Few Americans know of Colin Ward. When I try to identify him as a “British Paul Goodman” I often receive blank stares from anyone born after the Sixties. So how to succinctly define a man who straddles so many classifications? It doesn’t help to say he was England’s most famous anarchist. Visions of broken windows, black beards and snarling stares, or worse, are conjured up in the mind of the person I am trying to enlighten, defeating the whole endeavor.
By trial and error I have come to saying something like this: Colin Ward was a British practical visionary, in turns an architect, teacher, urbanist, historian and always a journalist and popularizer of a DIY approach to transforming the environment and bettering one’s life as free of the state as possible. The eyes of my listener may express a quizzical look, but this is better than eyes rolling in their sockets or shifting to focus at a point some distance beyond my left ear. This makes him sound like a libertarian to most Americans, I grant, and that is a terrible disservice to his memory. So if I get no response, I deliver the punch line and mention that he was a communist anarchist, in the tradition of Peter Kropotkin.
For me, Ward is like a character out of William Morris’ News from Nowhere calmly stepping into the 20th Century bearing competence and with a mission to instruct us for the future. Ward’s writings, whether on self-built housing, community control of land (and water), adventure playgrounds, human scale urbanism, alternative education, or any number of other concerns, always remained positive and enlightening. He was an anarchist devoid of rants and manifestoes. He was however secure in his opinions and unimpressed with so-called expertise to the contrary. When confronted with arguments that belittled the efforts of ordinary people to assert control over their lives, he was sharp with his retort but never abrasive.
I personally saw his repartee while he was sitting on a panel with a representative of Blair’s government, a Cabinet Minister for charities, or something like that. He quietly devastated that arrogant “public servant.” I attended that public meeting by chance while visiting England in 1998 and afterward walked Colin to his train and introduced myself as his teenage US Agent for Anarchy, that remarkable monthly he published throughout the Sixties.
The recently published edition of two-dozen of his essays provides a good overview of his work. Colin Ward lived long enough (he was 84 when he died) to help with the selection of essays and review the editors’ introduction. The book, well Ward, deserves a full-on review. Stay tuned.