4: OVER THE BOUNDARY
All crime stories depend on a dialectic of time. [Ulvaeus & Andersson, 1974]. There are two interconnected elements: the past, when the mystery occurred, and the present, when the mystery is resolved. Sometimes, as in Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear, they form two independent narratives. Elsewhere, the interrelation is considerably more complex. But it is always the past which explains the present. (J Thomson, Uncompleted PhD thesis on detective narratives)
So at eight o’clock next morning Steven and John were on my doorstep, pointing to the waiting van which was to take us to Paris. Steven was looking very cool, and as ever wearing the black driving gloves which were a bit of a standing joke among us. Already in the van were two other comrades that Steven had invited to come to Paris with us: Sue Norman and her partner – boy-friend, as we used to say in those days – Mike Applegarth. Sue had been a good friend of mine since I’d started at college. She’d listened to my problems, given me advice, helped me with contraception. I was less sure about Mike. So, I often felt, was Sue. I’m sure that on some level they must have been very fond of each other; certainly they were always around together. In a strange sense there was a very strong rapport between them. But they never stopped fighting. They were both highly political and I could only imagine that their pillow talk must consist of denunciations of reformism and altercations about the falling rate of profit.
Sue’s father had been a building worker. Most of the time he worked on what was then known as the ‘lump’ – that is, technically self-employed with no national insurance. He’d never been in a union and hated trade unions for interfering with his freedom. As was normal in the building trade, he’d had period of unemployment, and the family had been very badly off. At other times he had earned quite well, working massive amounts of overtime, and they had had quite a bit of money, generally spent immediately. They had lived in a fairly run-down area, and as Sue never tired of reminding people, they had had an outside toilet.
Mike’s background was very different. His father and his grandfather had both been lifelong Labour party members. His father worked in a large car-factory, where he had been a shop steward for many years and had eventually become convenor. Since he was a skilled man, they had probably been marginally better off than Sue’s family, but there wasn’t a lot in it. It was this conflict of backgrounds which created the needle between Mike and Sue. We were in a political group where we talked a lot about the working class. But it always very rapidly became clear that Mike and Sue were talking about two very different things. For Mike the working class was the traditional organisations of the working class – the Labour Party and the trade unions. He had learnt more history at home than he had ever learnt at school, and he would constantly refer to the Tolpuddle Martyrs or the battle of Cable Street. The working class for him were people like his father – people who spent two or three evenings a week at meetings, who read the Daily Herald – until the Labour Party sold it off to become the Sun – and who watched the television news with keen interest, shouting abuse at news presenters and Tory politicians.
For Sue the term meant something quite different. It meant the mates her father went drinking with, or went to the football match with on a Saturday afternoon. It was the women her mother met at the shops. It was the neighbours who lived in the ill‑built, damp houses in her street.
So if we had a meeting, and Steven was taking about the role of the working class in opposing racism, then Mike and Sue would sit there listening. They were hearing the same talk, the same words, but I knew that quite different things were happening inside their heads; the words were summoning up totally different images rooted in totally different experiences. Mike was thinking of how the workers of the East End had gone onto the streets to oppose Oswald Mosley, and how his uncle had been involved in kicking in the Mosleyites in the late 1940s when they tried to crawl out of the woodwork again. He was thinking of how his father had fought for the right of black workers to be promoted to the same grades as white workers, and had even organised a strike with black and white workers standing side by side on the picket line – not a common sight in the 1950s and one that had attracted the attention of some of the press. Sue, on the other hand, was thinking of how her father’s mates would refer to ‘bloody Pakis’ and ‘fucking niggers’, and if they looked at all ashamed, it was because they were using bad language in front of a woman, not because they were expressing racist ideas. Sue remembered how the first black family had moved into her street – now most of the families there were black – and how her mother’s friends would smile at them in the street, but moan about the smell of the cooking.
One set of words, two sets of meanings. And once any discussion got going the differences would start coming out. Both of them thought they were speaking on behalf of the real working class. Of course, someone like me, whose Dad worked in the council offices, didn’t get a look-in. I was just supposed to sit back and learn from these spokespersons of the working class – which as Steven used to remind us was the ‘universal class’, the class whose future was linked to the entire destiny of the human race.
So Mike would start intoning about the importance of a decision passed at Labour Party conference, and Sue would immediately jump in with questions such as: ‘Three million votes. Three million votes! And how many of those three million know they’ve voted? About two hundred. Most working people don’t even know there’s a Labour Party conference going on. They switch off the telly as soon as a party political broadcast comes on. In fact, I know quite a lot of working-class people who vote Tory.’
Sometimes Mike would respond with a reference to the lumpenproletariat. He was distinctly ill-advised to, as this use of a foreign word would drive Sue berserk. Feigning ignorance, she would accuse him of thinking the working class were lumps of lard; then, contradicting herself by showing she knew the term’s German origin, she would accuse him of snobbery for using foreign words.
So generally Mike was more circumspect. You couldn’t go round asking everybody their opinion. The working class was represented by its organisations, bodies like the unions and the Labour Party which millions of working people had sacrificed their lives to build. Sue would start screaming back that they had been a tiny minority, that most working people just wanted to get on with their lives, raise their kids and have a bit of fun. ‘Don’t tell me about the working class,’ she would shout, ‘I’ve been part of it all my life.’ And invariably she would throw her outside toilet onto the table. If one can throw a toilet onto the table without making a very unpleasant mess.
I don’t know if they behaved like that in bed. But I just can’t imagine them together unless they were going on like that. Maybe it all worked up to a crescendo of physical passion. I do hope so. They were both lovely people.
I was still very disappointed that Josie hadn’t been able to come, because of a family commitment, but when we all squeezed into the van and saw how much room there was, I felt a bit better about it. If Josie had come there wouldn’t have been room to breathe. As it was, we were very crowded, and the van was not the most comfortable I’d ever travelled in. Of course I’d ridden in it many times before, but only for short journeys across North London. The prospect of going all the way to Paris was a rather less inviting one. Every time the van went over a bump in the road it sent a jolt up my spine. We got to Ramsgate and boarded the hovercraft. It was the first time I’d been on a hovercraft and I was really impressed by the speed and smoothness of the crossing. It was a fine Spring day, and the sun was shining on the water. I started to feel happy about everything; despite myself I could feel the tune of Summer Holiday going round my head, and I must have started humming it beneath my breath, because Steven almost snapped at me: ‘This is a revolution, not a holiday, Jane.’
When we landed Sue was in a highly excited mood: ‘We are now entering liberated territory,’ she kept chanting. To be honest, as we drove through the French countryside there wasn’t a lot of indication that there was a general strike going on, but as we passed through one small town we saw a factory with a large red banner hanging outside it. John and I wanted to stop and talk to the workers, but Steven told us we would have plenty of opportunities to do that when we got to Paris. We had to get there on time to meet the comrades, he insisted; they were busy people who had a lot to do and couldn’t be expected to hang around for the convenience of some visiting foreigners. Steven was being his most Bolshevik; it use to frighten me a bit when he got like that, but there was something real sexy about it too.
Ten minutes later we had to stop after all. Sue, who a few minutes earlier had been chirping away like she was on drugs – and I’m sure she wasn’t; she wasn’t that irresponsible – suddenly threw up. All over herself, and over me and Mike who were sitting in the back with her. We shouted at Steven to stop and Sue staggered out and finished off what she’d started by the side of the road, while Mike and I tried to clean ourselves up with some pieces of old newspaper. At least Steven did keep piles of festering old newspapers in the back of his van; it had irritated me often enough in the past, but I was quite glad they were there now.
Sue cleaned herself up too, and got back in the van. She seemed to feel better now, but even though we opened as many windows as we could, there was a smell of vomit that wouldn’t go away, mingling in with the sweat and all the other body odours that were already in the atmosphere. Of course it would have been stupid to blame Sue for getting car-sick. It could happen to anybody. But this was 1968 and everything had to have a political meaning, even throwing up. If it had been me I should have offered some sort of apology, if only so as to give everyone else the opportunity to say it wasn’t my fault. But Sue set off into an explanation of why she had been sick. Since I was trying to take my mind off the whole subject of vomiting, I didn’t really want to listen, but there wasn’t a lot of choice. You couldn’t tell someone who had just been ill that they must shut up. So I just listened and tried not to show how angry I was. The main burden of Sue’s argument was that she was working class and therefore she hadn’t had much experience of rising in cars when she was a child. As a result she was easily upset by a long bumpy car-ride. In the abstract I could only marvel at someone who could actually transform throwing up over their best friends as being some sort of evidence of solidly proletarian credentials. Obviously the rest of us were irrevocably tainted with bourgeois ideology because we were succeeding in keeping the contents of our stomachs down.
The argument was so impudent that none of us really knew how to respond. Mike was obviously irritated – his father had been a shop-steward in a car factory and had driven a car himself. But even he was rather half-hearted in his attack on Sue. In any case he didn’t get very far because she started throwing up again. I noticed that John was being very quiet. I don’t take any particular delight in the smell of vomit myself, but John was an exceptionally fastidious person, and I could see that he was really uncomfortable about the situation. It can’t have been much fun for him. There were two couples there, and he was the odd one out. Worse than that, he was stuck in close proximity to his former girl-friend. If, as Steven had told us, we would probably all have to sleep on the floor in one room, the Steven and I might be making love while John slept next to us.
