Stories from the green crates: exploring Steve Kitson’s papers

There are two green, plastic crates full of papers sat on the end of my desk. They smell a little damp. My office smells a little damp. The papers are squeezed so tightly into the boxes that I fear for their integrity whenever I gently tease one of the plastic folders free to examine its contents. That tentative touch fights other tendencies too – I am excited to explore the folders, to read the papers, to uncover the stories they tell and the pictures they paint of the past.

The boxes of Steve Kitson's papers.

The boxes of Steve Kitson’s papers.

The crates contain the papers that Steve Kitson kept from the early 1980s [and I thank his sister, Amandla, for lending them to me]. They offer a new insight into the life of a key member of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group and the group’s activities in the first years of its existence.

Steve unwittingly played a key role in the formation of City Group. In December 1981 he flew to South Africa to visit his father, David, in gaol. Steve had made this trip each year since he turned 16 in 1973. This time was different and, on 6 January 1982, just as he was leaving the prison in Pretoria after visiting his father, Steve was detained and interrogated by the South African authorities.  Out of the Free Steve Kitson Campaign, organised by his family and friends in London to demand his release, the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group was formed.

The papers in the crates mostly cover the period from 1983 until 1987 (although there are a few papers relating to Steve’s education and employment that predate that). They contain the papers that Steve retained about City Group’s early anti-apartheid campaigns, along with several campaigns that it was forced to run in defence of its own members and their right to protest. There are papers here about the Trafalgar 9 Defence Campaign of 1983 and the South African Embassy Picket Campaign of 1984-85 that challenged the Metropolitan Police’s first attempt to ban protests outside the embassy. The papers chart the growing tensions between City Group and the national Anti-Apartheid Movement, and the campaign to reinstate David Kitson’s fellowship at Ruskin College (after the promised funding was withdrawn by his union, TASS).

Non-Stop Picket rota for 3 - 9 May 1986 (Source: Steve Kitson papers)

Non-Stop Picket rota for 3 – 9 May 1986 (Source: Steve Kitson papers)

There are also papers from the very earliest days of the Non-Stop Picket in 1986, including copies of weekly rotas. These rotas, although single sheets of paper, structured and organised in a grid formation, serve as a clue to the dedication and dynamic activity that sustained the Picket. They offer a clue to the people who quickly emerged as trustworthy and reliable in the early days of the Picket (some, of course, had already been City Group activists for several years, others had joined once the Picket started). Incidentally, we have interviewed about half the people named on this rota – it indicates that several of them were involved in the Picket and pledged to appear on the rota far earlier than they remember.

A shopping list written on the back of a Non-Stop Picket rota (Source: Steve Kitson's papers)

A shopping list written on the back of a Non-Stop Picket rota (Source: Steve Kitson’s papers)

Although a box of papers contains all these clues about such dynamic ‘non-stop’ activism, it is quite static and still by comparison. The faint odour of damp somehow exaggerates this. There is always the risk that we interpret ‘archived’ papers out of their original context; but here what risks being lost is the pace at which that context was experienced.

Recently, I have been thinking about how time spent on the Non-Stop Picket was always fitted around the rhythms of participants’ lives. In the folders of Steve Kitson’s papers are pages torn from his diary that illustrate how he fitted a commitment to the Picket around the demands of his career and other interests. The printout of the rota too offers a hint of how entangled picket-time and other aspects of picketers’ everyday lives could become – written in green ink on the back of the rota, in Steve’s handwriting, is a shopping list for groceries.

Over the coming months, as I explore the contents of these green crates more, and the damp smell dissipates in my office, I will recover more stories and further analysis from Steve Kitson’s papers and share them here.

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
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