gatherings — and when I say ‘effective’, I mean that slightly ironically.

One of the commonalities between the protests in the book is that a lot of them were ultimately crushed.

Yes, and it is a slightly more pessimistic book than the first, because this is a reflection of the authors’ concerns about where we are at the moment. When I was putting the book together, Bookmarks Bookshop had just been attacked by UKIP fans and far-right activists: there was a sense that the far-right was on the rise, and we’re entering a pretty miserable period.

Creating a book like this is an attempt to engage with a radical tradition, as you see it, and reminding people that we do have a long and proud history of this sort of uprising.

Absolutely. It’s a modest attempt to rewire some of that tradition into how we see ourselves and what makes up British identity. Because that’s what the left has lost, the huge area of land that we’ve given away to the far-right. This sense of British identity — we need to win that back, and say it is intrinsically linked to British folk identity and folk traditions. You don’t need to delve too deeply into those traditions to see how progressive and radical they are.

I hope that, while this book has grown out of a lot of negative things, that it isn’t seen as a gloomy or depressing book, because the strength of the stories are very inspiring. To learn about these individual struggles for me was immensely motivating. There’s a paradox in these two books, in that they’re about British protests but intrinsically international in the way they think and have been inspired. The Cable Street story is a classic example — you can’t isolate it from the other stories that were going on in Spain, in Russia and Italy, and everything else that was going on in the world at the time. I do hope people don’t see it as a book in response to the far-right, because it’s not.

You’ve talked before about your passion for the short story, and how it can be a ‘call for pluralism’. The approach you’ve taken, of providing historical afterwords to the short stories, balancing fiction and non-fiction, is an interesting way of exploring this. What inspired you approach it in this way?

This model of commissioning actually came out of a series of science projects, where we paired writers with scientists to explore and respond to particular areas of research or technological challenges, in a way that wasn’t like science fiction. Sci-fi has a utilitarian approach; it’s often a device used to get from A to B in a narrative. With respect to the story, it doesn’t really matter if they’re using a scientifically realistic device or a sonic screwdriver. So we paired writers with scientists to get some more voices into the conversation and the genre — the more voices, the better.

Often in the way we package, market and disseminate literature’s narratives, we do it through simplification: we boil things down to the simplest tropes, which can be very damaging. The trope of the individual maverick hero fighting against the system dominates the way we think about history and scientific progress. Yet it’s not remotely representative of what happens. Scientific breakthroughs are a cumulative process of trial and error, collective research, collegiate thinking. But the maverick hero is the way it’s always dramatised.

We’re fighting against Thomas Carlyle’s theory of history, that all history is the biography of great men, which implies that the rest of us, the non-leaders, are just extras in the background. It’s not how anything works. So the short story is really important to remind us of the complicatedness of these events or moments of progress. The afterwords are another way of complicating them more, and increasing that pluralism.

It’s bringing us closer to the way we see the more modern uprisings, where the dust of historical context hasn’t yet settled, and we haven’t yet allowed them to be clearly interpreted and categorised.

It’s lived history. The Stuart Hall quote at the beginning of Resist was central to my thinking in putting the book together: ‘The only interest in history is that it is not yet finally wrapped up. Another history is always possible, another turning is waiting to happen.’ History books are never complete, we’re always reinterpreting and rewriting them. And every generation needs to engage and find its own way through this history.

A colleague of mine in her thirties, incredibly well-versed in recent history, hadn’t heard of Greenham Common, which was shocking to me. (I’m older than her and of that generation that remembers it directly.) But then the same happened to me — I hadn’t heard of Blair Peach. I was so young when Blair Peach happened, my mum and dad didn’t want to tell me about it. But when I asked my mum recently ‘Was Blair Peach a big thing in the news at the time?’ she said ‘Yes, it was huge.’ But you don’t necessarily pass that history on to your children, and it’s certainly not passed on through schools.

When you read David Renton’s afterword, it’s absolutely horrifying what happened on that day, that ‘police riot’ as he calls it. Even something so close to us can so easily be forgotten, can be lost forever, if we don’t keep talking about these things.

You grew up in a politically active household. You’ve said before that you stood on picket lines as a boy, you attended the anti-Apartheid march. How have protests changed during your lifetime, and how might they evolve in the future?

