PETER FROST meets an old comrade with another story of the secret war against Apartheid.
I first met John Preston in the ironically named Imperial Way Watford more that forty years ago when this was Britain’s hotbed of Communist Propaganda.
“Farleigh Press in Watford was the print shop set up by the Communist Party to produce political material and to make some money at the same time.” John, who worked there from 1967 to the 1980’s, told me.
“We did commercial printing too to help fund the political work. Perhaps the job you would least expect was printing the Royal Command Performance Programme every year. We printed the normal run and then a very few specials for the Queen and the royal box. Her copy was printed on hand made paper and bound with purple silken cords.
“We left the adverts out of her copy; just blank spaces. I bet the big companies who paid to sponsor the royal event didn’t know her majesty never got to see their ads.” John chuckled.
“It still makes me smile. What would the Queen had made of the fact that the board of directors of her programme printers included such prominent subversives as Johnny Gollan, Reuben Falber, and Len Cook who was General Manager at the Daily Worker and then at the Morning Star?”
“We printed our share of alternative stuff too in the swinging sixties and seventies. We printed early copies of Oz magazine before our rather shocked communist lawyers suggested perhaps we shouldn’t. We helped launch Tony Elliot’s Time Out.
“The most important work we did of course was all kinds of political publications for the Communist Party and for other organisations and groupings. Comment, Country Standard, Challenge for the Young Communist League, Marxism Today there are just too many for me to remember.
“Some stand out. We printed Palme Dutt’s Labour Monthly and countless jobs for the peace movement, for CND, for all kinds of Trade Unions. Big jobs came along at election times. We printed large numbers of manifestos and individual communist election addresses.
“We produced the English Language editions of World Marxist Review. The content came from Prague and when we had printed it copies went to embassies and to liberation movement offices, large and small all over London, Britain and the World.
“We even printed stuff for the Chinese. They would come to see the presses and kindly leave packets of Chinese cigarettes for the workers. The tobacco smelled awful. Sadly we never got the contract for Mao’s Little Red Book – that would have been some print order.
“We printed materials for the Greek Communist Party at the time of the Colonels and for Cypriots fighting for the liberation of their island.
“The recent publication of Ken Keable’s wonderful Book London Recruits, the secret war against Apartheid reminded me of the jobs we did discretely for the ANC. At last I can talk about them now.
“Some of the materials, leaflets and pamphlets those brave young volunteers smuggled into South Africa in their false bottomed suitcases were printed in Watford at Farleigh Press. I know, I organised the printing” said John proudly.
“I well remember a four page ANC leaflet with details of how to make a Molotov Cocktail. Len Cook at the Morning Star organised the printing and pledged me to absolute secrecy.
“We printed thousands of copies, all on a very thin Onion Skin Airmail Paper. It was awful to run – like printing on Rizlas.
“I had to ensure that every scrap of waste and every spoiled copy was destroyed. I took them home and burnt them in my garden.
“The finished leaflets I delivered to Len Cook at the Morning Star building in Farringdon Road from where they went straight to the ANC to be smuggled by the London Recruits into South Africa.
“Forty years on it is great to discover what happened to some of those important printing jobs we did. They helped to change the world and to build Mandela’s Rainbow Nation.”
This article first published in the Morning Star, 2012