06 Back in the Old Routine; The Spanish Resistance; The 374 Monster; Ruling the Waves; Three Minute Celebrity

Back in the old routine

I was now at the break in life routine and at the age when enthusiasm tends to wane, and if one carries on any longer one becomes known as a ‘veteran’. Stubbornness carried the day against the advice that it was certainly now ‘high time to settle down’ as my family and friends said in principle and most of my contemporaries were doing in practice. Any pretence of there being an anarchist movement had collapsed with the effects of the ‘split’.

Most of my previous political colleagues had gone into purely trade union activity rather despairing of any chance of other activity in the drab era we were facing. When Orwell wrote of the bleak world of 1984 he was satirising 1948, not prophesying, but the learned critics misunderstood his message. In the same way, when he wrote Animal Farm he was attacking the Communist Party from a left wing angle, but this time he was too clever by half and the right wing enthused.

Any enthusiasm for the Labour Party among the working class had waned considerably though the more vociferously the media attacked it, the more it retained some credibility. What was left of the old working class movement was steadily being taken over by outsiders, a process which had begun during the war when defending class seemed less relevant than opposing war.

I had been discharged from the Army in much better condition than a great many, certainly physically, but I had no gratuity — just enough to live on for two or three weeks, no possessions, and a then incomprehensible blank wall against getting employment though there was plenty of work about.

In addition, Rozzie decided to return to her husband, whose companion had died or been deserted. He offered better security for her old age which was a long way off — she was only twenty-six at the time. It is ironic that he died forty years later leaving her penniless, and I paid the funeral expenses for old time’s sake.

My parents were supportive, but I didn’t want to live off them and they couldn’t have borne to see me sink. At pains I got a job, but it meant false references and a slight change of identity (I juggled with my forenames) which would seem an unnecessary price to pay for indifferent warehouse employment. It would seem, though illegal, one way to beat the secret compilers of blacklists, presumably the Economic League.

Notwithstanding the glowing references I had given myself, there was the usual humiliation of a job interview — how I loathed that process of selling oneself! I was asked what interest I had in the textile trade. Some people might be interested in the textile trade at that end of it, but most surely would only be doing it for what cash it brought in. That was considered a dreadful confession only counter-balanced by the brilliant ability and experience conveyed by the references.

It was the heyday of the textile trade, when clothes rationing meant woollen merchants could not put a foot wrong, They ordered stock and by the time the mills had completed their order, it was worth many times as much as the merchants had contracted to pay, and there was a shrinking supply and growing demand on top. The mills could not be bothered to sell to the tailor in smaller qualities, and the emphasis on export meant the home market was glad to pay any price. Those were still the days when the tailor still boomed: everyone wore suits and even the poorest had a best suit, even if it spent a lot of its life in the pawnshop. Yet while profits were soaring, wages were still low and hours needlessly long.

The smallish firm for which I worked was not the worst for wages in Golden Square, headquarters of the wholesale textile merchants, but the managing director would spend hours in the morning holding up work, in one-sided conversations with his meek partner. He’d then go on until three in the afternoon haranguing different members of the staff in turn, and then expect them to work until all hours to finish their long-delayed day’s work. Even the office staff worked every Saturday morning, but as his habit was more or less the same on that day too, some of them, especially his long-suffering and devoted secretary, stayed until four and regarded those who did not as disloyal clock-watchers. They had been working there twenty years or so and put the firm first.

Trying to organise a small staff like that, and one accustomed to bullying in the bargain, was a herculean task, especially as all were of different trades and there was no union interested. I tried to link up with some other firms around Golden Square and as strike action was well-nigh impossible, with only two or three per house prepared even to talk about it, I adopted a tactic well in accord, one would have thought, with Conservative principles. As there was a labour shortage, I persuaded people I contacted in the local lunch bars to exchange notes on the ‘market’ state of wages and conditions. Some firms were not too bad, others utterly deplorable, and all were prepared to grab one another’s skilled staff.

