Book Review: Confessions of a Non-Violent Revolutionary

Green peer Natalie Bennett reviews Chris Savory’s Confessions of a Non-Violent Revolutionary, a memoir of political activism in the 1980s and what lessons can be learned for the future of grassroots political struggle.

Extinction Rebellion activists and police surround a vehicle during a protest on Waterloo Bridge
Extinction Rebellion activists and police surround a vehicle during a protest on Waterloo Bridge

Martin Hearn / Flickr / cc-by-2.0

Natalie Bennett

Politics – whether electoral or campaigning – tends to live very much in the moment. This is the issue of the day. Acting on it is urgent, changing the future is the goal. Looking back is something we don’t tend to do very much. But there are good reasons why we should.

History as they say, doesn’t repeat itself, but that doesn’t mean that past successes, and  failures, patterns and events, can’t be learned from.

And that we shouldn’t also, for moral reasons as well as practical, know about, listen to and celebrate those who came before, who built the foundations on which we build today.

For building foundations, to continue the metaphor a little further, involves hard labour, digging holes, disappearing out of the sunlight. It’s tough.

And that’s what Chris Savory, who’s written an autobiography, subtitled “Bean Stew, Blisters, Blockades and Benders: the True Story of a Peace Activist in Thatcher’s Britain”, spent much of his life doing.

Chris appears on the cover in a class Sixties or Seventies, fully bearded shaggy look, and he looks like he’s having fun.

And as his account makes clear, he had some brilliant times. Marching across America with Japanese monks and a broadly international caste in the 1982 World Peace March, ending with a one million-strong rally in New York, sounds like an amazing experience – introducing new ideas to a society that had little exposure to the rest of the world.

That this was a choice made all based on the strength of a single flyer is a reminder of how much communications operated in a far more difficult manner – something to remember next time you hear someone lamenting the “problems” of social media.

And there’s plenty of humour in the book, reflecting some of the good – or mostly good – times. The “bean stew” of the title is an attempt to produce a minimum food miles dinner (before the term was invented), a field bean and barley stew flavoured with Marmite and beer. The results were volatile and foul-smelling; as Chris puts it: “It was like a field of sheep grazing on turnips”.

But Chris is also painfully, bone-baringly honest about how tough being a peace and equality campaigner was in the Eighties: “This rage was stoked at Oxford [where he was a student, leaving before getting a degree because it all seemed so disconnected from reality and pointless] and now it included visceral anger at governments and their plans for nuclear war, along with the repression, torture and conventional wars being waged against ordinary people around the world – rage against inequality, injustice, sexism, racism and ecological destruction. I couldn’t direct this anger outwards, so I slammed my head against the wall again and again and then I punched myself in the head and punched the wall.”

Society – and particularly his family – in the post-War world, celebrating growing consumerism and enmeshed deep in the hot part of the “Cold War”, had little understanding of his passion, or his fears.

What’s also clear from Chris’s account is at this time there was little understanding in the progressive movements of the emotional difficulties, nothing much in the way of support.

Peace Studies at Bradford University should have been a haven, but on this account was not in good time. It failed to provide the nurturing and insights that I hope – from what I’ve heard – it does today.

Chris tells the tragic story of Marie-Therese, a former children’s social worker from northern England, who he meets in the French countryside, living on what she can forage.

“Five years later we heard from Mark that Marie-Therese had developed pneumonia and died.

I was deeply troubled by my memory of this singular woman with such spiritual strength and yet emotional and physical frailty. How do we live with the knowledge of the violence, cruelty and suffering in the world? All of us, at least some of the time, block out that knowledge in order to survive day-to-day.”

There’s still a long way to go, but even over the past decade – in line with a broader societal

preparedness to talk about mental ill health and suffering – I think campaigners have come a long way in talking about self-care, in acknowledging that campaigning is tough, the knockbacks frequent, and the pressure of the urgency of action hard to resist. But Chris helps to remind us how important that is.

I can think of a few accounts of this period – Charlie Kiss’s A New Man and Ann Petit’s Walking to Greenham, but there’s certainly not a lot. And in the pre-internet age, records of what happened, of the struggles, the progress and the reverses, are far from easy to find.

Chris Savory book cover

And there’s continuity with today, for Chris finishes at an Extinction Rebellion protest on Waterloo Bridge, where a young woman – not born when he started protesting – listens to his story. That’s encouraging.

Chris has created an important, highly readable record in this book, of an age that for younger readers will certainly feel like a very different era, but one that still has massive impacts on today.

Sadly, the issues haven’t changed. The insights that he shared with those monks and so many others in New York – that a world with nuclear weapons in it can never be secure – is as – or perhaps more – important as it was in the heat of the Cold War.

Confessions Of A Non-Violent Revolutionary: Bean Stew, Blisters, Blockades and Benders - The True Story of a Peace Activist in Thatcher's Britain is published by Clairview Books, £12.99