This happy thought was running through my brain as Sue climbed back into the van. We’d only stopped briefly for a sandwich, and I would have thought that she had got rid of everything she had to give. But I was wrong. Before we got to Paris we stopped four more times for Sue to carry on being sick. She looked pretty miserable, and I couldn’t help feeling sorry for her, but she still kept repeating her insistence that it was all due to her proletarian origins.
At last we arrived, a bit late but not too much, and were introduced to the French comrades we’d be staying with. It wasn’t the first time I had been in Paris. I had been there four years earlier, on a school trip. I suppose we had a lot of fun, but the whole thing was dominated by one memory – the Eiffel Tower. I know the Eiffel Tower is a cliché – a place you send picture postcards of and buy souvenir pencil sharpeners in the shape of. But for me it took on the form of an object of terror.
I’d never liked heights much. When I was a child I hated standing at the top of cliffs, and once or twice on holiday if we went up a church tower to get a good view, it made me feel sick. And I loathed movies where people were about to fall from great heights. I remember seeing a television film when I was about ten where someone fell from the top of a steeple. It started going through my mind that as he was falling he would know that all the life he had left to him was the time until he hit the ground. I used to have nightmares about it and wake up screaming.
But it had never really crystallised into a sense that I suffered from vertigo. Not till the first morning of our week in Paris and we were taken up to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Going up in the lift wasn’t too bad. I did wonder what would happen if the cable broke, but the lift was enclosed and I didn’t feel I was in any danger. When we got to the top we were inside a sort of glass bubble and that felt safe enough; but some of my mates very quickly pointed out that you could go up another flight of stairs and we came out on an open balcony. There was a bit of a wind blowing; fortunately it wasn’t the sort of school where they made you wear hats.
I was feeling a bit nervous, but I walked up to the edge and looked over. I could see people below who looked no bigger than beetles on the ground. I started to wonder what it would be like to fall over – to wonder how long it would take to reach the ground and what it would be like to know that that was all the life you had. I was beginning to feel a bit funny about it when all of a sudden I was grabbed under the armpits and a voice said: ‘Over you go’. I suppose I was lifted about half an inch off the ground but instinctively I jumped up – not a very intelligent thing to do.
Of course I was in absolutely no danger – as I’ve told myself twenty thousand times since, every time I’ve dreamt about it, which I still do, thirty-five years later. I have to ask myself rationally: could I have jumped over the edge of the balcony? Suppose it was a hedge or a fence? The answer is obviously no; to get over I should have had to climb up and scramble over the edge, and I suspect I would have had great difficulty in doing so.
But I had no time for all these calculations. I could already feel myself falling. I started to scream – to scream so loud that I could hardly hear the teacher’s voice shouting: ‘Stop that, Jake Thornton!’ The hands withdrew from my armpits but I felt dirty, defiled as though I had been raped – and I collapsed sobbing. I just slumped onto the floor and lay there, crying as though I would never stop.
One of the teachers took me down the lift, but I was still crying and I wouldn’t open my eyes to look until I was back on the flat ground again. Jake Thornton, who was a particularly stupid and unpleasant lout, made fun of me for the rest of the week whenever there were no teachers around – but I didn’t care, just so long as I had my feet on the ground. It was all reported to my parents when I got home, and I was taken to the doctor, who didn’t seem to take it very seriously. He just said: ‘You seem to have a bad case of vertigo: never get a job as a steeplejack.’ Of course, this was all a big joke; girls didn’t work as steeplejacks; they got married and raised families. Not that I felt much feminist outrage at the time; I had absolutely no ambition to be a steeplejack. But I knew I was going to avoid heights. Post Office Tower, Canary Wharf, Empire State Building, World Trade Centre – none of them has ever had any charms for me.
From then on I had fairly regular nightmares about heights. One was obviously being on top of the Eiffel Tower where Jake Thornton – who was a fairly average brutish teenage boy, but who in the dreams used to be about three times bigger – was trying to pick me up and throw me off. The horrible thing was being taken from behind – the intrusive hands sliding into my armpits is something I’ve never been able to tolerate. Even with someone I am on exceptionally intimate terms with, I can’t stand to be held from behind.
There’s another dream which isn’t in the Eiffel Tower at all. It’s in a very high block of flats. There’s an open window and just outside it there’s a very narrow ledge. About twenty yards along the ledge there is a baby. It’s either mine or it belongs to someone very close to me. I’m all alone in the room. The baby is asleep or motionless, but it will obviously wake up soon and when it does it will plunge to its death unless I get it. If I try to go for it, I will almost certainly fall, but if I don’t go for it how can I possibly go on living with myself? I start to climb out of the window and take one look down – it’s just like it was on the Eiffel Tower that day thirty-five years ago. I start to topple. Usually that’s the point at which I wake up – quivering and screaming and with my heart going at about three times its normal rate.
