6: A DUBIOUS DECISION
As his recent biographers [Daltrey & Moon, 1966] have shown, Conan Doyle ended life as a spiritualist. There is no discontinuity with his earlier work. The structure of almost every Sherlock Holmes story is an unexplained murder where the victim can no longer communicate the required explanation. It is Holmes’ task to make the dead speak. (J Thomson, Uncompleted PhD thesis on detective narratives)
In retrospect most people associate 1968 with sex, drugs and rock and roll. Of sex there was quite a lot about, but less than people think. Abortion had only just become legal, and the implications were still unclear; unwanted pregnancy could still mean the end of one’s academic career. And the pill was still only a few years old.
Drugs too were less freely available than is often imagined. There was plenty of marijuana, though many people found it did nothing for them. Only a relatively small number were taking acid.
As for rock and roll, the great year was 1967, not 1968. In 1968 the Stones and the Who were past their peak, Radio London had been closed down, and Cliff Richard and Engelbert Humperdinck were back. Unless you were one of the small coterie who was into Captain Beefheart and the Crocheted Doughnut Rings.
In short, for sex and drugs, things would go much further in the seventies and eighties. As for rock and roll, everyone knows the golden age is always in the past.
I suppose we’re all boring about something, and it feels as though I’m getting boring about the question of what 1968 was really about. All realities are as good as each other, or so the post-modernists tell me, and who am I to disagree, even if they are brainless parasites. If your reality in 1968 was being drugged out of your skull and listening to Pink Floyd records, then what grounds have I got for saying that running round in circles in Grosvenor Square trying to avoid police horses was more real? A friend of mine took LSD and had crocodiles climbing into her kitchen. On balance I’d sooner have a police horse than a crocodile.
So everybody’s reality is as good as everybody else’s and my history is no better than yours. Fair enough. You just have to add one very small proviso. Providing you’re not black. Or female, gay, disabled, over fifty, I suppose I ought to add. But leave it at black for the time being.
Because if you were black you could be drugged out of your head or a Val Doonican fan – actually you probably couldn’t stand being one without being the other, though not vice versa, if you see what I mean. But it didn’t stop you being attacked by racists.
I remember when I first knew Josie she just didn’t want to know about racism. She said that she might get called a dirty wog from time to time, but after all sticks and stones … whereas what the people in Vietnam were getting was far more serious. Even after the Powell speech we had to argue with her that fighting racism was a priority. I suppose in a way she was just insisting she was an individual human being and that being black wasn’t the most important thing about her. Well, she found out …
I’ve read histories of the sixties that didn’t even mention Enoch Powell; and yet his speech – the ‘rivers of blood’ one – reached people who never smoked dope and never heard a Grateful Dead record. It gave respectability to attitudes that people had had before but probably felt a bit ashamed about expressing openly. If this bloke who sounded like an aristocrat and had a degree in ancient Greek could go around saying such things openly, then so could everyone else.
I’ve chanted ‘Disembowel Enoch Powell’ often enough but actually I don’t really hate him. Powell was only doing what you’d expect a poisonous old right-wing Tory to do. The ones I really hate are the liberals – the people who go round saying they don’t agree with what he’s saying, but they defend his right to say it.
If you accused them of having their fingers in the till or of screwing around they’d have you in court for libel within five minutes. But you can libel a whole race or a whole nationality and they don’t bat an eyelid.
How many people were beaten up in the streets or had their homes attacked or even had to move out of a neighbourhood because of people who were encouraged by Powell to go out and display their rotten racist prejudices? ‘Free speech’ is a luxury they can’t afford.
But actually it isn’t even the liberals I despise most. At least they had some sort of principle – even if it was a pretty futile and contradictory sort of a principle. But the Labour Party wouldn’t know a principle if it fell in their soup.
When Powell made his speech Harold Wilson didn’t say anything about it for a fortnight – and nor did anyone else in the cabinet. They found some miserable office‑boy – Junior Parliamentary Under-Secretary for cracked paving stones or something of the sort – and got him to make a statement denouncing Powell. But everybody else was told to keep their mouths shut until they had seen which way the wind was blowing. It wasn’t free speech they were defending – it was their jobs they were hanging onto like a leech clawing onto the back of your neck. I have voted Labour since 1968, but I’ve always felt they ought to provide vomit-bags in polling‑stations.
Powell must have been laughing himself sick at the whole affair. With one speech he’d managed to change the whole political agenda and turn himself into a celebrity into the bargain. For all the liberals and the Labour Party knew or cared he could have been a whole lot more dangerous than in fact he turned out to be.
I think there were two basic reasons why he didn’t ever become a mass racist leader. The first was that a few socialists – here and there, and with absolutely no encouragement from the Labour Party leadership – managed to organise a campaign against him and break the initial impetus he was getting when workers started striking in support of his right to ‘free speech’.
But even more important, I think, was that the man was such a snob. He was ever such a clever fellow – a professor when he was twenty-one, even if it was in some Australian College of Sheep‑Shearing – and if he hated black people, he hated and despised the working class even more. So he can’t have been too thrilled when the people who picked up his slogans were horny-handed London dockers.
But even worse was the fact that the people who were most enthusiastic about him were working-class skinhead yobbos. I wish I had a hot dinner for every time I’ve seen ‘ENOHC’ or ‘ENHOC IS RIGHT’ painted up on a wall. You can hardly imagine Mr Powell wanting to have dinner with them at the Carlton Club or the Athenaeum.
