We got out of London today - for a few hours at least - to visit Godstow nunnery near the village of Wolvercote on the northern outskirts of Oxford.
The chapel is the only part of the nunnery still standing - but the location is wonderful, just fifty yards from the Thames. And in the autumn sunshine, it was divine
This is the nunnery associated with 'Fair Rosamund', memorably painted in pre-Raphaelite fashion by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The sitter, Fanny Cornforth, later became Rossetti's housekeeper.
Rosamund Clifford, the mistress of Henry II, died around 1176 when still in her twenties. Godstow Abbey was her burial place.
It was, for a while at least, a truly gorgeous autumn day - with the leaves still holding some of their rich colour, and large gaggles of geese flying overhead.
And on this vista of the Thames, you can just about make out the gable end of the nunnery chapel sticking up among the trees.
Forty years ago this week, the first issue of 'Fresh Garbage' appeared - and was promptly filed in waste bins across Keble College, Oxford. It was the first of fourteen issues of this left-wing newssheet, which stumbled on until February 1977. Even by the left's standards of exceedingly short-lived titles, Fresh Garbage had an early sell-by date
Fun to put together, 'Fresh Garbage' hardly changed the world. But it was one of those modest, hand-to-mouth enterprises, which are often dismissed as ephemeral - but sometimes caught the mood more than the polished and manicured publications with a clearer message to convey.
It was put together by the college's Left Caucus, a dozen or so students of a vaguely progressive mindset. The early issues were fairly tame. By the autumn of 1976, and the freshers' issue above, we had worked out how to do some very basic graphics on the stencil sheets. Very basic!
I was leafing through Fresh Garbage the other day for the first time in decades. I gave my complete set, along with a rag bag assembly of all the leaflets, pamphlets, papers, badges and general stuff accumulated during a few years of student radicalism, to the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick. I went back there to consult a much more conventional archive, the records of the Gollancz publishing company, but also spent half-an-hour or so communing with my past.
I asked an archivist how many people consult the files I deposited. Thirteen over the previous year, she said - which was about twelve more than I'd expected (though I don't now whether any of them took a look at Fresh Garbage).
One page is a particularly evocative reminder of what we got up to as students ... a listing of local pubs, cafes and stores, compiled by the admirably thorough Colin Orr. Some of those pubs I don't recall at all - but I do remember the Carpenters in Jericho, where, I see, you could then buy a round of five pints of Morrell's bitter (the Oxford brewery closed in 1998, the Carpenters shut down quite a while earlier) and still get some change from a pound note.
This remarkable plaque stands just inside what was the Indian Institute at Oxford, established in the 1880s to train the Indian Civil Service, The building became, in the 1960s, the library of the history faculty and is now the Martin School. I spoke there earlier this week as part of a panel during the Oxford Literary Festival. Vijay Joshi, who chaired the panel, pointed this plaque out to me . I don't know what non-Aryas might think of it!
I liked Denis Healey (who died yesterday at the grand age of 98) - and on the one occasion that I interviewed him for radio, he was both charming and very forthcoming.
I was making a radio series for the BBC World Service about the development of the international communist movement - the audio is on this page - and called at his flat in Pimlico in December 1991 to record his memories of being in the Communist Party as a student at Oxford. He remembered it as 'a very lively happy, humorous movement - it wasn't grimly sectarian'. His wife Edna was there - I didn't record her, but I recall (I think this is right) that she also was in the party briefly while at Oxford.
Denis of course went on to be a very prominent figure in the Labour Party, its deputy leader and a Chancellor of the Exchequer. He would probably have made a better prime minister than quite a few of those who took on that role.
I am posting the audio of that 1991 interview - it's been deposited at the National Sound Archive at the British Library, along with my other interviews with British political figures. I've also transcribed the interview below. Enjoy!
AW: You joined the Communist Party at the end of your first year at Oxford -
DH: Yes, in the summer of 1937.
Basically I think because it was the only party that seemed unequivocally in favour of standing up to Hitler. The Conservative party was in favour of appeasing him in the main. And the Labour party was divided between pacifists and a rather vague form of collective security. And I think that's why enormous numbers of people you'd never imagine joined at that time - John Biggs-Davison, who later became the chairman of the Monday Club; two - at least two people I know who later became Conservative ministers. And all for that reason.
But this was at a period when the Communist Party was coming out of a deeply sectarian phase, and its policy programme was still entitled 'For a Soviet Britain' -
Well, I don't think we were very conscious of its domestic policies. The watershed in the Communist Party internationally was the seventh world congress which took place I think in '35, the year before I went up to Oxford. I went up in the autumn of '36. And it was as you say very sectarian before that. Communists always wore beards, looked dirty, did badly in their examinations. Then when it became Popular Front, which was essentially the '37 move, which reflected of course the desire to create a popular front against the Nazis and fascists, everybody shaved, behaved well in public, and got Firsts in their examinations. And it was totally different. And we were hardly conscious of what it had been before that. Because young men of eighteen, they don't know what the political world was like when they were fourteen or twelve.
Edward Thompson, who I've also spoken to, who joined the party in Cambridge just a few years after you, tells me then most Cambridge communist students had got a photograph of [CPGB leader] Harry Pollitt on their mantelpiece. Did you have one?
No, I never did. No. We had a song. 'Harry was a Bolshie, one of Lenin's lads, but he was slain by counter-revolutionary cads'. But there was no hero worship at that time of Harry Pollitt or indeed of the national leadership. As I say, it was overwhelmingly, in my particular year, which was the end of the first year of the Spanish Civil War don't forget, it was overwhelmingly for international reasons rather than national.
How disciplined was the party? Did you have to sell the Daily Worker for example?
No. It wasn't disciplined in that sense at all. And again the international line of the Communist Party was the popular front against fascism [interruption] Yes, again I was a student communist so that we didn't play much part in the work of the Communist Party in Oxford except during the famous Oxford by-election of 1938, when Sandy Lindsay - he was the Master of Balliol - fought Quintin Hogg, later Lord Hailsham, on a popular front programme.
Indeed, that is the most important chapter in the British campaign for a popular front, that Oxford by-election -
Yes, I think it probably was, simply because it was the only case where you had a very well-known popular front candidate who couldn't by any stretch of the imagination be called a communist. He was a right-wing Labour party supporter, Lord Lindsay as he later became.
Any embarrassment among Labour supporters, his supporters, about working with communists?
No I don't think there was the because the trials in Moscow and the suppression of the kulaks [better-off Soviet peasant sand farmers] was not really very well known I would say among the political class in Britain. Some intellectuals like - Leonard Woolf was a notable example, had been fighting a battle for a long time with the fellow travellers like Victor Gollancz and John Strachey, who they thought totally misunderstood and misrepresented Soviet Communism. But they were a minority, and I think the bulk of us were content simply to be swept along by the tide of anti-fascism.
What about the change of party line in the early weeks of the war, when suddenly it went from being 'People's War against Fascism' to 'Imperialist War'. Any shock waves that you remember within the party at Oxford?
Oh yes. There was a tremendous shock wave over the Stalin-Hitler pact, which of course preceded the war, in a sense led to the war. It freed Hitler to mobilise his forces against France and the Low Countries. And a lot of people left the Communist Party then. I didn't myself partly because - it was rather an odd situation - I volunteered for the army on the day war broke out in September the third. And then I was told by a friend in the Communist Party that the line had changed, and we had decided it was an imperialist war not an anti-fascist war. And I said: baloney.
But of course at that time I was waiting to be called into the army, and expected to be in the army within a month. In fact, they didn't calls us up until the end of that term. They told us we could finish our Schools [finals exams]. So it was a whole year after volunteering before I actually joined the army. And I, I left the army really - I would say, left the Communist Party, over the fall of France, because I could just understand the communists supporting Russia because Britain and France had been unwilling to make an alliance with Russia against Hitler, which was the way we saw it. But then when it became obvious to a child like me that after the fall of France, Britain would be the next target, not to see this danger seemed to me absolutely ridiculous. And that's when I formally left the party.
You've described it as a bed-and-breakfast organisation, but in fact you stayed for three years. So that's rather more than an overnight stay -
No, but that is bed-and-breakfast in terms of politics, bed-and-breakfast in the sense that you join one day and leave the next I don't think's ever happened. But the average length of membership of the Communist Party was two or three years in those days, internationally not just in Britain.
