Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Desmond O’Grady on Paros

In the summer of 1977 I found myself with my then girlfriend on the island of Paros, in the Cyclades.  She had been there the year before with other friends and was happy to go back with me.  We stayed ten weeks, resident for so long partly because we enjoyed the ambience, mainly because we were too broke to be able to travel to other islands apart from a short hope over to Antiparos on a day trip.  This was studenty dossing around before the term ‘gap year’ made the concept respectable.  During that time I read a lot of paperback fiction thanks to the visitors’ informal book exchange system (Agatha Christie featured prominently).  The weather was nice, food was fairly cheap and the swimming was lovely, so I was happy (apart from the day we got food poisoning).

Shortly after we arrived we met a local character called Desmond O’Grady.  We were sitting in a restaurant in Naoussa, Paros’s main town, with other members of the island’s transient population when he strolled up, introduced himself, sat down and started chatting to us.  Irishman Mr O’Grady we soon learned was a poet, but although I had recently taken a course on modern poetry at university his name was unfamiliar to me.  We spent a pleasant hour in his company, chatting inconsequentially but doubtless more about us than him, after which he went his way and my companion and I walked back to our tent on the beach just outside town, where we could fall asleep to the sound of the waves on the nearby rocks.

O’Grady was very sociable, and his MO was clearly to drop in to a restaurant, engage whoever happened to be there in conversation, and have a drink with them.  Not long before we left Paros he did precisely the same thing he had done with us.  As he made his way towards another group in a restaurant I saw him look our way and frown in puzzlement, presumably surprised to see the same people still there weeks later, when he would have been used to a complete turnover every week or so, Paros being the sort of place people tended to pass through rather than stay for an extended period.

That was the last time I saw him, and the memory of our brief encounter would have faded and eventually I would have forgotten his name, except that shortly after I returned to university in Canterbury I came across a book, Irish Poets 1924-1974, published by Pan in 1975.  O’Grady is represented by three poems, including probably his best-known, ‘Professor Kelleher and the Charles River’, which can also be found in Contemporary Irish Poetry (1980/1988).  He is among good company in the Pan anthology, including Thomas Kinsella (whose translation of The Táin I enjoyed at about the same time), Derek Mahon, Paul Muldoon and of course Seamus Heaney.

Picking up and flipping through the book recently reminded me of the episode and I wondered what had become of O’Grady.  I learned he had been born in Limerick in 1935 and during a peripatetic career lived on Paros from 1966, and though he seems to have left at the end of the 1970s, he had continued to visit in later years.  I found some pictures of him taken on Paros in 1979, one of him sitting in his study, a very attractive workspace, and a couple with the Edinburgh Arts group having a meal and poetry reading at his home, of course looking very much as I remember him.

Eventually he moved back to Ireland and he died in 2014.  His obituary in the Guardian called him ‘a great citizen of world poetry’ and the Irish Independent as ‘arguably, with the exception of Yeats, the most international of twentieth century Irish poets’.  I had no idea he had been held in such high regard – the Irish Times noted the Irish president Michael D. Higgins leading tributes – and I was certainly unaware he had a PhD from Harvard and had acted in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.  Higgins was clearly a huge fan, unveiling a plaque to O’Grady in Limerick in 2015.

I was also surprised to learn from Irish Poets and Modern Greece: Heaney, Mahon, Cavafy, Seferis (2017), by Joanna Kruczkowska, that Paros was a magnet for Irish writers.  I remember a strong artistic community in Naoussa geared to tourism, and O’Grady must have been a reason for literary people to visit during his time there, but Kruczkowska writes that other poets came in the 2000s independently of O’Grady, including Heaney.  Why Paros rather than other islands isn’t clear, but O’Grady liked it, found it creatively stimulating, and it was a charming island (I read later it went downmarket and syringes could be found on the beaches, which is a terrible shame).  I even wrote a few poems myself as a result of my stay there.

I wish I had realised at the time what a significant poet O’Grady was and how well connected to other writers he had been, notably Samuel Beckett and Ezra Pound.  I would have at least asked for his autograph, and perhaps tried a few probing questions.  As it was we sat and chatted casually with him, just as we did with people most nights while we enjoyed leisurely meals (was there any other kind on Paros?), an amiable bloke we met in a restaurant who was easy to talk to, our paths crossing briefly by chance before we set sail in different directions.


