Anna Mendelssohn; What a Performance

Jean-Luc Godard (Dziga Vertov Group) | British Sounds, 1969







Location:                  A Dark, Freezing Dungeon. England. Late 20th Century.

Political Climate:  The Depression.

Prisoner’s number:971226 ¹

flashbacks numerous.



assume dialogue except where obviously otherwise.


Go on write / I can’t write / You told me you could write / I could before I told you /
I didn’t tell you I could, I told you I /
I can’t say anymore, he’s armed with credentials and dangerous.²

Why bring back torture? Because it is continuing / […]

Never speak to another poet. Never breathe a word about your plans. Don’t be kind. Don’t care. They’ll only think you want something. If you have style, they’ll think you have money. They’ll stop you in the street and tell you to get the hell out if you don’t have a decent place to live in. They say they are permanently poor but they won’t understand why you are not on the phone, why your name isn’t in the book. You won’t tell other poets because they will be manipulating against you in another way. They will reinforce any old current theory. People with radical pasts are not invited to dinner. People will warn their children against you, and your children, they will also warn your children against you. You do not ask to be born therefore you do not have the right to live. Never voice radical opinions, you may be mistaken for an activist. A poet cannot be an activist. This is England remember. You can be gucci-voiced and you may get away with it, don’t jolt, don’t drive, don’t paint, don’t read, don’t bear children, don’t smile, you act.

Nothing which happened before is still happening. You can fly anywhere in the world. Your old comrades have given you writing work to do.

It’s too late now.





She walks blind. She walks in the night. I slept on the concrete floor. I gave her my bed. They had put her in with me for the night because they thought she was on the verge of suicide. She had been in MI5. Special Agent to Russia and China. She was involved in a car accident. In China. She saw the whole of her life flash before her eyes. She had not been killed. But she had been trained to kill. She had had to kill a man. Shot him dead. She was caught up in the horror of this act. She had left MI5. Resigned from her job. Her father was a magistrate in a sleepy Suffolk town. She kept bees & was an expert on wild flowers. She wrote for Nature magazine. She had been married to a navy man. It was from the navy that she was transferred to MI5. She voted Conservative. We had fun in the General Election. Was it 1974? Me in my cell, she in hers. Every victory for the Tories she’d rap on the walls. Every victory for Labour I’d rap on mine. Neither of us could vote. Prisoners are barred from voting. I wanted my electoral rights in there. I wanted them like mad. We saw where the suffragettes had been imprisoned. Their cells were even tinier than ours. They were no longer in use. If prisoners were given the vote it would confront the lack of education that most of them suffer from. Lack of education personalises emotion to an obsessive, often petty extent. Badly or poorly educated people become trapped inside their emotions because they lack the intellectual tools which would help them to objectify. This is why there is so much self-mutilation in prison. Women thrust their hands through the glass panes between the bars. They then take a shard or two and slash their arms or their vaginas or both. The authorities call it attention seeking.






The new girlfriend prompted them. We want to know exactly what you have done. No you can’t give a talk at college about long-term imprisonment. No you can’t go back to your old university the one you stopped from getting bombed, the one you stopped from giving confidential talks to an exclusive number of physicists on the qualities and advantages of chemical and biological weapons.³ Join agent orange join agent orange, there was no organisation by the name of agent orange before you started the rumpus over government patency of napalm, no matter that you read coleridge ed dorn philip lamantia richard brautigan tristan tzara arp huelsenbeck camus sartre simone weil anne waldman sang arias made us smile talked us through our boyfriend troubles kept our secrets were devastated at the news of Stuart’s death in the crash, was brutally assaulted by the mad ginger the next day, didn’t know where on earth you were nor why he suddenly took against you, you, our zen, our café poet who had too much imagination to live alone, who was pursued through windows, followed in the street, who wanted to be mousy with size four feet, why did you not STOP yourself loving people?⁴ We were told to stop loving you so that you too would stop loving people. We have heard that in your dreams you agree to having committed all the crimes that humanity has ever been accused of: adultery, violence, treachery, treason, betrayal, incest, murder, suicide, picking roses to stick in your hair, refusing to be intimate with anyone, …what are you afraid of? That you will become someone’s subject instead of their equal? You can’t keep going around moaning about the bourgeoisie you know. It just is NOT done. Why didn’t you understand that it was actually YOU who was standing in the dock on trial with seven other people. You were NOT Alice in Wonderland:” […]


It’s very silly to believe that there is any such body as the bourgeoisie. It is a word which needs to be eradicated from our language, and from French too, because it sounds very similar in French. It’s GREED really which makes the materially deprived hanker after perfume by Patou, it’s obnoxiousness which makes them want to dissolve in mid-air when someone who might be a friend says “Hi. I’m dashing to catch the plane to a skiing holiday, should see me through Easter.” It’s BORING to know anyone who doesn’t do EXCITING things. Socially Functioning people must guard their Image. You may as well know that Socially Functioning people are working hard at producing the ultimate version of proletarian ardour, and it SINGS with HOLES in it.