Hell hath no fury like employers thus scorned by ungrateful scoundrels treacherously conspiring to raise their wages, especially when the dangerous reds from the Board of Trade said there was no case for prosecution. This for them was socialism red in tooth and claw and anything more would have caused spontaneous combustion. The only remedy they had was to appeal to staff that the Labour Government blessed their efforts at the export trade; and when that didn’t work, to raise wages. Mine had trebled until one day I came into work to find the door locked against me with a message that I was sacked — I was handed a coat I had left, and got a fortnight’s wages in lieu of notice on my threatening to sue. Apparently someone seeking advancement had mentioned my name, as well as others elsewhere. It didn’t do the firm any good — within two months most of the staff, other than the faithful secretary, had departed. Though the effect of years under minor tyranny was they gave notice when the hectoring managing director was on an extended sales trip, preferring to face his meek partner with intimation of their disloyalty in leaving.

I translated a couple of books to keep the pot boiling, but I did not do too well on translations financially. On the first the advance was paid to someone else who had originally contracted to do it and I was left with the remaining royalties. Even so the publisher, Arthur Barker, brought out a paperback edition without informing me, and complained bitterly when I discovered it inadvertently. On the second, after I had typed and re-typed it, I was persuaded by the publishers to pay a professional typist for the finished job, which meant she got more for typing one draft than I did for typing two and translating as well. It was hardly economic, so I joined Reuters as a translator, to find I could earn as much as a copytaker, and do a lot less work. I gave up translating for copytaking. The translators, then at any rate, cut each others throats while the copytakers organised with others in the print.

I quite enjoyed the atmosphere at Reuters, which at that time was fairly free-and-easy for copytakers. Unionwise it was fairly tightly sewn up. Later Reuters declined in comparative organisation and wages, and as far as copytakers were concerned became a place where they started in Fleet Street and then, having learned the trade, moved on.

Around that time, visiting Spain, I had met some of the veterans of the anarcho-syndicalist CNT. Abroad, the emigration kept itself intact, almost an extended family. The exile group in London was moribund. It followed the quietistic lead of the ossified organisation in Toulouse, now unwilling to call itself by its own name (and referring to itself as the MLE — Spanish Libertarian Movement). It gave no help to the CNT-FAI Resistance within Spain. It was years before anyone outside learned much about the Resistance which was then at its peak. The harsh situation in which the exiles found themselves meant they could not mount a challenge to the Toulouse-centred organisation, but within Spain the syndicalist union was painfully being reconstructed despite the genocide.

There had long been an illusion in Spain that ‘the democracies’ would not allow Franco to get away with it. It was painful for them when one argued against this illusion, still going strong up to ten years after the war. The Allied powers had not gone to war to ‘preserve democracy’: they had gone to war to preserve themselves. The enemy in the second world war was totalitarian just as in WWI German militarism and monarchy was the enemy in the first. But in no case did any Power go to war for ideology, neither to smash totalitarianism, nor monarchy, nor militarism nor capitalism nor imperialism or any other ideology, nor did saying so serve any purpose other than propaganda. The only exception in the warring powers was Hitler, who did allow ideological considerations to override commonsense. Russian State Communism had allied itself with Nazism, then with the capitalist West, but it was thinking of national boundaries and State interests. Though the British Embassy had made full use of the anti-Nazi activists in Spain, it had no intention of giving any reward.

In the action group of Barcelona I kept hearing about ‘la inglesa’ from Bilbao who was their contact with Andalucia, where she now lived. Catalans are fond of nicknames and they are not always accurate (I hope — I became known as ‘el gordo’). When I was due to meet ‘la inglesa’ I found that, though Basque, she had British nationality and used the access it gave her to maintain foreign contacts and to travel around freely, even in the days when others were in French concentration camps. I met her — and, to my surprise, she was Melchita, widow of my friend and mentor Wilson Campbell.

We made an appointment in the gardens of the Alcazar, Seville, and I recalled bathetically the first time I had met Billy was at the Alcazar, Edmonton.

The Spanish Resistance

From then on I got hooked into the Spanish Resistance. The quietistic bunch of exiles in London had not made much impression on me up to then. I subsequently found there were much better comrades than I thought amongst them but it is understandable that many had got settled into English ways and exile politics, with no idea as to the way ahead. Inside Spain, those who were not in prison were either into action groups which I did not then meet myself, as it would have been unfair to expect them to blow their cover, or trying to rebuild their unionisation structure.

