Design a site like this with
Get started

A Land of Extremes

As 1975 began, I spied a book on my father’s shelves in his Leeds University office, 1975: The Year of Doom.By now the Oil Crisis had severely constrained resources in Britain; I had realised just how reliant we were on supplies from overseas. 

When school broke for the Easter holidays that year, I had mixed feelings about my trip to Münster, under the York schools exchange scheme. My father had told me about the Federal Government’s response to German radicals’ activism of the late Sixties and early Seventies: Berufsverbot, barring Left-wing public servants (the German Communist Party was banned). And I was aware of the Red Army Faction’s campaigns, which included bomb attacks. As York students had been intensely active, I was curious to see a German university town. 

To fetch up with a bourgeois, observant Christian family, with paterfamilias lawyer, a collector of objects d’art, was unsettling in the extreme.His daughter, Eva G. was 18 months younger; we had nothing in common. Münster struck me as austere and ultra-conservative. (To add insult to the injury of her denial of concentration camps in Germany on her visit to York, Eva G. stole a Hogarth print, which Edie had found in a second-hand shop; we were powerless to recover it.)

In late 1976, my father took me to see Kuhle Wampe (Who Owns the World?) a film set in Berlin during the Weimar Republic, conceived by Brecht, with Eisler’s music. Their Solidarity Song etched itself onto my memory: “Vorwärts und nicht vergessen, worin unsere Stärke besteht!” (Forward, and don’t forget, What our strength is made of!) 

Still from film, on BFI website

After the screening, I asked my father how against that backdrop, the Nazis had come to power. His clear answer: the failure of the Left to unite against fascism. For its useful insights, he also cited Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism (however orgone therapy, the efficacy of which Reich believed, was to be taken with a pinch of salt; having read about that I was pleased to hear this ).

On my return to Germany in 1979, as a citizen of a Member State of the European Economic Community, I exercised my rights of entry, settlement and movement, and soon found a highly paid job at a medicaments factory in Hamburg.

First I sat by a conveyor belt. Watching over it, I found myself so utterly alienated so as not to switch off at night:  thousands of little green bottles swam before my eyes. Packing at least allowed for conversation. One morning, stuffing strips of the Pill into individual boxes, talk turned to Hitler. An older colleague said: “Wir waren alle Nazisten.” She elaborated: they had all attended parades off Nazi might. Given the sinister Münster family, I was disturbed yet not surprised to hear this. To add to my disquiet, on Friday evenings, as we stood by the gate awaiting the horn’s release for the weekend, a German colleague, in furs and jewels, looked down her nose at those from Yugoslavia or Turkey. 

This was my residence permit:

Seeking out connections with my homeland, and with nature, in my free time I took to walking by the Elbe, along which I had sailed from Harwich.

Often of an evening I strolled to the port, captivated by its ships and flashing signals. Aware that Hamburg had been heavily bombed during WWII, I was amazed to witness industrious shifting of container cargo. The contrast with Liverpool troubled me. The previous year, I had wandered along the Mersey, saddened that passenger ferries to the Wirral or Ireland were the only vessels on that river, and by the wreck that was the Albert Dock.

Like Liverpool, Hamburg stood out for its distinctive language and culture, and Hamburgers were lively and friendly. Also, alternative living in communes and gay café society had taken root. Seeking out such friendly spaces sustained me through the working week, and helped me process news from home. 

At the end of April 1979 my father had phoned me to tell me that he could not bring himself to vote Labour in the imminent General Election. As I was to be a first-time voter, he suggested that one of us voted Labour and the other Ecology Party. As my job immersed me in chemicals, and being aware of manufacturing’s destructive effluents, I readily agreed. On May 4, he rang again: the Conservative Party had won. We agreed: this was a turning point. [1]

After my factory stint finished, German friends took me to West Berlin. We speeded past Hamburg’s affluence, along the autobahn. As soon as we cleared border control and crossed into East Germany our pace slowed: the road had only two lanes. Although placards spanned fields proclaiming thirty years of the German Democratic Republic, I was swept back ten years – to my spell in Andalucía. There, I had noted men bent over strips of terraced earth. In the GDR, I saw older women, their Fifties frocks illumined by the setting sun, guiding horses and ploughs through communal furrows – evoking the backward agrarianism of Franco’s Spain.

