Children of the revolution

For the late Julia Swindells, radicalism and friendship were always intimately linked. Here, she describes the youthful influences that led her down a political path

April 19, 2012

Credit: Alamy

They know us through and through. They know how they must work it. Be seated! And we sit. And in sitting there’s no revolt. Better not stand up again - not the way you did before - don’t stand up again.

Bertolt Brecht, Mother Courage and Her Children (1939)

I have studied the complexities and contradictions of autobiographical and biographical narrative for so long that I am not at all convinced I can distinguish any longer between an accurate representation of memory or a fictional version of such. In one version of my own past, I see myself as resisting into late adulthood any idea that social relations were significantly constructed out of any territory but the affective zone, primarily love and friendship. In another version, though, I can recall as early as the age of 7 that there existed inequalities of chance, opportunity, birth and luck in relation to both money and education.

I attended a number of primary schools, all in the North of England. At the poorest of them, one child was stitched into his vest for the winter; another was sent to school with a severe case of the mumps and expected to stay there; and yet another, also from a working-class family, had his own guitar, the full range of an illustrated children’s encyclopedia and introduced me, with the passionate intelligence of a devoted critical analyst, to the stories of the first rebellious friend in my life: Sam Pig.

It was in the sixth form of my girls’ high school in Leeds that I first had opportunities to translate some of the differential quality of experience into political statement. In the mock elections of 1968, I stood as the liberal candidate, convinced with all the sanctimony of a youngest child at home and smallest in the class at school, indulged by both, that those on the political left, including two of my closest friends, were opinionated and doctrinaire, and those on the political right were rich thickos. I held the moral high ground with my effortless superiority about fairness, objective argument, English nationalism and Christianity.

One of my left-wing friends, whose parents were members of the Communist Party, was my regular companion on outings to two theatres in Leeds (the Civic and the Grand, before the evolution of the Leeds Playhouse, later the West Yorkshire Playhouse). While others in our form raved about trying to get to Liverpool to see the Beatles, we went to concerts, the ballet, opera and, with a particular commitment, plays (although I still wish I had also seen the Beatles).

On one occasion, over which I will try to remain faithful to memory, we were treating ourselves, as was our custom, to tea and cake in the Grand Theatre Green Room before the show. My schoolfriend, whom I still see when I visit Yorkshire, may have no recollection of this at all; and I am not sure that I would even welcome a dialogue about it, so fond am I of this little piece of memorabilia in relation to my own history.

In my version of events, the narrative develops as follows. After settling with our usual sense of pleasant anticipation at a table, I realised, with growing discomfort, that my companion was trying to prevent herself from openly weeping. I soon established that she was not feeling ill and was not having problems at home. Neither had she lost a treasured bracelet nor been awarded a low grade by a favourite teacher. It emerged that her distress had been caused by events in Czechoslovakia, where, after what became known as the Prague Spring, Russian tanks had entered and occupied the city. I had glanced at images on our black-and-white television, but what struck me most of all was the way that my schoolfriend kept apologising to me for her politics. She excoriated herself for believing in Russian Communism and for having “got it wrong”, while, in her view, I had “got it right” and her attempts, over our teenage years, to persuade me to relinquish my English liberalism had been misguided.

The more our conversation proceeded and the more she reproached herself, the more I realised that this was an encounter between us that was going to be very influential for me, as it has remained. That she invested so much emotion and concern, not only in the integrity of her friendship with me but in international political events about which I had only the most superficial knowledge, was slowly transformative. To be thought to be “in the right” over a matter to which I had given so little serious attention or depth of concern was chastening.

When I started my studies at the University of Leeds in 1969, I had firmly in my memory a visit the previous year, to our high school, by students from the university theatre group, which had, I seem to recall, won the National Union of Students’ prize for best production with their staging of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. At the time, this was just the play and these were just the performers to fuel our imaginations and our aspirations. Although our visitors were university students and we were at school and rather “young for our age”, they did not patronise us. They described the intricacies of the political history and meanings of the play and Brecht’s project with Communism; and they spoke about the eponymous Mother Courage and her children in terms of how important girls and women were in the struggle for survival. What I remember above all is that, while the subject matter was immensely serious, our visitors resonated charm and wit. This stayed powerfully with me and was influential in my decision to join the theatre group as soon as I had enrolled as an undergraduate.

