Hydra

I recently visited the Hydra Bookshop in Bristol. It was opened in November of last year by the Bristol Radical History Group. It is an inspiring place. There is just one room lined with books that are rarely available in other bookshops. There are some seats and a couple of tables in the middle for people to sit and read. Behind the counter along the back wall you can buy Zapatista coffee.

The group who opened it got a good deal on the building because it was one of the less popular areas of town. It was in a bad state at first but it wasn’t hard gathering a large group to clean it up. The money to run it is mostly made through the coffee as they are committed to selling their (non-commercial) books at a lower price than Amazon. Any money that is made goes back in to the shop. They’re hoping they can make it bigger, to have a wider selection of books but also to put on more and bigger events (they hold regular talks on radical history and contemporary politics).

The name may have been inspired by the historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker who borrowed the Hydra as a metaphor in their wonderful book (which is in the shop): ‘The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Saves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic’. The Hydra was a mythical beast born of Typhoon (a hurricane) and Echidna (half woman, half snake). Hercules was challenged to slay Hydra but every time he cut off one of its heads two more grew in its place. Th book recounts the many forgotten experiences of connection and struggle which emerged in response to the intensifying processes of global capitalism in the 17th and 18th centuries. Every time the ‘Herculean’ power of the market and colonization sought to suppress these insurgencies two more appeared somewhere else.

The insurgents were all sorts of people: the commoners of Ireland and Scotland, vagabonds, privateers, pirates, prostitutes, slaves from the West coast of Africa. Threaded together through their mobility, a mobility which was at once their plight and their power, these motley assemblies combined in unlikely places to develop new forms of cooperation and resistance. In port cities like Bristol, for example, taverns provided spaces for people to drink and brawl, but also for them to meet and share materials and words. They did not (necessarily) talk about politics or discuss ways of overthrowing the status quo but they did talk about their common problems and how to escape them. They did this by producing alternative forms of exchange, or commons. These alternatives were as mundane as bartering and sharing food but from such small and concrete moments comes the possibility for something else.

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