Rosa Schling, Peace! Books! Freedom! The Secret History of a Radical London Building

IssueFebruary - March 2024
Review by Virginia Moffatt

Every now and then, I get sent a book to review which is a sheer joy from start to finish. Peace! Books! Freedom! is such a book.

A short gallop through the history of 5 Caledonian Road, the Kings Cross home of Housmans Bookshop, Peace News and many other radical organisations, it’s a great story of activism, resistance and community.

It begins with the generous donation by pacifist curate, Tom Willis that enabled Peace News to buy a building in Central London to create the movement centre they’d always wanted.

Since then, ‘Cally Road’, as it became known, has often been at the forefront of UK activism.

The book documents many of the campaigns run from Cally Road, including successful sit-ins at Trafalgar Square by the Direct Action Committee (DAC) to protest against nuclear proliferation; the ‘gay days’ and first Pride march organised by the Gay Liberation Front (GLF); the formation of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) – and London Greenpeace’s calls for an end to French nuclear testing in the Pacific.

Inevitably, such campaigning led to arrests and trials, such as the Wethersfield Six (for planning to enter military bases), the occupiers of the Greek embassy (in response to the 1967 coup), the British Withdrawal from Northern Ireland Campaign (conspiracy to cause incitement to disaffection) and the famous McLibel Trial.

5 Caledonian Road has also been also a haven for disaffected people and where vital support work has been carried out. The London Gay Switchboard was a critical resource for gay men and lesbians at a time when homophobia was rife.

The book contains an excellent array of photos of newsletters, leaflets and office documents.

I particularly enjoyed reading the notes Mark Ashton made when interviewing Mick Jackson for the London Gay Switchboard. Jackson got the job and the pair were to become firm friends setting up Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners, the subject of the wonderful film, Pride.

Peace News Trustees lent money to a neighbouring shop to start a wholefoods business, while Housmans was a popular hangout for people from a wide range of backgrounds. Over the years, the occupants of the building were active in opposing gentrification.

Perhaps inevitably, with so many groups of passionate committed activists, there were also occasions of conflict. Older activists were concerned about the dilution of pacifism in Peace News – when it focused on nuclear weapons – and, a few years later, when younger activists seem to widen the scope to include broader social justice concerns.

Pat Arrowsmith caused consternation by creating a situation where she was publicly arrested at the Peace News office, without thinking of the ramifications for staff.

Peace News became a collective and left London for Nottingham in 1974, not returning for 20 years.

In the early days, there were tensions between the more middle-class workforce at Peace News and the lower-paid workers in Housmans.

Despite these issues, what shines through Peace! Books! Freedom! is the incredible work done by the people of 5 Cally Road since the building was opened in 1959.

From the DAC activists who normalised nonviolent direct action and the GLF who tore down homophobia, to the workers at Peace News and Housmans who continue to promote peace, anarchism and community today, this book is a testament to the power of people to change the world.

Full of stories to entertain, educate and inspire you, this is essential reading for every activist.

Get your copy today.