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Monday, February 17, 2020

Patricide and pipe smoke

At one of his few forays into Mr Benn’s public world, Jonathan had arranged the podium from which the politician would speak. Jonathan was keen to make sure that all the necessary items were placed correctly: cassette recorder, back-up cassette recorder, four pens (two ink, two Biro), throat sweets (a spare pack of throat sweets), and, of course, a large Thermos flask of tea.

The tape recorders were to ensure that Mr Benn can come back at the mainstream media who have been distorting if not outright twisting his words for more than a decade (or so Mr B had informed Jonathan). The result was that Jonathan spent several hours in Mr B’s study the next day going through the recordings to ensure that every word was transcribed, and that therefore a permanent record of every word Mr B has uttered in public since the late 1970s, and for the foreseeable future, would continue to be preserved.

Mr B, thought Jonathan, is very exacting. His media image - that of a paranoiac - was obviously a media distortion. He is though understandably careful. Armed with a transcript of what in fact he did say on such and such an occasion Mr B sometimes rang the editor of the offending publication, in person, to seek a published redress. This was after the fact of course, but important for setting the record straight.

Jonathan had in a sense come to the role of unpaid assistant to Mr Benn as a result of his mother. She had originally suggested that he use his holiday time away from the Polytechnic to ‘good effect’ (as she called it). She didn’t envisage though that he would so in this manner. Jonathan’s mother did not approve of Mr B’s politics or of the man himself, regarding him as, well, using a word Jonathan had learnt as an undergrad, an arriviste. It’s strange, thought Jonathan, to describe a man of about 60 in these terms. He recalled his own mother once remarking that she remembers what she considered Mr Benn’s more reasonable phase and the aristocratic title that she believed somehow accompanied that. A ‘gentleman’ who, like others of that class, knew what was best for the country. So why, she wondered, did he have to go and spoil it all by forsaking his name and renouncing his title - and titles of any kind – just to remain an MP?

Jonathan is contemptuous of his parents’ petit-bourgeois reaction: a class ‘of and for itself,’ he thought, wilfully paraphrasing what Karl Marx had envisaged the proletariat would one glorious day become. Mr B though is cautious about the late German philosopher and father of communism. He says that Marx is, of course, in need of proper recognition, and is contemptuous that Mr Kinnock’s timorousness in the face of the mainstream media should make him embarrassed at even hearing Mr B’s proposal that the Party mark the centenary of Marx’s death in 1888. On the other hand, Mr B –  Jonathan cannot get used to calling him 'Tony'  – thinks Marxism has drawbacks – in both conception and practise, and is renowned for saying (or recycling, if truth be told) the aphorism (Jonathan wasn’t sure if that was the right word) that Labour is ‘more Methodist than Marxist.’ Jonathan mused to himself that the ethical, indeed Christian, dimension to Mr B’s socialism gets lost, if not wilfully ignored by the many of his followers that the media label ‘Bennite’.

Jonathan related to the fact that Mr B’s politics were grounded in Christian conceptions and principles. That said, before Jonathan’s conversion to parliamentary socialism, he had been much taken by Mr David Lloyd-George and noted his attack on the Anglican Church as ‘The Tory Party at prayer’ and his related advocacy of disestablishmentarianism. Is Mr B an anti-disestablishmentarian? He can’t be, can he, wondered Jonathan. Anyway, Jonathan had had a Christian ‘phase’ in his last couple of years at school, and still felt its affect.

Believing that Mr Benn was a man of great moral and intellectual authority, Jonathan had decided to offer himself, at the particular prompting of a poly lecturer whose advice he’d sought, as a voluntary assistant to the country’s most renowned left-wing politician. This soon morphed into a pretty time-consuming job – after lectures, and most weekends. He was never paid, but initially at least he had appreciated learning an awful lot about Mr B – or at least as much as the politician was willing to divulge.

While at first Jonathan had helped Mr Benn at a few of his public meetings, Jonathan greatly preferred to be behind the scenes, concluding he could be much more use working in the politician’s cellar, tackling all the transcribing that needed to be done. In fact Jonathan had been working for Mr B for about six months and still hadn’t spent any time in the house itself. Jonathan would sometimes get given sandwiches – sent down by Mr B’s wife (although he doubted that she made them herself). Sometimes the bread tasted stale. He didn’t complain, obviously, and told himself that this was a refreshing change from his own mother’s inclination to let the birds enjoy perfectly edible foodstuffs. I guess that that comes of her serving my father – and a ‘Lord somebody’ before that, he reflected. Things had to be ‘just so’ in his mother’s kitchen and that included the freshness of all the food therein.

Jonathan was working away prior to Mr B returning from a meeting at the House of Commons. The meeting in question was of a supportive party faction and Mr B would be addressing them on the subject of ‘Mobilising the grassroots’, or ‘grasswoots’ as the enemy media unkindly mocked Mr B’s mild speech impediment. Mr Benn had told Jonathan that he could attend this meeting if he wished, but Jonathan declined. Aside from the work, Jonathan wasn’t comfortable with some of Mr B’s admirers. The sense of inadequacy Jonathan felt when in the company of these people, or by avoiding them and the meetings, would be partially offset at least by applying himself to the audio back-log.

Jonathan preferred to be working in the Benn bunker but it also annoyed him. The last time they’d chatted Mr Benn had said to Jonathan that he might like to train another researcher/assistant as part of the team. Their exchange had begun as Jonathan, for once, was finding his own voice, or some semblance of it. He’d decided the night before that he was going to raise his concerns with Mr B. It wasn’t so much the quantity of the tapes, it was that Jonathan increasingly felt that he was being taken for granted. Originally the recompense was time spent privately in a brilliant politician’s company, but when that time had become increasingly rarer because Mr B never seemed to have the time to devote to his own archive, Jonathan began to feel used. If Mr Benn was usually not around in the evening, what was the point of he, Jonathan, being so? He’d decided to simply say to Mr Benn that he found it less rewarding to be working mostly on his own, whether in the daytime or the evening, and that attending his party meetings could hardly put that right.

