1 NOVEMBER 1975, Page 13

Communists Why did you join, comrade?

Jim Higgins In the years of my extreme youth, following the last war, I joined the Communist Party. In Short order my youthful enthusiasm and ignorance-induced loyalty assured my promotion to Literature Secretary — or 'Litsec' for Short and because it had a nice Russian sound. In this small but necessarily revolutionary task I experienced the extremes of affluence and Poverty. Affluence when the comrades paid, and poverty when the party centre sent out the bills. Many is the glass of brown ale 1 have consumed on the proceeds of the latest 'mass sale pamphlet'. As time wore on and the Anglo-Russian amity of the war gave way to a distinct chill, culminating in the cold war, a number of comrades decided to leave the party. Some from elementary prudence, others from ideological disagreement and a few from boredom. It Is a little known fact that the Communist Party, along with its monumental inefficiency, is also very boring. I, having diligently read my 'Little Lenin Library' and attended the odd education Class. was made of sterner stuff. What was a little boredom when the payoff was the emancipation of mankind and, probably, a posh job as a Commissar. Around the time that Tito broke with the Corninform a mild obsession seemed to take hold of the membership: "Why did you join the 1:1arty, comrade?" was a question much on our bps. It may be that this was some subtle campaign dreamed up in King Street to sort out the weaklings for the hard times ahead. I could !lot -ay; King Street was very close with its lnformation. Suffice to say that the question Was asked, and frequently. Some had joined long ago on a wave of enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution. Some had joined to suPPort the anti-fascist activity of the 1930s. Yet another lot, the so-called 'Stalingrad levy', had been fired with excitement by the Russian army's advance along a 3,000-mile front. The Younger element, of which I was one, were much taken up with revolutionary thoughts of barricades and lamp-posts tastefully decorated with hanging plutocrats. In addition to this motley collection of failed revolutionaries, premature anti-fascists and Silly kids, there was s sprinkling of spendid eccentrics One of this school was Fred. His history in the party went back to 1929, he had been through every campaign in the party ever since: unemployment, anti-fascism, the war, and now the troubled peace. With complete unconcern for the twists and turns of party Poky he sold the Daily Worker undeterred by Police harassment and the occasional fine. Every. levy, quota and financial exaction that the Party could dream up Fred paid. In every party task he always overfulfilled his norm.

Fred's job was as a gardener for the local council. The flower beds outside the Town Hall were his special responsibility. It appears that he actually disliked flowers intensely but he took a certain workmanlike pride in arranging them in a somewhat regimented display. Whatever the weather he usually wore an overcoat, a cap and a muffler and, of course, wellington wellington

boots. At no time was he without a soggy, unlit, hand-rolled fag between his lips. As he sucked on them they gradually became juicier and browner right along their length. At some critical stage, when the moisture content positively defied combustion, he would pop them in a cough lozenge tin he kept for just this purpose. What he did with them then nobody knew. There was one theory that he used them as a particularly lethal pesticide in his work. It true, then any aphids would have been well advised to move to the next borough.

The last time I saw Fred to speak to was at a meeting of our local branch called to hear a report from a District Committee luminary on the evils of 'Trotsky fascism' as exemplified by the counter-revolutionary activities of Josef Tito. As so often happened the speaker did not turn up and our chairman (we had not got round to chairperson in those days), a lady much given to Eastern European dirndls and extirpating heresy, suggested that we all give brief thumbnail sketches of why we joined the party. It may be that she saw this as an opportunity to unmask any Titoite wreckers who had, until then, eluded exposure. If so, she was disappointed. Most of us had edifying stories that reflected credit on ourselves, the party and Comrade Stalin — in that ascending order — and in our turn we related these improving tales. That is, until we got to Fred. He took a deep pull on his soggy wreck of a cigarette, crossed his legs, dislodging a sizable chunk of council clay on the carpet, and started. "I joined the party," he said, "because I have been a lifelong spiritualist. In 1929 after communion with many long dead thinkers I came to the conclusion that only under socialism could the genuine claims of spiritualism be scientifically tested. And so I joined the party," Ourchairman was stuck in a horribledilemma. On the one hand here was a self-confessed adherent of a particularly eccentric religious opiate, so insidious as to take twenty years in the unmasking. On the other hand he was a class war prisoner, an ace Daily Worker seller and a dedicated member. Before she could resolve the difficulty a young female comrade had leapt in with a question about the possibility of reading bumps. Fred indeed believed in the reading of bumps and offered a reading on another occasion. Those of us who had attempted, unsuccessfully, to explore her bumps were somewhat put out at this. But Fred went on to discourse knowledgeably on bumps, life lines, mounds of Venus and other exotica. I must say that it was quite interesting and certainly beat Tito-bashing by a mile.

He would certainly have gone on longer had it not been for one of the youthful comrades, much given to tormenting his elders, who removed his shoe and sock and offered his foot for Fred's inspection saying, "Can you read feet?" Quite apart from the unwholesome nature of the foot Fred was clearly mortally offended by the levity induced by this adolescent sally. The meeting broke up in disorder and Fred was not seen again at meetings.

I did see him once outside the library sneering at a flower. We did not speak. By now he must almost certainly be dead; he was an elderly man in 1948. If he is on the other side, perhaps he could get in touch. Just a short message to the effect that feet, to be read, must not only be clean but also offered in a spirit of honest inquiry. That would be the great justification for his twenty years in the party.