Bradley, Anthony (ed.). Contemporary Irish Poetry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980, revised 1988).

Kruczkowska, Joanna. Irish Poets and Modern Greece: Heaney, Mahon, Cavafy, Seferis (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

Marcus, David (ed.). Irish Poets 1924-1974 (London: Pan, 1975).

Thursday, 23 November 2017

'The Haunting of Borley Rectory'

A few days ago I noticed an Indiegogo fundraising campaign for a film about Borley Rectory.  I was surprised because we have just had one by Ashley Thorpe called Borley Rectory, released by his Carrion Films (yes, very good) in June this year.  I haven’t seen it yet but I know it is receiving very positive publicity, and considerable acclamation at festivals. Thorpe also sought finance via Indiegogo and managed to raise 330% of his original requirement.

The Haunting of Borley Rectory on the other hand is being produced by Steven M Smith, an Essex lad who seems best known for cheaply-made films, mostly horror.  According to his Internet Movie Database (IMDB) page, “He grew up in Wickford, Essex attending Beauchamps Comprehensive school where is (sic) wrote, produced and directed his first film a media project entitled "Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide". It was a cheap-looking horror flick and never (sic) been released. His first film debut (sic) was "Time Of Her Life" and was shown at the Cannes film festival in 2005. He is currently working on several new projects and his wife is expecting their first child. He still lives in Wickford, Essex today.”  This is not inspiring confidence.

Smith’s Indiegogo fundraising goal is a very modest $5,000, which at the time of writing had reached less than a tenth of the required total.  Amusingly, the headings for the explanation of the film’s aims are done in a style reminiscent of the wall writings at Borley.  Presumably he is unaware Thorpe has beaten him to the punch because the page claims:

“This infamous and chilling location in Essex, has fascinated me since childhood. I want to be the first to bring this story of mystery, intrigue and seduction to life on screen in my own unique storyline that will cross timelines … Located in a remote part of Victorian England and isolated from any nearby community [actually Borley is about a mile from Long Melford and less than four miles from Sudbury], Borley Rectory was a Gothic-style mansion with a long history of death, murder and the supernatural.  Though famed as the most haunted house in England, this is a tale that – incredibly – has never before been told on film in its true account.”

Too late to be first I’m afraid, though perhaps Smith considers Thorpe’s effort to be untruthful compared to his own attempts to achieve stringent accuracy as he sees it, even if that involves crossing timelines.  Perhaps he was writing before Thorpe’s effort appeared and just hasn’t got round to updating his pitch.  Despite the impression given on the Indiegogo page, this is not a new project.  Smith posted a call for unpaid actors on Stage 32 (a website for those working in film, television and theatre) job board in 2012, though at that point the title was a simple Borley.

Smith runs Greenway Entertainment, registered in Wickford, but the Borley film, while listed on the Greenway website among dire-sounding horror titles, is being made by Divinity Pictures,

“created to produce unique and powerful stories that have never been told before. The story of Borley is well known by many, and we are committed to telling it as accurately and truthfully as possible, but with a approach (sic) that is budget restrictive” (a euphemism for ultra-cheap).

I don’t think Divinity Pictures has any footprint apart from this reference, and strongly suspect this is not going to be a film on the scale of Thorpe’s labour of love.  The Indiegogo page claims that 80% of the required funding has already been achieved (and further that distribution deals are already in place), despite the small sum so far pledged; the appeal is more to “to support the film and give opportunities for fans to get involved”, a kind gesture by the filmmakers.  Naturally there are a number of perks on offer depending on the size of the donation, none of which at the time of writing had been taken up.  The list of items requiring extra funding makes startling reading:

Extra Lighting.
Stills Photographer.
Gore Effects.
Creature Design.
Creature Make Up.
Location Catering.
Contingency Cashflow.

Gore?  Creature design and make-up?  Some of these items are so basic you wonder what the film will look like if the Indiegogo fundraising fails.  Contingency cashflow for example doesn’t sound like an optional extra.  There may not yet be much money for locations and costumes, but in true Roger Corman style there is a basic poster.