‘I feel exploited,’ said Jonathan, fully aware of the impact that that word would have. ‘I don’t expect to be paid but to just be expected to churn out typed documents with increasingly less input from you, isn’t fair,’ said Jonathan, who by now was shaking with the impact that being assertive was having, on him and seemingly on Mr Benn who was visibly shocked.

Mr Benn responded not by taking Jonathan’s observations directly on board but by asking if Jonathan felt the need to take a break. This was not the response Jonathan was looking for. While he’d raised the issue of being busy with his own studies, Jonathan did not consider this concern as a signal that he wanted out. ‘Jonathan, what you’ve done for us…..’ began Mr Benn obliquely……

‘Us?’ said Jonathan, ‘Who are the others then?’ This was just the kind of middle class deflection that pissed him off. ‘Mr Benn,’ he said, his voice growing surprisingly loud, ‘I am not working for a party faction, some vague amorphous ‘Left’, or, for that matter, your family. I am working for YOU!’

Mr Benn decided to sidestep Jonathan’s angry assertion.

‘…. What you’ve done for us,’ Mr Benn repeated with emphasis, ‘is profoundly appreciated. It’s a vital contribution to propagating our message.’

Jonathan, in so many words, let it go. ‘Sure,’ he finally said in response to Mr Benn’s repeated suggestion that he take some time off.  ‘I’ll think about it.’ Except he wouldn’t. When Jonathan was really determined his avoidance techniques were actually very good.

The next morning Jonathan knew he shouldn’t round-off his early morning self-punishment, otherwise known as running furiously round Finsbury Park, by visiting that bakers. He feared he hadn’t taken enough small change, and instinctively knew that that embarrassment would probably trigger him. It didn’t take much these days for Jonathan’s interactions, especially with virtual strangers, to induce the familiar fear grounded in him since childhood by his father’s betrayal.
No sooner had he stepped into the bagel shop in the still only half-light, then he was walking a tightrope, negotiating a thin line between rightful strength and pointless assertion. A much bigger man brushed a mite too firmly against him and Jonathan’s poignant ‘excuse me’ obliged the very surprised man to apologise. This was followed by a seemingly interminable exchange between Jonathan and a heavily-accented, presumably Polish, woman over the kind of bagel he wanted/was available/could afford. All because he hadn’t the balls to say, from the outset, that he couldn’t understand what on earth she was saying. He left the shop in an agitated state, simultaneously amazed and oh so predictably proven right in his semi-premonition that he should never have come into this place. Back in his bedsit Jonathan had to admit though that the bagel, lightly toasted and generously coated with Sainsbury’s non-dairy margarine, tasted great.

A little while later Jonathan was very surprised to see that a letter had arrived from Mr Benn:


Dear Jonathan,

You need to understand things from my point of view. When you first came to see me I was very pleasantly surprised as you didn’t fit with the type I’m used to seeing. A student, an undergraduate, yes, but somehow you were different. I was impressed by your in-depth historical knowledge of the Party; a rare thing for one so young. I was also struck that you didn’t either subserviently think it appropriate to defer to everything I said, or superciliously try to inform me of where I was going wrong.

I encouraged you in your quest for understanding, from the inside looking out, whilst believing that you could have something to offer the Party, and in particular to our cause within it and our need to mobilise the youth of our country.  I had hoped that in this particular respect you might be an inspiration to others of your generation.

Yet you have chosen to not properly take up the opportunities I have afforded you. Yes, there is no doubt that you work conscientiously in my study, putting up with the sometimes cramped conditions and the, yes, still unresolved damp problem. Your output has never flagged. However, within a month or so after you began working with me, I noticed that your attitude began to change, to the work, to how you went about it. You went from being a happy embracer of all challenges, to a moody and sometimes resentful, even sullen, assistant.

I like to offer my apprentices – this by the way is how I like to think of you all, in the best tradition of what we offered in Government in the 1970s, not the exploitation that private firms offer – I like to offer my apprentices a chance to hone their education by witnessing politics in action. However, you have preferred to seclude yourself, to keep away from party meetings, and you often turn up at my home in the daytime when I am rarely there. It seems as if you want to make sure that you could work undisturbed by anybody, including me. I am familiar with people who’d rather not be in my company but they are usually fellow shadow cabinet members, not those who’ve volunteered to serve in defence of our cause. 

In the course of our exchange last night I was astounded by what poured forth from your mouth. That person who had been so pleasant, cheery, charming even, could turn in an instant into something quite different. Petulant, angry, and all over such small details. I know that you have of late been struggling with the pace of the work – I have after all been addressing more and more meetings, doing more and more interviews. But for you to think that I, your friend, am exploiting you? I realise the irony in you being unpaid labour, but it’s in the nature of the beast: You work for nothing when you support a political party. The reward comes with the eventual realisation of all that we hold dear.

I believe that both your heart and your head are still in the right place; that, like me, you hunger for socialism – in word and, most of all, in deed. That you understand that all personal squabbles and preoccupations must be put aside in the struggle for the greater good. The individual can and must sublimate their interests and preoccupations to the broader movement of history.

I understand from what you let slip that you have been wrestling with some demons, even though you qualify them as ‘petit bourgeois’. I must confess that I am not familiar with this particular kind of class anxiety, but I know that it has little to do with what we are fighting for. You wouldn’t want to do anything to put your own interests above the wider cause, would you? I continue to hope that we can continue to work together and that, should for some reason that not be possible, that we can conclude this particular phase amicably.

Please be aware that there are other potential volunteers. I say this not to make you think that you can easily be dispensed with, but because even if I was to ask one of them to help us, you would be pivotal to introducing them to the work and to the best methods needed to conduct it. I sincerely hope that you won’t take this to mean that I wish you to depart. You did sound at times like you had had enough of the work. However I prefer to presume that that was only an unplanned by-product of our discussion.

