Felix Brunner is a builder, an artist, a former school teacher and educationalist, a Peace and Green Party activist, Reading fan and the owner pioneer of Reading’s most marvellous independent arts and music venue, the Rising Sun in Katesgrove. He is also the loudest whistler I ever heard.
Where were you born, and when and why did you come to England and Reading?
I was born and raised in Wettingen in Switzerland, a large village, and I came to England originally as I was fed up because I was politically active and felt that people saw me as a trouble-maker and looked down on me. My dad is an honest builder and entrepreneur and my activities were affecting his reputation. I came to stay with my sisters in Kilburn a few days before the great storm 30 years ago. We overlooked Kilburn cemetery which was virtually flattened on that night. Of course I managed to sleep through it! I came to Reading to study fine art at Reading University in 1989, because they accepted me.
How many languages do you speak?
Swiss German is my birth language and high German, which is also the written language as well as what we spoke at school, and French. Then at the age of 15, I went to work on building sites where I learned some Spanish and Italian. We all used to manage to communicate well, and what helped was the universal language of beer.
How and when did you buy the Rising Sun?
It was threatened with development and demolition in the 1990s; they wanted to turn it into a petrol station. I, along with others, especially Adam Stout, the enormously influential main activist and writer researcher behind the Catalyst magazine, managed to preserve the building by getting it grade two listed. I inherited a house in Switzerland then sold that and managed to buy the building for a fairly low price in 1995. We then went about turning the place into the community art centre it is today.
Have you been offered a million pounds for it?
Only a speculative bid from a developer and it was turned down without a second thought.
Who thought of the name?
The architect Alfred Waterhouse thought of the name in 1877 and it was always called the Rising Sun; the iron work over the door is totally original. It was a temperance house for the people of Whitley and Silver Street, where social problems were historically prevalent. It was a place where youngsters could avoid temptation and learn new skills and stay out of trouble. Next door was a chapel, and a Catholic girls school, I believe, but the Rising Sun was a Quaker building like a lot of lovely progressive buildings throughout Reading.
The Rising Sun doesn’t get any subsidies; was it a conscious thing to be independent or was it because you couldn’t get any?
We have had virtually pennies; we could have done with a lot more help in the leaner times over the years, and have applied many times, but we couldn’t get anything out of them.
Was it because of your political activism?
Possibly, or perhaps they felt they never had enough control.
Is the Rising Sun run by committee now?
Yes, I have no executive role and there is an AGM every year where important issues are debated and resolved. There were always people who said it would never work and it will go down the drain but the people kept it going. Millions of pounds have been invested in the place over the years by the people who use it. But it probably wouldn’t exist now without one person, Larry Watson, who I have an absolute trust in, which has grown over the years. He is an amazing man who has gone beyond the call of duty to keep the place going. Every time I see him I have to tell him how grateful the people of Reading are.
What do you think of Jaap Stam?
I still think he needs to be given more time and I’m not qualified to judge at the moment as I am over in West Berkshire now and only listen to them on the radio. There were a few people I used to meet at the pub and the game every week and these Reading fans were friends like you and many others who will always be my friends. They are all such a generous bunch including the late great David Murtagh. We won’t ever forget him.
When and how did you did learn to whistle so loudly?
In the woodlands and the mountains where I grew up. It was good way of keeping in touch with your friends. No mobile phones then, of course.
Is it true you lost your Swiss army service rifle?
No; only apocryphally. You can’t be a conscientious objector in Switzerland unless on religious grounds. I was a lorry driver in the infantry initially, but afterwards I had to do my repetition; a year after my 17 week basic training I had grown up politically and was opposed to the military. I decided to fast for three days before the start and the night before I had a lot of coffee – I couldn’t even put my bayonet in my rifle as I was so weak and then I started hyper-ventilating so I was sent to hospital for two days. This was great because I read the brilliant novel Momo by Michael Ende, the best book I have ever read. After that, I was discharged as they knew I was not going to play the game. My politics and world view was and is pacifist and opposed to militarism.
Do Swiss people generally carry a Swiss Army knife?
Yes, it’s by far the best invention to come out of Switzerland; so practical an everyday thing and so handy; we are proud of them, I won’t go without one.
What are you doing for a living now?
I am doing odd jobs around the place; I do miss teaching as I loved it, but I do feel a lot less stressed out at the moment after ten years of it. I throw myself into things wholeheartedly and it can lead to strain at times. I was paid for looking after a small baby in Switzerland recently and that was tough but very rewarding. I do love children and I enjoy learning from them – the best thing is when they teach themselves, keeping their imagination and creativity to the fore. The worst thing a teacher can do is destroy the natural curiosity of a child. There is a 15 minute Youtube video of me in one of my classrooms. I was showing those kids blacksmithing and all sorts of varied stuff. I have also been using social media for all sorts of things I’m interested in, like parenting [Felix is a father of two], education, vegetarianism, green activism, my lovely dogs and even some language tuition with nursery rhymes and music.
Are you involved in politics at the moment?
I am a Green Party member and activist in West Berks and I am a supporter of the Corbyn side of the Labour Party. I support him and his policies because I share his view that all people deserve equality, decency and a decent standard of life. Why is he so attacked and then mentioned 150 times at the Tory conference if he isn’t close to power? The new Labour Party has brilliant policies but it’s such a huge historical beast at times with a lot of baggage. In West Berkshire the Greens and Labour campaign together to save services and we have common ground on many policies. Greens are seen as a threat in Reading rather than a friend. In West Berkshire, Labour and the Greens have even shared the occasional hug when campaigning together.
Are you an anarchist?
Yeah, in a certain sense I am, but it’s not really an anarchist thing to be so defined. I am just living the way I am living and if it happens to be an anarchist way of life, so be it. There cannot be a true anarchist who isn’t artistic and creative in a way.
What have you and The Rising Sun achieved and what’s the future?
It will always be a community based arts centre. Not an arts centre with a capital A, but one that’s used and enjoyed by progressive people who believe in a free and open society. I feel I come from quite a privileged background and I wanted to turn that privilege good, and hopefully I can inspire people to do likewise. One of the reasons I bought the Rising Sun was to redistribute wealth, and the fact that almost a million people have gone through the door over the years makes me very happy.
There is a house on Silver Street they call the Rising Sun!
Matthew Farrall, the author of this article, died on 20 April 2018.
We are grateful to his family for allowing us to continue to display his work online.