Red days, white nights
by Roy Bainton
[ people - july 05 ]
After seven years as a deck hand in the Merchant Navy, I came ashore in 1965 with the intention of seeking an education. Hull’s College of Commerce was the venue. My 'education' lasted a mere six months and resulted only in three GCE 'O' levels: English Literature, History and British Constitution. Whilst my classmates went on to glittering university careers, I got married and was plunged back into manual work.
My biggest shame at college was failing my English 'O' level. Odd, then, that four decades on I make my living as a writer, mainly in that most academic of fields, history.
I remember a young communist student in that heady College Spring of 1966. His name was Richard Savile. His father was a lecturer in politics at Hull University. Like most young communists, Savile Junior had grown up in an ultra middle class household where the reading of books was the order of the day. At one Young Communist League house meeting, Nescafé was served; he drank his coffee avidly and, upon reaching the bottom of the cup, remarked with some amazement that "there are no grounds in this coffee... strange."
In 1966, left-wing bourgeois suburbia had yet to face up to the 'instant' side of life.
Another avid Red was one of Hull's bookshop owners who doubled as a folk singer and had a part-time job on the side travelling around East Yorkshire in a Rover 80 promoting South African fruit for a local importer. Rather an incongruous occupation when one considered the CP's line on Apartheid. The local CP Chairman just happened to be the head of Hull City Council's Probation Service, though he liked us comrades to keep his left-wing hobby very quiet. As one of the 'real' workers, I found all this very strange. I might have had nothing to lose but my chains, but these people had none to lose; they were at least financially liberated. Thus I convinced myself that if the underclass I represented needed liberation, then the revolution would probably have to be led by this disparate bunch of hypocritical intellectuals.
One day young Ricky bounded into the College canteen and announced excitedly;
"Trotsky has been reprieved!" Apparently, after decades of being air-brushed out of Stalinist Soviet History, Kruschev had decided that the murdered founder of the Red Army, who in 1940 received the gift of an ice pick in his skull in his Mexican exile from Kruschev’s boss, could be brought back into the gallery of Party icons now that Stalin had been safely embalmed. I knew little or nothing about Trotsky and could make neither head nor tail of Marx or Lenin. All I knew was what my mother had told me: that Russia, for us oppressed workers, was a beacon, and that society, USSR style, was an admirable aspiration. And so I would turn out at six in the morning to sell the Daily Worker at the gates of Hull’s King George Dock.
Soon I learned more about left-wing history. I became a TGWU shop steward, and held a similar post later in the National Graphical Union. I fell out with the Communist Party. It was all rock buns and cosy discussions, although I did address the 1966 conference in Leeds on behalf of the YCL. The more I learned about Trotsky the less I loved the CP. I flirted with the hated International Socialists. In later years I tried the Socialist Worker’s Party, and during the Thatcher era plunged myself into activities with Militant. Over all those years, I harboured a secret desire to one day write my own history of the Bolshevik Revolution. But I felt daunted by the academic challenge this posed, got on with my job as a travelling salesman and concentrated on bringing up the kids. I joined the Labour Party, but tore up my card in disgust when Kinnock scrapped Clause 4. Today the flame of hope has been snuffed out. There's no-one to vote for. In this dark, eternal right-wing corporate night, dominated by a quasi-religious, grinning guitarist warmonger who longs to swing Maggie’s handbag, the great Socialist dawn is further away than ever. I'm 62. I might live another two decades if I'm lucky. So for me, and, apparently, most of Britain, politics with purpose is dead in the water.
After years of writing part-time with some success, I was fired from my selling job in 1997 and decided that the career I'd always wanted as a writer should begin in earnest. I had already written a book in 1994 on the history of UK rhythm & blues music. It continues to sell. In 2001 I faced up to my demon - not having a degree - and plunged into writing a historical biography. I had discovered the subject by accident whilst on a maritime research trip to Sweden.
Captain Francis Newton Allen Cromie, CB DSO RN (1882-1918) was Britain's last Naval attaché in Petrograd after the success of the October revolution in 1917. He had commanded the British Navy’s submarine flotilla in the Baltic, as an ally to the Imperial Russian Navy. But with the outbreak of the Revolution, the Kronstadt sailors, Bolshevism's true vanguard, stopped fighting. The Royal Navy was left high and dry. Cromie’s 200 submariners were sent home via Murmansk; Cromie scuppered his seven submarines in the Gulf of Finland and, whilst conducting an adulterous affair with a young Russian socialite, Sophie Gagarin (no relation to Yuri, the peasant cosmonaut), plunged himself into diplomatic and espionage work as the last representative of the Empire in Petrograd. He spoke fluent Russian, neither smoked nor drank, was incredibly brave, a terrific orator and mediator, skilled watercolour artist and musician. His men loved him; Lenin and Trotsky held him in high regard, despite his Imperialist leanings. He was murdered defending the British Embassy in Petrograd when the Red Guards attacked it on August 31, 1918. He is buried in what is today St Petersburg. I found his story stirring, moving and poignant. I would have loved it if he'd been a liberal or a leftie, but you can't have everything. He was, however, a Boy’s Own hero in the Richard Hannay mould.