Let us go forward together - in any possible way we can.

Yours, fraternally,
Tony


Having received the letter that morning Jonathan turned up at the Benn family house with something of an attitude; one that would only grow more pronounced as the day wore on.

Who the hell was this bloke sitting in his seat, drinking his tea and pissing in his porridge, thought Jonathan at the sight of someone else working away in Mr Benn’s office. Jonathan was caught between a simultaneous urge to flee and to fight this smartly-dressed, stiffly handsome chap comfortably positioned in what he’d come to think of as his domain. It was Mr Benn’s domain obviously, but most of the time he wasn’t there, and in any case Jonathan was increasingly the organiser of his office space. Now there was this well-bred interloper, and up with this, Jonathan wasn’t inclined to put.

He found it easier to give some vent to his frustration, his misplaced anger, at this smoothly attired effortlessly confident young Turk. Deep down of course Jonathan knew that it was Mr Benn who, with only the barest of warnings, had deposited this chapee here. It wasn’t the interloper’s fault that it was so. No doubt Mr Benn has many young middle class rebels queuing up to fuck off their parents, or even threaten their parents with the prospect of a Benn government that would take away their private schools, hospitals, (much of their) inherited wealth and an array of other privileges. It made Jonathan feel good to silently incant these commandments for a better world, just as a few years earlier he’d memorised the best bits from the New Testament. Jesus and the money changers, for instance.

‘Eh, hello,’ said Jonathan awkwardly, holding out his arm stiffly, hoping that the interloper would meet him, or at least his proffered hand, halfway. ‘I hadn’t been expecting anyone,’ said Jonathan with a feint echo, he thought, of an Alan Bennett character only partly opening the door of a net-curtained fortress to an unwelcome visitor.

‘Oh,’ said the new volunteer hesitantly, ‘Sorry about that’ (he wasn’t, thought Jonathan). ‘I’m David….. Tony said to come today as there’s lots of tapes to go through apparently.’

A lot? Bloody cheek, thought Jonathan. There’s precisely three, albeit all full up with one speech and the obligatory audience worship of the (self) chosen leader of the Left. ‘Sure,’ said Jonathan disingenuously, still unable to work out exactly what this imposition was all about.

OK so Mr Benn had proposed that Jonathan take a break, and Jonathan had of late been allowing his frustrations to come out in Mr B’s company. But he didn’t expect what looked suspiciously like his replacement to turn up, briefed to do his work, the very next fucking day. 

‘I’m Jonathan in case you didn’t know. Here’s the tapes I haven’t yet had a chance to go through, he said, placing only one of them in David’s eager little hands. How delicate they were, Jonathan noticed. In fact, loathe though he was, Jonathan focused on David’s cheek-bones too. He was handsome, in that Brideshead kind of way, but without quite the blue chip accent. Minor public school, Jonathan thought.

‘So, is there a machine for me to play this on so I can begin the transcription?’ asked David. ‘Somewhere,’ offered Jonathan with feigned indifference to the poor chap’s plight and increasing discomfiture.

Jonathan’s mood darkened. No, he thought. This isn’t going to happen. I am not going to be put on once again. The woman in the bagel shop, the bully in the bike sheds, this ponce, they can all go fucking hang.

‘Actually, on second thoughts, I’ve already started some of this,’ Jonathan lied, snatching the cassette back. ‘Why don’t you go through the post, or tidy some of the paperwork?’ Wow, thought Jonathan, he had told a social superior to, in effect, do the cleaning. This was alien territory indeed.

David looked blank. Deep down he found Jonathan an irritant, but from what he had understood from Tony, he was probably about to depart, so David decided he’d cooperate as best he could, for now at least. ‘OK,’ said David, ‘I’ll sort the mail. Let me know if you’d like me to transcribe one of the other tapes. After all that was a big speech last night…’

‘Oh, so you were there?’ said Jonathan, once again feeling put out. ‘Sure. Tony invited me and the other Oxford University Young Socialists.’ Right, thought Jonathan. Of course he fucking did. His alma mater, or however you say it. Right now he couldn’t give a fuck about where the ruling class sent their progeny. Still, he mused, at least David’s dad probably treated him ok. Well, apart from keeping him in a boarding school for most of his childhood. There, other men could get at him; probably did, thought Jonathan, musing on David’s snow-white skin.

The two young men went about their mutually-interested business with pretend disinterest. Despite having earlier decided to let his irritation dissipate, David grew increasingly irritated. He’d exhausted the mundane tasks Jonathan had allotted him and was now eager to get into something more substantial. ‘Come on,’ he ventured to Jonathan, ‘Give me a cassette that you’re not working on.’ Jonathan took his ear pieces off, pressed the clunky ‘stop’ button on Mr Benn’s cheapo mono cassette recorder, and looked David in the eyes. Momentarily weakened in his resolve, he decided to focus on his distaste for this entryist.

‘Look, I am in the middle of transcribing these words of wisdom, so why don’t you just read something or file something, or whatever?’ This didn’t go down well with David. He wasn’t used to being talked to like this. Not even his masters at school or his tutors at Oxford; and ‘words of wisdom’? Plainly Jonathan was mocking Tony. How could this be, thought David. Is Jonathan disloyal? Is he not a fully paid-up member of the club?

‘You don’t think Tony’s insights into how to organise workers’ control of factories in a capitalist society are that interesting,’ asked David, angered now and determined to see if Jonathan was really ‘one of us’, or if maybe he was a social democratic wetback who’d hitched his political wagon to the wrong side of the argument. ‘No,’ said Jonathan. ‘I think he’s full of shit.’     
 
There, I’ve said it, thought Jonathan. Of course, I don’t believe it; well, not entirely. But if this fucker thinks Benn’s the messiah, then I’m with the Devil, he reflected, wilfully mangling Churchill’s famous comment about aligning with Stalin against Hitler.