What makes Smith’s film particularly interesting is that, in true exploitation movie fashion, he has taken advantage of two hooks, each attractive to punters but which together he might expect to achieve synergy and thereby do even better box office: Borley and Ed and Lorraine Warren.  Here is what the Indiegogo page says:

“The Haunting Of Borley Rectory is one of the best known Ghost (random cap in original) stories of the United Kingdom. Ed and Lorraine Warren (The Conjuring) visited Borley on many occasions fascinated by the story. Our film will be a fresh and original take on the ghost story.”

The Warrens?  Ye gods.   The page includes part of an interview with the Warrens about Borley, which they claimed to have visited over two dozen times.  It’s a curious interview, with Lorraine doing most of the talking but not really saying much of substance.  She refers to the church but not the rectory, so it is unclear how the Warrens will fit into a film which according to the title involves the rectory (by crossing timelines perhaps).

Despite the lack of enthusiasm by potential backers it’s full steam ahead on pre-production.  The Indiegogo page claims “We are currently in talks with an array of exciting, A-list talent to bring this story to life.”  So far the page lists Smith as writer/producer/director (the film’s Facebook page currently shows Anthony Hickox as director, but then it has a release date of 2016, so presumably is out of date); Jon-Paul Gates as actor/producer; Elizabeth Saint (in real life a paranormal investigator among other things) as actor; and Hans Hernke as actor/executive producer.  The film’s IMDB page has a busy Mark Behar as co-writer/contributing producer/actor/production manager/second unit director (they have a second unit?) and ‘deadly weapons props handler’; Smith himself as actor, and Matthew Fitzthomas Rogers as Lionel Foyster (looking at his photo it is hard to tell them apart). The IMDB page has a different poster: a bloody hand sticking out of the ground in front of a burning Borley Rectory, and a note that filming begins in September, presumably 2017 as the page was last updated in May this year.

I can’t see any exciting A-list talent among that lot but I expect those so far involved will be supplemented by the A-listers when they have been signed up.  Intriguingly, a brochure published for the 2014 Cannes film festival by UK Film lists Smith’s Borley project with Julian Sands and Dan McSherry in the cast.  Presumably Sands, who if not an A-lister is at least someone you’ve heard of, jumped ship when Thorpe’s Borley film came along as he is not now associated with Smith’s version, having acted in Thorpe’s.  McSherry (a University of Cambridge graduate I see) seems to have left as well, and the film is not listed in his IMDB filmography, though he is credited as associate producer on Smith’s Haunted 2: Apparitions, scheduled for release next year.

As far as The Haunting of Borley Rectory is concerned, according to the Indiegogo page there will be filming next year, with a release date of November 2018.  I’ll be keeping an eye on developments, and hoping it is better than it sounds.  I’ll certainly be giving the opportunity to invest a miss.  The reference to the Warrens does not bode well, but they may disappear from the film, partly because Smith might otherwise find himself involved in litigation with Lorraine, and partly because it would be hard to place them at the rectory when they visited Borley decades after its destruction, crossed timelines notwithstanding.  Whatever form it takes, it is doubtful Ashley Thorpe will be losing sleep over the competition, and to be fair I suspect Smith couldn’t care less.

Monday, 20 November 2017

The Tenth Annual Cambridge Festival of Ukrainian Film, November 2017

Dr Rory Finin, director of Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, a centre in the Department of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge, organised an interestingly diverse programme for the tenth Cambridge Festival of Ukrainian Film on 17-18 November.  The venue was once again the Winstanley lecture theatre at Trinity College where the audience was treated to films old and new.

As Dr Finin said, Friday’s two films were intended, in their different ways, to reflect on the hundredth anniversary of the ‘Russian Revolution’, which he pointed out was not solely Russian nor a single event.  The upheaval in Ukraine added a desire for independence to a mix containing a range of views across the spectrum about what type of political form should emerge from the chaos, creating a complex, shifting situation.

The evening kicked off with the first of two films in the festival directed by Svitlana Shymko:  The Fall of Lenin (2017), a short film dealing with the destruction of Lenin monuments across most of Ukraine – the occupied territories being of course a notable exception.   Shymko made The Medic Leaves Last (2014), shown in the festival two years ago.  The Fall of Lenin was made with financial support from Docudays UA, a distributor specialising in Ukrainian documentaries, the Guardian newspaper and the British Council.

