The Forum is born
Home sweet home Latest site info Poetic stuff Serious stuff Funny stuff Topical stuff Alternative stuff Shakespearian stuff Musical stuff
  click here for a "printer friendly" version

A Nest of Anarchists. By J.B. Pick.

These portraits are memories, not fiction, and not autobiography.

Memory is fallible and inadequate, but as the sole survivor of a community which seems to me significant and characteristic of its time I must use whatever store I have to tell its story.

Part One. The Prophet.

    The first time I saw Fredrick Lohr he was poised like a sea-captain confronting a mutinous crew from the deck of his ship, voice pitched to cut through squalls. But he wasn't a sea-captain on the bridge of a ship, he was on a platform in Hyde Park. It was a bright, blustery day in 1941, not the most auspicious time to be asking prickly questions about war, power, the conduct of governments, and the crisis in history, but that's what he was doing.

    It wasn't a harangue he was delivering but something closer to an inquisition. He would pick on a particular heckler and fix him with a penetrating gaze, leaning forward as if trying to pierce the mask to reach the struggling infant inside. He would then submit the heckler's words, attitudes and assumptions to mordant scrutiny. As a rule the heckler reacted like a predator faced suddenly by a larger predator. He retreated warily or in haste.

    I don't remember how soon after this I got to know Fredrick and learned his story, but this is it.

    His father was a German who married an Englishwoman and became a British citizen. In 1915 he joined the British Army. As anti-German hysteria grew among civilians, the family suffered abuse from neighbours. One day, when his father was on leave, a crowd gathered on the stairs of the South London tenement, baying for blood. Fredrick's father came out onto the landing in uniform and carrying a rifle. He threatened to blow the head off the first person to take another step. No one did. Fredrick was five or six years old at the time.

    Lohr senior died in his forties and Fredrick inherited a moribund garage business and no money. First through specialist servicing and then through selling cars, he developed a thriving trade and became a Lancia agent in London, spilling cash on hunting with hounds, motor racing, and learning to fly an aeroplane. His favourite books were the novels of R.S.Surtees, whose character Jorrocks rollicked through the shires with huntsmen, trenchermen and bibbers.

    Once, when in full flow, he noticed my wife Gene in the crowd he paused, struck by inspiration. But instead of revealing an immortal thought he told the joke from Surtees about the man at the inn who asked what the weather was like outside. A fellow carouser pulled open the door of a cupboard, peered in and reported 'Filthy dark and smells of cheese.' The crowd received this news with respect and attention.

    Fredrick married a capable, ambitious woman who ran her own dress shop. They had a daughter who became an actress and sometimes visited Fredrick, wearing an expression of tolerant detachment.

    When, after ignoring reality for years, the newspapers began to press alarm buttons about Hitler, crisis, and carry rumours of war. Fredrick awoke to an odd thought. He had relatives in Germany. Were they going to fight him? Did they want a war? He decided to find out.

    What a crazy time to visit Germany, his wife said. If Hitler wants a war, and the politicians can't avoid one, you can't stop it. You're not attending properly to business now. Why waste time and money on a trip which can bring no comfort and no solution?

    They'll look at you like something the cat forgot.

    But Fredrick went. His relatives were warmly hospitable, and fed him rich cakes. No, they told him, they didn't want a war. In any case, they said, there wouldn't be one. How could there be? Hitler was a great man who admired the English, and loved peace.

    Fredrick returned home bewildered. If people in Britain didn't want war, and people in Germany didn't want war, what sort of system was it that allowed war to happen? He didn't believe that Hitler was a great man who wanted peace, but he didn't believe, either, that British politicians were wise man who knew how to avoid war. He didn't believe that any of them had the interests of their own people at heart, or had any real idea how to control events. Perhaps nobody can ever control events?
Perhaps there was something behind events, some secret which you could never reach. Was it all our fault, or God's? Or was everything a tissue of accident, and man a lost animal?

