John Lucas


It is breast-beating time in the playgrounds of the west. From his holiday resort in Uruguay - "a place of thousand-mile beaches" - Martin Amis has recently declared the Left of the 1960s to have been essentially revolution at play. He was there, he knows. Well, anyway, he was at Oxford University in 1968 when the crowds gathered at the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square. Not only that, he was friends with, among others, James Fenton and Christopher Hitchens, neither of whom took seriously the horror of Stalin's Russia. In an open letter to Amis, published like some of Amis's book in the Guardian, Hitchens rightly scorns this "pygmifucation" of a massively complex issue. "I find myself embarrassed almost every day at the thought of an actual gulag survivor reading this, or even reading about it, and finding his or her experience reduced to a sub-Leavisite boys' tiff, gleefully interpreted as literary fratricide by hacks who couldn't give a hoot about the real subject."

I will believe Hitchens speaks sincerely, although I have to say that such 'fratricide' brings with it the guarantee of continuing publicity and that Amis and friends are rapidly becoming a second Bloomsbury, gathering around them a spreading haze of comment, speculation and unearned adulation which blanks out, or at least makes indistinct, the work of others. Not long ago Jason Cowley announced, also in the Guardian, that Amis, Julian Barnes and Ian MacEwan were still the best novelists to have emerged in the UK in the latter years of the 20th century. This has to be taken seriously if only because Cowley is literary editor of the New Statesman. We have therefore to conclude that he either hasn't read or been able to distinguish the worth of such novelists as Jonathan Coe, James Kelman, AL Kennedy or... but there seems little point in prolonging the list, because no matter how long it was made I doubt that Cowley would be prepared to give up his assertion. Cowley is where he is because of where he was. He is one more link in the Great Chain of Greasing.

This is how coteries are made. Each needs at least one major writer: in the case of Bloomsbury it was Woolf; Mac Spaunday had Auden and, luckily, the wonderfully good MacNeice. Around them the lesser satellites orbit, gathering and reflecting light shed by the great stars, and soon a whole cosmogony can be mapped. Hitchens knows this and, as I say, I will believe him to be embarrassed by it. Which makes the following sentences all the more remarkable. (Or should that be regrettable? Or betraying? Or instructive?) He is recalling events of '68 other than the demonstration in Grosvenor Square. "Much of southern and Nato Europe was under military dictatorship at the time. I still see old friends from Spain and Portugal and Greece whose activities in those days meant the breaking-open of prison gates only a short while later." I can only hope that "meant" was written in a moment of carelessness, and that on reflection Hitchens would replace it by some far more modest claim, such as: "contributed to" or "helped to bring about". Meant? I have friends in Greece who would certainly claim to have played some part in getting rid of the infamous Junta. Not a large part, perhaps, but the overthrow of Papadopoulos and then Ionnides wasn't the work of a few, still less the work of a few of Hitchens’ friends. The friends I have in mind have indeed never heard of him. I know. I asked them.

Let it pass. We can’t however pass by Amis's claim that the left in Britain (or elsewhere for that matter) didn't sufficiently, or at all, confront the horror of Stalin's Russia. Hitchens answers that charge pretty well, although to be fair to Amis there were old party members who found it impossible either to accept Stalin's butchery or who sought to exonerate it. I recall the horror with which I heard Eric Hobsbawm calmly announce that had the Russian Revolution succeeded then fifteen million deaths would have been perfectly acceptable. (But then what would have been the measure of its success?) And I remember the dismay that came over me as I watched Christopher Hill deny the show trials and resultant assassination of thousands of intellectuals ever took place. (Although Hill was by then perhaps in the first throes of the illness which has since bound him fast.) But E.P.Thompson's New Reasoner came into existence precisely to provide an independent Marxism, and therefore to counter the lies put about by party apparatchiks. And the generation of radicals to which I belonged were for the most part in no doubt as to the horror of Stalin's rule. If Amis thinks otherwise it's because in the cloistered confines of Oxford he was completely ignorant of what was happening elsewhere. The noise he and his chums made was, he still seems to think, the only noise worth listening to. This still goes on. After all, Cowley, who to the best of my knowledge has written nothing and has no obvious qualifications for the post of literary editor - is indeed, a kind of Armani litterateur was eased into the Staggers by his Oxford connections. So, thirty years ago, was Amis.

