The venue was a higgledy-piggledy alternative bookshop of the sort I – and probably you, too – thought had died a death in today's Britain.
There were lines of folding chairs all squashed together, and not a free one in sight. A couple of men, who looked as though they should have grizzled beards even though they didn't, shambled to their feet and offered me a seat. Declining apologetically, I pushed a pile of books (carefully) to one side and perched on a shelf – which seemed more in the spirit of things.
This was the decidedly non-star-studded launch of After the Party, a collection of reminiscences by one-time British communists, who had been cast adrift when their party, with uncharacteristic realism, summarily dissolved itself after the Soviet collapse. The book set out to discover what they had done next.
Most of those there seemed between 60 and 80; generally spry, with a dogged air tinged with stroppiness. Dresswise, many could have passed for those besandalled Lib Dems of yore. Clearly, those of a more materialist bent had lost the faith sometime before it forsook them. But there were other striking features of this gathering. Suddenly party-less after 1992, some had reluctantly joined Labour; others had become local councillors or single-issue activists; yet others left politics altogether. But all retained a sense that, with the passing of the British CP, something had been lost. For many, that something was an intellectual quest that, as they cheerfully acknowledged, entailed hair-splitting squabbles about ideology. They might once have embraced the collective, but many found their new parties too conformist, too managerial for their taste.
They waxed nostalgic, too, about workers' education and internationalism, while arguing that international solidarity fostered an eclectic sense of global geography that gave pride of place to Central America, parts of Africa and everything beyond the Berlin Wall. Today's politics, they complained, was parochial.
With a past that has more of the cold warrior than the commie, I'm still sorry that this home-grown ideological enemy is no longer around. There should be a place in British politics for a party of the far left, that exalts work and refuses to compromise with capitalism. Indeed, with the banks and everything else the way it is, you would have thought the British communists could ride again. One glance around this gathering, though, showed that such a renaissance was clearly not to be.
And a confession. I suspect that the live characters, the mood and the demographic are at least as evocative as the book itself – which I haven't yet read. My reason (excuse) is that the dear ex-commies stashed all the books somewhere behind the speakers, so anyone leaving promptly had first to complete an assault course through the chairs. What a contrast to most launch parties, where shelling out for the book is the point. Then again, that omission might also help to explain why the British Communist Party didn't survive.
Run, Lakshmi, run!
You may not have seen much about this in the national media, but the Olympic torch relay, which is currently wending its way through the Midlands and East Anglia, has been a huge success, attracting large and enthusiastic crowds almost everywhere it has passed.
And for all the criticism that money prevails, and that worthy would-be torchbearers were passed over in favour of those with links to commercial sponsors, there has been room – if not as much as there should have been – for admirable feats by genuine local heroes, including those terribly injured in our wars. Courage in the face of adversity has been at least as prominent a theme as rustling notes and the tinkling of coins.
It also seems to me unjust to condemn all company runners for supposedly hogging the historic experience. When the relay reaches its final stages in London later this month, among those carrying the torch through Kensington will be Britain's richest man, Lakshmi Mittal – who was a steel magnate and job creator long before he sponsored Anish Kapoor's much-maligned Orbit sculpture at the 2012 Olympic Park.
Rather than condemning Mittal for "buying" his run, should we, and the London Olympic authorities, not be flattered that someone with much else to do and so many claims on his time has chosen to spend some of it running with the torch. I think it reflects well upon him that he is willing to leave his mansion in torch-bearer's uniform, and I hope I won't be the only one cheering him from our office window.
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- Local Authorities
- Olympic Stadium
- Western Art Movements Before 20th Century