Notes in the Margin: Free the word

Radical publishers need to become more responsive to the pace of modern protest.

In the week before Christmas, I had the pleasure of calling the most 21st-century of publishing meetings. With Anthony Barnett, founder of openDemocracy, the New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny and other members of the "editorial kettle", I spent over an hour on Google's instant messenger service Google Chat, engaged in a frenetic, six-way, typed debate about the merits and demerits of different articles on the student occupations.

The product of two months of debates such as this was Fight Back! - a 350-page reader on the winter of student occupations, demonstrations and anti-cuts actions, published as a free, Creative Commons-licensed e-book on 1 February. It has been a success already. More than 5,000 copies were downloaded in its first five days online. Felix Cohen, our tech supremo, is repurposing the 80,000 words of writing into any software he can get his hands on and, for those who love things with spines, the physical book launches on 24 March at a non-profit, print-on-demand price.

Information wants to be free, or so the theory goes. Our role is to liberate it from the sometimes musty corners of the blogosphere. Freeness is a recurring theme. Fight Back! was produced by a talented team of writers (43 in all), editors and designers working pro bono, moving stray commas and crunching HTML into the small hours of the morning.

With events unfolding at breakneck speed on Twitter, radical publishing needs to become quicker to keep up. Others, such as Verso, whose protest book Springtime arrives in March, and Random House, which is planning its own e-book series called The Summer of Unrest, are being similarly responsive.

The power of the student movement lies in its rejection of conventional leaders and party hierarchies. The online tools for modern protest are available to anyone. We are taking the same attitude to its documentation. Perhaps it is not a wildly sustainable model to give away books for free - but let's worry about monetising it after we've brought down the government, shall we?

Dan Hancox, editor of "Fight Back!" Download the book for free here

"Notes in the Margin" is a new weekly arts diary column in the NS Critics pages

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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood