On World Book Day I thought I would post something that looks back to the start of my attempt to be writer – 30 years ago – and other things happening in the late 1980s.
With bold ambition, I began writing A History of the Conservative Party on September 30 1985. As a member of the Labour Party, it seemed natural to plunge into literature with a critical history of the Conservatives, despite being aged only 20, and lacking any experience of writing for publication. I drew inspiration from Antonio Gramsci and Aneurin Bevan, two great Socialist politicians. Gramsci was imprisoned by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship in Italy. After his arrest, Gramsci wrote to Tatiana, sister of his wife, Julia Schucht: “I am obsessed by the idea that I ought to do something for ever. I want, following a fixed plan, to devote myself intensively and systematically to some subject that will absorb me and give a focus to my inner life”. This led to Gramsci writing the Prison Notebooks (between 1929 and 1935), which rank among the most profound political writings. Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, by which a ruling class asserts and reinforces its position, along with his advocacy of ways that the working class can counter this, have been a massive influence on Socialist thinking and action.
Bevan’s Why Not Trust the Tories? was published in 1944, when victory for Britain, and her allies, in the Second World War was in sight. He drew parallels between the contemporary situation and the position after the First World War, when a Conservative and Liberal coalition government proceeded to condemn the hopes of a nation to the scrapheap. Writing about Tory procrastination over development of the welfare state, Bevan suggested the approach was “Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today”. Several years later, I realised Bevan had borrowed this curious idea from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, And What Alice Found There. The White Queen offered Alice work as a maid, for “Twopence a week, and jam every other day”, going on to say “The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today”. A Labour government took power in 1945, with a landslide election victory, and delivered the welfare state. The defining achievement of Labour was the National Health Service, with Bevan, a Marxist agitator, being the architect. The Conservatives responded with vehement opposition, voted against establishment of the NHS in Parliament, and have continued to undermine its principles.
My book, which would be published in 1989, demonstrated that the Conservative Party has merely acted as the representative of the ruling class, following reactionary, and anti-democratic, policies while displaying an incoherent political outlook. Amidst lots of adverse comment, the narrative had a single hero, with Disraeli being a man of imagination, who brought drama, and comedy, to politics. An unusually enlightened Conservative, Disraeli (albeit reluctantly, and out of opportunism) gave the vote to urban working class men (but not women) in 1867. I showed how wishful thinking by the Conservatives had credited him with developing the idea of “One Nation”. One of the many villains of the book was Margaret Thatcher, who approached the NHS, and other Labour achievements, with the rationality of the Queen of Hearts.
The book opened with the formation of the Conservative Party in 1830, and ended with the 1987 General Election – which meant the final part of the book covered events that unfolded as I wrote. Thatcher’s government discarded monetarism during the Autumn of 1985, realising it had failed, but maintained the general plan. Although there had been some economic improvement, mass unemployment was only gradually reduced. At the beginning of 1986, two Cabinet Ministers, Michael Heseltine and Leon Brittan, resigned amidst a dispute over the ownership of the Westland helicopter company. Thatcher’s position appeared threatened by revelations about her role, but she survived the crisis. Work on the book about the Conservatives did not go as well as hoped, and I took a break, starting in February 1986.
I retained enthusiasm for writing and, within a few months, the 1986 World Cup finals prompted a decision to write a history of the competition. England made a poor start to the tournament, held in Mexico, before enjoying successive 3-0 victories against Poland – with a hat trick from Gary Lineker – and Paraguay). In the Quarter Finals, England lost 2-1 against Argentina, with Diego Maradona grabbing two goals within a few minutes, early in the second half. The first effort should have been disallowed for handball (the infamous “Hand of God”), but Maradona’s second goal was a brilliant solo effort. There was a late onslaught from England, in which Lineker scored, but it was too little, too late. Argentina went on to win the World Cup, beating West Germany 3-2 in the Final.