The two young men stood upright, facing each other in studied appraisal. They were almost squaring up, albeit in a slightly forced, self-conscious show of, well, middle class confrontation.

‘Is that the extent of your critical appraisal,’ said David, feeling the full confidence of what he knew to be a superior education, not least two years studying ‘PPE’ – the badge of many front rank Labour politicians of recent years, including Tony.

‘No,’ replied Jonathan, feeling inadequate due to both David’s tone and his implication that his insights were weak. ‘I just doubt the economic or political plausibility of workers’ control of production when, to be re-elected and, for once, to hold office for a substantial period, we need to prioritise, not shove down the throats of unsuspecting proles their desperate need to be liberated from the shackles of late capitalism.’ Momentarily the anger of Jonathan’s tirade threw David out of what would normally be his comfort zone: dialectical intercourse with a fellow, but inferior, undergrad.

Jonathan was red-faced now, but pleased with his prejudiced if not insulting assertion, despite it lacking what David would consider intellectual rigour and being steeped in moderate, backsliding, Labourite tradition. Yet somehow David couldn’t summon up the enthusiasm to joust with this irritant any longer. ‘Perhaps you’re in the wrong place,’ was all he could offer. This though was enough for Jonathan. He was in so many words being told, once again, he didn’t belong. Rejection seemed to follow him wherever he went. First his own dad; rejecting loving fatherhood in favour of … well, rejecting; then everybody else had let him down. Now Mr Benn, via his latest acolyte, was giving him the heave-ho.

Jonathan wasn’t going to give David the satisfaction of storming out. He sat it out, ploughing through the tapes until he’d completed the transcription, although unilaterally deciding that the verbiage of the useful idiots who always spoke up after Benn’s speeches didn’t need to be transcribed too. He felt sure that David could fill in those blanks. What the grassroots fodder actually thought didn’t matter a tom tit, mused Jonathan.

At around 5pm, knowing that Mr B wouldn’t be back from the Commons at such a time, he exited, mumbling a socially-obligatory ‘See you’ to David. ‘Sure,’ David coldly replied. Arrogant prick, thought Jonathan.

After Jonathan had left Mr Benn’s subterranean office, David felt pleased with himself. Jonathan wouldn’t be coming back in a hurry, and of course David could relay to Tony the full extent of Jonathan’s hostility and, perhaps more importantly, his obvious political disloyalty. Such a person surely couldn’t be trusted by Tony to work in his office?

David felt awkward though. Some of what Jonathan had said had pierced a little of David’s amour-propre. At heart though David knew that he, and Tony, were right. If politics is just the pursuit of power without purpose then it will always end in disappointment, thought David. In any case, Jonathan had seemed a bit unhinged, and probably had more than differences over Labour ideology to get off his chest. David reached over to Jonathan’s pile of cassettes, the tape recorder he’d been using, and his typed-up transcription and decided to examine exactly what he’d been up to. David quickly noticed that Jonathan had been doctoring Tony’s latest speech with what were obviously his own inventions. In one passage where Mr Benn has been explaining the virtue of transferring power from ‘organised capital’ to ‘organised labour’, Jonathan had inserted ‘disorganised’ before the word ‘labour’. Leafing through further passages, David saw that the sabotage continued, and was sometimes even less subtle. Where Tony had actually talked of ‘democratising the means of production’ in order to ‘deliver socialism in our lifetime,’ Jonathan had subverted these lines to read ‘devastating the means of production’ in order to ‘deliver immiseration in our lifetime.’

David wasn’t a complicated young man. He knew he had all the evidence he needed to make absolutely sure that Jonathan’s contribution to the cause would be totally and completely terminated. The mental complexities of a hostile guy whom he had absolutely no obligation to – moral or otherwise – didn’t trouble David. He had been raised by his father, a successful barrister, to believe in the absolute logic and certainty of rational analysis. The probable psychological problems of this veritable enemy within didn’t fit with the cold empiricism of intellectual discourse, at least as David understood it. David had been bred to succeed, not to fear, and succeed he surely would, by any means necessary. 


A day in the country

The next morning Jonathan agonised on whether to go back to Mr Benn’s house in an attempt at asserting himself further with the interloper. The various considerations that such a move entailed, the differing scenarios and relative risks involved, and of course the consequences for his mental stability of not going there, totally immobilised him. He was left completely confused and utterly exhausted. This familiar condition was only partially relived by another angry jog around Finsbury Park.

Barely having had time to recover from his exertions, and for reasons that he didn’t entirely understand, Jonathan decided to use an otherwise dead Wednesday (no lectures) to visit his retired parents in East Sussex. It had been a while since he had set foot in the semi in which he had spent his teens. Not that he never saw his parents of course, but ever since he had first moved to London five years earlier Jonathan had managed to limit such meetings, preferring to engage with his parents on relatively neutral territory; a proximate seaside town like Eastbourne for example, or, on the very rare occasion of a family get-together for a meal, by going to a nearby pub.

Jonathan had of course packed a couple of books that he’s borrowed from the polytechnic library so that he could feel that his trip wouldn’t be entirely wasted. Having not telephoned in advance, he couldn’t be absolutely certain that his parents would be in. He got off the bus and walked the familiar path to the family home, feeling apprehensive and expecting the usual complaints from his father. As he approached the semi deeply ensconced in the modern private housing estate – ‘Holly’ this and ‘Meadow’ that – he remembered that, it being a Wednesday, they’d therefore be out shopping in Eastbourne. Utilising an old house key that he recalled they had always stashed amongst the rotting, rusting, tools and bent deck chairs that mouldered in the damp darkness at the back of his father’s garage, Jonathan let himself in.

