8: PLAYING TO WIN
The dialectic of fiction and reality is inherent in the structure of the crime story. The reader is well aware of reading a story written within a well established genre (that was why he or she bought it in the first place). Yet the narrator must claim authenticity in order to convince. Time and again the narrator addresses the reader to say in effect: ‘Of course, in a mere detective story things might be different, but this is reality.’ [See Harrison & Starkey, 1962]. (J Thomson, Uncompleted PhD thesis on detective narratives)
New Year 1969 was a sort of turning-point for me. I resolved to put behind me that fateful year of 1968, although of course some things could never be forgotten. I didn’t break with my politics, or with Steven, although the relationship was not quite the same as it had been. I was up at six a couple of mornings a week, selling Red Republican at factory gates, but I also threw myself into my studies, perhaps more to forget than anything else. And so, almost to my own surprise, I found myself in 1970 with a First Class degree.
I became a postgraduate, worked for three years on the origins of the Second World War. At the same time I continued the same frenetic pace of political activity. I marched, leafleted, sold papers, organised. In 1972 I drove striking miners from meeting to meeting and picket to picket; I was outside Pentonville jail when five dockers were sent there for breaking the industrial relations laws.
I applied for a teaching job at my old college, which had just transmogrified itself into a Polytechnic. I didn’t expect to be there long. On the one hand I had academic ambitions; on the other I thought the Revolution might not be very far off. I was disappointed on both counts. Wave after wave of education cuts did not provoke the masses to armed insurrection, but they did mean a radical limiting of the job market. I’m still stuck in the same rat-hole over twenty years later.
Slowly, as my arteries hardened, my political involvement scaled down. I had a flare-up of frenetic activism with the Anti-Nazi League in the late seventies, and another during the miners’ strike in 1984-85. I hadn’t really changed my beliefs – I still thought all Tories were vermin and most members of the Labour Party were traitors, though I’d done a few years in the Labour Party myself. I just didn’t see how things could be changed – or at least, I didn’t see what my role in it all was.
I read somewhere that the only way to persuade yourself that you aren’t growing old and crabby is to mix only with people of your own age. In my line of work that isn’t really possible. I’m not quite fifty yet so I don’t feel ready for sheltered housing, but I do tend to feel more and more out of touch with the younger generation – or would it be more honest to say I hate them.
And then there’s the physical process of growing old. After you’re about forty‑five it’s like this. You wake up one morning and you feel rotten – headache, stomach pains, miscellaneous discomfort. It goes on for a few days – and a few days more. In fact you never actually feel any better. You just get used to feeling that bad all the time and you learn to live with it. Then one morning you wake up and you feel really rotten – much worse than you had been feeling. And that doesn’t get any better either. But after a while you start to get used to it. And then one day you wake up and you feel really really rotten. And so it goes on. And they aren’t symptoms you can do anything about. I have a rotating pain in my body. Sometimes it’s in my leg, sometimes in my groin, sometimes in my chest – just over my heart – and sometimes in the side of my face or my neck. But it’s always somewhere. There’s always a pain somewhere. But if I think I’ll go to the doctor and ask about it, it moves. So it can’t have a physical basis – unless it’s just the general decay and disintegration of the body.
It worries me that I’ve started hating students so much. For twenty years I’ve been making myself very unpopular with my colleagues by defending students. I’ve supported them when they occupied the college, and I always find myself the one who’s arguing for leniency on examination boards. I still do it, because I think it’s ‘politically correct’ – in the proper sense of that much maligned term. But I still hate them. They giggle, they don’t understand what I’m talking about and above all there are too many of them. I know the increase in student numbers was decided by the University management to increase their income, and isn’t the students’ fault. But when I get up each morning it’s the students I have to face, not the management. I keep thinking about the scene in Jude the Obscure where the little boy hangs himself ‘because wee are too menny’. I wish some of my students would have the decency to do the same thing.
But it wasn’t just biology that aged me; it was Thatcher. There’s nothing particularly original about hating Thatcher. Virtually everybody I know hates her, although of course that may be an unrepresentative sample, as the sociologists say, since I couldn’t conceive of getting on with anyone who liked Thatcher. In fact, when I think back to my Marxist training, I realise that I shouldn’t really hate her. It wasn’t her fault. It was the implacable laws of late capitalism, and anybody else, even a Labour government, would have done just the same. But I also know that human beings make their own history, and that Thatcher seems to have enjoyed making her bit of it.
It was the Thatcher years that really blew everything apart as far as my old group of friends was concerned. Of course people had made their own way and chosen their direction before then, but under Thatcher everything became consolidated.