Surprisingly, it opens with a group of serious-looking middle-aged individuals in a library with pictures of Lenin and Marx behind them holding a séance to contact the spirit of Lenin.  They actually do allegedly get through to Vladimir Ilyich (the spectre of communism?), who must have been surprised to find that there is an afterlife, something a reading of Engels’ ‘Natural Science and the Spirit World’ would have suggested to him was most unlikely.  Possessing more of a sense of humour than one suspects he displayed when alive, he claims to have been an angel in life, though not a good one.  When asked, his prognosis for the future of Ukraine is not positive.  The Ouija session gives way to documentary footage of the erection of various Lenin statues in front of restrained crowds, and a montage of destruction of such statues, of varying degrees of aesthetic merit and often already badly defaced, in front of, and sometimes by, jubilant ones.

Particularly striking is a deposed Lenin hanging humiliatingly upside down, perhaps evoking in some thoughts of Mussolini and Clara Petacci hanging from a girder in Milan.  Another with ropes around its neck invites comparisons with Lenin’s comment about Arthur Henderson in Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder.  There is also footage of the destruction of religious symbols by the Bolsheviks, making a link between their iconoclasm and the Ukrainians ridding their country in turn of ‘religious’ symbols in the form of the statues.  Scenes in a foundry show bronze being melted down, a shot lingering on Lenin’s face slowly dissolving.  The result is a bell, and when it is tested it rings beautifully.  The message could not be clearer.

In the final section a hand holds up old postcards of the monuments over the locations, and then takes away the cards to show what replaced them.  The variety of statuary, focusing on Ukrainian history or substituting a fountain, is a contrast to the Lenin monoculture of Soviet times.  What is missing from the film though is a sense of the range of opinions the mass removals must have generated: euphoria certainly for many, but surely regret for others.  The enthusiastic crowd is not representative of the people.  Is there now perhaps an element of ‘buyer’s remorse’ for some who feel the destruction was carried out too quickly, and an important aspect of the country's cultural heritage (not to mention its secular values) lost?  It’s a subject with profound implications for national identity, one that cannot be done justice to in 11 minutes – but then in its way, despite its brevity The Fall of Lenin’s richness does generate much to think about.

Arsenal (1929), directed by Alexander Dovzhenko is a different, sprawling, beast entirely, and Rory spent much of his introduction, as well as most of the festival programme, providing the background to this remarkable film.  I had last seen it at the 2003 Cambridge Film Festival, at the Arts Picturehouse, where there had been a Dovzhenko strand, and my verdict then had been that ‘Arsenal is the product of a filmmaker not in charge of his material’.  I had in mind the difficulty in discerning the narrative and with a visual style that was ‘bolted on, influenced by Eisenstein and Vertov [Arsenal was released the same year as Man with a Movie Camera], rather than an organic expression of the story’, and considered it was ‘trying to cram in too much’.

It was a naive view for which I apologise belatedly to Dovzhenko.  A second viewing shows he was fully in charge of his material.  The film is a suitably monumental treatment of a vast subject, and the programme correctly recommends treating it as a poem in three parts: elegy, ode and epic, noting in support of this approach that Dovzhenko was the ‘progenitor’ of Ukrainian poetic cinema.  At this remove, temporal and geographic, the episodic structure is hard to read for those more used to flowing narrative continuity, hence the need now for signposts, but the artistry is assured.

That is not to say Arsenal is sui generis.  There is a use of types, characters who represent social groupings, which we are familiar with from Eisenstein.  They often verge on, or crash into, caricature, for example the fat gap-toothed German soldier laughing hysterically under the influence of gas.  The only individual with a rounded character, and who stands in for Dovzhenko himself, is battered Tymish, late of the imperial Russian army, who is trying to make sense of the currents sweeping across his native Ukraine.  The crash of the train on which he is travelling – the engineer left behind and the passengers clueless how to operate it – symbolises the state.  Climbing from the wreckage, back in Kiev Tymish has to navigate the tensions between Bolshevism and Ukrainian nationalism.  The ambiguities in the film echo Dovzhenko’s own as a nationalist whose country is as much dominated by Russia as it was in Tsarist times.