The house hadn’t changed a bit since the year or more since he’d last visited. The light was always obscured. The pictures were few and neutral. The furnishings essential and inoffensive. After the last visit Jonathan had vowed that he wouldn’t return ever again, but here he was. He couldn’t entirely explain it, even to himself. It may have essentially boiled down to the residual loyalty he felt to his mother who’d suffered as much humiliation and torment over the years as him. Jonathan felt no obligation to ever see his father again. They only argued anyway, now that the tables had partially turned and Jonathan was no longer the child whose concerns could be entirely disregarded. Now at least Jonathan could assert his views, whether this served any purpose other than making him feel less irrelevant. He felt that his mother appreciated his occasional visits, some respite from the inescapable duty. But they never really talked. How could they? When Jonathan had been a child his father had ignored the literal cries for help and destroyed his self-confidence and self-esteem. His mother hadn’t been there for him. Whether she really understood that, wasn’t clear. For her it had been thirty years of suffering quietly. It was so routinised as to be beyond discussion. There was no negotiation. Their absence today merely gave Jonathan time to reflect on the absurdity of the whole situation. Angry and resentful ever since boyhood, Jonathan somehow nurtured the desire for a way out, whether through an act of revenge on his father or against those who undermined him now. He wondered about what there might be in the house that could serve his ill-formed purpose.

Jonathan decided to have a poke about. Opening his parents’ bedroom door, he remembered that there had long been some old items stashed under the bed. He looked at the ivory-handled revolver at the bottom of the box. It was World War 1 vintage and, somehow, his Dad’s dad had acquired it soon after the end of the ‘war to end all wars’. How an officer’s pistol had come into his grandfather’s possession was shrouded in secrecy, just like much of Jonathan’s family history. Knowing that his own father never looked under the parental bed, Jonathan felt quite okay about placing the gun down his trousers, having of course checked the barrel to ensure that the pistol wasn’t loaded. It wasn’t. And, unfortunately, there weren’t any bullets lying around inside the box either. Oh well, I could still do some harm with this, he thought.

Jonathan carefully replaced the other items in the box and pushed it and the adjoining ones back into the spot where he had, more or less, found them. He noted that even his mother’s zealous attention to housework details hadn’t prevented spiders and woodlouse from finding this section of the off-beige carpeting an appropriate place to die. As his parents were out, Jonathan had no qualms about removing the pistol from his underpants, standing in front of his mother’s full-length mirror, and posing with the gun in an almost camp imitation of a sharp shooter taking aim at his own reflection.
Before long though, his latest retreat into fantasy was disturbed by the familiar sound of his father’s moderate-sized family saloon car coming up the drive of the semi-detached house. Jonathan quickly buried the pistol in his ruck-sack, beneath the worn clothing that his mother normally liked to liberate from his possession, and the books with which he had intended to acquire full familiarity with the strategic and historical importance of the Chinese Communist Party’s fabled Long March. 

Acting his way as usual through ritualised pleasantries with his parents, he continued to think about the pistol, especially when his father addressed him on the need to maintain full attention to his studies as he couldn’t afford to ‘fuck it up again’ (or some lower middle class code for much the same thing). ‘When I was a boy,’ said Mr Stephens, ‘My father would give me the belt if I didn’t come up to the mark,’ he informed Jonathan. Well lucky me then, thought Jonathan. His mother, Linda Stephens, looked awkward and focused on preparing cups of tea for the assembled three.

Later that day, not as stimulated by the Long March’s impact on the Chinese peasantry as he’d envisaged, Jonathan rummaged through his rucksack just to make sure that Mrs Stephens’ exacting attention to a housewife’s duties hadn’t crossed the line into his smalls and the other essentials of a young man’s world.

No, the pistol was safely buried deep amongst his underwear and course books. This was an appropriate temporary home, he thought, for an object whose purpose was, as yet, undefined. Jonathan sensed though that, somehow, the gun would eventually find its place in a journey he had begun to undertake in order to find meaning in his life – whether for good or bad.

 
Back in the cellar

The dampness of the cellar hadn’t particularly bothered Jonathan before. Somehow though on this occasion, the merging of it with the residual smell of Mr Benn’s pipe smoke was having an especially nauseating effect. When he’d first started working for the renowned politician, Jonathan hadn’t been bothered by the atmosphere in Mr B’s bunker. But some six months on, and after many visits, the few hours he would spend in his cellar would increasingly stir up a cloying, almost suffocating feeling, in Jonathan. So much so that he wasn’t sure if it actually was simply the logical combination of the damp, Mr B’s musty books and papers, the odour of a relatively old man and, as mentioned, the signature mini cauldron that Mr B usually had appended to his bottom lip. The atmosphere had started to seem very claustrophobic, and it increasingly seemed that this was about far more than how a damp, windowless basement would make anybody feel.

At the same time, the contradictoriness of Jonathan, what he was self-aware enough to understand as his multiple personalities, or at least what he thought of as his psycho-double-think, meant that he still felt enormously by Mr Benn. This veteran leader of the British left - and a (still) possible future prime minister – had once told him, a mere polytechnic undergraduate, what it had been like to work elbow to elbow with Harold Wilson, what he, Mr Benn, had said to President Nixon at a UK-US bilateral, what he had encouraged James Callaghan to say to Menachem Begin when the Israeli leader condescended to meet the UK PM at Heathrow en route to negotiating a peace deal with Anwar Sadat of Egypt, and how Mr Benn had convinced the Upper Clyde shipbuilders that the state really did want to help their workers’ co-operative. Heady stuff for a boy like me, thought Jonathan, who still struggled to think of himself as a man. His mind went back to an attractive married woman had remarked only a few months back that she thought Jonathan was a man until he told her that he was at college. That still rankled.

Jonathan was once again alone in the cellar and he busied himself with the backlog of mail. Ordinarily he would just rip open the envelopes with his bare hands, like anyone else, but he happened to spy a rather impressive looking object in Mr B’s huge container of pens, pencils, and rulers etc. Its ivory handle was especially striking as such a sight was increasingly rare outside of an antique shop. Off-white, even yellowing with age, it struck Jonathan as simultaneously impressive and offensive. The letter-opener evoked the colonial era, and indeed was, thought Jonathan, no doubt a direct result of British territorial possessions in Africa or south Asia.