Steven, however, was ahead of the trend, as usual. He’d made his big move rather earlier. For three or four years after 1968 the Red Republican was quite a success. After a bit of manoeuvring and one or two minor splits, Steven became editor. The paper appeared weekly, and managed to develop quite a periphery of contacts. It got a number of leaks – including one or two from dissident Tory MPs. At the time of a mining disaster in 1971 it published information – obtained from rank-and-file miners – that showed how safety precautions had been neglected and had a considerable influence on the public enquiry that was held. Steven became a minor celebrity, frequently reviled in the press as a red agitator, but equally frequently used by the media as a countervailing voice when they felt that the ‘other side’ ought to be articulated.
He still cultivated his rather scruffy style, still paid – in part at least – his freelance earnings to the paper’s fighting fund. But to anyone who knew him well it was clear that he was an ambitious man. In the early seventies, when there was a big wave of strikes – postal workers, dockers, miners – and Marxist ideas were widespread in the universities and polytechnics, there seemed to be a vacuum on the left – a big space to the left of the Labour Party, which the old discredited Communist Party could not fill. The Red Republican was the public voice of this new milieu, and Steven controlled that voice.
He was widely known as a journalist who could be depended on to put the strikers’ point of view. He was a welcome figure on any picket line; and while he was often scathing about the role of trade-union leaders, even the TUC had to take him into account.
I probably knew him as intimately as anyone, so I should be able to answer the question: was he sincere or was he just an ambitious careerist? But I can’t. The only answer seems to be that he was both. I certainly don’t imagine Steven came into left‑wing politics in order to betray ten years later. That would be absurd. The passion with which he defended his positions, in public and in private, could not possibly have been a pretence.
Certainly he was ambitious. He liked public speaking, he loved applause, he loved seeing his name in print. But I’m quite sure it was, to begin with at least, a collective ambition. A success for him was also a success for the side he identified with. When, in 1972, he prophesied another decade of industrial upheaval, culminating in a period of revolutionary transformation, he was being wholly honest. But he also saw a starring role for himself in this scenario. Each strike would be accompanied by a string of articles by himself. He would win the confidence of strike leaders and become their trusted adviser on tactics and strategy. Gradually he would establish himself as the political inspirer of rank-and-file struggle, and be prepared to exercise even more dramatic influence.
So when he recognised in 1974 that he had been quite wrong about the scenario, and that there might not be another similar wave of industrial struggle for a couple of decades, he jumped ship. Steven Sadler was not going to devote the best years of his life to standing in the rain with small bedraggled pickets outside sweatshops. Steven jumped ship before the rest of us had even realised that the boat had changed destination.
. He then decided that his long association with the far left could be turned into a bonus. There was still a lot of fear of the extreme left, especially of potential terrorism, around; Steven would cater for that demand by setting himself up as an expert on the far left. And so, for fifteen years, there was no witch-hunt in the Labour Party, no terrorist trial, no violent picket or demonstration, no direct action by squatters or peace activists, without a long and well-researched argument from Steven about the nature of the far left. On details he was honest and scrupulous, but the overall framework was essentially paranoid.
He increased his reputation in the late seventies by publishing a sort of autobiography in which he described his decade and a half on the revolutionary left and his grounds for breaking with it. This book – entitled I Chose Reason – was in many ways an honest account of his past beliefs. The fact that he had stuck with the revolutionary left for so long seemed to have done him no harm – in fact, by postponing his betrayal Steven had in effect put his price up.
. Of course the left still looked pretty strong at that time – Benn was nearly elected deputy leader of the Labour Party and there were the riots in 1981. It was a time when denouncing left-wing bogeymen was quite profitable, and Steven knew how to squeeze every drop out of the theme. He didn’t actually reveal any dark secrets, because he’d been out of touch for several years and didn’t know any. And when he argued that the far left was undemocratic and manipulative, he was often describing the exact opposite of what his own practice had been. But the point was not that he was revealing anything; he was telling people what they expected to hear. People always feel good when an ‘expert’ confirms their prejudices.
During the 1984-85 miners’ strike Steven became quite a well-known figure, denouncing violent picketing and exposing the way that miners’ support committees were being controlled by the extreme left. He had found his time and his profession; no discussion of left-wing infiltration on Newsnight was complete without Steven there to add his expertise, always with the knowing look that said ‘I used to be one of them’.
With my other friends the evolution was less dramatic.
