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Challenging the status quo

Louise Raw talks to MICHAEL ROSEN about his new anthology of radical writing, Corbyn and the importance of children questioning everything

READING and Rebellion, an anthology of radical writing for children compiled by Kimberley Reynolds, Jane Rosen and Michael Rosen  is, the latter says: “The first attempt to try to recapture both the publications, in many forms, and a sense of what it was like to read, sing or perform them.” 

And what many and various forms they are and what lives they reflect and touched. 

As might be expected, the Communist Party is a key player — Rosen (M) again: “One of my favourite (childhood) books was A White Sail Gleams by Russian writer Valentin Katayev. How did an English child living in a flat over a shop in the London suburbs come to be reading this Russian book? The answer at one level is simple, my parents were members of the British Communist Party.”

The CPGB had a dedicated programme of education for children, but as much as this benefited the young Rosen, he was also keenly aware that the world view he acquired set him apart from his peers.

“Contemporaries at school, parents of friends, relatives and of course the press, radio and TV looked on us as traitors, enemies.”

Children like him could, as Jane Rosen puts it, look for “consolation” to this alternative culture, designed especially for them. 

But was it, as the right would certainly claim, “brainwashing” and devised by Stalinists? 

Jane Rosen argues that it was mind-opening, producing children who were “trained to question everything,” while Michael Rosen points out we don’t reject wholesale the culture of ancient Greece and Rome, or indeed the 18th and 19th century United States, because they sprang from societies flourishing on the degradations and misery of enslavement.  

Reading and Rebellion divides the original works into sections, including Stories for Young Socialists, Fighting Fascism and the intriguingly titled Sex for Beginners, each with an introduction by the editors. 

Stories for Young Socialists gives us a little pig getting the better of a “cruel, mean” farmer who “did no work but charged the animals rent,” but, in a distinctly non-cutesy way, the farmer is hung from a noose until he agrees to mend his ways. 

The Daily Worker, the forerunner to this paper, ran the cartoon adventures of Micky Mongrel, a dog given to painting political slogans (“The Daily Worker Fights the Bosses!”) on walls — sometimes a little too close to passing police officers. 

I ask Michael Rosen whether children today can find any modern equivalent. He thought they could.

“There are a lot of mainstream books, non-fiction and fiction, which deal with topics to do with people’s rights, diversity of all kinds, history from the bottom up rather than top down and so on. There are excellent books about the terrible effects of war and persecution and a good few looking at refugees’ lives. 

“There are great US books on, for example, the civil rights struggle, with particular reference to people like Ruby Bridges,” he says.

However, a certain amount of reading between the lines is required. “Books tend not to be explicit about socialist politics and ideas, but there are certainly books from smaller independent publishers about people taking action to improve their lot, either in the past or in a fictitious present.”

The Fighting Fascism chapter of the anthology introduced me to a short-lived and surprising publication, Out of Bounds: Public Schools’ Journal against Fascism, Militarism and Reaction.

Just as surprising is that it was masterminded by Giles and Esmond Romilly, nephews of Winston Churchill.  

The publication covered topics from, again, sex to peace and fascism. An ambitious project, it drew contributors from across the public school sector and, by its second edition, had to print 3,000 copies to satisfy demand. 

Reproduced in the anthology, Side-Light on the Blackshirts is a valuable first-hand and terrifying account in letter form of attendance at the 1934 Olympia Rally of Mosley’s uniformed thugs less than two years after the founding of the British Union of Fascists.

This was a key event in British fascism, as violence against anti-fascists isolated the BUF from some of its early supporters and this account, it transpires, was written by one of the victims, then a schoolboy.  

“TP” — who seems to have been one of the Romilly brothers — attended the meeting, but initially from simple curiosity, as he tells us: “I considered myself a non-party man with considerable interest in both fascism and communism, but no definite leaning towards either.” 

He described the scene at Olympia shortly before the meeting began, with Blackshirts on one side of the road and large crowds including anti-fascists on the other. “I noticed at once the attitude of suspicious and pugnacious hostility with which (the Blackshirts) stared at their possible opponents. 

“Many were wearing gloves which, on such a warm day, could only have one meaning, knuckle-dusters.”

Over the road a red flag was raised to chants of: “One, two, three four five — we want Mosley, dead or alive.”

Inside, an entire company of Blackshirts marched the length of the venue in military formation, as the crowd gave fascist salutes. 

Mosley finally entered with grandiose ceremony, “walking in front of three flag-bearers with Union Jacks.”

Shortly after he began speaking, even though most protesters had been kept out, an almost suicidally brave handful who had made it in began to shout: “Hitler and Mosley mean hunger and war.” 