Berlin, away from the expensive cafés and shops near the touristic Kurfürstendamm, felt less like an advanced capitalist city than did Hamburg. Wandering past Kreuzberg’s courtyards, I was transported back to Kuhle Wampe. Most Westerners paid a visit to the Wall, to peer into East Berlin, but having driven through the GDR, I could not bear to do so. At a late-night party in a squatted gay centre or searching for lesbian bars, I sensed the Wall’s divisive presence.

It felt liberating to wander without fear. And what a thrill it was to find, in a dark Schöneberg side street, the Pussycat Bar: mauve velvet bankettes lined the walls and the glow of dangling crystal sconces made an intimate women-only space. Pondering life on the other side of the Wall, as I drank a beer, I wondered what options East German lesbians had.[2]

[1]Once electoral data had been analysed, my father told me that a third of trades unionists had voted Conservative.

[2]In a sign of the times, the Pussycat Bar is no longer women-only; see:

What Goes Around…

Finding myself displaced by organised politics in the mid-1970’s, I happened upon two sources of sustenance. The first was new political theatre, at York Arts Centre. There, my father and I were riveted by electrifying Agitprop productions of workers’ theatre, including 7:84* and women’s theatre, such as Monstrous Regiment**

Photograph: Jill Posener

The other comfort was music, especially during the alarmingly hot summer of 1976.  Squirreling away funds for gigs and festivals, babysitting topped up my wages from my regular job at a pottery (a repetitive routine of scraping mugs and emptying kilns). Another music lover proposed youth hostelling, between camping at Knebworth and the Reading Festival. 

At the latter, I was horrified to hear racist abuse directed at the reggae artist, U-Roy. As an antidote, and with time to spare before our night-coach to York, my friend and I went to the Notting Hill Carnival. As one of my erstwhile babysitters lived in the area (on a previous visit she had suggested I form a feminist discussion group at school) I knew Joy would welcome us to Carnival. After leaving our bags at Joy’s flat, we joined the throng of carnival-goers, but most striking was the substantial police presence lining both sides of the streets. Tensions were palpable, and as conflict surfaced we left.

In May 1977, I attended my first Punk gig, The Clash, at Leeds Polytechnic.  The backdrop to the stage was a hugely enlarged press photo of the Notting Hill riot. That image resounded on two levels. First, I was there. Secondly, having latterly read commentary on Brecht (for German A-level) the black-and-white backdrop was like a placard.  To remove any suggestion of naturalistic performance other Punk bands deployed harsh lighting, frenetic beats, tuneless vocals, jerky movement and angry pose.  The disruptive energy of Agitprop had, in my view, partly sparked Punk’s conductivity of discontent.

We disaffected young people, facing unemployment or limited prospects (as my new friends were) jumped into the newly turbulent music scene. Not only did Punk break with Rock’s tradition, but its volcanic fracturing of staid surfaces released free-spiritedness. Having been to funky feminist band*** Jam Today’s York benefit concert earlier that May, these new musical forces signalled, to me, freedom from the strictures of gender and sexuality identity. 

In the North, second-hand clothes for punk outfits could be had for a few pence at jumble sales. Shocking pink dye served the dual purpose of converting a jacket and subverting prescribed feminine attire. My androgynous ‘look’ was at odds with the hyper-sexualised fish-net stockings and almost non-existent skirts a few young women sported at gigs. The sight of them troubled me: why revert to stereotypes to shock folk; and how could they dance in stilettos? 

Those of us who were receptive to feminist influence were fortunate to find a sympathetic ear at York Women’s Centre and the Corner Bookshop in Leeds, where my friend, Shirl and I each bought a special fifth birthday edition of Spare Rib, with this article on Women and Punk


From that we tracked down Jolt. Here’s an extract of Lucy Toothpaste’s interview with the frontwoman of X-Ray Spex, Poly Styrene (sadly no longer with us).

Punk, in combination with feminism, enabled us to push at boundaries. Shirl and I jumped at the chance to carry The Slits’ heavy kit, in return for free entry to their gig (that afternoon we had hitched to Leeds from York, and wanted to save even more money). The organiser’s jaw dropped: he said he’d expected lads not lasses. 