Mike had originally got an administrative job with a local authority. He was an active trade unionist and in the seventies he made quite a name for himself leading strikes against spending cuts. He became president of the local trades council, set up an anti-cuts action committee and got quite a lot of press coverage when he had called for strike action by social workers and workers in residential homes for children.
But when Thatcher came in the spirit seemed to go out of him. He was involved in the first campaigns against Thatcher’s new trade‑union laws, but he could see which way the wind was blowing. The new laws would mean the sort of strike action he had been so successful in organising would slowly disappear. Briefly he was terribly excited about Tony Benn, but he was disillusioned within months. He started to argue that the most important thing was to defend the union apparatus, because the Tories were aiming to destroy that. It was a sharp switch from two or three years earlier when he had seen the union leaders as the enemy. So it was no great surprise when, in 1983, he took a job as a full-time union official. The defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985 really finished him off. Now he was effectively the number two figure in NUTMEG.
Sue also went to work in local government. In the seventies she turned more and more to radical feminism. She denounced the Labour Party as being riddled with sexism, and argued vigorously that the only way forward was for women to organise separately in exclusively female organisations. She played a leading role in the various campaigns to defend abortion rights.
She was so hostile to the Labour Party that she even seemed initially sympathetic to Thatcher. Indeed, she has never actually denied to me that she voted Tory in 1979 because she wanted to see a woman prime minister. But soon after that she got terribly disillusioned. However critical she had been of the rest of the left in the seventies she had thought that things were broadly going in the right direction, even if far too slowly. Now she was suddenly struck by the fact that they seemed to be moving in the opposite direction altogether. After a couple of years when she did nothing at all, she decided to join the Labour Party she had maligned so much. At least some small changes could be achieved there, she argued. She was still working in local government, in a borough close to the one she lived in. Her main interest seemed to be in getting women into the right jobs; she campaigned for an equal opportunities policy for the local authority and was quite enthusiastic about the idea of women-only short-lists for Labour parliamentary candidates. But what struck me when I talked to her was how timid her goals were now compared with what they had been twenty years earlier.
John had been the most ultra-left in 1968, and this had continued for several years, even after he got himself an academic job – in the same college as myself. He was a great admirer of the autonomists in Italy, and developed quite a sophisticated theory of the role of the state and ideology. But he sometimes used his ultra-leftism as a justification for political quietism. Thus he used the argument that trade unions were essentially part of the bourgeois state apparatus as a means of evading the necessity to involve himself in any kind of day-to-day trade‑union activity. Later on this was very convenient for him, as he didn’t have any kind of record as a trouble-maker hanging over him. In fact, I’ve often noticed that it’s the most extreme ultra-lefts who crack the soonest. They just seem to ignore reality for years and years until one day it hits them in the face; so they pick themselves up and capitulate to it. One minute he was ranting on about Althusser and the need for absolutely rigorous Marxism; the next minute he was a post-modernist and he didn’t believe in anything any more.
John had always been the brightest of us academically. The big problem for him was that he was unable to grasp the unity between theory and practice. Indeed, in the late seventies he wrote a couple of articles that made a bit of a splash at the time, arguing that Marxism was a theoretical system that had no connection with, and no possible relevance to, practice. His hero was Althusser, and he would go on at enormous length about ‘theoretical practice’ and how it was quite different from any other kind of practice. It was just after Thatcher was elected that Althusser strangled his wife. John claimed not to be very interested in the event; as he told me, ‘the collection of Althusserian texts is wholly autonomous from the individual self which happens to have been constructed with the name Althusser.’ I quote him word for word because I’ve no idea what it means.
But about six months after this John had a breakdown. He was off work for nearly a year, and when he returned he seemed to have lost all interest in politics. The job was getting tougher and tougher with spending cuts and increasing student numbers, and he was more and more caught up in the structures of academic careerism. From the point of view of personality, he was becoming ever more neurotic, and his behaviour was often erratic and unpredictable. In particular he tended to lose his temper very violently – though I’m in no position to criticise him on that score. All he seemed interested in was keeping his job, getting promotion, making an academic reputation for himself. Even his PhD, on narrative techniques in detective fiction, was left to rot.
The rest of the story can be told pretty briefly. That’s fortunate, because there isn’t actually a lot in it that does me any credit. When I worry about Alzheimer’s I tend to think in terms of memory loss, but when I look at the last couple of month, I think it must be the judgement synapses in my brain that are disintegrating into little puddles of porridge. Over the last couple of months I seem to have behaved like someone walking into quicksand who doesn’t even try to escape but just runs closer and closer to the centre until the sand is up to her neck.