It does have to be said that our local racists were a particularly ignorant and stupid bunch. They were going to put up a candidate in the local elections in 1968, but they couldn’t add up the number of signatures they needed for their nomination papers right; they put one name too few down and as a result they were disqualified.
But those people killed Josie Wade.
I realise that I’ve kept mentioning Josie Wade in the course of this narrative, but that I’ve never really introduced her. I suppose it’s because it’s still pretty painful for me to think about her, even nearly thirty years later. But if it weren’t for Josie, there wouldn’t be a story to tell, so I’d better say something about her before it’s too late.
Josie was a student at my college. She was on the same course as I was, and I noticed her in a lecture the very first week. I suppose she struck me straight away because she was the only black student in our group. It seems really strange to say it nowadays, but I’d never really known a black person before. I went to a grammar school up in the North of England, and there just weren’t any black pupils there. I don’t think I ever was a racist, not consciously anyhow. I thought the West Indian cricket team were wonderful when I saw them, and I loved black musicians like Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin. But I’d never really thought of having a back person for a friend.
I found myself sitting next to Josie in a lecture very early on; I smiled at her and said hello. The lecturer was talking about the slave trade and how ‘we’ had had a flourishing trade in slaves in the eighteenth century. It suddenly hit me that while the rest of us might have been descended from people who participated in the slave trade, Josie was almost certainly descended from slaves.
I didn’t want to ask the lecturer about this, for fear of embarrassing Josie, but I was determined that she should be one of ‘us’. So I made a point of getting to know her; within a few days we were firm friends.
I soon found out about her family history. Her parents had come to Britain with one of the very first boat-loads from the West Indies that had arrived in the late forties. Josie had been born in London in 1949, and so was one of the very first of the new generation of black British. Her parents were inordinately proud of the fact that she was at college and studying for a degree. Perhaps for this very reason I soon discovered that there was no problem about Josie being one of ‘us’. She identified herself as British without any question; it never seemed to have crossed her mind that anybody might think of her as anything else. While she had been very active in defending the rights of overseas students, the one thing that upset her otherwise permanent state of sunshine was if anyone suggested she herself was an overseas student: ‘I’m British and don’t bloody forget it!’
When I asked her about the lecture on slavery, she just looked puzzled. She thought for a moment, and then said: ‘Yes, I suppose I must be descended from slaves. I don’t really think about my ancestors much. I’ve never even met my grandparents. What do you think your ancestors were doing? Ploughing the fields. Or working fourteen hours a day in a factory. It must have been as bad as slavery.’
But I don’t want to give the impression that Josie was a solemn person, brooding about questions of identity. She had one of the most developed senses of humour I have ever known. She loved jokes of every sort. She was particularly fond of plays on words, and she could do the most fantastic impersonations of television comedians of both sexes. When she pretended to be Tony Hancock, she captured that peculiar mixture of arrogance and melancholy so beautifully that you just forgot she was black.
To be honest, there wasn’t much overt racism in our college. Josie was the sort of person who wanted to be friends with everyone. If someone new walked into a classroom or the canteen, then Josie would always introduce herself, and try to make the newcomer feel at home. On the rare occasions when someone did show a racist response, she just looked utterly surprised, as though she had never imagined that such a thing was possible. Having grown up in North London during the fifties and sixties, she must have experienced a fair amount of racism, but she was utterly free from any kind of bitterness, and still seemed utterly surprised if she encountered any hostility, as though it just didn’t fit her view of human nature.
Within a few weeks she, like me, was regularly attending the Sunday night meetings at Steven Sadler’s. Like me, too, it took her a little time to feel at home there; we both felt intimidated by our ignorance compared to Steven, or even to people like John and Mike. But although we discussed racism and fascism quite a bit, I noticed that when Josie spoke, it was always about class. When she said ‘we’, it was always in the context of ‘we working class’ and not ‘we black people’. For Josie, racism seemed to be above all a nuisance, a distraction, something that prevented us from getting down to facing the real problems in society.
I’m very conscious that in saying all this I’m still evading part of the issue. I’ve described Josie as she was, warm, funny, friendly, committed, deeply aware of her identity as a human being and as a member of the British working class. That’s how I shall always remember Josie, and that’s why I still can’t look back on that period without pain, and why I’ve only got round to setting all this down nearly thirty years later, when circumstances have made it imperative that I should do so.
But that still leaves the question of me and Josie. In that first stormy year at college, my life changed around me. I made a number of friends who were to be of enormous importance to me. I had two lovers, John and then Steven. But yet I think that throughout that time I only really loved one person, and that person was Josie. Let me be clear. I had only a very hazy idea of what constituted Lesbianism. And there was certainly nothing of that sort between me and Josie. I was quite busy enough satisfying Steven’s fantasies. Yet it would also be wrong to say there was nothing physical about it. Josie was a very warm person, and she would hug her friends in the way that someone else would shake hands. Some people found this hard to deal with – John Thomson was always terribly embarrassed at being hugged by Josie. But I loved it. It was nothing at all like having sex with a man, but it was also nothing like anything I had ever experienced with a woman. To this day I can’t analyse what it was. Perhaps all I could ever say is that it was Josie. Josie was unique.