I began work on The World Cup on August 18, the day after returning from a visit to Portugal. I spent a week at Estoril, and took regular walks to the neighbouring town, Cascais. One lunchtime I enjoyed a variant on fish and chips, with the main part of the meal being fried swordfish. Having left the restaurant, I was chased down the road by a waiter. I thought that he thought that I had not paid the bill, but he was actually checking I was sure about the (slightly larger than usual) scale of the tip left in appreciation. In November I bought Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band Live / 1975-85, a five LP box set. One of the inner sleeves featured a photograph taken at a concert by Bruce, and the band, at Wembley in 1985, and I appeared in this picture, stood in the crowd – a wonderful link to a hero. The real highlight of this collection was the first release of Springsteen’s version of Because the Night, taken from a 1980 concert. Bruce’s rendition replaced Patti Smith’s performance of the song as my favourite record. During the latter part of 1986, I produced a mass of notes, and statistical material, for The World Cup. In the early months of the following year, I wrote the narrative section of the book, completing the process in May 1987.
As a Labour Party activist, I was involved in a General Election campaign for the first time in 1987, hoping we would prevent a repeat of the Conservative landslide of four years earlier. The outcome would subsequently be reported in the final passage of A History of the Conservative Party, which in turn is re-cycled as the remainder of the current paragraph. Thatcher called a General Election for June 11, and issued a Conservative manifesto entitled The Next Moves Forward. In the Foreword, Thatcher made the curious claim that her government was fulfilling the “One Nation” ideal. Thatcher led a poor campaign but, with the opposition weak, the Conservatives won 375 seats, Labour 229, the Alliance 22, and the others 24. The Conservatives retained power with a majority of 100 seats. Reconstruction of the government included the sacking of John Biffen, who had been Leader of the House of Commons. Biffen responded by saying that Thatcher’s government was Stalinist. As Thatcher entered her third term in office, the thinking of the Conservative Party was characteristically incoherent.
I went to Wembley, in August, for a match that marked the centenary of the Football League. A Football League selection beat a Rest of the World team 3-0, with two goals from Bryan Robson, and one from Norman Whiteside. I was thrilled to see Diego Maradona and Michel Platini play for the Rest of the World, combining magically in midfield. Pele was introduced to the teams prior to the match, as guest of honour. A few days later, I began a holiday at Funchal, on the beautiful Portuguese island of Madeira. For Sunday lunch – far away from England – I ate up-market fish and chips, sat outdoors at a restaurant, wearing shorts and a T-shirt. A lovely meal could have been improved with a thematic cherry cake.
Back in England’s green and pleasant land, I attended the fourth day of the match that marked the bicentenary of the Marylebone Cricket Club, with an MCC team playing the Rest of the World. I returned to Lord’s the next day, only for play to be rained off. I will admit to being a bit pedantic sometimes (or more than sometimes). I once noticed that the 1986 edition of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack incorrectly stated that Michael Mates, the first MP to score a century for the Lords and Commons team, represented Petersfield. In 1988 I corresponded with Graeme Wright, the editor of Wisden, and Mates, suggesting a note be put in the Errata section of a future Wisden, as Mates was MP for East Hampshire. Wisden and Mates each attributed the error to the other, but declined the idea of a correction. Mates gave his views in a scrawled handwritten letter. Wright stated electoral constituencies could be confusing, adding “a sound grounding in the works of Lewis Carroll would seem essential were one to take them seriously”.
My diary entry of Sunday October 18 1987 began with a promising event in my writing career, and moved on to the awful effects of the British hurricane:
Much has happened since my last entry – including the lights going out! On Thursday I was pleased to receive a letter from Collins Willow which suggests that they are interested in The World Cup, and wrote the reply that they asked for (giving biographical and bibliographical details). This seems to be a major breakthrough and I am excited about it. On Thursday night I went to bed only to be kept awake by a tremendous storm for literally hours.
On Friday I discovered the details of the storm. It had in fact been a hurricane. It has caused widespread damage throughout south east England. I saw some of the local damage, in our back garden, and in a short trip with dad in the car, followed by a walk back. We were without power from the early hours of Friday until Saturday breakfast time. I spent Friday evening alone by candlelight, having gone round the shops in the afternoon to get some candles. That afternoon I posted my letter to Collins Willow. I had always thought of hurricanes as something that occur in other countries, but not here. It appears that the last one to hit Britain with such force was way back in 1703. The damage done, and the loss of life, have been terrible. We lost power again shortly before I began this entry, and have yet to receive it back.
