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Nottingham's Most Peaceful Publishers, Spokesman Books

11 October 16 words: James Walker
"Russell facilitates all sorts of discussion in China, including topics which might otherwise be regarded as taboo, such as homosexuality"
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photo: David Baird

Give us a brief biog of Bertrand Russell…
Bertie was a mathematician, philosopher, lifelong political activist, and an aristocrat. He was a Nobel Laureate for Literature, and wrote some seventy books – most of which are in print and appearing in new translations around the world. He died in 1970, aged 97, and his last public message was about the Middle East: “The tragedy of the people of Palestine is that their country was “given” by a foreign power to another people for the creation of a new state.”

When was the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation set up?
The Russell Foundation was established in 1963, shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, in which Bertie intervened in a way that gave Khrushchev an opportunity to step back from the nuclear brink with Kennedy. The Foundation maintains a focus on nuclear disarmament, as well as peace, human rights, and social justice, which were all priorities for Russell.  

How is it funded?
Russell sold his library and extensive archive of papers to fund the establishment of the Foundation. The Foundation also received donations, including works of art. In 1966, Alan Sillitoe contributed proceedings from the stage premiere of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in London for the benefit of the Foundation “in support of the people of Vietnam”. At that time, the Foundation was preparing the International War Crimes Tribunal about Vietnam, which was the first ‘Russell’ Tribunal. Nowadays, Russell’s royalties help fund the Foundation’s work, together with income from our own publishing under the Spokesman Books imprint.    

How did the Russell Foundation end up in Nottingham?
It was established in London in 1963. In 1968, it moved to Nottingham – which was much cheaper – where Ken Coates was based. By this time, Ken was working closely with Bertie. Russell Press was established in Nottingham in 1968, and shared premises with the Foundation, first in Goldsmith Street, then in an old mill on Gamble Street – Bertrand Russell House – off Alfreton Road. When Russell Press moved to Old Basford in the late nineties, the Foundation accompanied it.

One of the aims of Russell Press was to provide cost-effective printing to the voluntary sector. Is this still the case?
Russell Press printed for the Foundation’s campaigns as well as for a range of other voluntary organisations. For example, the Manifesto of the Gay Liberation Front was printed in Gamble Street in 1971. That proved a very influential initiative. It continues to print for a range of voluntary organisations as well as commercial clients. Yes, we adapt to survive, particularly by investing in good kit for magazine and book production. There’s a thriving publishing scene in Nottingham and the wider region, which helps keep the presses turning. Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature and the Creative North [Basford is part of Nottingham’s Creative Three-Quarters] point the way forward.

How did you become the editor of The Spokesman?
The Spokesman, which is the journal of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, has been published from Nottingham since 1970. Ken Coates, the previous editor, invited me to work at the Foundation in 1980, when the European Nuclear Disarmament (END) campaign was kicking off. He said Ken Fleet, secretary of the Foundation, was buried in post about END, and could I help dig him out.

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photo: David Baird

Give us a rundown of a typical day…
A couple of hours editing or writing sets up the day. The Spokesman journal, as a quarterly, imposes its own timetable. Talk with colleagues, delve in the archives, meet visitors and tour the Russell Press, walk in Vernon Park. Happily, days vary quite a bit. At the moment, we’ve just finished preparing for a big conference in Berlin, organised by the International Peace Bureau, where they are interested in socially useful production and conversion from military manufacturing, as featured in the current issue of The Spokesman. Our main criterion for publication in The Spokesman is interesting content. That’s the key to Russell’s growing readership.

How many trips do you make a year?
I usually make two or three trips a year representing the Foundation. Recently, I visited the Russell Archives at McMaster University in Canada, and also attended the annual meeting of the Bertrand Russell Society in Rochester, New York State, where I spoke about Russell in China. The Russell Society would like to stage an event in London in 2017, and we’re keen to help.

China isn’t a country that naturally springs to mind when you think of Bertrand Russell…
In September 2015, I visited at the invitation of Commercial Press, who have published Russell in China more or less continuously since 1920. He is very popular there, with History of Western Philosophy on high school and university reading lists. Apparently, Russell facilitates all sorts of discussion in China, including topics which might otherwise be regarded as taboo, such as homosexuality.

Commercial Press are part of China Publishing Group, who send people to study at Nottingham Trent University. These young publishers were supportive of Nottingham’s bid for UNESCO City of Literature, and sent photographs of themselves at various locations around Beijing, reading These Seven, the collection by local authors supporting the successful bid, which Russell Press printed and stores.  

Russell resonates strongly in Japan too…
In 2011, the year of the Fukushima nuclear reactor explosion, I went to Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the annual conference commemorating the atomic bombings of those cities. At the Peace Museum in Nagasaki, I felt someone watching me. Then I saw Bertie sucking his pipe. He was included in the display about the Russell-Einstein Manifesto of 1955, which gave rise to the Pugwash movement of scientists and others, which continues to highlight the threats posed by nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. In his discussion of the Manifesto, Russell noted the radioactive fallout which killed Japanese fishermen aboard The Lucky Dragon, following the US hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean in 1952. A Japanese Nobel Laureate was among the original signatories of the manifesto.      

You’ve debated issues regarding Trident in The Spokesman but the government recently voted in favour of renewal by 355 votes. How do you feel about this?
I’ve just returned from holidays in Ireland where they’re commemorating the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule. At that time, the Royal Navy used to shelter in Bantry Bay. In the twenties, Ireland won its independence at great cost. Neutral Ireland has no nuclear weapons and few conventional ones. In 1947, it declined the invitation to join the Nuclear Armed Treaty Organisation that is NATO. So the UK position is anomalous in spending tens of billions of pounds to threaten mass death at the bidding of the US, which owns the missiles and runs NATO, to which the nukes are dedicated.

The current Vanguard submarines are clapped out, as Able Seaman Willie McNeilly reported in 2015, and the new ones will be vulnerable to detection and assault by underwater drones and other technologies. Young sailors are reluctant to join the Submarine Service for a variety of reasons. So, for a range of reasons, Parliament may well have to revisit this matter as well as the 1958 agreement between the US and the UK which governs nuclear weapons co-operation.  

Spokesman Books website
Russell Press website

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