I came back to college after spending most of the summer of 1968 working in a jam factory, which confirmed everything John and Steven had told me about alienation. The big political event in August was, of course, the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. Actually it didn’t bother me much; from the beginning I’d never thought of Russia as having anything to do with socialism and I couldn’t understand why people were getting so screwed up about it. It wasn’t till I got back to college and talked to Steven that I really started to grasp what a historic event it had been.
But it wasn’t our main problem. Nor was the big Vietnam demonstration coming up in October. Of course we organised for it. But the real issue was racism. While the left had been celebrating the French strike and nourishing dreams of instant insurrection, the ripples of the Powell speech had continued to spread through the working-class suburbs of North London.
During September there had been three attacks on houses occupied by black families. In one case all the windows were broken, in the other two the houses were set on fire and it was only good luck that the families had got out in time. A group calling itself Britons First had been going round the estates with leaflets calling for deportation of all immigrants. It was run by the two Drutt brothers, Dave and Frank, and it seemed to be getting a certain amount of what John insisted on calling ‘resonance’. Every week the local paper carried letters about the dangers of black muggers and the fact that there were not enough beds in the hospitals because of places being taken by immigrants. No mention, of course, of black nurses.
The Sunday afternoon before the college term recommenced we all met in Steven’s flat – me, Sue, John, Mike and Josie. Steven – despite his other activities; he’d been in Prague for a fortnight over the summer – had collected a huge dossier from the local papers. He was working on a special anti-racist issue of the Red Republican, and had been interviewing local people. He’d even tried to make arrangements to interview the Drutts – using a false name, of course – but they weren’t having any of it.
We were all horrified, of course, but a bit bewildered about what to do. Sue seemed to think that working-class people were naturally racist and there wasn’t a lot you could do about it. Mike immediately responded by saying there was a long anti‑racist tradition in the working class and talking about Cable Street. But when I asked if we were in a position to mount something like that he went quiet.
As usual it was Steven who had some idea of what to do. He proposed setting up an Racial Equality Action Committee. It should be as broad as possible; we could start by signing up any liberal-minded lecturers from the college, and approaching the local Labour Party. He even suggested we could go and talk to local vicars. When John snorted contemptuously at this, Steven immediately snapped back at him with a quote from Trotsky about how we should unite even with the Devil and his grandmother to fight against Hitler. John, as usual, shut up.
Funnily enough, it was Josie who took the most convincing. Perhaps it was just because she was such a warm, friendly loveable person that she didn’t recognise just how vicious racism could get. You couldn’t help liking Josie, and I suppose even people who were half-way racists found themselves a bit embarrassed when they met her. Though I don’t suppose she would have made an awfully big impression on the Drutt brothers. ‘It’s poverty and ignorance that cause racism’, she said; ‘if you can’t get rid of those you’ll never get rid of racism.’
But in the end we all agreed to go ahead. The first step was a meeting in the college. With one week’s work we got two hundred people there, raised enough money to print twenty thousand leaflets and found enough volunteers to push them through letter-boxes. We made quite an impact, including getting the front page of the local paper. There was also a major feature in Red Republican, with lots of pictures and interviews. The day Red Republican came out we sold it round the college – a hundred and twenty copies. We went to the pub to celebrate our triumph.
While we were in the pub two more black families had their houses firebombed. A ten-year-old girl broke her leg jumping out of an upstairs window. The next day we met again at Steven’s flat, feeling very sober and rather ashamed of ourselves. Nobody actually said so, but there was a sense in which we were all worrying about whether it was our fault. If we had not made such a big deal about racism, maybe the racists would just have got tired and gone away. Hadn’t we in some sense provoked them by our campaign, put them in a position where they had to show that they were still around?
So nobody had anything very much to say. Steven, as usual, put his finger on the situation immediately. Although nobody had actually suggested that the attacks were provoked by us, he started by saying that this was an argument we should hear a lot of and it had to be answered. Firstly, it wasn’t true that the attacks were a response to us; the first attacks had taken place before we had done anything. But secondly, we had to remember that terror attacks, individual acts of violence, were a sign of weakness and not of strength. It was when the racists felt they were on the defensive that they resorted to individual actions; we were on the offensive and our methods were mass meetings and mass propaganda.
Sue chirped up after this, saying that we had a responsibility to defend those under attack. We should set up patrols and make sure that if there was any sign of a racist attack we were there in numbers to fight it off.
The rest of us thought that this seemed like a good idea; everybody but Steven. ‘It’s no good lying to people. There are ten thousand black people in this borough. There are six of us in this room – we can get two hundred students to a meeting, perhaps fifty of them to come out leafleting with us. We can’t run a defence organisation and it’s dishonest to claim we can.’
It was Mike who drew the conclusion. We couldn’t go any further unless we got the support of the local labour movement. We had to approach the local Labour Party wards – still rather demoralised from their defeats in the local elections in the Spring – and the local trade‑union branches.
Steven agreed. We needed to draw in everybody, and quickly. So we had to approach leading figures in the local labour movement, and in particular the local MP, Terence Wicklow, who had won the seat at a by-election about eighteen months earlier. I was deputed to go and see him.
