“You only live once and nobody else can live your life for you”, my Uncle Jeff told my cousin Alan and me when I was maybe 18-19 years old. We would pay a visit to his tiny council flat in Clapham in South London, normally on a Saturday afternoon and engage in intense political and cultural discussions about what was going on in the world, whilst Auntie Gladys would fuss around us all the time, making sure we didn’t over-excite Jeff, as he’d recently had a heart attack.
Jeff was a high school teacher most of his life in tough, inner city schools, first in the East End and then in South London. Self-taught, getting his degrees through evening classes, he continued to study throughout his entire life. Always curious, and a teacher of geography, rarely judgemental, along with another brother, Ellis and my dad Roy, they were life-long Communists and labor activists, and for myself and many of my (many) cousins, they were major role models for us.
All told, there were eight brothers and sisters in my dad’s family and all excelled in something or other. Uncle Reggie was an innovative chemist who invented an entire range of synthetic printing inks. Auntie Minnie was personal secretary to three successive General Secretary’s of the British Communist Party from the 1930s onwards. Only Auntie Phyliss was a ‘housewife’ but still an activist all of her life. When she and her family moved to South Wales, she joined the choir of the local chapel, and even though she was an atheist, she sang every week in chapel because she had a wonderful voice and loved the culture of the Welsh valleys.
These three brothers – plus another brother, William who died during the war – had grown up together through the 1930s and been very active in the struggle against Fascism, the Unemployed Movement, the Spanish Civil War and finally, WWII and were among the founding members of the Young Communist League. Their father was also a socialist but a strict, Victorian man who I never knew as he died when I was still a baby. They represented an entire generation of working class political activists who were, in my opinion anyway, the real internationalists, many of whom died in the Spanish Civil War.
Rarely in the spotlight, they worked hard at whatever they did and almost always excelled. They had to, they had to continually prove their worth as Workers as well as trade unionists and political activists, not only to the bosses but also to their workmates. Interestingly, many were engineers and tool makers like my dad (who was also a professional musician and trade union organiser). Ellis was a print compositor for the Daily Worker and Father of the Chapel as the union was known in the printing industry. He was also the ‘front man’ for the African Communist until he died as well as an accomplished amateur classical pianist. These were passionate, caring people who to me and my contemporaries, represented what being a Communist was all about.
But these were guys who had never been to university or college (all left school at 14 or 15), yet their bookshelves were crammed with every conceivable title, from the classics to the cream of contemporary fiction, to science, history, philosophy, linguistics – the works. They listened (and played) Brahms and Beethoven and went hiking in the country because they had a feel for nature which went beyond mere appreciation. They had all attended the Workers Educational Institutes, which were founded in the first flush of socialist culture in the late 19th century by the likes of William Morris, architect, designer, writer, activist and one of the founders of the Cooperative movement. Here, they learned their Marx and Engels, improved their command of the English language, explored the science of evolution and learned about Nature and biology.
Like many of their generation, they believed in the rational power of science, of politics and passion, good and evil, right and wrong and in the ‘inevitable’ success of the World Socialist Revolution. They were all multi-talented and multi-skilled and were, in many ways, the culmination of Britain’s Industrial Revolution: The cosmopolitan, industrial working-class man, steeped in the traditions of trade union and political organisation, local and international affairs, extending everywhere the British Empire did and a lot of other places the Empire didn’t. Their comrades and friends came from the Caribbean, Africa and Asia, everyone from Paul Robeson to Ronnie Kasrils. These were people who mixed with everyone, everywhere.
I’ve included some photos of some the brothers, one taken in Durban I think, in the late 1930s or early the 1940s after war had broken out. My dad was a musician on a ship at the time and at one point both he and Ellis were here together. This must have been where they forged their first ties with the then CPSA or perhaps it was in London. I’d be interested to hear from anyone with knowledge of their time here even though it was over 60 years ago. I do know that my dad had a girlfriend who was in the CPSA, possibly it was Dora Alexander.
So where do these role models fit in? Well firstly, they taught us to be curious and to continually question and to take nothing for granted, even a life of politics and revolution needed to be questioned, after all, you only live once. Moreover, the cream of their generation were at the forefront of innovation in almost every field. Progessive meant more than a political position, it meant being avant garde, in writing, in science, in art and in social life. Radical and non-conformist, they set standards for us, which I believe, influenced our entire upbringing and definately brought me to where I am now.
As teenagers we travelled the world, bringing our experiences back for cross-examination by one uncle or aunt or another, who would try find out where our heads were at. Yet rarely did they judge us (except for Auntie Minnie), even if we got busted for smoking dagga or for punch-ups with the cops at demos. The young are immortal and know no fear, something they seemed to understand intuitively.
The opening statement of this essay was made in the context of our long hair, levis, grey Clarks Desert boots and black leather jackets, pretty much the ‘uniform’ of young (and not so young) lefties in the 60s. Uncle Jeff also told us that Saturday afternoon in Clapham, “If they can dictate the length of the stuff that grows out of your heads, then they can tell you how to think.”
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