Monday 13 July 2015

Who was a Communist?

My parents didn't tell us which of their friends and relations

were Communists and which weren't,

so we had to do it ourselves.

A group of teachers and their partners came over

from my father's school,

Len got out his guitar and they sang,

'I'm the man, the very fat man who waters the workers' beer'.

They must be Communists, I thought.

A group of teachers came over from my mother's school,

and a man called Wally told stories about an engraving firm

controlled by 'the masons', he said.

My dad was fascinated by Wally's stories and kept saying,

'Christ, would you believe it?!'

So I asked my mum if Wally was a Communist

and she said, 'Of course not, you mustn't ever say that.'

Then we went on a camp with the Hornsey Communists

and a woman spilt meths on her groundsheet

and it burst in to flame.

My dad said she was a bloody fool

so I reckoned that though she might have been a

Communist once

she wasn't one now.

We went camping with Fred and Lorna,

and when we sang 'I'm the man the very fat man

who waters the workers' beer' Lorna didn't join in

and said, 'Oh Fred, come on, there's no need to

sing that one,' so Lorna, I thought, was not very Communist.

Sometimes we went to see two families who

lived upstairs and downstairs in a house.

Upstairs was Francis the Armenian who was so Communist

quite often he wasn't there - he was working for peace

in Czechoslovakia. Peggy, his wife, though

was very Communist, I thought, because

she not only talked about peace, she talked about

peace-loving peoples.

My father said that she sounded like a bloody gramophone

record, but as we often used to listen to bloody gramophone

records of the Red Army, I didn't know why there

could be anything wrong with that.

Downstairs there was Roy who was the most miserable

man I have ever known. Even his hands was miserable.

He said that everything was bad. As my parents

said some things (but not everything) were bad as well,

it was possible, I thought,

Roy was more Communist than them.

Roy's wife, was sometimes ill and had to go to bed for

months. But when she came out of the bedroom

she was very smiley and seemed to say that

everything wasn't as bad as Roy said it was.

I wasn't sure if that meant she was more or less

Communist than Roy.

There was Moishe and Rene who weren't just

Communists they were almost my parents.

Moishe went to school with my father and

Rene went to school with my mother.

They had even camped together.

When they talked it was like they were

a moishe-rene-my mother-my father Communist camping club.

Then there were the relatives or 'meshpukkhe' as

my father called them.

My father's mother was so old and so Communist, she was the first

Communist. And her father they said, was a


My mother's mother, 'Bubbe', kept

chickens and said the woman who did the 'bag wash'

was trying to diddle her. My father said that she

wasn't a Communist, she just 'kvetshed' (complained)

but she made the best shmatena (a kind of yoghurt)

in London so maybe that made her some kind of

a Communist without knowing she was.

I asked my mother if 'Zeyde' (her father) was a

Communist and she said very angrily that he was

'some kind of Trotskyist'.

That sounded terrible. And yet he was so nice.

He took me to Hackney Downs where he

showed me to his friends who said, every time,

'Is that your Grandson, Frank?'

'Yes,' he said every time,

'He's a nice looking boy,' they said every time,

and went on talking in Yiddish.

As i didn't speak Yiddish I had no way of knowing

whether they were Trotskyists too.

In 1957, we went to Communist East Germany

and there was a row between everybody on the

delegation about whether Stalinallee (Stalin Alley)

looked like a public lavatory or not.

We saw the Carl Zeiss camera works,

Frederick the Great's house,

Goethe's house, Schiller's house, Bach's house,

Luther's castle, Buchenwald concentration camp

and Hitler's bunker.

When we got back, my parents stopped being


They called me and my brother in and said

that they didn't agree with the Communist Party

and democracy.

I had no idea what that meant. Not a clue.

The ones who were Communists went on being

Communists and now we weren't Communists.

Every so often Roy came over and said

everything was getting worse.