The question ‘What made you a socialist?’ Was recently discussed on his Facebook page by a political activist and writer who was active in Liverpool. I was in and out of Liverpool, Sheffield, Oxford and Nottingham in fact wherever the IMG or its successors wanted people to move, there I would be.
But back to the question, it’s a bit odd because it assumes there is a single incident, something that defined who you are, a Damascene conversion, the blinding light in the sky and deeply gravelled voice calls on to you to change your ways.
The defining thing about my early childhood is that I would read, this was the opening to new worlds. I remember being off school ill in bed reading Dickens’ A tale of two cities- I was transported into revolutionary France, a world of nobility and peasant struggles, executions and fights for justice and truth. I read all of my mum’s Catherine Cookson books, while outwardly these are standard romances. I remember them as always having working-class characters fighting against the odds. So I was predisposed to the idea of fighting for justice.
In later years if people asked me why I was political, I would repeat as a kind f spiel, ‘I didn’t have a choice.’ – the circumstances of our family made me political. This, of course, was both true and not true- most of my brothers and sisters remained uninterested in politics, though living through a very similar situation. It’s not what happens to us, but how we respond to it- that determines the direction we take.
The same incident or situation can be filtered through very different lenses- it takes a long time to accept this truth and understand the need to reach out to someone who draws different conclusions from a similar experience. But anyway the spiel would go something along the lines of, “I was one of eight children, born to working-class Irish Catholic parents. So I didn’t have much choice.”
The reality was my dad contacted throat cancer (arguably due to chemicals in the industrial paint he used as a painter (but un-provable in those days, and to be fair the unfiltered Woodbine cigarettes wouldn’t have helped.) So he not only lost his voice box and ability to work, in his world – he was emasculated. It remains one of the high points of respect I have for my father – the transformation he was able to make – from a proud Irish man and a real fighter, a physical fighter- athletic, small and wiry as I think only the Irish can make them- to the guy who cleaned and looked after the house while his wife went out to work in a local factory part-time.
The same local factory one of my older brothers worked in, and became a shop steward for. He was a union militant and eventually joined the International Socialists. He was later sacked and remained unemployed for years. So at around thirteen, I was reading Catherine Cookson and the Communist Manifesto. The Communist Manifesto won out.
Around this time two of my older sisters were pregnant when married- one of them went on to be severely beaten by her bastard of a husband. (See walkways in the sky ) https://jackbyrne.home.blog/2020/01/31/walkways-in-the-sky/
Anyway, I passed the eleven plus and was accepted to a grammar school. My sisters would go to work at another local factory and I would be with them at the bus stop at 7.30 am to get to school on the other side of Liverpool. Unfortunately a smooth transition from Grammar school to University – the course my proud parents dreamed of when I passed the Eleven plus was not to be- instead my dad got cancer. Soon after I was charged with GBH Grievous Bodily Harm – I was eventually convicted of the lower charge of ABH. I was fourteen and innocent (but that’s another story) One of my older brothers had joined the army on leaving school – and everyone’s worst nightmare – not only happened- but happened in a way that left a black hole at the centre of the family, and within each of us. A black hole that swallowed emotion, feeling, even life itself- there was always something missing after that. Yes, he died, in Northern Ireland, an Irish Catholic from Liverpool joined the British Army and died in Ireland. He didn’t even die a ‘hero’s death’ – my parents didn’t even have that hollow shield to hide their grief behind, he committed suicide.
The first week back at the grammar school I wrote an essay on why I blamed the British government and not the IRA for his death and the war in Ireland. So maybe, after all, there was a Damascene conversion, and in that experience, I was turned from a future working-class success story, grammar school boy, university student and professional, into a militant Scouser organising unions and campaigns to improve the lives of the people around me. The war in Ireland had unseated my academic potential. I left grammar school and joined the local secondary modern. The day I was joining an older brother was being readmitted after suspension. I left that school at sixteen without a single examination credit to my name, much to the disappointment of my parents.
The truth is that my experience is not qualitatively different from other peoples, the lives of working-class people are full of shit and pain. Irish families also have the national affliction of an inability to express love, maybe it was the historically harsh conditions at home in Ireland that demanded the ability to cut off from family or friends, but there is no question within our family Irish-ness does not signify leprechauns and sing songs, but a harshness as cold as steel.
So there we have it, apart from the completely unequal division of wealth in our society, the way the Tories attacked working people under Thatcher, and the growth of the National Front, what made me political was reading Catherine Cookson.