I told Steven all about this during one of the brief moments of privacy that we managed to get during our hectic week in Paris. I explained that if there was one thing that I did not want to do on this visit to Paris, it was to go up the Eiffel Tower. I really did hope that the Tower workers were on strike and that they would stand firm against all threats from their employers.
By the morning after we arrived I’d completely recovered from the journey, and I was anxious to see whatever what there was to be seen. Steven had a programme all worked out; since I was the only one apart from himself who spoke fairly fluent French, he took me with him out into the banlieue where there was a factory occupation to visit. The suburb we were heading for was a stronghold of the Communist Party; the main street was actually called boulevard Staline.
As we drove out there he explained to me that in most factories the Communist Party was in complete control. They had set up strike committees based on the union activists; since two thirds of the workers weren’t in unions, they had no say in what was going on. So they got sent home to watch the television while the Party loyalists occupied the factory. The Party’s insistence on doing everything peacefully and non-violently was pretty obviously a recipe for defeat; the only hope was that the grip of the Communist Party could be broken. (I noticed from the way Steven spoke about the Communist Party that he was fascinated with the idea of betrayal. In any situation he looked for the traitor.)
That was why this factory, a relatively small car components plant on the outskirts of Paris, was so important. Here the Communist leadership had been challenged by a group of Trotskyists acting within the rival union, the formerly Catholic CFDT. (I was amazed at the way Steven had such a clear grasp of what seemed to me to be an impenetrably complex situation. You had to keep up with three different unions, a Communist Party, a Socialist Party and a mass of more or less tiny revolutionary groupuscules. But Steven seemed to have mastered the situation after sitting up most of the night talking to our hosts.) As a result, there was a much more active strike in progress. The strike leaders were making an attempt to involve all the workers, whether or not they were unionised. There were regular mass meetings, and the occupation duties were being shared among all the strikers.
There was another particular feature here. When the workers had occupied they hadn’t let the management go home; they had kept them imprisoned in the factory. Steven told me that to begin with they had kept playing the Internationale over and over again on a gramophone, but the workers themselves got fed up of it eventually. When we arrived we had to present ourselves to a group of workers who were guarding the entrance. At first they seemed very suspicious of two foreigners turning up like this, but Steven showed them a letter he had brought with him and we were made welcome. We were taken inside and introduced to a group of strikers who were guarding the imprisoned management. About a dozen men were sitting inside a large office, playing cards and watching television. They all looked very miserable. Steven was going off for a discussion with some of the strike committee and he left me with the group of guards. I got talking to a young woman called Gabrielle. She was not much older than me and a really lovely person. We took to each other at once. She told me she had worked in the factory for about six years, and that she was active in the union. When I told her I was a student, she told me that she had always wanted to study, but that she hadn’t been able to afford it. But she had been to the Sorbonne during the occupation a couple of times and was really excited by attending the mass meetings of students. She hoped that if the strike was successful it might mean that there would be more chance for people like her to study. Then we talked about our families and our boy‑friends – she had very quickly grasped that Steven and I were lovers. She told me that she fancied him, and that I would have to watch out, because French women were notorious for being seductive. We both giggled a lot about this.
Then one of the managers stood up and walked towards the door. Gabrielle turned to me and muttered ‘le cochon veut pisser’. She stood up and walked behind him down the corridor, gesturing to me to come with her. When we got to the toilets she pushed him into a cubicle, snapping ‘Don’t lock the door!’; she pulled a sarcastic face at me and said: ‘we don’t want him to commit suicide; that would give the police an excuse, though he’d be no great loss.’ The man stood with his back to us and began to urinate; as he did so Gabrielle nudged him quite viciously in the back. When he emerged to be led back to his place of captivity I could see a humiliating damp patch on his trousers.
I said nothing as we walked back; I was mystified. Gabrielle had struck me as one of the nicest, most warm-hearted, friendly people I had ever met, yet now she was behaving like the worst parody of a prison guard. How could such extremes be combined in one person? When we sat down again she began to tell me about this particular manager. He was notorious for using his position of authority to put pressure on young women to sleep with him. He had tried it on with almost all of them, including Gabrielle, although she had always stood up to him, and had faced a couple of serious disciplinary charges as a result. One of her best friends had slept with him and had got pregnant; she had gone to him and asked for money for an abortion, but he had laughed in her face. She had tried to abort herself and had been rushed to hospital, where she had had to stay for several weeks.
