John Olday (1905 – 1977), born Arthur William Oldag, was an anarchist revolutionary, artist, cartoonist and writer, active in Germany, France and Britain in the 1930s and 1940s and resided in Australia during the 1950s and 1960s. Returning to London in about 1970, he remained active in anarchist groups until his death in 1977.
Accounts of his life below are reprinted from a Freedom anarchist newspaper supplement, September 1977, and added to from some sources elsewhere…
JOHN OLDAY, proletarian revolutionary and artist, has died in London at age 72, his much-abused body failing to support his still fertile, rebellious mind. His fighting record began as far back as 1916, when he was but one of the starving women and children of Hamburg, Germany who exploded in savage bread riots as the Kaiser strode toward defeat and ruin in the First World War. The 1918-1919 sailor-worker revolt followed, in which John, at the age of 13, served as an ammunition feeder for a Spartakus machine-gun post where all were killed but he, though he was captured and nearly executed. In the early ’20s he took part in mass expropriations, joined and was expelled from the Communist Youth, fought in the abortive worker uprising of 1923 in an Anarcho-Spartacist guerrilla unit, and was an agitator in the French-occupied Ruhr.
Born Arthur William Oldag, illegitimate son of a German mother and Scottish father, John became an important cartoonist and expressionist artist under that name in Weimar Germany. He renewed his guerrilla activity shortly before the Nazis took power, producing, then a powerful series of anti-Nazi cartoons and slogan stickerettes which were miniaturised and secreted into booklets of official postage stamps distributed throughout the Reich.
Between 1925 and 1932 in fact, he had not been involved in revolutionary activity at all, concentrating on furthering his career as an artist. This was to stand him in good stead later when, returning again to activities with the Spartacist group in the early 30s, he continued to pose as a crazy homosexual artist, but using his position among the intelligentsia and upper-class Nationalists to gather information which he passed on to the underground. He was even able to continue with this dangerous game after the Nazis came to power by doing a deal with them (they wanted to show the world that satirical cartoons could still appear in Germany) – until the price became too high and he had to get out. In 1938 he escaped a Gestapo trap and fled to England, where he published Kingdom of Rags, an anti-fascist documentary illustrated with the horrifying sketches he had brought from Nazi Germany.
Receiving financial backing from an anti-Chamberlain faction in Parliament, Olday (his new underground name) co-ordinated from London and Holland the sinking of a Nazi munitions ship, murdered a Jewish renegade working for the Nazis in Antwerp, parlayed with dissident German Communist exiles in Paris, and wrote the script for an appeal to the German workers to sabotage the Nazi war machine which was read over Radio Strassbourg. Olday’s wife, Hilde Monte, for whom a memorial museum in Israel is named, was an anti-Nazi Jewish resistance fighter who, along with John, did much of the groundwork for the 1939 Munich Beer Hall bomb explosion which nearly killed Hitler. She was shot by the SS in 1944 on the Swiss border while on a resistance mission.
With the outbreak of war, refusing to work for British intelligence or to mute his call for class war, John was press-ganged into a British Army punishment corps from which he deserted. Until 1944 he remained underground in London, editing and cartooning the anarchist War Commentary and circulating clandestine soldiers’ letters among British troops, Calling for revolutionary anti-militarism and the formation of worker-soldier councils, which were beginning to have effect in war industry and various war theatres, this effort brought the wrath of the Government and the imprisonment of anarchist militants,
Olday’s drawings gracing the cover of WW2 anarchist journal War Commentary
The IWW in the USA came strongly to the support of Olday on his arrest and trial in 1944-45. John had worked closely with IWW seamen in the underground fight against the Nazis, and maintained contact with Hamburg through the war via Scandinavian Wobbly seamen shipping into Nazi Germany. His powerful drawings from the March to Death collection were featured in the Industrial Worker regularly during the war, along with letters, poems, and reviews of his work. Released from prison in 1946, Olday was thrust back into a military punishment unit. There he organized German POWs into the Spartakusbund, Gruppe Bakunin, the direct heir of the Anarcho-Spartacists of 1918-40. On their return to Germany, these young revolutionaries established 60 Spartacist groups, primarily in the East Zone. They were liquidated to the man by the Stalinist secret police in late 1948,
Released, Olday worked for a time with the anarchist Freedom, then emigrated to Australia, where he became the most notorious artist and cabaret performer of the ’50s, Returning to Germany in the late ’60s, he worked with student and gay-liberation groups, then went to London to work with Freedom, followed by Black Flag, before founding his own International Archive Team.
