. . . marches and placards in the Sixties
STREET FIGHTING YEARS by Tariq Ali
THE SIXTIES IN QUEEN edited by Nicholas Coleridge and Stephen Quinn
Ebury Press, £12.95
These books will have a personal poign- ance for anyone now in his forties who did not march on Grosvenor Square and never heard of Annabel's. You didn't meet Robin Blackburn? Or Anthony Haden- Guest? What did you do in the Sixties, Daddy?
At the same time this wonderful oceanic feeling comes, to find yourself numbered among the millions who were always else- where, too late or too preoccupied, catch- ing cold or trying to get laid. Suddenly you have new heroes, like cross old Gildas, the despair of generations of historians be- cause he was the only man in sixth-century Britain with a pencil and paper but had other things on his mind. History will never be the same again.
Oddly enough Tariq Ali, too, was often elsewhere. Paris explodes but he does not leave Britain, fearing that the Home Office will not admit him again. Granada Teleiti- sion flies him, all expenses paid, to Pakis- tan so that he can catch up with the Student Revolution. For the first time he is there, but he has to leave, to attend the 9th World Congress of the Fourth International, 'but I promised to return soon.' Somehow one cannot imagine Lenin writing that. He makes frantic efforts to be where the headlines are. He goes to Bolivia where Regis Debray is in gaol but can only walk up and down the street outside, whistling the Internationale. He is about to embark on a barn-storming tour of Britain which might have changed people's attitudes to the Vietnam War, but his testicles swell up. Enter a woman friend with the three volumes of Isaac Deutscher's Trotsky: the testicles subside.
As you read this book very slowly the suspicion comes that you could be reading one of the comic masterpieces of your time. This is the revolutionary, 1960s style, his expenses to Prague and Vietnam paid by Michael Heseltine's Town magazine under its then editor Julian Critchley, as those to Pakistan were by Granada. There are lunches at Claridges and in Paris, expenses paid by the Pakistan Govern- ment. Through this comfortable new world rushes Mr Pooter.
His First March. His First Placard. The book, he insists, is a political memoir. 'It is not, be warned, an account of mini-skirts on the steps of the Sorbonne.' No matter. His grandmother knits the revolutionary infant a white sweater with a red hammer and sickle on it. A poet from the Progres- sive Writers Association of Lahore solemn- ly intones 'Enemy of Life, Enemy of Human, Enemy of Pakistan, The Dread Accursed Atom BUM.'
Few personal details intrude, though in the preface he does acknowledge 'a com- panion' who has excused him some domes- tic chores. There is not a hint of the personal economics which allowed him to finance his progress, apart from the ex- penses.
He glides into Oxford, and into jobs. People do not interest him very much, except when some idiosyncrasy is so bizar- re that even he notices it. Thus Peggy Duff, `a brilliant organiser who chain-smoked with the result that her infectious laughter often merged with a ghastly cough.' Mar- vellous sentence, that. When he visits Hanoi with Lawrence Daly, he notices the NUM secretary's habit of drinking a bottle of malt whisky in an evening.
The book is very long and boring, much of it being taken up with editorials on events. in far-away places. But the comic moments are worth waiting for, as when the pop-star millionaire Jagger delivers a hand-written copy of his song, 'Street- Fighting Man' ('What can a poor boy do, 'cept sing/For a rock and roll band'). Our hero, recording his relief that the writing is legible, copies this out and then throws the original into a wastepaper basket, to the approval of his acolytes. His own comment is quite ineffable: 'The cult of the indi- vidual is always in the last resort a substi- tute for collective action.'
These were the golden days, when the Standard would ring him up at six in the morning and he could allow Mary McCar- thy only five minutes for an interview. (`She left in a huff and went to see the Maoists who had nothing better to do and spent several hours with her').
October, 1968, when the Times believed that he and his associates were about to mount some sort of coup. Instead they agonised over whether to dump cow-dung on the steps of No. 10 (rejected as imprac- tical) or take advantage of the offer by some volunteers to be sick (rejected on the grounds that they might not succeed). In the end he just scribbled a note himself which began, 'Dear Harold'. The Socialist Labour League later denounced this greet- ing as 'revisionist'.
And what became of the march? They went to Hyde Park, where an ecstatic Kenneth Tynan, perched on a railing, counted their numbers. The Maoists went to Grosvenor Square where, with the police, they joined in the singing of 'Auld Lang Syne', though they later denied that they had sung the chorus.
After that there was just the editing. Black Dwarf. Red Mole. New preoccupa- tions appear, like taste, as when the poet Christopher Logue suggests that Barbara Castle's In Place of Strife be commemo- rated by a cover in which Mrs Castle, on her knees, is shown sucking off a fat, naked capitalist. They rejected it.
One wonderful figure, an unnamed de- signer on the magazine, makes a brief appearance, attempting to print a feminist manifesto on a photograph of a naked woman with large breasts. Frustrated in this, he slipped in a last minute ad: 'DWARF DESIGNER SEEKS GIRL. Suit American Neg- ress. Phone ...' The next day, his editor reports sadly, they parted company.
It was such a cosy little world while it lasted, the meetings and the resolutions and all that urgency, with 'young Mary Furness' bursting in to tell them of a dinner-party at which she and the Queen had been guests. What was surprising was that it was so subsidised, with the book commissions from Jonathan Cape and the expenses. A man could live quite well as a revolutionary in the 1960s. So chic, so long ago.
The most moving section comes at the very end, when he considers the fate of those who were his companions. It is like those stanzas in Don Juan where Byron writes of his contemporaries, 'Where's Brummell? Dished. Where's Long Pole Wellesley? Diddled.'
Alas, most of Ali's contemporaries are comfortably off, Regis Debray 'a pompous and shifty functionary of the French state', and one at least has publicly expressed his gratitude that they did not succeed in 1968. A few kept the faith, like Ralph Schoen- mann, Russell's eminence grise who, with the exception of one Mafioso, is now the only Jew denied access to Israel. But there are always the dead, and they are immacu- late.
Queen, a magazine which did not pay Ali any expenses, starts its Sixties anthology (once you have got past the photograph of Nicholas Coleridge as a baby) with these sentences in Joceleyn Stevens's foreword: `I bought The Queen as it was then called on 14 February, 1957. It was my 25th birthday.' Yes, quite.
The irony is that the best thing in it is a profile by Stevens of Macmillan. 'His handshake was unimportant.' The Prime Minister stopped. "It's rather cold in here." He got up, turned on an electric switch by the fireplace and sat down again. Harold Evans (his Press Secretary) came round the table, put the plug in and returned noiselessly to his place across the table.' The old monster, as Auden noted bleakly about Churchill in the 1930s, can write.
The rest is breathless stuff. Tom Wolfe and lists. Who's in, who's out, where's smart, where's not. Adverts are included so that like Nabokov's Pnin you have the difficulty of trying to work out what is advertisement and what is not.
Both books, in their way, read like tribal accounts, and it is only 'young Mary Furness' bursting in among the revolu- tionaries with her account of a dinner-party who seems to bridge the worlds. She could be a footnote to the Sixties one day. We that were also young shall never see so much.