Chris Tame: Ten Years on
Chris R. Tame: Ten Years After
by Sean Gabb
When Samuel Johnson died, his friend William Hamilton commented: “He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. Johnson is dead. Let us go to the next best:—there is nobody; no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson.” It is now ten years since the death of Chris R. Tame, Founder and first Director of the Libertarian Alliance. I can think of nothing more fitting that to repeat those words.
I first met Chris on Monday the 31st December 1979. I was back in London from university, and had decided to inflict myself for the day on National Association for Freedom. I spoke for about half an hour with Gerald Hartup, after which we ran out of anything more to say. He was busy. I was boring. Robert Moss was not available. Stephen Eyres, the Director, was available, but I was not his type, and so he refused to come off the telephone when Gerald introduced us.
Eventually, I was persuaded into a small room without windows and left to consult the “archive”. As I skimmed through the unsorted mountain of literature and old issues of The Free Nation, I read about a new bookshop that had opened just round the corner in Covent Garden. It was wholly devoted to books about liberty. Having no reason to linger in hope of a meeting with Mr Eyres, I made my excuses and went in search of Floral Street.
As yet, the Alternative Bookshop had no fascia, and I walked past the place once. Inside, thousands of books, both old and new, were packed into rudimentary shelves. On the plain, whitewashed walls were various posters, most of these from the Libertarian Party of America. One that I particularly remember was a listing of the core principles of the National Socialist German Workers Party that emphasised its socialist origins and ideals.
I saw none of this at first, as the inside of the shop was very hot, and my spectacles steamed up as soon as I was through the door.
“Can I help you?” asked someone behind the counter to my left. As my spectacle lenses adjusted to the new temperature, I saw a slim, rather short young man with a mass of tight black curls and long sideburns that framed a rather sharp, mobile face. In the blast from the several fan heaters placed behind the counter, he sat in black trousers and a white frilly shirt open to the waist.
“I’ve just come from the NAFF offices” I said. “I read about this shop in The Free Nation.”
The man smiled. “I’m Chris Tame, the Manager” he said. There was a slight but distinct emphasis on the word Manager. I now know that Chris was eleven days past his 30th birthday, and this was his first position of any importance. And it was an important position. He had previously worked at the NAFF, but as a researcher and in strict subordination to people whose views he largely did not share and whose persons he generally despised. Plucked from there, he was now in charge of his own operation, from where he could spread his own distinctive views of liberty without close supervision. He had every reason for that slight emphasis. He was a young man going places, and he wanted the world to know that.
Introductions made, Chris took me on a tour of the bookshop. Here were the Austrian economics, here the Ayn Rand. Here was the History, and here the attacks on socialism, both national and international. He darted from stack to stack, pulling out books for my inspection. I bought some Bastiat, whom I had found in old translations at York, and Henry Hazlett’s Economics in One Lesson, and something by Leonard E. Read. With the exception of this last, I still have the books.
After a while, I got the impression that Chris had given up on trying to sell more to me. Instead, he was pulling down books simply to discuss them. He seemed to have read them all, and was interested in what I might think of them. I mentioned that I was studying the history of the later Roman Empire. He paused for a moment. He had nothing about that on the shelves, but could recommend books I might find elsewhere. And he did.
It seemed to be over in half an hour, but we sat alone in the bookshop all afternoon. We spoke and spoke. In that first meeting, we covered in outline all the points of difference that were to keep us gently arguing for the next 26 years. I never did ask Chris what he made of me, but I found him both fascinating and disturbing.
At last, it was time for the bookshop to close. Chris invited me for coffee. But I had agreed to meet someone else down at Charing Cross. Before I left, though, he told me about the Libertarian Alliance. This was an organisation he had started. He said I might find it more congenial than the NAFF. I looked at the leaflet he gave me. It looked pleasantly uncompromising, and I joined at once. I think the subscription for students was £7.50. For this, I was promised four issues per year of Free Life magazine and written notification of events of interest. As ever with Chris, there was no distinction made between the work he wanted to do and the work he was paid to do. It was over a year before I realised that the Alternative Bookshop was other than a projection of the Libertarian Alliance.
I pass over the next twenty six years. I pass over all the scandalous and comical and exciting things I shared with Chris. I pass over the diagnosis of cancer and the rapid failure of his health. I pass over those last terrible months. I pass over his last day, when I sat holding his hand till its flesh took on the feel of latex rubber over a wooden core. But he has now been dead ten years. No one can possibly replace him as a centre of gravity for the British libertarian movement. At first or second hand, he inspired every libertarian alive in this country. When the history of British libertarianism is written, it will be seen that all the lines of continuity between the nineteenth and twenty first centuries run through Chris.
Chris is dead. But he is not forgotten; and as time goes by, his memory will be more cherished.