It’s really strange. I seem to be just old enough to see two points in history which, to me, feel identical. It’s like we’re in a 36-and-a-half-year-long Groundhog Day, give or take about 6 months margin of error. We’re currently in a 1983/84 moment. Reagan was elected, Michael Foot was replaced by Kinnock. When 2016 happened, with Brexit and with Trump’s election in particular, to us it can feel completely unprecedented that a reality TV show construct could become ‘leader of the free world’. But when Reagan was elected, there was no difference: here, you had a likeable but not very successful Hollywood actor suddenly becoming president. That would have seemed as strange as a reality TV star becoming president. There were a lot of anti-progressive changes that happened in 79/80, which were almost mirrored in many ways in 2016. Like the momentary leadership within the Labour party of a very left-wing leader, then replaced by somebody much more moderate. There’s so many things that seem very similar.

Blair Peach’s death in 1979, just a week before the general election, was kind of in response to one of the things Thatcher was saying: ‘People are afraid of being rather swamped’, referring to non-white people. You would have thought that the death of Blair Peach would have made everybody take stock, and think differently about the way they voted a few days later. Just as you would have thought that the death of Jo Cox would have made people take stock and think differently about how they would vote a week later in the Brexit referendum. And yet it didn’t have the slightest effect.

These déjà vu moments are really interesting, and we can learn a lot from them. I don’t think protest movements at the moment are radically different to previous ones at the beginning of the 80s. There are obviously other factors — social media, and the nature of media generally, are very different — but the popular response to that isn’t hugely different, if you compare it with 36 and a half years earlier.

Does this reassure you, that this isn’t as unprecedented as we might think it is, or is it more disconcerting, to think we’re just trapped in this cycle?

Knowing the left has been knocked back in the past in a very similar way is reassuring. Knowing that we’ve suffered these defeats, then been able to move forward – they haven’t been permanent retreats. Something like Section 28, for example. There were a lot of completely unsuccessful protests at the time, but then there was a slow war of attrition in the way people thought, a bubbling under of the sense that this was a draconian, disgraceful piece of legislation. That eventually came through, and it eventually got repealed very quietly in 2003. You can look at the defeats and say ‘This is really depressing’, or you can say ‘We fought back from this, and won this ground back eventually’. Is the glass half-empty or half-full?

Right now, coronavirus seems to be transforming society in some quite incredible ways. We’ve just had an enormous wave of state intervention, and a vast reduction in carbon emissions: things that even the Extinction Rebellion protestors, for example, might not have imagined possible just a few months ago. Is this going to change how Resist is received? And could it lead to lasting change?

We should try to avoid thinking of our lives as ‘pre-coronavirus’ and ‘post-coronavirus’, and try not to fall into the trap of the myth of modernity — that it’s different now, and nobody’s ever faced this before. It’s hard, because it’s extraordinary in our lifetimes. But we only need to go to 1918 to see something almost identical happening, almost exactly 100 years ago.

It is very worrying, and there are two possible outcomes for it. As you say, the government is ploughing millions of pounds in — suddenly it’s discovered a ‘money tree’ — but the problem is a lot of the responses in the UK and America have been government partnerships with private industry. One of the dangers of coronavirus generally is it’s going to divide the world into two: those people who have got the antibodies in them and are fit to work, and those people who aren’t. And this will drive that second group into a black market workforce, which will then be the new scapegoat for everybody else. It’s a very dystopian future, in many ways.

There’s also huge land grabs going on right now by the tech giants in areas like distribution, manufacturing, transport, which are really capitalising on coronavirus, to the extent that many of the jobs that were furloughed in March won’t be there to go back to when this is finally over. Amazon is pushing through automation and the use of driverless buses and cars, and drone-based distribution centres. These changes create more divisions and inequity for when we come out of this.

So although you can look at the government spending and say ‘Wow, government’s really rolling their sleeves up and maybe we’re entering an age of big government’, you can also say we’re entering into an age of the tech giants and the multinational companies carving up the wreckage in a really worrying way. It’s up to us, which of these two routes we want to take, and how we protest in an age when we can’t gather in groups of more than two.

Interview by James Riding.

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Resist: Stories of Uprising is released in paperback on May 21st. For more information and to buy the book, visit Comma Press’s website.

For more on Comma Press, read The London Magazine‘s review of their recent collection Europa 28

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