Sixty years ago exactly, a small and necessarily secretive group of young British radicals made headlines around the world. Their anonymous self-published pamphlet Danger! Official Secret revealed the government's top secret plans for governing the country in the event of nuclear war. And they exposed the location of one of these civil defence underground bunkers, Regional Seat of Government-6 in the Berkshire village of Warren Row.
The activists took the name the Spies for Peace. They helped organise an informal diversion of the Easter Aldermaston peace march which led to hundreds of protesters surrounding the entrance to RSG-6. And although the authorities didn't realsie this at the time, the Spies for Peace had already managed to break in to the underground bunker - twice! - and copy documents and maps.
Nic Ralph was one of the Spies for Peace, and is the only surviving member of the small group that broke in to RSG-6. After sixty years, he has decided to break his silence and for the first time tell his story of one of the most dramatic, and courageous, episodes in the history of Britain's peace movement.
Nic spoke to me and my colleague Marybeth Hamilton for a History Workshop podcast - the oral historian Sam Carroll, who has conducted landmark research on the Spies for Peace, was also part of the conversation.
Here's the link to the podcast - do give it a listen!
And the host page for the podcast is here.
Ralph (aka Raphael) 'the Red Idol'
A striking image of two linchpins of the British New Left just before the New Left was born. This photo is from early 1956, and shows Raphael (then Ralph) Samuel with the pipe and Peter Sedgwick standing over him. This joint profile carries the title: 'Red Idols'.
The article appeared in February 1956 in Isis, which I should explains was an Oxford students' weekly magazine and not an advocate of global jihad. The author was himself something of a Red Idol, Gabriel Pearson was secretary of the Oxford students' Communist group - the CP in Oxford at this time was highly stratified with separate groups for students, dons and the 'town'.
Raphael Samuel (1934-1996) had at this time just turned 21; Peter Sedgwick (1934-1983), was a little older - within weeks of his 22nd birthday. They were both keen Communists and emerging as important intellectual voices on the left.
And this 'Ralph' thing? Well, there are several versions as to how Raphael adopted this different moniker. One is that when Raphael enlisted in the North London Young Communist League, he wanted to go by a name which was familiar to young working-class comrades. Certainly, Ralph fits nicely with the pipe!
There were two founding sites of the British New Left. One was among Yorkshire-based historians in the CP, Edward Thompson and John Saville, who established a dissident journal within the party, the Reasoner, in the summer of 1956. This was just after the revelations about Khrushchev's 'secret' speech denouncing Stalin's cult of personality.
The third and final issue of the Reasoner appeared in November 1956 in the wake of the invasions of both Suez (by the UK, France and Israel) and Hungary (by the Soviet Union). Thompson and Saville were part of an avalanche of intellectuals out of the CP and in the summer of 1957, they established the influential New Reasoner.
Parallel to this, four Oxford students came together in the spring of 1957 to establish Universities and Left Review, another advocate of socialist humanism and more lively and engaging than the New Reasoner. Two of these four - Raphael Samuel and Gabriel Pearson - had just come out of the CP; the other two were on the left but never attracted to the CP, and both had come to Oxford from overseas, Stuart Hall from Jamaica and Chuck Taylor from Canada.
The New Reasoner and Universities and Left Review combined at the start of 1960 to become New Left Review, initially edited by Stuart Hall - and taken over a couple of years later, amid what some still describe as a coup, by Perry Anderson.
Raphael Samuel went on to establish the History Workshop movement. Peter Sedgwick joined the International Socialists, and became an expert in the life and writings of the Russian revolutionary and polymath, Victor Serge.
Leafing though issues of Isis in 1956, you can trace the shadow of the implosion of the Oxford students' Communist group - above all in this letter from Gabriel Pearson (who sadly died earlier this year).
Gary Pearson (yes, he too adopted a more demotic first name) was a regular contributor of verse to Isis. In December 1956, Pearson himself was the subject of one of the magazine's profiles with the title: 'Poet Idol':
And if you've made it this far, here's a bonus - an interview I did on Zoom with Chuck Taylor, the last surviving founding editor of Universities and Left Review, posted on YouTube with his blessing.
CND: "One step, and I shoot!"
I'm on a roll when it comes to CND ephemera. For the second time recently I've bought a CND-related item and found a CND leaflet inside.
Just recently I bought one of the first CND pamphlet's, historian A.J.P. Taylor's The Great Deterrent Myth - with on its cover a New Statesman cartoon mocking America's threatened use of the H-Bomb against the Soviet Union (hence the Russian bear).
Inside I found a press cutting, and a CND leaflet.
The leaflet seems to date from very soon after the launch of CND in November 1957. The famous CND peace symbol devised in 1958 is strikingly absent.
CND has still not achieved its goals. Britain remains a nuclear weapons 'power' - to its shame. But it has been one of the most effective of pressure groups, ensuring that the issue of unilateralism doesn't fade from public debate.
And the early CND was the political territory on which the British New Left developed - and that's quite something.
I bought an early copy of New Left Review recently. The journal started in 1960 with Stuart Hall as editor - and with a very different feel and format to the title it became (and of course NLR has been the great survivor and is still going strong). This issue is from early 1961.
Inside there was, in mint condition, a CND leaflet promoting the 1961 Aldermaston march. This annual peace march which was such an important rallying point for the New Left started in 1958. That first march was to Aldermaston; later marches started there and ended at Trafalgar Square.
So the Easter 1961 event was the fourth Aldermaston march. The 1963 march - during which a breakaway surrounded a supposedly secret Regional Seat of Government, a bunker prepared in the event of nuclear war - was the last large-scale Aldermaston event.
