Arts: No time to look back in anger

In the Sixties Tariq Ali was the scourge of the Establishment, but he isn't finished yet. By Michael Glover
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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE Northern Line train is lurching so badly - I feel like a swimmer doing his valiant best inside an upset stomach - that I can scarcely concentrate upon the book in hand: 1968 - Marching in the Streets by that veteran street-fighting man, Tariq Ali. I'm on my way to a bruising confrontation with the man himself at the British Library, and I need to know whether he's the same as he's always been. It would be convenient if he were. No extra thinking would be required.

Then, to my great relief, the train stops as if it's hit a wall, and someone half- apologises in a tiny, tinny, South London voice for the fact that the Waterloo spur is blocked for a while. An Evening Standard stretches and stiffens opposite, but I'm happy enough because I can now put in a bit of quality reading time. This book is a month-by-month chronicle of that much re-cycled year, and I'm looking out for facts that I missed the first time around. It's the facts we go for with Ali, not so much the woeful descriptive flourishes.

Here's one, for example: Brezhnev was "A cold, grey, lecherous creature... after being fellated by a female employee, he returned, sated, to his apartment." Was he really grey then? I'm wondering. I'd always thought it was the quality of Sheffield television sets in those years.Ducking in under the curious portcullis affair of the Library entrance, a man in a business suit spots my book and smiles at me as if we are already halfway down the difficult road to a truly lasting friendship. "You've brought a copy to be signed?" he says. I tell him I never get books signed because I hate them being defaced.

"They do say that an unsigned copy of Ted Heath's Memoirs is the thing to invest in!"

I walk up the marble stairs, leaving him to chortle at his absurd exclamation mark, and then into the auditorium itself. It's a bit like a happy playroom in here - the shocking red banked seats; the comfortable, hysteria-blue carpeting; and that huge, circular, Titanically-ambitious porthole window through which I can see the London cloudscape happily swimming by.

In front of that window I spot an early arrival, the terribly severe looking elderly man in a wheelchair, black bag clasped to his knees as if thieves lurk in the most reputable of auditoria. From somewhere fairly far away, I can hear the sound of Jimi Hendrix foxy-ladying away. A sensitive Sixties' touch on the part of the organisers, but Jimi surely deserved a better sound system than this.

In the centre of the stage a copy of Tariq's book stands open on its own tiny velvet podium, an object fit for adoration whether read or not. Behind that podium, two proud, good quality leather armchairs square up to each other. To the right of the stage is the lectern from which he will give of his all. It resembles a bolt-upright scroll of brown, corrugated paper. All of a sudden, a terrible noise rends the air - like the grinding of teeth magnified about 100 times. The great porthole window has gone dark. The man in the wheelchair now sits in the shadow of his sombre mood.

After a small altercation with his shoulder bag, conducted entirely at floor level, Tariq makes it on to the stage. He looks as handsome as ever - square-jawed, toothbrush moustachioed, and with that same pleasingly unruly mop of hair, though greying now. He sounds infinitely patient when he speaks of the legacy of the Sixties - as if he's been kicked around the lecture floor so often that nothing can touch his fixed opinions now. He is beyond all that we might do to him because, well, he was there...

This is the man who was once demonised by the Daily Mail as a dangerous leftie, and, even worse, a foreigner masquerading as a student.

But when he speaks to us tonight he sounds like some suave, ageing, infinitely gentle, infinitely forgiving pedagogue.

"They do say that with age comes wisdom and repentance," he begins. He rips off his spectacles and squints up into the air. "I for one have never believed in repentance in any religious sense, not being a believer myself... But what interests me more is how much hatred there still exists for this decade. I was, for example, astonished by Bryan Appleyard's two-page diatribe in Murdoch's Sunday Times. Why is there such bile, such a lack of generosity? I shall tell you why. Because there is a vacuum in that man's life, a lack of hope, and hope is an active virtue. That is the legacy of our decade..."

He looks out at us; at the wild-eyed man with the second-hand Harvey Nichols' carrier bag and the tie wrenched violently askew; at the stiff, solid- looking woman with the Times Literary Supplement scrolled on her knees like a truncheon; and even at the smattering of one or two who have managed to grow their hair long enough for the occasion. Is he appealing, albeit indirectly, for a little sympathy or not?

Then he begins to harangue us a bit more intemperately - it was the only time in this century's history when a whole generation was inspired by the struggles of one small country against the evil might of Uncle Sam. "The world is crying out to be re-made! It was not just a matter of sex'n'drugs'n'rock'n'roll! Those strikes of '72 and '74 shook the ruling classes to the core!" he jabs out towards the blue velvet curtain at the back of the stage as if suspecting some hidden presence.

"The Queen was genuinely worried that the miners would bring down the country, but Macmillan, the old magician, was much more prescient. 'Do not forget, Ma'am, that this is England,' he told her, "and in England the pendulum moves very slowly to the left, and then very slowly to the right again'."

The audience listens respectfully, though mutedly, as if they are neither greatly pleased nor greatly displeased by his words. It only cost pounds 4 after all.

He's sort of famous in his way. All the more shocking then when question time comes, and, just as Tariq had predicted, the bile begins to gush in a quite spectacularly unexpected fashion. First off comes a furiously attacking speech, as viciously heartfelt as could ever be imagined, from the man in the wheelchair, who has evidently been honing his phrases since the day before yesterday.

"I have never been sure whether you are ingenuous or disingenuous," he begins with casual mockery. "What I am convinced of is that this is the worst book I've ever read on such a subject, full of the most appalling historical mistakes, and I shall say so in my review!" Tariq, seated now, looks back at him forgivingly and, replies with an easy charm, "I'm really touched you felt obliged to come and say these things. And I am, of course, really upset that you wasted your money on it. I hope you got it from the library..."

"It was a review copy," sniffs his antagonist, miffed that he has to make the same point twice over.

"May I ask which publication you are reviewing it for?"

"I'm not saying."

As we stream out of the lecture hall, I tap the reviewer on the shoulder and ask him the same question. I'm curious too. Who wouldn't be?

"The Times Higher Educational Supplement," he replies, rolling every word around his mouth.

It's a knock-out blow - as he guessed it would be. Hours later, the awful truth of it suddenly strikes me between the eyes. The THES belongs to Mr Murdoch's craven hirelings, does it not? Tariq's greatest and most bilious living enemies.

So there is a dirty establishment conspiracy against him then. Everything that Tariq ever said was true.