Not that I ever met the man, i hasten to add. I studied sociology at Sheffield from 1966 to 1969 and started calling myself, among other things, a marxist. I’ve pondered over saying I was infected by marxism. I think I do now resent the way it was pushed down impressionable throats mostly by people I now see were failing or failed academics, and though it had a deleterious effect on my thinking for at least a decade, I can still appreciate its insights (or at least some of them). As my old comrade Mat Coward still reminds me from time to time, “Remember, Marx always said capitalism was a progressive force.”
I never formally joined any political grouping. The tired old Labour Party was never an option with Jack Straw as NUS president in his sports jacket and short hair and Wilson supporting LBJ in Vietnam, while I can recall with a certain relish the various Trots hanging around, holding fire on a spontaneous reaction, waiting to see what the party line was going to be when the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Bernard Crick, the head of the politics department, did first year social scientists the huge honour of lecturing to them and his vision of politics and democracy had a lasting impact on me. (Later, George Orwell became a hero to so it was a delight that Crick wrote the first significant biography of the man.) Such were those times that in the summer of 1968 (or was it ’69?) there was a football match between the heads and the socialists and I could have played for either side; I opted for the alternative society and I wish I could remember who won.
I started working in a public library in North London and was amazed to discover how interesting ‘normal’, ordinary people were. I also came to the realisation that – for all my radical thinking – there wasn’t that much difference in practical terms between the ladies of a certain age eagerly awaiting the new Catherine Cookson – a rising star at the time – and me really looking forward to Bobby Seale’s autobiography ‘Seize the time’. (How exciting the passage where Huey P.Newton is enthusiastically playing all his chums Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a rolling stone’; how disillusioning to discover decades later what a monster of a man he, Newton, really was.)
Jimmy Reid entered my consciousness because of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders action (“Bogside! Clydeside! Join the angry side!” – hah!). It seemed that it was successful because here was a creative response. I was becoming interested in working class writing in general and read ‘Reflections of a Clyde-built man’, which must have impressed me because, although a librarian, I actually bought myself a copy, and it would have been a major purchase at the time because it wasn’t cheap. Here was some refreshing democratic thinking from a good man on the future of the labour movement, but maybe the mention of bassist Jack Bruce – son of a comrade of Reid’s – was a factor in my buying it. Connections! I’d seen a tremendous early Cream gig in Sheffield and a car load of us had gone down for the Farewell Concert at the Albert Hall. (Frankly overindulgent and not that great; I wouldn’t cross the road now). I find the social circle of the Communist Party of the forties and fifties and indeed early sixties in the UK fascinating, still hugely important culturally – folk music! – if not politically; Doris Lessing, another of the erstwhile comrades, is another writer I hugely admire.
Anyway, where I worked, a Labour run council, was a NALGO closed shop, the union taken over by Trots and their well intentioned if invariably duped fellow travellers. Things were becoming variously embarrassing, unpleasant and tedious, quite often all at the same time. Their manipulation of meetings and the union structure depressed me. How was it possible to offer solidarity to the bunch of crooks and cowboys in the Fleet Street print? Never mind Thatcher and the Falklands fiasco. So some Labour Party members on the library staff decided to set up a Labour Party Workplace Branch, which I joined, and so finally became a member of the Labour Party. Heady days! We did some useful thinking about libraries and had some good times after in the pub. And it got me involved in my local party where I now lived, in Watford. I did some leafleting in the disastrous 1983 election and was actually telephone polled by Gallup – for the first time in my life – so I know they really exist. I lied. I said I thought Michael Foot would make a good Prime Minister.
And we moved to Milton Keynes and the Labour Party had its post mortems and its dream ticket, though I would have had it the other way round, with Kinnock as Hattersley’s deputy. I started going to local branch meetings because, yes, something had to change, but also as much to meet new people in a new city. If I’d had an agenda it would have been easy; as it was, just by being there and looking the wrong way at the right time (or vice versa) I ended up on the General Committee of the CLP. And then along came the miner’s strike.
I knew instinctively that once the NUM decided not to go to a national ballot the cause was lost. It just seemed obvious, a PR disaster. And the picketing just seemed to be more out of Elland Road and Leeds United fans and that bastard of an elder brother in Ken Loach’s film ‘Kes’ than any British democratic labour tradition. Never mind what the lads from the Met got up to later, they were all – miners included – pawns in a game: Thatcher versus a Walter Mitty Lenin with a ludicrous haircut. I was in misery whenever I thought about it. Scargill was blowing it for us all and no-one on the left was prepared to utter – at least in public – a word against him.
The chronology becomes hazy, but probably very early on, at a meeting of the MK CLP GC, or whatever it was called then, I got up and spoke to the effect that we shouldn’t be wasting energy and valuable time and resources on a lost cause, that we should cut our losses and look to the future for everyone’s – including the miners’ – sake. No-one actually got up or made a move towards me. It was like being in a Bateman cartoon: The man who … There was an uncomprehending silence which didn’t have time to become anything more because a gnarled old lifelong Party stalwart (who was actually younger than me) saved me by saying that being what we were (the Labour party! Part of the great labour movement!) we simply had no choice. This though he perfectly understood what I was saying. And the meeting continued as if I hadn’t been there.
You bet I appreciated Jimmy Reid’s public interventions on Channel4, in The Spectator – of all places (presumably the New Statesman had refused him a platform) – and elsewhere. The New Society piece ‘What Scargill means’ came out in the issue dated 17 Jan 1985, the week my youngest son was born. His mother pre-empted me by calling him Peter practically as soon as the umbilical cord was cut (a name as far as I was concerned we’d never even considered, and with no points of reference), but my James was not to be denied. (So he’s a PJ, just like P.J.Proby – cool, as the young people used to say.)
I find it interesting and illuminating that Neil Kinnock said on his retirement from domestic politics that his biggest regret on his period as party leader was not to have spoken out sooner against Scargill at the time of the Miners’ Strike; I’m sure he might well have become PM rather than the (self inflicted) near miss in 1992 if he had. I still cringe at the thought of that Sheffield ‘victory’ rally (Well not alright).
I stayed in the Labour Party, increasingly inactive, from my main contribution being making meetings quorate to just paying the subs, until the victory in 1997, when I let my membership lapse. I just lost interest, really, government by focus group and all that and, working in local government, all the box ticking that ensued. I didn’t have much time for the anti-war protests but ultimately felt betrayed over Iraq.
These days I support proportional representation, would vote tactically to keep a Tory out, and still hope to die a citizen rather than a subject, socialist republic or no.
Jul 2005/August 2010
As one gets older the Obituary columns become more personal, other lives that have touched yours at a certain stage in ceratin ways. This piece was mostly written in 2005 in response to an email enquiry fom someone – details now gone, I’m afraid – working on a biography of JR, who stumbled or Googled across something I’d written in a post and enquired what he meant to me. I’d forgotten all about it until the obits appeared and I went looking for the articles mentioned in it, which I thought I’d scanned.