An Innocent Abroad: The anarchism of Colin Ward

by thenewenglishlandscape

A favourite novel of the late, and much-loved writer and anarchist, Colin Ward, was Huckleberry Finn. Huck’s common-sense decency and independent spirit led him to become one of the great moral heroes of world literature. Another of Mark Twain’s books nevertheless provides the best title to describe the public persona of Ward himself: An Innocent Abroad. For Colin was a self-effacing man who claimed little originality, yet whose influence still resonates in public policy across the world. Talk to anybody concerned with children’s play and his name is mentioned within minutes; the same is true of those involved in squatting and self-build movements, in town planning as a form of civic democracy, in environmental education, and, of course, in the history and practice of anarchism.

Sophie Scott-Brown’s admiring but even-handed and thoughtful study of Ward, Colin Ward and the Art of Everyday Anarchy, starts wonderfully with an emphasis on the ‘ordinariness’ of its subject’s resilient ‘weak power’:

‘For Colin Ward, anarchy was ordinary, everywhere, and always in action. It happened on city streets, allotments, and around kitchen tables, in village halls, town squares and pub snugs. It went about its business quietly, beneath and beyond official notice.

Beneath this calm orderly façade lay startling claims. Schooling is organised mass ignorance. Centralised welfare is coercion by stealth. Ramshackle shanty towns contain more human dignity than the palatial creation of feted architects.’

Claiming to have been bored at school, outdoors Ward was curious about everything. Later on, he became a keen advocate of the idea of ‘schools without walls’, in which students found out how everyday life worked by direct study – trips to the local fire station, sewage farm, rubbish tip, railway station and signal box, farm and factory. In such school trips the inter-dependence of us all in the well-being of each other and society was made concrete. He wasn’t even apologetic about the idea that on occasions letting children or young people work for money, was no big deal, as long as it put none in harm’s way. The title of the book he wrote with Anthony Fyson on this approach to education, Streetwork: The Exploding School, mischievously alludes to stereotypes of anarchists as men in black capes carrying bombs. He was early in espousing the idea that ‘small is beautiful’, for as Scott-Brown writes, ‘Human scale was, for Ward, anarchism’s basic conceptual and methodological principle.’

Luckily he lived during a period when curiosity about human relations was a widening field of discussion and influence, notably in the turn to social psychology and social history in academic and journalistic worlds, so that the writings of people like Langston Hughes, C.Wright Mills, Margaret Mead, Jane Jacobs, Erving Goffman, Studs Terkel, Sven Lindqvist, Richard Hoggart, Richard Titmuss, Josephine Klein and the work of many documentary photographers, were popularised and debated. The 1960s ‘Penguin Revolution’ in paperback publishing strongly aided this informal education process. When the weekly magazine New Society was started in 1962, Ward was, Scott-Brown tells us, ‘an instant fan’. In fact, many of the young writers Ward had published at Anarchy, the magazine he edited for many years, went on to write for New Society.

I first met Colin in Spring 1973, when he came to an in-service training course I attended, then an English teacher in Hackney. At that time, I and other teachers were trying to get pupils out into the streets and parks as much as possible, as well as collecting the reminiscences of their parents and grand-parents of their early lives (our keen interest not always welcomed I soon discovered). We started corresponding and became friends. Those who got to know Colin soon got to know Harriet Ward, about whom Scott-Brown writes warmly. We also shared a common enthusiasm for adventure playgrounds, as Larraine Worpole and I had been involved in setting one up in Brighton in the late 1960s.

Yet they were other times with other priorities and attachments. For example, Scott-Brown finds Ward’s sense of Englishness understandable, if today more problematic. She also draws attention to his assumption of a ‘universal human subject’, now diversified in its multiple identities as to become sociologically beyond reach. On this I am with Ward – in what Scott-Brown calls his ‘hapless everyman’ guise – not yet relinquishing the belief that there is something universal in the human condition, despite so many differences.

Memorial meeting for Colin Ward, Conway Hall, London, 10 July 2010. Photograph: Larraine Worpole

This is a terrific book, in which a writer whom I suspect never met Ward, has nevertheless portrayed him with insight and empathy. There is one Wardian understanding that I have come to value most of all, which alas is not mentioned.  That is his warning against the common assumption, particularly on the left, that ‘the social’ and ‘the political’ are one and the same thing and inter-changeable. They are not. The social is much larger, more inclusive, more porous, more informally constructed and sustained than the political – and less easily captured by vested interests. We make and unmake the social world each day, and that is why it is so flexible and resilient. Which is why for Colin the education process was a lifelong endeavour, preferably learned ‘on the job’, alongside and in co-operation with others. Scott-Brown’s study is wide-ranging, thoughtful and much to be admired.

Colin Ward and the Art of Everyday Anarchy is published by Routledge, July 2022. Buy it from your independent bookshop or order it from your local library.

New podcast: Experiments in Living

Frating Hall Farm, 1950: a pacifist community. Photographer unknown.

Colin Ward’s ideas feature in this new podcast, in which Helsinki-based writer Owen Kelly and I discuss the rise and fall, and rise again, of intentional communities or co-operative housing and work settlements. Free to listen.

Why do we keep returning to experiments in living?