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Donald Rooum, Anarchist Cartoonist

April 3, 2012
by the gentle author

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.

Freedom Press, Angel Alley, 84b Whitechapel High Street, E1 7QX.
17 Responses leave one →
  1. April 3, 2012

    Thanks for including such a great piece about the rich, long established tradition of free thinking and anarchism in the East End. not talking about it came across was a bit of an elephant in the room. Freedom Press was, after all, founded by no less that Peter Kropotkin, who lived in Whitechapel. Not sure it was at the same address (information on this would be welcome), but there is a lot of of East End political history there.

  2. April 3, 2012

    really great life story, glad you filled in some of the missing bits. Freedom Press was a favourite haunt of mine in the 80′s. It has often seemed to me that it’s the wrong sort of people who hanker after power or maybe power does corrupt once you attain it.
    It’s at Freedom Press that I discovered a book about the Spanish Civil War anarcho syndicalists and their success in organising themselves as agricultural communities. Many anarchists are very peaceful souls at heart!

  3. joan permalink
    April 3, 2012

    Another life well lived. I do hope that the tenement that Donald lives in is within sight of the one previously occupied by Rudolf Rocker. That would have a pleasing symmetry about it.

    I used to go into Freedom books in the 1980s to seek out books and postcards relating to the ‘Catholic anarchist’ Dorothy Day. I still have some of the postcards.

    Best wishes,

    Joan

  4. April 3, 2012

    Wow this is wonderful…possibly the best one yet (but I’m a little biased…) A nice piece for Freedom’s 125th anniversary.

  5. Paul Seed permalink
    April 3, 2012

    I have always admired Donald’s cartoons in Freedom and Peace News. The article does not mention that his Wildcat strip first made it to print in the short-lived Anarchist paper “Wildcat”. (The strip transferred to Freedom only when the paper folded.) I can remember selling the paper at the Windsor Free Festival until the police cleared the site, and I was left alone with a political book stall in the middle of a muddy and waste-strewn stall. Strange days.

  6. Patrick Macrodain permalink
    April 3, 2012

    What a wonderful delightful chap, fabulous cartoonist and a true gentleman, good tidings to you always Donald, I’ve enjoyed Wildcat so much and meeting you on several occasions at Freedom.

    Patrick – London Class War

  7. April 3, 2012

    Such a delightful insight into the life of such a man.

    Private Eye, Daily Mirror, Freedom – some cartoonist! So interesting to read about the conscription circumstances during the war too…

  8. Donald Rooum permalink
    April 3, 2012

    That was quick. You took the pics of me in the yard of Freedom Press Tuesday afternoon and published them Tuesday evening. Blimey!! Some trifling errors of detail, but it would be disproportunate to worry about them. The important thing is, that after all your flattery, my cap won’t fit.

  9. Adrienne permalink
    April 4, 2012

    A lovely read. Isn’t Donald great? Hooray for people who are true to their beliefs!

  10. April 7, 2012

    When I met him on a trip to London to meet the friends and family of the late George Walford, Donald could not have been more kind and friendly to me. It has been many years but that meeting is one of many clear and good memories of that time. Donald even indulged me in a drawing of Wildcat, which I still proudly own.

    Here’s to your next 84 years, Donald!

  11. April 7, 2012

    It is a privilege to know the fine gentleman so well…….”The Honourable granddaughter…..”

  12. Marty permalink
    June 18, 2012

    Donald Rooum won’t remember this, but he had some influence on my when I was at school in the 1960s. I had got interested in anarchism and somehow found my way to his flat in Hampstead for an anarchist meeting. There was something brewing called “The General Strike for Peace”, which, at 16, I thought would be a good idea. Donald advised that we had to be realistic, and that it was unlikely that anything would happen about it. Later I wrote to him, with all sorts of philosophical questions about freedom. Donald wrote back at length, in a beautiful italic hand. I lost his letter years ago but I can still remember what he said: freedom is just freedom from something; if a fireman gets you out of the fire, you are free of danger; if you wash regularly, you will be free of fleas; anarchism just wants to get you as free as you can be; an anarchist society is one in which all relationships are voluntary. I thought that was a good definition. Thanks, Donald.

  13. Phil Gray permalink
    August 17, 2012

    Hello Donald

    I was just reshelving books after decorating and came across my little cache of Wildcats, so thought of you, then Google found you in a matter of seconds. Lovely to see you being lauded on the internet. We decamped to Norwich in 2003, and it looks like we are staying put. If you want to get in touch, I am sure Spitalfields Life will pass on my email to you. Love from me and Willi x

  14. ThorstenV permalink
    January 13, 2013

    Eighty? Four? But … but … that can’t be … can it? Judging from the energy of the cartoons, I would have … well maybe fifty. Max. Someone should go advertise anarchism as the fountain of youth. All the best and keep on pushing.

  15. Eddie Sharpe permalink
    April 6, 2013

    As old as the age of 24 I thought I was an anarchist unti such statements as it meant being free to smoke joints and the constant swearing and their boring company put me off. After an incident I fell out with one of them, a hopeless character and I have no interest in it now, those people come and but Donald has endured. He by himself had changed the way millions felt about the law; just like John Wayne winning the war by himself; at least on film.

  16. DAVID ROOUM permalink
    August 27, 2014

    Donald Rooum you have commented on here so if you see this pls personal message me on the facebook , my details are known for all to see or mail me on runnyowl@yahoo.co.uk. im th grandson of Frank and Joan the ones that wer bobbies in th forsest of dean th e is a bit sectchy,would be super to converse. There is brick dust in my pocket xx

  17. August 21, 2017

    What a great find! Used to use Freedom Bookshop a lot in the ‘old days’ especially when I was a student in the East End. Popped in one day and picked up a couple of Donald’s books and the chap who took my money asked if I wanted the author to sign them. I said yes please and it was Donald himself! I do miss having a bundle of Freedoms to take to events and sell though. Think the last time I did this was at the Burston Rally a few years ago and they all went. You cant lug a PC around quite the same, yes? Salud! @

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