Another deeply unsettling spin-off from Punk was the freedom of expression it gave to the confused or alienated. One friend refused to be known by her name, having opted for a Bowie persona. Adamant that she didn’t want to be in a woman’s body, ‘Zed’ none the less chose relationships with women. My feminism sounded an alarm. I wondered whether Zed, keen to transition to a male identity, was in fact a young working-class woman who, given the constraints upon her, couldn’t accept her sexuality identity – as a lesbian. ****Despite the androgyny of Punk bands and New Wave musicians such as Patti Smith – whose album Horses we young dykes revered – it would take a much bigger lift-raft to rescue those who were adrift, like Zed. 

Attracted by its disruptive effects, a minority of punks gave vent to racist vitriol. Hatred of difference manifested in other thugs’ pursuit. Once, with hearts pounding in our mouths, while they searched us out, my friends and I hid in a railway carriage. 

Such terror was normal. To counter it and the racism that had long been accepted on the music scene, bands and fans were mobilised to oppose racism at gigs. In West Yorkshire, where the NF had a strong following, Rock Against Racism groups organised. The Tom Robinson Band performed at Bradford. In Leeds The Mekons – with Mary Mekon on bass – and the feminist three-woman Delta-5 impressed me with their courageous discordance. 

RAR’s message was effective: at gigs, stalls displayed anti-fascist and anti-racist banners, emblematic badges, and the fanzine, Temporary Hoarding (for which David W. and Lucy Toothpaste wrote).At the end of April 1978, I caught the Anti-Nazi League coach to London.  Thousands marched, fetching up at a free festival in Victoria Park, East London. A friend whisked me away from the park, however: rather than listen to music, we should make our presence felt in Spitalfields, where the NF was assembling. 

Photograph by Paul Trevor in Brick Lane 1978, Stepney Books Publications,1994

In September 1978, I headed from Leeds (where I now lived and worked) to London for a second ANL rally. Marching with many others, the diverse vibrancy and collective show of strength instilled hope. Then, as we proceeded along Railton Road and neared Brockwell Park, I was enchanted by the Brixton Fairies, glittering in sunshine, waving us on from their gay squats.  Yet, on returning to Leeds I had to watch out for NF thugs, and the Yorkshire Ripper.

In January 1979, my father and I attended a meeting on Feminism and the Left at a Bradford bookshop. Being the first to leave, he opened the door – to be greeted by men leaping through the air, their rallying cry: “Let’s get the Commie bastards!”.  We slammed the door shut in their faces. 

Soon afterwards, the Winter of Discontent at the back of me, I set sail for Hamburg – for better pay than I got at a Leeds hospital.

* 7% of the British populace owned 84% of its wealth.
*** **** After my father’s suicide, in 1983, I saw Zed in Wakefield. Having shaken off the old identity, she said that after referral for treatment and prescribed medication, she had realised, just in time to avoid invasive surgery, she had herself been in a deep crisis.

Groundhog Day (Der Tag des Murmeltiers)

As 1969 began, I wondered what the year would bring. Having checked out our neighbourhood, it was clear that our house straddled the class divide. On the opposite side of our street, mothers drove their smartly uniformed children to private primary schools. Our backyard gave on to a terrace of small houses, in which working class folk lived. The children opposite said the children at the back were the ‘Gasworks Gang’, and being ‘rough’, were to be avoided. 

One summer evening, as I was standing outside our house, the privileged kids lured me along a lane and, grabbing my limbs, shoved me into a row of nettle bushes. Avoiding the front that summer, however, I retreated into our backyard, where I reflected on my heroines, Angela Davis

Angela Davis: Portrait of a Revolutionary, dir. Yolande DuLuart, 1972

and Bernadette Devlin. When one day my younger next-door neighbour told me her Northern Irish mother called Bernadette “a devil” I was shocked: this was the first time I had encountered white-on-white prejudice.