It was very slow work for them as the police were everywhere, swarming over the country as if it were a conquered province, as indeed it was. So tight was the security that when, with the first wave of tourism, a London doctor came down into Catalonia by road in a touring caravan, his family camping out in the picturesque scenery and enjoying the sun and fresh air as countless thousands have done since, the Civil Guard assumed it was the head of an invading force of guerrillas coming over the border and shot the entire family down. They later blaming Sabater, who wasn’t even in the country at the time.

Gradually the Franco regime adapted itself to tourism. Even the Church had to give up its insistence on the police maintaining a strict watch on beaches, not fearing invasion but too-revealing bathing costumes. Grim-faced Civil Guards, who had carried out mass murders in the post-war genocide were detailed to order ladies back to the huts to put on approved bathing costumes. Meeting my contact Francisco Gomez with some papers I had brought from London, we decided the best place to meet was on the beach at San Sebastian. I panicked when the Civil Guard approached almost directly before I met him, but it was just that my London-bought trunks were not ‘sufficiently ample’ and threatened the morality of the Christian State. Strange to think my bodily charms, never before or since the subject of flattering comment, imperilled the vile regime!

Within a year or so the entire atmosphere changed. The tourist invasion with its huge spending broke down the dress restrictions, and police gave up supervising foreigners altogether. When I came in, first on charter flights and buses, often with football crowds, I was ignored by Spanish Immigration and Customs control. Later, when I came by car, I was waved through unquestioned, not even the passport, let alone the baggage, being checked. Even the occasional Spaniard in the car, whom we explained away if passports were actually requested as being a guide or interpreter, only impressed the Customs officer with the importance of tourists who could afford such luxuries. But usually an English number plate meant no questions asked.

Strange that the only place where searching questions were asked; cars and baggage searched; delays made up to two or three hours; dissident literature regarded if not equivalent to explosives, at least possibly indicative of their presence, was when one came back to England, where dissenting literature had been freely and legally printed and distributed for 150 unbroken years.

The 374 Monster

Since the split of 1944 I had been somewhat a lone wolf even in the few soi-disant anarchist groups. True, the majority of the remaining anarchists took the same position that I did, which was that neither of the two factions involved in the personality clash were viable groupings. The older workers were dying off and the younger dropping out of activity as everyday commitments grabbed them and the possibility of real achievement became remote.

A part of the majority section of the Anarchist Federation had become the Syndicalist Workers Federation and was fairly alive to industrial action. It was obstinacy on my part that I could not be reconciled with them owing to their domination by the Spanish exile group which supported the Toulouse centred organisation and opposed the Resistance, with which I felt personal ties.

On the other hand, the Freedom Press Group, which I never joined because of their lack of interest in class struggle and increasing fixation with academia, especially after the death at thirty-one years of age of M. L. Berneri in 1949, became quietistic up to the point when it even offered apologies for Herbert Read’s accepting a knighthood four years later.

Frank Leech was typical of many who, though unwilling to accept that Freedom Press had become Richards’ fief and was no longer owned by the anarchist movement, thought it was fantasy to say that Read, this lucid writer on anarchist philosophy, had taken a knighthood from Churchill. When told of it by a member of a factory gate audience at one of his outdoor Glasgow meetings of it, and assured it was in the Sunday Record, he said, “Blethers, I dinna believe what it says there — wait until Freedom comes out next week and we’ll hear the truth”. When he read that not only had Read accepted the knighthood but the Freedom editors offered ‘explanations’ and apologies, this great fighter dropped dead of apoplexy. It may have had no connection but I saw the warning: either I decreased my blood pressure or ceased effective collaboration with those liable to cause it to rise alarmingly.

Any remaining confidence I had in them vanished. I still wrote a few articles for Freedom here and there, seeking some new contacts, became secretary of this or that group and fresh attempt at an organisation with some purpose but knew it was a waste of time. A lot of my friends in the Labour Party felt the same way about electoral activity.

Ch’en Chang, a doctor in China — whom I had met in London in 1938 when he had been a medical student — was in contact with me from China where despite incredible problems, the rump of the once vast anarchist movement was struggling on. From India, Mohandas P. T. Acharya was still striving on his own in the whole sub-continent to establish a movement. Melchita from Spain, who was in touch with the Resistance, was now a regular correspondent.