    He talked to customers, friends, business acquaintances, taximen, horse-trainers, shopkeepers, bankers, everybody. He tormented people for information they didn't have, and for thoughts they had never bothered to think. He read books on politics, economics, history and social philosophy. The only writers who struck home were Kierkegard, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and the Russian thinker Berdyaev, who managed to be at the same time a Christian and an anarchist.

    Fredrick grew increasingly lonely and agitated. He could not sleep. He went for walks at night through streets populated only by cats, drunks and the homeless. He felt cut off from the world he had known. It was no longer a real world, but a dream. He felt ignorant, helpless, like a novice swimmer splashing in a rough sea.

    He could not navigate through a single day blown by a fair warm wind. He would start a conversation in one mood and end it in another. He would swing in minutes from being talkative, forceful, decisive, to being withdrawn, brooding and sunk in silence. His wife began to lose patience.

    One day, when pacing sombrely between tall buildings which frowned over him like a threat, he was struck alive by a poster demanding 'Why war?' Since this was the single question to which he most wanted a practical answer, he strode into the placarded building and emerged fifteen minutes later a member of the Peace Pledge Union, armed with a pamphlet and the information that a PPU speaker held forth every Sunday afternoon in Hyde Park.

    Fredrick went that Sunday to Speakers' Corner. A well-known pacifist priest was stating his position with sober confidence and Fredrick began to believe that perhaps he wasn't entirely alone after all.

    But when the priest finished, a young idealist in corduroy trousers, with long hair and an expression of arrogant timidity took his place. The crowd was immediately hostile. If they or their brothers and sons would have to join the Army and get shot, why should this weedy youth escape? Who was he to tell them what to do?

    There were then - and probably still are - ruthless and highly skilled hecklers whose hobby it was to harry and destroy speakers in Hyde Park. Once they got a victim on the run they chased him down with the concentration of a stoat after a rabbit. There was rich sport in baiting a novice whose delivery was hesitant and whose arguments under pressure became increasingly confused. The pack closed in for the kill. Every effort the stricken speaker made to marshal his thoughts was greeted with ribaldry, one heckler inciting another to feats of mocking abuse.

    In a final effort to gain some sort of control, the speaker raised his voice to what he hoped would be a commanding bellow, and produced instead a despairing squeak. A gale of laughter blew him away. He turned his back, fighting tears.

    Fredrick took off, barging his way through the crowd like a Rugby forward going for the line. He pulled the floundering youth down from the platform and leapt up in his place, a six-foot sea- captain looming above an astonishment of flushed faces.

    He didn't have to find words, words found him, and fired themselves at the crowd. He denounced them individually and collectively for malice, ignorance and stupidity. Were they so afraid of the opinions of a harmless youth that they had to attack him like wild dogs? Would any of them have the courage to stand up and face a hostile mob in defence of an unpopular cause. The boy was trying to confront real problems at a time of crisis and all they could do was play cruel games in the nursery.

    He began to describe the conflicts and contradictions which plagued his own mind, and how the coming war tormented his conscience. He challenged each member of the audience to face them too. Where was the truth? What was to be done? As he spoke he realised with amazement that he was saying what the authentic hidden Fredrick would have said if he had known how, and that the crowd had fallen silent. It was as if he were suddenly aware of the world, of everything around him, in a new way, alight with meaning. He had a sensation of tingling vitality.

    When he fell quiet the crowd waited in equal quietness. A drunk, slow to pick up the change of mood, tried to raise a shout. The surrounding charge of anger sent him shuffling off into exile.

    Fredrick knew with the clarity of sunlight on a startled lawn that he had found his vocation. This was why he was alive: to discover the hidden currents that move people and events and share what he had seen with those who would respond. There was no turning back.

    From then on he spoke regularly in the Park and at Lincoln's Inn Fields. He hired a room in Endsleigh Gardens for an indoor gathering which became known as the London Forum, and kept up its work for twenty years.

