Protest: Laura Hird leads the resistance at EIBF

We speak to author Laura Hird about her Radical War story in the new anthology Protest, and the Edinburgh Book Festival event to mark it. In a time when political protest is so relevant, it's important to learn from an often forgotten past

Feature by Galen O'Hanlon | 10 Aug 2017

The editor of Protest, Ra Page, has achieved an extraordinary and timely feat, considering our current political climate: a collection of short stories, each one illustrating a moment of protest in British history. The book begins with the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 and ends with the anti-Iraq war demo of 2003. He invited authors to pick a protest from his list and write a short story about it. His one condition: every writer must work with an expert – a historian, sociologist, crowd scientist – someone who knew the subject. And so each story has an afterword, explaining the historical and political background that forms the basis of the story.

The result? A great gathering of voices, a dispersal of perspectives. It is a direct response to a world of fake news and post-truth politics; a collection of well-researched, historically accurate stories that trace a long tradition of kicking up a fuss.

It’s tempting to think of protests as brief moments that rupture the way things are done. People come together to stand up against a system that acts on their behalf but doesn’t represent their values – and then things change, or they stay the same. It’s tempting, too, to feel a bit hopeless about protest as a means of changing the world: for every success story, there are many moments of failure. 

But reading these stories shows how strategies, tactics and themes are shared across time. One group of protesters might inspire another – one person’s courage becomes the spark that ignites another’s. In Kit de Waal’s deeply moving story, a black man falls in love with a white barmaid in racially segregated Smethwick in 1965. They are discovered, and Alfonse very nearly loses Lillian for lack of courage. Then he sees, of all people, Malcolm X walk down his street, and it’s this moment of quiet defiance that gives Alfonse the courage to stand up for his love. It is a finely tuned story that illustrates how a political moment can have deeply personal ramifications. And it has the strange depth that some short stories achieve – in the mind, it seems to cover as much ground as a novel might.

The moment of change is, of course, the ignition of any story – but in Protest these moments of change are heated connections of the personal and political. These are not tales of the supposedly grand moments of history, where great men swish about and take definitive action. These stories take place in the shadows, or on the sidelines, where ‘normal’ people make rough, piecemeal decisions based on circumstance. For instance, Laura Hird’s story, Spun, explores Scotland’s Radical War of 1820 through the eyes of Andrew White, a sixteen year old boy who gets swept up and politicised almost by accident. The story begins with a group of lads getting pished on the Clyde – it ends with them in a rabble, making an ill-advised stand against a group of expertly trained Hussars.

The Radical War was, as Gordon Pentland writes in the afterword, “an abortive attempt to stage an insurrection in the Lowlands of Scotland against government.” The long wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France had drained the economy, and work was scarce for young men like White. On the first of April 1820, a proclamation was posted on doors and shop windows across Glasgow calling for a national strike – which roughly 60,000 people responded to in and around the city. Far fewer took up arms, and the weeks that followed were a time of paranoia and disorganisation, one instance of which saw a group of men, including White, attempting to take over the Carron Iron Works. They were defeated at the Battle of Bonnymuir on 5 April 1820 – the battle that forms the centrepoint of Laura’s story.

“It’s a period of Scottish history I knew nothing about,” says Laura, in our interview ahead of her event this month at Edinburgh International Book Festival, “... and I think that’s the case for many people.” As an accomplished writer who first made her name in the pages of the counter-culture stable Rebel Inc. (alongside Alan Warner and Irvine Welsh), it seems fitting that Hird chose a group of rebellious Scottish lost boys as her starting point. It might not be her usual exploration of the gritty underside of Scottish youth culture, but if you swap the sex and drugs for illicit whisky and muskets, you’re almost there.

“History’s not my pet subject,” she says, “but I loved all the research. Gordon Pentland was so helpful with everything – pointing me to the transcripts of the trials, to the sources that reveal what life was like for people then – I got really caught up in it. And I enjoyed immersing myself in 1820.” As her first foray into historical fiction, she relished having the constraints of the historical record. “It was great to have the commission,” she says, “and I was lucky that Gordon and I worked so well together. The details we found were fascinating – somebody kept a weather diary in Glasgow for 1820, so we knew it was raining and sleeting that April. And he was helpful in checking for anachronisms and the sort of language they might have used.”

So how does a book like this work? It is, above all, evidence of Ra Page’s considerable skills as an editor. To commission 20 authors and 20 consultants, to see each story through several drafts, and to bring it together in less than a year is more than many might achieve in double or triple the time. It’s also a strong pack [including David Constantine and Alexei Sayle]: these writers know how to put a story together, and the result makes for a kaleidoscopic feast. 

Read chronologically, you feel the momentum of protest build over the centuries – starting with Sara Maitland’s anarchic, triumphant treatment of the Peasants’ Revolt. The story takes up the perspective of a young woman, returned from the revolt, standing up for her actions even as a well-meaning priest tries to get her to seek pardon for them. She recounts her experience of sweeping into London with the crowd, charging into the Savoy Palace and breaking everything. “We the vengeance of God and it was fun,” she says. It’s a deeply satisfying beginning to a book all about subversive, disruptive behaviour – the first of many explorations of how people find the strength to stand up to authority. 

But however you read it, Protest is a peculiarly rewarding experience. Each story is balanced by its afterword, carrying the reader with a kind of metronomic rhythm: fiction and non-fiction, story and history, foreground and background. But these distinctions are impermanent – and both disciplines make decisions on how the story is told; they all take part in the process of turning a collection of events into a narrative arc. Protest gives us the two tied together, and in doing so leaves us with a sense of hope. These stories illustrate what many in power would have us forget: that people working together can achieve a lot. And while that sounds like an obvious platitude, these stories don’t just document grand political shifts – they represent many hundreds of quiet, personal transformations. Possibly forseeing more to come.

Protest: Stories of Resistance is out now, published by Comma Press, RRP £14.99
Laura Hird appears with Gordon Pentland for Up in Arms at Edinburgh International Book Festival on 22 Aug