I felt quite ashamed that, with no problems, there was no movement here to support them, and everything had gone down the drain. I formed an Asian prisoners aid committee, with support of some friends at work, to give some aid to Ch’en Chang to pass on, but it was woefully small. There was only one thing to do — try to re-structure the movement at least to give some solidarity back-up abroad.

The first attempt to do this, though it lasted a year (1953) and was a publishing success, was a failure in practical results. With Albert Grace, an old docker friend, and one or two others, we published The Syndicalist, a monthly paper which, it was hoped, would be the basis for an anarcho-syndicalist movement that was not tied to the SWF though it might at a later stage be able to co-operate. To produce it we sought the co-operation of Freedom Press. I still hadn’t learned my lesson, and supposed it still to belong to the anarchist movement, if in practice under the control of Richards. They still, however, recognised some sort of obligation and it was printed free at their printing press by Philip Sansom who also contributed some articles. He fancied himself a successor to Tom Brown in writing syndicalist articles for Freedom, though he had never worked outside Freedom Press and freelance art, and indeed later echoed the belief that working for a capitalist boss was some sort of shameful compromise, which didn’t say much for his interest in syndicalist organisation.

After a year’s run, Sansom announced the paper was to close because it was costing too much. Had it appeared twenty years earlier or twenty later it might have made an impact, but given the period, it passed without a ripple.

Although I gave up much hope after that of achieving anything, at least with them, I formed a private tenants sector in St. Pancras and we had some minor rent strikes but this fizzled out as people got rehoused. I carried on with some meetings, tried with some flagging interest in various libertarian groups and wrote a few articles. I had not realised that the Freedom Press Group, since it had broken away from the old Anarchist Federation, was degenerating into a privately owned publishing house. Any venture like The Syndicalist only boosted their credibility. Articles in Freedom, however they opposed its policy, did the same.

Suddenly I got a request by Acharya to stage an art exhibition of the works of his companion Magda Nachman, who had just died. She had joined him in Moscow in the early Twenties, when he had been in the Comintern as a fervent young Indian nationalist until he lost his illusions in State Communism. They had moved to Berlin and had shared the problems of exile. She was making a name as an artist, and was featured in Hitler’s famous Exhibition of Decadent Art when they moved to Bombay. Starting again from scratch, she had specialised in Indian subjects. Acharya wrote me despairingly he could not bear to think she would be forgotten and asked me to arrange an exhibition in London.

I knew the art world wouldn’t be impressed by a letter from me in furnished rooms. But simultaneously I was asked to open an office as a front for the Spanish Resistance by Francisco Gomez. He had some connection with the campaign that followed the smashing of the Tallion Group in Spain after Sabater was killed and many arrested, Miguel Garcia among others being sentenced to death (commuted to twenty years as the result of pressure).

On two counts I had, therefore, to open an office. It was then impossible to get a house or flat, at least with the nil resources I had, but business premises posed no problem. I took a couple of office rooms at 374 Grays Inn Road: it is worth commenting on the building, which had played an important part in Dissident London since the early thirties. Over a milk bar almost facing Kings Cross Station there was quite a warren of small rooms all suitable for letting out. It had housed a moneylender on the first floor, but above that had been the offices of a variety of left-wing causes, from the embryonic Unity Theatre to the International Brigade Association, various Indian prisoners associations (all rival), peace groups and breakaway unions. Later there were also the Connolly Association, the Militant Tendency and the Oehlerites, until it finally passed into the hands of Time Out. Some rightist commentators later thought there was some sinister connection between them all. But it was quite fortuitous. It was simply cheap and run-down.

The owners were a railway excess properties trust, headed by Sir Bernard Docker, which enables me to say misleadingly that when I finally became the superior lessee, the famous international socialite of the Sixties, Lady Docker was my landlady.

The lessee who had taken over the lease when the moneylender had ceased business and the building had become vacant was entertaining, plausible and shady. For what it was worth he totally took me and a great many others in, though he never did very well out of it. He had been working for the type of space-selling trade directory in which a small business is persuaded to part with cash for an entry in a trades directory and the seller and publisher get half each. There is no salary or other contract. [The publisher gets half of each sale, even if the salesperson doesn’t make enough sales to cover bus fares, and doesn’t publish until they have enough revenue (some not at all).] The value to the client, who often forgets ever putting in an ‘entry’, is nil.