I always get angry when I hear people treating prostitutes as though they were less than human. It’s not just abstract feminism – I know, because I’ve prostituted myself. Only once – but I feel more contaminated by it than if I had slept with the entire Household Cavalry. And I didn’t do it for money – and I know I’m fortunate that I never had to. I did it out of political principle, as a means of furthering the struggle against racism and for the achievement of socialism. Doubtless most readers will regard that as exceptionally naïve. All I can say is that if you take it as an abstract moral equation, then I’d do it again tomorrow. The problem is there would be no takers – and it doesn’t work.
I hadn’t read Kafka in 1968. (Actually, now that I have read it, I don’t think much of it, but that’s a different story.) But trying to get in touch with Terence Wicklow was, as they say, a Kafkaesque experience.
I’d never even thought about getting in touch with an MP before. I only had a pretty vague idea of what they did. Their main activity seemed to be standing up and making speeches, and you could hardly ring one up and say: ‘Hey, please make a speech for me.’ (Of course nowadays we know that you can do precisely that, but only if you make sure the cheque is in the post.)
So I sat down and wrote a letter to Mr Wicklow at the House of Commons, stressing the urgency of it all (I presumed he knew that racist attacks were taking place all over his constituency, but then I was very young and naïve). I gave him my phone number and woke up the next morning expecting my phone to ring as soon as he opened my letter.
Of course, I knew he might have a full postbag, but when I had heard nothing by lunch-time I began to get anxious. I would have asked Steven for advice, but of course he was a busy man just then, and he was out of town for a couple of days. I didn’t imagine John would be a lot of help on something as practical as this, so I was left to my own devices.
There was no call by evening, and I went to bed feeling very anxious. But I had given my address as well, so I had high hopes that a letter would drop onto my doorstep the next morning. No such luck.
By the middle of the morning I had run out of patience. I decided to phone up the local Labour Party offices. I looked up the number in the phone book and dialled. No reply. I tried again at half hourly intervals for the rest of the morning and still got no reply. (I was filling in the intervals with a rather desultory reading of a book about Parliament in the reign of Queen Anne, but I wasn’t taking an awful lot in.)
Finally at about three o’clock a woman answered the phone. I asked if I could speak to the agent, and was told that he was out. The local Labour Party was financed by a gambling scheme called the ‘tote’, and the agent spent all his time organising this. (He had good reason to do so, since the proceeds just about paid his salary.) I asked if I could have his home number, but was told that that would be quite impossible as Mrs Sheet didn’t like him being disturbed when he was off duty. So I asked the women if she knew how I could get in touch with Terence Wicklow. She told me that he had a regular surgery on the second Friday of every month, and that I could book an appointment through Mr Sheet, though ‘it might be full up already’. That was two and half weeks away, and I tried to stop myself counting how many people might be dead before I got my appointment. When I started shouting that it was urgent, she told me that she had come in to do some work on the ‘tote’ accounts, and that she didn’t have time to deal with me. I must ring back tomorrow. I gave her my name and number but I could tell that she had not written it down.
The blood was now pounding through my head and I was determined to get a result. I threw my book on the floor, wondering how one had got in touch with an MP in Queen Anne’s day. Presumably you sent your servant down to Westminster. If you didn’t have a servant, then you didn’t have a vote. Perhaps that was the point when it all fell apart – when they let the people without servants have the vote.
I decided to ring up the Labour Party headquarters at Transport House. Again I found the number in the phone book and dialled. The first person who answered seemed rather dazed that anybody had phoned her up; I had the impression that she had been asleep when I called. The idea that anyone might conceivably want to contact a Labour MP seemed to represent a new intellectual hypothesis (like Einstein’s rejection of Newtonian physics) which she could only take in slowly and with very considerable pause for reflection.
Eventually she passed me on to a colleague, who in turn passed me on to someone else. I was asked my name and whether I was a member of the Labour Party – I began to wonder if the Labour Party was some sort of exclusive order of monks who were only allowed to talk to each other. Finally, after what seemed like two hours but was actually only about ten minutes, I was told that he wasn’t at Transport House, that nobody knew how to contact him, and that he wouldn’t be in the House of Commons today.
As I put the phone down I recalled a television documentary I had once seen about how MPs had offices and secretaries. Reaching for the phone book again, I phoned the House of Commons. This time the switchboard procedure was even more complex, but eventually I was put through to someone who actually acknowledged being Terence Wicklow’s secretary.
‘Is it about the teeth?’ she asked. ‘Mr Wicklow has already written to the Minister.’
I tried to explain briefly that I was a constituent and that I needed to see Wicklow urgently. The fact that I was talking about murderous attacks rather than teeth seemed to leave her unmoved. The most I could get her to do was take my number so that he could ring me back – she gave me no indication when that would be.
For the rest of the day I sat by the phone. I had no bread in the house, but I didn’t dare go to the shop in case I missed the call. I didn’t even dare go into the kitchen to make a cup of tea in case I missed the phone with the noise of the kettle whistling. Going to the toilet was simply unthinkable. Deprived of physical sustenance, and with only Queen Anne to feed my mind, I stared at the phone and willed it to ring. Every now and then I picked up the receiver just to check that the line had not gone dead, and then replaced it rapidly to ensure that I didn’t miss a call.
There was no call that night. Next morning I phoned the local Labour Party again, dead on nine o’clock, assuming I might catch Mr Sheet before he went out. There was no reply. I finally got him at three o’clock in the afternoon and he suggested I should phone the House of Commons.
