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John Rety: “The point is this”

Obituary by Milan Rai
John Rety, chessplayer, Freedom editor, novelist, poet, publisher, painter, pacifist and lifelong anarchist and activist, has died at the age of 79. John confessed in a radio interview in 2008 that he became aware of anarchism “quite late, really – I must have been 13 or 14.” This was during the last year of the Second World War, in occupied Budapest, when John’s father was confined to a camp. John himself was a courier for hidden Jewish families scattered around the city, and perhaps also for the anti-fascist resistance. While his parents survived, John’s beloved grandmother was shot dead on the final day of the war, after telling a soldier that he could put his gun down, now that it was all over.

One of John’s first postwar political acts was to write and perform an anti-war play on the steps of the Hungarian parliament. This alarmed his family, who arranged a visa for him to visit London in 1947. John was then informed by his aunt that his passport had been burnt, stranding him. Fittingly for an anarchist, John was for almost his entire adult life a stateless person.

In the early 1950s, John became “one of the genuine movers and shakers” of 1950s London, in the words of collaborator John Pilgrim. John’s magazines Intimate Review, Cheshire Cat and Fortnightly were key parts of Soho life, publishing major literary figures such as Doris Lessing and Colin Wilson (first published by John). Pilgrim was sent to report on the Malatesta Club in Holborn for Intimate Review in 1954 as “it is rumoured that anarchists go there”. Both Johns then became involved in the anarchist scene.

The editor
Contrary to lingering rumours, there is abundant evidence that John was a Freedom editor in the 1960s. Neil Collins, who helped fold Freedom every week in the mid-1960s, remembers John’s “ebullience” fondly. Class War founder Ian Bone paid this affectionate tribute: “John Rety was the first anarchist I ever met and therefore directly responsible for everything! For me he was the best editor of Freedom. Our movement has suffered a sad loss – a very fine, honest, funny, steadfast human being has died.”

Wynford Hicks, now a distinguished journalist, was in the 1960s part of the Syndicalist Workers Federation and the Notting Hill Anarchist Group, both highly critical of Freedom. He Wynford Hicks recalls: “When John became one of the editors [of Freedom] he suggested that I write a column, which I did for about 18 months (from the autumn of 1967 to the spring of 1969).” Called “Fifth column”, the title gave Hicks “a licence to be subversive (i.e. disagree with what other Freedom contributors wrote)”. This inclusiveness was the hallmark of Freedom under John’s editorship: “John was the least sectarian anarchist I ever met: he just couldn’t see the point of the divisions that seemed so important to other people.”

Anarchist poet Jeff Cloves recalls Freedom having “more verve” and being “less puritanical” under John’s editorship – “contributors liked John because he was quite liberal about what he put in”. In an interview with Ian Bone, John explained his policy: “I just printed everything that people sent.” John visited Scotland and other places, and invited critics of Freedom to take responsibility for the paper: “The Scottish [group] had an issue once every month, it went in rotation.”

The activist
Sylvie Edwards, who was involved in Freedom through the 1990s, remembers John as being “a real anarchist – he didn’t just write about things, he also got out there; everything that I went to, John was there.” Longtime peace activist Ernest Rodker says that his “abiding memory, even after so many years” is of John, “in heroic mode”, being “one of the first to burst through the heavy police cordon surrounding Grosvenor Square” at the famous anti-Vietnam War demonstration at the US Embassy on 27 October 1968.

In his memoirs Bash The Rich, Ian Bone recalls the night before the demonstration: “John Rety – who was the editor of Freedom at the time – was debating with Tariq Ali why we should go to the Embassy and not the picnic in the park…. The room was packed out and Rety looked an especially romantic figure with his beard and red and black neckerchief. He was the only anarchist anyone had heard of and gave Ali a good sneering run for his money.”

