The Old Red Earth At Clerkenwell Green

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Clerkenwell is a part of central London steeped in history. The tea bag of the time has brewed a mighty mug of stories in the area.

As early as the 1300s, Clerkenwell was the site of serious English past. The leader of the Peasants Revolt, Wat Tyler, led a band of rebels from Kent to meet King Richard II at Smithfield and demand the end to serfdom. After a heated argument, Tyler stabbed the Mayor of London, William Walworth, who retaliated with a sword swipe. Tyler was then arrested and decapitated on site, his head put on a pike and paraded all the way down to London Bridge.

Rebellion often finds itself in repeating in the same place, and one famous slice of Clerkenwell is no exception. In the centre of EC1 is Clerkenwell Green, a small oblong sandwiched between Ayslesbury Street to the north and Clerkenwell Road to the south. This tiny patch of land has seen more of London’s radical history than Che Guevara’s grandma could tell you in a month of Maydays.

Along the corridor and up the stairs you’ll find banners, posters and ceramics tracing the history of the labour movement from the 19th century to the present day.

In the early 1800s, the Green was used as a meeting place for the emerging labour movement resisting exploitation brought on by the industrial revolution. William Cobbett, a big man in the pamphleteer game, gave speeches at anti-corn law rallies. In the 1830s, protests about the bloody British regime in Jamaica were held on the Green following the eviction of squatters on unused land. After that, Chartists – the original universal suffrage advocates – met there regularly. Radical legends like Fergus O’Connor and William Cuffay (one of many influential black Britons written out of most history books) mobilized mass rallies on the Green demanding voting rights for all citizens. There were huge gatherings supporting Irish freedom from Britain and even meetings in support of the 1871 Paris Commune.

You’re less likely to find civil disobedience on Clerkenwell Green these days. The fancy cafes are a nice distraction, the pubs sell white wine and at lunchtime St. John’s Churchyard is packed with design bros and graphics girls discussing their corporate clients’ obsession with chartreuse colour schemes. Clerkenwell is home to more creative businesses and architects per square mile than anywhere else on the planet, none of which are interested in revolutionary class struggles. However, if you saunter down the north side of the green, past La Rochetta and Scotti’s Snack Bar you find an unmarked building with a red door and nine windows – 37a Clerkenwell Green. Formerly the site of an influential printing press, this building is the Karl Marx Memorial Library. That’s right, a library dedicated to the big bearded Count of Communism himself.

Ring the buzzer any time between 1 and 4 p.m., state your intentions and one of the librarians will let you in. Up the wood panelled stairs and into the main room you’ll find a library like no other, adorned with a radical fresco by Jack Hastings – “The worker of the future upsetting the economic chaos of the present” – and over 43,000 rigorously catalogued books, pamphlets and newspapers on Marxism, Scientific Socialism and Working class history. It truly is a marvellous archive you will not find anywhere else in London, possibly the world. The building was originally part funded by William Morris to house the socialist Twentieth Century Press Ltd. Then, following the 1933 Nazi book burnings in Germany, the Karl Marx Library moved in permanently to help safe-keep the literature of the radical left from fascist assault.

Along the corridor and up the stairs you’ll find banners, posters and ceramics tracing the history of the labour movement from the 19th century to the present day. Those pesky Chartists feature along with work by the likes of William Morris and Eleanor Marx. You’ll also see a magnificent tapestry of British Battalion of the International Brigades who travelled to Spain to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War – those guys that Orwell was harping on about in Homage to Catalonia. The banner was brought home to London after the war was over and placed safely to inspire future generations to resist fascism and all its totalities.

Rebellion often finds itself in repeating in the same place, and one famous slice of Clerkenwell is no exception.

The cherry on top of the radical cake though, is room at the back of the building. Push open a heavy door and you’ll find a small study with a window overlooking Clerkenwell Road. The light of emancipation streams in and spills onto a mahogany desk, illuminating a laminated copy of the Bolshevik propaganda rag Iskra. On the desk is a bust of Vladimir Lenin, that lauded leader of the first communist revolution, who edited and printed Iskra (meaning “spark”) in the library building during 1902-3. The paper had an average circulation of around 8,000 and was read by Russian socialists in exile, like Lenin himself. He left the staff after 1903, and then those naughty Mensheviks took it over. Ever on the wrong side of history, the Mensheviks stopped publishing Iskra in 1905. The librarians will tell you that your boy Vladimir used to sit at this desk to work on the Iskra, but no one can verify this as an absolute truth. It is certain though, that he was in the building somewhere.

On your way out, after taking a few of the postcards on offer, take a minute to think about how this building has shaped the course of European history. Consider how Clerkenwell has hosted the demands for many of the rights we now hold as inherent. Imagine, as you walk down the wide stone steps from the Library’s door that you have walked in the footsteps of some of history’s giants. As you pass the Crown Tavern, ponder the struggles of working people before you, the battles of capital versus labour, collectivism versus individuality, left versus right.

Then pop across the road and use the Starbucks toilet without buying a drink. After all, even the strongest blizzards start with a single snowflake.

Karl Marx Memorial Library, 37A Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R 0DU. Phone: 020 7253 1485

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