On February 3rd 2010, anarchist, poet and publisher John Rety died, aged 79.
Born Reti Janos to a Jewish family in Budapest in 1930, his political views were shaped by his childhood experiences. His grandmother escaped a pogrom in Serbia by swimming across a river with her children strapped to her back, while following the outbreak of war, John’s family knew life as Jewish people was going to become extremely tough.
His father Istvan, a theatre director, was interned on an island in the Danube, which also held sporting events and John, aged 12, snuck onto the island on the pretext of watching a football match. Instead, he spoke to his father through camp fences, and persuaded him to escape. Istvan did get out: he and his wife Ilona spent the war in hiding. In the last years of the war as a young teenager John ran errands, taking packages around, later saying that he assumed it was for the anti-nazi resistance!
John’s grandmother had been looking after him during the war years, but she was later imprisoned. On the day the war ended, she approached a guard and said he could now put down his rifle and take off the fascist armband he was wearing. In response the guard murdered her.
Aged 16, John wrote a play about war and how adults had a lot to answer for – a theme John spoke about in the last year of his life, in a radio interview, saying: “War is devastating, first and foremost, for children. They do not understand why their parents have gone berserk.”
The play was performed on the steps of the Budapest parliament – a dangerous thing to do. He fled Hungary, apparently just a step ahead of the authorities. He arrived in London in 1946 and got a job as an apprentice for a publishing house.
He published a novel aged 21, called Super Sozzled Nights, and hung out in Soho, then teeming with a bohemian culture that sparked many creative and radical projects.
It led him into the magazine trade, and he founded the Soho underground paper, Intimate Review, with contributions from young writers including Doris Lessing, Bill Hopkins, Laura del Rivo, Frank Norman, Alan Owen, Cressida Lindsay & Bernard Kops. Réty was the first to publish Colin Wilson. The Intimate Review largely circulated among the customers of the coffee houses that were appearing in Soho. It was a parish magazine, a gossip sheet for a bohemian, literary in-crowd that attracted contributions from many coming names. John would hawk copies on weekend evenings to cinema queues.
The former Guardian journalist Harold Jackson, co-editor of the Intimate Review, recalled Rety’s astounding ability to persuade eminent people to contribute to the magazine for free. “Our covers,” he said, “were regularly produced at very short notice and for no money by Feliks Topolski. Ralph Steadman’s work appeared from time to time.”
When Intimate Review was forced to fold due to a threatened libel action, Rety started other papers – including the Cheshire Cat and Fortnightly. Then, as Private Eye began to take over his readership, he took the editorial chair of the anarchist paper Freedom for a couple of years.
John met his partner Susan Johns in 1958. They moved into Robert Street, Regent’s Park and scraped a living by putting on a jazz night at a Soho basement bar, and then ran a second-hand furniture store in Camden High Street, Here, I think John met local squatters and got involved with supporting squatting around Camden and Chalk Farm. Resistance to the powerful property magnate Joe Levy in Camden Town ended in his own family’s eviction and loss of home and livelihood.
John was a member of the radical anti-nuclear group the Committee of 100, and his politics were anarchist – although he said it was his own form of anarchism, as he found tracts on anarchist theory so badly written he could not make head nor tail of what they were going on about. He had a low opinion of the anarchist classics “with the exception of Kropotkin, who could write, and Malatesta, who could argue…. Bakunin, I could never understand what he was going on about.”
In the Sixties, he took on the editorship of anarchist magazine Freedom. As a Freedom co-editor (1964-1969), John radically broadened the political and cultural reach of the paper.
Anarchist poet Jeff Cloves recalls one incident: “In the late ’60s, I chanced to hear the Duke Ellington Band play on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral (with singer Dakota Staton) as a tribute to Martin Luther King. I was delighted that Freedom published a piece I wrote about this free spontaneous event, and utterly dumbfounded when the next time I met John he launched a fierce attack on me for endorsing the ‘cult of personality’ [surrounding Martin Luther King Jr].”