All hell broke loose, and the anti-fascists were brutally beaten. No longer a neutral bystander, TP joined the fray. “I, by now an ardent anti-fascist, tried to help them by thrusting all the Blackshirts down that I could, but soon I was smashed in the face and pinioned.” 

He was pushed and kicked down a flight of steps, and beaten again at the bottom by around 10 Blackshirts before he managed to escape to the “ministering angels of communists” outside. 

As he concluded, “Do you wonder then, that I sign myself, Yours faithfully, ‘Anti-Fascist’.”

This groundbreaking journal would not last. Roundly condemned in the press and the public school administration, it ceased production after four issues when Esmond Romilly was exposed as the editor and expelled. The press had a field day with Churchill’s “Red Nephew.” 

However, its influence continued, with many contributors continuing their activism into adult life.

Esmond Romilly’s own onward progression is worth a sidebar. After being expelled from Wellington College he moved to London and worked in a communist bookshop, founding a centre for other refugees from public schools before joining the International Brigade. He survived that war, but his plane was shot down over Germany in 1941 — he was 23. He was survived by his wife and fellow aristocratic anti-fascist, Jessica Mitford.

Rosen’s own 2017 memoir So They Call You Pisher! covered the gaps and silences in his family history resulting from the horrors of fascism, and — all too common for Jewish families — the book ended with him beginning to investigate the disappearance of one uncle and his wife. 

The book he is now working on will pick up this thread, telling the story of his discovery of the couple’s fate, which ultimately and tragically brought them to Auschwitz. 

As a socialist, Rosen is generally supportive of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, which has drawn him a considerable amount of flak.

I ask him whether this is in any way reminiscent of the political attacks he and his family were subject to in his youth, from both right and left?   

“I think that anyone who supports a candidate or a party which is challenging the status quo must expect to receive a huge amount of flak for almost anything — that is, from what you look like to microscopic analyses of throwaway comments. What matters is how you handle this.” 

How did he feel Corbyn was dealing with the attacks? 

“Corbyn has tried ignoring a good deal of it, and he may well be right. We no longer live in an age when the presentation of a party of leader can be controlled entirely from the centre. It looks to me as if Corbyn is trying to get an audience and commitment away from the mass media.”

Might Corbyn’s own childhood have helped him to get the current climate in perspective? 

“I suspect that he watched his parents being ‘divergent’ and ‘non-mainstream’ and he would also have remembered what it was like growing up during the cold war. 

“We have to remember that the cold war was presented to us in the mainstream media in a very bizarre way, as if there was only one side waging the war — the Soviet side. We were told that ‘our’ side was just ‘defending.’ We ‘didn’t have’ spies, we ‘told the truth’ about politics and there was supposedly no skulduggery going on in relation to freedom of thought. 

“It’s hardly known, for example, that the front-running intellectual journal of the day, Encounter, was subsidised by the CIA. Soft war it may have been, but there’s no question that ‘our’ side saw it as one way to wage the cold war. 

“A good deal of this sort of thing must be known to Corbyn. He has also taken part in activities such as anti-apartheid activism at a time we were told regularly that the ANC were terrorists, the boycott was wrong and the only way to bring about change in South Africa was by leaving it to politicians like Margaret Thatcher.”

Finally, I asked him if he had any advice for pro-Corbyn lefties on staying strong and optimistic in the face of constant smears and attacks. His answer was typically positive, stressing the real benefits of culture and the arts for all.

“One way to stay strong and optimistic is to make sure we enjoy ourselves, have a good time, that we enjoy all the arts — music, theatre, film, TV drama, dance and, of course, reading. 

“Ideally, see if we can participate in some way, painting, writing, acting or doing stuff with our family groups, making scrap books, designing things. 

“Another route is to investigate something to do with our locality or even our family history or our history of migration and get a strong hold on how we came to be here, where we came from, what sacrifices our forbears made, who survived and who didn’t and why,” Rosen says.   

“I believe more and more that at all times, but particularly in times of great struggle, we need to find different ways of expressing ourselves, investigating what we can do and what we can learn. 

“In this kind of society, the powers that be desperately need us to be shoppers and consumers above all else and at all times.

“Whenever we do these artistic and intellectual activities for ourselves and in groups and with others, we free ourselves from the grip the system has on us, no matter how briefly. 

“None of this is a substitute for taking part in campaigns and struggles to improve our standard and condition of life, but they give us strength and purpose in why we are alive and why it’s worth going on.” 

Reading and Rebellion is published by Oxford University Press on September 27. Dr Louise Raw is a historian, broadcaster, author of Striking a Light (Bloomsbury) on the 1888 matchwomen’s strike.

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