Collins Willow were part of William Collins, one of Britain’s largest publishers. Across a period of several months, leading into Spring of the following year, I had dialogue with Michael Doggart, an editor at Collins, who came close to offering to publish the book, before eventually deciding against this. The World Cup was rejected by a steady stream of publishers, although quite a few considered signing me up for their team.
After a break of two years, I returned to writing A History of the Conservative Party, in March 1988. I decided to leave Dresdner Bank, having worked there for more than four years, and have a spell in which temporary work would overlap with concerted effort to get a writing career underway. On my final day at the bank, May 13, I invited colleagues to join me for a drink-up at a pub. In an echo of my twenty first birthday celebration, I was visited by a stripagram lady. By leaving the bank, I exchanged a secure job for an uncertain future, but felt excited by the possibility of becoming a writer. When Benjamin Disraeli persuaded the Conservatives to take a gamble by passing the second Reform Act, in 1867, Lord Derby, Prime Minister and Party Leader, described the action as “a leap in the dark”. I was following the example of Disraeli, taking a personal leap.
In June I made my third visit to Yugoslavia, spending a week at Bol, a village on the island of Brac, in Croatia, accompanied by Phil, a friend I worked with at Dresdner. Brac was quiet, but picturesque, particularly the Zlatni Rat (Golden Cape) beach near Bol, this being a promontory that emerges from a pine wood. At the hotel, Phil and I sampled a local drink, mishmash, composed of red wine sat on top of orange juice, with the two components kept separate in the glass. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band toured Britain in the Summer, and I saw two concerts, the first at Villa Park, in Birmingham, and the second at Wembley Stadium. Both shows featured Because the Night. The Wembley concert lasted three hours and 35 minutes, as Bruce sang 33 songs – including 10 encores, in response to loud, and lengthy, calls from the crowd for more songs.
A couple of months after leaving Dresdner, I resumed the role of something in the City. At intervals over the next two years, I worked on an agency basis for a long list of banks. These were London and Continental Bankers (British), Rabobank (Dutch), Sanwa Bank (Japanese), Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (Italian), Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank (Japanese), Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (you guessed), SDS Bank (which was Danish), Norddeutsche Landesbank (based in West Germany), Tokai Bank (Japanese), and Arab Banking Corporation (based in Bahrain, but jointly owned by the states of Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, and Libya). I said it was a long list.
Dorothy Collings died of cancer on September 13 1988. Dorothy was a wonderful woman, who was to be sadly missed by her family, just as Ernest, her husband, had been. Following granny’s death, we learned that Ernest had been illegitimate, but concealed this. The revelation prompted resumption of work on my family history, put on hold a decade earlier. Helped by membership of the Society of Genealogists, I was able to discover a great deal of information over the next few years, taking my known ancestry back to the 1700s. Later progress, to earlier dates, will be outlined subsequently in this book (well it makes sense to me).
I visited France in October 1988, spending a long weekend in Paris with Phil. We visited historic sites, and I went to places of personal interest. At Montparnasse cemetery, I found the grave of Alexander Alekhine, a Russian who became a citizen of France. Alekhine was world chess champion from 1927 to 1935, and then 1937 until his death in 1946. I also followed in the footsteps of George Orwell, along the Rue du Pot de Fer, where he lived while writing his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (published in 1933). In December, the Clapham Junction train disaster caused the deaths of 35 people. I was very lucky not to be involved in the crash, as I regularly travelled to work on one of the trains that collided, but did not use it that particular day.
I attended an Amnesty International concert, at Wembley, in September 1988. The headline performance by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band followed impressive sets by Youssou N’Dour, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, and Sting. I became a member of Amnesty International, supporting the battle for human rights throughout the world. I also joined the Chile Solidarity Campaign, which participated in the struggle for the restoration of democracy in Chile. The country had ceased to be a democracy on September 11 1973, when Salvador Allende’s government, which was transforming Chile into a Socialist society, was overthrown by a military coup, and replaced by a Fascist dictatorship. The achievements of Chile’s Socialist government provided a great deal of inspiration for the British left, and Allende was one of my political heroes. At this time I voted in a Labour Party Leadership contest, supporting Tony Benn, as he was a committed Socialist intent on a clear programme of radical reform in Britain, but Neil Kinnock won. During the Spring of 1989, I attended the annual general meeting of Chile Solidarity, chaired by Judith Hart, a Labour MP dedicated to Socialist causes. I also stood as a Labour Party candidate in the Hampshire County Council Election.