I gave up, went out for some bread and started taking Queen Anne more seriously. Next morning at eight thirty I was wakened by the phone. It was Terence Wicklow, full of apologies. He had been ‘out of town on business’.
It put me off contacting MPs for life. I’m sure Steven could have dealt with it all much more quickly. After all, he did know Wicklow personally; he’d canvassed for him in the by-election. So why did he leave it to me? At the time I assumed it was just part of his policy of giving jobs to young comrades to help them to learn how to do things. With hindsight I suspect he knew exactly what he was letting me in for, and that he did it quite deliberately. If so, it’s just one more grudge I have against Steven Sadler. But then, I have grudges against everybody. I suppose that’s what makes me such a nice person.
Wicklow was anxious to make up for lost time, and invited me to meet him for a drink in a pub near Westminster that very afternoon. The Terence Wicklow of 1968 was a long way from the Terence Wicklow of 1996. He had been in Parliament for less than two years, and still had a reputation as a bit of a leftie. But he already clearly liked the good life; as he commented to me, apologising for his absence: ‘Of course one can’t live on an MP’s salary’.
He nodded repeatedly as I explained about the racist attacks, anxious to show that he was in touch with what was happening in his constituency. When I told him of the proposal coming from the Racial Equality Action Committee, he responded very sympathetically – if you can call leering sympathetic. He said he welcomed the idea, but that it needed to be considered in greater depth; and he went on immediately to suggest that we could give it such in‑depth consideration over the weekend if I would like to go with him to Wales, somewhere ‘where we can look at things coolly, without distraction’.
I’d never been propositioned quite as brazenly as that before. I suppose it takes the sort of impudence and arrogance that you need to get to be an MP. My immediate reaction was to slap him in the mouth. But I overcame that quite rapidly. I remembered all those discussions with Steven, the meeting we had had on Trotsky’s Their Morals and Ours. I knew I didn’t believe anything as crude as ‘the end justifies the means’ – that was a Jesuit slogan that had been attributed to Marxists by the ignorant and the malicious. The end justified the means only if the means was capable of achieving the end. Here the end was to fight racism by setting up an action committee. We couldn’t do that without the local Labour Party and we couldn’t get the Labour Party except through Terence Wicklow. Beside that my body was surely a triviality. So after about half a minute of intense cogitation I said ‘Yes’.
He picked me up at a railway station in Hertfordshire on the Friday evening, saying we had to be ‘discreet’. The drive to Wales was, I suppose, informative. Wicklow talked almost non-stop about who had said what to who in the Whips’ Office; at least it helped me learn why most people think politics is irrelevant, corrupt and futile. We arrived at quite a nice little hotel; it was clear Wicklow had been there several times before, even though he was known as Mr Melville (I, of course, was Mrs Melville). I wondered what excuse he had used to lure the other Mrs Melvilles here. We had a rather pleasant dinner and a bottle of wine, after which I was slightly more prepared for my ordeal. But I hadn’t really imagined the form that ordeal would take.
When we got up to our room Wicklow took a large packet out of his briefcase. It was a set of documentation that he had been sent by Amnesty International concerning torture in Paraguay. Men and women had had their eyes gouged out and their genitals mutilated. There were several pictures showing burnt flesh, and one of a woman who had been repeatedly raped and then had her clothes set on fire. She had, somehow, survived, but her whole body was covered with festering blisters.
Wicklow showed these to me, pointing out especially gruesome details on the pictures, and quoting short passages from the attached report.. For a few minutes I was unsure what it was all about; obviously an MP would have to deal with events like this, but it seemed a peculiar time to go into it, especially since the car journey had been devoted to the trivia of Westminster intrigues. And then, as he put his clammy hand on my leg, I realised what was going on. Wicklow was sexually aroused by the pictures – and even more aroused by my horror at them. For hours that night and the next he made me look at pictures and listen to descriptions of torture, working himself into an erotic frenzy which I was required to bring to fruition.
I felt dirty and degraded. But I could do nothing except continue. I had jumped in the water when I agreed to come, and now I had no choice except to carry on swimming. I hadn’t even got my fare back to London if I walked out. So I lay back and thought of the Racial Equality Committee. At least when I couldn’t control my disgust any more and started sobbing, I found that I was doing just what Wicklow wanted.
But never have I felt such contempt for anybody as I did for Wicklow. What enraged me above all was the fact that it was all in the head. I honestly believe that if he had insisted on whipping my bare buttocks till the blood ran, or even on driving a six‑inch nail through my clitoris, it wouldn’t have been so bad. At least we would both have been involved in a shared action, instead of this terrible voyeurism. I still get begging letters from Amnesty and from time to time I send them some money, but I always feel ambivalent about it. How many people out there are using their excellent and praiseworthy information as pornography? At least it reveals the utter inanity of those people who want to ban pornography. Someone like Wicklow will always find his stimulus somewhere, even in a nunnery. Perhaps especially in a nunnery.
And how was the rest of the weekend, I can hear readers enquiring. Actually quite agreeable, but then digging coal would have seemed agreeable by the side of the two bedtimes. We went for a long walk through the Welsh hills, had a few drinks in the bar while Wicklow regaled his fellow-guests with acute observations on the political scene – without revealing that he was an MP. On the way back he told me a number of lurid anecdotes about the private lives of his colleagues, including one veteran Labour left-winger who was into – and I mean into – bull-terriers. Perhaps he thought it made things better. I just went home and sobbed my eyes out – relieved that at last I could perform a simple action like crying without being someone else’s sex‑aid. But the next morning I still felt filthy; and I couldn’t even tell Steven about this.