These last two years John was a member of the IWW General Defense Committee. Though a councilist to the end, his firm advocacy of the IWW-GDC in Mit-Teilung (the German-English newsletter he produced); his contact with dissidents and prisoners in Germany, Italy, France, and Japan; his translations of IWW and GDC material into German for our new members there; and his striking drawings and cartoons, featured in the Industrial Defense Bulletin, were a tremendous aid to the IWW.
He was a fighting rebel to the last.
(GARY JEWELL, IWW Toronto.)
Footnote: The above tribute to John Olday is taken from The Industrial Worker (July 77)… Incidentally the army unit, the Pioneer Corps, is not a punishment corps as Gary describes it, but a corps which does the labouring work for the fighting units.
Recollections of the Wartime Years
THOUGH I had not seen, nor been in touch with, John (‘Jo’) Olday for the past twenty-five years at least, news of his death filled me with sadness and a feeling of personal loss and I can only explain this by saying that not only did we have a close and positive friendship for a number of years but that, certainly in the 1940s, his personality was such that once having met him it would have been difficult ever to forget him.
I just cannot recall how and when we met. We started to publish his cartoons in War Commentary in 1942 (signed XXX and not in his name – the triple X would seem to be a Germanic tradition, for Max Nettlau did likewise in his unsigned articles in Spain and the World) and I do know, from personal involvement, that he was ‘on the run’ for almost two years before being picked up in December 1944. I assume he had joined the army as a volunteer and that we met at the Freedom Press offices in Belsize Road, Swiss Cottage, London in 1942.
Drawing from Olday’s ‘The March to Death’, 1943
However, what I am not vague about are the army leaves he spent with Marie Louise (Berneri) and me in our flat in Chalk Farm (London) and what good company he was. He was also the ideal guest: you never felt that you had to entertain him or minister to his needs (he was an excellent cook who, from his experience of living in post-World War 1 Germany, excelled in the art with our basic wartime rations). As soon as he came through the door (in uniform, with pack and rifle !) he became part of our household, a small detail which I feel is worth mentioning, because Jo was a complex personality-on the surface the bohemian, the artist, the romantic, but underneath the disciplined, neat and tidy person. He was no Soldier Schweik; his uniform was immaculate as was all his equipment, his boots as polished as he was trim, pink and streamlined physically; his gestures and gait reminded one of a dancer, light and svelte. He was more at ease squatting on the floor than seated in a chair. He was a chain smoker and went for spirits, with a preference for rum. He talked about other drugs that he had taken but never produced any in our company.
To my mind Jo above all wanted to be a successful artist as opposed to a political cartoonist-and to the extent that he never achieved public recognition for this he failed. He also wanted to be a successful writer and playwright. To these ends he was always seeking for a dedicated band of followers to stimulate and support his artistic bent.
Being homosexual, it was a succession of young males who stimulated his undoubtedly great talent but in due course abandoned him to make their own way and mostly not in the anarchist direction. And then suddenly in the ‘fifties one learned that Jo had emigrated to Australia !