John was prominent in the anarchist movement at that time – he appeared on television at least once as “an anarchist”, and he was the prime organiser of the Anarchist Ball in Fulham Town Hall on 1 April 1966. Asked about the Grosvenor Square demonstration, which became a fierce physical confrontation with the police. John once said: “I’m not terribly fond of violence. I think that violence means that we have lost the argument.” He chose instead to focus on an event in nearby Speakers’ Corner, a 13-person 13-day fast to end the Vietnam War that he participated in. John was involved in Speakers’ Corner in the 1960s, and, briefly, in the 1980s. Philip Sansom described John in his 1977 essay on Speakers’ Corner as “practically the last of the [London Anarchist] ‘group’ speakers”, noting that John was “an amusing speaker with whom the crowd felt it easy to relate.”

One of John’s less amusing commitments during the 1960s was his role in defending Stuart Christie, who was arrested in Spain in August 1964 carrying explosives for an attempted assassination of Franco, Fascist dictator of Spain. After an international solidarity campaign, Christie was released in September 1967 (but his accomplice Fernando Carballo Blanco was not). John was a driving force in the Christie-Carballo committee, initially convinced by Christie’s protestations of innocence. Later, in his long elegiac poem “Song of Anarchy”, John wrote:

That was the day my friend went to Spain,
Love and peace, I said and patience
Look around you, this is our world
Be patient, trust in your comrades
Do nothing in secret conclaves
Anarchists have no secrets
His young face was a grin from ear to ear
Trust me John and he sang me a song
And I never felt so cheated so betrayed
It took me ten years to drop out
But drop out I did.

Despite his personal feelings after learning the truth, John was a committed campaigner for Christie’s release. John Pilgrim, press officer for the Christie-Carballo committee, recalls: “Rety said he was going off to the Observer. He was one of the scruffiest people I’d ever seen. The fact is he got the best coverage of the lot, a two-page spread.” Christie credits the British press coverage as a major factor in his release.

In the 1960s, John was also passionately campaigning against French nuclear tests in the Pacific, hence the publication of the Freedom-connected pamphlet Liberty, Equality & Radioactivity, with a lovely cover by Arthur Moyse. This 1966 pamphlet drew together contributions from a variety of political perspectives including the Independent Labour Party. The contributors’ section states: “Jack Robinson and John Rety are editors of ‘Freedom’.”

A 10 June 1966 invoice for the cover is still among John’s papers (this is actually the only way of dating the pamphlet). Also among John’s papers are many letters from actual or potential contributors to Freedom discussing articles or columns that John had published or might publish. It is clear that John was indeed one of the editors of Freedom, along with Jack Robinson and Pete Turner, probably from 1964 to 1969, as he himself recalled. John had initially been invited to join the editorial group (by Philip Sansom) on the basis of his journalistic experience. Interestingly, “Nobody asked me if I knew anything about anarchism”.

Later, in the 1990s, John returned to Freedom, writing a column entitled “Through The Anarchist Press” (published as a book by Freedom Press in 1996).

The poet
In the interval between his two engagements with Freedom, chess and poetry became central parts of John’s life. His highest FIDE rating this century was 2034, and he played chess for England several times in the European Senior Team Championship.

John’s involvement in poetry developed after he turned from supporting squatters to becoming one himself, taking over a semi-derelict building at 99 Torriano Avenue, Kentish Town in 1981. This building, initially without gas or electricity, was gradually transformed into an extraordinary community arts centre. Torriano Meeting House was the base for Hearing Eye publications, through which John and his life partner since 1958, Susan Johns, have published over 150 poetry books, many of them illustrated by their daughter Emily Johns, featuring an astonishing array of poets. Some poets to perform at Torriano included John Heath-Stubbs, Stephen Spender and Adrian Mitchell.

Hearing Eye poet Hylda Sims reflects on John’s capacity to persuade people – often notable people – to contribute to his initiatives – generally for free: “John and Susan have lived their lives as true anarchists. They haven’t cared about money, and it shines out. John truly lived the life of the proper anarchist: he was fundamentally uncommercial and people sensed that, and people trusted him.”

John Rety (8 December 1930 – 3 February 2010), leaves behind partner Susan Johns, daughter Emily Johns, and son Jacob Rety. There will be a celebration of John’s life at 6pm, Friday 19 March, at the Artworkers’ Guild, 6, Queen Square, London WC1N 3AT (nearest tube Russell Square). Ian Bone’s Resonance FM interview with John is available on YouTube at http://tinyurl.com/john-rety-resonance

Milan Rai

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