My parents were always poor. My father was ostracised by his family for becoming a “Bolshevik” (as they chose to call it), and marrying a “common shop girl” . . . as they chose to describe my mother. It was a “never-darken-my-doors-again” situation. In fact he did try to “darken their doors” again when he hit upon very hard times but they would not lend him any money. They would have none of him and he was to remember this with bitterness for the rest of his life. It also meant that I was never to meet my paternal grandparents or my aunt and uncle.
I suppose to some people Dad would have been an embarrassment. He was the kind of man whose main object in going to the cinema, or so it seemed, was to watch the Pathé News, make loud, caustic comments about whatever was happening on the screen, and then try to inveigle the audience into a discussion. And then again, just as soon as the film was ended and the strains of God Save The King became audible he would leap from his seat and with great ostentation usher us along the row and out of the cinema. On one or two occasions he remained seated (when most other people were standing to attention) in order to explain the role of the Royal Family under capitalism in a very loud voice to the people in the row behind. Dad firmly believed that all he had to do was to expound his political allegiances and most people would come round to his way of thinking. And it is true to sat that most people did tend to keep quiet whilst he bestowed on them all the benefits of this knowledge and wisdom, but I think now that this was due more to weariness than any agreement on their part.
Visitors to the house, young and old alike, he attempted to engage in political debate, a debate he invariably won hands down because he had done masses of reading on the subject, but also because few people ever wanted to argue with him in the first place, when he naturally assumed that they did. In other words he never missed an opportunity to inform, and he did this lengthily and with patience and humour. But as he had behaved in this way for as long as I could remember he was an embarrassment to me. But for my mother it was different. Mum would ask “Must you bring politics into everything? Could we just go for one day in this house without a lecture on the evils of capitalism?” In this I thought she was unreasonable. I thought him wonderful, eccentric and handsome as the only little girl in the family would.
During the time that my father was a road-sweeper he was responsible for one of the more leafy, posher areas of south-east London. I lived in this area for a time and was to meet some of the residents who as soon as they heard my name would enquire if I was Jock’s daughter, and then I would soon learn of Dad’s attempts to convert whoever-it-was to socialism. From what they said he spent as much time preaching as he did sweeping. I have no evidence that he ever fully converted anyone but I have no doubt that he made a lasting impression.
Yet as I grew up a coolness developed between us. My politics changed. I no longer saw the Russian revolution in the same way and the Hungarian uprising of 1956 put a completely different complexion on the way I thought of socialism. My father could never accept the revelations about Stalin; he was ageing, becoming too ill to analyse events. He felt let down, betrayed. Now instead of hanging on to his every word I berated him. I chided him with feeding me the wrong information for so many years. I made it clear that I considered his lifetime principles to be a sham. His punishment was twofold, my behaviour was unforgivable, and when he died the rift between us had not been healed. He must certainly have felt that he had been betrayed not only by his parents and his politics but by his only daughter too! And yet this dear man inspired me to read, to question and to be a socialist. What more could he have taught me?