Nor can we let pass Amis's claim that his generation took revolution to be a form of play, after which they got their hair cut and went to law school. This was the charge brought, not against students in the UK, but their contemporaries in America, for whom one aspect of revolution was anything but play. And it is here, far from the quads and dreaming spires of an enclave where, in Auden's words, "The creepered wall stands up to hide/The gathering multitude outside", that we ought to try to locate something that was in its way truly radical and that suggests each generation has to find its own form of radical activity and, moreover, that the centre of this activity is always shifting, although the chances of it ever being found at Oxford are, to coin a phrase, as rare as a Muslim Pope. On Amis's showing at least, Oxford is the home less of the echt than the ersatz. Why, in the previous decade, I knew Oxford students who wore drainpipe trousers and sang along to Cliff Richard.

Amis wants us to believe that early on at Oxford he had been right there with the party faithful. This party was, however, sober, responsible, of the governors rather than the hoi polloi.

In my first year at Oxford (autumn 1968), I attended a demonstration against the suppression of Czechoslovakia .... We heard speeches. The mood was sorrowful, decent. Compare this to the wildly peergroup-competitive but definitely unfakable emotions and self-lacerations of the crowds outside the embassy in Grosvenor Square, where they gathered in their tens of thousands. We/they. We were the intellectuals -sorrowful, decent. They were the mob emotional, self-lacerating. (Whipping themselves into a frenzy is the cliché Amis dodges, although as Hitchens tartly notes, the only lacerations were those afflicted by the forces of law and order.)

Amis's tone is deeply reminiscent of that adopted by Diana Trilling in her essay attempting to diagnose and dismiss the Beat poets, especially Alien Ginsberg who had been expelled from her husband's university of Columbia. In both cases, a down-the-nose, world-weary condescension is directed at those whose passionate intensity suggests to the sophisticated commentator on youthful excess not so much energies rightly channelled as a rough beast slouching into horrific (or comical) view. As it happens, I spent the year 1967-8 in the USA, and with my family was able to see a good deal of the shaping into strength of forces Amis would no doubt disdain to honour as anything more than well-meaning but essentially trivial. But those students weren't trivial, nor were those who gradually came to understand the rightness of the campaign to halt the war in Vietnam. And as the campaign often had severe not to say cataclysmic effects on their own lives breaking up families, devastating relationships, calling into agonizing question their allegiance to America they, much more than Amis and his pals, ought to feature in any attempt to write about the left in the 1960s.

Would they have called themselves the left? I don't know. Some, yes. Others, perhaps the majority, no, or only with major qualifications. They feared Soviet Russia for its state-sponsored atheism, which for them was what communism chiefly meant. They derided its backwardness - no mod. cons., no fast food, poor transport, lousy buildings, discouragement of Jazz and popular music. Fear of the bomb may have affected them - in all public buildings were nuclear shelters with doors bearing the distinctive yellow-and-black propellor-like signs, (I never did find out what the symbolism meant) - but I doubt it amounted to anything like the fear that clung to the waking thoughts of students in Europe. But the point is this, that when I first came into contact with students at the University of Maryland in the autumn of 1967, most were unwavering and, as far as foreign affairs were concerned, unthinking, or at least incurious, patriots. My country right or wrong, although 'wrong' wasn't conceivable. A year later it was. This docile, unquestioning mass had become intensely radicalised. That this led to the election of Richard Nixon was an irony of which some, probably most, were aware. Such are the ironies of history.