The local Labour Party General Management Committee met the following Thursday. Steven was, despite everything, still a member of the Labour Party; the rest of us, with the exception of Mike, who had been a member in his home town since he was fourteen, had never joined.
It had been agreed that the Racial Equality Committee could send a delegation of three people along to put the case for joint activity and the organisation of anti‑racist patrols. So Steven, Josie and I were sent as delegates – Steven because he was the most articulate, Josie because she was black, and me because I had carried out the preliminary negotiations with Terence Wicklow.
I had got so used to arguments in which the Labour Party was written off as dead that I was quite surprised to find that there were about forty people in the room, although I was told this was more than usual. The longer the meeting went on, the more surprised I was that anyone at all had turned up. They seemed far more interested in organisational details than in any political arguments, and everything was geared to the monthly cycle of meetings. If there was any problem about anything, it was simply put off till next month
When the item came up Steven was invited to speak. He explained the situation about the racist attacks and the danger they posed to the local black community. He made it quite clear that he had criticisms of the Labour Party and in particular of the current Labour government, but said that such differences must be laid aside in the interests of unity against fascism. He made a brief reference to the Holocaust, and I could see a number of the older delegates nodding vigorously.
So far, so good. Josie asked if she could add a very brief word. She said simply: ‘We’re all working people. My father has spent twenty years in this country, building houses. My mother works in the hospital. We aren’t enemies and our real enemies will only be laughing if we’re at each other’s throats.’
This got a round of applause. Then there was open discussion. One old man said that they didn’t have time for this sort of thing. The Labour Party was about fighting elections, and there would be one in the next couple of years. They had to devote all their time and energy to that. Moral questions like racism should be left to the churches. And if people were breaking the law that was a job for the police.
But he was very much on his own. The rest of the meeting seemed to be very sympathetic. Terence Wicklow hadn’t said anything, but I thought that perhaps he had oiled a few wheels for us. I began to feel a bit better about the last weekend. Nothing could make it feel right, but if we won the vote then I should be able to live with it.
I was pretty confident we had the majority when I saw Terence Wicklow indicate to the chair that he wanted to speak. This, I thought, would be the coup de grâce; and though his voice seemed loathsome and grating to me, I none the less listened in anticipation.
‘Friends,’ he began, ‘I have always regarded all forms of racial discrimination with utter abhorrence. Only a few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be called to speak at the Labour Party conference, and I said that a policy of firm immigration controls can only be justified by a policy of maximum integration of those who are already within our community. I flatter myself that there is no question as to the validity of my anti-racist credentials.
‘And it is very pleasing to have with us tonight a group of young people from the local college who have done some very good work in campaigning locally against racism. I congratulate them on their efforts. It is a matter for great satisfaction that they have decided to turn to the Labour Party for assistance in their activities.
‘We have to be quite clear that racism cannot be considered in a vacuum. Racism is a product of social conditions. It is caused by unemployment, or the fear of unemployment. It is caused by poor housing conditions or shortage of adequate accommodation. It is caused by excessive pressures on health and welfare, by overcrowding in our schools and hospitals.
‘These are questions which our Labour government has to address; and I see it as my job in Parliament to ensure that it does address. And I have every confidence that it is doing so. These are political questions and the only way to solve them is politically. In fact, it was to solve questions like this that our labour movement was created in the first place.
‘So it is with very great sadness that I have to oppose this resolution. Fighting racism is not a job for ad hoc committees cobbled together by a few students; it is a job for the labour movement as a whole. I have the greatest possible sympathy with what the students’ committee has been doing. If they want to carry on that fight, then there is a simple answer for them. We welcome them into membership of the Labour Party. Let them join us and then we can all unite to fight our real enemies.’
As he sat down to ominously loud applause I saw him give a brief nod to the full-time party agent. This was a man called George Sheet, who, according to Steven, had never been known to speak a sentence on a political as opposed to an organisational matter. He asked for permission to add a brief comment before the vote was taken.
‘I have today sought advice on this resolution from Labour Party headquarters. As you know, the Labour Party does not allow co-operation with proscribed organisations. Now, of course, the Racial Equality Action Committee is not a proscribed organisation. However, because it is a very new organisation and, I understand, has a rather loose membership structure, we don’t know whether some of its members may be members of proscribed organisations. If that were to be the case, serious organisational problems would arise.’
And with that rather inconclusive comment he sat down, leaving his audience thoroughly confused. But he had only supplemented the job that Terence Wicklow had already done. When the vote was taken we lost – by thirty-five votes to three.
I was in a state of total rage. I wanted to stand up and tell everybody in the room what had happened last weekend. I wanted to tell them that Wicklow was not only a liar and a traitor, that he was also a pervert who manipulated women and took sexual pleasure in the sufferings of torture victims.
But how would they have reacted? Even if they had let me speak, the bunch of respectable citizens who made up the meeting would undoubtedly have considered it all my fault. While I suspect they would have been quite easily persuaded than any sexual peccadilloes on Wicklow’s part should be considered as a purely private question, there was little doubt that I should be cast in the role of the whore. I felt physically sick, too angry even to scream or cry. And although I was in the company of two of my closest friends and comrades, I couldn’t say anything to either of them about it.
