2019: BIRTHDAY SPEECH
Text of speech given at my eightieth birthday party on 2 June at the Tufnell Park Tavern
I won’t speak for long, but the next time I get you all together will probably be my funeral, and I shan’t have speaking rights.
Thank-you all for coming, and many thanks to my son Daniel for organising today’s event.
One of the few advantages of being old – and there are precious few I assure you – is that you get a historical perspective: I can contrast the way my grandparents lived with the way my grandchildren live. My grandmother, in the 1880s, was what was called a part-timer. At the age of eight she went to work in the cotton mill at 6.00 a.m., then went to school in the afternoon. One morning this little girl fainted. It was a good teetotal Methodist family, but they gave her a swig of brandy and sent her to work, because they needed the money. On thing that has often been in the back of my mind as a trade unionist and activist is that nobody’s going to do that to my grandchildren. Now to be fair, as you can see, my grandchildren are doing quite well for themselves – but there are millions of kids round the world still being treated like that.
I was born – as those of you who can do arithmetic will know – in 1939. I was a Munich baby – my parents believed Neville Chamberlain would bring peace for our time, so they thought 1939 was a good time to start a family. It was a very different world from today. For example there were no dials on telephones – you had to ask the operator to put you through. From that to Twitter has been quite a journey. Another thing that is hard to believe nowadays: in 1950 I was lucky to see the West Indies cricket team – a great team with Worrell, Weekes, Walcott, Ramadhin and Valentine. But it was still the accepted practice that the West Indies cricket team had to have a white captain. Apparently you needed a white man for the difficult intellectual stuff like tossing up.
Then I went to university and fell in with bad company – and I’ve never really fallen out with it again. Many people can remember when Nelson Mandela came out of jail. I remember where I was when he went into jail – in a very angry mob surrounding the South African Ambassador’s car. There are a couple of us here today who were there.
I arrived in London in 1964. I remember a meeting in Tottenham Trades Hall, where I met a number of people whom I would know over many years. Some are now dead – Alan Woodward, Jim Cronin, Diane Middleton – but there are a couple of us survivors here today. It was the swinging sixties. And there were many good things about it – we had better music than nowadays. But it’s also worth remembering how much has changed. Men could still go to jail for gay sex in their own homes – from that to gay marriage is a long way in one lifetime. And I remember looking for a room to rent in Tottenham and reading the – perfectly legal – notices in newsagents’ windows that said “No Coloureds” – or the one that amused me for its wonderful mixture of racism and snobbery “No Coloureds Except Embassy”. And if so much has changed, then so much more can change in the future.
We had high hopes in those days. In the legendary year of 1968 I took out a mortgage – five thousand quid for a three-bedroom terrace house. I was confident I wouldn’t have to pay it all off – the revolution would come before that. I paid every halfpenny. They used to tell me that when I got a mortgage I’d settle down and become more conservative – but if anything was calculated to make you incandescent with rage against the capitalist system, it’s a mortgage.
I went to work at Enfield College of Technology – later Middlesex Poly, then University. I was there 29 years – you only get twenty for murder. There are a few former inmates here. I was active in NATFHE, forerunner of the UCU, and on two trades councils. I was also involved with the Anti-Nazi League, a miners’ support committee and Stop the War; I was on the editorial board of Revolutionary History and a member of the London Socialist Historians Group. We didn’t achieve all we hoped for, but I don’t regret any of it – in the words of one of my favourite writers, Victor Serge, “Nothing is ever lost”. And I met a lot of people I’m glad to have had the opportunity of knowing, quite a few of whom are here today.
In the past few years there has been a parting of the ways for some of us, as we’ve chosen different directions. It’s been sad and painful, and I don’t want to say more about it. My position now is based on Chairman Mao and John Lennon – let a hundred flowers bloom and we’re doing what we can
As I noted on the invitation, it’s a drag getting old – but some good things have happened since I was seventy. One was meeting Bel Druce – whom many of you will remember. The four years we had together were among the happiest times of my life.
Since I’ve had mobility problems I’ve had a lot of support from helpers, from AgeUK, Hope Homecare Services and Susan James Meals – a couple of them are here today – and I’ve been impressed by their efficiency, reliability, kindness and cheerfulness; they’ve helped me continue living something like a normal life.
It’s been good to see everyone today and I’m sorry I’ve not been able to talk to everyone. I do welcome visitors – I know it’s a long way to trudge out to Edmonton, but there’s a delightful Turkish restaurant within hobbling distance of my flat, so I hope to see some of you over the next few months.