Yet Nixon, devious, lying, infinitely crook-brained Richard Nixon, nevertheless got America out of Vietnam. He had to. LBJ had not stood for re-election, Eugene McCarthy and then Bobby Kennedy had distanced themselves from the war and the latter would surely have won the election for the Democrats had he not been assassinated. When Hube the Cube Humphrey, LBJ's vice-president, became the official Democrat candidate, he was saddled with his master's war policy. And so he lost. The overwhelming desire of the American people was to put an end to a war that, until a minority began to stir itself; had been popularly supported. And watching public opinion slowly turn from gung-ho patriotism to shamed awareness of what America was doing in the name of "freedom" was a remarkable and heartening experience. Even television, that famously tame beast, had its part to play. I recall very clearly how Walter Cronkite, CBS's news anchorman and a kind of affable, trusted uncle to the nation, moved from scarcely-concealed contempt for those who marched on the Pentagon in October 1967 to open contempt for the various five-star generals brought before the camera some months later to assure the nation the war was going well. (The "light at the end of the tunnel" General Westmorland claimed to see turned out to be the torches lit by the Tet offensive.)

That it should have been Nixon and the grotesque Henry Kissinger who negotiated America's withdrawal from Vietnam is yet another irony, although irony is perhaps not the best word to describe a course of events that would include the betrayal of Cambodia, the licensing of Pol Pot's mass killers, and would eventually lead to Kissinger receiving the Nobel Peace prize, a moment at which, as Tom Lehrer said, satire died. But as William Morris understood, we work for a victory which, when it's achieved, is never the victory we intended. The students who were so powerful an agency in turning America against Vietnam certainly didn’t intend Nixon to end up in the White House. Some of them were instrumental in prising him out of there six years later. Others had - yes - got their hair cut and gone to law school. Still others had a hard time of it: they escaped the draft by escaping America itself. They went over the border to Canada, they left for foreign parts, they split irrevocably and often painfully from their families.

Here, we should note the significance of The Graduate. Mike Nichols’ film came to the nation's screens early in 1968, and at once took on a symbolic significance that would have been unapparent elsewhere. I saw it at a cinema in downtown Washington, when it seemed that half the audience was student, half their parents, or at least their parents' age. The student half -memory says they sat to the left but that may be fanciful - leapt to their feet and cheered when Dustin Hoffman dragged Katherine Ross from the altar as she was about to do her parents' bidding by marrying a blond blue-eyed precursor of Oliver North. The other half sat, stunned, disbelieving, appalled by this act of disobedience. (Mixed with blasphemy. Hoffman slid the holy cross through the church's door handles in order to prevent pursuit.) Outside the USA the film seemed a cheerful although undemanding comedy. I can imagine the word "bland" being applied to it. But in America itself the Graduate served to encapsulate a crucial moment. It coincided with and in a sense became the expression of the revolt of middle-American youth against the promised American dream of material comfort and no questions asked. In the weeks after the film opened in Washington most of my male students somehow contrived to become Dustin Hoffman look-alikes, even those who hitherto had most resembled all-muscle-no-brains heroes of the gridiron. I watched as one warm afternoon in early May a row of them stood outside the university's armoury and burnt their draft cards. Among them were several I recognised. The previous autumn they had been led by their parents to enrolment classes. Now, despite their parents, they were enrolling for a cause.  

In the first part of this extended essay I quoted Martin Amis on the mood of those Oxford students who in 1968 met to demonstrate against the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring. "Sorrowful, decent", their mood was very different from that of the crowds who, at the very same time, met to protest outside the American Embassy against the war in Vietnam, and who were "wildly peer -group-competitive" driven by a frenzy of "definitely unfakable emotions and self-lacerations." Amis was we are to note, shocked by the very thought of such shenanegans. No peer-group competitiveness for him ! As for the lacerations of the other lot, these, when not inflicted by the police, were presumably self inflicted in an orgy of almost religious madness. They presumably scourged and flayed themselves like medieval penitents because they lacked the sense not to. They weren't, you see, decent.

