I’ve just received the very bad news that my old comrade in arms David Henderson has died in Turin after contracting pneumonia. I’m gutted.
Dave and I became friends as libertarian leftists at Oxford University in the late 1970s – he was in the Labour Party and I was an anarchist, but our points of view were pretty much in sympathy – and we kept up with each other after he moved to Turin in 1980, where he threw himself into the then-collapsing Italian extra-parliamentary left that had inspired us both in the previous five years.
I visited him in Italy for the first time in spring 1981, with Jo, a girl we both loved, just as the Italian state was suppressing the last remnants of the armed-struggle leftist groups that proliferated in the 1970s – which Dave never supported – and I’ll never forget it.
The first day, Jo made it clear that it was Dave and not me in whom she was interested. The second day, I witnessed for the first and last time in my life an armed demonstration – the stewards in certain sections had automatic pistols (“Comrade P38”) stuffed in their jackets. And the next day we turned up to an anarchist centre next to a fly-blown Turin housing project that turned out to have been smashed up by the cops in an anti-terrorist operation the previous night.
Their target had been Prima Linea, the armed-struggle group whose founders had been the far left of Lotta Continua, the quasi-Maoist, quasi-libertarian coalition that until 1976 had been the most important 1968-generation leftist organisation. Dave was a member of another ex-Lotta Continua faction, one that abjured terrorism but was militantly direct-actionist and had some support at Fiat, the giant motor company that was then, as now, the dominant employer in Turin. I had no idea then and have no idea now whether the Centro Eliseo Reclus was a terrorist base: for me they were the Turin contacts for the libertarian left group of which I was a member in the UK. Whatever, we turned up, saw the damage and thought: "Shit!" We then went to the bar across the road for a beer. The bar refused to serve us. But that night we drank the first Guinness poured in the first Irish pub in Turin.
Dave knew Italian politics backwards, and I used his expertise throughout the 1980s and 1990s: he covered Italy for END Journal, Tribune, the New Statesman, Red Pepper and New Times for me. He did so brilliantly, reporting before anyone else in Britain the dangers of Berlsuconi and the fragility of the official (communist and then disintegrating former-communist) centre-left.
But it was always as a side project to working on other serious editorial and translation work, which he continued until he was taken ill after Xmas. I was planning to visit him last autumn, but got waylaid and thought I’d make it in spring. Now it’s too late. A fantastically generous, intelligent and sociable man, he leaves his partner of many years, Paola, and a lot of devastated friends.