    When the war began his business died. Who wanted a Lancia when there was no petrol, no signposts, and nowhere to go? How could you import them, anyway? How was he to earn a living? Fredrick wrote later: 'Only in the utter acceptance of complete material insecurity can a man remain faithful to his vision' - a dictum easier to explain to the marines than to his wife.

    Collections were made at his meetings; people approached him at the Forum and offered him money. Whenever he lost faith, economic difficulties followed; when faith revived, cash came in. This way of life offended his wife's dignity and common sense. They lost friends and her own business suffered. She left, taking their daughter.

    It was not long after this that agents provocateurs managed to incense the crowd to the point of fracas. Fredrick found himself in court charged with breach of the peace. He served three months in Wormwood Scrubs. His account of the experience concentrated entirely on the ingenious efforts of fellow-prisoners to smuggle food to a man in solitary confinement.

    By the time I met him, Fredrick had moved from straight pacifism to the position of a thoroughgoing philosophical anarchist. He published a booklet, 'The Philosophy of Freedom', in which he wrote: 'Vocation must replace wage slavery, voluntary co-operation must replace governmental coercion, and so security will supplant insecurity. We must find again joy in activity. There is no other meaning in life. Man was once bound to the social herd by force of necessity, language has freed his personality from social compulsion. Now we must return by desire to a social community of free people.' But how?

    Although Fredrick's views changed drastically as time passed, his sense of the necessity for freedom and vocation, and his sense of the meaning of history were the fundamental issues for him until the end of his life. In 1941 he wrote:

    'All social issues narrow down to this conflict between authority and liberty. . . No government, whether it be the domination of one man over another, or of the State over the people, can exercise authority if it has no power to enforce submission to its rule. Therefore all authority in the final analysis proceeds from the threat of violence.' He was calling for a society growing naturally from the simple to the complex by the voluntary co-operation of free individuals.

    His contacts with Spanish anarchist refugees from the civil war in Spain, led him to believe that Spanish experience showed this to be possible. But the influential anarcho-syndicalist movement in Spain had been crushed by Franco, and never achieved equal strength anywhere else.

    Fredrick became obsessed by a sense of the inescapable loneliness of the human ego, which gave rise to all the unanswerable questions in human life, and he was convinced that the desire for power is itself the result of inner isolation.

    His pilgrimage was an arduous one, and the Forum changed as he changed, concentrating on methods of transcending the ego to reach a state of objectivity and inner liberation, continually lost and regained. Fredrick was not an obvious candidate for arrival at this state, but it was his insatiable need to drive further that gave the Forum such intense vitality for so long. It is notable that Fredrick?s concentration on Western preoccupation with history made him indifferent to the meditation philosophies of the East.

    It must have been early in the war years that Fredrick met the mysterious Brown - a perfect name for a man in the shadows. Perhaps Brown sought him out after hearing him in the Park.

    Brown's own story was remarkable. He joined the Army in the First World War, and remained an unthinking and enduring soldier on the Western Front until one day, entirely normal in its bleak routine, he found himself sitting alone in the back of a truck carrying supplies to a forward depot. I say 'found himself because that's precisely what took place. One moment he was slumped in a state of weary torpor, the next he was startlingly awake and aware of his surroundings. He took in with a sense of revelation the blasted, desolate landscape with its blackened trees, shattered buildings and muddy craters, the lorry crawling like a lost insect on the rutted road. The whole area of madness, the enormous stagnant armies, the deluded Generals imagining that they could control events, the vast paraphernalia of war, and his own terrifying inner isolation from it all, struck home with painful, stark intensity. He realised as if a blazing word had been spoken that all these people were moving and planning and suffering in their sleep, that he too had been asleep and was now awake. He jumped off the back of the truck and out of participation in the war. Whatever happened, he was now no longer under orders. How he escaped court-martial, and how he survived the rest of the war I don't know, but here he was in London, in 1941, still walking and still speaking in very few words only what he felt to be necessary at the time.