Amis's use of this word intrigues me. As readers of this journal will no doubt realise, "decent" is a term habitually on the lips of outraged middle-England and of its Tory representatives at Westminster, according to whom "ordinary, decent men and women" are always being outraged by - oh, by illegal immigrants, posturing gays, one-parent families, Republicans, Green activists, travellers, beggars, squatters, much as their predecessors were offended by beatniks, refuseniks, pseudo-intellectuals, arty-farties, weirdos, dropouts, dope fiends .... add your own words. What the sum always comes to is a collective indecency that poses a terrible threat to the sorrowfully decent lifestyle Martin Amis wants us to know he stood for. And this is why he has sorrowfully decided to turn away from his deeply-held radical beliefs and instead devote himself to the life of novelist, one whose much-advertised dental bill would on its own provide an annual income for half-a-dozen of the less fortunate of his brethren. They will also note his holiday home in Uruguay, that "place of a thousand-mile beaches", so he informs us. Uruguay happens to be a nation characterised by great poverty and social injustice, for which Amis no doubt allows himself a moment of sorrowfully decent thought. Still, what's a man to do if he wishes to avoid peer-group competitiveness? Head for the kind of beach which can be guaranteed free of the indecent, I suppose.

Amis is not the first to wince away from indecency. Nor is this reaction confined to readers of the Daily Telegraph. (Among whose readers Amis pere found a natural constituency.) Indeed it seems impossible to avoid feeling that certain self-appointed spokespeople for the left in England go in mortal dread of the indecent - for which read (usually) eccentric, or anti-bourgeois. They go in still greater dread of pleasure, enjoyment, (those unfakable emotions) above all, of joy, the ultimate in eccentric displays of indifference to the claims of sorrowful decency. And this, despite the fact that for one of the greatest of all radical voices, William Blake, joy was of the essence. Here, for example, is George Orwell, in an infamous passage from The Road To Wigan Pier, sounding for all the world as though he is a combination of Paul Johnson, Mary Whitehouse and the Moral Majority.

"One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'Socialism' and 'Communism' draw towards them with magnetic, force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure1 Quack, pacifist and feminist in England.”

Orwell then reports the horror he felt when two "dreadful-looking old men" climbed aboard the bus on which he was travelling. They were wearing "pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts", and the man next to Orwell murmurs "Socialists."

This gives Orwell the cue he needs. "Any Socialist, he probably felt, could be counted on to have something eccentric about him." And there is worse to come. He refers to a prospectus for a socialist summer school which asks participants to say whether their diet is ordinary or vegetarian. Orwell goes for the kill. They take it for granted you see, that it is necessary to ask this question. This kind of thing is by itself sufficient to alienate plenty of decent people."

And there it is. Decent (Anyone wanting to check this passage can find it on p 206 of the first edition of The Road To Wigan Pier . And if you don't have that, then look up chapter 11 of the second part.) The coercive power of the word can be felt running as an unopposable current - a braiding of social prejudice, class contempt, and joylessness - through much of John Carey's writing, especially in his jeering, philistine book, The Intellectuals and the Masses in which by various dishonest ways Carey tries to present intellectuals, especially on the left, as both ignorant of and indifferent to the lives of those very people (the masses) their ideology purports to advance. What cripples Carey's thesis is not his ability to reveal inconsistencies in the writings of various radical luminaries, but his insistence that "decent" people will have no truck with them. Carey, who probably taught Amis at Oxford became famous for an essay published in the New Review. The essay, called "Down with Dons", rightly skewered the selfish preening of some of his academic neighbours in North Oxford, among whose crimes was a readiness to let their children play records loudly late at night, all windows open, while others were trying to work. I readily agree that such anti-social behaviour, which is of course by no means confined to the Oxford upper-middle class, is nasty and boorish. But you cant help wondering why Carey didn’t simply march round to his neighbours and tell them to shut up and, if they refused to do so, why he didn’t call the police. Perhaps he thought that either course of action was somehow not decent.

But anyway it wasn't the unthinking selfishness of his fellow academics that most enraged Carey. What really got his goat was their pretence that they were behaving like "ordinary people" when they were nothing of the sort Confined to their North Oxford enclave, they knew nothing about such people. And nor, Carey more or less admits, did he. Well, fair enough. Except that Carey nevertheless insists that he stands for "decency", which is apparently what all "ordinary people" do, whether of left or right. It begins to look as though "decency" is an entirely coercive term, and one that says more about certain class assumptions than can possibly be imagined by those who invoke it or who pin it on themselves and others as a badge of approval.