A curious object perhaps for Mr Benn to have casually occupying a space among his ‘office’ ephemera. Better perhaps than being in a museum, thought Jonathan, although that was somehow where it belonged: a colonial exhibit symbolising cruelty to man and beast. Ironically perhaps, Jonathan’s eye was then caught by the unanswered personal letter sent some while back by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The head of Britain’s state church, still not disestablished, had asked Mr Benn to give his public endorsement to the 'Christian Aid' annual Christmas appeal, and to back his call for young people in Britain to volunteer for the Church-backed ‘Tear Fund’ and its work in the Third World. It struck Jonathan that the plain humanity of the Christian Aid slogan ‘We believe in life before death,’ and the perhaps slightly more awkward Tear Fund message of ‘Following Jesus where the need is greatest’ were probably not going to be that high on Mr B’s political priority list.

After all Mr Benn’s earthly Gospel focused on mobilising young and old behind a generous state, one under his command of course, not on transforming both the inner and the outer world. Jonathan flicked over the enclosed Tear Fund literature with its pictures of impossibly happy Africans grateful that anyone, whether old colonials, or those, young or old, who despised the very notion of Empire, might contribute something, their money or, better still, their time and effort, to help relieve poverty and under-development. Jonathan, still as prone to the pull of this message as when, as a schoolboy, he had collected money for the Church’s Africa appeal, lingered for a while over the letter and its content before returning them to the increasing pile of unanswered correspondence from ‘non-political’ sources.

Returning his focus to the ivory letter opener, it crossed Jonathan’s mind that its incongruous presence down here may be partly due to it originally belonging to Mr Benn’s ennobled father, William Wedgewood Benn. He certainly did know Lloyd George but had got his particular Liberal Party preferment for public service as a minister and, like his two sons, for having fought in the RAF.

Jonathan’s mind turned darker as he dwelt on these contradictions. A political admiration for Mr Benn had never reconciled Jonathan to the discomfort he felt at the politician’s obvious privileges, in the present as well as in his semi-disowned past. None of these were mitigated by the fact that one of Mr Benn’s sons, he with the almost absurdly bourgeois, female name, could sometimes be glimpsed arriving at the family house, taking time out from his Russian and Eastern European studies at Sussex University, having previously been an attendee at probably the most privileged comprehensive school in the UK: Holland Park.

For some reason Jonathan’s progress through the manila and ivory-coloured envelopes had come to an abrupt halt as he dwelt on his own situation. In a damp pit, working for nothing for a man who espoused ‘true socialism’. His mind returned to the antique pistol he had pocketed last week from under his parents’ bed, while he continued to stare at the surprisingly sharp vintage letter-opener in his hands. Perhaps this could be a subtler weapon, he mused to himself.     

Later that night Jonathan reheated the mature vegetables, having lightly sprinkled them with an instant curry mix, and served them to himself on a bed of decidedly plain rice. His mind went back to its default setting of anxiety about his outer world and in particular his work for Mr Benn. He realised that it was Mr Benn, for all his rhetorical and ideological virtues, who was the real problem. But behind Mr Benn in Jonathan’s rogues gallery was of course Jonathan’s father. Old men; authority figures who simultaneously he deferred to, admired, and totally hated. The pain of his childhood and his abusive Dad would come out in attempts to find the good father and, when this failed, it was vented through the anger he felt that they hadn’t come up to Jonathan’s expectations. So much of his daily life consisted of the endless repetition of replayed threats, counter-threats and halfway assertions of himself. He was simply rerunning the original buried sin that had bred in him shame, self-loathing and a deep sense that he had let himself down by not forcing his knee into the tenderest, most vulnerable, places from which evil dwelleth, an evil often visited upon the innocent. That event had caused so much misplaced, misjudged, misanthropic anger. Jonathan carefully re-examined the ivory-handled letter opener that had somehow fallen into his bag a few nights before.  

The next day Jonathan packed his ruck-sack carefully. Nestling at the very bottom was a tightly wrapped bundle of bubble wrap. At the last minute Jonathan had decided to discard the letter opener, dumping it into the hands of an unsuspecting beggar squatting on the pavement outside the student hall of residence. He can flog it or use it to open his mail, Jonathan thought.

Jonathan didn’t give a shit; he was on a mission and today was the day that he’d finally lay his demons to rest. Enough of the assumed ‘positive face for the world’, the fixed smile to mask the fear. Today Jonathan would liberate himself with a singular act of revenge. His own father was dead but Mr Benn would provide a suitable foil for Jonathan’s revenge. All the hurt, all the disregard, all the blatant hypocrisy would be rent asunder in one powerful blow for all the serially pissed upon, for whom Jonathan would, for one brief moment at least, be a representative, a tribune of integrity, of honour, in a sad and lonely world.

Jonathan sat in Mr Benn’s cellar for what would definitely be the last time. He’d timed his arrival precisely to ensure that, on this occasion at least, he would be sure of running into the senior politician. Sure enough, by the time that Jonathan had wolfed down the last of the homemade sandwiches that had sat on top of the bubble-wrapped parcel in his rucksack, Mr Benn descended the windy wooden stairs into the damp world where, for Jonathan, fear reigned, but where, for the veteran socialist, there was only the reassuring comfort of file upon file of typed-up chronicles of his contribution to post-war British history. The familiar throat clearing of an inveterate pipe smoker preceded his appearance in person. On seeing Jonathan, Mr Benn held out a warm hand, as he was always want to do. He accompanied the firm grip with an equally firm, and genuine, smile. For all the uncomfortable words that has passed between them the other night, Mr Benn reserved vindictiveness for party traitors and, on occasion, for Conservative MPs; for his equals, never for those who served under him. This has been the approach of his father and grandfather to public service, and it had guided Anthony-Wedgewood Benn though wartime military service and through his three decades at the Palace of Westminster.