Aldermaston in Berkshire, the 'factory of death', was the site of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment - established in 1950 at a onetime RAF base and still going.
In 1961, there was a second march to London from Wethersfield in Essex, which was a United States Air Force base until 1970 and is now the HQ of the Ministry of Defence Police.
The Partisans of the New Left
This wonderful photo of sixty years or more ago - posted here courtesy of Jean McCrindle - shows two of the key figures of the British New Left ... outside an iconic venue of the New Left.
The writing on the back says: 'Ralph [Raphael Samuel] + Edward Thompson + Ernest (the tall guy) + John, Two of the ULR coffee bar people, watching'.
E.P. Thompson (1924-1993) was a Marxist humanist, a peace campaigner and the most distinguished historian of his generation, the author notably of The Making of the English Working Class. He was a member of the Communist Party but in 1956, after the revelations of Khrushchev's 'secret speech' at the 20th Congress of the CPSU denouncing Stalin's 'cult of personality', he - along with another Yorkshire-based historian, John Saville - set up what was in effect a dissident journal, the Reasoner.
After the Soviet-led invasion of Hungary later in the year, both Thompson and Saville left the CP. They closed the Reasoner after three issues but the following year they started the New Reasoner. It was the birth of the British New Left.
Raphael Samuel (1934-1996) was also a historian and the founding figure in the History Workshop movement. He was also a member of the Communist Party, again leaving in 1956. And early in 1957 he - along with Stuart Hall, Chuck Taylor and Gabriel Pearson - set up Universities & Left Review, similar in scope to the New Reasoner, but brighter in design, more concerned about culture and aiming for a slightly younger and less party-oriented readership.
The two journals coalesced at the beginning of 1960 to form the New Left Review. It wasn't an easy alliance and Edward Thompson was at times lacerating in his criticism of Raph and of Stuart Hall, the initial editor of NLR. But those early issues of the Review are a world apart from the theory-heavy (indeed, all round heavy) NLR which emerged out of a 'palace coup' a couple of years later.
And the iconic venue?
Well, one of Raph Samuel's more quixotic ventures was to establish a ULR coffee bar, the Partisan, in Soho. It lost money - quite a lot of money - but kept going from October 1958 to early 1963 (though it was in some decline after 1961). It was a remarkable venture, a 'socialist coffee house', an 'anti-espresso bar', a meeting place with linked offices above which became the heart of a national New Left Club movement.
And all this in Soho - where Marx once lived, where generations of political emigres published and agitated, and which was seen as on the cutting-edge of cool. The coffee house was in Carlisle Street - and that fits with the photo ... it's Soho Square that looms in the background on the right.
The historian Mike Berlin made a radio programme about the Partisan - it's below - and his illustrated account of the club published to accompany an exhibition of Roger Mayne's commissioned photos of the Partisan (held at Four Corners in 2017) is worth seeking out.
The date of the photo - well probably 1958-60.
And Jean McCrindle (born 1937)? Well, she - like Raph - was brought up in a Communist household and joined the CP herself (and also left over Hungary). She was active in the New Left Clubs in Scotland where she was a student.
According to Raph (he says he changed his name to Ralph for a while because fellow-YCLers in North London found his real name impossible to pronounce), he and Jean first met at the CP headquarters on King Street in Covent Garden in the underground room where student 'aggregates' were held. He also recalled proposing to Jean when aged 21 at the summit of Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh - though Jean's memory is more that they talked about getting married.
There's a celebrated photo of the couple taken at Trafalgar Square in 1956 ...
... there's no doubt about the location - you can see the National Gallery in the background. And the occasion? Uncertain - but the big political gathering in Trafalgar Square that year was the anti-Suez demonstration on 4th November.
By the end of that month the engagement was over.
Jean McCrindle - who I met this week - has herself been a lifelong activist, pioneering feminist and teacher and twice stood for Parliament.
The New Left and Official Secrets: the curious case of Paul Thompson and William Miller
This is a wonderful reminder of one of Britain's less well known Official Secrets trials. It's from 1958 - the height of the Cold War. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament had just been established, and the first Aldermaston march against nuclear weapons took place in April that year.
This pamphlet - well, more a leaflet - was published (at one remove) by one of the main titles of the emerging New Left, Universities & Left Review. It reprinted an article from the Oxford student magazine Isis of February 1958 which revealed the dubious tactics that Britain's armed forces used against the Soviet bloc and to ensure the effectiveness of their signals intelligence.
The article makes interesting reading -
The leaflet was published by the ULR Club, and the address given appears to be that of Raphael Samuel, one of the founders of Universities & Left Review.
A pencilled note on the leaflet reads: 'Postgraduate students were jailed for this.' And that seems to be true - two students were indeed locked up.
The picture agency Shutterstock has online a photo taken on 21st May 1958 with the caption: 'Paul Richard Thompson (l) And William Miller (r) - Two Oxford Undergraduates Charged Under The Official Secrets Act With Communicating Secret Information Following An Article In The Undergraduate Magazine "Isis".'' Another photo of the pair dates from two months later.
According to an obituary of William Miller - who went on to become a successful editor, publisher and literary agent - the two men were sentenced to three months in jail with the specific proviso that this should be served in a low security open jail. In other words, the judge reckoned that while there had been a breach of the Official Secrets Act, it was a nuisance rather than a threat to national security.
The other defendant, Paul Thompson, appears to be the distinguished sociologist and oral historian of that name. He was certainly a student at Oxford at the time and - more tellingly - had studied Russian in the navy during his National Service.
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