How to break the tension between nationalism and socialism firmly controlled from Moscow?  This is where I think I had my biggest problem when I first saw the film.  At the end, Tymish, who has identified with the Bolsheviks, is confronted by nationalist soldiers.  Proclaiming himself a Ukrainian worker, thereby eliding the gap between the two identities, he urges his attackers to shoot, and tears open his shirt in an act of defiant martyrdom.  They fire, but he is impervious to bullets.  The 2017 programme argues of this scene: ‘By the end of Arsenal, Tymish rejects the zero-sum game placing his national identity and social/class identity at odds with one another’, which is spot on: in a sense, by his heroic act Tymish has transcended the difference and can hold both identities simultaneously.  That struck me as a cop-out when I first saw the film: to the Bolsheviks here is a comrade who cannot be killed by nationalists, but represents the inevitability of the revolution; to the nationalists he is a Ukrainian, who will prevail whatever may transpire.

In retrospect it feels like having your cake and eating it, but perhaps a position one could be more confident of in 1929 than in the following decade as the Stalinist grip tightened; even so, it feels as if Dovzhenko is sailing close to the wind.  After the screening I asked Rory about its reception in Moscow, thinking about the political situation and possible disfavour towards showing an alternative view of the standard narrative of the Revolution, as indicated in Eisenstein’s October a year earlier, and highlighting the failure of the Bolshevik Arsenal uprising.  However, Rory pointed out that, despite the failure of the Bolsheviks in overthrowing the nationalist Rada, Arsenal ultimately indicates the failure of Ukrainian nationalism (and the film’s reception in Ukraine itself was generally critical).  One wonders what Dovzhenko would have made of the politics of Euromaidan in his artistic practice.

Saurday’s films dealt with more contemporary, and more intimate, themes.  After another welcome viewing of The Fall of Lenin, we saw an earlier short by Svitlana Shymko, Here Together (2013).  This looks at a mother and daughter living in Portugal, where apparently there are a significant number of Ukrainians.  The mother works as a domestic, but she conducts a rather good church choir.  Her initial idea was to work in Portugal for a year, sending money home, before returning to Ukraine, but she missed her daughter Olesya, who only visited for holidays, and when Olesya decided to study in Portugal, she made the decision to settle there despite feeling the pull of home.  Her daughter is also talented musically, playing the piano to concert standard.  The pair highlight the pros and cons of living abroad: it can bring opportunities not available, or at least harder to find, in one’s home country, but it can also mean only finding work below the level of one’s qualifications and abilities.  The mass migration of workers entails loss of potential, both for the individuals and at a national level in the home country.

The final film of the festival was Dixieland (2015), directed by Roman Bondarchuk, and it was an absolute delight.  It focuses on a children’s jazz band in Kherson, about 280 miles south of Kiev.  The children begin playing at an early age and are very accomplished.  The film follows them as they practice, in a very dilapidated building, and perform in public.  These are children with talent and ambition, led by their mentor, Semen Nikolayevich Ryvkin, a gruff elderly man who is devoted to the project and his charges, and who in turn is clearly adored by them.  You sense that for some, music is a way out of a restricted life with limited prospects, and one lad goes off to boarding school where he can study music.   Even for those less fortunate, playing as a group builds confidence, and the children are shown to be outgoing and well adjusted.  Shots of kites in the sky at the beach symbolise their aspirations.  Young Polina is the star of the show, playing sax and trombone, not afraid to busk on tour and doing very well at it.

The result could have been saccharine, but it is not all about the music, and there is sadness along with the joy.  The children grow, they lose their director.  They play for him outside his hospital room and he waves down to them.  Polina visits him in his room, and it is shocking to see how thin he has become.  After Ryvkin’s death a young man steps in to carry on the work, and practice continues.  When he talks about studying in Kiev the young girls are clearly upset at the prospect of losing him.  He points out that everything changes, and this applies not least to the children themselves, who must inevitably leave the group and forge their own direction.  In Dixieland Bondarchuk has created a subtle film of great poignancy and humanity.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Arthur Brown and Jesus at the Chalk Farm Roundhouse

Thinking recently about my most influential teacher reminded me of the best music act I ever saw, which was while I was at the same school.  This was Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come (strictly speaking ‘Kingdom Come with Arthur Brown’) at the Chalk Farm Roundhouse, which thanks to a partial listing of Arthur Brown’s gigs I find happened on 11 February 1973.  The concert was a benefit for Nicaragua, though whether this was to provide relief for the devastation caused by the December 1972 earthquake, or to assist the Sandinistas’ fight against the Somoza dictatorship, I don’t know – probably the former, but possibly the latter, as there was a strong movement in this country at the time protesting against the reactionary government in Nicaragua.