‘Now do you see why I hate him?’ she asked. ‘’I’d ram his head down the toilet and drown him, but I’m under the discipline of the strike committee. It’s very important we keep this occupation going under our own control. Otherwise it will give the police an excuse to come and smash it up; and nothing would please the Communist Party more. In fact, the Communist Party members here would probably be the first to call the police.’
I was beginning to understand things I had never even thought about before. I’d always taken it for granted that you would have to have managers, even in a socialist society. People couldn’t just control things collectively, without someone to take charge and organise them. (Of course, that was before I’d ever really experienced working under a manager; the more I’ve seen of managers since then, the less I think they’re necessary.) Here people were organising themselves; they were running things far more efficiently than they had been run before. I could feel a great joy among the occupying workers, but also a great bitterness. There was a sense that they could control their own lives, but also a profound regret that so much of their lives had been wasted before this moment came – and a fear that it would all be taken away from them again.
When Steven came back from his discussions we went round the factory and saw the different departments and met a number of the strikers. It was hard to realise that only forty-eight hours before all this had just been a news item on the television.
That was just the beginning of what was to be the most memorable week of my entire life, the only time I have really felt that my own life was tied up with the process of history. As a person I suppose I am more easily irritated than most. But few things irritate me so much as ignorance of history – especially ignorance of the history that people have lived through. I know people in the Poly who will rabbit on for hours about the importance of apostrophes, but smugly profess ignorance of the Vietnam War. If there is one thing worse than ignorance, it’s being proud of being ignorant.
So you get people talking about the ‘student riots’ in France in 1968. I assume these people can pick up a newspaper; I presume they have the intellectual capacity to turn on a television set. They know who won the Cup Final or who Fergie is screwing this week. But they somehow drifted in a dream through one of the most important historical events of their own century and they think it had something to do with ‘student riots’.
Now I may be prejudiced. I’ve spent the best part of a quarter century teaching students and the way I feel about them is pretty much the way the average car assembly worker feels about windscreen wipers – they all look the same and I hope they aren’t too many more before knocking-off time. But students were only a pretty small part of what went in France in 1968. The basic fact – which even the thickest apostrophe-lover should be able to knock into his or her synapses is that there were ten million workers on strike. Ten million. Some people say it was only nine million. But the people who added up the strike statistics were on strike so nobody knows for sure.
And they didn’t just go on strike. Generally they occupied their factories; they said ‘this is our territory. It’s our sweat and blood that has built this place and it’s ours to keep. We decide what goes on and what doesn’t. We decide because it’s our work that made the whole thing possible in the first place.’
Yet when you read in the papers that it is the anniversary of 1968 there’s more about Jimi Hendrix than there is about the French strikers. Now there’s no doubt that Hendrix played the guitar rather well – and was a distinct step forward from Hank Marvin and Jet Harris. But there is a bit of difference between that and ten million workers deciding they aren’t going to be ripped of any more and taking over the places they work in. Quite a bit of difference. What in the good old days they used to call a qualitative leap.
Of course I’m being naïve. It isn’t just that people are stupid – although if you think people aren’t stupid try visiting a university staff room some time and you may have to rethink your position. After all, it would cause a few problems if too many people found out about factory occupations; if they got to be as fashionable as reissues of 1960s records it could double the price of a video recorder. And then where should we be? Much better that people think that 1968 was Woodstock (yes I know that Woodstock was in 1969, but nobody else gives a toss about dates). So despite everything – and I mean everything – I shall always be grateful to Steven Sadler for giving me the opportunity to get to Paris in 1968. Even though it meant spending about twelve hours – or was it a hundred and twenty – sitting in a van that felt like a ghost train that hadn’t been properly maintained, with Sue throwing up every twenty minutes. And when we got there I didn’t see the inside of a bed for a week; even when you’re young sleeping on the floor gets wearisome after a bit.
But somehow when we went on the first demo – even though it was apparently quite a small one and people were getting very worried that attendances were falling off; there were only a hundred thousand or so on it – everything seemed to be worthwhile. There was something exhilarating about being among all those thousands of workers and students, a sense of power I’d never experienced before.
But it wasn’t the demos that were the really exciting thing. Nor the fact that you couldn’t walk down the street at anything approaching a reasonable speed because you had to keep stopping to read the slogans on the walls. All that made it exciting, but to me that wasn’t the real crunch. The really exciting thing was waking up in the morning, scrambling up from a mass of not very clean sheets on an even less clean floor. My head ached, my stomach ached, and I wanted to go back to sleep for the rest of the day and I knew I couldn’t. Then I pressed the light-switch and the light came on. So the trade unions had decided not to cut the electricity off – not just yet. Instead of the light being something natural, like the sun rising, I was aware that it was something produced by human labour – by workers – and that it was entirely in their hands whether they went on producing it or not. So as the dingy wallpaper with stains on and the cobwebs in the corner of the ceiling were suddenly illuminated by a rather feeble light-bulb, I had a vision of a group of workers in a power-station holding a meeting. There were rousing speeches on both sides, cheers and boos, and in the end a vote: give them another day’s light, but keep tight hold of the switches.
