Earliest political memory of the day #40


In 1942, my father, Percy, son of a printer from London’s East End, met my mother Mary, an artist and a Sussex landgirl, in an army canteen where Mary volunteered. They discovered shared passions for books and politics, and joined the Communist Party. When war ended, Percy completed a short teacher-training course for ex-service men, and I was born. We moved to a working class village in Kent where, thanks to a gift from my farmer grandfather, we bought a two-bedroom cottage with an attic for Mary’s studio. It was on a lane in a row of postwar subsidized housing – it seems likely we were the only house to which the Daily Worker was delivered. Branch meetings were held in our sitting room, and although my younger sister and I were always put to bed beforehand, we enjoyed the excitement of cigarette smoke wafting upstairs and the murmur of comrades talking into the night. We also enjoyed garden parties hosted by Hewlett Johnson, the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral (1931-63), the ‘Red Dean’, held on Deanery lawns with the charismatic Dean flying around in his robes, emanating energy and fun. Mary and Percy were atheists and it was clear we were not there for religious reasons. All this came to an abrupt end when I was 10, and Mary and Percy left the Party following the 1956 Russian invasion of Hungary. This had unwelcome implications for their social life and a year later, with a new baby brother, we moved to Sussex for my father to take up a special needs teaching post. I had overheard talk of the problem of Party membership for promotion in Kent. With intellectual parents who were Party members, we were in a small minority in our village where we attended the two-room school, although this did not appear to affect our circle of friends, or participation in village life.  However, I was often conscious of being different and I learnt how to build bridges to remedy this.  I passed the 11-plus (comprehensive schools were not yet introduced), the first such success from our school in many years. This was to be pivotal in my later entry to university, something my parents were very ambitious for, not having had the chance themselves. My parents’ early politics influenced two key choices with lifelong impact. First, my choice of an innovative social administration degree (now social policy) at Manchester University with a strong focus on fieldwork, learning how social policies affected the lives of people. Memorably, I was required to work for a month in a factory and write a sociological analysis of the experience. Secondly, my early exposure to politics helped shape my subsequent choice of a social work career.

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