A gallery of dissidents

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An excerpt from the book, <i>Media Maverick.</i>

I became friendly with the London representatives of the AfricanNational Congress of South Africa, particularly Robert Resha andhis sidekick Raymond Kunene, an accomplished poet. Neither ofthese men wanted to be in politics. Robert really wanted to be asports writer, but repeated arrests for not carrying his passbookhad forced him into political action in self-defence.

Robert was one of the few people I have ever met who had all thequalities to be a prime minister, although with no prospect ofever becoming one. In London he was the main assistant to OliverTambo, who headed the delegation in exile, but I always thoughthe was a more substantial man than Tambo.

Robert's task was to tour the world drumming up support for theANC's resistance movement, which at about this time set up anarmed section, known as Umkhonto we Sizwe. He found theworld alive with speeches against apartheid, talk that seldomtranslated into concrete action, except in Scandinavia. He tiredof hearing speeches of support from such as Ethiopia's HaileSelassie, who, when directly asked for aid, would contribute somepaltry sum like $5,000. Robert used to laugh incredulously at theantics of other supporters, such as Kwame Nkrumah, who hadstarted his leadership of independent Ghana full of promise butwas gradually sliding into paranoia, surrounding himself withsycophants, and imposing a straitjacket on his country. WhileRobert, on his lonely travels, counted his few successes in adribble of United Nations resolutions condemning apartheid, hiswife and daughter were sent off to Moscow to be educated.

Occasionally Robert or Raymond would ring me with a request towrite something for them. I always felt embarrassed to be doingso little, but Robert reassured me. “Everybody serves in his ownway,” he said. I have been involved in many causes since then,although seldom as a demonstrator. But Robert's advice has alwayshelped me maintain my perspective. I write, and can best serve bywriting.

Unfortunately, the lonely, wearing life finished off my dearfriend. Later on, when I returned briefly to London in 1975, Ifound that Robert had recently died, at the age of 53,and Raymond, with Canon Collins of St. Paul's Cathedral, waspreparing a memorial service for him. Raymond took me to meetRobert's wife, a strong, handsome, intelligent woman, and hisdaughter, who was one of the most beautiful young women I haveever seen.

Through Robert we became friendly with Harold Wolpe and his wifeAnnMarie. Harold had worked for years as a solicitor for the ANCin cases brought by the government, and in an illuminatinginterview with me he outlined how impossible had been that task.If they ever won a case, which they frequently did, thegovernment immediately changed the law so that such a case couldnever again be brought. This went on until every avenue ofpolitical expression for blacks in South Africa was closed off,and they had no option but to move to armed rebellion.

In July 1963 Harold and his friend Arthur Goldreich, anindustrial designer, had been arrested at Rivonia, Goldreich'shome, and they were to be charged, along with Nelson Mandela andothers, with plotting to overthrow the state. But Wolpe andGoldreich bribed a prison guard and made their escape.Immediately on arrival in Britain they went to the Labour Partyannual conference in Blackpool and addressed an anti-apartheidmeeting. Goldreich, the son of a rich Jewish family, was one ofthe best speakers I have ever heard. His first-hand story of lifein apartheid South Africa created a sensation wherever heappeared. He did not stay long in Britain, but emigrated toIsrael.

Harold and AnnMarie lived for some years in London, and webecame good friends. Later Harold took an adult education job inthe north of England, but he never ceased to be a member of theANC. AnnMarie worked to ease the lives of South African exiles inBritain during the apartheid regime, and co-authored a bookcalled Feminism and Materialism. In 1994 she published amemoir, The Long Way Home, dealing with the arrest ofher husband, their family's escape from South Africa, and thedramatic impact on herself and her children, as well as of otherwhite radicals (such as the Slovos and Bernsteins), of having adedicated, activist father. They both returned to South Africa inthe 1990s, where AnnMarie took up a university appointment.Harold died in 1996. A Harold Wolpe forum is held annually at theUniversity of the Western Cape, and a Wolpe Memorial Lecture wasdelivered at Parliament in September 2002. Harold and AnnMariemay never have been famous people (although their fame seems tobe growing in the new South Africa), but they were people ofimmense courage, and always heroes to me.