Drawing from Olday’s ‘The March to Death’, 1943
Whether he joined the British army in the first place to fight the Nazi regime, I don’t know and cannot recall any discussion on the subject. However when he contacted us he was obviously in a strongly political anti-war phase and there were at no time any differences between us on the question of opposition to both sides in the military struggle. Thinking back, I am amazed that his decision to desert the army came so soon after his contact with the FP group. He had come on a long leave and was staying with Marie Louise and me at the flat when he announced his decision. It meant that he would have to change his identity, dispose of his uniform and weaponry and find somewhere to live and an Identity card in order to eat and move around-and of course money. All the necessaries were found for him and at the latter stages of his two years on the run a sympathetic employer whose name I think was Griffen, in the engineering spare parts business, gave him employment. But before that, apart from a few of us who had made ourselves responsible for him, he had the unstinted support of that delightful, lovable, interesting and eccentric old lady, Winifred Smith, a New Zealander who though brought up in the strict traditions of her time and married to a parson, had seen the Rationalist light in her fifties with such force that not only had she succeeded in liberating herself from the tentacles of the Church but, more important, had persuaded her husband to abandon his calling. No mean achievement and a victory for women’s lib. But Jo was more than her match ! She loved his gentle bullying and provided us with the wherewithal to pay his rent and more besides, as well as contributing to Freedom Press funds.
Jo could well have seen the war through in his hideout but for a blunder which not even an amateur revolutionary would be expected to make. He had been offered a big office typewriter which he needed in connection with his propaganda to the armed forces. In order to save a taxi fare he hired a handcart and collected the machine and trundled it across London… in the middle of a war! Needless to say, he was stopped and asked for his papers. The police were less concerned that he might be a deserter than that he had stolen the typewriter. They took him into custody, checked on his Identity Card and found that it belonged to someone in Southend who had reported its loss ! So began weeks of drama with Jo refusing to reveal his identity either to the police or at his appearances in Court. For us to make any moves on his behalf would have only provided clues as to his real identity and it was obviously his wish not to say who he was (though it was of no real assistance to him since it meant that he was duly remanded in custody after each appearance in Court). However we did try to cover up his traces so far as War Commentary (which the Freedom Press group was publishing every fortnight) was concerned, assuming that our readers included the Special Branch.
This meant continuing written features by Olday such as From the Ranks and a regular strip cartoon depicting a trio of Schweik-like soldiers and their apparently ‘irresponsible’ pranks in case the diligent Special Branch sleuths might link their absence with the man without an identity in Brixton. It was a good comrade from the West Country, Ron A, who produced the fake strips which were so good that not even Sherlock Holmes, let alone our Whiteheads and Joneses of the SB, would have had his suspicions aroused !
Jo’s undoing was a chance encounter in Brixton Prison with a Special Branch officer who remembered having interviewed him when he came to to this country in 1939. Once his identity had been established the spiteful magistrate made him pay for all the ‘trouble’ he had caused and sentenced Jo, in January 1945, to one year’s imprisonment for ‘stealing by finding’ an Identity Card, a ‘crime’ which was normally awarded a month’s imprisonment.
On his release from Brixton after serving eight months of his sentence the Military Police, needless to say, were waiting for him outside the gates and whisked him off to the Prestatyn Depot of the Pioneer Corps where, after being held for several weeks under arrest, Jo was charged as a deserter and brought before a Court Martial. In spite of his anti-Nazi record in Germany, and the time spent in prison in connection with the Identity Card charge, he was given a two years Detention Sentence.
Fortunately the Freedom Press Defence Committee which had been set up following the arrest of four members of the Freedom Press early in 1945 was not wound up after the Old Bailey trial in April of that year but was enlarged in scope and renamed the Freedom Defence Committee, publishing its first Bulletin in July. Herbert Read and George Orwell were chairman and vice-chairman respectively, George Woodcock secretary and Tony Gibson its treasurer. I say fortunately because at that time the only other organisation allegedly concerned with civil liberties was the NCCL (National Council for Civil Liberties), then, unlike now, a Stalinist-dominated set-up which had, among other things, refused to defend the four anarchists on trial because by 1945 our Stalinists were more pro-war than the military and for them all those who opposed it were ‘fascists’.