Now I know it wasn’t quite as simple as that – nothing ever is. The secretary of the strike committee was undoubtedly a Stalinist pig who was obeying party orders and preparing the way for a compromise with the government. Meanwhile the two Trotskyists in the corner who wanted the power switched off immediately probably risked getting beaten up or thrown out of the union. But whatever. It was workers deciding, workers who for years had been the anonymous source of power, the dogs in the treadmill, who now had power in their hands. You wouldn’t really want that idea to get about too much. Better to tell people about Hendrix and ‘student riots’.
Steven had quite an intensive programme worked out for us. Apart from the big demos we split up, going off to visit occupations, attend meetings, or just talk to individuals. Then in the evening we would get together and tell each other our experiences.
One evening we had agreed to meet up in a café in the Latin Quarter. When I got there, Steven was already sitting at a table. It was a beautiful, sunny May evening, and people were sitting around peacefully and talking. You really would not have known there was a revolution on.
Steven had a pile of papers on his table. Le Monde, Figaro, France-Soir, four or five different Trotskyist, Maoist and anarchist papers, plus The Times, Guardian and the New York Herald Tribune. There was a German paper there too, although I knew he only spoke about half a dozen words of German. How he’d managed to acquire them all in the middle of the chaos of the strike I don’t know.
I was immediately reminded of a passage I’d read in a book about the Russian Revolution. Lenin at one of the early congresses of the Communist International, with a pile of papers from about twenty different countries, reading from all of them and giving advice to revolutionaries from all over the world. To me it seemed as if Steven was a bit like that. It was only a lot later that I realised he had read the same book as I had, and that he was acting the role.
Steven hardly looked up when I sat down, but when John arrived a few minutes later, he picked up Le Monde, pointed to a report and said: ‘Mitterrand’s playing a clever game’. And he went on to explain how he thought Mitterrand would pick up support from people disillusioned with the Communist Party.
I had hardly heard of Mitterrand – I knew he was a well-known politician but I couldn’t have told you much more about him than that. John, however, for reasons that bewildered me, was absolutely furious. I’d never seen him really argue against Steven before; usually he seemed rather nervous and deferential. But now he started shouting at Steven that Mitterrand was thoroughly discredited ‘in the eyes of the masses’. He knew one or two facts about Mitterrand’s past record – how he had supported the shooting of strikers in 1947 and been responsible for people being executed during the Algerian war. Steven just nodded when he came out with these facts, as though anyone who didn’t know that sort of thing should curl up and keep quiet. Which, since I didn’t, I did – if you see what I mean. But John wasn’t too bothered about facts. He was shouting at Steven: ‘Don’t you realise that the reformists have lost their hegemony once and for all? If they called an election now, the workers would just ignore it. Nobody would vote.’
At the time I thought a hegemony was a sort of flower, so I was a bit confused by the whole drift of the argument. Steven was being very calm about the whole thing. He waited until John had finished blustering and then started to explain, very slowly and patiently, that in a country like France, where there was a long tradition of parliamentarism and legal trade unionism, the grip of reformism on workers was extremely strong, and that it would not be broken all in one go. It would take several explosions like the present one and a long process of political development before the reformists were discredited. And in fact an opportunist like Mitterrand who could swing both left and right was ideally suited to a situation like this. Just because he didn’t have any links to the trade-union leadership, he could pretend to be more left‑wing than the Communists, and win over part of their membership.
John kept on interrupting and starting to shout. Steven very placidly let him interrupt, and then just carried on with his argument. When he had finished John was nearly on the point of exploding. He accused Steven of having no faith in the working class, of not understanding what the present strike was all about. It was a historic turning-point, he claimed, one where the working class was going through a major crisis in which it was breaking all its traditional links with reformism.
By this time Sue and Mike had arrived and were sitting at the table watching as though Mohammed Ali was fighting Rocky Marciano. Sue probably knew even less about the politics of the situation than I did – she didn’t know much French and wasn’t able to read the newspapers, but unlike me, Sue never let her ignorance of a subject get in the way of expressing her opinion. She joined in vigorously on John’s side, saying that the old politicians were finished – in the ‘dustbin of history’ – a phrase of Trotsky’s which she, like me, had picked up at a meeting in England a couple of weeks earlier.
Mike, almost automatically, joined in on Steven’s side. He started talking about how the working class had spent a hundred years building up its organisations – its mass parties and its trade unions – and how it wasn’t going to throw them all overboard on a whim just because some students had been demonstrating in the streets.