Fellow anarchist poet Dennis Gould remembers: “John’d be chatting away and then he’d confront you with a question, a challenge. Which I could never answer!”
John was said to have been “one of the first to burst through the heavy police cordon surrounding Grosvenor Square at the anti-Vietnam War rally in front of the US Embassy in October 1968” and was among 13 protestors who soon after held a 13-day fast there… For may years he was a regular at Speakers Corner.
At the end of the 1970s, John worked for the Student Community Housing (SCH) as a roofer. This was cut short when he fell and fractured his arm. The accident prompted him to enrol in a City and Guilds art course.
Camden Council offered a semi-derelict building at 99 Torriano Avenue, Kentish Town, to the SCH; the keys were handed over to the place that so many people associate with John. It was in too poor a state of repair for the SCH to take on there was no gas or electricity, but John and Susan liked it and moved in. They founded the Torriano Meeting House, and began to put on events, notably poetry readings.
It is impossible to articulate the depth and range of events that have been held at the Meeting House, and the causes that have found a hospitable base there.
The readings were an astonishing success, drawing in poets and public from all over the country. Many paid tribute to him in a festschrift, Torriano Nights (2009). Stephen Spender & Adrian Mitchell were among the hundreds of poets who performed there.
The most important of these were the Sunday evening poetry readings which began with aspiring versifiers spouting their own work, often at considerable length. But Rety, who had a quick temper and a ready laugh, was a strict master of ceremonies.
When contributions from the floor were no good, he would shout out in his Mitteleuropean accent that the writers should read more good poetry if they wanted to avoid writing rubbish, and remind objectors that if Shakespeare walked in he would have to wait two hours for a hearing. After the interval an invited guest, who occasionally was Sir Stephen Spender, Dannie Abse or John Heath-Stubbs, would read and be heard with respect. The result, it was said, was an atmosphere resembling the start of an Aldermaston march and a tea party given by Brendan Behan’s mother.
John’s ability to charm support from unlikely sources never deserted him. Camden council contributed £10,000 a year to support the Torriano Meeting House. When, eventually, funding cuts forced them to withdraw the grant, the council offered Rety an Epic (Eminent Persons in Camden) award. Typically, he indignantly refused, regarding it as a bribe to stop him complaining about the loss of his grant.
In 1987, he founded the Hearing Eye Press, this time with financial assistance from the Arts Council of London. For the publication of his celebratory volume, In the Company of Poets: An Anthology Celebrating 21 Years of Poetry Readings at Torriano Meeting House (2003), he found support from the Arts Council of Great Britain. It is a collection starting with Dannie Abse and proceeding, via John Arden, through names including Oliver Bernard, John Heath-Stubbs and Dilys Wood. Rety’s own work was modestly absent from the book. Hearing Eye Press ultimately published over 150 books.
This did not exhaust his amazing energy or his proselytising zeal for poetry. He became poetry editor of the Morning Star and edited an anthology of the work appearing there, Well Versed, with a foreword by Tony Benn. This was popular enough to go into a second edition. It is frequently asserted that the Morning Star saw a rise in its readership due to the verse Rety published there.
An originator of the idea of poetry on the London tube – although he did not sit on the panel that eventually implemented it – he later extended that idea to the telephone with a Dial-a-Poem service with British Telecom. At 25p a minute, the line received 750 calls in its first week of operation in 1988, and seemed on the route to success until Rety fell out with BT, “as so many do”, he stated happily. He did not win his arguments over presentation, and a percentage for the poets, and the venture sputtered out.
When the land rights group The Land Is Ours occupied a derelict plot owned by Guinness in 1996, and turned it into an experiment in sustainable and cooperative living (calling it “Pure Genius”), John described the South London site as “anarchy in action”, saying that, as a participant, he had “now seen anarchy in practice and, so far, it works.” (Freedom, 18 May 1996)
Watch video of John talking about his early political influences
This post was cobbled together from a variety of sources… We also remember John, mostly from meeting him wandering around the Anarchist Bookfair, ranting… carrying armfuls of poems and papers…
An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar