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Children of the revolution

David Aaronovitch is too forgiving of the radical left in his new book

By Philip Hensher   February 2016

David Aaronovitch marches with anti-cuts demonstrators, as a journalist, in 2011. ©Jude Edginton/Camera Press

Party Animals: My family and other communists, by David Aaronovitch, Jonathan Cape, £17.99

The collapse of communism in 1989 is the most significant event of our lifetimes but one which will continue to be surrounded by myth-making and reinvention for years to come. The political thinking that led up to it was despatched to the realms of historical curiosity and of lost causes, until the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in 2015. When the primary question posed by any audience was “What on earth were they thinking of?”, it sometimes seems as if credulity might be suspended across the board.

David Aaronovitch, these days, is a blamelessly liberal and sceptical columnist for The Times. His interesting though problematic childhood memoir Party Animals focuses on a marginal but important episode. If the moral issues remain fudged, no-one could blame Aaronovitch for evading a final plausible judgement.

The subject of his book is his parents, and the world of extremist left-wing politics to which they devoted their lives. At some point, we all come to understand that our parents were wrong about a lot of things. That is what growing up consists of. It is not often that history conspires to confirm the revisions of the children: indeed, in this case, to leave the children muttering that their parents weren’t as bad as all that.

Somewhere in Nostromo, Conrad observes that an old freedom fighter was “full of scorn for the populace, as your austere republican so often is.” It’s interesting to read Aaronovitch’s tale of life among the elite, or what would have been the elite if history had gone their way. His parents, Sam and Lavender, were important figures in the world of post-war British communist politics. Sam was  sketched, devastatingly, by Doris Lessing in both a novel and, much later, a memoir. He was the Cultural Secretary of the British Communist Party, and Lessing reasonably asks: “Why had the party chosen a young man who had read nothing of modern literature, and was not interested in the arts, to represent culture?” Aaronovitch spends a good deal of energy rebutting this and other witnesses to his father’s charmlessness, without coming near refuting them.

His parents’ world was well meaning, serious and committed without always having something of interest to say. When Sam wrote a book with his second wife called Crisis in Kenya, “a condemnation of the economic consequences of settler rule in a British colony,” his son feels duty bound to add that he “had no background in economics and that, of course, he had never been abroad, let alone to Africa.” 

“I struggled to find a single person in this book who was, and remained, a member of the urban proletariat”

For Aaronovitch’s parents, there was no need to go to Africa—in fact, there seems to have been little reason for them to engage on any personal level with the proletariat. Aaronovitch dwells lovingly on the names of the faithful (many, but not all, north London and Jewish) just as the French aristocrat Saint-Simon recited the names of the dukes in court precedence: “The Davises, the Schons, the Kessels, the Frankels, the Whitakers, the Boatmans (or the Boatmen as my mother inevitably called them), the Formans (but not the Formen), the Loefflers, Pete and Elvira Richards, old Irma Petrov and the impoverished Ken Herbert, with his glasses sellotaped together, the lenses thick with dust. And sprinkled among them the senior Party people, the Gollans, Jock and Bridget Nicholson and the Aaronovitches.”

I struggled to find a single person in this book who was, and remained, a member of the urban proletariat. It was like trying to find a spot welder in a life of Debo the Duchess of Devonshire, or for that matter Kim Philby. Say what you like about Tories, but at least they know the people they are trying to help. 

The story of this family is largely one of convenient privilege. They weren’t rich, but they had access to money. It takes the breath away when Lavender’s Uncle Bob buys her a house in Highgate. His parents’ wooing is carried out in a carefully unacceptable atmosphere—Lavender’s father describes Sam as “that hairy Jewish gorilla.” From that point onwards, the world is innocent and charming, mildly snobbish—“That horrid little man” was Lavender’s style of reprobation, and in approval, “Sabrina looked lovely with the Young Communist League banner.” Amusingly, Lavender, a minatory presence in the nursery, sees nothing in particular wrong with her son’s favourite book, that energetic defence of the excesses of Belgian imperialism, Babar the Elephant.

It’s curious, too, that when the young Aaronovitch goes to Manchester University and discovers feminism and anti-racist politics (but not gay rights—that was still beyond the pale for the comrades) it doesn’t seem to have plucked any of them from the deserving crowd. Aaronovitch writes of Manchester feminism that, “the oestrogen was intoxicating. It may have been uncomfortable for young men, but there was something about feminism that I thought was magnificent. It was obviously a movement for ‘liberation.’” All of which is true, but I wish that he had been able to fill his pages with a few more women than the occasional “Comrade J,” a woman he lives with in a Manchester commune, whose personal odyssey of generous sexual liberation was greatly appreciated by Aaronovitch.

When it comes to the anti-racist movement, the targets of interest remain and— one must conclude—were regarded at the time by the movement, as “young bannerless black people,” “two large West Indians,” “black boys” [sic] fighting with the police and the “mostly Asian workers” who went on strike at “a photo-processing plant called Grunwick’s.”

Aaronovitch explores the 1960s principle that “the personal is the political,” but only as far as denouncing his father’s affairs, his mother’s general ghastliness. Their worst crime here apparently was to have sent the young Aaronovitch to a comprehensive  rather than a grammar school, or to have not sought a scholarship to Westminster or somewhere similar. (He got into Oxford before being sent down for not bothering to learn French or German, so it can’t have been all that bad). It might have been more telling to have wondered how his parents would have conducted themselves towards the rest of the world, if they had been given the opportunity.

If this book had been published a year ago, it would have been read as an interesting episode in a long-closed history. These days, the new Lavenders and Sams are hard at work making implausible claims on behalf of the Labour Party. It was all very amusing when it was limited to a few aristocratic-Marxist families in North London, happily accepting donations of houses from their rich relations. In the real world, their solution may not be a solid one. 

Aaronovitch has the honesty to point out that Sam cast a party worker into oblivion when he discovered that he was gay: let us be grateful that such people only rarely had a shooting squad at their disposal in this country. The glimpses of the family from an outside perspective are piquant, telling, and not at all complimentary. A neighbour in Highgate, years afterwards, tells Aaronovitch that he and his family had a birthday and Christmas ritual in which a box of matches or a penny pencil would be wrapped up and given over to the poor victim as “Lavender’s present.” “It says something about this man that he obviously thought I would enjoy this anecdote”—yes, but not as much as it tells us about Lavender and her joyless kind.

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