Ben Granger talks to Dave Hann and Steve Tilzey, authors of No Retreat, a punchy account of their days fighting neo-Nazis in the North-West of England
Back in the late 70s Manchester was a stronghold of Britain’s premier far-right party, the National Front. As factories and communities went down they went up, recruiting at pubs and football matches, bolstered by a backdrop of fear, poverty, ignorance and desperation. They strutted through the town’s grey streets by day, cudgelling random blacks and gays in dark alleys at night. Kicking around and insulting lefty paper sellers was another hobby. That was until a few young working-class activists, centred initially round the Socialist Workers Party and the Anti-Nazi League, decided to fight back.
“The Squads” -as they became known- eschewed the standard British lefty tactics. They didn’t depend on banners, slogans and face-painting. Men who could handle themselves, they responded to the NF in kind; with boots and fists. “The fash” weren’t used to people fighting back and before long it was they who were on the defensive.
As the NF dissolved into the more openly Nazi British Movement and other warring factions, Anti-Fascist Action grew from the ashes of the Squads, shunned and denounced by the middle-class leadership of the SWP, they still booted the Nazis out of central Manchester and took the fight further out, to the further reaches of the north-west and the country beyond.
No Retreat is a memoir from two veterans of these struggles. While overlapping strongly, the first half is Squad member Tilzey’s story from the late 70s to mid 80s, detailing the collapse of the NF and the rise and fall of the psychopathic British Movement. AFA founder Hann takes over from the 80s to the late 90s, recounting the fight against the new British National Party and their partners in thuggery Combat 18. It describes the movement’s very real successes, but also tells of the setbacks and the infighting endemic to groups of the left.
To say it doesn’t shy from the violent side of the struggle is an understatement. Fast-paced accounts of kickings and hammerings dominate the narrative. Dave jokes at one point that AFA considered seeeking sponsorship from Lucozade for the use they made of their old style glass bottles “an ideal hand to hand or throwing weapon, and the police can’t arrest you for it as long as its still got some drink left in it.” Liberals and pacifists won’t be perusing this over their chiantis.
It’s a lively, irreverant, thrills but no-frills account which at times reads like one of the numerous soccer-hoolie memoirs proliferating in the “True Crime” section at book-stores (and indeed its publisher Milo purveys many such books themselves). But amidst all the scrapping is the constant and powerful message that fascism thrives when the working-class is ignored and betrayed. The authors argue this betrayal has come not only from all the major parties, but from the middle-class leadership of far-left groups too, pursuing students with single issue politics rather than working people.
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