In May 1989 a publishing company offered to publish The World Cup. This was followed by a cruel change of fortune, as a few days later the company mysteriously changed their mind. Refusing to be beaten, on the day I learned of the rejection, I set to work on producing an expanded version of the book. During June, I saw England beat Poland 3-0 in a World Cup match. Prior to this I had seen England draw 0-0 with Sweden, and beat Albania 5-0, in their 1990 World Cup qualifying campaign. In the space of a few days, either side of England’s match against Poland, I saw concerts by Elvis Costello and Lou Reed. Elvis Costello performed a solo acoustic set at the Royal Albert Hall, in which the highlight was an amazing Alison. Lou Reed’s show at the London Palladium (a venue that looks better on television than it really is) started with his playing most of the songs from the recently-released New York album, one of the peaks in a long career. This was followed by earlier material, including Rock and Roll plus Sweet Jane, from the Velvet Underground days, and Walk on the Wild Side. The back cover of the New York album had a note from Reed, advising “It’s meant to be listened to in one 58 minute (14 songs!) listening, as though it were a book or a movie”. Lou Reed, who died in 2013, was a great role model, with the gift of self-parody (too often under-rated).
There was a rapid return to the electoral front, in a Hart District Council By-Election. On polling day, the Labour candidate was midway through a holiday, at Playa de las Americas in Tenerife. Phil and I climbed the peak of Mount Teide, besides spending long nights in the bars and discos of our town. Here is a diary account, written on June 16, of helter skelter events:
As the polls were closing in Britain last night, Phil and I were off for what proved to be a remarkable night. The first stop was a pub called the Waikiki. After the Waikiki we went to a couple of other places. At one of these I got talking to a soldier. He told me about being shot twice by the IRA. I decided not to get into an argument about Ireland. The early hours of this morning saw our daily visit to the Crow’s Nest. At this venue I found myself dancing at one point with about eight girls. It seemed fun at first, but events took an unfortunate turn. These girls literally ripped my shirt off, and refused to return the torn remnants. It was the shirt I got in exchange for my spare Bruce Springsteen ticket, at Birmingham last year. I did not wear the shirt much, but I am annoyed at having lost it. The girls tried to take my jeans off. I managed to restrain them. I then left the disco. I waited outside to see if Phil would follow. When he did not I walked back to the apartment alone. The man at the reception reluctantly gave me our key, complaining that I should have been wearing a shirt.
Phil soon returned and we exchanged stories. He said that while I was being attacked he was snogging with a girl he had met. Her friend wanted to meet me when Phil said it was I who had been attacked, but I was by now gone. Phil also bumped into the soldier we had met earlier. Phil managed to knock the soldier’s pint of lager all over the pool table. Besides buying a replacement drink, Phil had to pay the barman the cost of damaging the pool table. The good news of the night is that Phil arranged to meet the two girls he was with. We are due to meet them at the same venue at midnight tonight. Walking home from the Crow’s Nest last night I felt demoralised, but Phil’s story brightened me up. Today we have been able to look back on last night as quite funny. It was certainly different.
Immediately after the holiday, I arranged publication of The World Cup with Nimrod Press, based at Alton, in Hampshire. I was delighted with my bouncebackability. Is that a real word? If not, it should be. I soon completed re-writing the book, which was scheduled to appear in the Autumn. Continuing research included trips to the headquarters of the Football Association, in London, having arranged access to the library with its custodian, David Barber. On one visit, as I sat in the reception of the Football Association, admiring a replica of the Jules Rimet trophy, Graham Kelly, the Chief Executive, walked through, casting a disapproving look at the casually-dressed young man, who had somehow been admitted to the plush building. I corresponded with the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), based in Switzerland, and received positive letters from Guido Tognoni, head of public relations. In the light of points I made, FIFA corrected errors in the official World Cup statistics. My efforts were also recognised by a freebie from FIFA, as I received a set of postcards, combining reproductions of publicity posters for each World Cup tournament, and match statistics.