John Rety 8 December 1930 - 3 February 2010

IssueMarch 2010
Comment by Milan Rai

John Rety, former editor of the anarchist newspaper Freedom and good friend of Peace News, has died at the age of 79.

John had several passions apart from politics, including chess (“the most Bohemian player we are ever likely to meet”, said the late Bob Wade, former British chess champion) and poetry (“He ran the only truly democratic poetry reading venue, where anyone was allowed to get up and read one poem before a guest reader,” said poet Jehane Markham).

Torriano Meeting House, home of John’s Sunday evening poetry sessions, was also home to Hearing Eye, the poetry publishing house he ran with his life partner Susan Johns. Torriano was at first squatted (in 1981) as a home for John, Susan and their daughter Emily Johns (now PN co-editor), then became a community arts centre where many names later to be world-famous had an early outing, including Emma Thompson and… John Hegley. Torriano was also used by many community and political groups, including the ARROW nonviolent direct action group whose activities John occasionally took part in.

John’s support for squatters began in the 1960s, and was part of his practical approach to anarchism. When the land rights group The Land Is Ours occupied a derelict plot owned by Guinness in 1996, and turned it into an experiment in sustainable and cooperative living (calling it “Pure Genius”), John described the South London site as “anarchy in action”, saying that, as a participant, he had “now seen anarchy in practice and, so far, it works.” (Freedom, 18 May 1996)

Having said this, John’s knowledge of the anarchist classics was not as deep as one might expect of a Freedom editor. He had a low opinion of the anarchist classics “with the exception of Kropotkin, who could write, and Malatesta, who could argue…. Bakunin, I could never understand what he was going on about.”

As a Freedom co-editor (1964-1969), John radically broadened the political and cultural reach of the paper.

PN columnist and anarchist poet Jeff Cloves recalls one incident: “In the late ’60s, I chanced to hear the Duke Ellington Band play on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral (with singer Dakota Staton) as a tribute to Martin Luther King. I was delighted that Freedom published a piece I wrote about this free spontaneous event, and utterly dumbfounded when the next time I met John he launched a fierce attack on me for endorsing the ‘cult of personality’ [surrounding Martin Luther King Jr].”

Fellow anarchist poet Dennis Gould remembers: “John’d be chatting away and then he’d confront you with a question, a challenge. Which I could never answer!”

John’s politically ecumenical approach reached its logical conclusion when he took up a position as poetry columnist with the Morning Star, publishing a different poet each week, resulting in the collection Well Versed (2009), now in a second edition. To finish; some characteristic lines from John’s only novel, Supersozzled Nights (1953): “Htuoy [hero of the novel] seemed surprisingly smart and not at all impressed by the news of the publication of some of his writings: ‘It had to happen that way. Books get published. They cannot be played on the violin.’”

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