Friday, 3 January 2014

SWP Confidential

It was 1991 and I was living in Lewisham whilst working as a postman in Catford. I'd been in London for a little over a year - Catford and Lewisham being neighbouring boroughs of the same in case that isn't obvious - occupying a room in a shared house up behind the bowling alley; and whilst it wasn't that I had necessarily found life in the capital difficult, I seemed to be stuck, rapidly sinking into a behavioural rut. I wasn't uncomfortable, but neither was I really heading anywhere.

Working as a postman in Catford was fairly demanding. I had at last secured for myself a regular route - meaning that I delivered mail to the same group of streets week after week rather than finding myself constantly moved from one unfamiliar set of addresses to another. Unfortunately this regular route was Lushington Road with all of its adjacent blocks of flats which required a great deal of climbing on my part. At one point I measured the average height of the steps in the flats, and then counted them all so as to reach a rough idea of the vertical distance travelled each day in order that people in third floor accommodation should receive their quota of rent demands, eviction notices, and leather sofa advertising material. I can't recall the exact figures as calculated, but it turned out that I scaled the equivalent of Mount Everest about once every nine months or something like that. Hardly surprising then that although my working day ended at around one in the afternoon or earlier, by that time I was usually knackered, fit only to stumble home and bum around in my one room for the rest of the day, drawing comic strips, drinking coffee and listening to records.

I saw my friends most weekends, and I saw my friend Andrew Cox most weekdays as he too lived in Lewisham and would often drop into the White Horse for a drink after work; but aside from these, I didn't have much of what I myself regarded as a social life, at least not by the standards of a young man in his late twenties. It was therefore fairly easy to start a conversation with me, because no matter who you were, I would probably be happy to talk to you. I often went for days without speaking to anyone outside of working hours, and the few conversations I had were valued as much for the fact that they had occurred at all as for actual content; and thus was I briefly drawn in by the Socialist Workers Party.

The SWP as they tend to be abbreviated would regularly set up their stall on Saturdays outside Lewisham's Riverdale Centre, within yards of the bus-stop from which I would alight after a hard morning's climb in Catford. I would pause and buy one of their papers, initially out of curiosity and partially because the transaction presented an opportunity to grumble about my job, specifically whatever ludicrous proposal Royal Mail management intended to impose upon their workforce that month. Socialist Worker itself was a weekly tabloid printed on low grade paper presenting whatever concerned Socialists at time of going to press - who was on strike, who had threatened to strike, what was thought of this or that government initiative and so on. The paper was thin and a little depressing in so much as there wasn't a whole lot of good news out there for the fans of Socialism, or so it seemed.

The paper sellers tended to be the same people - representatives of the Deptford branch of the SWP as I later discovered - tall, slightly plummy voiced men a little older than myself, one of their number distinguished by the sort of scarf he would have worn were he studying something at Oxford in the 1940s - a present from Mumsy, I decided. They were conspicuously middle or even slightly upper class and did not seem to be aware of this, or that when they asked about my life as an employee of Royal Mail - the uniform being a give away - their tone was condescending, as though I were a stupid person who would respond well to issues discussed in terms of beer, tits, and football. This, I suppose, was their understanding of the working classes, or perhaps part of a self-conscious effort to be seen as something other than stuck-up lefties, as perhaps they feared they might be perceived. But for the variant political subtext, they communicated in sentences that resembled Sun newspaper headlines

'Maybe you could take some copies of the paper and sell them at your office?' it was suggested to me.

I tried to imagine how many times I would be told to stuff the publication up my arse, and quickly declined. Aside from anything, I liked most of my colleagues, and didn't feel as though any of them required further education upon the lot of the working people because that was what we were. I had a good friend named Micky Evans, a committed union man who had worked at the dockyard back in the 1960s, and who once told me 'when people start on about your Karl Marx, they imagine him stood on the picket line with a fag hanging from his gob, but it weren't like that...' It would have felt somehow insulting trying to cajole Mick into purchase of a copy of Socialist Worker, and of all my colleagues, he would have been amongst those more sympathetic to its politics.

Somehow, because I was roughly socialist, a worker, and socially adrift, two of the paper sellers ended up at my flat one Saturday morning. I have no idea why I would have given them my address, but apparently I did, so there it was. I'd just arrived home from work, and I was not pleased to have these people as guests. The first was Scarf Boy - he who most obviously appeared to have immersed himself in cloth-capped working man culture as penance for a more luxurious upbringing. I can't remember the name of his friend either, but I'll call him Billy Boast for the sake of convenience because he was a worthy-but-dull struggling musician in the Billy Bragg mold. He wore a keep music live badge and spoke of songs with a good street message. I was never quite sure which streets he was referring to, although it probably wasn't Lushington Road, the message of which was usually got me giro, postie? He was a little wrinkled and lacking some teeth. I pottered around my single room silently resenting the intrusion, readying a pot of tea as Scarf Boy and Billy Boast condemned the imperialist forces of imperialism for their genocidal imperialist war waged upon the much misunderstood Saddam Hussein who was at the time causing a hullabaloo in Kuwait.