It was one of a number of gigs I attended at the Roundhouse during the early- and mid-1970s.  These were on Sundays, from 2-10 pm, and each featured a number of acts.  So what made Arthur Brown’s set so memorable?  It was thanks to someone who was generally referred to as Jesus.  He attended all these events and wandered round in the intervals wearing a Kaftan and weirdly with what was essentially a mullet, handing out nuts to the audience.  He looked vaguely biblical, and was clearly a good egg, hence the nickname.  It was also amusing to say ‘thank you Jesus’ when he handed you a snack.  During performances he would often jump up on stage to dance, and as it was Jesus, and everybody knew who he was, this was tolerated and bands took little notice.  The general atmosphere at the Roundhouse was very laid back.

On this occasion Brown was giving a sterling performance when Jesus climbed up in his kaftan and began dancing at the edge of the stage.  Instead of ignoring him though, Brown began dancing with him.  They were very close together, then Brown pulled Jesus’s kaftan off him.  That could have been awkward, but mercifully Jesus was wearing underpants.  Brown got him down, face up, and was lying on top.  Then Brown shouted (and this is what made the day so memorable) ‘I’m going to fuck you, Jesus’, whereupon he simulated having sex.  This went on for probably only a few seconds though it seems longer in memory because I was gobsmacked, then Jesus got up, put his robe back on and the set continued.  I’m sure this was not pre-planned, but Jesus was relaxed about the whole thing.

Brown was on a roll because he refused to finish and the band just kept playing.  It is possible artificial stimulants were involved.  After a massive overrun the management turned the electricity off, whereupon Brown stood there defiantly shouting ‘give me power’, echoed by an enthusiastic audience oblivious to the impact Brown was having on the day’s schedule.  Eventually he gave up and the band exited the stage, leaving my sensitive teenage soul scarred by the sight of a man pretending to rut another, underpant-clad, man.  Astonishingly Arthur Brown, in his mid-70s, is still performing; one of rock’s great survivors.  Jesus’s fate is unknown.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Alec Richardson (1941-2003)

Recently I received an alert from the Red Mole website (subtitled ‘A modest contribution to the history of the Fourth International in Britain’, which frankly is far too modest) headed ‘Fancy a pint, comrade?  The post reproduces a crudely-printed ticket made for what it calls a ‘Karl Marx Booze Up’.  It continues: ‘October 1968 – A competitive pubcrawl to celebrate Karl’s 150th birthday – organised by South West London Vietnam Ad-Hoc Committee and believed to be the brain-child of one Al Richardson.’  The epic pub crawl began at Centre Point and took in a couple of dozen pubs before finishing in Hampstead.  The purpose was two-fold: to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Marx’s birth, and to raise funds for the South West London Vietnam Committee.

The idea, according to the ticket (no. 82), was to sink an alcoholic drink in every pub on the route, all of which existed in Marx’s time and were on the route Marx and his German émigré friends took on their own pub crawls.  The person to complete the course and finish a pint the fastest in the final pub would receive a ‘unique prize’.  The ticket proclaims: ‘Victory to the N.L.F.’, i.e. the National Liberation Front, or Vietcong.  To enter cost ‘half a dollar( 2/6)’;  five bob was often referred to as a dollar, reflecting times with a more favourable exchange rate.

An update to the post says the mystery prize was the brass door knocker from the house Lenin lived in in 1905, which Richardson rescued from a skip while the house was being demolished.  The winner was Peter O’Toole of the Irish Workers’ Group (so presumably not the Peter O’Toole).  I wonder where the door knocker is now.  Sadly I would have been too young to join them, but it must have been quite a sight.  I suspect there was a lot of singing as they made their increasingly wobbly way northwards.

