I COULDN’T PAINT GOLDEN ANGELS. Sixty Years of Commonplace Life and Anarchist Agitation by Albert Meltzer (Kindle and Kobo editions)
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Albert Meltzer (1920–1996) was involved, actively, in class struggles since the age of 15; exceptional for his generation in having been a convinced anarchist from the start, without any family background in such activity. A lively, witty account of sixty years in anarchist activism, and a unique recounting of many struggles otherwise distorted or unrecorded, including the history of the contemporary development of anarchism in Britain and other countries where he was involved, notably Spain. His story tells of many struggles, including for the first time, the Anglo-Spanish cooperation in the postwar anti-Franco resistance and provides interesting sidelights on, amongst others, the printers’ and miners’ strikes, fighting Blackshirts and the battle of Cable Street, the so-called Angry Brigade activities, the Anarchist Black Cross, the Cairo Mutiny and wartime German anti-Nazi resistance, the New Left of the 60s, the rise of squatting—and through individuals as varied as Kenyata, Emma Goldman, George Orwell, Guy Aldred, and Frank Ridley—all of which have crowded out not only his story, but his life too.
In spite of the self-effacing sub-title, the life of Albert Meltzer was far from “commonplace”. It is a witty account of the never-ending and tireless struggle — sometimes Herculean, sometimes Schvejkian — against the hydra-headed nonentities who seek to impose their order and their certainties on the universe.
Since his schooldays, throughout his working life and in “retirement”, anarchism was the guiding star which fuelled Albert’s thankfully incurable and infectious optimism and faith in the ultimate common sense of humanity. He was a worker, active in trade unionism, a tireless but unpaid editor, a traveller, a public speaker and a challenger of humbug. His character, ideas, good humour (mostly) and generosity of spirit have touched and influenced many people in many lands during the past sixty years. I am grateful to have been one of those links in the chain. Others, some of the many younger people Albert inspired, will undoubtedly be the future torchbearers of anarchism — a vision of a free, just and self-managed society — in the twenty-first century.
However did Albert Meltzer get to be one of the most enduring figures in the active international anarchist movement in the second half of the twentieth century? How did his commitment to anarchism survive the destruction of the Revolution and defeat in the Civil War in Spain? How did it survive the Second World War? What was the anarchist contribution to the revolutionary impetus of the 1960s and 1970s? How did it respond to the more demanding reactionary challenges of the 1980s and 1990s? These are important questions with a valuable bearing on the human condition in this century. “I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels” does not provide any easy answers but it does provide sharp and invaluable insights into how anarchists are formed and sustained — unpretentious, without illusions, prepared for everything and forgetting nothing. — Stuart Christie
The obscure title may require some explanation, inasmuch as the following introductory paragraph was accidentally omitted from the printed version: “A nineteenth century sentimental love lyricist of German poetry, who was also its sharpest political satirist, wrote a book of art criticism in Paris. He said he was determined to keep to the one subject, but the revolutions of that year broke out and he could not help bringing in his political prejudices and sympathies. He compared himself with an “honest fellow-tradesman”, a signwriter whose speciality was to paint red lions. Offered a commision to paint a golden angel as a house sign, he declined, saying he was only capable of painting a red lion, and if he attempted to paint a golden angel it would turn out to look like a red lion just the same. This was intended to be by way of being an account of an untypical working life, far from golden and never angelic but I couldn’t keep the red lion of anarchist history from emerging”