The publisher can’t lose, but Levene had been a successful salesman, with a technique based on straining people’s politeness till they either threw him out or gave in. The company offered to take him on salary. He felt this a trick as indeed it was. He was earning too much for their liking, and he tried throttling the managing director, which strained his relationship with the firm, and he therefore set up in his own. This is what pushed him into dubious dealing — he had never done so before. He produced dummy copies of directories and papers that never appeared and to cover the rent of the building let out the top floor to a business lady who was somewhat coy as to what her business was.

I told him I wouldn’t stay in the same building once her clients, though respectable enough in their bowler hats and suits, made it quite clear to me what the business was. He persuaded me to come into publication with him when he had got her out. I am afraid I was a sitting duck. I produced a dummy fashion trade magazine, not that I knew anything about fashion. My girl friend Evie did and she persuaded me into the venture. He offered me twice as much as I was earning at Reuters to work for him. I gave up my job accordingly.

We started a trade paper, based on his financial castle in the air. It was built on kite-flying, which is arranging with the bank to clear cheques immediately instead of waiting, and then swopping cheques with someone else who probably had nothing in the bank either but whose cheque would be honoured if another piece of paper could be found to cover it. This way two trade papers actually got off the ground but meanwhile I found that all the money coming in, such as it was, was going to him and only a fraction of my supposed salary going to me. I was being made responsible without realising it for all the gradually mounting debts.

Meanwhile he was letting out various rooms there, including the Movement for Colonial Freedom, many of whose supporters became important figures within independence struggles, much as many of Cores’s old Freedom Group speakers and habitues — George Padmore, Jomo Kenyatta, Krishna Menon — had done before. Some of the more sincere of this wave found themselves sidetracked, like Joseph Murumbi, or imprisoned like many others once national freedom had been achieved. Another was Abdul Rahman Babu, who zealously worked the duplicator. When he returned to Dar-es-Salaam it was as a Minister of State but not for long. He soon found himself in President Nyerere’s prisons.

As there were a number of Spanish emigre supporters of the MCF through Fenner Brockway, its chair, Gomez preserved his cover by claiming to be writing for the trade mags to explain his presence in the building. Levene suddenly discovered of himself — or so he said — that he had been made bankrupt years before and was thus illegally obtaining and living on credit, so he took the opportunity of my saying that I was Gomez’s employer by holding me out to his creditors as owner of the whole enterprise, and finally switched the lease to me.

He did find me an art gallery prepared to stage an exhibition of Magda Nachman’s paintings. It was things like that which made it hard to break off connections with him. Unfortunately, Acharya died suddenly. The Indian authorities blocked the export of Magda’s paintings and stated they had been claimed by Acharya’s legal widow, whom he had married at fifteen by parental arrangement and not seen for fifty odd years, and who thought she had come into unexpected treasure. So they vanished from sight.

Within eighteen months of my leaving Reuters I was going around without the price of a cup of coffee in my pocket at any one time, yet everyone I knew thought I was making a fortune. Why, I was managing editor of two papers. I had even a member of staff, Gomez, paid just for writing one article a month. I attracted unpublished writers like a magnet. As commercial television was about to start, one nutcase freelance tried to persuade me to start a magazine to cater for its audiences, with its programmes which he had learned the Radio Times wouldn’t carry. He was hesitant — yet insistent — on revealing his wonderful idea to me lest I start it and exclude him, as he knew it would be a money-spinner.

Indeed it proved to be so when, the following week, the TV Times came out — financed by somewhat more money than I carried round in my pocket — and this idiot felt I must have betrayed his confidence as nobody else could have thought of such an original idea, and if he’s still alive the poor sap probably thinks I still compete successfully with the Radio Times, and the fact that for years millions knew their Channel 3 and 4 programmes was due to his unfairly stolen brainwave.

Meanwhile I was visiting the county court regularly. Sometimes I had never heard of the creditor concerned, but Levene had run up debts in my name. Confronted with any reproach, he had an asthmatic seizure. It always occurred when confronted with reality — he was not conscious of defrauding anyone and lived in a fantasy world and always insisted he was trying to do his best for me.