Jonathan resented Mr Benn’s friendliness, knowing that what he had planned would be easier if his nemesis was as unpleasant as possible, conforming to the caricature enemies he had steadily been amassing in his life.

‘Jonathan, please understand that the work that you have done is greatly appreciated by all of us,’ said Mr Benn with that familiar patrician air. The ‘all’ providing a deflection from the base reality of Jonathan having slaved away as a kind of secretarial skivvy for Mr Benn’s personal crusade to lead the nation toward a socialist Valhalla. Of course Jonathan retained the ability to be emotionally manipulated by the catch in Mr Benn’s speaking voice, the mesmerising platform addresses, the brilliant interventions in conference debates that somehow spoke for truth even if they didn’t win a majority of the millions of trade union members’ votes wielded by a handful of fat, uncouth men. ‘It is also a matter of some personal sadness to Caroline and I,’ he added, bizarrely bringing his wife into proceedings when Jonathan had barely exchanged a word with the wealthy American lady.

‘Mr Benn,’ Jonathan stiffly interjected, in an instant prompting Tony to flash that infamous stare upon him, all hyper-intelligence and calculation. ‘I want you to know that for all my frustration over the last few months, I continue to respect the ideas that you stand for.’ Mr Benn’s stare softened, as the politician anticipated some familiar words of admiration. ‘However I have come to the conclusion that the best way for me to reconcile the anger I feel at injustice – the injustice of this monstrously huge house and the injustice of the apparent need for the unfortunate to be guided into the light by those, like you, possessed of sufficient education and insight – is for me to cut out the cant and hypocrisy for good. I have decided,’ Jonathan went on, unaware and even less concerned at the effect his words were having on a man nearly 40 years older and who’d rarely been so personally upbraided by anyone, let alone one so young and so junior. ‘I have decided,’ he persevered, ‘that you need to have the absurd contradiction between what you publicly profess and what you privately enjoy brought home to you as decisively as possible.’

Mr Benn could only wait on Jonathan’s next move. Jonathan had lent down into the open rucksack, calmly removing the aluminium foil that had housed his sandwiches, and grabbed the bubble-wrapped parcel underneath. ‘What is this, Jonathan,’ Mr Benn finally managed to utter, assuming that this was going to be something rather more sinister than a goodbye present. Jonathan was now moving at a quicker and more disconcerting pace. He ripped apart the tightly-bound bubble wrap and pulled from inside the package the ivory-handled pistol that he’d stolen from under his parents’ bed a week earlier.

At the sight of this Mr Benn was obviously alarmed. His instincts - and some of his military training - kicked in as Jonathan pointed the pistol directly at him. Tony noted that the gun was cocked and, he assumed, loaded. While it looked antique there was no reason to assume that it wouldn’t go off. Mr Benn prepared to take evasive action when Jonathan then proceeded to point the pistol away from him and toward his own head, before coolly releasing the trigger. Benn felt feint, momentarily drooping until a muted click brought matters to a kind of close.

‘That,’ said Jonathan, ‘was my way of saying what I have for some time felt like doing, but ultimately I have decided that it would do nobody any good.…

‘Here, have it,’ said Jonathan, tossing the vintage gun in Mr Benn’s direction. ‘You can sell it as a contribution to campaign funds. I have decided to leave this country. I do need to fight my way among the serried ranks of polytechnocrats in the service of the state, or whoever wields its power to their advantage. I am going to experience manual labour, but far away from here where it counts as merely an imagined statement about class, to somewhere where it’s about survival, to do voluntary work for ‘Christian Aid’ at a Kenyan coffee plantation where they probably still use the techniques introduced by the British colonial authorities a century ago,’ said Jonathan primly.

Mr Benn, for once, had absolutely nothing to say. 




(Author's note: Any resemblance to people alive or dead is fully intended)




Sunday, January 26, 2020

Labour's meaningless election


As the only Labour leadership candidate with a spark of personality and emotional verve has pulled out, I’m inclined to switch off until another tiresome Labour leadership contest is over. Jess Phillips last week exited a race that ever since Blair was chosen as party leader in 1994 has been marketed by the Party as about putting power in the hands of the members. Yet Phillips departed not because she had failed to convince Labour Party members, or the wider public, but because she knew she couldn’t be confident of the support of enough Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) (or the support of two big trade unions) to ensure that she’d get through to the next round. It is only when these hurdles are jumped by candidates that the much vaunted ‘one member, one vote’ process will actually kick in and the real leadership election will start as ordinary members get to decide for themselves who to vote for.

Well, them and registered party ‘supporters’, a cheapo membership scheme introduced, in his perverse wisdom, by Ed Miliband for those people who (understandably) can’t endure going to members’ meetings. And among these ‘Labour supporters’ who in April will be determining who the next Labour Prime Minister might be, will be those who bought themselves a vote by registering as supporters as recently as mid-January. All’s fair then.

The absurdities of Labour’s leadership electoral system are a reflection of its spatchcock compromise between Labour’s historical roots as a parliamentary-orientated party paid for by organised labour, and the bizarre contemporary influence of US primaries. This has produced a corrupt charade where all party members are potential voters but some voters aren’t party members (and some of these have simply paid £25 to vote). Success in the election depends on garnering the backing of enough MPs and then the approval of enough CLP meetings or, proving that in the Labour Party the past is always present, a couple of trade union barons.

The actual leadership election this April was always going to include the candidate who wrote Labour’s least successful manifesto since George Lansbury’s poor performance paved the way for the takeover of the party in 1935 by that masterfully bland public school boy, Mr Clement Attlee. Rebecca Long Bailey’s skilled authorship of Labour’s most recent ‘longest suicide note in its history’ was facilitated by the man who had already blessed her prospective leadership. In December Mr Corbyn’s reverse Midas touch meant that party volunteers like me had to knock on doors with an unsellable message from an unconscionable leader. Long Bailey is likely to be among the final two thanks to the imprimatur of the man who led Labour to a defeat markedly worse in seat terms than Michael Foot’s in 1983.