Is there anything that's worth resurrecting from the shambles of the Communist experiment? Anything in terms of idealism, comradeship? Anything else?
Well, I think the idealism and comradeship was very real, and of course it exists in other parties of all types, Catholic parties too. But I think the world in which the Popular Front became a massive force, after all it formed a government in France under Leon Blum don't forget, that world has totally disappeared.
I think the thing you've got to remember is that the thirties was the period when it seemed as clear to young people that capitalism has failed as it's clear to young people know that communism has failed. We'd seen capitalism produce fascism in Italy, Hitler in Germany, a great recession which had produced mass unemployment all over the world. And there were very, very few people in the chattering classes, among intellectuals, who thought capitalism had a future at all.And, as I say, the failure of capitalism was as evident then as the failure of communism now.
Now, it could be people will change their attitude towards communism because in China, for example, where they've gone about things in the opposite way from the Russians, concentrating on introducing bits of the market in their economy, it's probably the fastest growing economy in the world, faster even than Japan. But at the cost, as you know, of terrible oppression in the political field.
I just wonder if you had any anecdotes about your time in the CPGB in Oxford which would give some impression, some flavour, of what party activity was like? What it meant to be a communist then?
Well, I think the big thing to remember is that the student movement at Oxford was a very lively, happy, humorous movement. It wasn't grimly sectarian. We used to sing songs about: 'I'm the man, the very fat man, that waters the workers' beer'. And, you know: 'As I crouch beneath the table, where the politburo meets, they would startle from their seats, if they knew of half the feats, of diversionary aims and espionage, and civil and military sabotage, that I've performed the whole year round for Hitler'. And I always remember a friend of mine who made a parody: 'Twas Christmas Day on the kolkhoz [Soviet collective farm], local river in flood, peasants were sitting on doorsteps, all sunk in depression and mud'.
It was, as I say, a very outgoing and open movement, and appealed to an enormous number of people. I mean, most of the poets of that time were communist - Auden, Spender, Isherwood - or fellow travellers; Louis Macneice was one of the very few who rejected that. Very large number of painters; the surrealists, oddly enough, although surrealism is as far from communism as ever you could imagine and rejected by the Russians of course - they were nearly all communists.
So warm memories on the whole?
Oh yes, of that period, yes. I mean, I think I was wrong now, of course. On the other hand, I don't know quite what one could have done otherwise, except worked harder in the Labour party to change its policy and make it more realistic.
The Fresh Garbage editorial committee reconvened yesterday for the first time in almost forty years. Well, sort of. Here's the story.
Forty years ago this month, I pitched up at Keble College, Oxford as a fresh-faced, naive undergraduate. Yesterday, seven of us from Keble at about that time, mates all those years ago, gathered in Oxford - a reunion of sorts. Four of us shared a house at Old Woodstock - and while I only stayed a year there before heading to Warwick as a postgrad, others stayed on quite a lot longer.
I hadn't met some of my old friends since I left Keble. So it was quite an event. We all recognised each other straight off - a relief all round! - and we all got on really well. We took a walk round Woodstock and Blenheim Park ... then a wander round Keble ... a couple of pints at the Jericho Tavern (the Jericho pubs we used to patronise, the Crown, the Globe and the Carpenters' Arms, are all long gone), and an Indian at The Standard on Walton Street, spiritual successor to the late lamented Uddin's.
One of our number brought along a scrolled photo of the entire College in 1974 - I'm fairly sure taken in my first term. Another brought copies of 'Fresh Garbage', the duplicated, occasionally legible, occasional publication of the Keble Left Caucus, and of 'Strumpet', the slightly more sophisticated (but less lively) University-wide left weekly of that time.
Quite a blast from the past. Fresh Garbage got its name from a song on Spirit's first album. (And as a bonus track for getting this far, I've posted below a YouTube video of the original Spirit line-up performing the number on French TV in 1970).
I gave all my copies of 'Fresh Garbage' to the Warwick University archive, where they have been salted away and catalogued with a reverence which is both humbling and concerning, (it was after all about the most ephemeral publication you could imagine with a circulation of, I'd guess, under a hundred). But it was nice to see and read a couple of copies of our neo-adolescent political handiwork - and even nicer to touch base with old comrades.
The only thing we didn't quite manage is a passable photo of the seven of us. We'll have to do better next time!