To be fair to Carey, at the time he was beginning his academic career, Oxford seemed to be not merely the home of lost causes but of people lost to the world. "Remote and ineffectual" Belloc called the don who had dared to criticise G. K. Chesterton. I'm not sure about ineffectual, but remote is spot on. No doubt Carey and others of his generation felt they had little enough in common with the kind of absurd snobbishness that marked much academic life of the time. "Decency" could then be mobilised against the affectations of those who took for granted the lightness of their own exquisite "taste" in matters social, political and aesthetic. I can add some personal testimony here. In 1960, when I was a postgraduate student at Reading University, we were visited by an Oxford lecturer who "offered" a seminar paper on Walter Scott. The man gazed with some faint bewilderment around the table at which a dozen or so of us were grouped - as though unprepared for the discovery of human beings in such a place - and then opened up the typescript of a book from which he droned on for what seemed like a century before, reluctantly, agreeing to answer questions. I made some mild objection to his ranking Kenilworth alongside The Charterhouse Of Parma. Scott's novel was good, but it surely wasn't on a level with Stendhal's masterpiece. He raised a languid hand. "The test of a gentleman", he said, "is his ability to enjoy Scott."

At about the same time, A. O. J Cockshutt, Oxford don and author of a worthless book on Trollope, observed in print that Dickens' achievements were pretty remarkable given the "vulgarity" of his mind. And Lord David Cecil, Professor of English at the same institution, complained that that there was something uncomfortably strenuous about George Eliot, which he put down to her being an auto-didact Three years at Oxford would have cured her of her unfortunate earnestness, you see, would have taught her not to be so serious.

Matters seemed on the face of it very different at Cambridge And yet F.R. Leavis, the scourge of dilettantism, pronounced that, Hard Times apart, Dickens offered nothing "to the mature critical mind", as though Dickens was, yes, "vulgar." It's true that in the 60s Leavis began to change his mind about Dickens - a shift that did hilarious damage to his more reverent epigoni, who had to learn to convert their sneers of disapproval at the mention of the inimitable's name into wise nods - but this was often by way of bashing contemporary life and times. I was present at a lecture Leavis gave on Dombey and Son which he brought to a dose by announcing that "there will never be another Dickens, for this is the age of the telly and Tottenham Hotspur."

I’ve sometimes wondered whether Leavis was set up for that reference to Spurs. "Quick, give me the name of a worthless magazine." Probably not, but the routine swipe at contemporaneity was, it seems to me not a million mites away from a sorrowfully decent shake of the head. More important, it testifies to an almost complete misunderstanding of Dickens who loved popular entertainment and sports. At that time I had begun to read Dickens and to know without a shadow of doubt that Shakespeare apart, he was the greatest imaginative writer in the language. Moreover that greatness was inextricably connected to a radicalism that while it couldn't be pinned down to a doctrine nevertheless guaranteed or was prompted by a generosity of vision that is the very antithesis of the case for "decency." This is a matter I hope to pursue in the next issue of the Penniless Press.  

I suspect there is still a widespread feeling that, say what you will about the Tories, they are men and women of culture. They are after all "refined", they have been well educated, and you can hear them - oh how you can hear them - at galleries, theatres, opera houses the length and breadth of the land, offering opinions that, however languidly expressed, nevertheless come with the cachet of authority. True, when many for whom Thatcher is still the acme of all that is good hear the word culture they reach for their SUN. True, that should you try to recall the key members of her support group - Tebbit, Parkinson, Ingham, Ridley and their various gauleiters - you will see in your mind's eye faces distorted by a rictus of hatred at the mere thought of anything non-materialistic. True, also, that under her administration education at all levels and the arts in general received the worst drubbings that can ever have been inflicted on them since they were brought into the public domain. The humanities trashed, galleries and museums forced to charge entrance fees, libraries closed or put on short-time, their book stocks stripped of the classics to make room for more of Barbara Cartland and Jeffrey Archer. (I'm not making this up: I know from librarians themselves that from on high came orders that they should make their holdings more attractive - aka. "relevant" -to potential "clients" - aka readers: which being translated was found to mean less of Dickens and more of Forsyth or Jackie Collins or....) But, the pained cry may be imagined to go up, this bovver-boot Philistinism was an unfortunate but temporary deviation from the true path of conservatism.

