There was a day in the summer of 1985 when the two great political movements of the era converged in Nottingham. On the Forest Rec, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) staged a mass rally urging solidarity with striking miners, while over on Victoria Embankment, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) welcomed thousands to the Nottingham Peace Festival.
The hardest part for the organisers was driving guest speakers between the two; some of the same speakers, maybe the same speeches. “We saw it as one cause,” says Ross Bradshaw, owner of radical Nottingham bookshop, Five Leaves, who was one of those fighting the traffic between the rallies. “It was all anti-government.”
That was Nottingham in the eighties: a confluence of causes and angers. A point at which, by some inexplicable chemistry, both the pacifist and the pit man could each reasonably expect to get a fair hearing among a population inculcated, however unknowingly, by two centuries of protest and rebellion.
It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when the British establishment was living in dread for its existence. The old order had lost some of its firmest hand-holds in the world. The American Revolution and Declaration of Independence in 1776, and the French Revolution of 1789, had been spurred in no small part by an Englishman, Thomas Paine; he and others were actively agitating for radical change in Britain.
It seemed that all it would take was a single spark, and the whole thing could go up. Imagine the terror when a secretive fraternity of factory workers – who set about smashing machinery to bits – formed in 1811, enraged at being cut out of the new capitalist deal. Imagine the panic watching the movement spread from Nottinghamshire through to the mills and factories of Yorkshire and Lancashire; but even more dangerously, as a symbol, a standard over the coming years and decades, for all rebel cultures and groups that fought oppression and authority.
No wonder they sent the troops in to gun down the Luddites in the sheer “squalid wretchedness” that Byron, in solidarity, described. No wonder the Home Office of the day sent an informer, William J Oliver – known scornfully as “Oliver the Spy” – a contemporary spy-cop, to doom the Pentrich Uprising of 1817, before it had a chance to storm Nottingham. The organisers, Oliver’s prey, thought they would light the fuse of the English revolution, but were later hanged and beheaded. The Duke of Newcastle learned the cost of trying to hold back freedoms for working-class people in 1831, when a mob of Reform Law protestors burnt his house down in anger; his house being Nottingham Castle.
By the 1840s, the wildfires of rebellion had been harnessed; to forge not revolution, but reform. The Chartist, cooperative and early socialist movements were gaining national momentum, and the East Midlands was a fulcrum of change. A turning point for Chartism – the call for extended voting rights, secret ballots, the removal of land ownership as a qualification to stand as a Parliamentary candidate, and the ability for Members of Parliament to earn a wage – came when its great leader, Fergus O’Connor, was elected as MP for the key strategic seat of Nottingham, in 1847.
And it was here that the Co-Operative Women’s Guild chose to form its first regional branch, to fight the injustices of numerous laws of the day – including the malevolent legislation governing divorce – establishing the third birth control clinic in the country at the time, on Market Street.
Nottingham was the stage for some of the most important speeches and mass gatherings of the era. Old Market Square, The Forest, The Assembly Hall on Low Pavement, the Artisans’ Library and Mechanics Institution, and the mysterious Democratic Chapel, were where thousands came to hear people demand change from the quaking establishment. The best book to read on all this is the brilliant A City of Light, by Christopher Richardson.
This rich history is all the more pronounced when viewed side-by-side with the present it helped create. In the eighties, the aforementioned Ross Bradshaw was one of the organisers of Mushroom Books, located at 10 Heathcote Street – now Paramount Pictures – which eventually expanded to include the building where Jamcafe sits. Just as the Artisans’ Library and Mechanics Institution were way back, and as Five Leaves Bookshop is now, Mushroom was a focal point for the radical left intelligentsia of Nottingham. It would later be attacked by skinheads in November 1994.
By the time the NUM and the CND were hosting rallies in town, the causes had changed, and so had the methods. Getting the word out about the multiple, imbricated rallies that were happening in the city was a job in itself, but many hands did the work. “We used to have telephone trees,” says Bradshaw, “and street reps giving out leaflets. In the days of the CND, you had something like 2,000 members; they were split into neighbourhood groups all over the city.”
As wider society became more conscious of environmental issues and animal rights, the activist subculture, which had loosely centred around the old Environmental Information Centre, needed a home. It found it in a little building on Mansfield Road, where various groups, including the Nottingham Friends of the Earth and CND, formed a collective space for gathering, learning and reading known as the Rainbow Centre.