The Freedom Defence Committee made representations to the War Office on two occasions as well as publicising the case. When it seemed that nothing was moving a letter was received at the Freedom Defence Committee in April 1946 from the War Office informing them that our comrade had been ‘released on suspended sentence’ having served only three months of a two-year sentence.
This was the second success for the FDC in a matter of two months, the first being the even more ridiculous case of Philip Sansom being called up for medical examination for Military Service the moment he was released after serving a nine months’ sentence for ‘conspiring’ with his comrades to seduce soldiers from their allegiance, etc. …! On January 10, 1946 he was sentenced to six months for refusing to attend the ‘medical’. By the second week in February he was released, thanks to the FDC’s uncompromising campaign and the support received from the then Manchester Guardian and the late Daily Herald (sadly transformed over the years from Lansbury’s radical Herald that devoted an editorial to the threatened deportation of Malatesta in 1912, to Murdoch’s girlie Sun of today that exposes everything other than inequality and injustice), not to mention a number of journals and an editorial comment by that notorious political fence-sitter the late Kingsley Martin in the New Statesman !
And when they were both released we had a memorable welcome-back party in Tom and Elizabeth Earley’s flat in Bloomsbury which for me, a reluctant party-man, will rank with Lilian Wolfe’s ninetieth birthday celebration at Tom and Joan Currie’s home, Tony Gibson’s fiftieth birthday party, the first Anarchist Ball in Fulham Town Hall and, much earlier, the social at Conway Hall in the ‘forties when we hired the large and small halls (as well as the kitchen) and packed the building in a Friends of Freedom Press Campaign to raise funds for War Commentary and our publications.
Drawing from Olday’s ‘The March to Death’, 1943
For that Social the walls of the Hall were lined with drawings and collages by Jo illustrating Freedom Press’s publications and activities over a period of sixty years. They represented weeks of patient, dedicated cutting and pasting and arranging. Most of it was done at Jo’s West London hideout, on the floor, the artist in his socks, sustained by tobacco, alcohol and simple food (uncooked bacon sandwiches were a favourite but he eschewed all salads). Some comrades may recall those collages and posters which alas have completely disappeared as have the originals of his cartoons in the course of Freedom Press’s many moves over the past thirty years.
I feel competent to write about only a very few years of a relatively long life (Jo was 72 when he died) and certainly a very full one. He has himself provided us with his Memoirs describing both a childhood spent in post-World War 1 Germany and his anti-Nazi activities in Hamburg up to 1938 when, feeling his arrest was imminent, he decided to leave the country and to this end rightly made use of his dual nationality to obtain a British passport which in the event stood him in good stead. ‘Slowly the train moved out of the station and gathered speed. I was safe !’ – the last sentence of Kingdom of Rags , John Olday’s autobiography, published by Jarrolds in 1939. It is an interesting, personally revealing document.
As I have already pointed out, I know nothing of the past twenty-five years which included his emigration to Australia where he lived with his adopted son (this was news to me). When we met him in 1942 he told us that he had married Hilde Monte, a typical hard line German Marxist intellectual, in order to provide her with British citizenship, but in the years of our association with Jo she was just one of a group publishing a very serious Marxist magazine, the title of which I cannot recall though I am almost certain that it was published from an address in Soho Square, London.
Olday’s first contribution in the February 1942 issue of War Commentary was a typical horrific, macabre, drawing, the figures were not real, they were ballet dancers, just as was the skeleton soldier in the March 1942 issue. It is really only in 1943, after he had deserted the army, that one has an awareness of the political cartoonist. I think I am right in suggesting that the inspiration, the ideas, for the outstanding cartoons and drawings in War Commentary and The March to Death from 1943 onwards came from Marie Louise Berneri. Many of his drawings illustrated editorials written by her and which she had discussed with him. She also edited a feature Through the Press and from the accumulated material came the plan for the production of John Olday’s outstanding collection of drawings, The March to Death .