I cut my losses and made a break with him though he never gave up popping back with fantastic schemes. Even I was not to be fooled when he began collecting subscriptions from back street East End tailors to place a deposit on a battleship. The idea was that having paid a small deposit, it would be sold to the Czechs, whose sole buying agency would deal with him (he insisted) as a still loyal Communist, as distinct from a normal trader. He had pointed out to all there was only one per cent commission — but on several million pounds. It is incredible that successful, but semi-literate, punters fell for this.

I have no idea from what port they thought the Czechs would operate their fleet, but in the course of his looking for backers, he had stumbled across Will Owen MP secretary of the Master Ladies Tailors Organisation, who had listened sympathetically. An old miners’ union official, in the Morpeth parliamentary seat as Buggins’ turn but a political and commercial innocent, he let himself be a sponsor. The Czech trading Consul approached with the bizarre scheme, dismissed it instantly but Czech Intelligence was attracted by the MP (it’s just possible they confused him with Dr Owen, the Foreign Secretary). For the next fifteen years they invited him to dinners, flattered him, gave him expense accounts for write-ups from trade magazines. Thus poor Mr Owen fell foul of British Intelligence. “Denounced” by a dodgy defector from Czech Intelligence, Josef Frolik, as a spy, though he had not even the chance of spying on anything or anybody, they brought a prosecution. The press thought him a left-winger, though he had always been well to the right if anything. He was an unsophisticated participant in someone else’s fantasy, as became clear in court. He was acquitted though disgraced and resigned his seat.

Meanwhile Levene had suddenly dropped dead in his thirties of a genuine asthmatic seizure, thus disproving everyone who had thought his attacks over-dramatised.

Ruling the Waves

While the idea of a successful TV Times, least of all financed by peanuts, did not impress me, I was somewhat more interested in the announcement in 1961, I think it was, by Pye of Cambridge that they were now in a position to build a hundred or so radio stations, which could be operated inexpensively. They submitted plans to the Pilkington Committee, set up to deliberate on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s monopoly.

Tories jumped at the idea of commercialised radio and television. Large advertisers could be guaranteed to preserve their domination of the waves. Most liberal and socialist people demurred at the idea, preferring the quasi-State monopoly. Nobody had considered the question of freedom of the airwaves. I reasoned that if broadcasting had been invented before printing, struggles for Freedom of the Airwaves would have ensured it became the sacred cow of liberal thought and there would have been an established British Publishing Corporation. The idea of extending this to printing would have been regarded as “revolutionary”.

True, the profit motive counted in print as much as anywhere else. But at least one could get a word in edgeways. Not in British radio. Yet in America everyone and anyone could buy time for any commercial, religious or political cause whatever, without necessarily owning a radio station. When one wanted a book printed here, one did not have to own a printing press. A publisher could apply to a printer, but the law prevented a radio producer buying time on a station.

Unfortunately, when I submitted my arguments to the Pilkington Committee, the unfortunate reference to America put everyone off, since American radio and television were held in such low esteem. But were they worse than British journalism?

I formed the short lived campaign group, the Radio Freedom League, supported by the rationalist J. M. Alexander and Kitty Lamb. We got nowhere, I am afraid, The idea of anyone having access to the air, the way anyone has access to a printing press providing one can pay the bill (a heavy obstacle, agreed) — as distinct from owning the works — was too wildly democratic. Anyway, the Committee decided to keep the stations limited, and make the most of commercial advertising.

Like many seemingly wild ideas, freedom of the air withered on the legal vine. But twenty years or so later the restrictions on broadcasting were challenged when the technical possibilities proved even simpler. Pirate radios challenged the law, some operated by commercialised music, some by the new sub-culture, even one or two by anarchists. To meet the challenge of the pirates, many more than Pye’s modest 100 stations now operate legally in the British Isles though there are still illegal ones. The latest notion is that if you can claim an “ethnic need” you might get one. They order these things better in France, where Radio Libertaire, doyen of free radios, is still flourishing without the least commercial backing.