From conservatism, maybe. From Conservatism, no. Supporters of the former do perhaps retain a sense of noblesse oblige in matters of culture. One-nation Tories, they feel, in the wonderfully caustic words of R.H.Tawney - of whom more later -- that "'culture' is something that one class - 'the educated' -possess, that another - 'the uneducated'  are without, and that the former, when sufficiently warmed by sympathy or alarm, can transfer to the latter in pills made for weak digestions." But this doesn't say much for "the educated" does it? A propos of which I think of the man I heard recounting to a BBC interviewer his mournful awareness that Glyndbourne had fallen on hard times now that an increasing number of the great unwashed were able to attend performances. "Call one a snob " he fluted, "but one does draw the line at drinking champagne from plastic cups." Yes, indeed.

Given that Tawney's words were written as long ago as 1913 they may seem hopelessly out of date. If only. But consider the national curriculum, forced on all children in the state sector but not required of those who receive the most privileged schooling. Consider Blair's plan to introduce top-up fees for universities and the guarantee that these will result in less well-off children going for the most part to the less well-endowed institutions of higher education. ("Stack 'em high and teach 'em cheap" as the cynical, all-too accurate saying goes.)

But isn't this to argue against myself? Blair's "education, education, education", was and remains the rallying-cry of his successive Labour administrations. And what has that to do with Toryism? The answer, of course, is, just about everything. You couldn’t put a nano-hair between his way of thinking and that of the one-nation Tories whom Tawney so despised. Like them, he and his variously supine, cynical or ignorant lackies are offering at best "pills made for weak digestions." I can offer personal testimony here. Once when I and some other socialist writers/academics were invited to the House of Commons to discuss with Jack Straw, the then shadow minister of education, what we might want from a future Labour administration, I quoted Tawney's words to him as evidence of what we didn't want. Not only did he not understand what I was referring to, he didn't know who I was referring to.

And to say this brings my immediate subject into focus. It is that the true source of a cherishable, shareable and, let's be clear, realisable cultural vision is socialist, and that it is a sign of how far we have fallen that Blair and his cronies should be unaware of a tradition they ought not merely to want to uphold but to do all they can to further, a tradition which is intrinsic to socialism. But then, of course, as I write these words I know why, in present circumstances, they are bound to have an ironic tinge. Who, after all, would be so rash as to accuse Blair of any sympathy with a socialist vision? Even suppose he knew Tawney"s writings, he would be at best indifferent to them. For when Tawney came to write his great essay "An Experiment in Democratic Education", which made clear the intellectual, political and social thinking out of which the WEA was born, he assumed that the Education he had in mind would not be "put on like varnish", but would spring "like a plant from the soil". In other words, it would be nourished in and by the circumstances of the lives of all, it would be truly held in common. Put it another way. Tawney did not want a top-down culture, handed out in pill form to the grateful masses by an educated elite. In the intervening years since his essay appeared there have been many debates about the meaning of "culture", often, I think, conducted in the • bad faith of those wanting, Autolycus-like, to sell shoddy goods as the real thing. To try to spell these out would itself require a vast book. Here, I will say only that the 1960s seems to me a period when the debate about culture took an especially regrettable turn for the worse and that it was during this decade that the socialist ideal was either lost to sight or denied by the very people who should have been directing their gaze towards it.

That there is a glittering exception to this, I acknowledge. The Open University, which opened at the end of the decade, and which Jenny Lee forced through parliament, was a major achievement - predictably opposed by the Tories at their habitual exercise of trying to wreck serious education for all. All honour to Jenny Lee herself and to Harold Wilson and others in the Labour cabinet who supported her. But it hardly needs saying that the roots of this flowering lie in the work of Tawney and the WEA movement and that they reach even deeper into the soil prepared by the nineteenth century: mechanics Institutes, Labour Colleges, Trade Union weekend schools, etc. The Open University was undoubtedly of the 1960s, but the thinking that brought it about, like the thinking that led to the widening of access to higher education in the decade, is decisively, and I think definitively, pre-1960s.