The book was entitled Honoured By Strangers. And the writing process took me to Russia. It was those two sun-kissed weeks in St Petersburg, in June, when the "white nights" see the sun above the horizon until midnight, which re-kindled my passion for real politics. Many of the notes and recordings I collected then were carefully stored. One day I would write that book on the revolution. Never mind Orlando Figes, John Reed or Richard Pipes and all the other lofty brains who had contributed to the immense literature on the subject.
I had an agent, I could sell to publishers - maybe it could happen.
Honoured By Strangers gathered 18 glowing reviews and ticked over until, in 2004, the publisher, Airlife of Shrewsbury, went into liquidation. I never saw any royalites.
I followed it up in 2003 with a book for Mainstream in Edinburgh entitled The Long Patrol: The British in Germany Since 1945. This was an oral history of the Cold War as told to me by hundreds of ex-soldiers and their families who had been stationed in Germany between 1945 and 1989. The lacklustre response was, to say the least, a disappointment. But with these two books I had travelled a steep learning curve. I knew my way around the British Library in Euston, had become adept at research at the Public Records Office in Kew, and had a reader's ticket for Cambridge University Library. I had built up a circle of good friends in Russia. I had places to stay, willing interpreters, and a good travelling companion, the brilliant photographer Graham Harrison. The time seemed right.
Christmas 2003 produced a contract from Constable & Robinson in London to write A Brief History of 1917: Russia’s Year of Revolution. The advance, £5,000, was meagre, and the timeframe to deliver the MSS was a frightening six months. But at last I could go back to Russia, this time with the revolution as a centre point, not a sideline. But there was a hurdle prior to the contract being signed.
"What can you bring to this story that's new?"
I took a simple approach. I would get my friends in Russia to track down a number of elderly people - preferably those who remembered 1917 as children - or at least people old enough to tell their parents' stories. Also, I insisted that the book would have a total blue-collar, non-academic feel. This would be a story any working class bloke could read; a roller-coaster ride through one of the most exciting years in history.
Graham and I arrived in time for the huge Victory Day celebrations in St Petersburg on May 7, 2004. It commemorated the 59th anniversary of the end of the Nazi siege of Leningrad. It was a stupendous and colourful opportunity to talk to elderly veterans. Throughout that warm Spring day, accompanied by our efficient interpreter, Katya, I used hundreds of feet of recording tape gathering opinions and memories as Graham snapped away happily at my side. During the next two weeks we spoke to a variety of Russians aged between 85 and 95, and the stories we collected were jaw-dropping. We spent a day in the cockpit of the revolution, The Smolny Institute, by special arrangement. It was a strange feeling, being in Lenin's study and Trotsky’s apartment. The big breakthrough was out in the southern suburbs at the huge engineering works, Kirovsky Zavod. In 1917 this had been the Bolshevik's engine room; then it was the Putilov Armaments factory. I had been intrigued when reading all the standard textbooks on the Bolsheviks by the frequent mention of the Putilov workers. Yet none of the authors seemed to indicate whether the factory still existed. Even our interpreter had no idea what I meant by 'Putilov'. But she discovered that this huge works, although no longer employing the 30,000 workforce it had during the revolution, (a mere 10,000 work there today), was still standing, still functioning. The bonus was that they had their own revolutionary museum. I was surprised when we arrived that the museum, on the second floor of the administration building, was kept locked. "There is little interest in this subject today", said the part-time curator. I asked how many British authors or academics had entered this red treasure trove in recent years. “None - though we did have a student here in 2002..."
In the Kirovsky Zavod the banners, the posters, the letters, everything is preserved. Even the first edition of Pravda hangs on the wall. Outside there is a frieze around the building, in the bas-relief style of Trajan’s column, depicting the October revolution. It is crumbling away, a sad reminder that 21st century young Russians want little to do with their socialist past.
The book came out on time in January 2005. It was simultaneously published in New York by Carroll & Graf. Prior to its official release, I organised a focus group reading of the book. They were a group of redundant Nottinghamshire miners. The response I got was exactly the one I had hoped for. They found it easy to read, exciting, and, as one ex-NUM member said "Eeh, lad - if I'd had that book during the strike I’d have understood what was going on much better..." That, for me, is the finest review an author could wish for.
The current Communist Party of Great Britain gave it a thorough panning: never show disdain for Lenin and support for Trotsky - would-be revolutionaries are a bit touchy on both fronts. BBC History Magazine said it was ‘lively and engaging’ in their 2005 April edition. Is it selling? I have no idea. But it's on sale at Heathrow and in Paris, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. It wouldn't pay for JK Rowling or Dan Brown’s weekly grocery bill, but I don't care. Almost 40 years after explaining the mystery of the missing coffee grounds to the party's intellectuals, I've done it. It's there, part of the canon, the fulfilment of a working class dream.
I will not see socialism now. There are no longer any politicians who want to change the world - just upgrade their bank accounts. But when they throw my ashes in the River Humber, hopefully my surviving friends will sing the right song:
On our flesh has fed the raven,
We’ve too long been the vulture’s prey;
But now: farewell the spirit craven,
The dawn brings a brighter day.