Obituary: Malcolm MacEwen

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The Independent Online
Malcolm MacEwen was a revolutionary twice over, first as a Communist and second as a trenchant critic of our wasteful, high-energy and polluted way of life. He called his unjustly neglected autobiography The Greening of a Red (Pluto Press, 1991).

To both his revolutions MacEwen brought the same energy, enthusiasm, fun and propagandist skills. To most of his wide acquaintance he seemed a permanently cheerful person, but there was a lot of tragedy in his early life. In youth he was a keen motorcyclist and while on his way, on his own machine, to watch the Isle of Man races, he collided with a car. After months in hospital (where he discovered Dickens and Shaw) his right leg was amputated below the knee; he was 21 at the time.

His first wife, Barbara Stebbing, was a diabetic who knew she would not enjoy a long life. She died in 1944, leaving MacEwen to cope with their daughter, who was born blind and incapable of even the most rudimentary communication with others, and who had to live out her relatively brief life in institutions.

Malcolm MacEwen was the son of an Inverness solicitor and pioneer Scottish Nationalist. He turned to Marxism while a law student at Edinburgh, and his first job for the Communist Party was as office lawyer on the Glasgow version of the Daily Worker. Then he moved to the post of party secretary in north-east England before returning to the Daily Worker, this time in London. He did various jobs for the paper, working there from 1943 to 1956. As a foreign correspondent (he served for a time as foreign editor) he witnessed the post-Second World War destruction of the Greek Left by the royalist forces backed by the British Army. He did a long spell in the House of Commons gallery, having first done a crash course in shorthand. He retained his verbatim skill as a notetaker long after it had ceased be of daily use to him and got much pleasure from confronting opponents in committee with exactly what they had said 10 minutes earlier.

With many good minds and free spirits he left the party around the time of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, and, through the old comrades network found a job on the Architects' Journal. This meshed well with the interests he had developed through his second marriage to Ann Wheeler (nee Maitland). She too had been widowed and, unlike him, was a cradle socialist. She worked as a planner for the old London County Council and later, while in Colin Buchanan's partnership, helped write the epochal Traffic in Towns (1963).

MacEwen moved on to the Royal Institute of British Architects where he held a series of information jobs, editing the RIBA Journal (1964-71) and serving finally as Director of Public Affairs. He was an early critic of the gap between architects and the public, which he spelled out in Crisis in Architecture (1974), a book which pinpointed the fact that architects are "caught up in a social system that rewarded their most selfish and destructive impulses while repelling their most generous and creative ones" - responding to the market rather than to social demands.

Retirement to Somerset brought him on to the Exmoor National Park committee where his fellow members were actively conniving in the ploughing-out of that very moorland the park was supposed to conserve. MacEwen successfully made a public scandal of this, survived several years of vilification by the local landowners and renters and was vindicated by the ensuing official inquiry.

It was natural for him and Ann thereafter to become joint gurus of the national park movement. Their first book on the subject, National Parks - Cosmetics or Conservation? (1982) is still the best in the field. It is outstanding for marrying sympathy for landscapes with an understanding of the needs of the people who make their livings in the parks and the awkwardnesses of the administrative structures by which the parks are run. MacEwen acknowledged happily how much it owed to Ann's editorial skills and common sense.

To those who knew them both the saddest part of our loss is that we shall never again hear Malcolm MacEwen in full flight of ridicule or polemic, while Ann gently interjects "Now, Malc . . . now", knowing all the while that from this loving combination of radical anger and radical calm would come a radical judgement to be reckoned with.

Chris Hall

Malcolm McEwen, journalist: born Inverness 24 December 1911; Assistant Editor, Architects' Journal 1956-60; Editor, RIBA Journal 1964-71; married 1937 Barbara Stebbing (died 1944, one daughter deceased), 1947 Ann Wheeler (one daughter); died 11 May 1996.