Published in May 1943 by Freedom Press in the middle of a fratricidal war, it exposed the hypocrisy of the whole enterprise by quoting from the most respectable sources (on the left hand page) and illustrating them on the facing page with John Olday’s telling cartoons. The first edition of 5,000 copies printed on our old machine in the building facing our present premises in Whitechapel was soon sold out and another 5,000 copies run off and disposed of by the end of the war. Thinking of the difficulties we have experienced since the end of World War II to persuade booksellers to stock FP literature, I am still amazed by the sales through booksellers made by our two ace ‘salesmen’, Laurie Hislam (tragically killed in a motor accident less than ten years ago) and Philip Sansom.
At that time there were no Alternative booksellers, We sold to W H Smith and Boots and other wholesale and retail booksellers. I suspect that among bookshop managers at the time there was a high proportion of pacifists. [Probably – but also they were only too pleased to have anything to sell from their half-empty counters !] After the war he reverted once more to the macabre. His collection of lithographs The Life We Live the Death We Die was not our cup of tea but we published it to please him as we felt such a gesture to him was called for, especially in view of the great success of The March to Death. But it was the end of his collaboration with Freedom Press and the beginning of a new phase in Jo’s tormented life.
Drawing from Olday’s ‘The March to Death’, 1943
He secured a basement flat in the Westbourne Park area in London where in due course he held an exhibition of his work which did not however include his political cartoons. At the time he became very friendly with Charles Duff (author of the Handbook on Hanging) and his wife Peg. They did a lot for him with introductions to Charles’ innumerable friends and acquaintances and by their warm hospitality, and encouragement in his artistic endeavours.
Jo was much too complex a personality ever to be a happy man. I am not even sure that he was specially concerned with being ‘happy’. But I am sure that his attitude to life affected his potentialities as an anarchist propagandist. But then I am not sure that he ever saw himself as such ! Having expressed my doubts may I add that I still think that The March to Death is one of the most telling pieces of anarchist anti-war propaganda. And that I still recall Jo in those exciting and challenging years of the early 1940s as the most loveable and reliable of friends and comrades.
LIKE Vernon Richards, my working association with John Olday was exclusively during the latter end of the war. In 1944 I was living in a ramshackle studio in Camden Town, situated in a quiet enclave behind a church and reached by a short leafy lane. The other studios were occupied by middle-aged artists who quietly got on with their work, minding their own business, while the war thundered on around them. It was an ideal place to have a clandestine press, and soon after I was invited to join the Anarchist Federation I was asked if a certain comrade could come and live with me. I sometimes think that it was my tenancy of the studio that led to my invitation to join the closed membership of the AF in the first place!
The certain comrade was John Olday, then a deserter from the Pioneer Corps, whose marvellous cartoons had inspired my own poor efforts, but whose identity had until then been a complete mystery to me.
The articles and cartoons that John was at that time contributing to War Commentary were the public tip of the iceberg of work he was doing, for he it was who was building up the network of contacts that we had with soldiers, sailors and airmen in barracks, army camps and airfields around the country
Every serving member of the forces who wrote in for literature received, in due course, a copy of John’s Forces Newsletter which spelt out in greater depth and detail the subversive anarchist anti-war message.
These newsletters were produced on the kitchen table in the studio. Drawings were reproduced on a small, neat lithograph stone which John brought out from under the bed once a month, and collated together with duplicated sheets. None of the casual visitors who came to the studio from time to time had any idea of the seditious material that flowed out from there to about 200 members of His Majesty’s forces, for the work was produced as quickly as possible and all traces cleared away immediately it was finished.
