Donald Rooum, Anarchist Cartoonist
Donald Rooum looks at ease in Angel Alley, Whitechapel – surrounded by images of his fellow Anarchists and Free Thinkers – in this hotbed of East End Radicalism which has been home to the Freedom Press since 1942, almost as long as Donald has been an Anarchist. Yet in spite of the fearsome reputation acquired by Anarchists, Donald possesses a quiet nature, almost unassuming, and he has not been on a demonstration since 1963 when he was framed by the police for having a brick in his pocket. A brick which the police inadvertently – and famously – forgot to plant. It amounted to a national scandal at the time. Since then, Donald prefers to stay at home and seek his political influence indirectly by working on his long-running cartoon series, leaving it to younger Anarchists to take to the street. As he explained to me, “Someone’s got to stay at home and mind the shop.” You have heard of the Armchair Socialist? At eighty-four years old, Donald is the Carpet Slipper Anarchist and he makes no apology for it.
As we walked through the crowds in Whitechapel High St, Donald stopped occasionally to let clusters of people go by before advancing steadily along the pavement, keeping his body set in the direction he was going but turning his head slowly with independent motion, like a tortoise, taking in the life of the street around him. Arriving at his flat up six flights of stairs in an old yet well kept tenement in Stepney, Donald’s place looked as if he had moved in last week even though he has lived there fifteen years. Books spilled from the bookshelves that were the only furniture in his sparsely furnished dwelling and the drawing board where he continues to turn out his regular flow of cartoons was the sole focus of activity.
“I’ve only lived in London fifty-eight years, I came here in 1954 after I finished college in Bradford, qualifying as a commercial artist. I came to seek a job and I got one within a week in an advertising agency. I came to Holborn because the Anarchist Bookshop was there and I found lodgings close by. I stayed with a fellow Anarchist and then I was joined by a girl from Bradford. We took new lodgings together and stayed together for twenty-seven years and had four children, one of whom died at two years old. We lived in Gospel Oak and the children went to school in Camden.
I first visited London in 1944. There was a shortage of hop pickers, so there was a government scheme to get schoolboys to help with the harvest in Kent, and on my day off I came up to Speakers’ Corner and heard an Anarchist speak, and I was impressed with what he was saying. At that time, I had become disillusioned with the Communist League. My father was skilled mechanical worker and he had been a trade union organiser during the depression. He went to the union two evenings each week, one for the regular branch meeting and the other to hand out unemployment pay, until the war brought full employment.
Against my will, I was conscripted at age nineteen. My mother wouldn’t allow me to continue as a Conscientious Objector because she as being pressured by her sister. “You wouldn’t let him play with toy soldiers when he was a boy and this is the result” she said,“and now he’s frightened of being a soldier!” The truth is I was more frightened of my aunt than I was of the army. Because I was known to be an Anarchist, I was spared from posting abroad.
In 1963, I was on a demonstration against a visit by the King of Greece, when plain clothes policemen arrested eight people who happened to be in the crowd. They charged us all with carrying pieces of brick for use as weapons. The policeman who arrested me, Detective Sergeant Harold Challoner, said he found the brick in my pocket but he forgot to put it there and consequently forensics found no trace of a brick. Surely policemen are taught to make sure the evidence is as close to the truth as possible? I was acquitted and the others were found guilty but pardoned. Challoner was charged with conspiracy to pervert the cause of justice, and the other three policemen were found guilty while Challoner himself was declared mentally ill.
I only moved to the East End in 1997, but the Freedom Press acquired a printing press in Angel Alley since 1944 and I’ve been connected with them since I first moved to London in 1954. At first, I came down to the printers as a volunteer, wrapping bundles of “Freedom” in newspaper. They were printing letterpress then. It was run by anarchist Philip Sansom, and two people worked with him who had been there since they had been printing the “Jewish Express” before “Freedom” came along in 1942. When Freedom Press took it over, part of the deal was that Mr Narod, a rival printer who lent us the money, took all the Hebrew type so that he had a monopoly of it in the East End. Eventually, we paid a lot of money to have those old letterpress machines hauled off.
It wasn’t until quite late in my development that I became a cartoonist, though I had drawn cartoons at college and as a child. I sent six a week to the Daily Mirror at first, out of which they published two a fortnight, and the ones they didn’t publish I sent on to other publications like Private Eye. I started drawing a regular cartoon in “Peace News” in 1962 and I’ve done it ever since, on and off. I’ve drawn Wildcat in “Freedom” since 1980 and Sprite in “The Skeptic” since 1987. I don’t draw cartoons on spec anymore.
Now I am the grand old man of Freedom Press, because nobody else remembers anything any more than twenty years ago. When I was sixteen, I thought a free society would be easy to get. Now I don’t think things are going to be easy, but the civil rights movement has been good. There have been improvements. There’s no longer any law against homosexuality and no longer any corporal punishment in schools. There was an awful attitude that people who weren’t white were inferior. When I first came to London in 1944, I phoned up a boarding house and they asked me to come round in person, because there was a no coloureds policy. To me, Anarchism is an ethical stance, a point of view which regards coercion of any kind as wrong.”
Donald never told me that he edited “Freedom” for many years, that he became lecturer in typography at the London College of Printing, that he took an Open University Degree in Life Sciences and was elected a member of the Institute of Biology at eighty. Donald Rooum’s endeavours have spanned the political, the literary, the artistic and the scientific, yet it is in the levity of cartoons that he has found his ideal medium.
Donald Rooum, as a twenty-four year old art student in Bradford in 1952, painted by Frank Lisle.