You know how it is when you think you know a place, and then you're taken by surprise ...
Well, I always thought that I knew the Jericho locality of Oxford fairly well. I spent a few weeks in the summer of, gulp, 1977 doing a project for the Oxfordshire Museum about working class housing there. Yesterday, I was back in Jericho - a very occasional visitor there in recent decades. I popped in at the spell-binding St Barnabas, took a stroll across Port Meadow, and walking down Walton Street on my way back, stumbled across the entrance to St Sepuchre's cemetery. I don't recall ever noticing it before.
It's one of three Oxford cemeteries opened in the 1840s or thereabouts, as the church graveyards become congested beyond redemption. St Sepulchre's has its own Wikipedia entry, and a very impressive website (as befits north Oxford). It's now hemmed in on all sides, largely by modern buildings fronting on Waltonwell Road. Among the gravestones, one stands out - featuring a racing car heading in to the sunset.
The story of Frankie Tayler's life and death have captured the attention of other bloggers - here's one. And it is a remarkable, and tragic tale. Frankie, a machenic on the MG racing team, died in 1934 at the age of 28 - his widow Phyllis, whose ashes are also interred here, lived another 66 years. And there's also another memorial plaque, I suppose also an internment of ashes, from 2009 - of Margaret Knight, aged 96, who I imagine was Frankie's sister.
The story of Frankie Tayler's death on the Isle of Man is told on the board by the entrance to the cemetery - and I've posted that below.
Kaye Don (Kaye Ernest Donsky) lived until 1981, and was quite a celebrity as a car and speedboat racer and later set up Ambassador motorcycles. His entry in Wikipedia gives a detailed account of the accident on the Isle of Man, for which he was sentenced to four months in jail for manslaughter. He was released early on health grounds.
I had an hour to spare in Oxford one evening recently, and went for a walk round Jericho, an area I used to know well 35 years ago. I never had a Jericho address, but lived for a while not far away and patronised the area's pubs - much less gentrified then, a mix of local and student. I also did a volunteer project for Oxfordshire Museums about working class housing in Jericho - my first serious use of primary sources.
So strolling round Jericho at leisure for the first time in decades was quite a journey back in time. The streets have survived largely in tact - there's some unsympathetic modern infill which I don't remember from the '70s, some of it already derelict, but on the whole the area has done well. The daft idea of zoning the area "light industrial" - which is why the council bought so many properties here in the late '60s and early '70s and so provided deeds and other raw material for that research project - has long been buried.
But what's happened to the pubs? I remember with particular affection the 'Crown', the 'Globe' and the 'Carpenters'. Now, unless I've got my bearings wildly wrong, all three have gone. Not just renamed. They aren't pubs any more. The buildings are still there, but all are now private houses.
The 'Crown' was a schitzophrenic place - one bar local, the other acid-style with the ceiling and all walls in black. The 'Globe' was a very homely and successful mix of town and gown. And the 'Carpenters' was something else. An old style beershop, tiny, run by Ron and Else. The beer was from wooden casks. If there were more than about eight people in the place, it was crowded - and you would be ushered into the parlour, which looked as if it doubled up as the publicans' front room: settee, comfy chairs, and a huge old radiogram.
Ron and Else, already ancient in the mid-70s, moved on from the 'Carpenters' (on Nelson Street as I remember it) about 1976. The place was already changing, modernising, by the time I left Oxford a year later. And now it's been erased from the streetscape altogether.
St Barnabas - Kaihsu Tai, CC
Still there, happily, on Canal Street is the marvellous St. Barnabas, parish church of the Oxford Movement (it features in Hardy's Jude the Obscure). The church was closed when I called but from the porch there's a viewing window - I had forgotten just how wonderfully ornate the interior is. An unlikely Oxford jewel.
I ended my stroll at another church - disused this time. What was once St Paul's on Walton Street. Now a bar, still replete with stained glass windows and some of the church fittings. I recall that one of the seminal intellectual events of my youth was held here. A debate beteen E.P. Thompson and (I think) Richard Johnson on Althusser - which mattered a lot then, for reasons I can't quite summon up. I was in Oxford that evening, but didn't make it to the debate. I ended up at the pub instead. Can't remember if it was the 'Crown' or the 'Globe or the 'Carpenters'.
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