Protest: Stories of Resistance cover

A historically rich collection of stories on episodes of resistance across British history is evocative of experiences of protest, finds Ralph Graham-Leigh

Ra Page (ed.), Protest. Stories of Resistance (Comma Press 2017), 459pp.

This book is based on a great idea. It comprises twenty fictional short stories, each centred on a specific moment of protest in British history from the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 to the 2003 Iraq War demonstration. Each story is followed by an afterword explaining the actual historical events and context around which the story is based. The book’s introduction explains that the intention of this construct is to avoid the ‘great man’ theory of history and to instead tell the story of an event from the perspective of individuals ignored by most historical records; as these individuals leave few official traces, the best way to tell their stories is to imagine them through fiction. It’s an excellent idea, and in some cases, the book does manage to touch and enlighten through this approach.

The dual nature of the book means it can be read in two ways: as a collection of short stories with factual footnotes, and as a selection of snapshots of popular protest on the island of Britain. Throughout the book run the themes of experiencing events from a personal perspective, and valuing lesser-known events and individuals over the famous.

As with any collection of short stories, the enjoyableness of the stories varies. Some really stand out as excellent. For example, Joanna Quinn’s Greenham Common (1981-90) story provides great insight into the hardships suffered by the participating women and the liberation they achieved through a comparison of their camp experiences with their lives otherwise. Maggie Gee, writing on the Night Cleaners’ Strike (1971-2), explores left-wing middle-class embarrassment over employing a cleaner, how solidarity can be achieved regardless, and the humanity in a simple gesture of recognition of a foreign hospital cleaner by a (working-class) visitor, which is the most moving moment in the entire book.

Other stories capture their period setting particularly well, such as the Matthew Holness’ Diggers (1649) story, with its memorable oppressor protagonist, a traumatised Marston Moor veteran haunted by past violence and occult visions. Both Sara Maitland on the Peasants’ Revolt (1381), from the perspective of a survivor of the Black Death in the revolt’s aftermath, and Laura Hird’s story on the Radical War (1820), excellently portray the difficulties of dealing with a violent government response to armed rebellion.

Narrative and perspective

Some stories don’t quite achieve their purpose, and can suffer through being in a large collection or are limited by the form of the short story. For example, there appear to be limited methods for telling a story about an event, as the author must decide whether to set their story before, during or after the event or set the story in multiple points in time. Of the twenty stories, ten are set during the event, four after, and five shift between multiple points in time. However, time-shifting is hard to successfully achieve in the limited space of a short story. Juliet Jacques’ Section 28 (1988) story suffers from its use of multiple time settings, as it is the fifth story in the volume to do this and it appears directly after Martyn Bedford’s Orgreave (1984) story which itself uses a slightly excessive ten time shifts (although the Orgreave story nevertheless achieves the most powerful ending of all stories in the volume). Alexei Sayle’s Anti-Vietnam Protest (1968) story is refreshing as the only story set entirely before the central event, especially as the characters never even make it there. Also, when reading several stories in one session it can be hard to keep track, especially when stories are brief and introduce multiple characters and timelines. For example, Andy Hedgecock’s story on the Luddites of Pentrich (1817) suffers from this, introducing seven characters in the first page of a six-page story which covers four different time periods.

Generally, the quality of the afterwords is very good. They are written by academic experts or those who have personal experience of the events, and in most cases, they effectively explain the actual historical events and surrounding context. Of the twelve stories based on post-1945 events, eight benefit from afterwords primarily written by academic authors with personal experiences of the events.

Characteristics of protest

Steve Hindle’s afterword for the Midland Rising (1607) is particularly enlightening, as it details common characteristics of British popular protests. As the book’s introduction notes, Hindle’s points can be seen throughout much of the book, and with minor additions, act as checklist for characteristics of protest on the island of Britain. These characteristics are:

  • the moral outrage of the dispossessed;
  • use of symbolic violence against property rather than persons;
  • a desire to remind the regime of its legal obligations;
  • use of popular, especially oral, culture to spread discontent;
  • self-sacrifice of the ringleaders;
  • partial success in achieving some redress of the grievances after the inevitable suppression; and
  • government forces’ heavy-handedness and, from the Pentrich Rising (1817) onwards, governance infiltration. (Introduction, p.xv)

The selection of events addressed by the book continues the theme of covering lesser-known areas. For example, instead of covering the 1926 General Strike or the 1936 Jarrow March, the book contains a story on the less famous, but successful and influential 1920 National Blind March, and instead of Peterloo or the Chartists, the book covers the Scottish Radical rising of 1820. Highlighting lesser-known events also allows the book to explain how protests influence each other. For example, the National Blind March took inspiration from the Suffragettes (addressed in Michelle Green’s story), and itself influenced the Jarrow March, while the Aldermaston marches (the central event of Stuart Evans’ story) influenced the non-violent direct action in the US civil rights movement, which in turn inspired the tactics of the Welsh language protests (covered in Francesca Rhydderch’s story).

The approach generally works well, as it is in keeping with the book’s general approach and because the book doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive history of popular protest, and is instead a series of snapshots which inform the general reader about lesser-known instances of popular dissent.

One potential criticism is that although the events covered are diverse from a perspective of the oppressed groups, covering economic, social, racial, gender and disability-based oppression, and has some diversity across English regions, it is very Anglo-centric, with 18 of the stories describing English events, and only one story each on Scotland and Wales. However, this is a minor point and the book generally succeeds in its aim of telling stories of resistance in a refreshing and informative way.