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Red reminiscences

CHRIS BIRCH looks back to the election of 1950 when 100 communist candidates stood

MY last article (M Star March 20-21) described the World Youth Festival that I went to in Budapest in 1949.

In October I left my comfortable but expensive boarding house in Bristol, rented a room from a party member, and fended for myself. 

I couldn’t cook, so I had most of my meals at the students’ union. My breakfast consisted of a single Mars bar. 

That winter I developed bronchitis, and my mother came to look after me, cooking shepherd’s pie, which has remained  one of my favourite dishes. Betty visited me and sometimes stayed the night.

My father was retired on grounds of ill health in May 1949, and he and my mother returned to England. Less than eight months later, he died. Cirrhosis of the liver. Rum was cheap in the West Indies. 

The university authorities allowed me to repeat my third year, and immediately after the funeral I took a few days off from my studies, which had been somewhat neglected while my father lay dying, to go to Swindon to campaign on behalf of the Communist Party candidate in the 1950 general election when the party put up 100 candidates.

It was an interesting political experience for me. One voter shook our candidate’s hand, told him he agreed with his policies, gave some money to the CP election fund, and then said he would be voting for the Labour candidate. 

The Labour candidate won with with 21,976 votes. Ike Gradwell, Communist Party, got 295.

I was in Swindon for the first five days of February, and then returned to Bristol. 

There were still 17 days before the poll, and we had a communist candidate in Bristol too. 

Jack Webb, president of the Bristol Co-op, was standing in Bristol South-East. The result was similar to the Swindon one.

Sir Stafford Cripps, the chancellor of the Exchequer, won the seat for Labour with 29,393 votes, and our Jack got 524. 

There was a large group of communists outside the school, including Betty and me, where the count took place and, when the result was announced, we all sang The Red Flag, and someone in the crowd shouted: “Come on, Staffie, sing up!” 

Eight months later, Staffie resigned due to overwork. Two years later he died.

That summer Sir Stafford Cripps, General Lord Alanbrooke and the US ambassador were given honorary degrees by Bristol University at a ceremony conducted by its chancellor, Winston Churchill. 

Two Bristol comrades, Arnold Rattenbury and Jack Beeching, wrote a poem for the occasion, beginning:

When Cabot sailed from Bristol quay
To seek the Golden West,
He little knew the blessings he
Was laying up for you and me.
How greatly are we blest
To hail this memorable day
Three servants of the USA.

Renowned for many a warlike feat,
With greetings on his lips
This warrior of Sidney Street
Holds out a genial hand to greet
The lettuce-eating Cripps.
What common bond unites them, pray?
Devotion to the USA.

After three more verses, it ends:

A fitting pair we honour here —
Austerity and War
But if we’re not disposed to cheer
At life held cheap and bread made dear,
What are we waiting for?
The harbour isn’t far away —
Let’s ship them to the USA.


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