I recently read Jeremy Gavron’s book An Acre of Barren Ground, (Scribner, 2005) which is a fine book. One chapter, entitled People’s Restaurant, relates the history of the group of people who maintained the magazine The Worker’s Friend in the early years of the 20th Century, in the Brick Lane area. I found this a deeply touching story.
I had a parallel, if less dramatic, experience of left journalism.
For some years (in the ’70s and ’80s) I was a member of the Editorial Board of Voice of the Unions (now absorbed by another publication). The Board met monthly and established the contents of the next issue while we diligently wrapped copies to be sent to subscribers. The paper was non-sectarian – in principle anyone on the left of the Trades Unions could contribute, though there was a twitchiness about the Communist Party (referred to as the CP, or King Street). This was curious, because the secretary to the board, the redoubtable John Spencer, was generally considered an old Stalinist. But he was so tirelessly energetic and totally committed to the Labour Movement, that without his ceaseless badgering the paper might have foundered.
Although John had been in England for many years, he still had a pronounced German accent. One of his habits was to take what anyone said quite literally, so if you said “ring me up any time, John,” he would quite likely ring you at 3 am “Yes, hallo David” in the immediately recognisable rising tone, and surprise if you showed any irritation. Another habit was to use emphasis all the time, so that his copy had one, two, and three line underlinings, as well as capitalisation and multiple exclamation marks: everything was so emphasised that nothing stood out at all, and the typesetters had a hard job setting it. He wrote articles over a host of aliases (some of them borrowed from VI Lenin) – but so did many people in those days, including at least one now senior politician, who could not afford their employers to know the views they were expressing. Consequently some issues of Voice were almost entirely pseudonymous, with large articles by the likes of ‘Fred Spratt’.
I usually wrote over my own name, though I may also have been Fred Spratt on some occasion. As we rotated the editorship, and the editor had control of the edition, a number of hobby-horses galloped through the paper – Esperanto, Morris on Art, Police and Army Trade Unions, alongside the perennial concern with Trade Union and Party democracy, worker’s control and co-operatives. I tried to leaven the text with occasional drawings when it was my turn, but I soon realised that I didn’t have the ability to encapsulate a funny idea in a funny line – the ability that my old friend David Austin had so strikingly.
The best fun to be had was writing the satirical Durruti Column. The only feed-back was from other Board members: I never met anyone outside who read Voice, though I suppose someone must have.
When I was about to join Voice, I waited outside while my candidature was discussed. The Board were exercised about another candidate who was alleged to be a Maoist. In a pause the Chairman said, “How about David, then: where does he stand?” Another Board member said “I believe he’s some kind of anarchist”
“Oh well that’s all right then,” said the Chairman; “Now about this Maoist problem…”