Blog post

Albion Rose: Susan Matthews on Student Resistance

Kaitlin Staudt 5 May 2011

Counterfire recently published an excerpt of Susan Matthews' contribution to Springtime. Matthews' son Alfie Meadows has recently been charged with violent disorder during the December protests along with ten other protesters. These charges are seen by many as an attempt to stop the right to protest, and have been criticised by John McDonnell MP as "outrageously disproportionate and demonstrate the decline that has taken place in the protection of civil liberties in this country" imploring that "those arrested must be defended and supported by us all." The call for support is echoed by Susan Matthew's focus on Blake's 'Albion Rose' ...

Since 9 December, when my son was injured at the student protests in London, I have been haunted by a print by William Blake known as ‘Albion Rose'. It is one of those images that are too familiar, too clichéd even, to see properly - forever owned by the 1960s. Although created in the 1790s, it was inscribed by Blake with the date 1780, the year in which rioting mobs ruled London for a week, burned down prisons and threatened the Bank of England. For most contemporary observers, the Gordon Riots of 1780 were an ugly outbreak of fanaticism, a horror best swiftly forgotten. Yet Blake's image is strangely exultant, a collective figure of the nation (or the world) reborn ...

For some, it is hard to see protest as anything other than a collective outbreak of madness. For too long the educated few have imagined themselves as standing against the forces of unreason embodied in the mob. This story is well told in Adam Curtis's BBC series, The Century of the Self, or in John Carey's 1992 account of the snobberies underlying modernist aesthetics in The Intellectuals and the Masses. Exactly this fear emerged in David Cameron's response to the student protest in which my son was injured. So careful up to that point to appear the voice of consensus and compassion, Cameron now took sides: it was ‘us' against ‘them'. Protesters had behaved in an ‘absolutely feral way' and violence (he claimed) pervaded the protest ...

Since 9 December I see Blake's hackneyed image in a new way. Blake witnessed the riots; he was caught up inadvertently in the mob. Being there, he must have seen things that contemporary accounts did not record. The images that stay with me from the student protests are not those of the violence splashed over the front pages (which I did not myself witness) or of ‘victims' injured and beaten (though I sat by the bedside of my son). Instead, what I remember is the determination of a varied group of people to resist unfair treatment, to question a false narrative of necessity, and to protect the fragile gains of decades of expansion of higher education.

Visit Counterfire to read the excerpt in full.

There is an open meeting tonight in support of the right to protest, May 5 from 6:30 to 9:30 pm atRoom 10-11-12, Friends Meeting House, 173 Euston Road, London NW1 2BJ. More details are available here.

Filed under: excerpts