    I met Brown, a grizzled Scot, only once, and learned how simple and infallible his method was. He would address to you a pointed and definite statement, looking you coldly in the eye, and wait for your response. If it was not satisfactory he would say 'Either you see it or you don't', and if you didn't, he left. Each of us sees only what he is ready to see; a phrase may be forgotten and years after it was said it comes alive in the mind to reveal meaning.

    In a letter of 1949 Fredrick took exception to something I had written in an obituary article on Wilfred Ward Coupe (of whom more later). He thought I had over-emphasised the influence Coupe had in the London Forum, and on Fredrick himself. He set out to insist on his debt to Brown:

    'I react resentfully against any suggestion, however faint,' he wrote, 'that Coupe was the brains or the ideological spearhead of the forum. This merit, if it is merit, belongs to Brown, and Coupe's interest in the forum was due to something he recognised and acknowledged in me and which I received from Brown and have tried to expound. . .'

Coupe's contribution was scholarship, irony, a frame of reference. Fredrick's gradual movement away from humanist anarchism towards religious belief and then to the Catholic Church was not Brown's doing, and as a typical Coupian irony it was not Coupe's either. Coupe was a practising Catholic, but advised Fredrick not to join the Church because, he said, it would destroy his vocation.

    My guess is that Brown's esoteric view of history saw religious institutions as instruments for power and control rather than for liberation and enlightenment. What then was his revelation? Since I never heard him expound it, I can only suggest this, from secondary evidence: that there is a hidden current in history which will only reveal itself to the most penetrating and steady observation, and that this observation can only take place when the ego has freed itself from continual identification with doctrines and opinions which it has adopted for purposes of self-aggrandisement, and for which it has no authentic inner justification. Brown looked at events with a peculiar coldness of gaze, and saw an irrevocable tendency towards greater centralisation and control. Those whose aim it is to achieve world unity and to build man in a particular image (who are not the politicians who delude themselves that they manipulate events) correspond to Dostoevsky's view of the Grand Inquisitor, who saw his duty as protecting ordinary human beings from reality by refusing them freedom. This explains Fredrick's ongoing concern with that formidable apparition.

    Speaking personally, I suspect that esoteric explanations of historical development are highly suspect, and that life is a great deal more complex than any rational explanation of it.

    One regular attender at Fredrick's indoor meetings was Molly Warner, the determined daughter of an Anglo-Irish clergyman, who always remained precisely that, even when running a house frequented by failed priests, seekers, anarchists, nihilists, neurotics, the miserable, the frenetic, the desperate, the lonely, and the lost.

    Molly looked like a Renaissance madonna, douce, quiet and self-contained, but in fact she was deeply emotional, with a steely will. When her mind was made up, nothing and no one could shake her resolve. Once she had begun one of her rare discourses, interruption could not turn her aside. She would simply repeat the mantra 'You see," and carry on where she left off.

    Fredrick gained in Molly his most dedicated supporter and his most formidable opponent. After his divorce from his first wife Fredrick and Molly were married.

    In 1941 and 1942 I was a member of the Friends' Ambulance Unit, which I had left University to join, and worked during the day in the Receiving Room at Poplar Hospital, and in the evening at two Docklands Air Raid Shelters, one at each end of the Silvertown Bridge, each with a Boys' Club, one Catholic and one Anglican, both of which I was meant to superintend. I did this with notable inefficiency, but enjoyed playing chess with the Vicar. I never met the priest.

    I moved then to work in the TB Ward at Bethnal Green Hospital, an institution from which patients only emerged feet first, moving from bed to bed as their condition worsened until they reached the door.

