In this, my first step into the blogosphere, I sketch a Sixties’ childhood, to the end of 1968.
This photograph shows my late parents at a CND march in Liverpool in 1959. Edie, my mother, was pregnant with me at the time.
Shortly after this march, Liverpool University sacked my father – after he had published an article demanding an end to the London Rubber Company’s monopoly of Durex. [The Sunday Express]
In 1963, after my father had finished translating Memoirs of a Revolutionary, we left Liverpool 8 (Toxteth). After over a year’s constraint in the brand-new Grendon prison estate, we moved to an ex-council house in Oxford.
Our new home, a 1930’s semi without bathroom or indoor toilet, gave my father the spring-board from which to launch into an arc of political agitation. This was to span analysis, including his critique of Marcuse, and attendance at numerous meetings. At one such C. Hitchens recounted his first encounter: “He was a short,slightly misshapen fellow …After some general chat he rather diffidently handed me some of the “literature”…of a group called the International Socialists”.*
For my father, political engagement was all-consuming. Fortunately for him, his week-day work (on head injuries) was undemanding, affording time to devote to activism. When time did permit, he told me bed-time stories. Of special note was the infiltration by Stalin’s agent of the Trotsky household and of his murder, by ice-pick hacked into his skull. As a settling-down story this did not feel odd: from the weight of my father’s work on Serge, and with the IS, I was aware of Trotsky’s significance for revolutionary socialists. I drifted to sleep to the clacking of my father tapping on his typewriter.
In view of her house-work, my mother was unable to pursue her own political struggles. Perhaps sensing her domestic labour was burdensome, Raphael Samuel, Ruskin Tutor, brought her treats. As well as parcels of Brie and Brunost, he brought her this pocket-sized Mayhew. Intrigued by such gifts and enchanted by him, I relished Raphael’s visits.
To express her creativity – her parents having forced her to abandon her art school scholarship for a factory job –Edie found an outlet, and so was able to extend her own network: enrolled as a day-student at the Oxford School of Art, she painted. Although she made abstract work, I preferred her representational paintings such as that depicting two Indian women seated side-by-side, and this, my favourite, a still life.
Edie’s art tutor was Diana Veale, who also visited: an older woman with silver chignon, immaculate make-up and gleaming ebony cigarette-holder. Her frostiness contrasted with the unfailingly open, warm generosity of spirit of our young visitors; but her calm composure awoke awe in me. Viewing Edie’s work on the walls, Diana showed neither interest in us children, nor our father. Against the backdrop of his work, Diana’s focus on our mother and her art confused me.
By Summer 1967 Edie was exploring photography. In one photograph she foregrounded me at a rally against Wilson government policy which we attended together.
At the end of the year, we set sail for Spain where, in an Andalusian village, my father could focus on his second Serge translation. He found me a “Spanish school”. It would be another thirty years before I would learn that in fact it was a Falangist seccion femenina. The following Spring, having returned to England, the teacher at my new school asked what subject my father taught. I pleaded ignorance. Aware that Politics was a dangerous subject, I chose to come across as stupid. In the face of further questioning, I stuck to that stance.
In early April, the murder of Martin Luther King was incomprehensible. Not long afterwards, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. Despite living in the closed community of the York university campus, my father’s activism and Edie’s engagement brought home outrage at the atrocities that were being committed world-wide, as well as campaigns in response.
That summer various people stayed with us, and some discussed revolutionary politics. Two young people who visited from London were of particular interest. Sheila ‘Robot’ (as I understood her last name) seemed studious and observant. David, a medical student, impressed me with his skill in fixing an Action Man, which, irritated by the perfection of that war-toy, and aware of Biafra and Vietnam, I had tried to make more true-to-life, and in the process of bashing it to the floor, detached its foot.
Although I detested the concrete campus, which evoked Grendon, it was an exciting place for children. With seemingly unbounded freedom, we played on great expanses of green and made dens in long grass. Finding quiet times to sit alone in our courtyard, I was captivated by Edie’s gift of a collection of stories, in which the lives of African children were unfurled.
One August afternoon, a grey tent of a sky hanging over the campus, my father and I happened upon a colleague of his and I was horrified to overhear that the Soviet Union had crushed the Prague Spring.
I can no longer recall when or where I was, when on the News I saw massed protestors in London, but I remember Edie saying: “Your father’s on that demonstration” and searching for him amidst the throng protesting against the Vietnam War.
[Evening Standard Getty Images]
By then we were living in a ramshackle house in York. My last memory of 1968 is of Cliff, the IS patriarch’s visit: he, David and my father, their rapt faces illumined by a bare light-bulb, engaged in urgent debate. Standing close to them, I noticed Edie where she was standing against the wall, demure in shadow. Excluded by male discourse, and shaken by Cliff’s abrasiveness, I was left in disquiet, as the year drew to its close.
*Hitch-22; the International Socialists (IS) was the predecessor to the SWP.