Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 4
Peter Fryer earned his place in history by his reporting of the Hungarian political revolution of 1956, which, despite the efforts of his Stalinist employers at the Daily Worker, played an immense role in crystallising the crisis in the CPGB which had been started by Kruschev’s Secret Speech. It need not now be a secret that when Revolutionary History first planned an issue on the events of 1956, a central idea, which Fryer had agreed to willingly, was to republish most if not all of Hungarian Tragedy. In the event, this job was undertaken and expanded upon by Index Books and our issue took a different form.
Obituaries have been published by comrades who were close to Fryer (Terry Brotherstone in the Guardian of 3 November 2006, Keith Flett in Socialist Worker of 11 November 2006, Charlie Pottins at http://randompottins.blogspot.com/2006/11/goodbye-to-good-comrade.html and http://randompottins.blogspot.com/2006/11/more-tributes-to-peter-fryer.html) and he received a full radio obituary from BBC Radio 4’s Last Word.
If his reporting of Hungary brought him first to light, it was no more than the beginning of a career in which he contributed valuably to the revolutionary movement and to historical studies. Following his parting from the Stalinists, he edited the press of the Trotskyist current led by Gerry Healy, and his presence was undoubtedly a major factor in the winning over to Trotskyism, at least for a time, of an important layer of intellectuals, among them John Daniels, Peter Cadogan, Cliff Slaughter and Brian Pearce. Several of his articles from The Newsletter were reprinted as pamphlets, including Black the H-Bomb & the Rocket Bases! (which argued for a trade union dimension to the struggle against nucler weapons) and Defend the ETU against Fleet Street and King Street! From this period the pamphlet Lenin as Philosopher (1957) deserves to be reprinted (Fryer had agreed that New Interventions could reprint it provided we updated all the references, and it is still intended to do that.)
At this time he wrote The Battle for Socialism which is often unjustly described as a piece of Healyite hack work. Later in 1959 however, the internal life of Healy’s Socialist Labour League, as it was then known, proved unbearable to Fryer as it was to do for many others. The parting of the ways was accompanied by an outburst of inner-party terrorisation at least the equal of Healy’s later outrages. Fryer was a part of the “Stamford Faction” which opposed Healy’s party regime, and in September 1959 he broke his silence with an open letter to SLL members. He was to have little to do with any aspect of Trotskyism until the spectacular disintegration of the SLL’s succesor, the Workers Revolutionary Party, in 1985, after which he was able to contribute a regular column to the Workers Press with a number of his former comrades.
In the intervening period he distinguished himself through a passionate scholarship in three areas; sexual repression and censorship, the history of black people in Britain, and the history of black peoples’ music. He also found time to translate two novels from the French. His first book after leaving the Trotskyists was Oldest Ally. A Portrait of Salazar’s Portugal written jointly with his then partner Patricia McGowan Pinheiro.
In mocking and exposing hypocrisy about sexual matters he wrote some spirited and entertaining books, Mrs Grundy. Studies in English Prudery (1963) and Private Case – Public Scandal (1966). In the latter he brought to light the hidden existence of the British Museum Library’s historical collection of erotica, which was subsequently opened to the public. Related to these studies was his book The Birth Controllers, a history of the struggles to make fertility control available to the masses in Britain. He also compiled two amusing and enlightening anthologies out of his researches: Venus unmasked, or, An inquiry into the nature and origin of the passion of love, interspersed with curious and entertaining accounts of several modern amours: an eighteenth-century anthology (1967) and The Man of pleasure’s companion. A Nineteenth Century Anthology of Amorous Entertainment (1968).
His 1984 Staying Power. The History of Black People in Britain, the result of extensive research, changed the general picture of Britain by establishing the long term presence of black people in the historical record. Black people in the British Empire. An introduction (1988). He developed the theme with Aspects of British Black History (1993) and a number of pamphlets, as well as becoming a much in demand public speaker.
Lucid, Vigorous and Brief. Advice to New Writers (1993) remains a valuable guide. Fryer’s lifelong love of black people’s music (he had flowered as a jazz pianist in the last weeks of his life) was the spur to writing Rhythms of Resistance. African Musical Heritage in Brazil (2000), and he was working on a second book on the same subject when he died.
http://www.sonic.net/~patk/Peter_Fryer.html presents what is probably the most complete bibliography of Fryer’s work, up to 2004 at least.
To the very last days of his life he maintained friendly relationships with many of his former comrades, whom he would often meet around the British Library where he did most of his work. He had suffered from severe heart problems and needed to ration his energies carefully. It was for this reason that he had declined the many requests for interviews on the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian events that first catapulted him into the public arena, and not from any sense that he wished to distance himself from his political past.
In January 1996 (in Workers Press) he obituarised his old friend Hubert Nicholson, and recalled:
Nicholson urged me – after half a century the memory remains intensely vivid, more so than many a more recent conversation – to “be a live wire”, to “make things hum around you” wherever I found myself whole-heartedly and passionately into whatever I undertook, to act always and everywhere as a piece of human yeast.
Though my own energies were largely poured into political activity, rather than the poetry readings Nicholson loved to organise, I should like to think that this wise advice has borne some fruit along the way.
And we would agree that it did.
We proffer our condolences to his partner and family, and his many friends and comrades.
We are pleased to be able to present the following note from Ken Coates, a close comrade of Fryer’s from the period of his first involvement with the Trotskyist movement.
Updated by ETOL: 31.10.2011