John was twitching and quivering at this. Even though he was much smaller and more fragile physically than either Steven or Mike, I got the sense that it wouldn’t have taken much for him to land a punch on one of them.
Fortunately Steven was being quite conciliatory about the whole thing. He recited a few more facts from Mitterrand’s history, just to put John in his place by showing that he knew more anecdotes. In particular he told how Mitterrand had once organised an assassination attempt on himself to boost his political career. Steven actually seemed to have a rather grudging admiration for Mitterrand; he said he was the sort of man ‘who’d sell tickets to his own funeral’. He was arguing that it would be very dangerous to underestimate people like that; it showed that the only way the grip of the old politicians could be broken was by a hard political fight. ‘It will need ideological struggle, John,’ he kept repeating. For some reason this seemed to calm John down. I think it was because he liked the idea of ideological struggle. He knew pretty well that if it came to a serious punch-up on the streets he wouldn’t last five minutes; but in an ‘ideological struggle’ he would be able to hold his ground. After all, he knew what hegemony meant,
By now Sue and Mike, neither of whom knew that much about Mitterrand, had got onto their usual line of argument about who knew more about the working class. Mike was repeating that his father had been a shop steward for twenty years while Sue was insisting ‘we had an outside toilet’. Steven and John were now calmer, trying to reach some common ground. But John was still repeating: ‘Mitterrand is so obviously a crook – and you don’t deny he is – that people aren’t going to be taken in by him. Not after they’ve had a glimpse of what running the world is like.’
Steven smiled ruefully. ‘I hope you’re right,’ he said, ‘but I’m afraid you’ll be wrong. I tell you what, I’ll bet you five pounds that Mitterrand gets to be President.’ John looked mildly shocked at the thought of gambling on the historical destiny of the working class, but he took the bet. I don’t know if Steven ever collected. After inflation it probably wasn’t worth his while.
The journey home was relatively uneventful. Sue was only sick once. I had been worried that we would have difficulty getting enough petrol for the return trip, but Steven’s contacts had seen to it that we were all right, although unfortunately he hadn’t managed to get to Nantes, where the most exciting experiments in workers’ control were taking place.
When we got back from Paris my first thought was to go round and see Josie. I was sure she would be fascinated to hear all my news. I felt almost guilty that I had been at the storm-centre of revolution while she had been sitting in North London poring over her books and missing out on all the excitement.
But when I got to her home, although it was quite late in the evening, her mother said she was not there. She was still at college, I was told. Her mother was rather vague about it all; she had only met me a couple of times before and probably didn’t trust me. Especially since, as I found out later, she was rather worried that what her beloved daughter was doing might be illegal.
I was rather puzzled, because there was nothing much going on at college at this time of night. There would be a few people in the bar, but it wasn’t a place Josie normally frequented, and even the library would be shut by this time of night. But it was only a couple of miles up the road so I jumped on the bus, thinking that if Josie was with some of her mates then I would be able to flaunt myself as the revolutionary heroine and have them gasping in amazement while I told them of the wonders of what was going on in Paris.
I walked down the street to the front gate of the college, and to my surprise found a small cluster of students standing at the entrance. One of them was Josie.
‘What’s going on?’ I asked. Josie, who was obviously having a wonderful time, ran up to me, threw her arms round me and kissed me on both cheeks. Then she said: ‘The college is under occupation.’
And she started to explain it all to me, talking so quickly that I often couldn’t follow what was going on. Many of the engineering courses in the college had a very high percentage of overseas students, and a lot of the staff were quite hostile to this. The Principal, a particularly unpleasant man called Patterson who had had quite a few brushes with the students, had persuaded the Board of Governors to impose a ten per cent quota on the number of overseas students. At first this was to be kept secret – in fact, in those halcyon days it wasn’t at all clear that it was legal to do any such thing – but a friendly lecturer had leaked the information. It was announced at a large meeting of the Students’ Union, and there had been an enormous row. A small bunch of students had supported the Principal, saying that the college was paid for by local ratepayers and that the first priority should go to local people. Since quite a few students came from Scotland and Cornwall, this was a bit of a nonsense. But the majority of students had been furious. Ever since the Powell speech there had been a growing realisation of what racism was, and even some quite conservative students felt that the Principal had gone too far. The next bit was the part that Josie couldn’t wait to tell me and in fact she ended up by telling it me about eight times over. She had run up to the microphone and said: ‘It isn’t enough to get angry about this, we’ve got to do something about it. Nobody did anything about Hitler when there was time and in the end people ended up in gas ovens. Over in France people are occupying their factories and telling their bosses things can’t go on like they used to. If you want to tell Patterson he can’t run this place as though it was a slave plantation in the nineteenth century, then let’s occupy the college now.’