However, all that is in the public domain. I’ve been all over the newspapers, I’ve been interviewed by the police. There are no big secrets to reveal.
For the last few years all I’ve wanted has been a quiet life. All right, so I took the job as union branch secretary. Not exactly a recipe for leisurely living. I promised myself I’d resign every time I had to see that thick buffoon Kenge and try to explain in words of one syllable what needed to be done. I seemed to spend most of my time negotiating early retirement for some, so the rest of us can work harder to make up. But at least it was all on the premises. No more running round to meetings here, there and everywhere; no more giving out leaflets in the streets, no more standing on pickets lines in the rain. If only.
I suppose it shows just how I’ve never really got over Josie’s death that I thought I saw her face on that picket line. Once I got close up I could see that Val looked nothing like Josie, though there’s no knowing what Josie would have looked like by now. I know I’ve lost every trace of beauty I ever had – and I never had a lot.
But by the time I was talking to Val I knew the hook was in my mouth. What had happened to those women was so blatant, so monstrous that I just couldn’t say I had to catch a train and rush off.
And so I found myself on that picket line, standing in the rain amid a bunch of people twenty years younger than me, and wishing I was in bed. Of course I was a complete idiot to talk to Tara. Anyone who trusts a journalist for thirty seconds deserves all they get. So she did sound quite convincing about how she hated the big press publishers as much as anyone and she was burrowing from within in order to do her bit for the cause. What do you expect? If she couldn’t lie through her teeth and sound convincing, then she wouldn’t have got where she was, wherever that might be.
The rest – the pushing and shoving on the picket – was pure bad luck, though I suspect Tara would have made something out of the story even if there hadn’t been a punch-up. Perhaps she’d have phoned me for a follow-up on how I corrupted my students and incited them to homosexuality and support for the IRA. Maybe I’d have been wide awake enough to catch onto what she was doing. And maybe not, the way I feel most of the time nowadays.
I don’t think my workmates love me at the best of times. Of course, they’re quite happy to have me running around doing the union work for them, but that’s a mixture of idleness and contempt. Let the silly bitch do that, it’s all she’s fit for, I can feel them thinking. But once I was in the papers I could sense the hatred and scorn all round me; it was like wading through soup every time I went to work.
As for the conference, I shouldn’t have got myself involved in the first place. John has never forgiven me for a whole mass of things, and I was plain stupid to get involved with something he was in charge of running. I should have simply walked out as soon as he mentioned that Terence Wicklow was being invited, and had nothing further to do with the whole shabby fiasco. Once again, perfect proof that the synapses are disintegrating into senility. Roll on the day when I crack completely and wander through the corridors of Del Morecambe shouting obscenities at everyone until they haul me off to a rest home for the aged. Except nowadays I’ll probably be on the streets having care in the community within a couple of months.
Actually, I nearly didn’t go to the conference. That, of course, would have salvaged everything, and I wouldn’t need to be writing all this down now. I woke up that morning with really rotten stomach ache. I suppose it’s irregular eating and sleeping habits. The thought of turning up to listen to Terence Wicklow lying through his teeth only to end up in a pool of diarrhoea was enough to send me scuttling back to bed. But I woke up before lunch-time feeling at least marginally better and decided to go after all. Bloody synapses!
So I had a row with John and then I apparently insulted Terence Wicklow. I’m not quite sure what I was supposed to say to a man who had abused me and lied to me, and was now trying to chat me up. ‘Oh yes, please, Mr Wicklow, do fuck me; that would really make a girl’s day. It’s all I’ve been dreaming of for the last twenty‑eight years.’ I suspect Roger Kenge does think that’s what I should have done.
The actual conference was just about as abysmal as I expected. I’ve heard better discussion on ‘Yesterday in Parliament’. Wicklow was beneath contempt and beyond parody. Steven did show touches of his old brilliance; I don’t think he’s wholly deteriorated.
I was just sitting down at the start of the conference when a bizarre thought crossed my mind. There were three men on the platform – John in the chair, and the two speakers, Steven Sadler and Terence Wicklow – and I had slept with all three of them. And as I watched them I realised that there was only one of them I remotely fancied.
So when Steven asked me to meet him that evening, I said ‘Yes’. I’d stepped so far into the quagmire one more mouthful of mud wasn’t going to make any difference. I was curious as to what he wanted to talk about, and, obviously, a little apprehensive. But it wasn’t just that. Did he want to have sex with me? I didn’t know, but I was willing to take the risk to find out. Would I accept? I didn’t know that either, but I very much wanted to find out.