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Deborah Lavin: socialist historian and actor who will be much missed

DEBORAH LAVIN, who died last month aged 68, was a socialist historian, author, actor, activist, mother, mentor, friend and occasional firebrand.

Her funeral service, which in normal times would have seen Islington Crematorium packed to the rafters, was streamed online, with only close family and friends attending, due to Covid-19 virus restrictions.  

It was watched by comrades worldwide; many had campaigned alongside Lavin, or been influenced and inspired by her work.

Born Eileen Maurice Lavin in Lambeth on December 2 1951, she was the middle child of three children to Michael, an artist, and his wife Mary, a dancer. 

The family, including “Deborah” as she’d been dubbed, and her brothers Michael and David, moved to Toronto, where she went to school. 

At the age of 16, she was back in London, living at the Soho Theatre Girls’ Club, having travelled alone from Canada. 

Notably, it was 1968, the febrile year of uprising and protest. Acting was one of many jobs to come, with Lavin later working as an English tutor, theatrical agent, playwright, historian and performance poet.

One of her friends recently recalled her getting a job as receptionist at Bishopsgate Institute, which she took because there was a large amount of archive material about 19th-century London, left-wing politics and Edward Aveling for her to research in her lunch hour.

Her long-researched book on Aveling, the “toxic” partner of Eleanor Marx, will be published posthumously. 

The work was but one example of the voracious appetite for storytelling which Lavin’s life revealed. 

She was a renowned expert on Liberal MP Charles Bradlaugh, founder of the National Secular Society, vilified for his atheism.

In her twenties, fascinated by Latin America, she learned Spanish, embraced Catholicism, and enrolled at Portsmouth Polytechnic to study Latin American history. 

She met and married Argentinean Gustavo Berns, and their first child Elizabeth was born in 1976, when they lived on Ibiza. 

Back in London once more, they had a son, Richard, in 1980, and then Magdalen in 1983. Their youngest child was to become internationally known for her feminism and caustic opposition to attacks on women’s rights. She died, of brain cancer, only six months before her mother, in September 2019.

Already a devout reader and follower of Marx, in the mid-90s Lavin was inspired by hearing Indian communist Harpar Brar speak at a rally for Arthur Scargill’s new Socialist Labour Party (SLP). 

After a period devoted to building the SLP’s branch in Camden, Lavin, along with Brar and his daughter Joti, went on to form the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) in 2004.

Joti Brar, who spoke with great warmth and wit at the funeral, summed up Lavin’s attitude to life’s challenges, whether it was on behalf of working-class families desperate for safe and secure homes, or prostituted women, or victims of the black market trade in human organs. This was “her care for all the forgotten people.”

My own friendship with Deborah Lavin was too brief, though none the less significant to me.

Having given several lectures at Conway Hall Ethical Society, including one on Bradlaugh, and another on Annie Besant, she’d curated a series on slavery.

In September 2018, Lavin devised a new series, Prostitution, Pimping and Trafficking, much of which I covered for the Morning Star. 

The six lectures were superbly selected, and chaired with aplomb. When a youngish man, in the first, boasted that his girlfriend was a well-paid “sex worker,” Lavin managed to be both cutting and charming in declining any further posturing from him.

When Magdalen was in a hospice, trying to offer comfort to Deborah felt impossible, and I asked if she’d like a priest to pray for her.

I did “confess” that my friend Reverend Father Paul Butler (aka Comrade Father) was a Church of England rector. 

Hearing that this was at St Paul’s in Deptford, she was pleased: “High church! That will do very well.” 

When she spotted that he was also convener of the Society of Sacramental Socialists, she was delighted.

At a later get-together, when her daughter had died, Deborah came to Deptford and spent much of the day chatting with Comrade Father, lighting candles and saying prayers in the baroque splendour of St Paul’s, and recalling the time her own young family had spent living in the area. 

There were tears, of course, and there was a wide-ranging, erudite conversation on politics, theology, history and revolution.

Friends have spoken, since her death on March 23, of her encyclopaedic knowledge, her thirst for research, her often outspoken and sometimes controversial views. 

She was never, it seems, a contrarian. If she took a road less travelled, it was because she was guided by a thoughtful, sincere passion. 

She was always keen to get on with it, to do more, and to learn more. As she always urged: “Onwards and upwards!”

Deborah Lavin, 1951-2020, survived by her brothers Michael and David, daughter Elizabeth, son Richard, and three grandchildren.

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