Jenny Lee was the wife and later widow of Nye Bevan, one of the truly great sodalist visionaries. It wasn't however he who in 1920 spoke the following words.

"You must go to the Prime Minister, you must go to the Minister of Education and tell him to dose our schools, tell him that the industry can only be run by artisan labour on the pure fodder or animal basis, teach us nothing, let us learn nothing, because to create aspirations in our minds, to create the love of the beautiful and then at the same time to deny us the wherewithal to obtain it is a false policy and a wrong method to adopt. Better keep us in dark ignorance, never to know anything, if you are going to refuse us the wherewithal to give expression to those aspirations which have thus been created."

This is Ernest Bevin, addressing the court at the end of his great speech arguing for the de-casualisation of dock work and for a living wage for all dockers. I came across his words when I was researching for a book about my maternal grandfather, a man whom I never knew, the son of a butcher who at the very beginning of the 20th century went to training college and eventually became headteacher at three different elementary London schools in the period 1914-1940, an idealist socialist and, so I discovered, a friend of "The Dockers KG", as Bevin became known after his spectacular triumph over the dock owners. The whole of Bevin's breathtaking court performance can be read in Alan Bullock's magnificent biography. Here, I want especially to note Ernie's appeal to "the love of the beautiful." The words will not have been lightly uttered, Bevin knew all about Morris's socialist belief that people should have nothing in their homes they did not believe to be of use or beautiful. He was also well aware of and identified with that ardent longing to possess or at any rate share in the kinds of cultural life that is registered, not very adequately, through the figure of Leonard Bast in HOWARDS END, and altogether more vividly in SONS AND LOVERS. (The differences between Forster and Lawrence He not only in their class origins but in Lawrence's early friendship with the socialist Willie Hopkin, one of the most influential friendships of his life.)

As to my grandfather. Himself a good pianist, he encouraged the children at his various schools to learn to play, which they were enabled to do because late on in the 19th century the socialists Annie Besant and Stuart Headlam, in their capacity as members of the London Education Board, forced through a proposal that every elementary school should be supplied with a piano and that music should be part of the school curriculum. No need to ask what has happened to music in state schools during the last 20 or so years, nor the indifference of czar Blunkett (favourite song "My Way"- he boasted of this on Desert Island Discs) to proposals that as first Secretary of State for Education in Blair's administration he might want to consider music as a matter of educational importance. No need, either, to wonder what he would have thought of my grandfather's regularly taking his pupils to matinee performances of, among other plays, Julius Caesar, As You Like It. Richard II and A Midsummer Night's Dream. I know from the Log Books he was required to maintain, and which are now housed in the London Metropolitan Archives, that the children my grandfather taught came from among the poorest and most deprived of backgrounds. That was precisely why they deserved to be taken to Shakespeare or, for that matter, to visit numerous museums and art galleries across London where he also took them. If something was valuable it was valuable to and for all. It most certainly wasn't to be regarded as the preserve of the toffs. No wonder he and Ernie Bevin were friends.

Think, by contrast, of that swelling orthodoxy of the 1960s, according to which all proclamations of "culture" were elitist nonsense and should be treated as irrelevant to most peoples' lives, pernicious even. This isn’t a point to pursue here - I'll want to home in on it in my next piece - but I do want to note that as befitted a man for whom Dickens was without question the greatest of all novelists, my grandfather wasn't interested in putting on airs, still less in turning his back on most expressions of popular entertainment. He enjoyed a day at the races, he was proud of the fact that the football team at one of his schools went unbeaten through an entire season, and he loved music hall. (He especially favoured the Granville but was also a regular Friday night attender at the Shepherd's Bush Empire.) And from cuttings he kept in a commonplace book I see that that he plainly adored the earthier comedians including Max Miller. I'd like to have heard him on the subject of "My Way’s” egotistic vapourings.

