The class traitor who taught me to love socialism

Paul Foot made the rich, the powerful and the bigoted look ridiculous

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Every moment of the life of the socialist journalist Paul Foot, which ended on Sunday, seems to have been designed to destroy the stereotype image of the revolutionary lefty.

I first saw him in April 1979, when I decided to go to the Socialist Workers Party annual get-together in Skegness. Here was a scenario set up to fulfil every stereotype at once, yet it proved more exhilarating to me than Skegness can ever have been to anyone else. There was the same drunkenness I was used to, but instead of talking about darts and the new Ford Escort, the conversation was about George Orwell and the French Revolution and The Jam, and no one liked Thatcher or Boney M and everyone thought it was all right to be a punk or gay and no one said coon and I'd never believed it was possible for such a utopia to exist.

But the overwhelming highlight, as it was every year at this event, was the talk presented by Paul Foot. This year his subject was Louise Michel, a woman who'd helped to lead the Paris Commune in 1871. Somehow, not just from his prose but from his jokes and his joy and his fury, it was obvious that for every moment he was talking about 1871, he was really talking about 1979.

Back at work in the Post Office, I blurted out the next morning: "I went to Skegness and saw Paul Foot and there was this Louise Michel. Well she was in Paris, right, and pushed a cannon up Montmartre or something", until the filing clerk eventually said: "Give it a rest".

And he broke another stereotype because he saw capitalism as not only outrageous but funny. During the period of mass unemployment that accompanied Thatcher's rule, he began a talk by reading a story from that morning's newspaper about a carpet factory that had shut down, laying off several hundred staff. "Presumably," he said, "this is because there's no longer a need for carpets. Any house you go to in Britain today, it's stuffed from top to bottom with carpets, while we all scream 'For God's sake stop making carpets, there's no more room for the things'."

Whatever his subject, the rich, the powerful and the bigoted were made to look ridiculous. In his book on the history of democracy, completed just before he died, he begins a chapter on the suffragettes with some brilliant quotes from opponents of the women's vote, including the magnificent effort from one C W Radcliffe Hooke, a Liberal MP, who said: "I see no reason why women should get the vote until such time as they are bigger than men."

An example of Paul's ambition to write and speak in simple language, even when discussing complex ideas, came when he appeared on BBC's Question Time opposite a huge Tory millionaire lord. An audience member asked why such people needed their huge salaries, and the lord launched into an economic defence of his wealth that went on and on. Everyone watching was expecting Paul to reply with a rounded Marxist analysis, but instead he said: "I think it's because" - and then a perfect pause, before adding: "It's because he's greedy."

There was another remarkable side to him which was that despite his privately educated, Oxford background and accent to match, countless working-class people, including thousands of miners during the 1984 strike, would hear him speak and feel immediately "He's one of us". He would declare with great pride that he and Labour leaders such as Neil Kinnock had one thing in common, they were both traitors to their class.

Over the last 15 years or so I was fortunate in that as well as an inspiration, he became a friend. This meant becoming familiar not only with him but with his ridiculous amount of books, shelf upon shelf of the things, whole sections on subjects like the labour movement in Canada, and almost all of them beautifully musty, slightly battered editions that you feel compelled to smell before you open. He once said to me that you should never refrain from buying a book just because you're not sure when you'll read it, as it is valid just to have it there. By saying that the bastard cost me about 5,000 quid.

And he contradicted another image of the far left, that its answer to every problem is to wait for the revolution. Yet the least of causes Paul campaigned for - from miscarriages of justice he helped to correct, to the corrupt managers he exposed - would fill the whole newspaper. He broke a stereotype because not only did he refuse to give up believing in socialism, he refused to give up campaigning for it, actively supporting the Socialist Workers Party and the recently formed Respect coalition until he died.

We often met in a Soho café, and as we sat down he would bang the table and announce: "Well this is marvellous." And that was where he contradicted the stereotype most starkly. Because whether he was speaking or writing, extolling the virtues of his beloved Shelley or his equally beloved Plymouth Argyle, recalling the fall of Ted Heath, how he saw Garry Sobers score his 365 not out in Trinidad, or ordering a cup of tea, I have never known anyone who has conveyed such enthusiasm for life.

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