A London radical of a different sort was an eccentric Montrealer,Michael van Bloemen, who in the 1950s had founded the Troubadour,a traditional English coffee house in Old Brompton Road in Earl'sCourt. He ran it as if it were a coffee house of Pepys's time.

He lived upstairs from the Troubadour with his wife Sheila andtheir energetic, gifted children. They had collected stuff fromstreets, kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms, stables, and garages, andhad hung it around their coffee house in a wild, exquisiteexhibition of their bizarre tastes. I spent a lot of time in theTroubadour, usually in the mornings, reading the left-wingnewspapers and magazines that were always scattered around, andmade many good friends among other habitués.

One of these was Stevie, a young Roman Catholic working-classwoman from Liverpool who was an occasional waitress at theTroubadour, and Arthur Davidson, the fellow she lived with, aLiverpool lawyer. He was a persistent Labour Party candidate inelections, and in the mid-1960s was finally elected to Parliamentfor one of the Lancashire constituencies. Stevie was a remarkablewoman, full of strong feelings and opinions, and with a Scouseaccent you could cut with a knife. As Arthur's prospects in lifeimproved they decided to get married, after having lived togetherfor eight years. Two weeks after the wedding Stevie arrived onenight on our doorstep, in tears. She had just left Arthur, whoseJewish family, she said, detested her because she was Catholicand kept him away from her. We tried to calm her down, thinkingit was just a temporary quarrel, but she was adamant that shewould never return to him, and she never did. A few years latershe took the fancy of some lad with money, married him, and whenlast heard of her children were going to Eton.

Michael van Bloemen got his money together for his coffee shopby working on the DEW Line across the Canadian North. I have metmany men who went north intending to put together enough money toopen a shop or a bar, but Michael is the only one I ever met whomanaged to keep the money he earned. The others invariably drankit away during their two-week off-periods from the northern work.

Michael was an emotional socialist: he just believed in it,wasn't particularly interested in discussing it or arguing aboutit, and so far as I know he never wavered from it. His place wasalways crowded on a Saturday night, when people lined up at thedoor and waited patiently for him to admit them. But he didn'tadmit just anybody. One night I was there when someone came inand said, “There's an American lady outside, crying.” She hadknocked on the door, told Michael she had come all the way fromthe United States, and pleaded to be admitted as a specialfavour.

“What do you think of the Vietnam War?” barked Michael.

“Well,” she said, taken aback. “I guess it's okay.” Michaelslammed the door in her face, and that was why she was crying.

After the election of a Labour government in 1964, Michael andSheila became disillusioned with British socialism. Suddenly, tothe dismay of their friends, they decided to sell the Troubadourand move to Yugoslavia. Their removal from the scene was a loss:they were always kind, and interesting to be around, and we allmissed them. I had a couple of letters from their kids, fromDubrovnik, but eventually lost track of them. Nearly two decadeslater I was told on a visit to Britain that they had continued tolive a chaotically unplanned existence, and were expected toreturn to Britain. But another decade on, during the Yugoslaviantroubles, when Dubrovnik was shelled, who should pop up on my TVscreen for a brief interview, but this Canadian, Michael vanBloemen, still a resident of Dubrovnik.

The Troubadour survived Mike and Sheila, and in later yearsbecame famous as a venue for the best folk singers. In 1999 anAmerican wanderer wrote on his web site: “The Troubadour is mykind of place. The front window is leaded glass and shelf aftershelf of coffee pots. Inside, it is a candle-lit cave with . . .huge hand-hewn, dark-wood beams. Musical instruments hang fromthe ceiling: lutes, violins, drums and stringed instruments I'venever seen before. For some less-than-obvious reason, ahand-carved, cigar-store Indian balances on a high beam, toweringover the eating area.”

It still sounds utterly familiar, and a worthy monument to Mikeand Sheila.

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