This was why, in fact, very little of it could be used by the Special Branch when they attacked Freedom Press in the Autumn of 1944. I had left London at the beginning of October on the book-selling four mentioned by VR which took me all over the country. When I returned in the middle of November, the balloon had gone up in all directions. The threatened split in the movement had exploded in bitterness and violence; John Olday was in custody – but still not identified – and Freedom Press offices and the homes of several comrades had been raided. Including my studio in Camden Town where, thanks to John’s meticulous destruction of all the traces, no evidence of the Forces Newsletter were found. Indeed, the clever Special Branch seem not to have associated him with that address at all – or surely I would have been charged, when they finally caught me, with harbouring a deserter ?
However, as VR explains, the connection with Freedom Press was finally established, and it was John’s wish at that time to be called as a defence witness at the Freedom Press trial.
In his own words, his intention was ‘to use the court as a platform of aggression, profess responsibility for the seditious propaganda and, so to speak, openly declare war on war’. But we all thought otherwise. None of us ever thought of ourselves as martyr material and held that all of us were more use to the anarchist movement out of jail. In a document I have in which John Oiday speaks of himself in the third person, he writes: ‘The accused comrades kept him deliberately out of the trial, to spare him harsh and long sentences, They themselves got nine months each. Jo never forgave them for having missed the opportunity to defy and denounce the Government in the spirit of traditional anarchist anti-militarism.’
As it was John got 12 months in another court for ‘stealing by finding’ an identity card to be followed by another two years’ sentence in detention barracks (the notorious Stake Hill) on his being handed back to the army.
He did not serve much of this second sentence, but before his release he made many contacts among German prisoners of war on which he was to build the network which became the Anarcho-Spartakusbund, Gruppe Bakunin, in East Germany. He claimed a network of 60 groups, which eventually felt strong enough to emerge in the Communist East German state (against his advice) -and were promptly liquidated.
Unfortunately the anarchist movement in Germany was depleted by war and emigration. Those who had survived the repression and the concentration camps were physically and mentally at a low ebb. In this context the noted German anarchist Rudolf Rocker began to advance the idea that anarchists should participate in all forms of “mutual aid” which included the reformist unions, municipal administrations, and decentralised small industrial and consumer cooperatives.
John Olday was one of the harshest critics of this line, saying that this was a reformist road and that Rocker had forgotten the revolutionary ideas of the anarcho syndicalist FAUD. He was one of the first to revive the old revolutionary slogan of All Power to The Workers and Soldiers Councils.
Against Rocker’s call for a Libertarian Federalist Alliance Olday advanced the idea of a Spartacist Alliance, on anarchist-communist principles, which united anarchists, council communists, and other anti-authoritarian socialists. He built up a network of sixty groups, mostly in East Germany. This included the Proletarischer Zeitgeist group in Zwickau. However in 1948 the East German secret police moved against these groups and smashed them.
Olday’s Information Bulletin now only appeared in small numbers. He changed the title of the bulletin from Anarchist to Council Anarchist, but the repression in East Germany and the poor state of the movement in West Germany saw Olday suddenly stop all anarchist activity. Without the driving force of Olday, the network faded away.
At the beginning of 1950 Olday emigrated to Sydney.
John Olday meeting South Australian Attorney-General, C D Rowe at the Immigration Week arts and crafts exhibition in the Adelaide Town Hall, 1956.
There he undertook work with a group of Yugoslav anarchist exiles in contact via the network. He then moved to Adelaide where he continued his artistic and cultural activities. There he worked as an attendant at an art gallery.
From there he moved to Melbourne where he got a job as a hospital worker and continued his artistic-cultural-political activities. From there he returned to Sydney. John’s time in Australia enriched the counter-cultural scene there with his adult education classes, mime shows, recordings, radio broadcasts and exhibitions and his advocacy of gay liberation.
His later criticism of the Freedom Press tactics at the trial seems not to have taken account of the fact that if we had allowed him to play the self-sacrificial role he wanted, he would certainly have gone to a civilian prison for a very long time and his future work among German POWs would have been impossible, while much of his later work in Germany would have been much more difficult, too.
