Vale Martyn Stevens, working-class fighter

November 1, 2021
Martyn Stevens. Photo: Matthew Smithwick

Martyn Stevens was born in Bellingham, Kent, now Greater London, in 1955.

From an early age he was an excellent chess player, which became a lifelong passion.

His family arrived at Fremantle from England in March 1966 as a “Ten Pound Pom”. His parents stayed at a migrant hostel in Graylands but the children were placed in Fairbridge Farm School in Pinjarra, which was strict and cruel.

Martyn became passionate about social justice and making the world a better place in his teens. One of his first jobs was at the Midland Railway Workshop in Perth, where he became shop steward.

He became increasingly political, attending protests against war, racism, human rights abuses in Chile and elsewhere and for social housing. He became an active socialist. Martyn left Perth to live in Sydney where he worked as a journalist. He travelled to Cuba as part of a youth delegation, where he heard then-president Fidel Castro speak.

Martyn lived in London during the Margaret Thatcher years where he campaigned with his mother Dorothy and brothers Alan and Simon against the Poll Tax, poor housing conditions for people on low incomes and in support of the miners’ strikes.

Martyn joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, describing himself as a Leninist who opposed both Eurocommunism and Stalinism. He witnessed the Brixton riots in April 1981, later telling me that he saw the whole street of shops being smashed and looted with the sole policeman standing there doing nothing.

Martyn was a trainee train driver on a coal train going to a coal mine during the miners’ strike. When it approached a road bridge over the railway line with a miners’ union banner and several police the driver halted the train. When the police demanded to know why, the driver pointed out it would not cross a union picket.

Martyn was arrested for “begging” in 1984 under the Vagrancy Act of 1824. Since the Thatcher government had cut benefits to families of striking miners, he and three other comrades had been collecting food. The charges against them were later dropped.

Martyn was active in the London Borough of Greenwich and helped coach members of the local community to debate local councillors and politicians prior to a public meeting that was televised as part of a BBC documentary. He also worked for a while at the Soviet Embassy in London, editing its newsletter and attracting the attention of the intelligence services.

Martyn returned to Australia in 1985 and lived in Sydney. He was active in the Marrickville Branch of the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA). He was also a journalist for its newspaper, The Guardian. Martyn welcomed the Mikhail Gorbachev reforms, but the SPA leadership did not. This eventually led to Martyn quitting.

I met Martyn in the late 1980s at the Liberty Plains Community Youth Support Scheme (CYSS) centre in Auburn, later Lidcombe, which attracted young activists from Western Sydney from a variety of left parties.

Chip Eling, then-secretary of the Parramatta Branch of the (original) Communist Party of Australia, was on the centre’s committee, and introduced us. The area suffered from a lack of jobs, particularly for young people, and a lack of funding for health services as well as inadequate bus services.

We met again in 1989 at the University of Sydney. Martyn studied philosophy and had a particular interest in Hegel. He had wanted to write an Honor’s thesis on Hegel but was advised no one would be able to mark it.

At university, Martyn was keen to debate the Liberal Club on the question of individual freedom, and involved me. Martyn said their response was: “Great! We’re going to argue that you are against individual freedom. What are you going to argue?” Martyn said: “We’re going to argue that you are against individual freedom.” The lunchtime debate was held on the lawn next to the Wentworth Building, and drew a large crowd.

We argued that capitalism steals the product of the workers’ labour, steals part of the value of that labour and forbids workers from socialising with each other in the act of working, despite working closely together. We also argued that capitalists foment wars against other capitalists and dragoon workers into fighting and dying for them — the ultimate destruction of individual freedom.

The Liberals only argued that socialists were “authoritarian deniers of individual freedom”, and that taxes diminished the scope of individual freedom. The crowd overwhelmingly voted for us socialists.

Martyn started exhibiting signs of mental illness in the 1980s. He revealed he had been abused as a child at a school. By the mid-1990s, he went back to Perth to be near his family. His illness developed but he mostly held on to his sense of humour.

It always outraged him that modern psychiatric practice focused on a chemical imbalance in the brain and relied too heavily on psychotropic medications, rather than taking a more holistic and therapeutic approach.

Martyn later became a strong advocate for patient rights and improved mental health care. He left Perth for London, seeking alternative holistic therapies.

After a stint of homelessness in Hobart, he moved to North Albury where he lived in a housing commission flat. He became involved in the Albury Chess Club and took great pleasure in teaching the local high school chess club playing strategy. He also involved himself in the Anglican community at St Matthews cathedral, and the Music Appreciation Society.

Peter MacLeod-Miller of St Matthews described Martyn as “a well-known local mental health peer supporter and advocate” and that his later years were spent “making a contribution to community awareness of the reality of navigating mental illness into a positive productive place in our own society”.

[Thanks to Martyn’s family for providing details of his life.]

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