In the vernacular

Half the time you (meaning the voice here) are starting from such a basic position you might almost be reiterating your father’s voice. Day in and day out, that is all we heard. It was either this or that. That’s the pain. You go so low defending those worse off than yourself, refusing chance after chance because he refused to move, it was the lowest rung of the ladder for him, out of principle, and you thought you were obeying a commandment to stay at the bottom too. You hated yourself every time there was a cause for celebration. You became a misery guts, just like him. You were arrested without a pair of shoes to your name. You owned one dress. They hated each other too, after their arrest: The Baader-Meinhof.⁵ This is not helping. “Get it out of you,” she said. “You NEED to get it out.”

“But there’s no-where I can get it out to” […] And on it goes. You met women who had been charged with child murder in there. You saw the terror in the eyes of one. You taught the other how to read and to write. She used to come up to you and stroke your sleeve. It gave you the creeps, but you could not say anything, just move your arm away. It just should not be that your child sees you crying. Lorca understood that, hugging and holding the child so close, afraid for them. Belief in fate is a terrible thing. It wishes the worst on people. I was lucky, I liked my children immediately. […]


Forbidden to swear at one’s mother and father. When they are driving you so crazy you run away to hide and they come after you like mad folk, you can hear them calling your name and you keep very still as though they were the enemy who might ride by too quickly to notice you with your back flat against the nook in the wall. You have only to open your mouth for them to jump down it full force. Time may not be linear although conversation often is. With practice you can visualize the words which are coming out of someone’s mouth, this takes away the pain of what they are saying and in an odd way, depersonalizes it.

You had to do exactly what she said the moment she asked it. Action was her panacea.

Explain this: it is true that I feared Hitler was still alive and would one night put his hand on the inside of the transit window, carefully lift the handle and open the main window. This fear materialized itself in another direction. I dreamt of my father dressed as a pirate stealing in through the opposite window which was always locked.






we know it is wrong to talk
about imprisonment. the predominant theory is
still that people have more right to complain
for example about the imprisonment of the
woman in marriage, or the imprisonment by
harsh social conditions even when the
person has done nothing wrong. Because
there is such little chance to explain how
an individual can undergo severe punishment
which can extend beyond the more acceptable
forms of social punishment into the realms
of more socially unacceptable forms of social
punishment, I think that I might be justified
in writing down some of my perceptions.
They are disorganised and scattered. Some
are uninteresting to write, they are not
what I consider to be, in any way, imaginative.
They tell a story whose end is inevitably
tied to its beginning. There is a horrendous
resentment and caution in responses to
an imaginative treatment of Time. Having been
brought up by Orthodox Jews and Freemasons,
I have never understood why esoteric knowledge
should be man’s domain: I was forbidden to
learn the tonal inflections which are marked
in the Torah, yet I received first prize
in the last year I was allowed to learn Hebrew
from the Chief Rabbi, as the most promising
Hebrew scholar. People mess you about. There
are plenty of stupid rules. If people who
criticize me don’t have the guts to criticize
some of the rules extant they can’t expect
my appraisal. If they insist on using one
official interpretation of my past against me,
all I can think is that they are sadists who
delight in the thought of my death. Women
who hang out together like so many giggly
school girls, did they never have a chance to
be in a gang? Why aren’t one or two serious
friends enough for them? Do they really think
they are making good use of their time by
analysing for the umpteenth time stupid
women’s magazines? Images and images: fit
for collage which shows the contradictions
and the CRUELTY of judging on the grounds
of Appearance. The shirt swallowed the rose.


¹ In 1986, Mendelssohn writes that after prison, “she wanted to stay in the dark, ask for nothing from people outside. live in the hell, with no outside visitors”
² Mendelssohn contributed to Angry Brigade communiqué 12, writing three lines demanding that the British ruling classes exit Northern Ireland. She states that she did so under duress. (Mendelssohn’s account is consistent with urban guerilla practices, whereby group participation in illegal activities is enforced so that culpability is shared. In her trial closing speech, Mendelssohn articulated her opposition to the politically ineffectual violence of bombing. Mendelssohn’s resistance to all violence is an archival refrain.
³ Founded in 1964, Essex quickly became a notoriously radical university, and in May 1968, was shut down by an escalating student protest against physicists visiting from Porton Down, Britain’s renowned military research institute. Mendelssohn often recounts how images of Vietnamese women and children burned by napalm triggered her political activism. Alumnus Chris Ratcliffe recalls Mendelssohn being highly involved in anti-Vietnam campaigns.
⁴ “Stuart” was one of Mendelssohn’s Essex boyfriends. Mendelssohn credits his sudden death, and one or more physical assaults, with emotionally unmooring her when she moved to London in 1970.
⁵ Ulrike Meinhof exerts a hold over Mendelssohn. In an early nineties memoir, Mendelssohn states that unlike Meinhof, she was never flirtatious toward violence, or involved in gun running and drug dealing. But in C/34, she recalls being at Holloway and hearing that Meinhof was found dead in prison:“I thanked god or whatever that I was still alive. I felt her death very keenly.”


Notes & Copyright by Sara Crangle (Sussex Research Online).


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