John Olday was always very much a ‘loner’. In the strict tradition of the him by his years in the anti-Nazi underground-his attitude even to his conspiratorial underground anarchist-a role, after all, imposed upon closest comrades was always the very sound one of ‘what you don’t need to know you don’t need to know !
He was absolutely dedicated to his work, and especially to the work which he saw as something that only he could do. As in others we know in and around the anarchist movement, this can make for intolerance and certain difficulties in common work ! But John could maintain friendship and indeed, as his Australian years showed, could express his many talents in writing, drawing and painting in channels unconnected with ideological revolutionary activity. I write ‘ideological’ as I am convinced that the cabaret and theatre work which John carried on in Sydney was subversive in its own way-after all he had learned that art in the cabarets of Hamburg in the twenties and thirties !
Around such characters, myths are bound to accumulate, and I am not putting him down when I say that John Olday himself was not entirely guiltless of allowing his own view of events to colour his recounting of them. How could it be otherwise, when so much of his kind of work had to be unrecorded and underground? But for John the function of the myth was for inspiration, not glorification to inspire others, not to build up his own cult of the personality. And for an artist-and artists are notoriously egotistical !-this was the measure and the strength of his anarchism.
BY 1974 John Olday was one of the legends of the anarchist movement; and justifiably-for his periods of direct action were during some of the most terrible and excited periods of the century: the Germany of the Spartacists and Noske’s Freikorps, the Social Democrats’ republic and the period of Hitler’s rise to power through the betrayals of the left and the opportunism of international capitalism.
For John the answer was always armed struggle, since the anarchist movement is by definition committed to the revolutionary overthrow of the state. He saw individualism and “anarchist-pacifism” as bourgeois infections of the movement, but was at the same time aware that armed struggle when utterly divorced from a general class struggle could degenerate into mere terrorism.
Apart from a brief, and completely casual meeting in Australia, around 1957, my first real meeting with John was when Albert Meltzer brought him to the basement at Hemmingford Road where I was printing the current issue of Black Flag. Few people carry their years so lightly – John was at that time about 68, a slight but wiry figure, polite, at times almost courtly, and as we subsequently discovered possessed of an extra-ordinary capacity for work. He contributed articles and cartoons to Black Flag, the IWW Defense Bulletin, and carried on a voluminous correspondence with comrades and groups across the world. Towards the end of 1974 he established the International Archive Team (1.A.T.) with the object of disseminating news and information within the movement. We were mainly concerned with those divisions within the international movement that tended towards legalism and economism and therefore diluted the revolutionary struggle, Personally I believe that he placed an excessive value on armed struggle as a single tactic, although this was preferable to those who elevated their tactical disagreement into a matter of principle.
He did valuable work in establishing contacts with comrades throughout the world and there are many who will remember his quiet astuteness and his powerful compassion. I mentioned before his, in my opinion, over-emphasis on the single tactic of armed struggle; he might well be right, but I am fairly certain that anyone who lived through the destruction of the revolutionary left in Germany without being cowed or participating in the sell-out that the CP dignified by the name of Realpolitik might have felt as he did. Those who remember our joint criticism of RAF and 2nd June Movement in Germany will know that his support for armed struggle could be critical. And he was quick to detect and condemn revolutionary elitism and vanguardist gestures.
John performing his anarchist cabaret at Centro Ibérico anarchist centre, Haverstock Hill, North London, mid-1970s
After the turbulent events of our wartime collaboration and separation, I saw little of John before he went to Australia, and indeed very little until two months before he died, I paid one visit to his cabaret when the Centro Ibérico was in Haverstock Hill and found it rather sad. One does not have to think in terms only of what is ‘fashionable’, but at least any form of self-expression must relate to styles and attitudes of its timè to strike home. Sadly, he hadn’t forgotten the cabarets of Hamburg either!
