Fred Halliday died today. You can read more about him at Wikipedia. I am not an expert on his life or work and I have (I am somewhat ashamed to admit) never read a single one of his books. Nonetheless, Fred Halliday is someone who, in a small way, had a profound influence on my life.
I saw him speak once at a public lecture in London in the 1970s. I have no recollection what the event was or how I came to be there, but I do remember his lecture - or at least some parts of it - and those memories have stayed with me to this day.
He was an imposing and articulate speaker. I remember disagreeing with some of what he had to say that day but being struck - possibly for the first time in my life - that there were people like him out there in the world who were intelligent and well informed and shared many of my values but who, nevertheless, held different views to my own. Not everyone I disagreed with was a kind of comic book villain like Richard Nixon.
He spoke, as I recall, about international affairs in general and international conflict in particular. He went on to speak on the horrors of political violence and the dangerous attractions of political romanticism. There were, Halliday insisted, a number of quite stringent conditions which ought to be met before anyone considered launching an insurrection against those in power. These was, it should be remembered, at a time when the RAF ("Bader-Meinhof") campaign was in full swing as was, closer to home, that of the Provisional IRA.
We had all watched "Bloody Sunday" (where British troops opened fire on unarmed civilians taking part in a civil-rights demonstration) unfold on our black and white TV screens a couple of years earlier and the Catholic population of Northern Ireland still did not enjoy the same democratic and civil rights as the Protestant majority. A lot of people, even on the left of the Labour Party at that time were prepared perhaps not to explicitly condone the IRA but to extend a certain degree of sympathy towards them. These attitudes were, Halliday argued, misplaced. One argument he supplied, the one that has always stuck in my mind, was that the IRA had not exhausted all democratic avenues before taking up arms. Even in complete tyrannies and certainly in less tyrannical states such as the United Kingdom, there are almost always avenues for protest that do not involve violence. We all, Halliday insisted, have a moral duty to make every possible use of those avenues (however limited they are) before reaching for the AK47s.
Now what I am going to go on to say in the following paragraphs may seem absurdly bathetic, but I decided, after seeing Fred Halliday speak that day, that I would, thenceforth, be more tolerant of and open to different ideas. I also determined that, whenever I found myself in any kind of conflict with authority, I should explore every opportunity for putting my point of view across before abandoning democratic peaceful struggle. I was, I should point out, at no time inclined to armed uprising and all the "struggles" I have been involved in have been far more prosaic than anything Fred Halliday talked about that day.
I am, these days, an older and wiser and less idealistic man, but my blood still boils when I encounter evil, stupidity, and official indifference or connivance.
After a succession of cars had ended upside down in the field next to our house I decided to petition for a "give way" sign at the blind bend before the T-junction opposite the field. When my pleas were ignored, I remembered Halliday's talk and simply stepped up my efforts and petitioned more people. After two years or so the sign was put up and no one has ended upside down in the field since. A small achievement, I admit, but I may have saved someone's life.
When a number of Premium Rate mobile phone companies stole £50 from my family using reverse charge texts (against which there was and still is no general protection if you have a mobile phone) and I subsequently discovered that the most polite thing any informed person could possibly say about the body charged with regulating premium rate, "PhonepayPlus" (then "ICSTIS") is that they are about as much use as a chocolate teapot, I could have simply shrugged my shoulders and got on with life. Instead I remembered Halliday's injunction to explore every possible avenue and began waging (peaceful, polite-ish, and legal) war against this "regulatory" body and the firms it pretends to regulate. Several years on, "La lutte continue", but T-mobile and Vodafone now allow their customers (and, more importantly, their kids) to block incoming unsolicited reverse charge text messages and PhonepayPlus are about to begin insisting that every company in this "industry" has to register with them and satisfy some basic requirements - like having a real address, a bank account that is not in the British Virgin Islands, a company registration number, a named director who does not live (notionally) above a dodgy estate agency in Mauritius etc. One day Virgin, O2, Three, and Orange will capitulate! I like to think that my efforts have played a role, however small, in these changes.
And so it was too when the British Chiropractic Association decided to sue the science writer Simon Singh. I was sorely tempted to help organize a pitchfork and blazing torch wielding gang and head round to their offices, but I recalled Halliday's advice. I'm not a lawyer and couldn't contribute to the legal battle (see Jack on Kent on this side of things here et seq) but I could, and did, help to explore many other avenues (See Nick Cohen on this here) but I could, and did, help to explore many other avenues.
Life often seems to be an unremitting battle against utilities, banks, and commercial companies in general in order to ensure that one is treated honestly and fairly. Again, I never give in. I remember Halliday's words and simply carry on writing letters and sending faxes and emails and making phone calls until they give in. They always do. I have only ever had to go to the Small Claims court once. I won.
Perhaps all this makes me a bit of a sad git who you wouldn't wish to sit next to at a dinner party, but perhaps it also means that I shall leave the world a very slightly better place than I found it.
As Edmund Burke once said "Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little". Fred Halliday did a great deal in his life but, unbeknown to him, also played a small but essential role in my life and in my attempts to avoid the mistake described by Burke.
This tribute to Fred Halliday first appeared on Bad Reason