'I dunno about that,' I mumbled. 'I saw something on the news about the oil fields,' I tried to explain before being interrupted.

Iraqi troops retreating from Kuwait had set more than seven-hundred oil wells ablaze, and I had been horrified by the footage of massive areas of the country blacked out by clouds of thick, choking chemical smog. I was not particularly well informed about the situation, but it had never struck me as unreasonable that one might regard the deposition of Saddam Hussein as a good thing.

Billy Boast flung his hands aloft in general exasperation at having to deal with persons such as myself. 'You know, this is what really gets me,' he whined. 'They put a few pictures of oil-covered seagulls on the front page and suddenly all the liberals are lining up to kiss Thatcher's arse.'

I was aware that I had been directly insulted in the comfort of my own rented home, but was unable to articulate my objection. I just wanted these people to leave, and to cease their attempts to rope me into their cult. My problem was that whilst agreeing with some of what they stood for, I knew I didn't agree with all of it, but neither did I find it interesting enough to be worth arguing over. I had a hunch that I should probably care more than I did, but somehow I just couldn't. My life was not so lacking in difficulties or situations requiring struggle that I needed to actively seek it out.

Around the same time I learned that a friend I'd known whilst living in Chatham was now resident in New Cross, just a bus ride away from where I was living. This was Rajun Amin, former guitarist of a band I briefly passed through. He was a nice guy, endearingly silly, and we tended to laugh at the same jokes, so it was good to renew his acquaintance; and by peculiar coincidence he turned out to be a member of the SWP branch to which both Scarf Boy and Billy Boast had sworn a blood oath.

'You should come along,' he told me. 'Give it a go.'

I explained my reservations as well as I could, which were as they are now: I distrust those who feel they can be that certain of easy solutions to complicated problems, particularly when lacking direct experience of whichever struggle they've adopted as their own; and I dislike public school types pretending to be cheeky Cockney barrow boys. Rajun understood completely, and assured me that such people were in the minority within the SWP as he had experienced it.

'Just try one meeting,' he suggested. 'It'll be a laugh.'

The meetings were held upstairs in a pub, specifically The Centurion in Deptford as was, so I went along because Rajun was going to be there and at least I'd be able to have a drink.

Rajun was indeed there as I arrived on the evening of the meeting still in my Royal Mail uniform for some reason, but unfortunately he was there with his girlfriend, Charlotte. I'd met her once before at his house in New Cross. She was so painfully upper class as to make Emma Thompson seem like Irene Handl, and she was unable to keep herself from grinning directly into your face at closer proximity than was comfortable. I had no idea what Rajun saw in her - particularly given her resemblance to Jilly Goolden - and I had the impression that his other friends took a similar view.

'Hello!' she squealed, recognising me from our previous encounter. 'I'm going to the Gambia!'

I already knew this, but from the way she grinned I could see how this was important information, and Charlotte wasn't going to risk the possibility of anyone not knowing. I was quite clearly expected to be impressed, but I wasn't sure why. 'That's nice.'

She repeated the announcement twice that evening, each time delivering it as though it was the first time she had told anyone, each time beaming with semi-religious fervour. Maybe she thought I hadn't understood, which would at least have been consistent with the general attitude of the other members towards their newest potential recruit. Scarf Boy and Billy Boast milled around, keen to make it clear that I was their find. I still can't recall why I'd turned up in uniform - either I'd been doing overtime or had been so knackered after the morning's work that I'd spent the afternoon asleep and never found time to change - but it was definitely a mistake. Soon I was surrounded by overly earnest Socialists fascinated and impressed by the concept of manual labour - an actual worker in their midst, a real salt of the earth type. Which was my favourite football team, they wanted to know, and did I like that rappers' music?

Rajun, being of Asian heritage, seemed to be their token representative of the ethnic minorities, and so I was, I suppose, either Andy Capp or Arthur Seaton, improbable as that may seem.

Billy Boast made a few boring observations about real ale and the music of the kids from the street with a good street message and that, and then we dutifully filed upstairs for the meeting. Some guest speaker droned on about something or other for half an hour or so, and then one of Charlotte's friends took the floor and read the minutes of the previous meeting with updates where appropriate. Three copies of Socialist Worker had been sold at some political rally or other, and this was reported as a triumph rather than indicative of general public indifference. Then an argument broke out over the phrasing of some minor point, escalating to a peculiarly heated passive-aggressive exchange over some point of seemingly little consequence. 'I understand why my respected comrade takes that position,' one of them bleated from his place amongst the audience, looking to us as though this mattered, 'but what I believe he fails to appreciate in this instance...'

