By Ben Pensant
Some men are born great. Some have greatness thrust upon them. And some are neither but achieve both by standing in the gravy-stained backroom of a provincial pub giving never-ending lectures on the Poplar Rates Rebellion to three students, two disgraced geography teachers, a comatose baker and his dead whippet.
Readers of a certain age will instantly recognise that this is what hard left activism looked like in the ’80s and ’90s, and weep for that halcyon era of stale beer and youthful anarchy. Because as thrilling as it was watching St. Jezza transform Labour from a mediocre party with half a chance of beating the Tories to a deeply unpopular one with more chance of winning Britain’s Got Talents, the militant left haven’t always had the luxury of a major political movement with which to spread socialism, create a fairer society, and steal people’s houses.
Back then, the closest those of us on the frontline got to power and influence was flogging ‘Friend of ALF’ and ‘Murdoch’s a puff’ badges at Grey’s Monument on rain-lashed Tuesday afternoons. Sure, the contemporary intersectional left may be just as principled as their forefathers, they may share their love of push-bikes and moth-eaten cardies, and may have a similar penchant for loudly denouncing fascism while defending the most fascistic regimes on earth. But few modern radicals have experienced the white-knuckle thrill of educating braindead shoppers and cider-drenched tramps on the importance of the Salvadorian Pheasant Uprising while dodging a relentless barrage of fast-food and hockle hurled by all manner of thugs, pensioners, and police officers.
I was still a teenager when the agit-prop bug bit, earning my stripes after several afternoons spent waving placards, harassing motorists, and dodging toecaps from Krappa-clad soccer ‘casuals’. But it wasn’t long before I was warmly welcomed into the higher echelons of Newcastle’s hard-left activist scene, becoming a full-time member of the Co-operative Union of North Tyneside Socialists. Within weeks I’d completed a series of complex initiation rituals which included pissing on Anthony Lambton’s grave, drawing a cock on the Duke of Northumbria’s Range Rover, and vowing to strangle my Uncle Keith for once laughing at gap-toothed scouse Tory Jimmy Tarbrush.
Fortunately, the very real prospect of jail was a risk worth taking as I’d heard beguiling whispers that the lucky few who successfully completed these gruelling tasks often received exotic rewards, such as all-expenses-paid trips to Havana or sightseeing tours of Barcelona and Seville. Needless to say, I was on cloud nine when I learnt that my prize was free entry to a four-hour lecture on the Carnation Revolution at the Dunston Excelsior.
To be honest I remember little of the speech, though I’m certain that whatever form of direct action those brave evaporated milk workers took against their greedy bosses was entirely justifed. But the reason the details have slipped from my memory is because it was on that frosty, grey afternoon that I met the man who would change my life, and by extension British history, forever.
I won’t wax too lyrical about the unimpeachable greatness of Bob Sanderson because it’s old hat to those of us who knew, loved, and were regularly touched up by the man. Needless to say with the Corbyn project temporarily on ice while vile Tory-in-disguise Ken Starmer inadvertently paves the way for the Angel of Islington’s stunning return, there has never been a better time to remember Bob. And make no mistake, it’s the least he deserves, having made his mark scrapping in the ideological trenches long before it became fashionable, putting both Newcastle and the ale-houses he was regularly barred from firmly on the militant map.
Born in South Africa in the ’50s, Robert Abraham Sanderson was educated in Joannasberg, experiencing the horrors of apartheid first hand via his sugar baron father and the Sandersons’ trio of black housekeepers. After cashing in his trust fund and disowning his family he spent his twenties travelling the world seeking out revolutionary groups, paying particular attention to the nascent, less-trumpeted radical movements springing up in Bangkok and Amsterdamn.
When those insurrections fizzled out he settled in London, becoming an apprentice to legendary Workers Revolutionary League firebrand Jerry Healy and spending the next few years successfully expanding both his activism and property portfolio. Sadly, after a disagreement with his mentor Bob was forced to leave the WRL under a cloud, becoming disillusioned with politics and all but abandoning activism for a quiet life in the midlands.
The next few years were spent reading Norm Chomsky, researching the patriarchy, and turning his operational penthouse in Birmingham City Centre into a walk-in workshop to educate eager young leftist women on the importance of feminism in the ongoing battle to overthrow the establishment. These intellectual soirees were enlivened by lashings of Bob’s infamous organic homebrew and remain fondly – and foggily – remembered by all concerned. Indeed, in a lighthearted spin on the old adage about the ’60s, it’s often said that if you remember going to a lecture on the class struggle at Bob Sanderson’s luxury flat then you probably weren’t fingered in the bathroom by him.
Fortunately, after a chance encounter with a 15-year-old homeless girl who relieved Bob of his wallet on some wasteground behind Clifton Steel, Bob decided he’d been out of the game long enough and rolled into Newcastle Upon Tyne just as the horrors of Thatcherism were being unleashed.