    Finally I was occupied during the day at the Citizens' Advice Bureau in Whitechapel, my main job being to trace the whereabouts of bombed families who were being sought by friends or relatives. When found they had to consent to the information being revealed in case the seekers were creditors or worse. Responsibilities included being asked to rescue a beloved hat from a wardrobe perched on the second floor of a house from which a bomb had removed the entire side-wall. The wardrobe was in a distressed and drunken state. Since I was riding a bicycle back to base the only place to carry the hat was on my head, and a passing policeman opened his mouth to shout as I swept round the corner and vanished.

    The Citizens' Advice Bureau was run by two distinguished Communists, one who resembled a brisk and downright retired Colonel, and one whose motherly benevolence calmed many a bewildered pensioner. I gained for them both real affection and respect and they treated me with astonishing kindness.

    While working in Whitechapel I was among FAU members stationed at the London Hospital Students' Hostel. On several occasions I brought anarchist speakers to this establishment - the saintly and down-to-earth Matt Kavanagh, Bill Gape, organiser of the so-called Tramps' Union, and Fredrick. Fredrick aroused more interest and debate than anyone else. His integrity and total commitment produced the reaction, 'If this man believes that. it must be worth considering.'

    At one public meeting held, I think, in Wigmore Hall, various left-wing mavericks did their best to inspire enthusiasm for a new world beyond the war, and failed. Then Fredrick began pacing the stage as if trying to contain the electric energy which burst out in sudden spouts of words, something like this:

    'Why are we here? What are we doing in the middle of a war spouting rhetoric in a cold hall in a bombed city, when people are killing each other all over the world? What's the war about? It's a war between a murderous tyranny run by criminals and the complacent hypocrisy it's got by the throat. What's the hidden evil behind this war and all wars? Power. We're here to fight our own war against the delusions of power. People can seek power in order to do good. But once power swallows them^all they work for is to keep it. Why? '

    'It's a craving. It's the Devil's trick. The Devil tried it on Jesus. We've got to find a better way of organising so that no one has enough power to do harm, and everyone has enough influence to do good. '

    'We're in a war, in darkness. We've got to live in light. That's why we're here. Life can be a reign of terror, a deception, a routine of dumb stupidity, a nightmare of loneliness. Or it can be a rich and marvellous journey based on inner rules tested on your own integrity. Where do they come from? From the seed we were born with. We know what's true and what's false, we know what's right and what's wrong. When the rules are lost, balance is lost, meaning is lost.?'

    'I tell you this. Those rules are the living delineations of beauty. We're here to break out of prison. We're here to find out where we live, why we live, to discover the real world. Now! Wake up! Freedom is real!'

    After a moment of stunned silence there was a storm of applause. Some sensational event seemed to have taken place but no one could have told you what it was.

    When the noise died down Herbert Read, the anarchist poet, small, slight, neat and grey-haired, rose to his feet. 'What we need,' he said, 'is grace.' And sat down again. No applause was necessary.

    Late in 1942 I decided to leave the FAU and go to work in the coal-mines. First, I wanted to get married, and for that needed a regular wage, which the FAU couldn't provide. Second, there was a prolonged pause in the bombing of London, and I no longer felt useful. Third, I wanted to find out whether the syndicalism preached by Spanish anarchists was possible in Britain. Who better to tell me than coal-miners?

    I went with Gene, my future wife, to see Fredrick in Marchmont Street, where he and Molly rented a flat. Fredrick wrote to Gene later, when she was recovering from polio, to tell her the effect she had on him then: 'The glory of you filled that little room like a choir of Blake's angels.'

    Molly's sister Kate was there, at that time a Communist as fiery as her red hair, enthusiastically devoted to an entirely theoretical working-class, and the idea of propaganda in industry. She gave me vigorous support, whether I liked it or not.

