Resist: Stories of Uprising charts the milestone moments of defiance in British history – from quiet personal stands to frenzied and uncontrollable explosions of collective resistance. As part of Comma press’ History-into-Fiction series, each event is cast into fiction before being profiled by an academic, providing the book with three-dimensional rigor.
The book’s editor, Ra Page, takes a broad-brush approach to the selection process. Bidisha imagines ‘Boudica’s Rising’, Anna Lewis teases the contexts out of the Merthyr Protests of 1831, and Gaia Holmes take a deep dive into the Newbury Bypass protests of the 1990s (that famously made ‘Swampy’ a national figure). This is a substantial tome and, in all, twenty events are brought to life by forty diverse voices.
There’s an urgency to this publication that can be viewed within the hyper-current jacket sleeve that references ‘unlawful prorogations… casual race baiting by senior politicians, and a climate crisis that continues to be ignored.’ Equally, as Daniel Renwick chillingly points out about our present day: ‘through Hobbesian logic, the government, in collusion with the market, has created the necessary and sufficient conditions for a revolt.’
Resist’s Babel of voices seeks to map that ever-fractious relationship between state and individual in a bid to both educate and understand the anatomy of uprising. It counsels and incites, inspires and warns – and manages to pull it off without polemicising or by creating caricatures. You’ll find few spirited goodies and cartoon baddies within these pages.
In fact, one of the things that most impressed me about Resist was the uniform lack of ‘obvious choices’ taken by the writers. Page spells out the complex nature, the soup of variable conditions, that equals a groundswell of rebellion. Each of the writers takes that cue, providing the reader with rich new windows into moments of historical significance.
As is my usual untidy habit with short-story volumes, I headed straight to the story that interested me the most, which in this case was Julia Bell’s ‘Fear in Your Water’, a fictionalisation of Grenfell. Bell’s narrator suffers from severe mental disorder and this neat decision enables an atmospheric ambiguity as choking as the disaster’s notorious flames. Bell eschews (but references) the contexts and instead, leans into her theme, illustrating how madness is ‘sanitised out of society’ just as the poor are cleansed out of gentrified areas. Despite the impending tragedy, the reader is drawn into the protagonist’s unwitting self-protest, the rebellion of her senses, as the locus of the story and the cipher for all society.
It’s risky, it’s Godless and utterly successful.
Equally, SJ Bradley’s ‘Black Showers’, charting the Oxfordshire Risings of 1596, is brilliantly caustic. Her story hinges on the point in which protestors stood against landowners ‘enclosing’ (ie monopolising) land and resources at a time of extreme scarcity. Bradley’s unflinching depictions of the vigilante’s sentences are set against the move to make ‘enclosures’ illegal, making the sufferance of the condemned bitter indeed, ‘It had already started. Both men were being quartered by the hangman, working away at their insides with a long saw. Bradshaw screamed, his belly splashing blood into the air.’
Choosing this exact moment, one in which people suffered the most intense forms of punishment for protesting something that would soon become illegal itself, is a shrewd decision by the writer. The poignancy of these almost-forgotten events, and the individuals that made them, will stay with me for some time.
Similarly, Luan Goldie’s ‘The Done Thing’, shows how even near-contemporary events can easily be forgotten or subverted. Goldie’s story is set in the present day and sees a working-class family studiously ignore the significance of their gran’s achievements as a Dagenham Ford Factory striker. In fact, Gran herself is non-plussed, ‘All those hours on that bloody picket line, standing there trying to fight for something I wasn’t even that bothered about.’ Because, as Dr Jonathan Moss points out, we’ve thrown the Dagenham strikes through the rose-tinted gloss of Hollywood, imagining a cast of ‘plucky and homely [women], all saucy jokes and sixties clichés’. The real Dagenham strikers achieved nowhere near equality, just a meagre seven per cent pay-rise. Goldie’s depiction bristles with the loss of personal meaning. Of course, the strikes started something significant but the striker’s own personal circumstances were barely changed, and their ‘self-understanding over what they had done’ was minimal. Goldie’s clever narrative warns against the reductive and mendacious nature of historical revisionism.
The whole book carries these nuances beautifully. Looking back, this book says, is to some extent, reading the tea-leaves. Protests, Ra Page tells us, can be organised by governments as foreign policy interventions. They can be one person’s celebration, another’s blind fury. For some, uprising provides voice and for others, an outlet for destructive stimulus. Sometimes history is decisively made in those moments, but sometimes (as was the case with Dagenham), historical events are stepping-stones, and so quiet that they don’t even know they are happening.
This book is not so much a history book as it is a pathology of the human condition, of the contracts that we invisibly abide by and what it takes to break them. A fascinating and Gordian read – and salient too, for our fraught times.
Jemma L King won the Terry Hetherington Young Welsh Writer of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Wales Book of the Year Roland Mathias Prize for her debut poetry collection, The Shape of a Forest (Parthian). She lives in Wales with her husband and is currently working on a new poetry collection and novel.