I realised that I had no idea why I was there. This was essentially a cult, as signified by the heavy and quite unnecessary use of jargon. Everyone was a comrade, and our animating force was the struggle, specifically the class struggle. It therefore struck me as odd that I myself seemed to be one of the few present whom, it might be argued, actually belonged to the class that was doing the struggling, otherwise Scarf Boy and Charlotte seemed fairly typical. These people were imposters, the guilt-ridden white and upper middle classes seeking purpose in the plight of those stuck in the sort of jobs they themselves would never be required to do. As I made my way to the exit I passed Billy Boast talking to an older woman who wore dungarees and spoke with a South African accent. She was an artist of some description, and I had already overheard her discussing her work, specifically its featuring in an exhibition held in what I presume to have been her home country.

'Yeah, but just who is this going to be for?' asked Billy Boast, sceptical. 'Who will see it?'

'It's for the bleck people, of course,' she explained.

'Are you leaving?' Rajun seemed disappointed.

'Yes.' I looked around the room, noticing that everyone else had settled in for the night. 'I have work in the morning.'

Charlotte homed in on me with a glass of white wine. 'I'm going to the Gambia!'

With hindsight, it's not that I disagreed with anything those people purported to represent. My problem lay with their basic dishonesty, an inability to accept themselves for who and what they were, pedigree warts and all; and their seeking salvation in the misery of others, not through any genuine desire to build a better world, but because it helped them feel a little better about themselves and their resented privilege.

I tend to believe that all major evils of human society are born of the mindset in which one individual believes they know what is best for another regardless of the qualification of either experience or insight into how that other may live their life - theory or ideology held as having greater currency than subjective experience. This is why I tend to dislike certain political ideologies, and particularly those which instil an individual with the confidence sufficient for him or her to define what is best for a person living on the other side of the world, or in circumstances of which they have no direct experience. Such ideologies tend to be easy to spot because they propose easy solutions to complex problems, solutions so easy they can be reduced to slogans in pursuit of popular support; because popular support is usually the entire point.

This is annoying for me because I am roughly speaking a Socialist, and could hardly realistically be anything else having spent some years on the wrong end of the shitty stick of capitalism. I would very much like Socialist principles to inform the governments of at least the two countries in which I've lived, but unfortunately it's probably never going to happen because the loudest voices of true Socialism - as opposed to whatever the hell the English Labour party has been doing since the mid-nineties - will always be some whining upper-class tofu-scoffing moron trying to rant past their own guilt at not having been born and raised in a drainage ditch; and as modern politics has apparently been reduced to point-scoring and rabble-rousing, such people seem inevitably to have the loudest voice; and it is because of them that those who don't understand Socialism so often claim to hate it, because no-one likes a scarf-wearing smart-arse trying to be your mate.

Ultimately the SWP taught me was that I wasn't so desperate to make new friends as I believed at the time; and that sadly the enemies of Socialism - as a force for positive change rather than a means of seeming like less of a tosser - include many of its own supporters.


  1. Very enteretaing, as ever. I think you have nailed the SWP mind. I'm with you on the Labour Party - those fuckers all became millionaires when they were in power, and were often very blatant about it. It mystifies me how people who call themselves socialists regard them as an alternative to the Tories. I think they're all the same. Nick

  2. entertaining, I mean... bit like my spelling...

  3. I was in the NZ equivalent of the SWP for ten years. We had some overly earnest beardy students, but no posh kids slumming it, and mostly actual workers. No wonder the Brits never trusted us.

    Now I'm in a different socialist group which goes out of its way to talk with workers, not lecture them, and avoid anything culty like the plague. The Brit SWP split last year when they tried to protect a leading member accused of rape, and almost all the sane persons have left. Good.

    I must be fair, though, and pull you up for saying the SWP were pro-Saddam. Anti-war is not the same thing.

    1. Ah - that would be my attempt at sarcastic hyperbole, and really more to do with that individual than anything I wished to attribute to the SWP as a whole, so sorry for the lack of clarity there.

  4. One of the most insightful things I've read here yet. But please do be careful about calling the Labour Party "English" - it was founded by a Scot and a good third of its MPs represent constituencies outwith England.

  5. you need an editor. i was in Lewisham SWP in 1997-98. By then we were meeting in Catford. Shame how the SWP became a cult where you couldn't go against the party line. Looks like the hopes of ever building a mass socialist party are fucked forever now...the horrible public schoolboy leadership of that particular racket have made sure of that. It did attract some genuinely talented intellectuals who were human and were able to tolerate the idea of socialist plurality, however, and one or two were in Lewisham branch. They weren't all social misfits or weirdos you know ;-)