Still from Bernadette, Duncan Campbell, 2008

I was a relief, then, to spend two weeks at a friend’s flat in North London. Highlights were regular and adventure playgrounds (with high slide that as soon as I slid put paid to the labour-saving paper knickers I wore that holiday); and bright yellow lemon ice-cream from an Italian café in the market. It felt good to see the smiling friendly faces of David and his partner, arm-in-arm, as we all strolled under a sun-lit avenue of plane trees in the local park. Darkness fell, however, when one evening (with my parents) I watched a programme about the Nazis’ camps. From that night on, sketches of the gas chambers and images of gas sprinklers pressed in on me.

At the start of the school year my teacher asked about our summer holidays. My class-mate, Denise (who also wore NHS glasses and so counted as a kindred spirit) said she had been to visit family in Ulster. Mrs Clark mentioned the deployment of troops and asked Denise if the trouble in Derry had been scary – it had.

Unsettling on another level was Edie’s departure that term for Hillcroft College, near London, where she took a second chance at education – in a women-only setting. From there she slipped into the first national women’s conference, at Ruskin College in 1970. Meanwhile, kind women members of the IS baby-sat while my father attended meetings. My confidence had returned: when I ventured out front I was struck by Conservative Party General Election posters – sported by the children opposite atop their tricycles. 

A month or so later that 1970 summer of 1970 after Edie’s return to York, in summer 1970, she told me that we would soon move to New York, for a year. I wondered what arrangements would be made for the 11+ exam on my return.  Although New York City was exciting – Edie took me to Judo, as “every girl should know how to defend herself”, and my father taught us ‘Wobblies’* songs – I fretted about the exam. In September 1971, my father and I returned to York (Edie saw Liverpool family) so that I could sit the Eleven Plus. While I worried that the school year had begun by then, he coached me for the exam. 

That October I was admitted to a girls’ grammar school. The contrast with American beliefs in freedom and equality was so stark that my cultural dislocation was complete. I felt injustice – on behalf of other children, including Denise, who had failed the exam and gone to the secondary modern. That autumn I happened upon a small book on our mantelpiece:

At my school the banned book was a sensation: at dinner-time it was passed along the queue, or pored over behind raised desks, by girls in navy uniform.

Finding my voice, when our class teacher asked what we would like to discuss – and aware that Edie had been to a feminist meeting at my Queens elementary school, where she had befriended Lola, a Black American from the Deep South – I suggested Feminism. I was crestfallen when my classmates expressed no interest in it.

The new year saw further emotional disruption: Edie threw my father out of the house. I attempted to connect with him, through politics, during a febrile time. Although it was made clear that I could not take part in the protest against Bloody Sunday, soon afterwards, in February 1972, I was permitted to attend a rally of striking miners. Inside the Knottingley miners’ club, amidst massed masculine expression of resistance to the Heath government, I was bemused to find that, fluorescently illumined bar staff aside, I was the only female. 

Perhaps sensing my dislocation, my father suggested I attend a meeting of Rebel, the IS youth group. As soon as I arrived I felt it was not the place for me: either bearded or clean-shaven youths, the latter disillusioned Army recruits, took the floor. My father took me to a talk on Free Schools, as well as days away from school to Oxford, London and Edinburgh – where he was to speak about the Left, and R.D. Laing, whose arch-critic he had become. 

The following year I began to harangue my father about the male dominance of the IS. By the end of 1973, however, I had decided to give them a second chance. So I agreed to go to the IS conference at the Belle Vue Stadium in Manchester. There was much excited discussion of capitalism in crisis. After alighting the coach, I told my father that I had overheard the young daughter of the esteemed worker in the seat behind tell of his battering of her Mum. Edie had by now cited Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. ” One is not born a woman” resonated throughout my teenage years.

The beginning of 1974 saw the conjunction of the Oil Crisis and miners’ industrial action, which resulted in the so-called Three-Day Week, whereby electricity was in short supply. Not only were heat and light rationed – so schools and offices closed two days per week – but public transport and private car usage were curtailed and long queues formed at petrol stations. Eventually these restrictions were lifted, but the damage to the Heath government was done: Labour came to power later that year.

Early one summer evening in 1975 my father voted in the EEC** referendum. When asked why he had voted to leave, he told me that the EEC was a capitalist market, where international workers’ solidarity was ruled out.

* The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), international labour union founded in the early years of the 20th Century. 

** European Economic Community, now European Union.

1968:One Girl’s View

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. 

[Der Spiegel]

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.