Argus title : Rebel who won’t ease up at 80
John Catt is 80 and a peace campaigner. He is also a former trade unionist and a life long campaigner against racism and other injustice.
I first heard his name just 6 weeks ago, when I was preparing to write about local demonstrations against EDO in Brighton.
The EDO plant in Brighton is part of the US owned EDO Corporation which supplies weapons components to governments around the world. The local plant makes bomb release and interface equipment which has reportedly been used in Iraq.
Over the past 15 months, a small group of peace campaigners has been picketing the factory, usually on a Thursday afternoon.
The protests have been non-violent though often noisy. The campaigners say their primary aim is to make Brighton people – and the firm’s employees – aware of the deadly use to which the components are put.
John Catt has been there since the start, often with his sketchbook, doing quick pen and ink drawings of whatever he sees. I was reminded of my pacifist father who also combined a passion for politics and painting.
Theirs is a generation of life long peace campaigners which is slowly dying out. These are men and women who either fought in the 2nd World War or experienced occupation. Some were pacifists. Most experienced deprivation. Those experiences fuel their desire for peace and justice. They are a generation that knows at first hand what war and killing means.
John is a ‘character’, larger than life. Stories about him abound. For example, in the 1970s he regularly protested about racism. On one occasion, in the mid 1970s, a major demonstration had been called outside a London Police Station. Unbeknown to John, the organisers cancelled it.
He turned up, saw nobody else there, and to the astonishment of the bemused police decided to protest on his own with a home made placard.
He never missed a single demonstration against the Vietnam War. Three decades on, he has attended all of the protests against the Iraq War.
He was arrested for obstruction at the EDO demonstration which took place on Thursday 31st May. He refused a caution, and denies the charge.
I met John in his peaceful house in Withdean. It looks as most Withdean houses do, except that it has posters against the Iraq War and EDO pinned in its windows. Inside, there is a comfortable jumble of papers, books and pictures. John’s paintings and drawings are everywhere. Sketches of demonstrations spill across the table.
For someone of his years, he is remarkably healthy, though a bit hard of hearing. He moves a little stiffly, but otherwise appears well. He attributes his rude health to daily sea swimming when he lived in Hove.
As we looked out his carefully tended garden, surrounded by tall trees, John told me something about himself.
He has always been an activist, but following his wife’s death, had been living a quieter life. He laughs “This illegal Iraq war changed all that. It’s brought a lot of us old folk back on the scene. Brought us out of mothballs.“
John was not born to privilege. His mother was one of 10 children born to a contract farmer in Cambridgeshire. Her father died when she was small and her mother brought up the children alone, scratching a living as she could.
His mother moved to London and somehow found a job in telecommunications. It was there she met his father, an army officer returning from the 1st World War. They married in the 1920s and moved to Shoreham, where his father opened a bookmakers. John was born there is 1925.
John’s father was a violent man who drank heavily. He was unsuccessful in business and in 1936 was declared bankrupt. The family became homeless and John’s mother became sole breadwinner.
His father left when he was 13 and his mother was forced to bring up the family alone. She was given her old job back and commuted to London, working 7 days a week. She was, he says “as strong as an ox”. Strength and self reliance are important to him.
John joined up in 1943 when he was 18. He was destined for intelligence work, but fell foul of officers in charge. “I was rebellious” he says quietly..
He was sent to France in a forward supply unit for the Air Force. The operation was dangerous and without glamour. Everyone in the squad was seen as a rebel. Most were Irish. He says wryly “I think the army thought we were expendable”.
His experiences in the forces increased his self- reliance, and also his faith in ordinary people. It didn’t make him less rebellious or critical of leaders. Shortly before he left the army he blew the whistle on post-war racketeering by an officer. “There was a lot of that when the war ended.” he says.
After he was demobbed, he studied book illustration then did a range of unskilled jobs.
Increasingly, he worked in the building industry and became involved in trade union work. He was largely self-taught, learning on the job and by experience. Eventually, he set up his own small business. He moved to Hove in 1981 and to Withdean in 1999.
He was never comfortable with being a ‘businessman’. “I never really wanted to employ anyone else though I worked with other skilled craftsmen. Really I was a self employed builder and craftsman”.
He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1946 and remained a critical member until the 1970s. He remembers when the CPGB used to meet at the old Fish Market in Brighton and when Harry Pollitt, the legendary General Secretary, spoke in Hove’s Church Road. I gained the impression John wasn’t so good at obeying CPGB orders either. “I’ve been a rebel all my life” he grins.
He married in 1956 and had 2 children. Linda, his daughter, is a lawyer and is also a local peace campaigner. He speaks of her with obvious affection and pride. She too was arrested on 31st May 2005.
He is a tall handsome man who speaks fluently and passionately about the things in which he believes. “The majority of people are good.” he said “There’s so much evil in the world, but people can fight against it. When we are struggling for good, we can never be beaten, never be destroyed.”
Only once did he falter and that was when he spoke about his wife, who died of leukaemia some 5 years ago. He showed me a portrait he had done of her in the 1960s, much influenced by Gauguin, an artist he loves. She appears statuesque and calm, strong and resolute.
He said “She refused further blood transfusions. She wanted to die at home and she did. She had will and spirit and resolve. ” These are words he uses often.
I asked him whether he believes in God. He hesitated and then said “Yes. And I believe in what Jesus said.” He added “I think he was the best communist of all….he wanted justice for people and they tortured him, like those people in Iraq and other places, but he won. He had will and spirit”.
For legal reasons I can’t comment on John Catt’s arrest because the case is yet to come to court. What is certain is that over the last few months tensions have risen between police and demonstrators.
EDO recently applied for a High Court Injunction to radically restrict the size and scope of demonstrations. The interim injunction was imposed, but the conditions were far less onerous than had been requested.
There is a view amongst some campaigners that policing strategy changed shortly before EDO made the application to the High Court. As one campaigner – who wished to remain anonymous – said “In the past, demonstrations were generally fairly policed. But, just before the company went for the injunction, this changed. Policing became menacing and aggressive. It was as if they wanted to justify the injunction….I’d be concerned for demonstrators’ safety there (at the EDO factory) now.”
The police strongly assert that they have all along neutrally and impartially upheld the law. They say criticism of their tactics is unjustified and stress they police such events fairly but, nonetheless, robustly. Their full statement was published by the Argus on Thursday (sub-editor: please ask Michael Beard whether he wants the last sentence kept in).
What is certain is that there is an urgent need for senior police officers and campaigners to talk together about safe organisation of demonstrations and fair and appropriate policing – and for local politicians to take greater responsibility for what is happening at the EDO site.
Brighton & Hove is, after all, an International Peace Messenger City.