I'd also have liked to have heard him on the subject of the Millennium Dome. Instead, let me quote a remark of the American Philip Rieff, writing in 1966. 'The death of a culture" Rieff suggests, "begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling." What ideals was the Dome meant to communicate? Merely to ask the question implies the answer. I'm left aghast at the sheer vacuousness of it all. The Dome had been Heseltine's proposal. It became Tony Blair's cause. At the opening, to which many of the invitees - the great, the trendy, the wannabetheres - failed to gain entry because the trains couldn't deliver and the ticketing procedures collapsed, the Archbishop of Canterbury, by invoking the letter of the Lord, effectively killed off whatever good-will might have been at least temporarily released, the Queen made evident the fact that she didn't want to hold hands with Blair at the midnight hour when those who had managed to get in struggled feebly to sing Old Lang Syne, and Blair himself, never at a loss for a cliche announced that he wished he could bottle the spirit that was present. Enough said?

Well, no. I was and remain intrigued by the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, nobody either then or in the days leading up to the Dome's official opening thought to make comparison with the Festival of Britain. Seeking an explanation for this strange omission, I decided it could be accounted for in one of only two ways: either the forgivable ignorance of those who were too young to remember 1951, or the shame of those who could.  The  Festival was initially the brainchild of  Herbert Morrison who, in persuading the rest of Attlee's cabinet that "we ought to do something jolly......we need something to give Britain a lift", knew that his colleagues would understand that by "jolly" he didn’t mean "trivial." For like him they were rooted in that great Morrisian Tawney tradition I outlined earlier. In Peter Hennessey's words - they come from his outstanding Never Again: Britain 1945-1951 - the Festival

"shimmering on its South Bank site where a mountain of blitz-blown rubble had lain but a few years before [was] the conscious celebration of a settled, successful society vindicated in twentieth-century war, with its eye (in imitation of the Great Exhibition of 1851) on the technologies and markets of the century to come. There ... the story of Britain was to be represented in a series of pavilions, each devoted to a significant aspect of national life - the home, school, industry, transport, the countryside etc. Local exhibitions and festivities were also organized throughout the country, making it a national jamboree with virtually every community involved."

Ambitious, substantial and (therefore) aspirational and inspirational. Coal, steel, gas, electricity, transport, the health service, all now the nation's, all celebrated at the Festival. And integral to it all, though Hennessey doesn't mention them, art, architecture, music, poetry, theatre: commissions, competitions, shows. A fine painting by John Berger, "Scaffolding: Festival of Britain", done in 1950 and recently shown at the very important exhibition, TRANSITION: The London Art Scene in the Fifties (Barbican, 2002), gives some sense of what complex of feelings the Festival aroused, especially perhaps in anticipation. The artist's chosen vantage point means that the viewer has to look both up and down at the incomplete structures where men work, has at least vicariously to understand something of the sheer physicality of labour. But these structures, going up against a blank city background, also suggest that something truly substantial may be about to occupy the empty space on which they stand. Hope and apprehension are, I think, twinned in these so-far fragile but potentially exhilarating structures.

Among the Festival's finest architectural achievements were the Dome of Discovery which wonderfully blended historical, geographical and scientific accounts of exploration and discovery, and the playful, gracefully light and witty Skylon, a most beautiful piece of architectural and engineering design. Shaped like a tall, slender cigar, it stood seemingly impossibly on end and pointed to the sky. People in their thousands worked their way round the impeccably planned Dome (for 2/6 old money a splendid Guide to the entire Festival would tell you what to see, where to go, how to get the best out of the South Bank exhibition); and they would emerge to gaze in delighted wonder at Skylon. This was not merely a Festival of Britain. It was, as Morrison and his colleagues had intended, a Festival for Britain.

But in 1951, the year of the Festival, Attlee's government fell. Almost the first act of the incoming Conservatives was to demolish the Dome of Discovery and to pull down Skylon.


*My book about him, The Good That We Do, was published by Greenwich Exchange in 2001. ISBN 1 871551 54 4 £7.95.