Sensing insurrection in the Tyneside air, the newly energised Bob quickly allied himself with the region’s various leftists factions, falling out with all of them before forming his own group, the aforementioned Co-operative Union of North Tyneside Socialists. As well as engaging in all manner of grassroots socialist activism, the C.U.N.T.S vowed to adapt to the zetigeist by focusing on hot button social issues such as lesbian rights, workplace equality, and a long running campaign to relax draconian licensing laws so Bob could fulfill his dream of opening a fully socialised, Marxist lap-dancing club. The group was a runaway success, and by the early ’90s Bob had become one of the most well known and feared militant left-wingers in the north-east.
Week after week he gave rousing speeches to half-packed houses at the Broken Doll or the Cumberbatch Arms, covering such prescient topics as the Criminal Justice Bill and the Dog Tax Wars of 1888. These riotous get-togethers were legendary and few people who witnessed Bob in his pomp will ever forget them. In fact, until a certain bearded jam enthusiast from Islington quietly altered humanity with his warmth, dignity, and weird obsession with manhole covers, Bob was easily the most important influence on my political awakening. Indeed, I know of at least the three fellow Geordies who’d say the same thing, not least the landlords of the various pubs he spread his message from, who consequently saw huge increases in profit, popularity, and fire-bombing campaigns.
Yep, Bob had enemies. And as the north-east’s most high profile subversive it wasn’t long before he became an enemy of the state. Needless to say, despite his many victories Bob endured years of smears and persecution, and few were surprised when he vanished in 1999 after being wrongly accused of fraud, sexual harassment, and being intoxicated while in control of a stolen unicycle.
Naturally, there was zero substance to any of these claims, the police and his accusers pathetically attempting to back up their libel with circumstantial nonsense such as bank statements, fingerprints, and a series of increasingly drunken answer phone messages. The damage was done, however, and Bob was left with no choice but to depart for pastures new, a victim of systemic right-wing scaremongering some 16 years before it became official government policy after Jezmania swept the nation.
Of course, they covered their backs, and within weeks of Bob’s disappearance a vicious rumour started circulating through the craft shops and off licenses of Byker that his uncle, a high ranking CQ, had used his Freemason connections to get the charges dropped on condition that Bob changed his identity and forged a new career as a merchant banker in Zurich. And if you believe that you’ll believe the moon is round.
Because the Bob I knew would sooner flog his prized collection of Leo Trotsky’s toenail clippings than sell his soul to capitalism. And while his whereabouts remain shrouded in mystery, I’m certain he’s having the last laugh, perhaps enjoying a glass of scotch and a game of strip poker with other brave leftists forced out of public life by smear and innuendo, such as Johnny Hoffa or Guy Forks.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Because now, thanks to months of careful planning and exhaustive research, the British public can finally hear Bob Sanderson’s words of wisdom for themselves…
A few months ago while hiding in my mam’s loft in order to evade alt-right bailiffs determined to squeeze me for a piddling six months unpaid rent, I stumbled across a box of C90s nestled between a 1976 Follyfoot annual and Castle Greenskull. My heart raced. Suddenly, after spending several days gripped with fear, I felt alive. The very real threat of two bearded thugs in bomber jackets tipping me upside down and squeezing my head until two grand popped out of my arsehole vanished in one hot minute.
Because these anonymous, dusty cassettes are little slices of history: hundreds of Bob Sanderson’s early ’90s speeches recorded for posterity and passed down to yours truly by the man himself. Like Bob, these tapes were assumed missing for decades, casualties of my fascist parents bourgeois obsession with moving house every three years. But thankfully as a result of my principled refusal to bow down to conformity by paying bills and funding the coke habits of greedy landlords, this precious treasure trove can be enjoyed anew. And trust me, that battered tuppaware box boasted some of Bob’s most seminal work, from his poignant vigil for the Muslim serial killer who murdered and devoured 15 young men, to his campaign to open the north-east’s first branch of the Paedophile Information Exchange in Cowgate.
So, with the help of some likeminded tech-savvy leftists, I’ve spent lockdown painstakingly curating these recordings, transferring Bob’s finest performances to the digital realm and editing them into bite-sized chunks, which I intend to post on this blog and share with my army of five readers over the coming months. It’s been a long, taxing, arduous process but much like spending a few hours in Bob’s company, it was well worth the sore arse.
In these times of austerity and despair, with the right-wing establishment increasingly rattled by the rejuvenated left, there’s never been a better time to revisit the work of a man who touched so many modern middle-aged leftists, leaving a long trail of informed radicals and illegal abortions in his wake.
So let’s leave the sodden wasteland of 2020 and transport ourselves back to the balmy summer of ’92. There, in the glamorous drawing room of The Raby on Shields Road, a charismatic socialist is holding court, taking time out from battling sexual harassment claims to educate and enchant his loyal followers. Later that day, Bob would petition Blyth Valley Council to sack spam-faced scab Ronny Campbell for voting Leave 25 years later. But in the meantime, press play below and stick your head around the door: there’s an exciting trip to Durham being planned and I’d hate for you to miss it…
Recorded and edited by John Egdell. Special thanks to Michael Atkinson, Michael Egdell, Traci Armstrong, Kirsty Barton and Kirsty Dowell.