Resist: Stories of Uprising

Edited by Ra Page

Comma Press, £14.99

Review by Alastair Mabbott

With Britain’s history of radicalism permanently marginalised to make way for a theme-park narrative of monarchy, deference, empire and stiff upper lips, there’s never a bad time to be reminded that, when things got bad enough, ordinary Britons would fight back too.

From the non-profit-making Comma Press, and edited by its founder, Ra Page, comes this collection of 20 short stories inspired by eruptions of civil resistance on British history, from Boudica in 60AD to Grenfell in 2017, stopping off at such points as the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, the Battle of George Square in 1919 and the Newbury Bypass protest in 1996. Each of the commissioned authors was paired up with a historian, who helped them along and contributed an afterword filling out the historical context.

Some of these stories are told from the point of view of participants in the action (none more viscerally than Bidisha’s opener about the bloody vengeance that followed Boudica’s humiliation by the Romans), but just as often they’re glimpsed sideways.

The tale of the Tolpuddle Martyrs is told from the perspective of George Loveless’s niece, whom he asks to paint banners for his new “Friendly Society”, and who thus feels implicated when he is transported to Australia for sedition.

The Tottenham Riot of 2011 is represented by the effect it has on the family of a young man imprisoned for five months for looting an ice cream cone, his mother judging it a “degrading” riot compared to Brixton or Greenham Common and blaming her husband for encouraging their son to join in.

Unsurprisingly, with Kamila Shamsie being the most celebrated contributor to this volume, her take on the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820 is a standout. It too is approached from a distance, with a young man from Jamaica, the product of his father’s affair with a slave, going to live with his uncle in England and taking a very different view from his benefactor of the recently-thwarted plot to behead the entire Cabinet.

In his introduction, Ra Page suggests that the reason Britain never had a revolution is that we lived in too much fear of the authorities, and the measures taken by a highly effective state to quell them is as essential a part of these stories as the uprisings themselves. Whether wielding cudgels, tampering with evidence or passing unjust sentences, the oppressor is ever-present, eternal and essentially unchanging. But the agent of the state is humanised too, in Martin Edwards’ Peterloo story, in which an old man who had been a special constable at the massacre is haunted on his deathbed by what he saw and did there.

Scotland is represented by Donny O’Rourke’s take on the 1919 Battle of George Square, with demonstrator Derry Flynn interviewed by a BBC researcher 60 years after his skull was cracked by a “hard-hearted, hatchet-faced” policeman. It was a peaceful march, he recalls, including families treating it as a day out, which was set upon by thugs itching for a fight. The army didn’t turn up till the next day, he tells the researcher apologetically, “but there was a police cavalry charge, if that helps”.

“It was a chapter, maybe a brief one, in the book of protests that eventually got black people the vote in the American south and Catholics the vote in Ireland’s north,” Derry Flynn tells her. And Flynn’s sentiments echo through all the stories in this collection. All these local struggles, organised on a grass-roots level at various times and places in history, add up to something greater than themselves.

As Ra Page also points out, a common theme connecting these uprisings is that, rather than setting out to advance a progressive agenda, they were generally an attempt to stop things slipping back, to hang on to rights people already held. And with anti-terrorist legislation increasingly being used against peaceful demonstrators, and disinformation about infiltrators, agents provocateurs and rent-a-mobs clouding the issue of protest still further, there perhaps couldn’t be a better time to be reminded of them.