We went back to Steven’s flat, where Mike, Sue and John were waiting to hear the news. I was still more or less incapable of connected speech, but Steven explained what had happened at the meeting. Our whole perspective for action had been based on the hope of getting joint action with the Labour Party; now everything seemed to be crumbling beneath our feet. While Steven made coffee for everybody, there was almost complete silence; nobody seemed to know where to begin in trying to get things going again.
It was Mike who spoke first. ‘You know, I think Wicklow may have had a point.’
Everybody looked shocked that he could say this, but Mike was an obstinate person, and if he set his mind on putting an argument forward, nobody could stop him. ‘I’m sure he is a complete opportunist. I’m sure he said what he said tonight for the worst possible motives. But why did he win the vote? We can’t walk away from that one. The thirty-five people who voted with Wicklow tonight weren’t all bent MPs, who care more about keeping in with the party leadership than they do about fighting racism. They’re decent working-class people, the people who’ve built and maintained the Labour Party over the last seventy years. And what Wicklow said meant something to them. They know that any real change has to come through the labour movement, not through ad hoc committees. We can’t by-pass the organisations that the working class has spent a century and more building. Marx and Lenin knew that. We have to start again and not look for any short-cuts.’
While he had been speaking John had been gnawing the sides of his fingers, tapping his feet on the floor and twitching with rage. I remembered the fight they had had in Paris over Mitterrand. The same fight was about to break out again, only this time the consequences were a hundred times more serious. There was a deep and very profound antagonism between the two of them, something which had been smoothed over when we had been doing well.
But now we had had our first really serious defeat, neither of them was going to hold back. Mike thought John was an intellectual dilettante, who only knew about the working class from books and had no real experience of politics. John thought Mike was ignorant and stupid, with no real grasp of socialist ideas, caught up in all the old-fashioned habits and practices of the Labour Party.
I looked from one to the other. Mike in his grey jacket and trousers, a red striped tie round his neck; John with his tee shirt and jeans. Mike had a strong Midlands accent, while John sounded like something off the Third Programme. Mike loved football, while John despised anyone who followed the game. John read poetry, which Mike regarded as pansyish, though he would not have said so in so many words.
Now he was shouting at Mike: ‘So we capitulate, do we? A crook like Wicklow sells you out and you’re surprised. I don’t know why we bothered with all those discussions about the nature of reformism. What do you expect? Reformists always sell out. We know that. We should never have bothered with trying to go through the Labour Party. We should have gone straight to the class. We should have leafleted the factories in the area and called a public meeting. And now you want to go crawling into the Labour Party with your tail between your legs. You gutless bastard.’
Mike had stood up and was clenching his fists. ‘Say that again, you nasty little pansy. Middle-class ponce paying a visit to the working class before you go off and get yourself a fat well-paid job. Revolutionary tourist.’
Sue was clinging to Mike’s arm and pleading with him to sit down. I’m pretty sure she would have agreed with John about the question of the Labour Party, but she didn’t want to see it all degenerate into a punch-up. John, meanwhile, was showing no signs of standing up to fight. He just growled: ‘Typical. Can’t argue about politics; all you want to do is show what a tough big man you are.’
Steven loomed over the two of them. If a fight had started, he could have dealt with it pretty rapidly, probably without even resorting to judo. But he wanted to solve the situation by argument rather than by physical force.
‘Look, we’ve just suffered an important defeat. We’ve got to be honest about that. We all agreed on the strategy for approaching the Labour Party – in fact, as I remember it, it was Mike’s idea in the first place. We agreed we need a united front. The united front doesn’t disappear because we lose one vote. We have to work to get it reversed. We have to go round all the Labour Party wards and the trade‑union branches and argue for them to reconsider.’
Mike had sat down again and was nodding, but John screamed ‘Nonsense! Nonsense!’ I was still too screwed up by the whole experience to make any kind of rational contribution to the discussion.
But at this point Josie stood up. ‘If that’s the way you white people fight racism, then count me out of it. I’m going back to my own people. We’ll have to defend ourselves; you lot are too busy fighting each other.’ And she walked out, slamming the door with a crash that echoed all down the street.
The rest of us left pretty soon afterwards; there was not much point in continuing the argument.
The Racial Equality Action Committee met on Sunday evening. There were about twenty people there, mostly students. Steven reported back, trying to put the most positive light on the setback, and putting forward his strategy for going to the Labour Party grassroots. But of course there was no agreement among us. Mike and John began their argument again, not actually threatening violence, but making quite clear their contempt for each other. Sue weighed in to support John, actually saying that the Labour Party were racists and not worth bothering with. She and Mike had arrived separately and I suspected their relationship was more or less at an end. Josie had not turned up, and nor had any of her friends, so we had an anti-racist meeting without a single black person in the room. I was still too sick at heart to speak.
Steven did his best. But even his articulacy and his tactical good sense were not enough. After an hour the meeting broke up in disarray. There were no proposals for action, no future activities. The Committee never met again.
Somebody, however, apparently took the trouble to telephone the local press to tell them of the collapse of the Committee. It made the front page the following Thursday.