Like the other, current, front runner, Sir Keir Starmer, Rebecca has been in parliament for all of five years. If I am not mistaken, this is the same depth of parliamentary experience enjoyed by Lisa Nandy too. Emily Thornberry though has been traipsing round the Westminster corridors for an incredible decade. Gosh. Better perhaps than Corbyn who’s been there since 1983 but who not only lacks ministerial experience – like every single Labour leadership candidate this time round – but hasn’t even previously shadowed the government minister for office stationery.

Sir Keir Starmer was anointed at birth with the name of Labour’s second most popular leader, and is eager to emphasise that he too has a (relatively) proletarian background in order to offset the knighthood he secured for an indifferent performance as the head of Public Prosecutions.

Thornberry’s disadvantaged Oxford graduate and high-paid lawyer routine probably won’t impress. Lisa Nandy genuinely understands that Labour’s disconnect with its onetime (white) working-class base is almost terminal, but this message is too difficult for the party’s liberal middle class chauvinists to process. Therefore it’ll be down to either Starmer or Long Bailey to bore the electorate over the next five years.

Long Bailey’s seismically dull campaign launch - head down, droning on from a tiresome text - suggests that she will only inspire those for whom having a politically ‘correct’ (i.e. leftist) message is what matters. Not the fact that it’s delivered, like the current leadership incumbent, with all the charisma, style and authority of a deputy borough council leader. 

She told the Party that being a working-class woman means that she’s doubly-disadvantaged. This cynical little routine comes from yet another former lawyer, but one who thinks that the way to reach the working-class is affecting to sound like them. 

So we’ll presumably end up with Keir Starmer. A onetime student Trotskyist with little hope of reaching those parts of the country that began being lost by Labour more than 40 years ago and which now vote Johnson. Still, the brave knight will be good at the dispatch box cut and thrust. And that’s what will convince on the door step, isn't it? 

Labour will never get out of this mess until it restores the election of the leadership of the Parliamentary Labour Party solely to Labour politicians elected to Parliament. Historically this method didn't always produce the most plausible leaders to contest a national election. However it usually had the virtue of producing someone who not only understood what contesting a national election entailed, but who could authoritatively articulate an inclusive message to the whole of the nation. 


Friday, January 10, 2020

Bobby Womack: God, mental health and Walthamstow

Bobby Womack’s final album, ‘The Bravest Man in the Universe’, contains one of the most emotionally honest and powerful vocal performances I have ever heard. Right off the bat ‘Please Forgive my Heart’ overwhelmed me, and it still does every time I hear it. “Please forgive my heart,” sings Womack, “It's not that the problem lies anywhere in there.” When he follows that by confessing “I’m a liar, I’m in a dream, Goin’ on my way, Nothing to rely on”, you know you’re witnessing a very private moment. I guess that not all will relate “the problem” he refers to as about mental health, but I think it’s an admittance that there are things that prevent us from loving because we cannot trust, or rely on, ourselves, let alone others. As Bobby sings in the song's second verse: "Oh, it feels like the sky is falling, And the clouds, clouds are closing in, Where did I lose control? Where did it all begin?"

I hope to God that I am not cheapening his divinely honest confessional by attempting such commonplace analysis. I somehow though need to express how it feels, thank God, to still be overwhelmed, to be brought literally to my knees, by playing such songs. I used to think that there were only a handful of singers, all white contemporaries of Mr Womack, who could, on occasion, work this kind of earthly divinity, this sacred and profane magic. It’s there in Dylan’s testament, ‘Every Grain of Sand’; Van Morrison had it on ‘Listen to the Lion’; and you can feel it when John Martyn preached ‘One World’. 

But Bobby Womack lived the religious emotion of the everyday right from childhood. He was no latter-day convert. Nearly four decades before Bobby Womack died he sang that “Love is the emblem of eternity.” You’ve got to believe that if you’re hurting big time. And the fact that he included that line on a funky number entitled ‘Jealous Love’ (from ‘What is the World Coming To?’) showed that he was a person, and an artist, who didn’t believe in siloing his emotions or his motivations.

Bobby Womack is a man very aware of his mortality on ‘The Bravest Man in the Universe’ (released 2012), but he sounded as alive and as exciting as ever. Credit is also due to former Blur front-man Damon Albarn, who wrote most of its songs including ‘Please Forgive My Heart’. However it’s plain on listening to the album’s carefully crafted retrospective but ultra-modern feel (Albarn also co-produced the album with XL Records founder Richard Russell) that the words were written with Womack in mind. The songs catalogue the singer’s belief in forgiveness ('The bravest man in the universe is the one who has forgiven first'), love, and, yes when necessary, serving yourself. 

Bobby Womack died in June 2014, two weeks or so before he’d been scheduled, implausibly, to headline that year's Walthamstow Garden Party. I still went, marvelling at the incredibly empty experience of hearing last minute replacements, the Brand New Heavies, trying to enliven the audience. Bobby Womack had had more than five decades in the business, as both a songwriter whose songs were popularised by many black (and some white) stars, and as a soul singer who had been (musically) born again several times over. If he’d had the strength to perform ‘Please Forgive My Heart’ with the feeling he conveys on the original, and to a field of Walthamstow revellers, would they have understood? Or would they have run screaming for the exits, as was once said of Laurence Olivier if he’d really turned up the acting volume. We shall never know. However I am grateful for Bobby Womack’s wonderful songs and for his wondrous voice. But I am most grateful for ‘Please Forgive My Heart’ because today it made me cry as I was reminded of the God-given gift of those artists who can use our tenderest feelings to lift us up from the floor and take us to the heavens. If only for a while.