Many people talk about that teacher who had a profound effect on their education going beyond school and helping to shape their lives.  I think I can identify two:  Someone called Ron Barrett, who taught me English at Battersea Grammar School, and the ‘one Al Richardson’, instigator of that long-ago excuse to get pissed, who was my history teacher at Forest Hill School, where he was known as Alec rather than Al.  His Wikipedia page describes him as a ‘British Trotskyist historian and activist’, which he was, but he was as well a professional Yorkshireman with an often blunt manner and an infectious enthusiasm.  He could also be very funny.

I had left Battersea Grammar (actually in Streatham) at 15, tried something that didn’t work out, lost a term’s schooling, and started at Forest Hill in January 1973 with two terms of the fifth form left.  I had been down to do a history O level at my previous school but the syllabus was different and I wasn’t able to carry on with the course.  So for two terms I sat in class with Alec’s prescribed reading, a straight diet of Isaac Deutscher.

Clearly Deutscher had a huge significance for Alec as it was reading the monumental three-volume biography of Trotsky – indeed a magnificent achievement – which caused Alec to leave the CPGB and join the Trotskyist Socialist Labour League, resign his lectureship at the University of Exeter and become a teacher at Forest Hill.  There he left the SLL and joined the International Marxist Group, but by the time I knew him he had resigned (not been expelled, as some reports have it) from the IMG because he objected to its increasing post-1968 obsession with student activism.  Ironically in the early 1980s it turned to Labour Party entryism, and Alec had always argued that the Labour Party was the key expression of working class politics and should be the focus of revolutionary activity.  He later joined and left the Revolutionary Communist League, then concentrated on research and writing.

He did not strike me as much of a party man, which may go some way to explaining why, doctrinal issues apart, he never stuck with any of the groups he joined.  There is though no doubting his commitment; in May 1968 he hitch-hiked to Paris to participate in the student protests, where he must have cut a distinctive figure.  He became a historian of the movement, interviewing Trotskyist veterans, and a prolific author and polemicist.  His major achievement was the three books he produced with Sam Bornstein: Two Steps Back: Communists and the Wider Labour Movement, 1939-1945 (1982), Against the Stream: A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain 1924-1938 (1986) and The War and the International: A History of the British Trotskyist Movement 1937-1949 (1986).  In 1988 he founded the magazine Revolutionary History.

I have very fond memories of him, such as joking in class that it was appropriate for A J P Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War, published by Penguin, to have an orange spine as it was essentially a work of fiction.  He had studied ancient Greek and told the story of visiting Greece and using it, to the bemusement of the locals.  He stressed the modern Greeks were nothing like the ancient ones, so I don’t think he was too impressed by those he came across.  He had had a first in theology from Hull, but kept that quiet, and was of course sniffy about religion; I first heard the phrase ‘four-wheeled Christians’ from him.  He loved ancient Egypt, and told us it was his favourite period in history.  He was a tad sexist, and did not seem impressed by women, I suspect because he considered them lacking in sufficient class consciousness.  Appreciations of him after his death drew attention to his objection to sectional interests on the left, including feminism, anything he thought would dilute the workers’ struggle.

Sixth formers taking history would be invited round to the house where he rented a room from another teacher, and while we were supposed to be preparing for A levels he would hold forth on a wide range of subjects.  He gave the impression that teaching was a stop gap before he turned his attention to something more interesting, even though he did it for decades.  He was in fact a dedicated and inspirational teacher.  His Guardian obituary refers to him ‘earning the respect of colleagues and the devotion of pupils’, which is spot on as far as the latter were concerned.

He died in his sleep at the tragically young age of 61, but he was overweight when I knew him and never looked as if he took care of himself.  The coffin was draped in the flag of the 4th International, and his memorial meeting as reported in the Weekly Worker appropriately concluded with the singing of the Internationale.  The last time I saw Alec was in 1976 or early 1977, at a political meeting in London, where I was with people from the University of Kent.  We bumped into each other in the foyer and exchanged a few remarks, then I left to join my friends.  I’m sure many others will have warm memories of him as teacher, historian and political activist.  His influence on me was profound, and I celebrate his memory as he celebrated the memory of Karl Marx that day in October 1968, though in my case not by drinking in two dozen pubs!

Next year marks the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth, and the 50th anniversary of the famous pub crawl.  It would be nice if someone were to recreate the outing to commemorate both, but particularly Alec’s significant contributions to the cause he served in his own idiosyncratic way.