After eighteen years of Tory rule, and the picket lines and pitched battles of the eighties, it seemed things could only get better. 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq changed all that: in a tense new world, protest culture was reborn.
This generation of environmental campaigners were less content to simply be against cruelty to animals, or human destruction of the natural world; it was time to get active. The spirit of the Rainbow Centre moved to the Sumac Centre – a mad maze of Forest Fields hedonism, anarchism and concerted underground action – and a new wave of activism began.
This gained the region and the city some attention of a more sinister nature. Mark Stone was a well known face in the environmentalist subculture; well liked around the Sumac and Forest Fields. If you ever went to one of the legendary house parties, activist or not, you may have brushed past him or seen him on the decks.
But his story was a lie. Mark Stone was actually Mark Kennedy, an undercover police officer from the Met Police, who had for years been informing on his fellow activists, even forming intimate relationships with women who are still suffering to this day. The revelations inspired Nottingham playwright, Kefi Chadwick, to write the production Any Means Necessary, which premiered at the Playhouse.
The Sumac is still there but, some say, lacks the fervour of those days. Not that there isn’t plenty happening now. Ross Monaghan is a well-known figure in the Notts anti-fracking movement – which has a permanent camp out at Tinker Lane, near Retford – and says some of the same ingredients that brought protestors to Nottingham at the turn of the century, even the turn of the nineteenth century, remain.
“People are up for a fight here based on the history of the city,” he says. “People are open to the idea of going out and changing things. It’s been exciting to be here. There’s been an incredible amount going on, and there’s a big history of national activism that revolves around here. There are lots of different pockets of activism.”
It only took a small pocket of activists from Nottingham Animal Rights to make a big statement: the glowing, lit-up words “NOTTS UNI TORTURES ANIMALS” on the tram bridge over the railway station, in February. When Nottingham was visited by a street movement of another stripe, the English Defence League (EDL) – modern manifestations of the far-right that tried to trash Mushroom Books – anti-fa, their faces covered by the black cowls of hoodies and bandanas, came out to meet them.
When a spontaneous demo sprung up around the Brian Clough statue in response to the shootings of protestors in Gaza in May, a group of Jewish students from the University of Nottingham bearing Israeli flags staged a counter-demo, and the tension was palpable. The regular demos of solidarity outside women’s detention centre Yarl’s Wood are packed out by coachloads of protestors from Nottingham. And in the first three months of 2017, there were no less than three “Dump the Trump” protests in the Market Square.
The torch of activism has been passed, and Millennial activists, it seems, couldn’t care less if a cause is down the road at Tinker Lane, or in The White House. Tim Richardson, who was there in the early days of the Sumac says: “There’s a lot of solidarity activism happening now. It could be the Philippines eco-disaster or something just down the road. National issues are also campaigned locally.”
Musicians and bands have become politically aware – social media demands it to an extent – and fundraising gigs are common. It’s hip to be woke. Enter another one of the pockets of Nottingham’s protest culture: The Maze, on Mansfield Road, just up from the old Rainbow Centre.
Owners Gaz and Steph Peacham didn’t start the tradition of hosting nights with a political aim, but they’ve felt an increase in demand – and sadly, need, especially for local causes – over the past ten years. There was a time when raising money for charity and protesting were two parallel, but separate strands of activist culture. In an age when people are having to step in to support local services undernourished in the austerity era, charitable giving feels like a form of protest.
Steph says: “Gigs are a platform. The venue gives people a place where you can actually do something. You’re actually raising money. Bands themselves have become more aware of these things; they’ve been raising money for food banks themselves. There’s a desperation that people find themselves in now; there wasn’t a need for this before.”
Historical, even remote, though the causes and people of the early-nineteenth-century Nottingham protest culture might feel now, their fights led to ours today. Or maybe they never went away, only revolved. Starved, maybe deliberately, of education, the early working-class movements set up their own libraries and workshops to take back the power of words; did Mushroom Books in the eighties, and does Five Leaves now, fill that void in 2018? Are the conditions that drove a working-class fraternity to violence 200 years ago really so different from this age of inexorable automation and innovation?
Perhaps the spectre of Oliver the Spy sloped approvingly alongside Mark Stone through the shadows of Forest Fields; or today the ghosts of the Nottingham Co-Operative Women’s Guild follow their sisters of today down to Yarl’s Wood, the past travelling with the present it created.