For a couple of weeks after the Committee collapsed nothing much seemed to happen. We still met regularly every Sunday night at Steven’s; there was plenty to discuss – the aftermath of the Vietnam demonstration, the developing situation in Czechoslovakia, the rise of the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland. Indeed, perhaps because we all felt that we had burnt our fingers on racism, we said very little about it. John did suggest on one occasion that perhaps we had been wrong, and the racists had curled up and gone away once we had removed the stimulus of the anti‑racist campaign. Steven jumped on him very sharply and warned us all against such dangerous complacency. But even he didn’t seem to have any practical suggestions for the moment.
Apart from that, I had got terribly behind with my academic work. I had several essays seriously late and my tutors were on my back all the time. Josie hadn’t let the dispute affect her friendship for me, but she was in a similar situation, so I didn’t see much of her.
One Tuesday night, at about midnight, as I was trying to finish an essay on Gladstone and the Irish question, there was a banging on my front door. I ran down quickly, as I didn’t want the other people in the house, who were not terribly sympathetic to either my activities or my friends, to be disturbed. It was a man called Desmond, a young West Indian in his mid-twenties, whom I had met a few times when we had tried unsuccessfully to set up a defence committee in Josie’s street. He was in a terrible state, close to tears and visibly shaking. He had obviously run round here and was soaking wet; it was raining but he had clearly been in too much of a hurry to put on a coat.
I brought him in and he slumped on to my settee. It was nearly five minutes before he was able to speak a sentence, and even then he was hardly coherent. His narrative moved backwards and forwards in a confusing fashion, though I clung on to every word, desperate to know the truth and at the same time fearful of hearing what I knew only too well I was going to hear.
About an hour earlier two large stones had been thrown through Josie’s front window, and then a petrol bomb hurled through the broken glass. The blazing bomb had landed on the sofa, which was filled with highly inflammable material producing poisonous fumes. Josie and her mother had been sitting together in the front room; her younger sister Hazel was in bed upstairs. Her father was away; he had had to go back to Barbados because of a death in the family, although he had been very worried about leaving the family at a time when racist attacks were taking place.
Within seconds the whole house was ablaze. Josie had pushed her mother out of the front door and told her to go and phone for the fire brigade. Then she had run upstairs to rescue Hazel. Although the staircase was already alight she had managed to get upstairs. By now a small crowd of neighbours, alarmed by the sound of the bricks, had gathered outside the front of the house. Josie managed to get Hazel to the window and called to those below to catch her. Hazel was screaming in fear, but Josie managed to persuade her to jump and she was caught safely. Everyone was yelling to Josie to jump too, but by now the upstairs room where Hazel had been sleeping was full of flames; Josie’s clothes were already alight. She climbed up to the widow and prepared to jump, but by now she was a ball of fire. Whether she was still conscious when she toppled from the window ledge nobody could say. By now a fire engine was approaching. A minute or too later an ambulance also arrived and Josie was taken away to hospital, but Desmond, who had been in the little crowd outside, had no confidence that she was still alive. By the time he had finally communicated that message he had broken down completely and was sobbing uncontrollably.
I gave him a cup of tea with a drop of brandy in it, and tried to soothe him. After about half an hour he seemed to be just about in a state to go home. As he was leaving I recalled that Josie had spoken of him a couple of times, in rather scornful tones – though Josie could never be really vindictive. She had said that he had only come to the street committee meetings because he fancied her. From the state he was in I realised that he must have fancied her very deeply indeed.
I wondered whether to phone the hospital, but decided that they probably had enough problems without my curiosity. But just after one o’clock there was another bang on the door, this time much louder, with no evidence of any consideration for the time. I ran down again, knowing that I should get a lot of stick from my housemates for my undesirable acquaintances, and saw two policemen on the doorstep.
‘Do you know a Josie Wade?’ I was asked,
When I said that I did, he informed me, without any apparent concern for my feelings, that she had just been ‘fried to death’.
I broke into tears and sobbed for what seemed like hours. But it can’t have been very long, for the impatient policeman asked me: ‘You’re not a relative, are you?’
The other one sniggered and said ‘Of course she’s not’. The thought that a black person and a white one might be related seemed to amuse him greatly.
Through my tears I explained to him that we were fellow students and close friends. That didn’t seem to incline them to any expression of sympathy, but merely to confirm that they had had come to the right place.
‘That’s good. So you can come down and identify her.’ I gathered that Josie’s mother was in state of total shock, and that out of some quite inexplicable excess of scruple they had decided that the twelve-year-old Hazel was a bit young to be taken round to the morgue. A neighbour had suggested me as the best person for the job.
So I was taken to the morgue. Any last million-to-one hope of mistaken identity evaporated. There was no doubting that it was Josie, despite the terrible burns and the bruising caused by a fall from an upstairs window. In fact, miraculously, her face was more or less intact on her battered body. I would have liked a moment or two to say goodbye, but once I had confirmed the identification the police were anxious to put the corpse away and lead me to an office where I signed the requisite forms.
I went home and cried, unable to sleep. Eventually I fell into a sort of half‑sleep, where I dreamt of Josie, awoke to realise she was dead, and longed to wake again and learn that her death was just a bad dream.
By morning I had no more tears to cry. Now what I felt was not sorrow, but anger. I have always been a quick-tempered person, but when I reviewed the things that had made me angry in the past, I realised that every one of them had been a complete triviality by the side of Josie’s murder. I felt an anger and a hatred such as I had never felt in my life before. I knew now I could never have Josie back. But I wanted revenge.