    Fredrick didn't want me to go. He proposed to set up an agricultural community in Wales, and hoped we would join. Since I had only just managed to persuade a Tribunal to change my condition of service as a conscientious objector from work with the FAU to work in the coal-mines, I wasn't anxious to return for another bout. Besides, I didn't believe that the project would work, and it would certainly do nothing to hasten our marriage. Gene was not yet twenty-one, and how could we sell a community of eccentrics and no salary to her parents?

    Fredrick insisted that I could achieve nothing in the coal-mines and would end disillusioned. I went anyway, and in October 1943 Gene and I were married in the Registrar's Office in Ilkeston, Derbyshire. I didn't end disillusioned, I ended with a discharge from the mines because of a recurring and debilitating flu-like illness.

    I'm not sure now whether the community in Wales ever got started, but if it did, it didn't last as long as my sojourn in the coal-mines.

    While I was away Fredrick's ferocious debate with himself led him in the unlikely direction of the Catholic Church. He undertook a stay in Hawkesyard Priory. According to the journal he kept at the time, he took immediately to the Prior, who was young, intellectual, and sympathetic. But after the initial interview, the Prior did not appear again, and within days Fredrick's mood had slumped. He found the priests pleasant and polite, with an entirely conventional attitude to the war, and burst out in his journal: 'My very soul cries out that the touchstone of truth lies in one's attitude to this war.' As his mood sank lower he began to doubt his own intuitions.

    'Maybe my vision of Christ is wrong. Yet I find no beatitude in this transcendent God. . .Can I see Jesus plotting and conspiring with financiers and politicians? No. Can I see Jesus eating with publicans and sinners? Yes.'

    He was particularly incensed by their condemnation of the Spanish anarchists because they desecrated churches, while being quite happy to support Stalinists because they were allies in the war.

    'War is a spiritual affair,' he wrote, 'an irruption of disintegrated, disillusioned and vengeful spirit. . This frustrated vitality concentrates in unconscious hatred against the drab, colourless insignificance of modern mechanised society. . . Oh, war manifests spirit all right. Spirit frustrated in its drive for vocation and purpose. I am quite sure conscience cannot cope with it.'

    And this was true. Conscience could not cope with it. I knew of men who willingly joined the Army, then found themselves struck by a crisis of conscience, refused orders, and ended in the glass-house. Their superior officers could not understand their position. Surely they knew that Hitler was evil and had to be stopped? Yes, they knew that. But war too was a fundamental evil. What was to be done? I knew too of men who obtained exemption from military service on grounds of conscience, and then were driven by spiritual unease to enlist, only to find themselves unbearably distressed by the role of combatant. A woman of good-will asked me during the war, 'How can an intelligent young man like you, who cherishes freedom, refuse to fight the Nazis?' I could only reply, 'Somebody must.'

    Fredrick wrote later: 'If I really have no vocation - if there is no work I must do - then nothing seems to matter. I live and have reality only insofar as the work is there. . . I do believe that if I could only free myself from the idea (or perhaps it is egoistic obsession) of vocation - I could find a useful life.'

    But he didn't believe that in his heart.

    When I was invalided out of the coal-mines and Gene and I returned to London, we took a basement flat in Kentish Town and I had a job as Citizens' Advice Bureau organiser, advising people how to claim for war damage.

    Rockets had begun to fall on London. V1s, known as buzz-bombs, were cigar-shaped unmanned weapons which drowned over like devilish wasps, suddenly cut out, crashed and exploded. If you could watch them and note the cut out point, you could guess where they would explode, and shift.

    On one bus trip in the East End the conductress stood on the boarding platform, leaning from the upright rail watching the sky, and shouting to the driver 'stop' or 'go', according to the cut out.

    After a month or two Fredrick told us he had found a three-storey house in Paddington, and would take it on if we would share the rent. Molly and Fredrick would be responsible for the lower floors, and we for top floor and attics. We agreed. That's how we got to Westbourne Terrace, and set up the nest of anarchists.

Read on. The house and some of its occupants.

© is reserved by the author. Please do not reproduce it without consent.


© Winamop 2007