Arts: Julie & Karl: absolutely radical
Tuesday 12 May 1998
THIS is a night of hope, a night of renewal, I am thinking to myself as I tentatively approach the seething entrance to the Conway Hall in Red Lion Square, that Thirties temple of radical thinking.
Yes, here they all are, hundreds of them, the old street-fighting, leftie theoreticians of yesteryear, gathered together on this balmy Saturday night - and what better weather could one imagine than this for an imaginative re-run of the great proletarian project? - to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first publication of the Communist Manifesto.
I can hardly get through them all, all these cheerily persistent paper- thrusters, pamphlet pushers, pamphlet penners, radical newspaper sellers, leftie booksellers. Makeshift book stalls have been erected in the street to advertise the latest from the magical Merlin Press - the Socialist Register, for example, an annual collection of essays, which was first published in the early Sixties and dreams on to this day.
Every copy, whether this year's or the year before the year before last's, is on sale at pounds 10. This can mean only one thing: there is no such thing as a remaindered book to the leftist publisher. An old book becomes an instant and highly collectable classic, steeped in the wisdom of yesteryear.
A smiling Iraqi gentleman thrusts a copy of a Communist Party manifesto into my face. I ask him whether this is the real Communist Party or some fractiously spiteful splinter group. He smiles at me engagingly. "We are the fact Communist Party," he replies. And then, with great attention to detail, he hands over six sheets of A4 paper which bristle with exclamation marks, every one a deadly taunt to the faint of heart: "Workers! Freedom Loving People! Parties, Political and Mass Organisations and all those who defend Political Freedom and Human Rights!"
Sad to say, many of the freedom-loving people gathered here tonight for this morale-boosting occasion are extremely delicate looking. I count at least one zimmer frame, several hearing aids, various wheelchairs, and many, many stout sticks, often awkward to skirt around without causing distressing destabilisation. There are cliquey, antique Hampstead radicals, linen-jacketed, bow-tied, with vile bourgeois accents and impeccable theoretical positions; there is the harshly laughing man in the much-unwashed "Smash the Poll Tax" t-shirt. Those ancient, haunting words set within a workers' blood-red, hammer-and-sickle design.
There is every conceivable variety of that aggressive Sixties' addiction to the death of fashion: sloppy Joe jumpers, tired, shapeless nylon jackets; those near-hollow, shit-brown tubes that once passed for trousers; the sagging holdalls worn transverse across the chest; loud checked shirts; beer-paunch enhancing T-shirts long since edging off from white to grey; the grizzled beard; the short man in the absurdly long, shabby green corduroy jacket... do I see a suit anywhere?
What a ridiculous notion! Did not the suit wither away of its own accord in those days, having lost - like capitalism itself - all sense of purpose or occasion? Yes, there is no denying the overall sense of excitement at the fact that they are all here together again, all these old men with shining eyes, recycling their long-ago triumphs in half-forgotten theoretical skirmishes. So much so, in fact, that it is quite difficult to squeeze one's way past and into the hall itself for the great evening of collective remembrancing.
The lights go off and on, on and off. Then on again. And then, all of a sudden, there is a great blast of martial music. Images of defining and heart-stirring proletarian moments, the Paris barricades; the Vietnam war; an image of Liberty; Marx and his family - are flashed on to the vast screen that sits amidst all the rest of the clutter on the stage.
Then something a little odder flashes up, the words "A Newt Was Not Born in a Day". Followed, of course, by two images of a smiling, foxy Red Ken. A tremendous cheer goes up, sticks are thrust vertically into the air, over and over again, like some primitive pumping mechanism. Then John Saville shuffles on, bald, hawkish in profile, anciently professorial, one of the Founding Fathers of the Socialist Register.
"Comrades and friends," he begins, and then continues, with inimitable socialist eloquence, gripping the mike like a man lashed to the tiller in a hard gale, "How pleasing it is to see a lot of us as against them..."
Saville is a man who occasionally forgets a fact - a name, a date - in that precise instant before he is due to deliver it.
No matter. The audience knows it anyway, no matter how obscure. He refers to a certain "Dr Marx" as if he is an honorary member of the household. Then he speaks of the hallowed document itself, how it is "relevant to our situation in every jot and tittle..." "Here! Here!" responds the eager audience, already in revivalist mood.
Next, the compere, Roland Muldoon, founder of the Hackney Empire, breezes on, a man of casually affable, barrow-boy manner. Pushing his way past a table piled high with bottles and glasses, he opens a door at the back of the stage and calls out: "We're ready..."
Various actors and actresses stream out, clutching black folders, and proceed to read from a tremendously long script about the birth of the Great Movement, the writing of the manifesto, the revolutions of 1848, and other pertinent matters. Tony Garnett, sombre, if not subdued, as he reads about the revolt of the Silesian weavers, is wearing a well lived in pair of denims and the tokenist red shirt. The actresses - Jaquetta May, Maggie Steed and Harriet Walter - look, by contrast, heads angled just so, be-ringed hands feeling for the jewellery at their necks, blasphemously statuesque and aggressively anti-proletarian - as if they have been too much mindful of their appearances for the evening's good. As if they are, perhaps, mere hired voices. It is at this point that I fall asleep.
When I wake up, the Raised Voices Choir - two dozen earnest men and women in red T-shirts - is singing a tremendously rousing piece about some strike at a Massachusetts textile mill. One of the women is clutching a pretty, docile baby to her chest. The female conductor with the wet-look ringlets, spectacles steaming with concentration, seems to be making alarming fist- fucking gestures in the direction of her singers. I close my eyes again, momentarily alarmed.
When I next wake up, as if by magic, Julie Christie is swinging across the stage in a well-tailored blue - blue? blue! - suit and brilliant white tennis shoes, clutching some bits of paper. She makes a characteristically actressy meal of a couple of indifferent poems by Pablo Neruda that I have been reading ever since in memory of this precious occasion. One of them is about the Standard Oil Company.
When a photographer, crouching beside the stage, clicks his camera, she swivels in his direction and plonks a gorgeous arm on her hip. Her white shirt is open at the neck, though chastely so. The spots are playing on, maybe teasing with, her oh-so-carefully tousled blonde highlights. At this moment, I feel radical stirrings that I had not expected to feel, not on such a night as this. I think I may need a little urgent medication, Dr Marx.
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