It’s a sun-splashed Tuesday morning 72 hours from Peterloo day. I’m at the Kim by the Sea café in regenerated Hulme.
As the 200-year anniversary of Manchester’s great dark day approaches, there’s an uncertain look in the eyes of the man who may have done more than anybody else to make sure it is properly commemorated.
“Well, I’m frazzled,” is all Paul Fitzgerald – aka ‘Polyp’, cartoonist, prop-maker, agit-prop trouble-maker and founder of the Peterloo Memorial Campaign – will say. “It’s been seven-day weeks. There was the book, the memorial, and we have a project called the Six Acts [of which more later]. So it’s a sense of anticipation at the moment.”
Barely a mile away, in the small paved acre between the forecourt of the Convention Centre and back of the Midland Hotel, Manchester City Council’s million pound monument to the protesters cut down in 1819 has been quietly and unceremoniously unveiled. No fanfare, no fuss, Jeremy Deller’s concentric hill of steps leading up to a speaker’s platform has been denounced as a public relations disaster on the part of a municipality too arrogant to properly consult on the proposal it hijacked.
How exactly are we supposed to get up there, ask disability campaigners of the supposedly ‘interactive’ monument to peoples’ empowerment? Inaccessible to many, it may stand as a testament to the lack of democracy in modern day Manchester – at least until such time as the magic elves currently knocking up an alternative to the Irish backstop come up with a plan to make a miniature stepped mountain that is wheelchair-friendly.
Of that furore, it should be noted, Polyp is saying nothing. Given that negotiations are ongoing to rectify the cock-up, he has no desire to comment on an issue about which he says he can see all sides. Instead, his mind is fixed firmly on the significance of the week’s events. “What an interesting time for the 200th anniversary,” he twinkles, sidestepping the issue. “At this moment of democratic crisis, we look back and remember Peterloo. Maybe in the end there will be some sort of renewal to come out of this.” There’s a twitch of white beard. “That romantic notion that the past will come to the rescue of the present…that’s quite a beautiful idea.”
What with the commemorations – a huge audience-participatory theatre piece which took place three times on August 16 – and a host of other events scheduled for the weekend, he has good reason to think to himself: job done. A key chapter in the nation’s social history has finally been written into popular memory.
My own first encounter with Polyp occurred while on the trail of a shadowy terrorist cell who, in the late 1990s, were targeting the commercial heart of Manchester. From the vantage point of today’s tinselly consumerist utopia it can be difficult to imagine a time when the Christmas Liberation Front could wreak such havoc in department stores across the city. It was an age when the manager of Debenhams, John Lewis or Kendals could have his day thrown into freewheeling chaos of a November morning, on receipt of a coded fax or phone call giving him an hour to take down his decorations or have them removed by CLF Volunteers. Indeed, George Monbiot’s 2001 treatise on the corporate takeover of Britain, Captive State, opens with a CLF plot to kidnap Manchester’s town hall Santa in the dead of night.
Having tracked him down to a smoke-filled backroom of The Britons Protection pub, Polyp gave me an interview which lent rousing voice to the anti-consumerist struggle just as he simultaneously denied ever having been a member of the paramilitary wing. It’s from such good, angry hearts as his that good things like the Peterloo Memorial Campaign surely flow.
“I’ve always been attracted to things that people don’t want to talk about, or do anything about,” he says now. “If people don’t want to talk about something I think ‘What’s going on there?’ ‘What’s the tension here?’. That’s the link between the CLF and the Peterloo campaign, I suppose.”
He’d drawn since he was a kid (“cool monsters on a skinhead’s exercise book could spare me aggro”) so after uni and a job with special needs kids he settled in Hulme and began cartooning for New Internationalist magazine. Soon he was scrawling for CND, Friends of the Earth, and Ethical Consumer. There was a sideline in prop-making – bent playing fields for Christian Aid, carbon-addicted ‘frack-heads’ for Friends of the Earth – and rarely a dearth of hairbrained activism to put his mind to.
“It was a thing about consumerism, using Tiananmen Square as a metaphor…barcodes in the tank tracks and so on…and there was something in the back of my head as I was drawing it. Tiananmen Square…Peterloo…they’re the same thing. So then it was a just a logical step to think ‘I know why there isn’t a memorial to Tiananmen Square but what’s Manchester’s excuse?’. It doesn’t make any sense.”
In typical style a request was made to the Radisson Hotel, on the site of the former Free Trade Hall, on the side of which was fixed a small blue plaque noting Henry Hunt’s speech and the subsequent dispersal by the military – nothing about the protesters slain on the day. Couldn’t a more fitting memorial be arranged? Radisson said no, whereupon on August 16, 2007, Polyp and a band of fellow troublemakers took it upon themselves to knock up a red plaque remembering the victims, invite the press, shin up a ladder, stick it over the blue one, and so fire the starting pistol on the long campaign for a permanent memorial in the city.
“About ten minutes after the cameras had left a gust of wind caught it from behind,” he says now of that. “It flew like a frisbee across the street so we hammered it into the pavement and people laid flowers by it. It was there for a week.”
Now, so many years on, there is a graphic novel, produced in partnership with wife Eva Schlunke and historian Robert Poole. Maus, Watchmen, Gerry Haylock’s old Doctor Who comic strips from the 1960s, each has inspired Polyp’s telling of Manchester’s foundational tales, and copies have been flying off the shelves. As an illustrator he says he’s proud that his own voice isn’t to be found in it. A 15-page edition has gone free to every school in the UK.
“A graphic novel was a stretch for me,” he concedes, though enthusiasm is hardly far from the surface. “The moment of the attack is the centre pages of the book. It’s a kind of homage to those old engravings done about the massacre, those artists who laboured for hours and hours on end. Or the handkerchiefs the Radicals carried…you can see one in the People’s History Museum, that Rowe, the editor of the Manchester Observer, commissioned. Hundreds and hundreds of faces, fucking amazing stuff.”
With today’s milestone reached, his cares are now dominated by a new, entirely related project called the Six Acts, with members of the public invited to turn up for an ‘illegal picnic’ outside G-Mex. The idea behind it is a “digital brainstorm” intended to crowd-source ideas encouraging us to completely rethink democracy.
“Having been part of the so-called social justice movement I’ve never been particularly of the left,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of flawed thinking going on about what motivates people’s behaviour. That’s partly why I think the Six Acts is so important. The need for fresh ideas. We’ve got to look for new ways for how we make decisions. This increasing polarization, where do people think that’s going to lead? The one thing that’s missing from today’s politics is scepticism. People’s willingness to question their core beliefs.”
He’ll no doubt rail that this article should never have been about him, that it should have led on the Six Acts, that the council should be left to sort out their messes, and that there should only be one focus on August 16. All of that is covered elsewhere, and thank God for that. It’s worth recording, though, where all this energy comes from, and that – more or less, as is the way of these things – there is one man we should thank for his dedication to the cause, and for reminding us of significance of people’s right to protest, be they the Blanketeers or the Christmas Liberation Front.