One day last February, Ted Cavanagh, who had been working with John on Mit Teilung phoned me to say he was very ill. Having fallen out with all the other anarchists he had worked with here in London he was very much on his own. Gary Jewell had been staying with him from Toronto, but was having to go back. Could I do anything to help?
I went round to his flat in the seedy area off the Harrow Road that he had always liked and was shocked to see the frail white-haired invalid who opened the door. He could hardly walk and had difficulty even in talking but he was still writing-feverishly, as if he knew he hadn’t much time. He said he was glad to see me and said he was sorry about a rather frosty meeting we had had two years before. I don’t think he knew it, but he was in the terminal stage of cancer and all he could eat, he said, was smoked salmon, Stylish to the end! I obliged by getting him some, and fortunately a young Japanese comrade, Kori Yoro, turned up who was a great source of comfort and help to him. But all he wanted to talk about was his work. He was producing page after page of minute writing an autobiography in detail going right back to his earliest revolutionary days in the Spartacist uprising in Germany. But other work as well-a dissertation on Oriental and Occidental Objections to Anarchism and the work which Gary Jewell mentions on the 1918-23 revolts in Germany: Spartacus and Insurgent Anarchism, defending a revolutionary tradition in Germany.
I have received from Gary the first draft of the first part of this last work. The last paragraph of the introduction reads: ‘I am fully aware of the subjectivity of my recollection. If this book helps to remove misinterpretations and dissolve old animosities, still recurring in the circle of the new generation of revolutionists, I shall consider myself amply rewarded.’
‘…a most gentle man’
JOHN OLDAY had already entered the world of legend when I met him. One knew the drawings and one knew the books and one assumed that he belonged to that elusive heroic past. It was when I began to receive his unsolicited letters that I was aware that here was a man active, cheerful and witty and I looked forward to the answers to my own letters. We met for the pub crawl and there within his flat was the documented wealth of his amazing life. The drawings, the cartoons, the books and the gramophone records all marked with his brilliant talent.
He spoke of pre-nazi Germany, of the world of the political cabaret, of the poet beaten and broken in the first of the Nazi concentrations camps shuffling back into the defensive world of the German militant left that sought a refuge in John’s cabaret. And of that dying tortured world John recorded in firm swift brutal lines the agony of those hours. And we went for our pub crawl from one side of London yea even to Earls Court and John Olday tall and slim, with his white hair streaked with grey, clad in his tight fitting blue jeans loped along beside me with the grace of a young lightweight boxer and always he talked and I listened to political history made manifest to the artist who had had to practise his art one step ahead of the political police in country after country.
The artist is beholden to no man for in those few square inches he stamps his credo and his conscience for all men to bear witness and no-one, be they editor or subscriber can tarnish the visual image. He can only be rejected and in that act of rejection lesser men become that much less and what they offered in exchange is the forgettable dross of history. Turn the pages comrades and it is only the work of the artist that lives in those grey columns be it a week or a century ago. John gave much to us and the tragedy, for us, is that the brilliance of his pen was allowed to lie idle on the unmarked paper. Time will judge John Olday’s work and judge it well and history will ask who broke the pen and why. Of my life I shall remember him with pleasure, a most gentle man, witty and soft spoken, kind in his dealings with me and always blue jeaned, grey haired loping along London’s nighttime pavements.
I had the honour of working with John during January and February of this year in London. He was dying, and a weaker man would have surrendered to death; but he kept fighting and producing in spite of incredible pain and dire poverty. IWW Toronto will soon follow our publication of his polemic on guerrilla warfare, Trotz Alledem (‘In Spite of All”) with an important historical work, Spartacus and Insurgent Anarchism’: The 1918-1923 Revolt in Germany. Other material, including drawings and lumpenproletariat poems, also will appear.
John, you tough, querulous old bastard: farewell,
With much love