The class traitor who taught me to love socialism

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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: the strange case of the errant royal pronoun

Guy Keleny
Flowers and candles are placed at the site where a refrigerated truck with decomposing bodies was found by an Austrian motorway  

EU migrant crisis: The 71 people found dead in a lorry should have reached sanctuary

Charlotte Mcdonald-Gibson
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future