Three Minute Celebrity

There was a very good Spanish Society in Liverpool, run by a Republican exile, situated in the modern languages school in Tithebarn Street. Purely for social purposes I went up there once at the invitation of Gomez. As usual, I had no idea what he was up to but he wanted me to cover for him. It was a literary occasion at which a number of the Spanish community was present, and politics tactfully ignored. My cherished friend Evie was due at a fashion showing at the Stork Hotel on the same night so we went up together by train, first class, entering it on her expenses. The carriage was empty but for us and the next compartment though it was standing room only in the rest of the train.

When a young ticket collector came in, he said excitedly, “Cliff Richard is next door”.

“Really,” she remarked but I broke in, “For God’s sake don’t tell him we’re here”.

“Oh, no, sir, of course not,” said the collector, who must have wondered who I was (I felt that way too sometimes). He seemed pleased at having two celebrities in one day and I later explained to Evie I had a friendly feeling for ticket collectors and inspectors ever since my Stockton to London journey all those years ago, so I never disillusioned him by saying he had but one. She riposted, “Cliff Richard’s quite famous, too, in his own way”.

The pop star had an enormous and excited crowd waiting at Liverpool. He and his companions stayed in their seats while we walked out and I acknowledged the cheers of the crowd at least one of whom waved back, Gomez. The singer and his entourage slipped out of the coach on the other side and made a dash for a waiting van which some fans pursued screaming as he scuttled off like a criminal. Such is fame.

We all went off to our respective appointments — Evie, I and Francisco to our hotel, and Cliff Richard and his group to theirs. We went to the Stork, where I met Republican exiles, as distinct from confederals, for the first time in any number. One of them was Luis Portillo, a socialist. He spoke on the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, and mentioned in passing his famous last lecture. He had written it in Spanish and we reproduced it as a pamphlet in English, though it was not exactly our line. The elderly philosopher had spoken on Columbus Day at Salamanca University, in the company of senora Franco, shortly after the outbreak of civil war, and movingly defied the interruptions and outcries against Catalans and Basques by his audience. He publicly told the ferocious General Millan de Astray, whose battle cry was “Long live death”, among other things that he was a necrophiliac; that he could conquer but not convince; and that he would make Spain a war cripple like himself, with one eye and one arm lost in battle. Shortly afterwards, as might be expected, Unamuno died suddenly.

One Spanish lady came up to me at the reception, as one of the few non-Spanish present after the language students had gone, and showed me her infant sons. “What do you think of my little Englishmen?” she said proudly, offering them for an embrace. I kissed one of them dutifully. In later years I had an uneasy feeling the mother might have been senora Portillo, and the baby I kissed her son Michael, who grew up to come to a bad end. Fortunately it wasn’t, as it would never do for the reputation of either of us if the Sun, say, got hold of the story that I kissed a Tory Minister. It would certainly make me a celebrity for a few minutes, though I doubt to popular acclaim. Mrs Portillo, who was English, did not come to the meeting. Fortunately Gomez later assured me the proud Spanish lady was the wife of one of the other gentlemen playing at being Ministers, or family history would have repeated itself.

When my grandfather was in his 80s he woke up one night with a start and remembered that once as a youth in Vienna his father gave him, to throw in the bin, a long greasy coat discarded by a beggar to whom great-grandpa gave his own old coat. Instead he had given the coat to a charity collector, who had turned up its nose at the smelly rags at first. Sixty years later he read that Hitler as a young man in poverty had been handed just such a coat from that very charity, and it occurred to him with a shock that it might have been the identical coat that saved Hitler’s life that winter, and what seemed a minor good deed at the time cost millions of lives. He was not to be consoled by my grandmother working out, for all that she could not count, that this must have been at least twenty years before Hitler turned up in the city of song. Coats like that, he, he said mournfully, never seem to get scrapped but are constantly exchanged for newer ones.

Mr Portillo has not in the interim turned out as bad as Hitler, though one must give him time. Some mothers do have ‘em but I wish they wouldn’t offer them in their arms for strangers to kiss. I wonder how the other infants turned out, but it couldn’t be as badly.

Posted By

Juan Conatz
Jan 3 2011 06:49


I couldn't paint golden angels: Sixty years of commonplace life and anarchist agitation - Albert Meltzer

Attached files