Josie told me she had understood for the first time what it must be like to be one of the Beatles. Everybody started clapping and cheering. Of course it helped that she was black – people felt that just by clapping her they were making some sort of a statement against racism. But she hadn’t let it stop there. After a couple of minutes she said: ‘Right, shut up!’ And she had to shout at them to stop applauding: ‘It’s easy enough to clap; anybody can do that. Stop putting your hands together and stick them up in the air. We want a vote. Vote to occupy!’ The chairman of the meeting started mumbling that this was against standing orders, but nobody was listening to him. Everybody – or everybody except the little bunch who had supported the Principal – was holding their hands in the air and stamping their feet, chanting: ‘Vote! Vote! Vote!’
Josie was nearly crying by the time she had finished communicating all this to me. Even though she talked very quickly when she was excited, it had taken a long time because she kept repeating herself and going back to give more derails.
‘It was wonderful, Jane,’ she said. ‘It was frightening and wonderful at the same time. It was like jumping off a cliff and finding you can fly. When the meeting started I had no idea I was going to do that. But it was because of all those meetings at Steven’s. I listened to him going on about Hitler and the German Communist Party and Cable Street and all that stuff, and I thought I didn’t really understand it; but then it all came together in my head at once.’
By now she wasn’t even making any attempt to stop herself crying. We just hugged each other, quite oblivious of the other people on the picket. I felt safer and stronger hugging Josie than I had ever felt with a man – which considering the men I’d been with didn’t say a lot. But also deep down I felt a bit ashamed. I’d been off on what was effectively a holiday, a bit of revolutionary tourism, a spectator in a situation where I couldn’t have any impact, and left Josie to carry this all on her own. She’d done a marvellous job, and things couldn’t have gone any better if I’d been there. But I still felt I’d abandoned her. And when, with great enthusiasm and curiosity, she asked me what it had been like in Paris, I just felt so embarrassed I couldn’t speak, and promised to tell her later.
After May 1968, none of us were ever quite the same again. Leave aside the importance of 1968 on the scale of world history, it certainly was a vital turning-point for Steven Sadler. It established him as a journalist. And I mean a real journalist, not what passes for such nowadays – indeed what Steven himself has become nowadays. In the good old days a journalist was someone who went out and saw what was happening and reported on it, like Wilfred Burchett going into Hiroshima hours after the bomb fell. Now papers can’t afford many reporters actually seeing what is happening around the world. So they pay columnists to have opinions. It’s light work and it pays well.
What Steven had done was rather different. While most of the reporters in Paris had been ranting on about ‘student revolt’ he had gone out into the suburbs, visited dozens of factories, interviewed workers who were occupying their factories; he had found cases where the workers were actually organising production under workers’ management. In other cases he had found out how the Communist Party were manipulating the occupation and what tensions that was causing. He had done interviews, collected anecdotes, built up a real picture of what happens in a general strike. And even though this wasn’t the conventional idea of what was going on, some of the more serious papers were interested. He sold several articles and was interviewed on television a number of times. And I realised from various unnamed references to myself and my friends that he had found it very useful to have a bunch of relatively naïve students with him and to note our reactions.
But the impressive thing about Steven in 1968 was that he didn’t just take the opportunity to make a career for himself. On the contrary, he argued with us time and time again that while it was quite legitimate to publish in the ‘bourgeois press’, it could never be enough. If the left was going to make itself heard, it had to build its own newspapers, its own channels of communication. We couldn’t depend on the press millionaires – we had to have our own papers, which we wrote ourselves, paid for ourselves, and stood on the streets and sold.
That was why, in the summer of 1968, Steven and a group of his friends, including a couple of rather well-off rock musicians, had come together to found the Red Republican. The name was taken from an old Chartist paper, and they claimed they were carrying on in the same tradition as the Chartists. But Steven also argued that the title summed up their politics rather neatly. They were reds – like the old Communists had been until they abandoned the red flag in favour of the Union Jack. And they were republicans. For the question of the monarchy showed exactly the point at which Labour and Tories were united, the fetish that neither of them dared to touch, the monarchy.
The third issue contained a centre spread called GOD SAVE THE QUEEN? which looked at the record of the royal family, told how Edward VIII had supported the Nazis, and ended up by saying that the Bolsheviks had shown us the way when they killed the Tsar. Seven Tory MPs called for the editorial staff to be prosecuted under the treason laws, and the circulation doubled. Steven made a great point of putting most of the money he received from the ‘bourgeois press’ and the television into the Red Republican’s funds; he continued to dress in the same mildly scruffy fashion and to drive the same rather battered van that had got us to Paris and back – just about.
In August Red Republican published a special issue on France. There were messages from French students telling us things would explode again in October. I didn’t realise that October would bring something very different indeed.