Colin Ward by Harriet Ward:
When I met Colin in the mid-1960s we were both at a turning-point. After 12 years as an architectural draughtsman – interrupted by his Army service – Colin wanted more spare time to write and solicit other contributions for the journal Anarchy he then edited. I had been widowed with two small children and could not return to my previous Civil Service job. For both of us, teaching was the obvious answer, and that’s how we came to meet on a one-year training course geared towards the varied sector of Further Education.
Colin had left his salaried employment with meagre savings and little thought for the morrow. Drawing-board work from a former colleague provided him with pocket-money and paid for my first birthday present: a biro pen. But within a year we had found suitable jobs, and a legacy of mine met the down-payment for a house. Colin moved across the Thames from Fulham to Putney, where we lived until we moved to Suffolk in 1980.
Colin’s happiest period of employment in London was in the 1970s at the Town and Country Planning Association. But his previous year of teaching at Wandsworth Technical College fulfilled his ideal of being able to walk to work. On his route was a large electrical shop where passers-by could pause to admire the televisions winking away inside. At that time Colin was just becoming a media pundit and one day, a student on his way to Colin’s lesson was surprised to see his teacher mouthing unintelligibly on a TV screen in the shop. “What were you talking about, Sir?” “I wasn’t talking, I was singing – couldn’t you see the conductor?” replied Colin with a straight face. And for all I know, those lads in Mech. Eng. 2 still believe their Liberal Studies teacher at the Tech was a part-time opera singer.
I’m sure he’d have loved to be an opera singer, for music was Colin’s consuming passion. Nothing gave him greater satisfaction than to watch my two sons and our own Ben Ward developing as musicians, which they all pursued into adult life. I well remember an after-work dash from our home in Putney to Aldeburgh in Suffolk, where the older two were taking part in Noye’s Fludde, by Benjamin Britten, alongside professional musicians. Britten was Colin’s favourite contemporary composer, and from an earlier age, Guiseppe Verdi fed his love of opera.
I was the driver in our household. Colin had never learned to drive and had a naive reverence for anyone who could. During his time in the Army, spent in the Orkney Islands, he had been taught to drive a dumper truck but only managed to ditch it off a pier into the sea. In the 1970s, on a pilgrimage to re-visit places that interested him, we took an inter-island flight to the island of Hoy. We landed in a field of cow-pats in drizzly rain. Hoy was in fact the site of the legendary dumper truck incident, which we duly inspected before Colin strode off to see Melsetter House 4 miles away. This was one of the few private houses built by the Arts and Crafts architect W R Lethaby, whose work Colin greatly admired. The owners invited him to look around indoors, and he returned to us glowing with pleasure.
In a filmed interview many years later* Colin explained how he came to spend his Army years in Orkney. His first posting was to Glasgow, where he was shocked to see poverty unknown to him in the South of England. In his spare time he enjoyed the perorations of street orators, in particular the anarchist Frank Lynch, whose anti-war diatribes led to his arrest and incarceration (such disaffection in wartime was a serious offence). Colin always suspected that it was his visit to Lynch in Barlinnie Gaol, in uniform – he had no other clothes to wear – that explained his sudden transfer to the Orkney Islands.
Most people would have hated the isolation of the Islands, especially in wartime, and the wind-swept scenery is not to everyone’s taste. But for Colin it was bliss. He wangled himself the job of boiler-man at a camp for WRENs (the Women’s Royal Navy) and having stoked up the boilers for the day he would take himself off with a pile of books under his arm to Scara Brae, an ancient Pictish settlement on the West coast of Mainland. This onetime habitation had been roofed over with glass by the National Trust (as it isn’t now) and there Colin sat for hour after hour, learning about anarchism.
Through Frank Lynch and a Glasgow bookshop Colin had made contact with Freedom Press in London, where Lilian Woolf, whose association with the Press went back to the First World War, would send him a regular supply of literature. He soon became friends with the editorial collective of Freedom – Vernon Richards, John Hewetson and Philip Sansom – and himself became a regular contributor and later editor of the journal. Thus began his lifetime of anarchist journalism, supplemented over the years by some 30 books on a variety of topics – not all with an explicit anarchist theme, but all written from an anarchist viewpoint. The last of these was A Very Short Introduction to Anarchism (OUP, 2004).
Despite the originality of his writing, in producing it Colin was behind the times. When a publisher required a piece ‘on disk’ in the 1970s, we had to find and pay a technician to produce one from Colin’s typescript. He never embraced the computer and would not learn to use mine. Every piece was thumped out on a series of Olivetti typewriters, each reluctantly replaced when the keys began to stick beyond his endurance. The finished product was a palimpsest of pasted-over strips of words which he would take to the nearest photocopier to reproduce.
Colin’s literary legacy will be [is?] explored in other contributions to this issue. Here I would just like to emphasise two aspects of his thinking that were fundamental to his character: mutuality and localism. As a listener, his favourite form of music was the string quartet: he loved to watch the way players signalled to each other with a raised eyebrow or the flick of a bow to produce the mellifluous sound he relished. Similarly in politics, it was the interplay within groups and the give-and-take of cooperation that appealed to him, rather than the boastful achievements of individuals.
Observing national and international politics was a kind of spectator sport for Colin. He was well aware of the effects of what went on, of course, and did his best to influence policies in housing and other areas of his expertise through his writing and lecturing. His watchword was a phrase that now has a wide currency (though he did not invent it!) – ‘Think globally, act locally’. Wherever we lived, he would apprise himself of local issues – for example the vexed question of affordable housing in affluent Suffolk. But as a family man free-lancing for a living, he could give only verbal support to local activists against the Nimbys. Similarly, in the making of a film about allotments, Colin was ashamed when the interviewer looked round at our neglected garden. As he ruefully admitted on another occasion, ‘Like most of us, I don’t practise what I preach’.
In truth it was economic necessity and his own inner drive that kept him at his desk day after day. And a great many people in his lifetime and thereafter are glad he spent so much time there.
first published in ‘Anarchist Voices’ Summer/Autumn 2015
reprinted with permission
* In 2003 the film-maker Mike Dibb recorded a 2-hour conversation between Colin and his friend and neighbour the late Roger Deakin. A DVD of this film is available by mail order from Harriet Ward, 1, Church Cottages, Cross Green, Debenham, Suffolk IP14 6QF, price £12.50 including P&P.