It was at Leeds that I formed another friendship that was to prove equally influential and lasting. In my first year I was “adopted” by a more mature student, affectionately willing to tolerate my naivety and political ignorance. It was not so much our revolutionary interpretation and production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance - as a struggle between students garlanded in flowers and fascist pigs dressed in black, armed with riot shields (oh, wait…) - that sealed our friendship, as my friend’s conviction that our subject, English literature, was in dire need of politicising.

This friend subsequently introduced me to the Leeds May Day Group, where I soon discovered beautiful people of both sexes and all ages who were firmly opposed to invidious distinctions between “town and gown”. Men with long golden hair made and served me coffee. If I spoke less about Marx and Rosa Luxemburg than other members did, it was because I had still to do the reading and I was still to join the women’s movement. In that latter context, I was eventually to compensate for silence.

Later, in Southampton and Cambridge, it was perhaps a little more the case than in my youth that I actively looked for social relations and professional work that would give coherence to love, friendship and political values. In each context, it was with a strong sense that academe was an incomplete location for the full expression and enactment of a politics of change that friends were made. In Southampton, our “second chance” students marched, with pushchairs, toddlers and all, on the head of department’s office, lobbying for better provision for “adult returners”. Some participants speculated that he was more bothered by the children’s sticky lollipops than the argument for women’s and working-class rights. In Cambridge, we initiated arguments for establishing the Cambridge Women’s Resources Centre, believing that Cambridge town was historically and contemporaneously both systematically and unsystematically deprived of the rich range of resources available in the University of Cambridge.

So what of our young people now and are they to find revolutionary friendships among their peers and elders? My generation is lucky in that it seems to have (re)produced a younger generation that is not, for the most part, either fearful of or too oppressed by us. Indeed, I find myself completely charmed by the unsolicited friendship generated by young people, whether students, family members or in the political sphere, towards the likes of me. At a recent wedding party, young adults - many of whom I had last seen in their early secondary school years - greeted me with generous and unalloyed enthusiasm. Again, there were those apologies, echoing down the years to my high-school friend. This time it was for being bad girls and boys when round our house years ago - nothing at all to speak of, certainly not for me to recall.

I got into deep conversation with one of them, who told me that he had considered going into politics or doing a degree as a mature student, but now was completely disillusioned with both party politics and education. It was not a reflex response on his part, fostered by tabloid journalism or conformist thinking. He had considered every issue from economic policy and post-school opportunities to meaningful access to British cultural heritage and debt, debt, debt. He would not be moved in argument, only to join me in a dance. He was going to emigrate. A young woman at the same party, equally thoughtful, equally informed, was about to go to live in Brazil.

Thomas Hardy writes powerfully in Jude the Obscure that children are everyone’s children. They do not belong to anyone but themselves and, beyond that, to all of us. Familial feelings are inevitably strong, but it is not impossible that the act of taking responsibility for one child can be tantamount or extend to taking responsibility for all. I have seen elsewhere words to the effect that the land belongs to the children and that we hold it in guardianship for them. What are we doing instead? Are we creating an underclass out of young people, the new poor, or the equivalent of miners under Thatcher’s regime - the enemy within?

Friendships in Leigh, Leeds, Southampton and Cambridge have only reinforced my belief that, whatever the supposed consignment to history of the grand narratives of Eastern European revolutionary politics, English liberalism simply does not serve the collective interest of contemporary Britain. As much as ever before, we are in need of revolutionary friendships and ideals to remind us that our working relationships, our productive labour, our use value, our social relations can counter and offset the imperatives of money and power. Hierarchy and the deference it seeks to foster, class-consciousness and other forms of status-consciousness abound, but they remain poor substitutes for cooperation, mutual responsibility and collective action.

There has been enough of politicians and academics betraying their ideals and there has been enough talk on the subject. Young people need our revolutionary friendship, our support and our allegiance in finding a means of imagining a more optimistic future and combining to create it.

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