Making Voices Heard, An Exploration of Protest History with a Powerful New Anthology
The latest offering from the Mancunian indie publishing house Comma Press is an unashamedly outspoken, politically-charged ode to the long history of protest and resistance movements in the UK.
The scope of this collection spans British history from the Middle Ages, kicking off with the Peasant’s Revolt spearheaded by Wat Tyler, up to the present day, with its last piece tackling the 2003 anti-Iraq war demonstrations. Ra Page and his team have brought together talented wordsmiths, the likes of Kit de Waal, Maggie Gee and David Constantine, and leading sociologists, historians, and eyewitnesses to collaborate on what they call ‘well researched, historically accurate fiction.’
In the post-Brexit, regressive age where the likes of Trump rule the roost, it is very heartening to be reminded that the upward momentum is a progressive one. Hopefully, this is just one of the plateaus Page highlights in his introduction to the work: ‘the march comes to a halt now and again. That’s what it does.’
The book also serves to identify several characteristics of the British protest, laid out by Dr Steve Hindle, one of the academic consultants on the project. They include moral outrage, violence against property rather than people, a desire to remind the government or the monarch of their obligations, reliance upon word of mouth to drum up support, self-sacrifice of ringleaders for the cause and at least a partial success in forcing the powers that be to redress the issues that sparked the protest.
The writers of each short story pay meticulous attention to portraying these details, from Holly Pester’s subtle references to leader of the Peasant’s Revolt Wat Tyler’s grisly fate to Kate Clancy’s vivid snapshot into the diverse crowds that gathered, divided by class, religion, or political convictions, yet united for the cause, during the 2003 anti-Iraq War demonstrations.
Another startling feature of the many modern protests described in the book is the propensity of the British police to respond with violence. Particularly harrowing is the police attack upon the protagonist Matt’s father during the 1984 Battle of Orgreave, in Martyn Bedford’s Withen. This traumatic episode is based on the real life of Yorkshire miner Russell Broomhead who we are told in Professor David Waddington’s afterword to the story: ‘developed a nervous stammer and chronic agoraphobia’ after a police officer ‘repeatedly [beat him] about the head.’ Incidents such as these are significant in indicating the police’s failure to respond effectively and proportionately to protests, something that sadly continues, notably in the 1990 Poll Tax Riot, which is also featured in Protest: Stories of Resistance.
the stories explore the long-term legacy of the events upon its characters
The power of these stories is augmented by their fictional nature, as this allows each author to capture a sense of time and place, both in relation to the wider, collective events of each protest movement and to the personal events occurring in people’s lives at the time. Many of the stories hold particular resonance for this reason, particularly Kit de Waal’s portrayal of a recently bereaved man looking back on his early life with his late wife and the difficulties of being an interracial couple in the 1960s, especially in Smethwick where racism was particularly rife. Thus, de Waal explores the impact of Malcolm X’s visit to Smethwick in 1965 not only upon the race relations movements at the time but also upon individuals. Similarly, many of the stories explore the long-term legacy of the events upon its characters: perhaps none more so than Martyn Bedford’s skilful, sensitive depiction of estrangement caused by the divisiveness of the 1980s mining strikes.
All in all, these stories serve to highlight that marginalised individuals can unite to make their voices heard. From those who are marginalised in many ways, such as the severely mistreated blind people who joined the 1920 National March for the Blind, to those who take a marginalised view on a single issue, such as the many middle and old aged, perhaps even conservative, churchgoers who participated in the 2003 anti-Iraq war demonstrations.
It would be heartening to see more works of historical fiction inspired by Comma Press’s approach, serving both to educate and entertain by giving voice once again to people who struggled to make their voices heard in challenging circumstances. It would also be encouraging to see more engagement with protest and resistance movements prior to the 20th century, the period which dominates the collection.
Free speech and the right to protest are integral features of a democracy, Protest: Stories of Resistance offers a celebration of these hard-won freedoms and the continual forces for change.
Protest: Stories of Resistance is published by Comma Press and is available now.
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